December 10, 2012

Sausages: Food of the Intelligentsia

From Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson:

A letter to Einstein's first lover, Mileva: "We understand each other's dark souls so well, and also drinking coffee and eating sausages, etcetera."

Elsa [Einstein's second wife, and cousin!] "'recognized the need for keeping all disturbing elements away from him,' a relative noted. She would make his favorite meal of lentil soup and sausages, summon him down from his study, and then would leave him alone ..."

From Youth by J.M. Coetzee:

"His diet is unvarying: apples, oats porridge, bread and cheese, and spiced sausages called chipolatas, which he fries over the cooker. He prefers chipolatas to real sausages because they do not need to be refrigerated. Nor do they ooze grease when they fry."

"And what is the upshot of this lack of heat, this lack of heart? The upshot is that he is sitting alone on a Sunday afternoon in an upstairs room in a  house in the depths of the Berkshire countryside, with crows cawing in the fields and a gray mist hanging overhead, playing chess with himself, growing old, waiting for evening to fall so that he can with a good conscience fry his sausages and bread for supper."

The image is a Literaturwurst by Swiss artist Dieter Roth. It's the complete works of Hegel, ground up and made into sausage. 

September 24, 2012

Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby

Here's the first paragraph of one of my favorite stories, "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby," by the great Donald Barthelme. You can read the whole thing here. has many more Barthelme stories (used by permission).

Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he'd gone too far, so we decided to hang him. Colby argued that just because he had gone too far (he did not deny that he had gone too far) did not mean that he should be subjected to hanging. Going too far, he said, was something everybody did sometimes. We didn't pay much attention to this argument. We asked him what sort of music he would like played at the hanging. He said he'd think about it but it would take him a while to decide. I pointed out that we'd have to know soon, because Howard, who is a conductor, would have to hire and rehearse the musicians and he couldn't begin until he knew what the music was going to be. Colby said he'd always been fond of Ives's Fourth Symphony. Howard said that this was a "delaying tactic" and that everybody knew that the Ives was almost impossible to perform and would involve weeks of rehearsal, and that the size of the orchestra and chorus would put us way over the music budget. "Be reasonable," he said to Colby. Colby said he'd try to think of something a little less exacting.

August 25, 2012

Sofia Samatar Roundup

Here's the cover of my wife's forthcoming novel, A Stranger in Olondria. The release date has been pushed back to April 2013.

Sofia has been publishing poems, stories, and reviews hither and yon. Here are some links:

A wonderful story, "Honey Bear," appeared in the latest issue of Clarkesworld (in very good company, as you can see above!).

The decidedly Borgesian "A Brief History of Nonduality Studies" appeared in Expanded Horizons.

A poem, "The Hunchback's Mother," appeared in inkscrawl.

"Burnt Lyric" appeared in Goblin Fruit.

"Lost Letter" appeared in Strange Horizons.

August 5, 2012

Literature and Doping

In the spirit of the Olympics ...

In 2018, following the National Commission on Literary Doping’s decision to impose standards retroactively, the literary canon shifted dramatically. Naturally, works such as Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Naked Lunch, which, by the authors’ own confession, had been written under the influence of drugs, were dropped from curricula and library shelves. That much had been foreseen. However, the NCLD’s discovery that increased levels of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine in the bloodstream could enhance creative output and, as they noted in their report, “allow for the free association of images, thus providing users with a distinct creative advantage” jeopardized the legacy of a number of authors who had been viewed as relatively “clean.”

Though it was difficult, in the absence of blood tests and urine samples, to ascertain the precise levels of proscribed substances in historical subjects, diaries and contemporary reportage provided damning evidence in many cases. Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Lowry, and Graham Greene were among the first to lose their credibility. Hemingway’s Nobel Prize was retroactively rescinded and bestowed on a Norwegian farmer named Oddmund. Martin Amis and Beryl Bainbridge, whose usage of performance-enhancing nicotine greatly exceeded the pack-a-day limit, were also swiftly excoriated, and laudatory reviews of works such as Money and Every Man for Himself were excised from websites.

Perhaps most controversial was the caffeine limit stipulated by the Commission. Keith Miller, whose novels were undergoing a critical reappraisal, was discovered to have exceeded the three-cups-of-java-a-day limit on multiple occasions, and it was determined that the excess caffeine had directly influenced the celebrated purpleosity of his prose.

The new NCLD-certified canon is topped by Catherine Marshall’s Christy, followed by the complete works of Patricia St. John.

June 25, 2012

Durrell Revival?

Peter Pomerantsev in Newsweek has an article on Lawrence Durrell, arguing that he's "the most important 20th-century novelist for a 21st-century reader." Is this the beginning of a Durrell revival? Hope so. Here's more:

"The city at the center of his masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet, is the prototype of the global village, of the smudged meta-city we increasingly inhabit. Published between 1957 and 1960, the Quartet is a series of interlinked novels set in Alexandria preceding and during World War II, but it’s uncanny how its political disorder anticipates our own. The Alexandria of the Quartet is run with an ever-weaker hand by Western powers losing their will to rule, and is ever-more dominated by ambitious but corrupt emerging nations, influenced by deracinated tycoon financiers, stirred on the streets by Islamic “nightmare-mystics, shooting out the thunderbolts of hypnotic personality.” The state of Israel, off-stage but central to the plot, divides loyalties to the point of death and tragedy. The Quartet is an exceptional political thriller: imagine John Grisham rewritten by Joyce."

He concludes: "The world is finally catching up with Lawrence Durrell. We are all Alexandrians now."

May 22, 2012


by Stephen Dobyns

A woman travels to Brazil for plastic
surgery and a face lift. She is sixty
and has the usual desire to stay pretty.
Once she is healed, she takes her new face
out on the streets of Rio. A young man
with a gun wants her money. Bang, she’s dead.
The body is shipped back to New York,
but in the morgue there is a mix-up. The son
is sent for. He is told that his mother
is one of these ten different women.
Each has been shot. Such is modern life.
He studies them all but couldn’t find her.
With her new face, she has become a stranger.
Maybe it’s this one, maybe it’s that one.
He looks at their breasts. Which ones nursed him?
He presses their hands to his cheek.
Which ones consoled him? He even tries
climbing into their laps to see which
feels the most familiar but the coroner stops him.
Well, says the coroner which is your mother?
They all are, says the young man, let me
take them as a package. The coroner hesitates,
then agrees. Actually, it solved a lot of problems.
The young man has the ten women shipped home.
then cremated them all together. You’ve seen
how some people have a little urn on their mantel?
The man has a huge silver garbage can.
In the spring, he drags the garbage can
out to the garden, and begins working the teeth,
the ash, the bits of bone into the soil.
Then he plants tomatoes. His mother loved tomatoes.
They grew straight from seed, so fast and big
that the young man is amazed. He takes the first
ten into the kitchen. In their roundness,
he sees his mother’s breasts. In their smoothness,
he finds the consoling touch of her hands.
Mother, mother, he cries and he flings himself
on the tomatoes. Forget about the knife, the fork,
the pinch of salt. Try to imagine the filial
starvation, think of the ravenous kisses.

May 6, 2012

Karen Blixen: The Kenya-Wisconsin Connection

When I was growing up in Nairobi, the name of Karen Blixen naturally came up quite often. The neighborhood in what used to be her old farm, at the foot of the Ngong Hills, is to this day called Karen, and everyone, of course, had read Out of Africa (even before the movie came out). My violin teacher, Anna Martin, was the wife of Remy Martin, who had bought Blixen's farm. I read Out of Africa and Shadows in the Grass and her cook Kamante's memoir Longing for Darkness when I was twelve or thirteen, and enjoyed them (though they weren't nearly as evocative as Elspeth Huxley's The Flame Trees of Thika). In 1982, Judith Thurman's wonderful biography Isak Dinesen: Life of a Storyteller came out, and  in 1985 the movie with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, and suddenly she epitomized the romantic notion of Africa. Her house remains a massive tourist draw.

Partly because I was tepid on Out of Africa and partly because of her new fame, I ignored Blixen's other writings till I was in my twenties. Then I discovered Seven Gothic Tales on a bookshelf in Atbara, Sudan. What a revelation! "The Roads Round Pisa" and "The Monkey" are, in my opinion, the two finest, strangest stories ever written. I reread them every year - they're like a little holiday to an exotic country.

When we moved to Wisconsin a couple years ago, I remembered that Blixen's father, Wilhelm Dinesen, had lived in northern Wisconsin. He'd spent a year or so with the Chippewa, had a relationship with his cook, Nesuw-wge-zhicqo-quay (later "Kate"), fathered a daughter, Emma "Denson," by her, and contracted syphilis. His cabin has recently been restored, and is open to the public. You can see a picture of Joseph Ackley, Wilhelm Dinesen's great-grandson, and Blixen's ... what? half-grand-nephew? here. I think he looks a bit like her!

April 17, 2012

Review of The Book on Fire

One of my favorite sites, the wonderfully named Biblioklept, has posted a nice review of The Book on Fire:

"Balthazar, the hero of Keith Miller’s agile and trippy novel The Book on Fire, is a biblioklept. He comes to Alexandria to rob the famous library, a cavernous, labyrinthine complex that still existsunder heavy guard—in Miller’s mystical version of that ancient Egyptian city. Miller’s Alexandria is a byzantine maze, humming with a turn-of-the-century buzz, a kaleidoscope world that strongly reminded me of the strange cityscapes of William Gibson or William Burroughs. . . .

"For Balthazar, books are a drug, and the Library of Alexandria is the heady nexus point for his addiction. . . . While The Book on Fire does have the strong, page turning plot of a thriller, that plot exists mostly as the bones for Miller to hang rapturous descriptions of reading and books and, best of all, his strange Alexandria, a city of marvels." 

March 31, 2012

With Ink the Ocean Fill

Last Sunday at our local Mennonite church, we sang "The Love of God," a hymn I've always enjoyed for the wonderful third verse, with its convoluted syntax: 

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
  And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
  And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
  Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
  Though stretched from sky to sky.

By a weird coincidence, I got an email from my dad the next day, commenting on the origins of the verse. He'd learned about it from my uncle, who goes to church with Jeremy Nafziger, a writer interested in church music. Here are Jeremy's comments (used with permission):

Frederick Lehman, the author and composer, sounds like he should be a Mennonite, but alas, he was a Nazarene minister. Early in his ministry (around 1900), he heard a preacher end his sermon with lines similar to the third verse of this hymn. The lines had been found scribbled on the wall of an insane asylum after the inmate’s death; Lehman says that "the general opinion was that this inmate had written it in moments of sanity."

Lehman later used the words, slightly altered, years later as the third stanza of "The Love of God."

It turns out, however, that the lines from the asylum wall came from a long poem written in Aramaic in the 11th century by a Jewish rabbi in Worms, Germany. (Note—the author was Rabbi Ben Isaac Nehorai, in a poem called "Hadamut," written in 1050.)

And that may not even be the original—the Koran, written in Arabic four centuries earlier, contains this passage: "And were every tree that is in the earth (made into) pens and the sea (to supply it with ink), with seven more seas to increase it, the words of Allah would not come to an end; surely Allah is Mighty, Wise" (XXXI:27).

And you can go further back than that, to the Gospel of John, to find another similar passage. In the last verse of the book, we read: "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."

So in this one hymn, we see the story of all God's children signing the covenant that "shall forevermore endure."

March 16, 2012

Book on Fire reviews

Couple nice reviews from Reading Envy and Beyond the Stacks:

Reading Envy

A book thief lands in a fantastical version of the legendary Alexandria to steal from his ultimate library, and falls in love with a librarian working there. I’m not sure if the author loves libraries or librarians more, considering that his previous book, The Book of Flying, was along similar lines, but I have to admit it works for me. I almost feel embarrassed to say how much I enjoyed reading this book, but I can’t really explain why. I was already enamored with Alexandria after reading the Durrell quartet, and this made it so much worse! 

The writing is very descriptive, and I’m tempted to say overly so, except I don’t feel it is. Most of the time if I pick up a book that spends half its time describing smells and food, it reads like filler, but here it serves to place the reader into his vision of Alexandria. I found myself drawn in and living in the world as I read, which doesn’t happen often as an adult. (I also ended up hungry!) 

There are elements of the writing and of the storytelling that are the same elements I love in Catherynne Valente’s writing, and anyone knows me knows that is high praise indeed. After reading a little more about the author himself, I feel like you can see glimpses of his real life experiences tucked into this book, as far from reality as it seems. 

Beyond the Stacks

There is a book out there for everyone. A book that speaks to your very soul, that can make you weep in utter heartache and cry tears of joy and amusement. For me, this is the book. This is my book. I found myself reading slower, rereading passages again and again, just to savor every last morsel from this exquisite feast of the imagination.

February 25, 2012

Alcohol Drunk in Hemingway's Fiesta

Above, l. to r.: Hemingway, Harold Loeb (model for Robert Cohn), Lady Duff Twysden (model for Lady Brett Ashley), Hadley Hemingway, Don Stewart, Pat Guthrie

The page numbers below are from the the Jonathan Cape edition of Fiesta (below), which was Hemingway's favorite. Fiesta was Hemingway's original title, much better than The Sun Also Rises, which was used in the States because his editors felt American readers wouldn't know what a fiesta was.

"several fines" - p. 6
"whisky and soda" - p. 11
"apertif" - p. 13
"pernod" - p. 14
"bottle of wine" - p. 16
"liquers" - p. 19
"beer" x2 - p. 20
"cognac" - p. 20
"fine a l'eau" - p. 21
"brandy and soda" - p. 33
"beer" - p. 38
"Jack Rose" - p. 42
champagne - pp. 61-63 (3 bottles)
"brandy" - p. 64
"pernod" - p. 75
"whisky and soda" x2 - p. 77
"fine" - p. 78
"another" - p. 85
"beer" - p. 92
"plenty of wine" p. 97
"bottle of wine" p. 101
"wine of the country" - p. 105
"wine-skin" - p. 107
"drinks" (4) - p. 109
"hot rum punch" - p. 114
"wine" (several bottles) - p. 114
"wine" (2 bottles) - p. 132
2 bottles wine - p. 132
"another bottle" - p. 133
"poisonous things" - p. 150
"much wine" - p. 151
"too much brandy" - p. 154
"vermouth" - p. 156
"sherry" - p. 158
"wineskins" - p. 162
"a drink" - p. 162
"absinthe" - p. 170
"fundador" (amontillado brandy) - p. 181
"fundador" - p. 186
"fundador" p. 188
"cognac" - p. 194
"fundador" - p. 197
"beer" (6 bottles) - p. 209
"beer" - p. 211
"beer" (6 bottles) - p. 212
"fundador" - p. 212
"beer" - p. 213
"another beer" - p. 213
"wine" - 219
"several bottles of beer" - p. 230
"absinthe" - p. 231
"another absinthe" - p. 231
"bottle of fundador" - p. 238
"whisky and soda" - p. 238
"whisky and soda" - p. 239
"another round" - p. 239
"another drink" - p. 239
"another drink" - p. 240
"bottle of wine" - p. 243
"vieux marc" - p. 243
"second marc" - p. 243
"whisky and soda" - p. 246
"two martinis" - p. 255
"two martinis" - p. 256
"two martinis" - p. 257
"rioja alta" (3 bottles) - p. 257
"rioja alta" (2 bottles) - p. 258 (Following this last spree, which starts on p. 255, during which Jake drinks six martinis and five bottles of wine, Brett tells him: "Don't get drunk.")

February 2, 2012

Some Literary Humor

G.K. Chesterton (pictured) was an enormous man. A woman once asked him why he wasn't out at the Front. His reply: "If you go round to the side, you will see that I am." On another occasion, he told George Bernard Shaw: "To look at you, anyone would think there was a famine in England." Shaw's reply: "To look at you, anyone would think you caused it."

Oscar Wilde on George Bernard Shaw: "An excellent man: he has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends."

"Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning. He used poetry as a medium for writing in prose."   Oscar Wilde

"I love Americans, but not when they try to talk French. What a blessing it is that they never try to talk English."   Saki

"In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language."   Mark Twain

"I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors, because they have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, Spencer is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I’m not feeling so well myself."   Mark Twain

"An Englishman wouldn't bother to attend a reading even if the author in question was his favorite living writer, and also his long-lost brother — even if the reading was taking place next door."   Martin Amis

Headline of a review of Exit Ghost by Philip Roth: "Do Not Go Gentile into That Good Night."

My wife, on finding I'd eaten all the Doritos: "Is this the face that munched a thousand chips?"

January 8, 2012

Marilyn Reading Ulysses

Eve Arnold, who died last week at 99, took this photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses, one of the most erotic images ever. I'm guessing Marilyn's reading this:

"... and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

Last year, after haunting eBay for months, I finally found an affordable copy of the Franklin Library Ulysses I'd coveted since spotting it in a used bookstore. It's so pretty I could munch it up, with gilt-edged pages and illustrations by Alan Cober: