Saturday, June 30, 2012

When in Mexico...
(or another Spanish-speaking/reading country)

now finished: El Paraíso en la otra esquina by Mario Vargas Llosa

So obviously I have had Mario Vargas Llosa on my to-read radar (to-readar?) for a while. He's all famous and literary and won the Nobel Prize and stuff, so eventually I would get around to him. But then we showed up in Querétaro and right away I found a book group and they were meeting, like, ten days after I arrived, but hey--why not? I headed to a little bookstore here in the Centro Histórico and picked up a copy of El Paraíso en la otra esquina (translated as The Way to Paradise, more on that in a sec) and plunged into my first Vargas Llosa -- en español! 

Now, I have read quite a few books in Spanish, but mostly young adult books.  I also occasionally read Spanish newspapers. This was kind of a jump in difficulty level, but actually, I could do it! I love reading in a foreign language and I have long since (we're talking decades) known that the way to go about it is not to keep a dictionary there and look up every single word you come across that isn't "Hola" or "agua" or "isla." Just like when you acquire language naturally as a child, you learn things from context and there are many times when at first I am not quite sure what a sentence says, but I read the entire paragraph and then go back and read the paragraph again and the second (or sometimes third) time through it dawns on me. It's as if you can actually feel your brain acquiring language. I love language. This is part of why I enjoy ESL teaching -- and writing, and reading -- language is magical. If humans contributed nothing else to this planet (and at times, this is a premise worth considering), then what we've done with languages is enough to fascinate the eternal universe, I say. 

OK, so back to Vargas Llosa. Famous, always meant to get around to reading him, now I have. They say (I know, who are "they"?) that he's "right-wing" now. I didn't see it in this novel; instead, what I saw was a really fun cynicism about lots of different people in society, with a bit about the seemingly futile struggle to free and liberate the oppressed and also a few sharp jabs at the very wealthy who feel oh-so-entitled to all that they have. 

And then there's Gauguin.
El Paraíso en la otra esquina tells the stories of two people, in alternating chapters: painter Paul Gauguin and his quest to find paradise and a return to the "natural" Eden-like state of humanity, notably in Tahiti, where he paints masterpieces but also "marries" several 14-year-old girls, and Flora Tristán, the grandmother of Gauguin, who travels in France, England, and Peru during the 1830s and 1840s trying to raise the consciousness of workers and to unite women and other oppressed classes in a struggle to be free. Also: she realizes that sex doesn't have to suck (as it did with her husband) when she has a wonderful affair with a woman. This book is very sexy, at times. Politics and art and sex. What more do you need? And as a bonus, there are religious hypocrites. Sometimes Flora gets into it with them: priests, rich bosses who exploit their workers, grande dames of society, and the like. "Dedicar nuestras vidas a ejercer la caridad," some rich women tell her, to which she replies, "No, ustedes no practican la caridad. Distribuyen limosnas, que es muy distinto." (-p.64 of ISBN 978-607-11-0763-3)

I think it's great. Gauguin is a jerk when it comes to the way he treats some people (for example: females) but he is a fascinating character, and that's what we ask for in a novel, no? Also, you can relate to him if you're an artist and traveler, so I was definitely hooked even though I knew his struggle to find paradise was doomed to be doomed. The title refers to a children's game that the real life Gauguin likely played in Peru where the kids ask for paradise and are directed to the other corner (does anyone know this game in real life? and I'm trying to figure out if there is a comparable game anyone I know in the U.S. played?) and for this reason it bothers me that the English title is translated as "The Way to Paradise." Although that captures, for the most part, the quests of Paul Gauguin and Flora
Tristán, it doesn't really capture the way the game is invoked, described, and revisited at the end of the book to come thematically full circle. Why can't titles just be translated literally?! I don't mean translated literally when the word-for-word translation does not evoke the idea, but I mean translated without creating a new meaning. (See also: my rant about Men Who Hate Women with Dragon Tattoos.)

This book also really made me want to go to Peru. I wanted to go there anyway, but this ratcheted it up a few notches.I think it was helpful for my Spanish for me to plunge into a book in Spanish during my first month in Mexico. I still need to read, speak, and write more in Spanish -- a lot  more -- but this was a good kick-start. And I will definitely be reading more Vargas Llosa in the future. The to-readar grows ever more crowded!
Final grade: A-  (Because I'm such a hard grader. It could be an A, maybe. I'll see how it compares to other Vargas Llosa books and then decide for sure.)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dragons and Men

now finished: Brother to Dragons by Robert Penn Warren
next up: something in Spanish, as it happens

Another check off the A-to-Z Literary Blog Project Top Half list: W.  Recall that the first time through the alphabet, I read All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren and he more than made the cut for my A-to-Z Top Half phase II of the project (which also includes A, C, D, E, F, I, L, R, S, U, V, and Y).

I was having a bit of difficulty deciding which Robert Penn Warren to read for my sequel, though. One, because he is not just a novelist but a poet, and he won the Pulitzer for fiction for All the King's Men, but also two, count 'em, two Pulitzers for poetry (Promises in 1958 and Now and Then in 1979). Two, because in all my popping in and out of bookstores and libraries whilst I was in Arizona for three months, I never came across anything of his but AtKM. I was definitely going to have to seek something out, but I couldn't decide what to seek out. He also wrote some other novels...should I try one of those since I will eventually read the Pulitzer-winning poetry on my Pulitzer quest anyway?

And then, on my last possible used books errand running day in Phoenix, just before flying to Queretaro, I was trying to declutter and I took some old books to a couple stores to sell/trade and ended up with a bunch of store credit. I already had a few books to bring to Mexico with me, and I didn't want to add more, but since I had just been gifted a bunch of store credit I thought I should at least see what they had, and right there in the Ws was Robert Penn Warren's Brother to Dragons, of which I had never heard. A sign, you say? Maybe.

Brother to Dragons  is a "tale in verse and voices" -- or was it "voices and verse" -- anyway, it is really not a play at all, although it is poetry. It imagines a variety of real figures and a couple of invented people talking about an event that occurred in the early 1800s:  Thomas Jefferson's nephews brutally murdered and hacked apart one of their slaves.  Apparently, Thomas Jefferson did not comment on this in real life, despite his extensive writing and waxing profound and all that, so you know he felt some of the shame and anger and bewilderment and utter despair at humanity that Robert Penn Warren conjures up in this book.

I really like what he does here. It's a quick read; sure there are parts you'll want to re-read to get more than just the gist, as with any good poetry, but it's less of a time commitment than, say, Beowulf. I found it to be a compelling supplement to my other current reading project of reading a biography of every U.S. president in order to see where we went wrong (a project obviously started during the Dubya administration).

RPW is basically asserting and grappling with his belief that Thomas Jefferson had all these ideas about the nobility of humanity, or even just mankind, and that an evil act such as this pre-meditated murder and mutilation really destroyed some of Jefferson's theory. It is philosophically compelling and filled with interesting poetry. The one weird part about this book is when the slave who nursed the murderer nephew as a baby speaks to him and he spits on the ground as if to spit the very milk he drank from her -- it's weird because they talk, like, really crudely about sucking the teat and whatnot. Other than that jarring section, the book was just good. I heard that RPW revised it and issued a new edition decades later, but I read the original version.

It's such a unique thing to read -- and a few weeks ago I didn't even know it existed! Give it a whirl!
Final Grade: B+

Monday, June 04, 2012

Is a war best served cold?

now finished listening: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman
next up (audio): The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral--and How It Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn

Speaking of not starting the fire (which I did in my last post on this blog), after several months of listening during walks and hikes, I completed my latest audio book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy.

This is a perfect example of the non-fiction subtitles I used to make so much fun of back when I first started working at Borders. It's like, people! You get ONE chance to title the book, OK? Why should you get to title it one thing and then go ahead and put all the things you were trying but failing to convey in your title in a second, sub-title? That bugs me for some reason.

Anyway, I realize that people do not necessarily know what The Dead Hand is, so I am here to tell you that it refers to the Soviet plan to build a facility way below the earth with automated systems that could launch nuclear retaliation in the event that the U.S. wiped out the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. That is, instead of a hand on "the button" launching a nuclear weapon to attack the U.S., all the Soviets would actually be dead but it is like a dead hand holding down the button, launching the Soviet missiles as revenge to the U.S. I am fairly certain that the author is appalled at this very notion, based on the way he talked about it and chose to use it for the title of the book. However, I think that's unfair. This is something that specifically would happen IF and ONLY IF the United States first wiped out the Soviet Union and there are no leaders left alive. I mean, if you're going to be all wtf?!! about it, you might want to at least consider that the U.S. is the truly dastardly one in that scenario.

This book isn't biased in a Fox News way, but it has a hint of that assumption of U.S. rightness that bothers me because I feel it caters to people who accuse anyone who criticizes the U.S. of being a commie or terrorist or whatever. I do give major kudos to David E. Hoffman for pointing out that Mikhail Gorbachev is truly awesome, a smart, even brilliant, leader who deserved major accolades for all he did in history. I love my boy Gorbie! This book also offers a bit of a glimpse at Ronald Reagan's fretting that bordered on paranoia and the fact that Reagan's use of phrases like "evil empire" didn't help matters any.  (Reagan himself reconsidered and later regretted using this phrase, especially once he got to know more and more Russian people.)

Alas, like so much of our public discourse in the U.S. among squawking heads and on the interwebs and whatnot, no one ever considers that the U.S. could actually just be a bad guy, or, even, an average guy who is equally responsible for the stupid-ass nonsense that is war and/or cold war. And that pretty much seems to be David E. Hoffman's position in this book: that the Soviet Union was horribly sinister, secretly making biological weapons and plotting to destroy the world.  He seems to pretty much miss his own (well documented) point that the people who were working in those factories and labs were completely and totally under the impression that the U.S. was also manufacturing biological weapons in violation of international conventions. (Convention as in "signed treaty," not as in "mannerly custom.")  Hoffman spells out how many of the scientists and other workers were decent people and hard workers who were often uninformed and at worst misguided, and even points out how Gorbachev was in the dark on some of this. So why can't Hoffman acknowledge that the U.S., too, occasionally does horrible things because of a few power hungry people who force, cajole, or brainwash others into doing their bidding?  (Exhibit A: Guantanamo. Exhibit B: Iraq. Exhibit C: Taxi to the Dark Side.  Exhibit D: Vietnam.  I could go on...)

And then there's the possibility that the U.S. in fact was also secretly testing and experimenting with various sorts of weapons over the last few decades.... Who, us?! Never, right?  Give me a break.

That said, you can totally learn a lot from this book and it is really, really interesting!  It might be particularly useful for children of the 80s such as myself who came of age as "communism" "fell" and whose introduction to the world of news, government and power was filtered through now-iconic images of Reagan and Gorbachev doing their thing.  Many of the individual Soviets' stories are also fascinating, as are the bits about the "mysterious" anthrax outbreak in the Soviet Union, the off-course Korean passenger airliner shot down because Soviets thought it was a U.S. spy plane (why? because a few months earlier there HAD BEEN an incident there with a U.S. spy plane going over the line, even though we are all innocence and goodness and light of course), the defectors, the flock of geese mistaken for a missile, the George Bush (I) administration that threatened to undo all the good of Reagan/Gorbie, and the tours of the U.S. in the early 1990s in which Soviet verifiers would insist on stopping on some random highway in, like, Kansas or Alabama to check a water tower that they were sure must be holding some biological weapons....but nope, just a water tower.

The Dead Hand is a fascinating book and it won the Pulitzer in 2010 for General Nonfiction. I highly recommend reading it, but I can't highly recommend listening to the audio. I know I am finicky about my audio listening (I have only recently started being able to listen to audio books, while I walk or exercise, and even now I can't listen to fiction -- I hate being read to) but I really didn't care for this narration and it made the book less compelling of an experience for me. I couldn't wait to get back to my favorite narrator (yes, I do have one, and I am pretty much choosing all my audio books right now by only getting ones that he narrates, which unfortunately did not include The Dead Hand.)

Hey, how about we all give peace a chance and stuff?

Sunday, June 03, 2012

We So Didn't Start the Fire

now finished: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves
current audio book listen: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman

Did you know the first "birther" "controversy" wasn't about Barack Obama at all? It was over Chester A. Arthur, U.S. president #21. They tried to claim he was born over the line, in Canada, instead of in northern Vermont. His father was a preacher and the family moved all over New England, living in one town for a year, then moving on to preach elsewhere. Sort of like a military brat, without the weapons and stuff. Sometimes the parents and some of the kids lived in Canada, but not the year Chester A. Arthur was born. So, why'd the anti-Arthur folk say it? Because he was their political enemy, of course!

Those were some particularly nasty Republican politics at that time, due in large part to one Roscoe Conkling, about whom I am going to write a mini-series. When Chester A. Arthur got the nomination to be the Vice President to James A. Garfield's President, enemies of Conkling were pissed. There were so many corrupt back room deals at that time that you know everybody was involved in a political favor for someone or other, but Arthur really hated reporters for badmouthing, spreading false tales in order to further their favorites' cause, etc. At one big gathering, he said:
"I don't think we had better go into the minute secrets of the campaign...reporters [are present]..and while I don't mean to say anything about my birthplace, whether it was in Canada or elsewhere, still, if I should get going about the secrets of the campaign, there is no saying what I might say to make trouble between now and the 4th of March..." - p. 215 of Reeves' Gentleman Boss

He was being sarcastic and angry, but it kind of backfired for seeming like he had something to hide. But really, Arthur was actually quite a gentleman in the face of all the madness. After reading his bio, I feel that he didn't really mean to do any harm. He wasn't a malicious person, but he was more like any of us: he got along with some powerful people, did his job, advanced, gained some money and power, was looked out for by friends, and looked out for some other friends. If you take it out of the realm of politics you realize that you are not all that different. Think of it more like the workplace favorite intern, the Starbucks runs on company time, the little things you do in the course of your life and feel justified in doing because you're smart/you always get your work done/you deserve it. It was like that, with Arthur.  

I've basically been reading about these events from the perspective of several people: #19 Rutherford B. Hayes (my boy!), #20 James A. Garfield (he's got issues) and now #21, Arthur. Besides further inspiration for my mini-series, I took other things away from this book. Once again, as has happened in a few of the recent prez bios, I read a bit about how the Panama Canal almost went across Nicaragua instead. I read about the U.S. getting all up in an exploratory business endeavor in the heart of Africa, prompting James Blaine (enemy of Conkling) to say:

"How can we maintain the Monroe Doctrine when we take part in conferences on the internal affairs of other continents? We shall either be told some day to mind our own business or else be forced to admit governments to participation in the questions affecting America."  - p. 403 of Gentleman Boss 

How interesting it would be to see what these guys would have to say, today. I think these Republicans of the 1870s and 1880s may not have gone oil hunting under the sands of every country in Asia, lying willy-nilly to the American public as Dubya, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the like have done. I think these Republicans would have found it shameful that the big business bosses of the U.S. couldn't come up with awesome companies, oil or otherwise, on their own without the government launching a few invasions on their behalf, killing thousands and tramping all over liberty and justice for all.  Arthur liked to act classy. Dubya might have given him a heart attack.

Unfortunately, Arthur was sick (kidney stuff) during his time in office, and he had no plans to run for another term after being thrust into office against his desires in the first place when Garfield was assassinated. Although Arthur redeemed himself nicely during his time in the White House, going from being seen as part of the corrupter-than-corrupt New York Conkling scene to being a man who actually told his friends "No!" in order to maintain the dignity and honor of the presidency, he soon left the political stage and died shortly thereafter.

All in all, he was an interesting man, and one of the few in my last run of bios who actually wanted to get out of the Civil War instead of continuing in its madness and violence. Another reason I don't think he would go a-slaughterin' for oil and lies, were he alive today.

Finally, in yet another the-more-things-change example, let's see what those Gilded Age Republicans had to say about the Democrats of their day:

"The defeat reopened a serious split among Democrats and reinforced the conviction of Republicans that their opponents were unfit for national authority. 'There is something the matter with the Democratic side,' thought Theodore Lyman. 'There are some able and very many honest men over there, but they have no unity of action, nor ruling ideas.'"  - p. 382 of Reeves (Lyman quoted in Morgan's From Hayes to McKinley)

It's been a long string of Republican leaders, with only Andrew Johnson (who gets a really bad rap) to break up the monotony since James Buchanan. Now, it's time to see what Grover Cleveland will do with this opportunity.  Hint: he's the president famous for serving two non-consecutive terms. Guess there's more contesting and dissatisfaction coming up!