I'm back in school again with a semester's worth of deadlines stretching before me, so now it's time for one of life's guilty pleasures: procrastination reading. Like the time I put off writing a German paper to take up a sudden passion for Papiamento, the best kind of procrastination has an air of studiousness about it while being pointedly off the point. It should give one the illusion of neglecting one's schooling in the service of one's education.
At the moment I'm in the grip of two fine examples of frivolity in scholar's clothing. The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World by Dane Kennedy is not quite a biography of the legendary linguist and explorer, rather it is a gentle debunking of the notion that Burton stood entirely outside Victorian society. Kennedy's thesis is that Burton consciously created the scandalous mythology around him and was not so much an exception to Victorianism as an expression of its secret underpinnings. At least that's what I've gotten from the first hundred pages or so. Unfortunately in letting some of the air out of the myth, Kennedy threatens to take away part of the fun. I'm not sure I want to give up the tall tales of Burton the linguistic wonder, ethnographic chameleon and sexual rebel. We'll see. Kennedy recommends some recent biographies that may be worth a look as well: A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton by Mary Lovell, and The Devil Drives by Fawn McKay Brodie.
I've never read any culinary history before, but if Lizzie Collingham's Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors is representative, I need to read more. Collingham tells the story of Indian food as a series of cultural invasions going back to Babur, the first of the Mughals, who took Delhi in 1526. One of the charms of using food as a key to history is that it humanizes the facts that it touches -- I confess that I could never keep my Mughals straight before, but now I can think of them in terms of the degree of culinary fusion in their courts, from indophobe Babur through indophile Akbar to cosmopolitan yet thoroughly indianized Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Collingham offers a similarly detailed view of regional Indian cuisines and their interaction with different stages in the development of Portuguese and British colonial rule. She also offers recipes, both historic (roast black rat from the court of King Someswara III, ca. 1130 AD) and contemporary (I must try out her vindaloo). Some surprises: although Indians had never seen chile peppers until they arrived from the New World in the 16th century, they were already cooking fiery hot food with liberal use of two kinds of black pepper (Piper longum and Piper nigrum). The main genres of North Indian food with which most westerners are familiar are essentially a fusion of classic Persian cooking styles with Indian seasonings. And although invasions, migrations and new ingredients have introduced countless changes in Indian cuisine, many regional characteristics -- the Gujarati love of sweet flavors even in vegetable dishes, for example -- have been unchanged for centuries.
Okay, enough of that. On to another form of procrastination: I'm hungry.
While following up on Badger's idea of a Feminism for Dummies book, I happened to discover this: you can order Marx for Beginners from WalMart.com!
Here's Wal-Mart on Marx:
Marx for Beginners describes the origins and evolution of all those rabble-rousing notions about capital, labor, the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, class struggle, socialism--everything that went into making The Communist Manifesto one of the landmark publishing events of its time and the blueprint for a generation of social and political change.
What the blurb leaves out is that it's the nonfiction equivalent of a graphic novel by beloved Mexican cartoonist Rius. Like most of his work and the rest of the "for beginners" series he inspired, it's worth a read even if you disagree with his politics or his somewhat simplified and badly dated view of intellectual history. (Hmm -- looks like Pantheon cherry-picked the Marx, Darwin, Einstein and Freud titles from the series, originally published in English by Writers and Readers.)
Alas, Mao for Beginners is out of stock at Wal-Mart.
A quote stolen directly from Caterina Fake:
In Chinese literary criticism there are different methods of writing called "the method of watching a fire across a river" (detachment of style), "the method of dragonflies skimming across the water surface" (lightness of touch), "the method of painting a dragon and dotting its eyes" (bringing out the salient points).The method of watching a fire across a river reminds me of another kind of indirection. It comes from one of my favorite books from back when I used to read in German, Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick) by Peter Handke. At least it's one of my favorites in concept, I don't know whether I'd enjoy reading it now. It's a murder mystery with its focus shifted to the murderer, who sees little of the detective work but knows that his pursuers could find him out at any time. At one point he says that at a soccer game he likes to keep his eyes on the goalie's face, hence the title.
- Richard E. Nisbett, The Geography of Thought, p. 18
I wonder whether there's a Chinese literary style for that?
I stopped by Caterina's blog for the first time in a while because I think she and Stewart are here at the IA Summit. Maybe I'll run into them and get to express my slavish Flickr groupiehood. But then I guess I was groupie for her blog before Flickr even launched.
Years before I ever learned any German I craved a Duden Bildwörterbuch, that massively detailed picture dictionary for grownups.
So I was standing in Half Price Books with a 1958 edition in my hands wondering whether it was worth three bucks and two linear inches of shelf space. I opened it at random to this page:
Then I caught a glimpse of another customer out of the corner of my eye. I did a double-take and saw that he was dressed approximately like this:
I took it as an omen and bought the book.
Every book and art blogger, moblogger and phlogger within 100 miles of it has covered this already, but artist Chris Cobb has rearranged all 20,000 books in a San Francisco bookstore by color.
Delightful. An explanation and more photos are here, and there are still more in Flickr here.
I used to see a similar effect in bookstores in Europe, where the books were often arranged by publisher rather than by author, and some of the publishing houses would color-code their bindings with a cumulative effect in mind.
For some reason it also makes me think of ten or twelve years ago when Fran Miksa at UT's library school suggested that online catalogs should provide images of the covers of the books. It was a bit heretical at the time, but then along came Amazon, which is now the de facto online catalog for a lot of researchers before they hit the libraries. One shouldn't judge a book by its cover but a cover often does contain a lot of useful metadata.
Meanwhile, it was only last year that I started arranging the shirts in my closet by color. What a difference!
Paco Ignacio Taibo II, the detective novelist who I recently mentioned helping me through long bus rides in Mexico, has an interesting new project: he's co-authoring a serialized novel with Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas.
The novel, entitled Muertos incómodos, is appearing in weekly installments in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. Subtitled "a novel for four hands" it could create some confusion with one of Taibo's best-known previous works, Cuatro Manos/Four Hands. But this one should be a bit different; it brings back Taibo's regular character Héctor Belascoarán Shayne but pairs him with one created by Subcomandante Marcos, one Elías Contreras, a Zapatista official who investigates crimes and disappearances in EZLN-controlled territory. The two may not be as unlikely a pair as you'd think, since Taibo is well known for the left-leaning politics embedded in his books and Marcos for his witty prose. According to an explanatory article in La Jornada, the two authors are writing alternate chapters in a true serialization, in that they started appearing before the end of the novel was fixed. So far six have been published. You can see the current chapter on the La Jornada site, which for some reason obscures the URLs in the bowels of its advertising system; fortunately there's an archive of the previous chapters on the site of the solidarity organization SODEPAZ. Presumably the thing will be published in book form, and in several languages, when it's done.
A SASIALIT participant once commented that it "is well known" that third-world writers don't do noir, to which it was nice to reply with the counterexample of Taibo. I'm presently reading his Cosa fácil, a delightful (and fortunately thin, for my slow pace in Spanish) book in which his Basque-Irish chilango detective is trying to solve three mysteries at once: the murder of a salaryman engineer, the disappearance of an actress's teenage daughter, and rumors that Emiliano Zapata lived to fight the yanquis at the side of Sandino in Nicaragua. Belascoarán Shayne is painfully aware of the detective stereotype and the conventions of the crime novel and a voice in his head is often asking in effect, What would Philip Marlowe do? To which he usually replies with a fine array of expletives.
Taibo's books are widely available in English and even in Spanish, for instance through Amazon. I guess he's no secret to readers of mysteries since he's won plenty of international awards. I look forward to seeing what he and the Subcomandante come up with -- although I think I'll wait for the hard copy. I'm not set up to read PDFs on long-haul buses.
(Thanks to the interesting Mexico City blog Chilanga Banda for the link.)
Mighty Girl recommends her friend Jenny Traig's memoir of an adolescence with OCD, Devil in the Details, a very funny book judging by the excerpts.
I was looking at its Amazon entry when I happened to click on the "Better together: buy this other book and save" link, which pointed to Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex by Jennifer Lehr. That in turn linked to The Curse of the Singles Table by Suzanne Schlosberg, which linked to You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs by Laurie Graff, which linked to Slightly Settled by Wendy Markham, which ended the chain by linking back to You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs.
Amazon is full of networks, based on "customers who bought this book also bought" relationships, "customers recommended this book in addition" or "instead", on "the page you made" recommendations, on reader-created guides, and no doubt more that I can't think of. But the single "better together" link is one that jumps out at you. I don't remember ever noticing a chain like this before.
I looked for more and couldn't find any. Is this a fluke? Do you suppose that memoirs or "pink lit" are more likely to create such chains than the other kinds of books I read? It probably helps if you start with authors who've published a single book, as titles are often reciprocally linked to another book by the same author. What else?
Black-boxing Amazon networks is a pastime well suited for someone who tends toward OCD. Who knows, there may even be something worth learning if you can dig deep enough, like Valdis Krebs provocative studies of the political polarization of Amazon customers' purchases.
Badger has been blogging about her trials with a certain unreconstructed dinosaur of a Lat1n Amer1can l1terature prof at Berzerkely. (I'm using 133tsp3ak in deference to Badger.) He's been singing the glories of One Hundred Years of Solitude as the perfect novel according to a catalog of isms, the pinnacle of which Badger describes in this unconsummated exchange:
El Profe outlined "tr0picalismo": What do you think of when you think of the tropics? (dead silence, the smell of fear.) "Fruit! Lots of fruit! Everyone eats lots of fruit. That makes their skin healthy because fruit is full of...?..." (dead silence... finally a collective abashed murmur, "agua...?") "AGUA! and las morenas, las negras, they have the most beautiful skin... " (long ode to the beautiful black and coffee colored skin ensues) And they love to eat fruit, and dance - they have natural rhythm, the rhythm of the tropics... and they are poor, but happy, like La Zena1da... street vendors are not weighed down by poverty, they are always happy to see you and to chat, and are dancing with their baskets of fruit on their heads... ... and they love music! the mangos, the papayas, the music... The birds, there are lots of birds, and the heat - it is a sexual heat, and the women have a sensual beauty, a sexual freedom... it's all about excess... there is of course drink - and I'm not talking about coconut milk - who could think of Puert0 Rico without thinking of... RUM! Or M3xico without tequila? Everything is more intense in the tropics, the colors are more intense, life is more intense, food is spicier, people wear bright colors, and people have a tendency to exaggerate! The exaggeration of reality comes from the heat of the tropics and the natural geography!"
In the car all the way home I composed my speech that I am going to give next class when called upon -- we were told to have something to say about one of the isms. I am going to describe the tropical1smo of the U.S. South and its watermelon-eating beautiful sensual poor but happy people who have natural rhythm, and then I will cross out the word "trop1calismo" and write "racismo" and make everyone in the class repeat the word after me, and then I'll sit down and take the bad grade that will be sure to come my way.
I hope she does it. But I wonder if this clown of a prof isn't doing a disservice to some of the real virtues of Gabriel García Márquez's work by his caricature of tropicalismo. I personally loved Cien años. I think that being simultaneously local and universal is a great virtue, a crucial one as globalization threatens to eat up all art. I'd even speculate that perhaps for reasons of geography and history a universalist regionalism is a natural thing for writers of the Americas to grapple with (think Faulkner) before it occurs to people from other, more settled locales.
As always these days, I have Brazil on my mind. Brazil had its own tropicalismo, primarily a musical rather than a literary movement, also concerned with fusing the local with the universal. Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and the other Brazilian tropicalistas were a pretty sophisticated bunch and their response to el profe's cries of "fruit! fruit!" would have been hilarity. Yet they would have been the first to say that geography has a huge influence on Brazilian culture. And I can't help but think about Alma Guillermoprieto's Samba, a book-length examination of a year in one of Rio's samba schools. Her subjects are poor people with dark skin who do try to be happy by blending music, dance, sex and, yes, sometimes clothing that involves fruit. Guillermoprieto even offers some evidence that you can't dance samba properly unless you learned it at your mother's knee (nurture, not nature, but effectively making it a black thing). Badger's prof may be wack, but it seems to me that he's misinterpreting and exaggerating, not making his delusions up out of whole cloth.
Lifelong sportsophobe that I am, I never dreamt that I'd read a soccer book. But when I learned that an interest in fútebol was a requirement for my Brazilian tourist visa I picked up the English translation of Eduardo Galeano's El fútbol a sol y sombra. I couldn't have found a more engrossing introduction. Galeano, a leftist historian and author of the influential The Open Veins of Latin America, works in miniature -- a particular goal, a personal story -- and sets each in its historical context:
Goal by Rahn: It was at the World Cup in 1954. Hungary, the favorite, was playing Germany in the final.
With six minutes left in a game tied 2-2, the robust German forward Helmut Rahn trapped a rebound from the Hungarian defense in the semi-circle. Rahn evaded Lantos and fired a blast with his left, just inside the right post of the goal defended by Grosics.
Herbert Zimmerman, Germany's most popular commentator, announced that goal with a passion worthy of a South American: "Tooooooooorrrrrrrrr!!!"
It was the first World Cup that Germany had been allowed to play since the war, and Germans felt they had the right to exist again. Zimmerman's cry became a symbol of national resurrection. Years later, that historic goal could be heard on the soundtrack of Fassbinder's film, "The Marriage of Maria Braun," which recounts the misadventures of a woman who can't find her way out of the ruins.
His continual themes are the loss of the artistry of the game in favor of an emphasis on defense at all costs, and the exploitation of the players by the shadowy for-profit entities that control all levels of the game. Of course I still don't understand the rules, but Galeano has taught me why I should care.
That lesson was reinforced by the first grown-up match I've ever watched, on TV a couple of weeks ago in Rio, Brazil's face-off against Argentina in the finals of the Copa América. Despite fielding its B team (the best Brazilian players are all with European teams and take their vacations on a European schedule), Brazil won -- by a single tying goal with seconds left on the clock, and then dominating Argentina in the penalty tiebreaker at the end. If every game is that dramatic, sign me up for season tickets. Hmm -- where's that Olympic soccer schedule?
After wrestling a bit with gaijin views of Japan I decided to put the shoe on the other foot and read a book that's been waiting on my shelves for some years now, Ciudades desiertas by José Agustín.
Ciudades desiertas (Deserted Cities) concerns a Mexican writer and her estranged actor husband who spend several months in the US midwestern town of "Arcadia", home of a famous writing program (can you say "Iowa City"?). Much of the book is about a Mexican view of the US: the sterility of our streets, the silence of our airports, our paranoia about cigarette smoke, our endless vending machines, our mall culture, our insipid beer, our unwalkable cities, our misappropriation of the name "America", that we are either cold and manipulative or guileless and overeager for approval, that we (in our liberal mode) fetishize the Indian aspect of Mexico, that we are rootless and soulless, that we (again the liberal "we") are so eager to condemn our own rootlessness and soullessness that we project all sorts of wish fulfillment on the rooted, soulful cultures we think we see elsewhere. (Curiously, one Mexican image of the US gets left out: there are no brutal border guards or racist cops in sight. Unlike my one experience in a Mexican movie theater, when the KKK and the INS joined forces onscreen to terrorize the protagonist and I thought I might have to sneak out the back.)
That much is probably a good tonic for Lost in Translation: see, we can dish it out, so we should be able to take it, too. But like Lost in Translation, Ciudades desiertas is really about its characters more than the strange setting they find themselves in. So while the critique of the US is mostly old hat, the bulk of the book is a puzzle I still can't quite figure out. At the outset I thought the writer, Susana, was the protagonist and her flight from her marriage into the waiting arms of the writing program a standard feminist fairy tale. But then abandoned husband Eligio follows her to Arcadia and all hell breaks loose. A gringo reader expects Susana to dial 911 and get her stalker husband ejected from her life, but she takes him back after a 30-page screaming argument that throws the contained little critique of "Arcadia" right out the window. Eligio is a manic "mexicano macho" (his term) who is conscious enough of the stereotype to accuse Susana of unfairly pinning him with it, and yet who acts the loutish macho at every turn. Eligio's piggish chauvinism is disgusting, and yet his sharp eye and tongue are the main source of life in the book. We keep looking for Susana to leave and stay gone or for Eligio to redeem himself, but neither happens. The book ends with an act of token violence without any retribution that made me wonder: are we supposed to be rooting for Eligio's misogynist antics?
I don't know the answer. Maybe some of José Agustín's other works would tell us.
P.S. Eligio hits the nail on the head in one spot: when a road-trip section of the book passes through Santa Fe, Eligio takes one look at the New Age and indigenous-chic aspects of the town and concludes, "Ah! The gringo Tepoztlán!" Exactly what I thought, in reverse.
Thanks to Sheila who generously released her copy to the wild, I've just finished American Fuji by Sara Backer. It's a fun read, about an expat woman in Japan who reluctantly tries to help another American get to the bottom of the death of his son. It's closer to nonviolent suspense/whodunit than the literary fiction it's been marketed as, pitched maybe at the level of a good Elmore Leonard book albeit with more rounded characters. Like the suspense and mystery genres, it's vulnerable to occasional puncture by unlikely coincidences and "say what?!" plot points, but then you read on and the boat soon rights itself.
I wonder what people familiar with Japan would make of it, particularly after all the slams that Lost in Translation received for allegedly perpetuating stereotypes of the "inscrutable" Japanese.
For what it's worth, American Fuji's gaijin characters are not as clueless as those in Lost in Translation, but I'm not sure the Japanese fare much better for being better understood. (Adam, Jenny -- have you read it?)
An update on my previous report on reading Machado de Assis.
I finished reading his longish short story O Alienista (The Psychiatrist) in the original and things seem to be falling into place -- by the end I was only having to spot-check against the English, rather than reading every paragraph in both languages.
That said, this exercise makes me acutely aware of the difference between comprehension and production. The more exposure I get to proper literary Portuguese the more doubtful I am that I'll ever get past my Portunhol baby talk. Plus I must be reinforcing any bad pronunciation habits I have by reading to myself without any feedback. A Machado de Assis book on tape, maybe? But cross-referencing it with the print version would be a bear. (Hmm -- a nicely synched audio+text+translation edition would be a great application for one of those MP3-capable PDAs...)
As for the story, it was great, maybe better than Epitaph. A brilliant European-educated psychiatrist settles in a small Brazilian city and opens its first mental hospital, then proceeds to lock up everyone who he thinks is crazy, with somewhat predictable but no less enjoyable results. It's hard not to impose 20th-century political comparisons on his authoritarianism, which makes me think that there must be equally clear 19th-century ones, if only I knew what they were.
I've just finished enjoying Epitaph of a Small Winner by the 19th-century Brazilian literary pillar Machado de Assis, renowned for his pessimistic wit. It's about the life and loves of a member of the leisure class, covering some of the same satirical ground as a picaresque novel or Voltaire's Candide but from above rather than below. There's even a pessimistic answer to Dr. Pangloss in the form of a character named Quincas Borba, who apparently figures in some of de Assis's other novels.
It forced me to overcome a couple of literary phobias. I'm not in the habit of reading much that predates, say, Hemingway, and as I've said before I'm skeptical about translations.
On the first point, Louis de Bernieres asserts in an introduction that de Assis was a postmodernist, due to his employment of various currently fashionable formal tricks -- starting his story at the end, in the voice of a posthumous narrator, with self-referential chapters as short as a single sentence. De Bernieres' claim is less startling if you accept the Borgesian view that there's nothing new under the sun. He calls Homer a postmodernist, too, for starting his story in the middle. At any rate, de Assis has a clever style that suits contemporary taste. And some of his aphorisms anticipate current usage, too -- "We kill time and time buries us" isn't so far from "Life's a bitch and then you die."
As for the translation, it didn't seem so bad. The version I read was done in 1952 by William L. Grossman; there's also more recent translation by Gregory Rabassa in print under the title The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas but the older seemed less clumsy when I spot-checked them in the library. (The original Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas from 1880 is available online. Hooray for expiring copyrights!)
I enjoyed the book enough that I'm doing something more ambitious:
I'm now trying to read some of his short stories in parallel Portuguese and English versions. I'm starting with O Alienista (The Psychiatrist) about the establishment of a rural mental hospital, excellent fodder for de Assis's pointed humor. Reading a paragraph in Portuguese, then in English, then checking it again in Portuguese takes some discipline but it's fun. And it puts me right in the middle of the old translation problem again. I'm not good enough to catch errors in tone, but I find myself gnashing my teeth at every turn as the translator rearranges paragraphs and, worse, edits content completely out. Let's hope I improve enough to bypass the middleman.
Every few years I return to reading in Spanish, my first "second" language and the only one in which I've maintained an ability to read for pleasure. Whenever I do I remember a line from Alejo Carpentier's El acoso in which a character struggles through a sentence of Italian and experiences what Carpentier calls "the childish pride of having understood". Exactly. When Carpentier wrote that, could he have anticipated a classroom full of gringo undergrads seeing themselves in its mirror?
The latest object of my pleasure in understanding what doesn't come easily is Cuando fui mortal (also published in English as When I Was Mortal) by Javier Marías. It is a collection of stories, that being my preferred form for linguistic excursions, since it eliminates the chance that one moment of incomprehension will result in 200 pages of hard-slogging confusion. Although several of the stories have an air of the supernatural -- ghost stories, in fact, something one doesn't see so much these days -- and others have a noirish edge, the most common element among them is the theme of betrayal. Marías likes to go for a twist in his stories but rarely the kind of twist one expects from "genre" writing. Rather than a cute plot hook or an ironic turn, the twist can be a shift in focus or point of view, as when a story set up to relate a young woman's first day in the porn business turns out to be about something else altogether. (That's characteristic in another way: sexuality in these stories always happens just off camera. There are sexy or lurid situations but the narrator or protagonist never seems to have his or her own libido in play.)
Stories that rely on a twist can be hazardous for the language-challenged reader; miss a few crucial words in the final page of a story with a dramatic payoff and you may want to throw the book across the room in frustration. I avoided that situation in this case, but not by much. Maybe the best story in the book is a short murder mystery whose climax depends on understanding the attitude of one of the characters toward the deceased. I managed to catch the substance of it but not the tone.
Would the tone have come through more clearly if I'd read it in English? I don't know. One of the downsides of dabbling in reading literature in the original is that it makes you hypersensitive to imperfections in translation. I've got a shelf full of novels in Spanish and German that I'll never read but neither will I break down and read them in English because no matter how gifted the translator, the result won't do justice to the original. And yet I can't claim that my internal translation does it justice, either. At least the mistakes are my own, the words are the original words albeit half-understood, and what I miss is made up for by the pueril orgullo of getting what I get.
Thom Jones is the Oliver Sacks of hard-boiled fiction. He writes stories of burnt-out soldiers, fighters and tough guys with neuropsych disorders -- bipolar, seizure, personality and fugue -- in a voice somewhere between Ernest Hemingway and Charles Bukowski.
How appropriate, then, that I just read The Pugilist at Rest having forgotten that I'd read it before. I was several stories into it before the memories came back. It held up to a second reading quite well. Maybe I'll forget and re-read his second collection, Cold Snap, next.