Saturday, August 8, 2009

At the pre-Columbian musuem

A little group of us from school went yesterday afternoon in lieu of class. And a fine museum it turned out to be - spacious, well laid out, full of some really nifty stuff. Although the setup was not ideal for taking pictures (no flash allowed, and it's very hard to get the exposure long enough without wobbling in such circumstances), I did manage a few.

In my mind, I had been spelling the name of the museum as 'pre-Colombian', which makes no sense when you think about it; the correct spelling is that in the title of this post, as its contents were all artefacts from the time before the European 'discovery' of the Americas. I really enjoyed the visit. Here were some of my favorite exhibits -

Intimidating, but cool

preColumbian statistics

pre-Columbian statistics

cool preColumbian ceramics

stylin' pre-columbian headgear

I crave one of these little horned hats!

The totally stylin' pre-Columbian headgear was da bomb! Especially the little pointy-horned hats! You have no idea how much I crave one of these.

A book to be thrown aside with great force

Dreadful excuse for a book

Who knew jellyfish could write? I'd use the word "emasculated" to describe the author of this pathetic "short history of Chile" if it weren't obvious that to do so would be a grievous inaccuracy. Sergio Villalobos Rivera never had cojones to begin with. Hell, on the evidence, SVR doesn't even have a backbone. Which may warrant the creation of a new bookshelf in my collection - one for "written by invertebrates".

OK, OK. Let me back up. All I was looking for was a "brief history of Chile", as the title of this execrable "book" promised. Enough to get me oriented, so that I wouldn't feel like a complete tourist-bozo during my weeks here in Santiago. Enough to distinguish Ambrosio O' Higgins from his progeny, Bernardo. And maybe to figure out just why the latter is known all about town as "El libertador", even to the extent of having Santiago's main drag named after him. (Understanding why and when the O' Higginses left Ireland would have been lagniappe, as would any available information about Viscount Mackenna, after whom the street where my school is located is named).

Now, believe me, I understand completely that your average reader of this blog probably gives a flying Wallenda about the history of Chile. (Though if you were a U.S. citizen of voting age back in 1973, you might want to ask yourself if such insouciance is wholly justifiable, know what I'm saying?). But please bear with me here. If I don't get some of the incensitude that this "book" has provoked off my chest, I may just blow a gasket. And I shudder to think what Kaiser Permanente's coverage of gasket replacement in a Latin American capital might be.

What's so appalling about this book? Well, everything, really. Here's a short list:

* Despite its 200-page length, it's virtually devoid of information. There's a plethora of generic, meaningless, illustrations which help to take up space, but add nothing whatsoever. Examples: page 78, woodcuts of "mujeres chilenas" in quasi-national garb; page 73, drawing of generic pirate ships; page 66, peasants using wooden ploughs; page 67, a generic grain mill; page 117, drawing of a gentleman in the costume of the era; page 124 drawing of an impoverished peasant; page 114, a ball in the governor's palace; page 93, woodcut of the "building of the tribunal of the consulate", page 58, daily life under the conquistadors. Any of these freaking illustrations could be inserted into the history of any 'brief history" of any Latin American country and nobody would be any the wiser.

* Such text as there is in the book has the texture of cotton wool. Cliche follows platitude follows cliche follows platitude. After a couple pages, you have to stop, because you can actually feel your brain rotting inside your head.

* That spineless quality, alluded to earlier. The fall of the government of Allende is dispatched in less than a paragraph. the atrocities that followed under Pinochet get fewer than 3 lines, including the desultory observation that "more than 3000" people died. The closest Sergio ("Medusa") V-R comes to expressing anything approximating a point of view is to allow that the political situation in 1973 was "very confusing".

"Bah, humbug!", say I. If you are incapable of formulation an opinion, dumbass, then you are not qualified to be writing history books.

On the plus side, I only paid $8 for this piece of basura. But, to put it another way - I PAID 8 DOLLARS FOR THIS PIECE OF TIME-WASTING RUBBISH?

Caveat lector. If, for whatever reason, you are interested in learning more about the history of Chile, be assured you won't find anything pertinent here.

Gaaaaah! Fade, to the sound of gaskets blowing....

Friday, August 7, 2009

Operation Baked Goods (Santiago Update)

A surprisingly strong showing from the Chilean capital, as suggested by these pictures:

agosto 045

agosto 048

Obligatory coin update

possibly the least valuable coin in existence

Witness the coin near the top of this photo. It is a Chilean peso and must be, by my reckoning, one of the least valuable coins in existence. 540 of these might buy you a U.S. dollar, if the exchange rate is favorable. One wonders why they even bother minting them.

The gentleman whose profile is featured on the coin in question appears to be Bernardo O' Higgins (my eyesight is not good enough to be able to tell with certainty), who is also known around these parts as "El Libertador". I will have more to say about Bernardo, and his pa, Ambrosio O' Higgins, in a future post.

santiago1 101

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Home, sweet (former), home

Since I appear to be in full-blown nostalgia mode, here is a picture of the house I grew up in, taken when my sister and I were revisiting old haunts during our visit to Ireland in May

house we grew up in

It's the red-roofed bungalow in the background.

Hooters comes to Starbucks

The downtown shopping area in Santiago's city centre approximates what you would find in any major metropolis - several blocks of relatively pleasant pedestrianized streets, flanked by department stores, fast food restaurants, specialty shops of various kinds. Including many coffeeshops.

Should you enter one of these latter establishments in search of a cuppa joe, however, there the resemblance ends. Because Santiago is host to a phenomenon that, to my knowledge, is duplicated in no other world capital - that known as 'cafe con piernas' - literally 'coffee with legs'. Enter one of these downtown cafes and you will be greeted by the sight of clusters of lecherous businessmen being served their coffee by baristas decked out in what can only be described as the Latin American equivalent of the Playboy bunny suit. They may not have the little bobtail, but there is at least as much fresh female flesh on display.

Where does this somewhat odd custom originate? Thus far, despite the best efforts of our MOTP research staff, no satisfactory explanation has been found.

Hey, we just report the facts on this blog. We don't control them.

The plain people of Ireland: You don't have any, you know, pictures, do you, by any chance?
MOTP management: How did I know this would get your attention, ye salacious wretches!? No, I do not. Now, be quiet, before I alert Nuala.
The plain people of Ireland: Yerra, sure, there's no need for that. We were just asking, like.
MOTP management: Sigh.

Remembrance of times past

As I sit here, nursing my cup of instant Nescafe espresso, sweetened with several heaping spoons of sugar, and a shot of condensed milk, fiddling with the menacing "heating system" (see earlier post for photographic details), I am strongly reminded of my days as an undergraduate at that fine institution of higher learning, University College, Cork. Perhaps it's the unabashed 70's flavour of the rented apartment, (tiled floor, inadequate heating, generally shoddy construction, furniture that is straight from the seventies, both in its design and colouring). The Nescafe definitely acts as some kind of Proustian trigger, as does the chocolate biscuit I am eating as accompaniment.

Throughout the seventies, there was what appeared to be an unending ad campaign by Cadbury's on Irish TV for one kind of chocolate-covered biscuit confection after another, usually depicting some demoralized kind of bank clerk woman, who would arrive home to her somewhat bleak-looking lodgings, only to give herself up to a moment of instant, orgasmic bliss as she bit in to whatever chocolatey treat was being peddled. The subliminal message was entirely clear, and as subtle as a bulldozer - even if your life is completely humdrum and you live in a hellhole, there is sweet instant relief to be found in a Cadbury's product. It is hardly coincidental that the space given over to sweets and biscuits in your average Irish supermarket of the era would have astounded even the most jaded American consumer. The subsequent havoc wrought on Irish dentition in people of my generational cohort is likely to keep future archaeologists speculating for many a long year.

So here I sit, half-thinking I should be studying for my honours maths exams in September. Only by turning on the TV, tuned to the latest breaking news on CNN Chile, am I able to dispel the overpowering sense of deja vu.

Truth be told, there's something oddly comforting about the whole situation.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

La vida cotidiana en Chile

Isolated observations:

A standard feature on menus around here is to go all out and order your main course "a lo pobre". This means that your chunk of meat or fish will come garnished with a couple of fried eggs, some onions, and a heap of french fries. Though it can be suprisingly tasty, it doesn't seem like the healthiest of options. Overall, food here is inexpensive and pretty good, though unadventurous (which I personally am in favor of). Vegetables and salads don't feature prominently, though the situation is nowhere near as extreme as it was in Argentina last year.

The infirmity formerly known as swine 'flu has obviously done a number on travel to Chile (and from what I can gather, to Argentina as well). Enrolment at school is at an all-time low, and most restaurants do not seem to be thriving either. Though, presumably one has to make allowance for the fact that it is the dead of winter. (Note to self: why this habit of visiting the southern hemisphere right in the middle of winter - it would be entirely possible to avoid the oppressive summer heat by e.g. travelling in the spring or fall).

I had begun to give up on newspapers here altogether (the local dailies are pretty uninteresting, for the most part, being a little too local for my taste), when after a week I had still been unable to track down a copy of "El Pais" (which was ubiquitous and cheaply available both in Buenos Aires and in Mexico). Finally, this morning, I snagged a copy at a downtown kiosk while showing Brad around. But - que horror - I had to pay about $4 for a copy of yesterday's paper. And a pretty watered-down copy at that. Oh well, things will improve on this front once I get to Buenos Aires.

Brad arrived last night in the middle of the night, after an exhausting flight. We both agree that it's taken longer to get here than anywhere else either of us has ever been. But, to end with a resounding cliche, no pain, no gain.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Book Review : Mrs Dalloway

In a remote region of my mind there exists a bookcase. It’s labeled “authors I really should read more of”, and it is – as you might imagine – gigantic. There’s a philosophy corner, where Plato, Kant, and Wittgenstein, among others, are engaged in a bull session for the ages. A.S. Byatt, and Grace Paley share a shelf with Turgenev, Chekhov, and Gogol, right next door to China Mieville, Roberto Bolano, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie. Up on one of the higher shelves there’s the Nobel niche – Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Octavio Paz are hanging out with Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Becket has a spot there, but he usually prefers the French quarter, boozing it up with Balzac, Rabelais, Dumas, Hugo, and Colette. And that’s not even the half of it.

Let's be clear. This is a virtual bookcase. It exists only in my mind. Which is a good thing - because it's so completely chock-a-block that, if it existed physically, it would immediately collapse under its own weight. Even thinking about it triggers all kinds of guilt-related synapses. How can I consider myself a true reader when I haven’t read Rabelais? When my acquaintance with Dumas and Hugo is based solely on Saturday morning cartoons and heartwarming Broadway musicals? All the hip kids have read Bolano – why haven’t I?

Sporadically, as some kind of vague gesture in the fight against entropy, I try to tidy things up a little by removing a few authors. This requires me to actually read at least one work by the authors in question, to determine whether they merit transfer to the “authors I want to read more of” shelf or get consigned to the “a little goes a long way” depository. Last month, against all expectations, Henry James made the transition from the “should read more” to the “want to read more” shelf, on the basis of “The Ambassadors”.

Recently, I came across a bargain copy of “Mrs Dalloway”, so I figured it was time to give Virginia Woolf a try. I’d tried “To the Lighthouse” a few times, but never managed to get through it. I’m glad to report that “Mrs Dalloway” was a treat from start to finish – I loved this book. Which is a little unusual, because normally I tend to prefer novels where the plotting is strong, and there is no plot to speak of in “Mrs D”. It was written in 1924, just two years after the publication of “Ulysses”. Joyce may have been the first to use stream-of-consciousness, but it’s hard to argue that he did so successfully – large chunks of "Ulysses" are essentially unreadable, and for much of the book he seems primarily concerned with showing off his own cleverness.

In “Mrs Dalloway”, Woolf gets stream-of-consciousness right. In a deliberate break from established literary tradition, the structure of the book is unorthodox. The action is minimal: the book simply tracks the progress of the main characters across a single day in post World War I London. The narrative changes point of view continuously throughout the book, presenting the different characters’ thoughts and reactions. What amazed me about the book is its richness – though it seems as if we learn very little about a given character in any particular episode in the story, by the end we realize that Woolf’s characterization is brilliant. None of the main characters in the story is particularly likeable, but they are all completely credible and vividly realized. I’m not sure how exactly Woolf pulls this off – some kind of combination of presenting just the salient detail and inviting the reader inside the characters’ heads. Maybe it’s just alchemy. But she certainly manages to make the (often mundane) details of the characters’ lives interesting.

The other aspect of the book that delighted me was the writing. Although the “stream-of-consciousness” narrative entails occasionally complex sentence structure, it’s fairly easy to read, and there are many passages that are simply terrific.

I’m really not explaining this very coherently. I don’t quite know why I liked “Mrs Dalloway” as much as I did. I’ve never read anything else like it. In the end, maybe that’s reason enough for you to consider giving it a shot.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Book Review : "The Scarlet Pimpernel"

I read this concurrently with Victoria Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway". Mrs D. has no plot to speak of -- its virtues are in the characterization and the writing. "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is the direct opposite - its whole point is the plot. The characters are more or less your generic swashbuckling regulars, and the writing ranges from tolerable to truly atrocious.

But perhaps it's a little unfair to burden "The Scarlet Pimpernel" with exalted literary expectations. First and foremost, it's an adventure story. And a damned good one. The Baroness can't be faulted for her handling of the plot - it's hard to see how it could be improved. Great setup, excellent pacing, satisfying ending.

Now, a picky, caviling person might be tempted to find fault with certain aspects of the telling of the story - the unremitting evil of the satanic bad guy, the unbridled nobility of all those British gents, all those revolutionary froggies spouting "Sacres aristos!", with their British counterparts expostulating "Zounds!" and "Odd's life!" in every other line of dialog. Others might complain about this, but I don't. See, for this kind of story, I like my villains villainy. I lap up the cliched historical detail. If there hadn't been a scene with coarse Parisian proles knitting at the guillotine, I'd have felt cheated. And any swashbuckling aristocrat story worth its salt had better have some nobleman whose last name begins with ff. So I enjoyed these aspects of the book just fine.

I'd only have two gentle criticisms for the Baroness:
1. Was it absolutely necessary to name the doddering Jewish character Reuben Goldstein? The word "overkill" didn't cross your mind at all?
2. Why did you make Marguerite such a half-wit? A woman that slow on the uptake wouldn't be able to dress herself in the morning. Though I could imagine her being played by Anne Heche.

But, all things considered, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is a fine book, well worth giving a whirl. I can see no particular reason to read any of its many sequels, however.

Book Review: "The Ambassadors" by Henry James

This is Daisy Fuentes Miller, reporting to you live from the set of MTV’s “Real World Gay Paree”. Six strangers, from totally different backgrounds, thrown together, forced to live under the merciless glare of the Hankcam, which documents their every move for posterity. Let’s see what happens when the gloves come off, and things get real.

Strether: Hi. I’m Strether. I’m engaged to Chad’s mom. She’s pissed at him, and sent me over to bring him back to Connecticut to run the family business. Paree sure seems like an awesome party town.
Chad: This is the Chadster. I don’t wanna go back to Connecticut. I’m dating this totally hot older lady. Who’s a countess. She’s been giving me some private life coaching lessons. If you know what I mean.
Countess: ‘allo. Zis is Marie. you can call me Countess Cougar. Sacre bleu, but you American boys are fine!
Strether: Damn, that countess is one hot MILF. Chad – no rush about going home. We should just hang out here in Paris and par-tay!

6 weeks later -

Sarah: This is Sarah, Chad’s older sister. What the f*** is going on here? Strether, you’ve been over six weeks already. Mother sent me over. She wants you both to haul ass back to Connecticut, pronto. (You can ignore my fat philistine slob of a husband, Jim. He’s only here to provide a cheap diversion as a lazy stereotype and adds nothing to the plot)
Chad: Chill, sis. This is my girlfriend Marie. Ain’t she smokin? Did I mention she’s a countess?
Sarah: Filthy French slut! Chad, Mother expects you to do your duty.
Strether: Dude, don’t go! It’s a trap.
Sarah: You be quiet! And you can forget about marrying Mother. Which means you’ll die lonely and poor.
Strether: Bite me. Your mother always was one uptight bitch, anyway. I’ll just stay on here. Maybe catch a little menage-a-trois action with Chad and the Countess.
Chad : Not gonna happen, dude! Sis, tell Mom to take the job and shove it. I’m having too much fun tapping aristocratic ass here in Paree. Screw Connecticut.

2 weeks later -

Strether (alone in the confessional room): So Sarah and Jim are on the way back home, with no hanging Chad. My life is totally screwed up. But at least I can be happy about getting Chad to do the right thing, to avoid the money trap, and to choose life!

2 weeks later -

Chad (alone in the confessional room, very drunk): You know, I’ve always thought that advertising was where the future is at..... And, there's no two ways about it, Marie's boobs have definitely been showing some major saggage .... Operator! Get me the number for the Cunard line, please.

Fade, to the sound of Strether whimpering pathetically, off-camera. (Marie, of course, goes on to star in the breakout Bravo series, “Real Housewives of the 4th arrondissement”).


OK, I'll come clean and admit that I’ve had a definite prejudice against Henry James for as long as I can remember. But reading Colm Toibin’s “The Master” last month made me think I should give him another try. “The Ambassadors” certainly confirmed my belief in the brilliance of Toibin’s accomplishment. It also changed my opinion of James – though I doubt I’ll ever achieve fanboy status, it was a far more interesting read than I had anticipated. In “The Master”, Toibin gives us a portrait of James in mid-career, focusing on the period between 1895 and 1900. It’s eerily well done – it’s almost as if he were channeling the spirit of James. Although Toibin is an avowed fan, his depiction of the author seems scrupulously honest and right on the mark. The picture of Henry that emerges is not entirely flattering – that of someone who is fascinated by the workings of the very privileged segment of society into which he was born, with a keen, almost obsessive, eye for the subtleties and complexities of the relationships among the various players, and the talent, determination (and free time) to document it in his writing. Even if that came at a certain emotional cost. In James’s case, that cost appears to have been an inability (or unwillingness) to form truly deep emotional attachments. There seems to have been a pattern of his withdrawing emotionally whenever another person threatened to come too close. This was a man who lived far too much of his life in his own head.

It shows in the writing, of course. Every detail of every character’s action, no matter how minor, is picked apart and analyzed. Characters are presented as being engaged in endless analysis and speculation about how to interpret the actions and motives of others. And if it takes a page and a half to pin down the precise nuance of A’s reaction to a casual snub by B, then so be it – James always assumes that the reader has both the time and interest to stay with him. The odd thing is that, although this can be a little offputting at the beginning, ultimately it becomes kind of hypnotic. He is so clearly fascinated by the inner world of his characters that he ultimately draws you in. The plot of “The Ambassadors” is wafer-thin. But the author’s focus on the psychology of his characters is so intense (and so believable) that one is motivated to keep on reading. This was not a dull book.

Much is made of Henry James’s style, and I just don’t get it. This is a man who never met a subordinate clause he didn’t like, with a definite preference for the baroque. Hemingway he’s not. But his penchant for convoluted sentences means that he’s not particularly easy to read. On any given page, there is likely to be at least one sentence that you will have to read three times over, and still not be sure you understand what he was trying to say. (He has a way of nesting negative particles in his various subordinate clauses that is particularly evil – I’d find myself counting them on my fingers, trying to figure things out). Stylistically, the writer he reminds me most of is Thomas Mann, who also had a penchant for long, complicated sentences. At least James wasn’t writing in German, so there is a limit to how convoluted things get. Personally, I don’t consider opacity to be a virtue. YMMV.

A book that was far more interesting than I had anticipated, and which definitely changed my mind about Henry James.

My true colours are just dust in the wind

The original post scheduled for this slot - some pseudo-profound musings about the poetry of Pablo Neruda - has been pre-empted, and will be brought to you at a later date.

But earlier this evening, I ventured forth, with the original intent of going to see "La Edad de Hielo III" (Ice Age 3) at the Cine Hoyt. When I actually got to the cinema, however, it became obvious to me that I wasn't quite up for yet another movie with cute talking 3-dimensional animals, so I wandered off in search of dinner instead.

And found what turned out to be, despite its unlikely appearance, the perfect restaurant. Not so much because of the delicious filet mignon and accompanying house salad (an excellent value at only $14, including the delightful pisco sour aperitif). Not even because of the extremely charming waiter (just the right degree of solicitude, without any of that intrusive hovering that the sight of a foreigner can sometimes provoke). No, the genius of this particular establishment was to be found on the television screens, which showed a loop of all the best MTV videos you've seen in your life.

Starting with Simon and Garfunkel ("hello darkness, my old friend"), moving on through various classics ("Careless Whisper", John Bon Jovi emoting his sweaty heart out, Cyndi Lauper, Phil Collins, "Lady in Red"), it was an instant transport back to the period of one's life when these songs MATTERED. All of a sudden, I was back in the cluster home in Chapel Hill, sitting slackjawed in front of the large-screen TV, watching video after video, secure in the guilty pleasure of ignoring the untackled dissertation topic that awaited me in the bedroom. Something, I regret to report, that I did for a period of at least six months, before conscience and the indignation of my out-of-town thesis adviser finally forced me to go cold turkey on the music videos and turn my reluctant attention to the subject of robust estimation in heteroscedastic regression models.

But what a fine six months they were. And how amazing to find the cheap power of those music videos in no way diminished. Like so many emotional triggers, they just kept firing tonight. As Phil Collins might have put it, there was "something in the air".

I thought for sure, when that apotheosis of emotionally manipulative pseudo-profundity, Kansas's "Dust in the Wind", came on, that the evening had reached its zenith. But no, just as the mozero served my cafe cortado, there she was:

"Turn around...."

Surely not? How awesomely perfect!

"Turn around, bright eyes ...."

Yes indeed, gentle reader. It was Bonnie herself, with the full 7-minute version.

"We're living in a powder keg, giving off sparks ..."

And just like that, this blogger's heart was totally eclipsed. I'm a complete wreck, I tell you. But in the best, happiest, most blissful, sense.

Hasta pronto, mi chiquititas!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pablo y yo

Pablo y yo

Discussing some of the finer points of his poetry with Pablo Neruda in the garden of his home in Valparaiso.