miércoles, 31 de diciembre de 2008

2008 Orbis Terrarum Challenge Wrap-Up

Dear Readers:

My book-blogging amiga Bethany has asked all participants in her 2008 Orbis Terrarum Challenge to write a wrap-up post about the challenge with links to books read for it and answers to some survey questions about our participation in the challenge. Since I really enjoyed this challenge (my first completed and still the most interesting one I've seen offered to date) and read some of my favorite books of the year during the course of it (the top two from the list itself are starred in red below), I encourage you to check out a preview of the 2009 Orbis Terrarum Challenge on Bethany's blog here. Meanwhile, read on--or don't--for the info that was requested about the 2008 challenge.

Books Read (title/author/author's country of birth)

Orbis Terrarum 2008 Challenge Survey (Bethany's questions in bold red)

  • 1.) What did you like about the challenge? I liked that the challenge was international in focus and that the countries were represented by their authors' birthplaces rather than just the settings where the works took place. I don't understand many U.S. book bloggers' obsession with American and U.K. authors to the exclusion of almost everyone else, so this was a nice way to see what people thought about writers from some other places in the world.
  • 2.) What would you like to see change for next year? I like the challenge just the way it is/was. The only change I'd root for in the future is making it 12 books in 12 months rather than 9 books in 9 months. However, I'm glad it was shorter this year since I discovered it so late in the game!

  • 3.) About the rules, or the non-existent rules...did you like that? Yes, I did. It's kind of a turnoff seeing some of these challenges where they start with a nice idea and then ruin it by attaching 50 rules at the end. Challenges should be fun--not exercises in observing somebody else's obsessive-compulsive ways.

  • 4.) Are you going to join us next year? Definitely. I'm looking forward to it--unless the rules change too much. See #3 above!

  • 5.) Pretty please give me any suggestions for changes, the betterment of the challenge, or just anything that you would like to see changed for next year. OT is fine as is. Don't mess with success! Don't fix it if it's not broken!!

  • 6.) Would you like the challenge to be more involved? What if we read books together sometimes? Would that interest you? I wouldn't mind reading one novel or a bonus book together as part of a group as long as I reserved the right to maintain my other choices intact. Might be fun. However, I'd hate to have to give up somebody like Roberto Bolaño to read some hack like Stephen King instead!

  • 7.) Would you be interested in helping somehow next year? How would you like to help? I'd be happy to help. I have a few books in mind that I could see offering as giveaways, but feel free to shoot me an e-mail, Bethany, if you have anything else in mind. By the way, thanks again for hosting the challenge--it was a lot of fun, and I appreciated your enthusiasm!

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992)
by Dashiell Hammett
USA, 1930
ISBN 978-0-679-72264-9

Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon was one of my all-time favorite books back when I was a young and impressionable 20-something, but I decided to read the crime fiction masterpiece again recently to see how it'd hold up under the weight of all that time gone by. Suffice it to say that it remains a tremendously entertaining read, its well-known plot and colorful cast of characters only improving with age. While a little dated in ways both expected (some of the attitudes expressed toward women and gays) and not (the scene where Sam Spade and Detective Polhaus eat pickled pigs' feet in a German restaurant), Hammett's spare, economical prose and stripped-down storytelling are as winning a combination as ever. In addition to the classic dialogue (Wilmer: "Keep on riding me and you're going to be picking iron out of your navel"; Spade, chuckling: "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter" [p. 120]) and rogues' gallery of unforgettable criminals, one of the things I loved most about rereading this was rediscovering Hammett's narrative sleight of hand. In a passage I'd long forgotten about, for example, Spade tells client/future love interest/iconic femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy a story about an old case of his involving a guy named Flitcraft, a real estate salesman who had abandoned a seemingly happy life as a family man to assume a new identity elsewhere. While the anecdote at first appears to be little more than an unimportant digression, Flitcraft's reasons for trying to escape his life of ease underscore both the randomness of the way things happen in life and the futility of people attempting to become anything other than who they really are--a rather pessimistic point of view that's easy to be forgotten amid all the juicy details of the great tale of greed that follows. That Spade hardly spends as much time talking about the Flitcraft case as I do here makes it even more perfect as an example of Hammett's subtlety in fleshing out flawed characters who aren't just types.

Since the film version of The Maltese Falcon is one of the few adaptations I can think of that lives up to the original novel, it's at least even money that another viewing of that will take place here soon as well. In the meantime, I give this latest encounter with Hammett a New Year's Eve rating of 5 out of 5 stars. Cheers!

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)

sábado, 27 de diciembre de 2008

High and Low

Tengoku To Jigoku [High and Low] (2008 DVD)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Japan, 1963
In Japanese with English subtitles

A late entry for best DVD of 2008 status. Like Francesco Rosi's similarly entertaining Salvatore Giuliano, Kurosawa's thriller High and Low (Heaven or Hell in Japanese) expertly manipulates genre expectations before turning conventional storytelling on its end. In this case, the action begins when the family of wealthy shoe company executive Kingo Gondo (the great Toshiro Mifune, delivering a commanding performance) is targeted for a botched kidnapping and extortion attempt. Fearing his son lost, the terrified Gondo initially promises to answer all the kidnapper's demands to win the boy back. But when both he and the extortionist (the chillingly charismatic Tsutomu Yamazaki) then discover that while the businessman's own son is safe but that Gondo's chauffeur's son has been captured by mistake, tension mounts when the now-reticent executive has to decide to pay the original ransom anyway--which would bankrupt his family just when he's planning to buy his way out of a corporate takeover move directed against him--or risk seeing somebody else's child suffer at the hands of a maniac. As if to accentuate the claustrophobic mood, almost all of this first part of the film unfolds in a series of elegant long takes in a single room in the Gondos' house.

While a lesser director might turn the more melodramatic elements here into something one might run into on the Lifetime Channel, Kurosawa sagely uses this plotline (and an extraordinary cast) as a means to explore the themes of greed, personal honor, and the income gap in early '60s Japan. Neatly divided in two by a frantic commuter rail sequence shot with dizzying verve after all the interior scenes that preceded it, the movie seamlessly shifts from its tension-filled first half shot almost entirely in Gondo's air-conditioned villa to an equally dramatic police procedural narrative that takes place in the less-rarified and morally and physically polluted back streets of Yokohama in the second half. Although these mirror images of the chief antagonists' positions at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum might seem a little heavyhanded when you read about them, rest assured that the hunt for the kidnapper--with its documentary-like detour through various dive bars, heroin shooting galleries, and adult entertainment districts--is pursued with more subtlety and unpredictability than you might expect from a traditional genre movie. Outstanding. (http://www.criterion.com/)

Tsutomu Yamazaki in widescreen

martes, 23 de diciembre de 2008

Gringa Latina

Gringa Latina (Kodansha Globe, 1996)
by Gabriella De Ferrari
USA, 1995
ISBN 1-56836-145-9

"Gringa Latina is a celebration of my growing up as a gringa in a land of Latinos and becoming a Latina in a land of gringos. I was a gringa in Peru, because my parents had come from a distant land to make their life there; I have been called a Latina in Saint Louis, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York, the places where I have made my life as an adult. Yet I am not one or the other but both. Like mirrors, they are the reflection of each other, their images continually resonating throughout my life. These reflections, with their peaceful islands and their turbulent waters, form the chapters of this book." --Gabriela De Ferrari, p. 1.

While Gabriella De Ferrari's Gringa Latina is a lovely little memoir that you could probably polish off in a few hours of serious reading, I spaced out my time with it so that I could savor it over the course of the three days we here in the metro Boston area spent snowed in last weekend. A celebration of the author's childhood in Tacna in southern Peru, where she was born to Italian emigrant parents who had become Peruvians not by birth but by choice, the book offers up a precious glimpse at a kind of paradise lost written from the vantage point of an adult whose own wanderlust had led her to residence--and eventual citizenship--in the United States after college. Although De Ferrari's "otherness" in Peru seems to have had as much to do with class differences as matters of culture or ethnicity (her family was very well off in relation to most of their counterparts, and her parents' annual Italian Day celebration on June 2 seems to have been a hit with everybody lucky enough to score an invitation to it), her story should resonate with anyone who's ever had a bicultural upbringing or an expat experience of their own. This book is out of print but well worth tracking down for its series of family vignettes that read like touching little prose haiku. Brava!

lunes, 22 de diciembre de 2008

The Art History Reading Challenge

Since I just finished one reading challenge and am about to wrap up another, I guess this is as good a time as any to announce my plans to join 2009's Art History Reading Challenge hosted by Sarah G. You can read about all the sign-up details here, but the basic idea is to read and post about six art-related books (fiction or non-fiction) during the course of the year. Drawing upon my extensive Etch A Sketch and Paint-by-Numbers background as a child, I've selected the following works (all non-fiction except for one novel*) as my projected titles for the challenge.
  • Christopher De Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts
  • Jerrilyn Dodds (ed.), Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain
  • Georges Duby, Le temps des cathedrales: l'art et la societé, 980-1420
  • Sabine Rewald et al., Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s
  • José Carlos Somoza, Clara y la penumbra* [published in the US as The Art of Murder]
  • Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists
  • (Just added) Nicola Denzey, The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women (review)
Charlemagne and Roland
(lifted from a copy of a chanson de geste manuscript found online somewhere)

viernes, 19 de diciembre de 2008

The Assemblies of Al-Hariri

The Assemblies of Al-Hariri: Fifty Encounters with the Shaykh Abu Zayd of Seruj (The Octagon Press, 1980)
by Al-Hariri of Basra
Iraq, c. 1100
ISBN 900860-86-3

Abu Mohammed Al Kasmir Ibn Ali Al-Hariri of Basra penned these maqamat, or "assemblies," c. 1100 in an ornate Arabic freely mixing rhymed prose and verse, and they are here "retold by Amina Shah" in the closest thing I could find to a contemporary English translation. Although I first read this work some four or five years ago as one of the many unexpected side benefits of taking a medieval Spanish course of all things, I wanted to reread the maqamat to revisit "the jewels of its protagonist's phraseology" to paraphrase a dusty translation of one of its many memorable lines. The title character is one Abu Zayd of Seruj, an eloquent trickster who spends almost all of the fifty tales swindling people out of goods and money through the power of his rhetoric alone--although he isn't above disguising himself as a poor, old woman to receive alms ("The Encounter at Baghdad"), putting a wedding party to sleep with hashish to make off with the spoils ("The Encounter at Wasit"), or posing as a mufti on the road to Medina ("The Encounter Called 'Of the Portion'") in between bouts of poetic excess.

While a conversation- and learning-loving narrator (Harith, son of Haram) who's both an ardent admirer and a frequent victim of Abu Zayd's peerless con games helps lend the Assemblies a certain conceptual structure, the storytelling action takes place in various cities and caravan routes throughout the Middle East in an anything goes atmosphere designed to highlight Abu Zayd's vast linguistic bag of tricks. While sometimes only moderately interesting in translation, Al-Hariri's maqamat are absolutely mind-boggling in terms of the verbal gymnastics on display. There are multiple chapters devoted to obscure riddles and/or double meanings, for example, and the Arabic original supposedly showcases entire passages devoted to resolving grammatical questions, unveiling palindromes, and writing verses with and without accent marks and pointed letters--all within the contexts of the picaresque narrative.

Although even Abu Zayd is willing to freely admit that "nights spent in tale-telling are among the greatest of harms!" (p. 69), readers who appreciate characters that demonstrate "prowess in the strife of eloquence" (26) owe it to themselves to make the acquaintance of this boastful rogue and his literary creator, Al-Hariri. You can Google both of those names for more information than you'll ever find here, of course, but one of the funniest anecdotes associated with this collection of stories concerns the fan of the author who paid a visit to the famous Al-Hariri and was distressed to find out that his literary hero was less handsome than creative: "I am a man to be heard, and not to be seen," Al-Hariri is alleged to have wryly told him.

Bibliothèque Nationale copy of a 13th-century Maqamat manuscript

miércoles, 17 de diciembre de 2008

The Burnt Orange Heresy

The Burnt Orange Heresy (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1990)
by Charles Willeford
USA, 1971
ISBN 0-679-73252-7

I used to be a big fan of the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard imprint, and just thinking about names like Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain, and Jim Thompson can still put a tough guy's grin on my book guy's face. Willeford, who was new to me but is a known quantity in pulp fiction circles, doesn't seem up to that pantheon level here, but his Burnt Orange Heresy isn't a bad read either. Narrated by smug Palm Beach art critic James Figueras in the autobiography of a sicko style popularized by Jim Thompson, the novel starts out as a sleek heist piece grounded in the world of contemporary art before turning into the confession of something much more sinister. Along the way, Figueras takes various often-bitchy potshots at both the South Florida merchants who peddle art and the international artists and critics who shape public perception of it (in one of my favorite moments, a character who's supposed to be a legendarily-reclusive French avant-garde painter in hiding in Florida caps off a discussion of Marcel Duchamp by offering a choice of TV dinners--turkey, Salisbury steak, or enchilada, tamale, and Spanish rice--to his uninvited guests). I didn't really buy the logic behind the big criminal finale, but if you're looking for a 144-page crime novel with attitude and the occasional laugh, you could do a whole lot worse.

Charles Willeford (1919-1988)

(NB: This version of The Burnt Orange Heresy is OOP. Others are available in an assortment of garish colors. For more on Willeford, check out Marshall Jon Fisher's short piece on "The Unlikely Father of Miami Crime Fiction" here.)

viernes, 12 de diciembre de 2008


Fantômas (1998 Artificial Eye DVD)
Directed by Louis Feuillade
France, 1913-14
Silent with French intertitles and an English translation

I got a kick out of Allain and Souvestre's first Fantômas novel from 1911, and I absolutely loved Feuillade's Fantômas-inspired serial Les Vampires released later that same decade. But while I'm glad I finally got to see this 1913-14 nitrate about "the genius of crime," I'm sorry to confess that it's almost criminally slow at times. The five serials included here--Fantômas (A l'ombre de la guillotine), Juve contre Fantômas, Le Mort qui tue, Fantômas contre Fantômas, and Le Faux Magistrat--seem to follow the novels fairly faithfully, so part of the problem may be that the only elements of surprise come from the visual rather than the narrative end of things. It also doesn't help that there are no Musidoras slinking around in black bodysuits here, but I won't criticize Feuillade for that psychosexual lapse since he would redeem himself casting-wise in Les Vampires just a few years later. What we do get instead is a cornucopia of costume changes for M. René Navarre in the title role (looking particularly sinister below but often committing his crimes "disguised as a proper bourgeois" as "Fantômas expert" Kim Newman giddily points out in his commentary), a representation of Montmartre as the center of the Parisian underworld (take that, Amélie!), and murder scenes involving "gloves" made out of human skin and a boa constrictor slithering in and out of a bedroom window. Other than that, I don't have much else to add except that l'accent circonflexe is a cruel, cruel invention that should be abolished immediately if not sooner. (http://www.artificial-eye.com/)

Fantômas: not just your average criminal

P.S. I keep forgetting to mention that my on-again/off-again movie blog, Gambling with Countess Dusy Told, is on again at the moment. For those not offended by a little shameless self-promotion, here are the links to four recent reviews.

miércoles, 10 de diciembre de 2008

Exploration: Latin American Reading Challenge

Katrina of Katrina's Reads is hosting a Latin American-themed reading challenge during the first four months of 2009 (details = here). Although I'm not sure how geeked up I am about the whole challenge thing these days, this one looks right up my Mexican-American alley! Anyway, here's a list of the four books I'm thinking about reading as part of the challenge:
  • Roberto Bolaño, Amuleto
  • Julio Cortázar, Rayuela
  • Rodrigo Fresán, Mantra
  • Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad

If you like book lists and/or modern literature in general, make sure you check out Semana.com's 2007 suggestions for what they consider las mejores 100 novelas de la lengua española de los últimos 25 años. From what I've read off that list, those people know what they're talking about.

2009 EDIT: Actual Books Read Below

  • Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies (review)
  • Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (review)
  • José Emilio Pacheco, Las batallas en el desierto (review)
  • Roberto Bolaño, Amuleto (review)

martes, 9 de diciembre de 2008

Los de abajo

Los de abajo (Colleción Archivos, 1996)
por Mariano Azuela
México, 1915
ISBN 84-89666-04-0

"Yo soy de Limón, allí, muy cerca de Moyahua, del puro cañon de Juchipila. Tenía mi casa, mis vacas y un pedazo de tierra para sembrar; es decir, que nada me faltaba..." (Los de abajo, p. 40).

Otra lectura absorbente para el reto Orbis Terrarum de Bethany. No tengo nada nuevo decir acerca de esta novela clásica escrita a la sombra de la revolución mexicana, pero me gustó mucho el estilo sencillo de Azuela. Carlos Fuentes se refiere a Los de abajo como "La Ilíada descalza" en su introducción al libro, un comentario acertado que llama la atención a la medida de "poesía épica" escondida dentro de sus páginas humildes. Pero ¿quiénes son los héroes aquí? Demetrio Macías, el protagonista y lo más valiente de todos, sólo se convierte en un guerrillero villista después de ver su casa incendiada por los federales. Luis Cervantes, el ideólogo de la resistencia nacionalista, eventualmente saldrá de la lucha en busca de una vida petita burguesa al otro lado de la frontera. Los demás personajes, sean soldados o soldaderas, parecen seguir luchando porque la violencia es la única vida que la sepan. Azuela no fue lo único percibir la evolución de la revolución mexicana como un abuso de confianza, pero sí fue uno de los primeros ponerlo por escrito con convicción. Un librazo.

"I'm from Limón, over there, real close to Moyahua, right from the Juchipila canyon. I had my house, my cows and a piece of earth to sow; that is to say, nothing at all was lacking to me..." (Los de abajo, p. 40).

Another engrossing read for Bethany's Orbis Terrarum Challenge. I don't really have anything new to add to the conversation about this classic novel written in the shadow of the Mexican Revolution, but I very much enjoyed Azuela's unadorned style of writing. Carlos Fuentes refers to Los de abajo [The Underdogs] as "the barefoot Iliad" in his introduction to the work, an astute comment that draws attention to the amount of "epic poetry" hidden within the novel's humbles pages. But who are the heroes here? Demetrio Macías, the protagonist and the bravest man of all, only becomes a fighter for Pancho Villa's forces after seeing his house burned to the ground by the federales. Luis Cervantes, the ideologue of nationalist resistance, will eventually leave the struggle in search of a petit bourgeois lifestyle on the other side of the border with the U.S. The rest of the characters, whether soldiers or camp followers, seem to keep on fighting because violence is the only life they know. Azuela wasn't the only one to view the evolution of the Mexican Revolution as a betrayal of trust, but he was one of the first to put it on paper with feeling. A great book.

Don Mariano Azuela (1873-1952)

martes, 2 de diciembre de 2008

Estrella distante

Estrella distante (2008 libro de bolsillo)
por Roberto Bolaño
España, 1996
ISBN 978-84-339-6673-5

Estrella distante abre con una cita enigmática de Faulkner ("Qué estrella cae sin que nadie la mire?") antes de involucrarnos en una breve pero impactante meditación sobre el destino de algunos poetas chilenos después del golpe militar en 1973. Aunque la imagen de la estrella distante claramente evoca memorias de la bandera del país, esta visión de la inocencia perdida también llama la atención a la victoria del mal en la época. "Me parece que estamos entrando en el campeonato mundial de la fealdad y la brutalidad", dice el protagonista (p. 27); poco después, éste se cae preso y sus amigos empiezan desaparecer. Supuestamente narrado por un tal Arturo Belano (el alter-ego ficticio de Bolaño y un personaje que también aparece en Los detectives salvajes) a los mediados de los noventa al exilio en Cataluña, el argumento o, mejor dicho, el testimonio traumatizado de esta obra tiene que ver con la búsqueda de un hombre conocido como Alberto Ruiz-Tagle o Carlos Wieder. Sin querer revelar demasiado acerca de la intriga, resulta que el misterioso Ruiz-Tagle era un derechista infiltrado en los talleres literarios en la presidencia de Allende, vigilando a los izquierdistas y a los otros "sospechosos" entre los grupos intelectuales de aquel entonces. Después del golpe, Wieder se reveleba ser un oficial en la Fuerza Aéra Chilena, un piloto/poeta que dejara poemas escritos en humo en el cielo, un asesino en serie patrocinado por el estado, y un fotógrafo de sus víctimas. De un lado, el símbolo por excelencia de "la nueva poesía chilena" escrita en sangre. De otro lado, un prófugo de la justicia a causa de su estética del genocidio como arte. Mientras que sigo leyendo el grueso 2666 de Bolaño con gran placer, estoy contento decirles que Estrella distante es el tercer libro suyo que me parece una obra maestra total. Nota: 5 estrellas (distantes) a escala de 5 estrellas (distantes).
Distant Star opens with a cryptic Faulkner quote ("What star falls unseen?") before involving us in a brief but devastating reflection on the fate of a handful of Chilean poets after the military coup there in 1973. Although the image of the distant star clearly evokes memories of the star in the country's flag, this vision of innocence lost also calls attention to the victory of evil in that specific time and place. "It seems to me that we are entering into the world championship of ugliness and brutality," says the protagonist (p. 27); shortly afterward, he becomes a political prisoner and his friends begin to disappear. Supposedly narrated by one Arturo Belano (Bolaño's fictional alter ego and a character who also appears in The Savage Detectives) in the middle of the '90s while in exile in Catalonia, the plot--or better yet--the traumatized testimony offered by this work has to do with the search for a man variously known as Alberto Ruiz-Tagle or Carlos Wieder. Without wanting to reveal too much about the intrigue, it turns out that the mysterious Ruiz-Tagle was a right-wing infiltrator in the literary workshops of Allende's presidency during the democracy, spying on the leftists and the other "suspicious people" among the intellectual groups of the time. After the coup, Wieder was revealed to be an officer in the Chilean Air Force, a pilot/poet who would leave poems written in smoke in the air, a serial killer sponsored by the state, and a photographer of his victims. On the one hand, the symbol par excellence of "the New Chilean Poetry" written in blood. On the other, a fugitive from justice on account of his genocide-as-art aesthetic. While I continue reading Bolaño's thick 2666 with great pleasure, I'm happy to note that Distant Star is the third book of his that seems like a complete masterpiece to me. Rating: 5 out of 5 (distant) stars.

Estrella Distante en español: (http://www.anagrama-ed.es/); Distant Star in English (http://www.ndpublishing.com/).

Roberto Bolaño