October 30, 2011

Authors Card Game

The other day we were at a potluck with some fellow Mennonites. We mentioned, for some reason, that we had started playing Authors with our kids. Authors, along with Dutch Blitz, is one of those tribal games that few outsiders seem to have heard of (I'm going to shrug off my congenital Mennonite humility for a moment and state here, for the record, that I kick major ass at Dutch Blitz, and have even, on occasion, toppled the mighty Pete "Fleetfingers" Dula and Steve "Quickhand" Weaver). Ordinary card games were frowned upon by conservative Mennonites. These tame alternatives weren't associated with gambling, drinking, or loose women.

Authors is basically Go Fish. The Authors set we use (it's at least thirty years old) has the following authors: Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, James Fenimore Cooper, and (the lone woman) Louisa May Alcott. When I was a kid, I naturally assumed that these were the giants of Western literature, and placed them on appropriate pedestals. The size of these pedestals I adjusted according to their appearance on the cards. Thus, I assumed that the dashing Hawthorne, with his flowing, strawberry-blond locks, was the pinnacle of literary greatness, while the wan and sickly Scott, with his thin damp hair (we used to call him "Fishface"), I relegated to a minion. Cooper's war-reporter looks and list of manly titles (The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer, The Spy, The Last of the Mohicans) suggested deeply compelling thrillers similar to The Eye of the Needle. Boy, how wrong I was! Cooper, when I finally got around to reading him in high school, turned out to be a dreadful writer. Hawthorne was similarly unreadable. But when, during one stay at my grandparents' Lancaster County, PA house, I ran out of Guideposts and Reader's Digests, I was forced to pick up the only novel on the shelves - Ivanhoe. It was wonderful!

From this distance, of course, Longfellow and Irving look a bit silly in that list. At the potluck, we were trying to decide who should inhabit an updated game. Here's my stab at it: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ernest Hemingway, Yeats. Hmmm. Maybe Faulkner in place of someone . . . Frost? And what about Nabokov? Is he allowed in, even though he was born Russian?

Authors has undergone various metamorphoses. Sets have varied from eleven to fourteen authors, and have included  Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, James Russell Lowell, Victor Hugo, Robert Burns, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Cornelia Meigs (WTF?). The picture below shows the strange inclusion of John Greenleaf Whittier, second row, second from right:

Here's another version, aimed at children (Hans Christian Andersen, A.A. Milne):
Here's an antique version:

These days, there are a number of Authors games on the market, including American Authors and Women Authors. The quality of the artwork, unfortunately, is shoddy.

October 29, 2011

Writers Who Were Artists

In the last week, I came across articles on Tolkien's art for The Hobbit (above) and Sylvia Plath's ink drawings (below).

There is a deep connection between writing and visual art, just as there is between music and math. Here are some other writers who were artists:

Wyndham Lewis - Lewis, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (see below), was perhaps better known for his painting than his writing. That's Ezra Pound in the painting above.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Rossetti's poetry has fared less well over time than his paintings.

D. H. Lawrence - Toward the end of his life, Lawrence started doing oil paintings.

Mervyn Peake - Peake, the author of the Gormenghast novels, was a wonderful illustrator. Above is an illustration for The Ancient Mariner.

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) - Dinesen trained as an artist. Her beautiful paintings have been used on the covers of several of her books.

William Blake - Blake's prints are hugely influential. More than any other writer, his art and writing are deeply entwined.

Kurt Vonnegut - Breakfast of Champions is full of Vonnegut's lively drawings. He developed an interest in silkscreen printing, samples of which may be seen here. Note the flavicon! 

Rudyard Kipling - Kipling's father was an artist, and Kipling did the illustrations for Just So Stories (Wikipedia says they're woodcuts, but they look like ink drawings to me).

William Makepeace Thackeray trained as an artist. His illustrations for Vanity Fair are wonderful. 

Bruce Chatwin - Chatwin's astonishing photographs may be seen in Photographs and Notebooks, as well as on the covers of several of his books. 

Hans Christian Andersen - Andersen made delightful paper cut-outs with which he entertained children and adults while telling his stories. 

I can't find any examples online, but Lawrence Durrell did wonderful watercolors, reminiscent of Raoul Dufy. Annie Dillard studied art (the handsome little shrub on the frontispiece of Teaching a Stone to Talk is hers). John Updike attended art school before he switched to writing.

October 6, 2011

Tomas Transtromer

Tomas Transtromer, the Swedish poet, has won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature. Here's my favorite of his poems:

Breathing Space July

The man who lies on his back under huge trees
is also up in them. He branches out into thousands of tiny branches.
He sways back and forth,
he sits in a catapult that hurtles forward in slow motion.

The man who stands down at the dock screws up his eyes against the water.
Ocean docks get older faster than men.
They have silver-grey posts and boulders in their gut.
The dazzling light drives straight in.

The man who spends the whole day in an open boat
moving over the luminous bays
will fall asleep at last inside the shade of his blue lamp
as the islands crawl like huge moths over the globe.

September 9, 2011

New Edition of The Book on Fire

The second edition of my second novel, The Book on Fire, has been released by Immanion Press. It has a new cover, and includes a long bonus story, “City of Bones,” about a sojourner in a post-apocalyptic Alexandria. It is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as select brick-and-mortar bookstores.

August 21, 2011

Strange Gifts

My mother (who's on a roll - see this post) has just put out a book of vignettes entitled Strange Gifts: Reflections on Aid in Africa. It is available for purchase on Amazon. I put together a little website for her, where you can see all the books and calendars she's produced, and read a few of the occasional papers she put out in her career as a music educator.

August 20, 2011

A Life on Paper Review

My wife, Sofia Samatar (whose first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, recently sold to Small Beer Press - more about that later!), has written a nice review of French Borgesian-fantasy/slipstreamish writer Georges-Olivier Chรขteaureynaud's A Life on Paper.

August 10, 2011

I Am Because We Are

For a number of years, my lovely mother, Annetta Miller, has collected proverbs from around Africa. She now has over a hundred thousand, neatly arranged by category on her desk. She has put the collection to use in interesting and creative ways. Her themed calendars, which are put together by street children at Don Bosco Press in Kenya, are perennial best sellers at Ten Thousand Villages. Proverbs also complement the vignettes in her book Sharing Boundaries.

My mother and her photographer friend Betty Press have put together a book entitled I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb, published in partnership with Books for Africa. You can learn about the book, and buy it, here.

August 4, 2011

Longonot and Naivasha

photo: Kalense the Kid

My family and I spent the month of July in Kenya, where I grew up. One of the things I wanted to do (besides eat murg makhanwala and nyama choma!) was climb Mt. Longonot, a dormant volcano, with my kids.

I went to high school at Rift Valley Academy, which is on the side of the escarpment. Longonot dominated the landscape, and I used to draw it constantly. Its slumbering form has inhabited my dreams.

Longonot, which last erupted in 1863, is a classic caldera. It took about two hours to climb with the kids (aged five and eight). My son basically had to be dragged up the steeper sections, and a couple times I didn't think he was going to make it. But it was all worth it for the stunning experience of reaching the top and peering over the rim, which is only a couple paces across. The floor, several hundred meters below, is carpeted in bush. Sulfuric steam rises from a fissure in the wall. On the outer slopes, one can see very clearly where the lava spilled over the edge and pooled.

photo: Tambako the Jaguar

From the top of Longonot, we could look over at Lake Naivasha, which is just an hour and a half from Nairobi, and used to be a favorite vacation spot when I was a kid. The lake is now surrounded by huge greenhouse-type structures, where flowers are grown for export to Europe. Planeloads fly out daily. This generates a lot of cash, but growing flowers requires a huge amount of water, and the lake is rapidly shrinking. When I was young, we used to take boats to Crescent Island. As you can see in the satellite photos below, the island became a peninsula about ten years ago (though, amusingly, it's still called "Crescent Island").

But now the open end has almost closed up, creating another, smaller lake. One effect of this shrinking is that there is now about a mile of new, pristine parkland beside the lake, where giraffe, impala, zebra, and waterbuck gambol. It's lovely to stroll there in the late afternoons. But in a few years, unless some sort of action is taken, Lake Naivasha will be no more.

photo: mckaysavage

July 25, 2011

The Readers' Fruit

Cherries are the perfect fruit for reading. Peaches and mangoes are too messy. Apples are fine (though they're better for walking: "Apples for walking, and a pipe for sitting . . ." as Sam Gamgee says). Apricots are excellent. But cherries! The handy little stem! The fun little seed!

I remember one vacation in Platres, up in the highlands of Cyprus (and incidentally the town where King Farouk invented the brandy sour: he needed an alcoholic drink that looked like iced tea, so he could drink while entertaining conservative Muslims!). My wife and I were the only guests at a cute little hotel. It had an enormous, sunny balcony, with a view down over the grapevines and tiled roofs. I bought a bag of cherries and put them in a big bowl, and we sat with our feet up, reading and eating cherries. I was reading Middlemarch, as I recall - my first experience with the extraordinary George Eliot, and somehow the cherries matched her sweet, tart, polished prose . . .

July 19, 2011

"Toto's 'Africa'" . . . by Hemingway

My wife and I get our kicks from reciting the nonsensical lyrics to pop songs. Excellent examples include Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" and the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive." Our favorite, though, is certainly Toto's "Africa," which sounds like it should mean something, but is just ridiculous:

"It's gonna take a lot to take me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never have

The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company . . ."

The video is priceless.

I was therefore delighted to discover that Anthony Sams on McSweeney's has written up "Africa" as a short story by Hemingway. Here's a sample:

"The young man looked at the wristwatch again. His head spun from whiskey and soda. She was a damned nice woman. It would take a lot to drag him away from her. It was unlikely that a hundred men or more could ever do such a thing. The air, now thick and moist, seemed to carry rain again. He blessed the rains of Africa. They were the only thing left to bless in this forsaken place, he thought—at least until she set foot on the continent. They were going to take some time to do the things they never had."

July 17, 2011

Sebald's Last Interview

Here is the last interview by W.G. Sebald, before he died in a car crash at the age of 57. He was author of Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz. All four books were published in the last decade of his life.

I liked his comments about writers and walking.

May 29, 2011


Catherynne M. Valente is in Madison for WisCon, and I got to hear her read yesterday afternoon (from Fairyland)! In person, she's taller and quite a bit more attractive than I'd imagined, with long witchy hair and smouldering eyes. She's a great reader, and had the audience in stitches. Fairyland is doing extremely well - it's on the NY Times best seller list at the moment. I started reading it aloud to my daughter last night, and she's loving it.

May 8, 2011

Churches on Fire

I was disheartened to read this morning that a mob set a church on fire in Cairo. This is the latest in a series of violent inter-religious incidents that began on New Year's Day with the bombing of a church in Alexandria, in which twenty-three people died. I worry that the loosening of the political strictures has also freed people to express long-repressed emotions about the "other side." Christians form a substantial, prominent minority in Egypt (10-15%). Their religious practices and religious language (Coptic) are deeply connected to the ancient pharaonic religion.

Though many Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, are viscerally antagonistic toward each other, there are some outstanding exceptions. My wife and I spent three wonderful years working with Mennonite Central Committee in Beni Suef, where we were seconded to the Orthodox Church. Our supervisor, Father Youssef Andrawas, was one of the most saintly people I've encountered, with a passion for creating dialogue between Muslims and Christians. You can read a first-person account of his life and ministry, as well as a bit about our work, in this issue of A Common Place magazine (PDF file).

Beautifully, Christians met in their burned-out church on Sunday to celebrate mass (both images are from Storyful):

May 1, 2011

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland

Catherynne M. Valente's latest novel, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (which started out as a novel mentioned in Palimpsest) is available as a free download till May 2 from here. This is actually the work that first got me interested in Valente, when she was putting it out chapter by chapter on her website.

April 14, 2011

Bad People

Robert Bly

A man told me once that all the bad people
Were needed. Maybe not all, but your fingernails
You need; they are really claws, and we know
Claws. The sharks - what about them?
They make other fish swim faster. The hard-faced men
In black coats who chase you for hours
In dreams - that's the only way to get you
To the shore. Sometimes those hard women
Who abandon you get you to say, "You."
A lazy part of us is like a tumbleweed.
It doesn't move on its own. It takes sometimes
A lot of Depression to get tumbleweeds moving.
Then they blow across three or four States.
This man told me that things work together.
Bad handwriting sometimes leads to new ideas;
And a careless God - who refuses to let you
Eat from the Tree of Knowledge - can lead
To books, and eventually to us. We write
Poems with lies in them, but they help a little.

March 27, 2011

Ishi and Le Guin

Wired magazine has an article about Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe of American Indians, who died on March 25, 1916. He emerged from the wilderness in 1911, and was offered a place to stay at San Francisco's museum of anthropology. The anthropologists who took him in were T. T. Waterman and Alfred L. Kroeber. Kroeber's wife, Theodora Kroeber, later wrote Ishi in Two Worlds, based on Alfred's notes (she hadn't met Ishi).

Now, Alfred and Theodora Kroeber were, of course, the parents of Ursula Kroeber Le Guin. It is interesting to speculate on the impact the Kroebers' anthropological work had on her fiction. Always Coming Home and "Buffalo Gals Won't You Come Home Tonight" certainly draw heavily on American Indian culture. "Ishi" actually means "man" in the Yana language - he refused to reveal his true name. The notion of secret, powerful "true names" is, of course, central to the Earthsea books. Ged, as described in her novels, might have looked something like Ishi. And the trope of the solitary carrier of information is present in works such as The Tombs of Atuan, "The Stars Below," and The Dispossessed.

March 20, 2011

Roald Dahl

My wife got me Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl for my birthday. I've been a huge fan of Dahl's since I was about five. I love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and, especially, the stories.

Here are some interesting tidbits:

It turns out that much of the received lore - that his Gloster Gladiator was shot down over Libya, that he wrote Charlie to pay for Patricia Neal's treatment after a stroke, that he had invented gremlins - was either fabricated or embellished.

The original Charlie was black, possibly based on Dahl's servant Mdisho in Tanzania. The Oompa Loompas were originally "African Pygmies," but had to be made blond after an outcry from the NAACP. (Irrelevant aside: my favorite cat, Mihwi, was eaten by pygmies in Burundi.)

After his first book of stories - the excellent Over to You - he struggled for years. His first novel, Sometime Never, was a complete failure, and is now out of print. No one would take his second, Fifty Thousand Frogskins. This was actually the most interesting information in the book to me. I have always felt that the four stories grouped under the title "Claud's Dog," as well as "Parson's Pleasure," in which Claud appears, were his best work. I'd even commented to my wife at one point that if he'd turned those into a book, it would have been an amazing work. Now, apparently the Claud stories were salvaged from Fifty Thousand Frogskins after it failed to find a publisher. So this means that the book I crave is actually out there! Will someone please, please publish it! Incidentally, Claud, and the father from Danny, the Champion of the World, were based on a neighbor, Claud Taylor, who was "a storyteller and a bit of a rogue," and was one of Dahl's favored companions.

Dahl was impossibly irascible. The book is worth reading just for some of his nasty exchanges with his publishers.

He spied for Britain, filing reports on politicians and socialites in Washington, D.C.

Ursula Le Guin disliked Charlie because it made her "usually amiable" daughter "quite nasty." I have noticed no such effect on my daughter.

As we're on the topic of Charlie, I have to end this post with my favorite lines:

"And cannibals crouching 'round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it's Penelope.)"

March 9, 2011

The Caresses

The Caresses, by Belgian surrealist Fernand Khnopff. One of my favorite paintings. Click on the image for a full-screen version.

March 7, 2011

The Book of Flying on the Radio

The Book of Flying was the "Book of the Week" on the sci-fi radio show DeFlip Side (hosted by Destinies - The Voice of Science Fiction):

"The Book of Flying is best characterized as an adult fairy tale, and as such, it’s poignant and moving and (dare I say it?) enchanting. If you’re a fan of fanciful prose, and feel (as I do) that beautiful writing can be an end unto itself, then The Book of Flying is the book for you."

February 18, 2011

Awful Poetry

Some years ago, my friend Lionel Thompson turned me on to The Stuffed Owl, a wonderful collection of terrible writing, which has been reissued by New York Review Books. Here are some gems:

“Dust to dust, and ashes to ashes:
Into the tomb the Great Queen dashes.”

an anonymous Indian poet

“So we leave her,
So we leave her,
Far from where her swarthy kinsfolk roam;
In the Scarlet Fever,
Scarlet Fever,
Scarlet Fever Convalescent Home.”


“She sat with her guitar on her knee,
But she was not singing a note,
For someone had drawn (ah, who could it be?)
A knife across her throat.”

Lord Lytton

“Holy Moses! Have a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook!
Some rare bits of brain lie here,
Mortal loads of beef and beer,
Some of whom are turned to dust,
Every one bids lost to lust;
Royal flesh so tinged with 'blue'
Undergoes the same as you.”

Amanda McKittrick Ross (Possibly the worst writer who ever lived. The Inklings used to hold competitions to see who could read her poetry for the longest without laughing.)

“Of composts shall the Muse disdain to sing?
Then, planter, wouldst thou double thy estate,
Never, ah! Never, be ashamed to tread
Thy dung-heaps . . .”

—James Grainger

And here's my own addition, from A.S. Byatt's otherwise fabulous Possession:

“Others in a heavy Vase
Raise darkly scented Wine -
This warm and squirted White
In solid Pot - was mine . . .”

February 9, 2011

Hyper Hundred!

The Book on Fire has been chosen as one of the hundred best sci-fi and fantasy novels of 2010 at the influential SF Crowsnest! I'm delighted.

February 8, 2011

Carved Books

Julia Fields makes these extraordinary objects by cutting through books. See more here. Some are available for purchase here.

February 3, 2011

Lafcadio Hearn

A reader recently queried me about the ghost story I purloined from Lafcadio Hearn and used in The Book of Flying. I'd forgotten which one it was, so had to order the book through inter-library loan. It was in an essay called "The Chief City of the Province of the Gods." Here it is:

"In Nakabaramachi there is an ameya, or little shop in which midzu-ame is sold,―the amber-tinted syrup, made of malt, which is given to children when milk cannot be obtained for them. Every night at a late hour there came to that shop a very pale woman, all in white, to buy one rin worth of midzu-ame. The ame-seller wondered that she was so thin and pale, and often questioned her kindly; but she answered nothing. At last one night he followed her, out of curiosity. She went to the cemetery; and he became afraid and returned.

"The next night the woman came again, but bought no midzu-ame, and only beckoned to the man to go with her. He followed her, with friends, into the cemetery. She walked to a certain tomb, and there disappeared; and they heard, under the ground, the crying of a child. Opening the tomb, they saw within it the corpse of the woman who nightly visited the ameya, with a living infant, laughing to see the lantern light, and beside the infant a little cup of midzu-ame. For the mother had been prematurely buried; the child was born in the tomb, and the ghost of the mother had thus provided for it,―love being stronger than death.

Hearn had an interesting life. His father was Irish, his mother Greek. He moved to the States at nineteen, and became a writer. He was apparently pretty odd-looking. He'd lost an eye in an accident, and the other was enlarged. He was also very short. Perhaps due to his "monstrous" appearance, he was fascinated by the macabre, reporting on crime, and interested in ghosts. He married (illegally at the time) a black woman, was forced from his position as a journalist when that was discovered, and then divorced her. He wrote about New Orleans and Martinique, but found his calling in Japan, where he married a Japanese woman, became a teacher, and settled down. His writings on Japan are just wonderful. They are in the public domain, and may be downloaded here.


After I posted this, another reader wondered if Shel Silverstein's lion was named after Hearne. I'm not sure if he was directly, but Hearne was apparently the first person to bear the name, which was taken from Lefkada, the Greek island where he was born.

Protecting the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

People have formed a human chain around the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the new Library of Alexandria) to protect it from looters. More pictures here.

February 1, 2011

Egypt on Fire

via Reuters

As the momentous events continue to unfold in Egypt, I have been struck by the basically decent responses of most Egyptians. After days of trying to call, we finally managed to contact friends in Beni Suef, both Muslim and Christian. They have spent all their money on food and are barricaded in their houses. The young men of each block gather every morning to patrol their neighborhood, turning looters over to the army. I was heartened to read that citizens, on their own initiative, organized to protect the Egyptian Museum.

On the Bibliotheca Alexandrina website, director Ismail Serageldin writes:

"The young people organized themselves into groups that directed traffic, protected neighborhoods and guarded public buildings of value such as the Egyptian Museum and the Library of Alexandria. They are collaborating with the army. This makeshift arrangement is in place until full public order returns.

"The library is safe thanks to Egypt’s youth, whether they be the staff of the Library or the representatives of the demonstrators, who are joining us in guarding the building from potential vandals and looters."

Libraries in Egypt, it seems, are always in danger. One could argue that cutting off the net, as Mubarak has done, is a modern form of book-burning.

Of course, I can't help but note that the scenes at the end of The Book on Fire, with Alexandria burning and running battles in the streets, seem to be coming to life. Those scenes were inspired partly by the events I witnessed in 2006, when Coptic Christians were stabbed in several churches and inter-religious tensions were running high. So far, in the current events, the religious element has been somewhat submerged under the general euphoria, but it will certainly play a huge role in the coming months.

I hope that the outcome of the present struggle is peaceful and results in greater freedom and stability, and that the libraries of Egypt, in whatever form, emerge from the fires with new wings . . .

Catherynne Valente on Persephone

On Catherynne M. Valente's Livejournal blog, she has a lovely post on her obsession with and affinity for Persephone (Proserpine/Proserpina). As always, I'm struck by Valente's extraordinarily supple prose, and her deep intelligence. The Persephone myth has always resonated for me as well, and (skewed and co-opted), informs The Book on Fire. The picture above is one of my favorites: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Proserpine.

January 15, 2011

Walton Ford

Bula Matari


Over at Biblioklept (a marvelous site), I discovered the work of Walton Ford. Extraordinary stuff!