Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The End of the Sherry by Bruce Berger

Blue collar and provincial Puerto Real in the police state that was Franco's Spain might seem an unlikely venue for an amusing, eccentric, and very sensitive artist's memoir. A graduate of Yale and a grad school drop out, pianist and writer Bruce Berger's whole life seems unlikely, lived wildly out of sequence, and in The End of the Sherry, the Spanish chapters thereof beset by, in his words, "a curious passivity." From the moment Berger washes up in a bar in Puerto Real, he and his beer-slurping dog drift and bob in the flow of happenstance. There are gigs with a rock band, a flash-in-the-pan career as a fishmonger, a pointless foray into Tangiers-- yet always with sails set toward his true loves, music and writing. I first came across Bruce Berger's work in his travel memoir of Baja California, Almost an Island, and was enchanted by the beauty of his language, his courage in always pushing past clichés, and, best of all, his scrumptiously puckish sense of humor. Yes, I laughed out loud a lot in reading The End of the Sherry, too, and shook my head in wonder at the strangeness of his adventures and enthusiasms, and prodigious talent for cross-cultural friendships. Masterfully poetic, this belated coming-of-age / travel memoir throws a weird and wonderful lava-lamp light on his other works, even while standing solidly on its own, an exemplar of those genres. In sum, a five star read.

> Recommended literary travel memoirs (updated)


Monday, April 14, 2014

Cyberflanerie: Mesmerically Mesmeric Edition

Re: Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution. One of the more interesting aspects for me in going through Francisco I. Madero's personal library was the large number of books on mesmerism and, related to that, magnetic healing and hypnotism. In his Spiritist Manual, Madero often talks about invisible vital "fluids"-- a concept straight out of Mesmerism. More about all that anon.

And apropos of all that, over at Greg Kaminsky's excellent and very adventurous podcast series, Occult of Personality, he interviews Lee Gerrard-Barlow, an English Mesmerist, hypnotherapist and NLP practitioner. Gerrard-Barlow provides a rich history of Mesmerism. He also talks about getting past literal interpretations-- key, in my view to approaching any kind of understanding of the esoteric.

And read Gerrard-Barlow's article for Trebuchet, "Modern Day Mesmerism."

Watch some mesmerism in action on Gerrard-Barlow's Arcana Therapies YouTube Channel.
a screenshot from

Some of the books in Madero's personal library:

Filiatre, Jean. Hypnotisme et magnétisme sommanbulisme, suggestion et telépathie influence personalle (cours pratique).
Lambroso, César. El Hipnotismo.
Majewski, Adrien. Mediumnité Guérissant par l'application des fluides électriques magnétiques ey humains. 
Rossi-Pagnoni, M.M. F. and Dr. Moroni. Médniumnité hypnotique.
Rouxel. Rapport du magnetisme et du spiritisme.
Sage, M. Le Sommeil Naturel et l'Hypnose.


Monday, April 07, 2014

Looking at Mexico in New Ways: An Interview with John Tutino

John Tutino says, "The whole big picture of where we thought Mexico fit in the world is somewhere between wrong and mythical."

Marfa Mondays is back… put your seat belts on for this one hour in-depth interview with John Tutino, professor of History at Georgetown University and author of the award-winning paradigm-smasher Making a New World: Founding Capitalism in the Bajío and Spanish North America.

***Listen to the podcast anytime here.***

See also: My review for Literal of Tutino's two books, Making a New World and (as editor) Mexico and the Mexicans in the Making of the United States.

Check out the dedicated Marfa Mondays blog
Marfa Mondays Podcasts (all of them, any time)
Marfa Mondays on Twitter @marfamondays

Recent Marfa Mondays podcasts include: 


Monday, March 31, 2014

The Mexico City Maltese

So the receptionist sees my dog and says, "Fourteen! I had a Maltese that lived to be 25 years old. It died of an accident. It was blind for a few years. But it was fine, you know? One day when no one was looking, it fell in the swimming pool. But before that, it got hit by a car, it got bit by a Doberman, and it chewed a live electric cable. Very low voltage, but still, it got electrocuted. And people would say to me, I can't believe your dog is still alive! Oh my God, your dog shouldn't still be alive."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Cyberflanerie: This 'n That 'n Cat Edition

Originally in Japanese! By Kaori Tsutaya, translated by Amy Hirschman, an uber weird 'n charming n' peculiarly practical book on how to make lots of little things, most especially felted finger puppets, from, yeah, cat hair. If you liked Knitting with Dog Hair...

Swedish UFO blog by librarian Håkan Blomqvist (in English) has a note about the book (in Swedish, alas) about the Rosicrucian Queen of Sweden who gave it all up to convert to Catholicism and live in Rome.

In the NYT, a Continuing Care Retirement Community's members rather alarmingly ask, Where's the Money?  Seriously, if you're all agog about these newfangled retirement setups, whether for yourself or your parents, check out this whopper of a caveat emptor.

(Speaking of cushy set-ups, and segueing over to a parallel concern, what I wonder is, why do people pay $$$ for membership in a club so they can plod like a blinkered mule on a treadmill and, at the same time, shell out more $$$ to someone else to mow their lawn? Either way you've got to take a shower afterwards. Seriously, I am not being snarky; I find this a fascinating question. I suspect the answer has to do with the stories people tell themselves. And some people tell themselves the stories that land them, happily or unhappily, in a CCRC.)

International jokes. Way better than Prozac.

Spectacular: Photographer Richard Barron's pix of the Four Corners region.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Las Misiones Jesuíticas de la Antigua California, Baja California Sur, México (The Jesuit of Missions of Antigua California)

Dr W. Michael Mathes
Talks about the origins of the Jesuit
enterprise in Antigua California
From the trailer:
A most delightfully nostalgic evening spent watching the DVD my amiga the Mexican historian Carmen Boone-Canovas recently sent me: Sergio Raczsko's new documentary film, Las Misiones Jesuíticas de la Antigua California (The Jesuit of Missions of Antigua California)-- "Antigua California" being old California, the first California, that nearly 1,000 mile long peninsula that now belongs to the Republic of Mexico. Sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Iberoamerican University Foundation, Mexico's Consejo para la Cultura y las Artes, and the Organization de Estados Iberamericanos (OEI) it celebrates the Jesuit missions of Baja California with interviews with historians (including the outstanding W. Michael Mathes, Miguel Leon-Portilla, and Barbara Meyer Stinglhammer, among many others) and brief visits to each of the missions-- many of them both very remote and very picturesque.

>Watch the trailer here

>As soon as I can find a link to buy the DVD or download the full documentary, I will posted it here.

When I first came across it more than two decades ago, the story of the Jesuit missions of Antigua California profoundly changed the way I thought about both Mexico and the state of California. I was born in Texas but came to California as a baby, and then went through the school system there, which taught every fourth grader that the "California Missions" began with Padre Junipero Serra in San Diego-- as if Antigua California and the daring and  tragic Jesuit enterprise that spanned nearly a century did not exist. The encounters of a paleolithic people with a cadre soldiers and (speaking of the Jesuits) some of Europe and the New World's most educated, visionary, and best-organized men though unintended, resulted in the former's destruction-- right about the time that the Jesuits themselves were betrayed in a both cruel and mysterious manner by the King of Spain.

The first permanent mission of Antigua California was Loreto, founded by an Italian Jesuit, Father Salvaterra who named it after Our Lady of Loreto-- Loreto being a town on the Adriatic which purports to have the Santa Casa, the house of the Virgin Mary, removed from Nazareth and flown across the sea by angels. (You read that right.)

From  my memoir of my travels through Baja California, Miraculous Air, the chapter "Like People You See in a Dream":

The Jesuits had not been long ashore when Ibó warned Father Salvatierra: the Indians were planning to kill them and take the food. Salvatierra was a veteran missionary to the Tarahumara, a fierce mountain tribe in the mainland's Sierra Madre. With his rock-launching mortar and harquebuses in place, the priest took the news in stride. The attack came from the heights, a rain of arrows and rocks and dirt clods that lasted for two hours. Finally, the Indians charged. Salvatierra stood up and warned them away, gesturing towards the harquebuses. But the Indians did not understand what harquebuses were; they loosed three arrows at him. "In this desperate strait," Salvatierra wrote, "God inspired me..." He manned a harquebus, and together with his soldiers, opened fire. The Indians "were struck down from every side — some were injured and others were killed outright. Disheartened and terrified at our valor, they all withdrew simultaneously at sunset." Then: absolute silence. After about fifteen minutes, Ibó appeared in the reeds facing the trench. He walked slowly towards the priest and his soldiers. And then he entered their compound, sobbing.
A bronze bust of Father Salvatierra was mounted on a concrete pedestal in the plaza facing Loreto's mission church. His expression was grim, like a man watching his house burn down.  Carved into the stone above the door to the church were the words
I savored that for a moment: Head and Mother of the Lower and Upper California Missions. In grade school, we'd been taught that the California missions began in San Diego. Father Junípero Serra and the Franciscan order played the heroes — or villains, depending on one's point of view. Salvatierra, Loreto, the Jesuits, none were so much as mentioned.
For years I'd had a recurring dream about finding a room in my house that I hadn't known was there. Sometimes the door was at the back of a wardrobe, othertimes I found it behind a cabinet. I suppose that's common, like dreams about flying. Baja California, I was beginning to realize, was like my dream about the room. Except that it was true.
The stone church looked small and plain, but inside was a luscious confection of an altar, all gold and Wedgewood blue, with an effigy of the Virgin in gold-leafed robes set back into a niche of pleated satin. The pews each had a plaque: En memoria de Teresa Valadez Bañuelos; Familia Benziger Davis; En memoria Ernesto Davis Drew. Names like Davis and Drew, I'd read, were from sailors, like Fisher and Ritchie and Wilkes in Los Cabos. The building had been heavily restored. A chubasco ravaged the town in 1829 (the capital was moved then to La Paz); earthquakes did further damage. By the mid-18th century, the Indians had died off and everyone who could had left for the Gold Rush and other mining booms. With no one to rebuild it, the church remained a ruin. When John Steinbeck came through in 1940, the only room left intact was a side chapel.  It was that simple whitewashed room which interested me, because here was the original Virgin of Loreto carried ashore by Salvatierra himself. I was so struck by Steinbeck's description of the brown-haired wooden effigy that I'd made a note of it:
[S]he has not the look of smug virginity so many have —  the "I-am-the-Mother-of-Christ" look, but rather there was a look of terror on her face, of the Virgin Mother of the world and the prayers of so very many people heavy on her.
Which was a remarkably creative thing to say, I thought as I gazed up at the shiny polychromed face. To me, she had a vapid expression. Her eyes were open, but she looked as though she hadn't yet woken up.

I'm not too cozy with the Catholic Church, as you might guess, but I did write about the Jesuit missionaries with as much accuracy and compassion as I could muster. Unlike the men of most of the other missionary orders, the Jesuits left a remarkable trove of reports, memoirs and letters, and in reading them, I came to appreciate them as individuals, as well as recognize the scale and fearsome hardships of their enterprise. (A few, such as the curmudgeonly German Father Baegert, author of Observations in Lower California, I became quite fond of.) I also tried, with the help of their reports, recent scholarship, and conjecture based on comparisons to other "first contacts" to tell what stories I could from the points of view of the indigenous peoples. It really was a thrill to write, for Antigua California's, which has been told and retold and will continue to be retold as long as there are tellers, is one of the greatest stories of the Americas.

For scholars: the most authoritative overview is Harry Crosby's Antigua California.

For scholars and anyone else, I warmly recommend Sergio Raczsko's documentary is a superb and rich introduction. (Carmen Boone-Canovas, who is a leading expert on Our Lady of Loreto and the Jesuit missionaries in Mexico, consulted and also edited the text.) Again, I will post the link to buy the DVD as soon as I have it.

Back to Junipero Serra. Several fine biographies have come out or are about to come out this year. More about him, and more about the desert and about conversos, anon. 

Now I'm back to writing about the Big Bend of far West Texas (that project was interrupted this year by the rather unexpected Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution)-- a land that has much in common with Baja California.  Stay tuned for my podcast interview with historian John Tutino about the origins of capitalism (oh, yes) and Spanish North America.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Updating a Kindle and a Print-on-Demand Paperback: The Never Ending Story

In Days of Yore, when printing book meant 2,000 + copies shipped to a warehouse, the mistake of, say, having called Jorge Luis Borges "José Luis Borge" would remain in one's book and upon one's conscience (like an itchy scar) until the reprint-- which, for most books, never happened. And even if it did, one's publisher might not trouble to make corrections. But now, with digital print-on-demand paperbacks, and of course ebooks, fixing mistakes is like being able to text message your kids-- you never have to really let go! Wonderful! Terrible!

Back in the fall of 2011 I put up a Kindle edition of my translation of Francisco I. Madero's 1911 Manual espírita as Spiritist Manual. I gave a talk about it for the San Miguel de Allende's Author Sala in November of that year, and then another talk for PEN San Miguel in 2012 (link goes to the podcast). Why no paperback edition? I wasn't ready to commit because the five pages of introduction I offered with that first Kindle edition were OK, but rather like having recounted a multilayered mega-saga such as Anna Karenina in the teacup of a paragraph. I refer not so much to the Spiritist Manual itself but to the origins and spread of Spiritism, Madero's own life, and Madero's role in that movement and in Mexican history. For those of you don't follow this blog or Mexican history, Madero was the leader of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and President of Mexico from 1911 to 1913, when he was assassinated. And the powerfully radical significance of his secret book, Spiritist Manual, cannot be appreciated without this, well, rather novelesque context.

Finally, late last year, I got that introduction done to my satisfaction. I took a breather over the holidays and then, in January, published it as a proper paperback: Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual. 

So back to the Kindle for an update. Librarians will sniff rather loudly that, with a different title and 200+ pages of new material, I should have used a new ISBN-- that is, published it as a different book. But I wanted the people who had bought the earlier version to be able to go to "Manage My Kindle" on their dashboard and get a free update.

So then what is the copyright year on this thing? Can it be entered in thus-and-such a competition as a first publication (or not)? A dozen wiggly little questions all over the place! But digital publishing isn't considered the Wild West for nothing. Ain't no sheriffs I can see. So I just went ahead and updated the same old Kindle-- same ISBN. And since January, I have updated the Kindle, fixing typos, adding a map, another book to the bibliography, oh… 5 or 6 times.  Just yesterday I fixed a couple of typos. (I swear, typos are evidence of parallel universes.)

It's so easy! I just go into Sigil, type in or delete what I want, then upload the epub file to Kindle Direct. A few hours later, bingo, it's live on

P.S. Why am I so enthusiastic about Kindles? This chart from Bowker (hat tip to Jane Friedman) says it all.