domingo, 29 de marzo de 2009

Buenos Aires Trip Report

El Ateneo Grand Splendid: a bookstore situated in a magnificent old theater
(photo: longhorndave, used here with Creative Commons permission)

Dear Lurkers:

Since I just got back from a wonderful two-week trip to Argentina, I thought I'd share some of my adventures with you, my beloved public, while memories of all those book-buying binges and empanadas-eating rampages are still fairly fresh in my mind. I intend to update this post over the next week or so, so check back here from time to time if anything catches your eye.



Sat, March 14: My wife ("C") and my father-in-law ("R") met me at the airport after I arrived from my 11-hour overnight flight from Boston to NYC to Buenos Aires (C's family is from Buenos Aires, so she had gone down a few weeks before I did to spend some extra time with them). Back in their home in Burzaco (a smallish working class city on the southern outskirts of la capital), my mother-in-law ("A") had prepared a "typical" Argentine lunch for us: a big plump chorizo del campo grilled to perfection, ñokis with meat sauce, a simple salad, etc. Delicious! Later on that evening, R took me to see a soccer match between his team, Banfield, and nearby rivals, San Lorenzo, a much anticipated thrill for me since I'd never seen a partido (game) live at the cancha (soccer field) in Argentina before. Although the stadium was only half-full due to threatening rains that never arrived in full force, the fans on both sides were as energetic as I would have expected: I got to see a pro-Banfield moshpit spontaneously erupt in one of the tunnels leading into the stands before the game, and during the match both teams' hinchadas (groups of rowdy fans) engaged in nonstop chanting and singing along with their respective bands, also hurling insults at each other and at the referees as often as possible ("la concha de tu madre," a staple expletive of Argentinean cinema, naturally was the epithet of choice!). We stopped for some great empanadas de carne y de jamón y queso (I had two meat and one ham-and-cheese turnovers) at Pizza Ranch in Adrogué (another nearby city in the provincia of Buenos Aires away from the city's core) on the way back, ending the day the way it'd started with some more of that great food that I love so much. Somewhere along the way, I also saw a great name for a carnicería (butcher's shop): Tu majestad, la vaca (Your Majesty, the Cow). Argentina, a vegetarian's nightmare!

Sun, March 15: Argentineans often have some combination of bread, toast, dulce de leche, and/or fiambres (cold cuts) for breakfast along with coffee, tea and/or mate, and today we had all of the above along with some Sunday mini facturas (mini-pastries). I was beginning to remember why so many consider the country a foodie's paradise! After breakfast, R drove everybody into the city (Burzaco is part of the provincia of Buenos Aires but not part of the city itself), where we walked around a mostly-deserted Plaza de Mayo and similarly quiet Calle Lavalle--both frenzied places during the week--downtown (more or less the Montserrat and San Nicolás barrios on the map above, but almost everybody just refers to the area as the microcentro). In the afternoon, R and I took in a late afternoon walking tour at the Cementerio de la Recoleta while C and A looked at arts and crafts on the Paseo de Recoleta in the upscale neighborhood. I had passed up a visit to the cementery on my only previous trip to Argentina since I didn't want to see all of the typical tourist sites, but I quickly realized what an idiot I had been when I saw all the wonderful statuary and mausoleum art in "este museo de los cuerpos" (museum of bodies). Historian Eduardo Lazzari, a radio show host and president of the Junta de Estudios Históricos del Buen Ayre, gave a great open-air lecture at the graves of various luminaries from 19th-century Buenos Aires history, focusing on the political wars between the federales and unitarios for a mere 15 pesos (~$4 U.S.). This turned out to be an unexpected highlight of the trip due to Lazzari's storytelling skills, obvious command of the material, and easy sense of humor. Even R, who's not a big history buff, walked away impressed. If you know Spanish and are considering a tour of the cementery, you shoud definitely think about taking in one of Lazzari's paseos históricos (the link I had for this doesn't work, but the talk was advertised in one of the Sunday newspapers). He drew about 50-75 people for this one, and many people practically mobbed him afterward to thank him for his efforts.

Mon, March 16: Is it too soon to talk about food again? After sleeping in late and playing with my in-laws' three totally lovable dogs, C and I shared some leftover sándwiches/sánguches de miga with my sister-in-law ("M-V")for lunch. We had bought 30 of these crustless sandwiches and two pre-fab pizzas from Sandwichería Espora in Adrogué the night before, and the 92 peso purchase (~$27 U.S.) was enough to feed several people for a few days in a row. I'm not sure I can explain what makes these predominantly white bread sandwiches so tasty, but they are moister than their U.S. counterparts and come in an astounding variety of styles: olives and egg (my favorite), salame, Roquefort cheese, palmitos (hearts of palm), etc. A must-try for any visitor to Argentina and a local comfort food with many vegetarian options. After M-V returned to work, C's parents took us to Quilmes, a city of about 250,000 also in Buenos Aires province, where C and her mom had some errands to do. I had passed up a chance to visit la capital on my own that day in order to to see what it was like in this smaller city, a tactical error of sorts since I'm not sure I'd really care to return to it. One interesting thing was seeing how many people were out and about at night in Quilmes' main peatonal (outdoor walking mall), an obvious difference from many U.S. cities where people seem to go into hiding as soon as it gets dark. Besides being famous for producing Argentina's most popular beer, Quilmes also boasts an old pizzeria, Pizza Los Maestros, which has been dishing out rustic pizzas for years and years. I tried an empanada gallega, a stuffed pizza featuring tuna, olives, and something spicy, and a strange-looking ham and hard-cooked egg slice that turned out to be super tasty. The cashier and at least one patron killed part of my pizza buzz by smoking in the restaurant while we ate, the first of a couple of times on the trip where the capital's no-smoking laws were ignored elsewhere in the province. Next up: my day in Palermo Soho. Still to come: book buying excesses in Bs.As. and a sunburn in Mar del Plata!

jueves, 12 de marzo de 2009

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas

Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (Oxford University Press hardcover, 1997)
by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa)
Brazil, 1881

"For some time I debated over whether I should start these memoirs at the beginning or at the end, that is, whether I should put my birth or my death in first place. Since common usage would call for beginning with birth, two considerations led me to adopt a different method: the first is that I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer, for whom the grave was a second cradle; the second is that the writing would be more distinctive and novel in that way. Moses, who also wrote about his death, didn't place it at the opening but at the close: a radical difference between this book and the Pentateuch." --The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, p. 7

Like Machado de Assis' equally entertaining Dom Casmurro, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is a fake autobiography--written with "a playful pen and melancholy ink" (5)--concerned with events that take place in the late 19th century Brazil of its one-time upper crust protagonist. It's also a tragicomic send-up of the man of letters revealing the mysteries of life through literature, the twist here being that its voluble narrator, dead of pneumonia at the age of 64, inexplicably chose to launch his writing career from the other side of eternity. Chapter 1, "The Author's Demise," covers many of the essential autobiographical details, but elsewhere in his book of life Brás Cubas recounts his ill-starred love affairs and failed political ambitions with great panache, an unbridled wit, and a generous dollop of pessimism. He has a poetic way with words ("I was holding the binoculars of the imagination," he quips in a typical moment [100]), but he also knows when to take a breather when necessary (chapter 139, "How I Didn't Get to Be Minister of States," has no words at all, only telling ellipses). In short, he's almost everything you could want in a narrator except that he knows things about the modern reader that you might not want to hear. A great jab in the eye of conventional fiction/memoir writing marred only by some of the worst proofreading (typos every few pages) I've ever seen in a university press book. (

"I'm beginning to regret this book. Not that it bores me, I have nothing to do and, really, putting together a few meager chapters for that other world is always a task that distracts me from eternity a little. But the book is tedious, it has the smell of the grave about it; it has a certain cadaveric contraction about it, a serious fault, insignificant to boot because the main defect of this book is you, reader. You're in a hurry to grow old and the book moves slowly. You love direct and continuous narration, a regular and fluid style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble, yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble and fall...

And they do fall! Miserable leaves of my cypress of death, you shall fall like any others, beautiful and brilliant as you are. And, if I had eyes, I would shed a nostalgic tear for you. This is the great advantage of death, which if it leaves no mouth with which to laugh, neither does it leave eyes with which to weep... You shall fall." --The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, p. 111

Machado de Assis: For more on "Brazil's most important novelist," a grandson of freed slaves, see Marc Bain's "Speak, Memory" in Newsweek here.

Next port of call on the Orbis Terrarum Challenge 2009: Canada (Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin), Cuba (José Lezama Lima, Paradiso), or ??? (???).

sábado, 7 de marzo de 2009

Coup de torchon

Coup de torchon (Criterion DVD, 2001)
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
France, 1981
In French with English subtitles

If I didn't already have another French movie in mind for the job, this unconventional black comedy/film noir would have made a pretty swanky entry for Bethany's Orbis Terrarum Film Mini-Challenge. A free adaptation of Jim Thompson's 1964 American pulp novel, Pop. 1280, Tavernier's Coup de torchon (Clean Slate) moves the tale of madness and murder out of the American south and into the blinding sunlight of 1938 French West Africa. Phillipe Noiret is outstanding as Lucien Cordier, a bumbling, corrupt police officer in the remote provincial town of Bourkassa, who's a likable enough guy despite all his flaws and married prostitute mistress (a superb Isabelle Huppert) until he decides to confront all the evil surrounding him at the point of a gun. As his malaria-like illness progresses, Tavernier and co-screenwriter Jean Aurenche take the opportunity to skewer colonial era morals and racism by permitting Cordier's exterminating angel tendencies to justify themselves in what Jean Genet has referred to as a sort of "redemption through crime." While the film is particularly tough on French colonials ("White folks aren't meant for vultures," a white character tells a black character in a work in which African corpses are routinely dumped into the river and then shot at for sport), its caustic, misanthropic vision doesn't take it any easier on the rest of us; as Cordier notes at one point, "If it's true [people] were made in God's image, I wouldn't like to get Him in a dark alley." Probably the best of the three movies I've seen made out of Jim Thompson books--although I'd love to check out After Dark, My Sweet (1990) and especially The Grifters (1991) again one of these days just to make sure. (

Lucien (Noiret) et Rose (Huppert): both married, just not to each other

My Best Fiend

Mein liebster Feind (Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD, 2002)
Directed by Werner Herzog
Germany, 1999
In German and English with English subtitles

Although I'm a huge Herzog fan to begin with, I have a special fondness for this tremendously funny and utterly compelling 1999 documentary about his bizarre working relationship with the great actor, legendary temper tantrum thrower, and raving egomaniac Klaus Kinski. Recalling the five feature films the pair made together over the course of the years, Herzog takes the viewer along for an anecdotal wild ride to the locations where some of their stormiest collaborations were filmed: the jungles of Peru for Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, the Czech Republic for Woyzeck, etc. Kinski usually comes off as an out of control but brilliant ass, a prima donna prone to hostile fits of anger whenever he'd forgotten his lines or stopped being the center of attention, but Herzog readily admits that the two needed each other to bring out their best. Watching this portrait, it's clear that the two had mutual respect for one another and at least occasional affection as well. Ironically, My Best Fiend also sports multiple confessions from the director, ostensibly the sane one, of plots to kill his belligerent star--the first for threatening to leave Aguirre, the Wrath of God just before the movie was completed ("I told him I had a rifle and by the time he'd reach the next bend in the river, there'd be eight bullets in his head and the ninth one would be mine") and another when he became so angry with Kinski on a different film that he decided to firebomb his house ("This was prevented only by the diligence of his Alsatian shepherd"). While Kinski died of natural causes in 1991, Herzog's offbeat tribute to his cinematic partner in crime has to rank as one of their most memorable projects ever. Rating: 5/5 stars! (

Herzog (left) and Kinski share a quiet moment on the set

martes, 3 de marzo de 2009

God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre

God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre (Free Press paperback, 2008)
by Richard Grant
USA, 2008

"If someone had come up to me in my early twenties, when men are supposed to be at their most reckless, and offered me a fortune to go into a place like the Sierra Madre, I would have thought about it for about three seconds before saying no. Except for alcohol and drugs, I was a fairly cautious young man, afraid of heights, roller coasters, high-speed driving, the police, guns, snakes, big spiders, and venereal disease. I avoided fights and adventure sports and I tended to doubt the sanity of those who put themselves deliberately in harm's way, much as some people now doubt my own sanity. So what happened?" --God's Middle Finger, p. 16

I checked this out from the library last week as a change of pace from more serious reading I had going on, but it quickly took over to the point that those serious plans wound up shelved. Part travelogue/part one-man Mexican Jackass episode, God's Middle Finger is a hysterical account of the three months that the British-born/Tucson-based journalist/thrill seeker Grant spent chasing adventure in the Sierra Madre mountain range. Although some of his "research" involved things like binge drinking with new friends and doing coke off knives in bathrooms with the local cops, Grant survived to tell the tale and his journalistic chops served him well even when his judgement probably didn't. Here's an example. In trying to figure out the intense hold that the region held on his imagination, Grant questioned locals from all walks of life on subjects as diverse as the mystery surrounding the fate of the last Apaches, the effects of the drug trade on the area in recent times, the prodigious long-distance running feats of the Tarahumara Indians, and the historic roots of the bandit culture. The result is an entertaining, informative and surprisingly well-written traveler's tale that should provide great adventure reading fare for those skeptical of the idea that all narcotraficantes are saints. Includes a nice recap of previous writing on the Sierra Madre region and some of the most hilarious translations of Mexican profanities I've ever seen! (

Richard Grant

Click here for a 5-minute Arizona public TV interview with Grant about this book from April 2008.