Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Tres libros

I recently read three short books, all fiction about Mexico: the novel Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (trans. Lisa Dillman), the collection of short stories Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, and the play so go the ghosts of méxico, part one by Matthew Paul Olmos. Olmos is an American Latino, Ruiz-Camacho is Mexican but now lives in the US and writes in English, while Herrera is Mexican, now lives in the US, but continues to write in Spanish. All three books deal with the themes of family, machismo, violence, and loss within the shady underworld of border crossings and drug cartels. In each, what is lost (or never had) weighs upon the protagonists, compelling them northward and beyond.

I became interested in Olmos' work because I had bought a season subscription to Undermain Theatre. Last month Undermain produced the world premier of part two, so I read part one before attending. Part one tells the story of the bravest woman in Mexico who becomes sheriff after a drug cartel murders the last sheriff. She is haunted by several ghosts of Mexico, including her decapitated predecessor as well as the daughter she will never have now that she's become a sheriff herself. Olmos' stage directions read like poetry, and the words his characters deliver are built on a bedrock of melody and rhythm that at times surpasses mere content. Music shifts between ambient sound design and catalyst, at times, even character. I eagerly await Undermain's production of part three next season; it promises to be just as important, necessary, and accessible.

Barefoot Dogs came to my attention when the Texas Institute of Letters awarded it the prize for Best Work of Fiction. A collection of related stories that revolve around the extended family of a Mexican patriarch who goes missing, the characters suffer their loss in personal grievings that continue to connect them together as a family despite the geographic and emotional distances between them. The writing is elegant while remaining excruciatingly raw. Familial and erotic love trip along the tightrope stretched over a chasm of apathy that threatens to swallow the characters whole should they make one wrong move. The stand-out story in my opinion is "Better Latitude," about the patriarch's mistress and their son: twenty-one pages with twice as many emotional gut punches.

Herrera's novel continues to haunt me days after finishing it. So simple a story: a woman is sent in search of her brother who had gone north and had gone missing. But its simplicity is a cover for the book's mythic proportions. And I'm still not sure where exactly in the text the transubstantiation takes place, if it ever really did. Maybe it is really just a simple story after all. But ohmygod this story is everything. Lisa Dillman has done the Lord's work by translating it. Her short Note (the entire book is only 114 pages) is eye-opening. I envy her the levels at which she's read the original and the hours of thought gone into each translated passage. I want another translation, though: this work needs to be adapted for the stage, serve as the basis of a film or of an opera. Makina needs to become one of the great archetypes of literature: the perfect blend of saint, prophet, messenger, bad ass, party girl, switchboard operator.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cuban Fantasia

My most recent fantasy: live part-time in Havana and start an English-language walking tour, modeled after Brendan's Isherwood's Neighborhood tour in Berlin, retracing the sites and scenes of Reinaldo Arenas' last years in Cuba.

On the right you'll see the site where Reinaldo heckled world-famous novelist and sellout Alejo Carpentier during a public lecture. Around the corner--where the Santa Clara Cathedral stood until Reinaldo and his friends, in an act of charity for the artist and prostitute who lived next door and could no longer earn a living after her breasts fell, pulled it down after absconding with what post-Revolution valuables remained.

We'll walk from the Morro down the Malecón. We'll stop for ice cream at Coppelia, indulging in the flavors offered to the locals because we'll hire a Cuban national to buy them for us in CUPs. We'll tramp through Lenin Park where he read the Iliad while evading the police for months, visit the Monserrate Hotel, his home after his release from prison, and pass by the Episcopal church in the Vedado, the setting of many orgies during the mid-70s.

To end the tour, over a mojito or canchánchara, I'll read Reinaldo's suicide note as he's dying from AIDS in the US. His last written words: "Cuba will be free. I already am."

This fantasy makes me happy.

Monday, February 20, 2017


To all you Presidents of the United States of Love this Presidents Day.

And, lest we forget, the original:

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Top 10 Composers

According to the number of plays in my iTunes for all my music categorized under Classical, here are my Top 10 Composers:
  1. John Cage
  2. Karol Szymanowski
  3. Kevin Volans
  4. Samuel Barber
  5. Krzysztof Penderecki
  6. Arvo Pärt
  7. Henryk Górecki
  8. Witold Lutosławski
  9. Vladimir Martynov
  10. Sergei Rachmaninoff
As you can see, I have quite a liberal understanding of what "classical" means.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Monday Mix 011617: Lingua franca

I've studied language for most of life, even before I declared at the age of 10 that I wanted to be a writer. But decades later I'm unable to list all the languages I've studied, both formally and informally.

My go-to number is 14: I've studied, I speak 14 languages. It might be more, depending on how you distinguish among related languages, among vernaculars.

I'm going to attempt to list the 14 languages I know. (Though, perhaps, it might be more accurate to say the language that at one time I knew.)
  1. English
  2. Spanish
  3. Russian
  4. Polish
  5. Czech
  6. Japanese
  7. Ukrainian
  8. Latin
  9. German
  10. French
  11. Classical Greek
  12. ...
Hmm. Maybe it's only 11 languages. God, what a loser! This is why that stupid test I took told me I live in a bubble.

I've studied quite a bit of Sanskrit, a little Hebrew and Yiddish, and I spent a couple of months teaching myself Serbian, but I don't really count any of them.

The 11 languages listed above I consider my research languages: I can communicate in them (at least in a basic way), I can read them (though I never really developed literacy in Japanese, having only about 300 kanji under my belt), and I can translate from (most of) them, especially Spanish, Russian, Polish, Latin, German, and French.

The language I wish I spoke much better is Spanish. I adore Spanish. I studied for two years in high school, at least a year at the college level, and for a handful of years on my own or with a tutor. I'm always proud when my high school Spanish saves the day, which happens much more frequently in Germany for some reason.

Speak my language.