Saturday, September 20, 2008

Deathtrap Sidewalks of Buenos Aires

buenos_aires_sept_20_2008 094

Not that anyone asked for photographic documentation or anything, but my readers deserve to know the truth:

las veredas más peligrosas del mundo

Tributes to David Foster Wallace

My good friend Ginnie, over at the goodreads site, has put together a list of links of tributes to David Foster Wallace. In her words:

McSweeney's has a terrific page of memories and tributes from fellow writers and former students of Wallace's from Pomona College

Here is Time magazine.

Here is the Guardian UK.

Here is DFW's delightful 2006 New York Times piece on Roger Federer,

and also "Host," his fantastic 2005 piece about right-wing hate radio, from the Atlantic.

Here is Wallace interviewed on Charlie Rose from about ten years ago.
rose interview

And here is a huge obit roundup on the DFW fan site, Howling Fantods.

DFW's 2005 commencement address at Ohio's Kenyon College is being re-posted everywhere, and is just terrifically worthy of your time, if you're so inclined.
commencement address

Finally, Harper's magazine has graciously posted every DFW piece they ever ran, in PDF, including the famed "Shipping Out."

Reading it again now, the reality seems even truer, even more heartbreaking, than ever. The world of words just won't be the same without him.

Breakfast in Buenos Aires

breakfast in buenos aires

All for a lousy three bucks. And that coffee cup is enormous!

Animals of the Christian Theme Park

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For some unfathomable reason, the charming photo set, Animals of the Christian Theme Park , has received only a single viewing thus far. These poor, neglected, hideously ugly, papier-mâché critters need attention.

Won't you please pay them a visit?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Palabras nuevas

conejillo de Indias : a guinea pig (literally, "little rabbit of the Indies"; compare with the German "Meerschweinchen", or "little pig of the sea"). All of these terms seem inaccurate to some degree, for an animal that is neither pig nor rabbit, nor particularly pelagic, Indian nor from Guinea.

choripan : a hot dog in a bun (derived from chorizo and pan)
pancho : a hot dog in a bun (also derived from pan and chorizo)

gauchesco : the language of the gauchos (see later entry on Martín Fierro).

cafisho : Lunfardo for "pimp"
lobisón : a werewolf, or the Argentine version thereof (metamorphoses into a cross between a pig and a wild dog, as there are no wolves in Argentina); the transformation occurs every Friday at midnight, independently of the phase of the moon. Favorite diet is "excrementos" of every type, spiced up occasionally with the flesh of an unbaptized infant. As noted previously, being a lobisón is the fate of any seventh consecutive male child*. Physically, the untransformed lobisón is thin, subject to digestive ailments, with a propensity for staying in bed on Saturdays. Not terribly surprising, given his nocturnal activities on Fridays.

*For extra credit: Juan and Begoña are a Patagonian couple with five strapping sons (and no daughters). Given that they are devout practising Catholics and have two further children, what is the probability that their seventh child is a lobisón?

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Due to some faulty translation work, yesterday's post conveyed the erroneous impression that the Argentine owl, Buo Magellanicus, was capable of magnetizing cats and other domestic animals. More careful research suggests that the Thpanish word "magnetizar" actually means "to hypnotize". Thus the phenomenon in question should more correctly be classified as a form of avian hypnotism. While it could be argued that a type of animal magnetism is involved, it is not the case that affected cats can be used as refrigerator magnets, or as a good luck measure in card games, as yesterday's post implied, also erroneously.

We apologize for any inconvenience caused by this regrettable error. Please rest assured that the faulty translator will be severely castigated.

The management.

The Plain People of Ireland: Sinéad! Put down that cat! Turns out yer man has it wrong again.
(fade to the sound of background feline shrieking...)
The Management: sigh...

Oenological Report

don david 1

When I saw this in the supermarket, I had to buy it. Not just your average supermarket plonk either - it set me back a full 32 pesos.

A full report will follow in due course.

Don David.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Today's Haul

At lunchtime today, I went all out and splurged at the bookstore, spending a full 100 pesos, or 33 US dollars. As you can imagine, this netted me a pretty good haul, pictured below:

sept17 014

The jewel in the crown of this collection was undoubtedly the delightful "Supersticiones y Leyendas en la Argentina", about which I will have much more to say in a future post.

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For now, let me just finish with a couple of questions.

Did you know

  • that the owl Buo magellanicus has the ability to magnetize cats and other domestic animals?
  • that the black crow is an augur of rain and should never be shot, because the rifle will stay damp for ever after?
  • that rubbing your thumbs with a magnet brings good luck at cards? (presumably if you don't have a magnet to hand you might try rubbing your thumbs with a cat or other domestic animal that has been magnetized by an owl)
  • that the seventh of seven consecutive sons is doomed to be a lobisón, or werewolf? On the distaff side, the seventh consecutive daughter would, of course, be a witch.
  • that if the idiot girl next to me in the internet cafe doesn't quit her vacuous high-pitched giggling, I may have to kill her?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A City of Readers

a culture of reading

I've mentioned, ad nauseam, how inexpensive books are here in Buenos Aires. The picture above depicts one of the factors contributing to this phenomenon. Beginning on Saturday, readers of "La Nación", one of the two main papers here in Buenos Aires (the other is "El Clarín"), will have the option of picking up one of Isabel Allende's novels with their paper, at a special price of only 16.90 pesos, or about 5.50 US dollars. If past experience with similar promotions is any guide, by Christmas time one will be able to pick up Allende's books in any of the many bookstores on the Avenida Corrientes for only 10 pesos apiece.

It's promotions like this one that have enabled me to pick up the works of Borges for 10 pesos a book, classical CD recordings for 6 pesos apiece. This type of promotion was also very common in Madrid, though the prices were a bit higher. It generally supports the notion that the newspaper readers of Buenos Aires are a fairly cultured bunch. Certainly more so than their counterparts in San Francisco, or almost any other U.S. city one might care to mention - I could never imagine this happening in the United States. Time-Life books, and certain Reader's Digest classical music collections come to mind, but from a bygone age, and I doubt any newspaper could pull it off in their local city.

Further anecdotal evidence of a more deeply entrenched local reading habit is provided by Rafael, the waiter (mozo) at my favorite local restaurant, who gives me regular recommendations on what I should be reading. (As well as a remarkable impromptu discussion of the relative merits of Borges and Cortázar, the two giants of 20th century Argentine literature, which came completely out of the blue on Friday evening; remarkable both for the cogency of the points he made, as well as the passion with which he made them). Nestor, doorman of the building in which the school is located (i.e. just a regular midtown office building), has also come through with some excellent recommendations.

Maybe I've just been lucky. Maybe I'm unconsciously filtering my experiences to fit some preconceived notion of a highly literate local population. But I don't think so - the dozens of books stores within eight or ten blocks of my home also suggest otherwise.

A booklover's paradise. Which is to say, an enormous occasion of sin* for yours truly. One that extends for miles in every direction.

*: a technical Catholic term, meaning a source of great temptation from which a good Catholic should immediately extract himself. (Not a chance)

MEAT!!!!! (It's what's for dinner)


lots of meat!!

Personally, it'll be a cold day in hell before you catch me putting something called "MONDONGO" in my mouth. It sounds so ...... NASTY..... somehow. And - let's be honest here - "CHÍNCHULÍN" doesn't sound a whole lot better, does it now?

Monday, September 15, 2008

At the theme park

Things started out normally enough yesterday afternoon. As I left the apartment, my plan was straightforward - head for the Japanese garden in Palermo, in search of a little serenity. An hour later, I felt like I had stumbled into a bad Graham Greene novel. What was I doing wandering around "Tierra Santa", Buenos Aires' incredibly bizarre Christian theme park? Why were the park staff dressed like mujahadeen? What was the significance of the number 37? Why was the oddly flirtatious Armenian lady at the concession stand offering to read my fortune in the dregs of the bitter-tasting Armenian coffee I had - perhaps foolishly - just consumed? Was there a Viennese Ferris Wheel somewhere in my immediate future?

Well, no. Apparently not. The number 37 bus took me right back to Cordoba Street where I had boarded it in the first place. But if there is a moral to the story it is surely - when someone (in this case, the porter in the apartment building) suggests to you that you really have to visit this "historical theme park" that is "lo mas lindo que hay en todo Buenos Aires" (the most beautiful attraction in all of B.A.), do a little more homework before taking the bait. This might have revealed, for example, that "historical" was apparently code for "Christian", and that beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

The place is enormous. Right by the airport. With that kind of bizarrely hideous ugliness that ends up having a fascinating charm of its own. The photos are on Flickr. Judge for yourself. I omitted those with the most blatantly obnoxious Catholic flavour.

It was a strange afternoon. But there was belly dancing, falafels, and remarkably good baklava. And the manger sound-and-light show was impressive enough in its own way. I skipped the Creation show. The Crucifixion too. Lines were long, even though you would think people know how it all turned out.

christian_theme_park 012

Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace, RIP

The American author David Foster Wallace, probably the most brilliant of his generation, hanged himself at his home in Pomona, California, on Friday evening. He was 46 years old. When I read this, I was chilled, and deeply saddened. To explain why, I include below reviews I wrote of two of his books ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" and "Consider the Lobster").

Not all of Wallace's writing worked for me - I definitely preferred his collections of shorter pieces. "Oblivion" and "Girl with the Curious Hair" are also well worth reading; I found the bleakness of "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" too much to bear, and would be afraid to read it again, given the author's suicide. But even when he failed, he did so magnificently, in my opinion. There was an exuberant, over-the-top quality to his writing that was never less than exciting.

Consider The Lobster

Full disclosure: I have a major intellectual crush on David Foster Wallace. Yes, yes, I know all about his weaknesses - the digressions, the rampant footnote abuse, the flaunting of his amazing erudition, the mess that is 'Infinite Jest'. I know all this, and I don't care. Because when he is in top form, there's nobody else I would rather read. The man is hilarious; I think he's a mensch, and I don't believe he parades his erudition just to prove how smart he is. I think he can't help himself - it's a consequence of his wide-ranging curiosity. At heart he's a geek, but a charming, hyper-articulate geek. Who is almost frighteningly smart.

The pieces in “Consider the Lobster” have appeared previously in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Observer, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Harper’s, Gourmet, and Premiere magazines. Among them are short meditations on Updike’s ‘Toward the end of Time’, on Dostoyevsky, on Kafka’s humor, and on the ‘breathtakingly insipid autobiography’ of tennis player Tracy Austin. An intermediate length piece describes Foster Wallace’s (eminently sane) reaction to the attacks of September 11th. Each of these shorter essays is interesting, but the meat and potatoes of the book is in the remaining five, considerably longer, pieces. They are:

Big Red Son: a report on the 1998 Adult Video News awards (the Oscars of porn) in Las Vegas.
Consider the Lobster: a report on a visit to the annual Maine Lobster Festival (for Gourmet magazine).
Host: a report on conservative talk radio, based on extensive interviews conducted with John Ziegler, host of “Live and Local” on Southern California’s KFI.
Up Simba: an account of seven days on the campaign trail with John McCain in his 2000 presidential bid (for Rolling Stone).
Authority and American Usage: a review of Bryan Garner’s “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage” , which serves as a springboard for a terrific exegesis of usage questions and controversies.

Here’s what I like about David Foster Wallace’s writing: I know of nobody else who writes as thoughtfully and intelligently. That he manages to write so informatively, with humor and genuine wit, on almost any subject under the sun is mind-blowing – it’s also why I am willing to forgive his occasional stylistic excesses. (Can you spell ‘footnote’?) You may not have a strong interest in lobsters or pornography, but the essays in question are terrific. The reporting on Ziegler and McCain is amazingly good, heartbreakingly so, because it makes the relative shallowness of most other political reporting painfully evident. Finally, the article on usage is a tour de force – when it first appeared in Harper’s, upon finishing it, I was immediately moved to go online and order a copy of Garner’s book (which is just as good as DFW promised).

How can you not enjoy an essay that begins as follows?

"Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near Lewinskian scale?

....... (several other rhetorical questions) ......

Did you know that US lexicography even had a seamy underbelly? "

And which later contains sentences such as:
"Teachers who do this are dumb.
This argument is not quite the barrel of drugged trout that Methodological Descriptivism was, but it’s still vulnerable to objections."
and – my personal favorite –
"This is so stupid it practically drools. "

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

David Foster Wallace is one awesomely smart guy. This is both his greatest strength and his potential Achilles heel as a writer. Personally, I will read anything this man writes, because I think he is a true genius with a rare sense of compassion, and a hilarious sense of humor. Even when his writing falls victim to its own cleverness, I still find it worthwhile - perhaps because one senses that the writer is a true mensch (not something I feel when being dazzled by the cleverness of a Dave Eggers, for instance).

Oh hell, I want to be seated next to DFW on a long transpacific flight subject to major delays, OK? I have an enormous intellectual crush on this man. And when I cavil, it is done out of love, pure and simple. But when discussing this book of his, caviling would simply be out of place. It contains two of the funniest essays I have ever read in my life (the descriptions of his experiences on a cruise liner and at the state fair, respectively). I think you should buy your own copy, because I certainly am not going to loan you mine.

May he, and his family and friends, find peace. The world is poorer for his death.