March 31, 2011
It’s been a tumultous few weeks here in Escandon, and I’ve rarely found myself with the energy at the end of the day to update this blog, yet I must. The saddest news in quite a while is of the death, in January, of American local resident John Ross. The man was something of a legend in the Centro Historico, and on the street (Cinco de Mayo) where I first branched out into exploring this place. We’d crossed paths over the years, I am certain: when I finally saw his author photo when Kevin Odlozil passed me Ross’ definitive DF history El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (Nation Books, 2010) I knew I’d seen the man, perhaps in his daily hangout Cafe La Blanca, or at the Hotel Isabel on Calle Isabel La Catolica, where he’d made his home since 1985. I read his latest – and what would be his last – book on the way down from Seattle, and was impressed, and relieved. The accounting of the wonder and bravery of this city from an American perspective I felt bound to make had already been written, splendidly. After arriving in town in late January, I kept putting off a visit to the Isabel, where I planned to talk to Ross about my project, supposing I’d present my slight bona fides as the subject of a book (Phil Campbell’s Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics) put out by his publisher. Finally last week, my trusty cameraman and editor Tim Griggs arrived from L.A. to begin three weeks of work on the travel show pilot I am working on with producer Javier Gonzalez (to whom I’d passed El Monstruo at his urgent behest only the week before) and on the verge of reaching out to interview Ross for the show I got the bad news from Kevin: Ross had died, of liver cancer in Patzcuaro, Michoacan - at the end of January, almost as I’d arrived in DF. He was the best kind of journalist, one who entered his subjects with his whole heart and life (his subject was chiefly the struggles of this hemisphere’s Spanish-speaking, working people, and their exploitation by the American corporate empire and its military/intelligence apparatus). He was a late beat poet, a draft resistor, and a major contributor of some of the most truthful and incisive writing on the proxy American war that never fully bloomed, in El Salvador and Nicaragua, in the 1980s. He came to DF in the wake of the 1985 earthquake, moved into the Isabel, and stayed. The extent to which he entered the life of the city in his second chapter and his testament to honesty, and vitality, will not be forgotten soon. Kevin said it’s up to me to take his place. I should be so brave, so intelligent.
I’ve been doing inventory nights as we shoot the pilot days: the generous loan of the Cue Cat has done me right, and you can watch the stack grow here: http://www.librarything.com/catalog/underthevolcanobooks Some friends have generously offered to alphabetize the books next weekend (some 1600 I guesstimate, having just passed the 1100 mark - not quite as many as I’d thought) if I get them high. And so I shall, and the entire catalog will be available for purchase and delivery anywhere reachable by Metro, Metrobus, or pesero by the time everyone’s back from Semana Santa.
I have to put a word in about how astounded I am by Philip Hensher’s novel The Northern Clemency (2008). Contemporary Brit lit doesn’t get much notice in the States – whether it’s that the heavy-hitting American novelists of the 70s and 80s whose important work continued into the new century simply crowded them out or that the prominence of lesser talents like Ian McEwan and Nick Hornby and Zadie Smith’s failure to match her epoch-defining White Teeth made Blighty’s payload seem possibly less serious, I don’t know. But this book is important, God damn it, and a long (700some pages) deep pleasure. It isn’t just that the complex web of family relations Hensher lays out is intentionally reminiscent of writers like Tolstoy or Austen, or that the man can write a sentence as fresh and smart as just about anyone around these days. His characters are fully human – a week after finishing the book, I’m still worried about the fate of his creation Timothy Glover, and asking if that character’s obsession Sandra Sellers is somehow a mirror and version of myself. My access to the book might be made easier by the fact I experienced some of the times it covers (1974-1994) in the same country – I left in ’85 and haven’t returned since - but Hensher’s Sheffield is an iradicable country of the mind I know will stay with me for decades. I blew through this doorstop in a matter of days, and I cannot recommend it more highly. It’s completely accessible, and I can’t think of any reader I know who won’t be swept away by it. I have one copy, and I’m saving it for Laura.
I was going to wait until the end of inventory to post next, but not sure when that’ll be: my hamstring injury of a couple weeks back is likely to slow it to avocation-speed rather than the blast-through I hoped for. Blast-through has always been my style, but as the injury should have taught me, the human body won’t accomodate blast-through when you’re dealing with 2000 books. Books are heavy (wasn’t that the title of an L7 record?).
Inventory is being spectacularly moved along by (ironically perhaps, Ebook lovers might suggest, another) dead-end technology, in the form of the Cuecat. I’d never heard of it. This is a little barcode scanner that looks like an old computer mouse (so immediate is the association, on first glance I’m sure I’m not alone in having assumed it was in the shape of an actual mouse, rather than a cat). I had the generous offer of 1000 pesos by a good friend here toward a technological solution to my inventory; queried on Facebook just what was I in the market for, and immediately an American journalist living here said he had what I wanted, and it was in my hands gratis within an hour. Seems the Cuecat was originally developed for newspapers at the end of the last century, to scan a barcode printed alongside articles for internet search in the sci-fi movie (what movie was that?) Want to know more? vein. Of course, as Lindy West might put it, the Internet is a thing that exists, it has search engines, to put it mildly, and cue(cat): long whistle, distant crash sound effect. But the Cuecat (they passed out millions) is great for doing inventory especially for books, and the website Library Thing lets you scan and post your avoirdupois right up there in front of the world and everybody. So soon (how soon is now? how soon is not immediately?) customers will be able to look at our entire inventory, send an email, and meet up at the next bookstall location for any book we have in stock.
There are some great things in stock, too. Today I turned up a beautiful compact 1966 hardcover of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ published by The Bodley Head. I don’t think I’ve ever had a nicer book: this one goes on the ISBNless shelf of old curiosities, between a Deco-embossed original hardback of Yeats’ ‘The Winding Stair’ I’ve had for years, and a 1922 biography of Knut Hamsun that looks like it was slammed out for stateside readers after he won the Nobel. Surprised also to find an original hardback of Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ which has stayed with me since I read a sixties library-sale paperback on the guard shift at a Simi Valley warehouse when I was 19. These old books, with their fabric bindings and thin pages, just make you stop in the middle of the day. Also I’m really digging the Hernandez Bros. graphic novels that were generously remaindered from Fantagraphics Books in Seattle: the style of the drawings initially put me off (too much like a tighter version of Hate, which I can’t stand but back off haterz, to each their own) and now I can’t keep from reading them again and again. I think a local audience is going to really appreciate them: this far from the border, so second and third-generation Mexican American culture is something of a mystery to people. One of the seeds that led to this whole enterprise was my habit of digging into the classics I’d always meant to read during my first exploratory winters here, and noticing, from the books left at hostels and palapa hotels, that other travelers were doing the same. It was always Conrad and Austen, Dickens and George Eliot at these wayfarer inns on the backpacker trail, and I soon discovered why (tourists off the package path are on 19th century time in rural Mexico – but it’s not just that). I think it’s also that life here is so present to the senses, and so incorrigibly social that if you are not conversant with the language it rises with everything before you like a wall of noise, and in the refreshing vacuum of Anglo culture (for Anglos, old and colonial) one can explore that ancestral literary ground with a new clarity. For me, this is a habit that has stuck even as I have made this my home. So I’ll be writing on this blog about what I’m reading, and asking for your reactions to works you’ve encountered too, or taking requests (in filling out my stock I’ve been careful to take a small-c catholic approach to the whole sweep of English, Commonwealth and American literature and am proud to say that I have just about any book you and three of your friends have heard of).
This week: Henry James’ ‘The Bostonians’. Key, key expat writer, providing deep context for the sex-fear on American campuses at the beginning of the 90s, when I had the bad luck to go to college. Probably the fastest read through 400 pages from a century ago I’ve done – it couldn’t have taken me seven hours to read this book. Suffice it to say that James’ assessment of his liberal, intellectual home culture is devastating – but like Wallace Shawn, particularly in ‘The Designated Mourner’, he manages to suggest that alternatives springing from the same Puritan ground are worse. One of those books in which 19th century aristocrats leave one another a lot of notes, go to tee-total parties with a giant stick up their ass, and almost nothing happens at the same time as everything does. Can’t wait to read the rest of his work…
… and Saturday the magnificent Tim Griggs arrives in town. Tim is the young genius who edited my videos for the website – and if you’re not conversant with what back at CSUN was called Radio TV and Film, editing is at least one-third of making any moving picture (and in the case of the videos far more). Tim will be here for three weeks to work with myself and a local producer on a project… well, I’m not at liberty to say. I can disclose that this project will feed the bookstore in an ancillary fashion, and if all goes extremely well, the store will at least be known to a nationwide cable TV audience of indeterminate size in the United States…
Still – and as it is yet a fair piece away, I don’t mind having a convocation on the subject – I am woolgathering about where to put our brick-and-mortar store. Foot traffic seems essential for ambiance if nothing else, though I think we’ll be a location that is more often sought-out than stumbled-upon. With this in mind, I’m starting to think about lower rent off the beaten path. Part of this is my growing affection for my new neighborhood of Escandon, which has a homely appeal I’ll go into detail about here later. I’ve been forthright about this task being deeper and longer than I had any way of anticipating (or that anyone could) and part of what I’ve been thinking lately is that it behooves us to keep start-up costs to an absolute minimum. (Rent in the preferred Condesa-Roma-Centro belt is rising like a rocket.) I put this question to the ‘Likers’ of the UTVB Facebook page, and want to float it here: for readers familiar with the city, where, excluding the aforementioned prime locations, where would YOU want to see the store go? Requirements are close access to Metro, and at least some pedestrian activity (everyplace here has intense pedestrian activity as far as an American would be concerned, but…) and some charm, architecture, trees - or potential thereof. Please have away in the comments: whaddya think????
March 19, 2011
My gnawing worry in the midst of these serial setbacks has been that the people who have so generously helped me so far are growing impatient, that I barged down here with an Indonesian junk of Caxtons to force upon an unguessed count of expats and students and literal fly-by-nighters launching themselves bookless into year-long tours of South America and am now coming up short. In Seattle, or rather that Seattle that expresses itself in blogs and movie review columns, I was hated (yes, said Stephen Gyllenhaal this summer I loitered around his movie of my windmill-tilting there, but I was also loved) for this very hammerhead sharkiness, I believe. Those who know me know this effrontery conceals a brutal shyness and self-excoriation. So these delays (investor-fail, fiador-fail, – censored: personal – hamstring-fail and now what? No room at the inn, I suppose,-fail) are driving me up the fucking wall: the newest in new FYI is that there is apparently no space available for the fallback-plan bookstall in either of the weekend markets in Roma Norte, and there shant be for months. What I’d eyed as my expansion franchise, Coyoacan, issues street vendor permits on Mondays from 9 until noon at the Delegacion office on Rio Churubusco: this Monday’s a holiday in honor of Benito Juarez (best shorthanded for gringos as the Nahuatl Abe Lincoln: country people and country-redefining; honorable and inspiring; 1860s, flawed). So that waits ten days, at best. My main abettor here told me on the phone this morning not to stress out, not to give up. I am stressed out, I said, and there’s no way I’m giving up. I’ll keep at this if it takes ten years of these obstacles: this is what I am here to do.
In the meantime, I’m told there is some kind of device with which I can scan my books that have barcodes (three-quarters of them is my guess) and instantly put them in my inventory file. I know there is an Iphone app for this, but I’m not going to get an Iphone. A good friend and supporter here has offered to help make this happen to the tune of about a hundred bucks. So can someone techy tell me, just what the hell am I looking for?
Whackadoodle’s next whack recounted to you in this space soon.
March 3, 2011
Well, long-awaited by someone, I hope.
First off, things are fine: it has just taken me some time to readjust to the new trajectory of plans here. I moved into the rooftop storage room in Escandon, the van is safely garaged 24/7, and the good news on the La Roma weekend art & antique market is that to sell merchandise there all you have to do is show up at 10 AM either Saturday or Sunday and pay someone named Theo forty pesos.
One of my dearest friends showed up last week and I took some days to give him a real tour of the city, to offer my perspective on relocation here, and try to navigate some of the mysteries and joys of this place and let him absorb as much of the city’s possibilities per his life plans and wishes, as I could. Yes, I am lobbying my friends to move to DF. One has to be at a certain station in life: but if you are a working artist with a taste for city living, this is an unbeatable deal. I can’t speak for my friend about his plans, but I feel like I directed the spotlight, and the city delivered: we didn’t get to Xochimilco (I’m cursed trying to get people down there, it seems) but otherwise I think I was able to share all that I value here, and that it was all well-received.
It is exactly two weeks since the plans for the space on Queretaro fell through, and I wish that my inventory were already done and I was selling books this coming weekend, but a 180-degree turn takes some radius. Driving the van full of my possessions around through city traffic, parking to unload in a busy weekend streetmarket and whatnot makes me nervous: first I have to move in. But next week I will be on the street with a bookstall, come rain or heartbreak. Already people are messaging me about books they’ve waited years for, and I have them. The slow radiating-out of news the store is a real thing, among the connecting expat/immigrant circles and establishments (British Council; The News; International House; the embassies; the Black Horse) will I think only be aided by the stall’s weekly appearance: a date builds anticipation. Furthermore it is a great chance, as the store grafts into the community, to find a real fiador for when we go brick-and-mortar.
Regarding that, I’ve been looking at my opportunities afield from La Roma, and I think I’ve decided to keep it here. I’ll get a smaller place than Queretaro 9: now that I have cheap living space, this really need only be a tiny locale. 35 square meters would do fine. If you thus cut the Queretaro 9 rent in half, we’re talking five hundred bucks a month. Between subtitle work – getting close on that – writing, and the help of a few good friends of this project, I think that by the time I have found a place and have community support, I will either have a fiador or be able to front a year’s rent in advance. Summer – when it rains – would be a good time to make another run up to my primary source, and lock in on a space. I don’t think my planned April trip to Texas is going to materialize, unless I’m just making money hand-over-fist on the weekends. A lifelong friend recently congratulated me on my ability to adapt. I’m just as good at consoling the dying: this is how I grew up.