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."