Thursday, July 24, 2014

Dr. Konrad Ratz (December 20, 1931 - May 22, 2014)

I was very saddened to learn of the death of my friend, Dr. Konrad Ratz, translator, researcher, and writer whose contributions to our understanding of Maximilian von Habsburg and Mexico's Second Empire I admire more than I can say. Among his many works, all of them major contributions:

Tras las huellas de un desconocido: Nuevos datos y aspectos de Maximiliano de Habsburgo (Link goes to my note in English about this excellent and very illuminating book.)
Los viajes de Maximiliano de Maximiliano en México(co-authored with Amparo Gómez Tepexicuapan)(Link goes to my comments for the book's presentation in Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City.)
Correspondencia inédita entre Maximiliano y Carlota
El ocaso del imperio de Maximiliano visto por un diplomático prusiano
Maximilian und JuárezBand I Das Zweite Mexikanische Kaiserreich und die RepublikBand II Querétaro-Chronik
The musical:

Very few researchers can work in both Spanish and German, fewer still with the skills to research Mexico's most complex and transnational period of the 19th century. We are fortunate indeed that Dr. Ratz dedicated so much effort and so many of his years to these tasks.

From the note his son Wolfgang sent out (my translation from the Spanish):

He began his professional life in Bilbao as a translator for the automobile industry. After moving with his family to Vienna, he worked for many years as an economist and translator for the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. Following that, as Director of the Fund to Promote Research, he had the opportunity to support many innovative projects and young entrepreneurs. He also worked to help create similar institutions in various countries, among them, Mexico. In 1975 he received the Austrian Decoration for Arts and Science.
... As a historian, he dedicated his life to researching Maximilian von Habsburg, and especially so during his retirement when he considered Mexico his "adopted country" and spent many marvelous years there with his second wife, Herta, making many unforgettable friendships.
Throughout his life, music was a great passion. The musical "Maximiliano - el Sueño de una Corona" was debuted successfully in Querétaro and Mexico City.
Open to all cultures, his life created bridges among Austria, Spain, Switzerland, and Latin America.

COMMENTS always welcome.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Catherine L. Albanese's A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion

Author of Spiritist Manual
Leader of Mexico's 1910 Revolution
President of Mexico, 1911-1913
A couple of months ago, for Tony Payan's class on Mexican Politics and Culture at Rice University, I gave a talk-- my first for this newly expanded work--- on Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual. Lots of bright kids, lots of good questions. One of them was, "Did Madero have followers?" After a blink, I realized what a telling question this is.

Of course, Madero had legions of followers-- after all, he was the leader of Mexico's 1910 Revolution and President of Mexico (1911-1913). But as a Spiritist? I explained that he did not set himself up as a kind of priest or guru; he was a healer and a medium (never working for pay) and, pseudonymously, the author of an evangelical text, which is the Manual espírita or, as I translated it, Spiritist Manual.

The thing is, when we think of "religion" we usually think of priests or ministers, large edifices, approved rituals, degrees of belonging or status, and so on and so forth-- in short, a social and physical architecture as a machinery of power. Though they had and have their temples and seminars and conferences, Spiritists did not then and do not now necessarily organize in this fashion, precisely because they believe that the individual can communicate directly with spirit and the Divine-- without the intermediation of an earthly authority. They have some temples, some congregations, (google and you'll find them in Mexico, the US, Brazil, Portugal, the Philippines, and Spain, and many more) but there are also many informal circles that meet in private homes. Like Wiccans, it would seem that some few (or many?) are solitary practitioners. Data? Well, that is precisely my point: there aren't much. It boils down to hearsay or, as in the case of a public figure such as Madero, careful archival research. And even still, the picture remains patchy.

Quick backtrack for those of you shaking your heads and asking, um, what's a Spiritist? 
An offshoot of American Spiritualism, which first appeared in upstate New York around 1850, Spiritism developed in France in the the 1860s. (There's so much more to say about it than that, and I do in my book.) The basic idea is, a human being is really an immortal spirit in a temporary body, and it is possible while in an earthly body, either by natural or cultivated talent, to communicate with spirits. Since one is immortal, one's earthy life should serve one's immortal life-- in a nutshell, don't take materialism too seriously and always try to do good. The basic ritual is the séance, which invokes the dead, inviting communication from them by a variety of means.

Before I get to my answer to the question-- did Madero [as a Spiritist] have followers?-- a note on religious organization.

A Republic of Mind & Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion

One of the most illuminating books I came across in my research is Catherine L. Albanese's A Republic of Mind & Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (Yale University Press, 2007). From the dust jacket description:
"This path-breaking book tells the story of American metaphysical religion more fully than it has ever been told before, along the way significantly revising the panorama of American religious history."
What has this to do with Mexico, the gentle blog reader might ask? Well, all the very same metaphysical religions that came to the US also arrived south (via various paths, not invariably from the US) in Mexico.

Continuing with the dust jacket description:
"Catherine L. Albanese follows metaphysical traditions from Renaissance Europe to England and then America, where they have flourished from colonial days to the twenty-first century, blending often with African, Native American, and other cultural elements.
The book follows evolving versions of metaphysical religion, including Freemasonry, early Mormonism, Universalism, and Transcendentalism-- and such further incarnations as Spiritualism, Theosophy, New Thought, Christian Science, and reinvented versions of Asian ideas and practices. Continuing into the twentieth century and after, the book shows how the metaphysical mix has come to encompass UFO activity, channeling, and chakras in the New Age movement and a much broader new spirituality in the present. 
In its own way, Albanese argues, American metaphysical religion has been as vigorous, persuasive, and influential as the evangelical tradition that is more often the focus of religious scholars' attention. She makes the case that because of its combinative nature-- its ability to incorporate differing beliefs and practices-- metaphysical religion offers key insights into the history of all American religions."

Rather than considering these religions / ideas mere esoterica or superstition, mere footnotes in the grander history of denominational and evangelical churches (Roman Catholic, Baptist, Congregationalist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and so on), Albanese argues that the metaphysical religions are (p. 4) "at least as important... in fathoming the shape and scope of American religious history and in identifying what makes it distinctive-- the sign, in religious terms, of an emergent American ethnicity."

In other words, metaphysical religions have played a far more important role in our history than has been previously recognized. But it is difficult to research secretive groups that meet informally in private homes, and, on the other hand, relatively easy to research the history of denominational and evangelical churches.  (p. 8)
"There are central headquarters and archives, public buildings and structures with observable rituals, written personal testimonials, letters, and journals aplenty, with numerous press accounts of religious presence, to cite only the most obvious and accessible sources. To write the metaphysicians' tendencies into history, however, requires harder work."
In other words, it's all a big, ever-morphing muddle of a mosaic. And indeed, this was a big problem for me in trying to figure out Madero's ideas. He was a Spiritist but also a Mason, and some Masons were Spiritists but some were not, and some Spiritists were Theosophists, but Madero was not… and so on.

And both before and especially after Madero's death, Mexican Spiritism melded with folk beliefs and indigenous shamanism. (One example is the mediumnistic healer and folk saint Niño Fidencio, who was mentored by a German Spiritist but apparently did not consider himself a Spiritist.)

So, back to the question, did Madero, as a Spiritist, have followers?

Well, as a Spiritist, he played a leading role in organizing and evangelizing through magazines such as Helios and his book, Manual espírita. Certainly, as we know from his archives, he was in touch with and well-regarded by his fellow Spiritists, mostly Mexicans but also some Americans and Europeans, including Léon Denis, whose bookAprès la mort, he published in Spanish (that translation by Ignacio Mariscal, then serving as Mexico's Minister of Foreign Relations.) Certainly people read Madero's works, but how many we do not know. He wrote them under pen names, mainly Arjuna and Bhima, both taken from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad-Gita. 

Bottom line: As a Spiritist, Madero was looking to evangelize, but not necessarily to build a movement around his person, as he was in the political arena. 

COMMENTS always welcome.

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Catherine L. Albanese, professor of Religious Studies, University of California Santa Barbara  

> Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual (website for the book)

> Francisco I. Madero: A Cien años de su muerte

> Una ventana al mundo invisible or, Maestro Amajur and the Smoking Signatures

> Greg Borzo's article about my book for the University of Chicago Social Sciences Division newsletter

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A New Mexican Book on the Regulation of (Yep) Pot

This blog steers far clear of politics, usually. Today I make an exception.

It seems to me that it doesn't take a coconutful of brain cells to recognize that (1) what one disapproves of and (2) what should be illegal for the greater public good, all costs considered, may not be one and the same thing.  (Though it may still need to be regulated.)

For example, I don't approve of pot smoking, except in the very few cases where there may be no other effective drug for pain relief. That said, I think it should be legal, as legal as many thousands of other completely daft things some people do, such as to become addicted to Coca Cola or Diet Pepsi, breakfast on Pop Tarts, watch television for hours and hours a day, care deeply about spectator sports (to the point of painting one's face an unnatural color and crying and screaming), wear high heels, drive motorcycles, join the Jehovah's Witnesses, keep gerbils as pets, forget to take their diabetes medicine, decorate with clashing plaids, get a nose stud, visit Las Vegas for any reason whatsoever… 

Gee, that's a long list and I haven't even gotten started! 

What I mean to say is, it's a free country-- or at least (hat tip to Mr Snowden), that's the idea. As long as you don't harm someone else in the process, I think you should be able to ingest whatever you want, go where you want, dress as you please, gussy up your fingernails if you feel so inclined, root for Red Sox or Manchester United or Hulk Hogan, and believe what you want about God and Jesus-- and the dinosaurs, for that matter.

At the same time, some regulation of some things is appropriate. For example, the ingredients on the label on a Diet Pepsi or a Pop Tart should be accurate. If you want to come into the stadium to watch a game, you should not be admitted without a ticket, nor if carrying a bazooka. You can keep pets, but not torture them. Etc.
Josefina Ricaño de Nava

It is a rotten shame that we spend so much taxpayer money to arrest and incarcerate people who grow, trade and smoke pot, and, add to the shame, this effort has caused no end of trouble and blood south of the border. So I for one am very happy to see this new book, just published by México Unido Contra la Delincuencia, a foundation that fights crime. (Read about its visionary founder, Josefina Ricaño de Nava.

My translation of the title: How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide.  I note that the back cover includes a quote from the President of Uruguay, who lead the way to legalize cannabis in his country (my translation): 

"The traditional approach has not worked. Someone had to be the first [to legalize non-medical use of cannabis]."

In other words, this is a serious attempt to provide a framework for making cannabis legal-- responsibly.

P.S. A little U.S. drug trade history for those with a literary inclination, over at Gregory Gibson's Bookman's Blog.

COMMENTS always welcome.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Cyberflanerie: Writerly Edition (Aimee Bender, Claire Cook, Djerassi, Historical Novelists Society, Guadalupe Loaeza, Leslie Pietrzyk & More)

Pictured left, my handsome new writing assistant, Uli Quetzalpugtl. Right now he is specializing in mind-clearing walks. He will be four months old on the 25th. Yes, he is a pug. Yes, those are his real eyebrows. 

Aimee Bender on What Writers Can Learn from Good Night Moon
(Hat tip to @portershreve)

Claire Cook on Why I Left My Mighty Agency and New York Publishers (For Now) on Jane Friedman's Blog (well worth reading, and Yours Truly left a lengthy comment.)

Djerassi Resident Artists Program
> Watch a brief introductory video

Day before yesterday I finally joined the Historical Novelists Society, thanks to fellow members of Women Writing the West suggesting it. Joining Women Writing the West was one of the best things I did last year. I may have been publishing for over 20 years, but everything in publishing has so changed in the past few years… fellow members' advice on the listserv has been invaluable. 

Uli visits the childhood home of Willa Cather,
Red Cloud, Nebraska, June 2014.
What can I say, Uli has good taste in authors.
(He does try to chew my hand, after all.)
Here's what really impressed me about the Historical Novelists Society: their webpage is completely automated. I was able to pay, add my bio, and see my member listing without waiting for anyone to get back to me, bingo. (Such is life in the time of the bots…)

Yesterday I was interviewed for Mexico City's MVN radio live by Mexican writer Guadalupe Loaeza about Mexico's Second Empire / French Intervention and my novel El último príncipe del Imperio Mexicano (Agustín Cadena's translation of my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire), fue una verdadera delicia. Hope to have that link to the podcast by tomorrow. (P.S. Back in 2006, I translated a bit of Loaeza's hilarious classic on Mexico City's Polanco neighborhood for my anthology Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion). By the way, Loaeza's website takes a moment to load because it's got all this flash. Be patient... it's worth taking a look at. 

My amiga novelist Leslie Pietrzyk on the writing life: it really is a bowl of cherries.

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30 Deadly Effective Ways to Free Up Bits, Drips & Gimungously Vast Swaths of Time for Writing

Giant Golden Buddha & 364 More Free 5 Minute Writing Exercises

Regina Leeds Guest-Blog for Madam Mayo 5 + 1 Resources to Make a Writer Happy in an Organized Space

Conversations with Other Writers podcast series

Friday, July 18, 2014

Brave Blood: The Bullfight in Mexico by Richard Finks Whitaker

Yeah, I'm one of those animal rights people but anyway, bullfighting is… bullfighting. And for anyone who wants to know anything about it, or write about it, Richard Finks Whitaker's Brave Blood: The Bullfight in Mexico, is required reading and an essential reference work. The beautiful new paperback is available from Editorial Mazatlán.

COMMENTS always welcome.

Kindle Lending or, Lo, The Inevitable Has Arrived

This just arrived in the inbox:

Today we are excited to introduce Kindle Unlimited-–a new subscription service for readers in the U.S. and a new revenue opportunity for authors enrolled in KDP Select. Customers will be able to read as many books as they want from a library of over 600,000 titles while subscribed to Kindle Unlimited. All books enrolled in KDP Select with U.S. rights will be automatically included in Kindle Unlimited. 
KDP Select authors and publishers will earn a share of the KDP Select global fund each time a customer accesses their book from Kindle Unlimited and reads more than 10% of their book-–about the length of reading the free sample available in Kindle books-–as opposed to a payout when the book is simply downloaded. Only the first time a customer reads a book past 10% will be counted. 
KDP Select books will also continue to be enrolled in the Kindle Owners' Lending Library (KOLL) available to Amazon Prime customers in the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, and Japan where authors will continue to earn a share of the KDP Select global fund when their book is borrowed. KOLL borrows will continue to be counted when a book is initially downloaded. 
For July, we've added $800,000 to the fund, bringing the July fund amount to $2 million. 
Learn more about Kindle Unlimited. Visit your Bookshelf to enroll your titles in KDP Select, and click on "Manage Benefits" to get started. 
Best regards,
The Kindle Direct Publishing Team

Yes, some of my titles are in Kindle Select-- notably, the most recent, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish titles Odisea metafisca hacia la Revolución Mexicana and the novel El último príncipe del Imperio Mexicano. 

Everything also listed at iTunes iBookstore, no.

My take on Kindle Lending is: Good thing. But it should exert a downward push on Kindle edition prices.

Another thought: Commercial book lending, whether electronic or bricks-and-mortar, is the future. In part because it's easier to do with digital technology and in part because I doubt that U.S. public libraries will be able to maintain their services in the coming fiscal crunch.

COMMENTS always welcome.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

River of Ink: Literature, History, Art by Thomas Christensen

I've been a long-time admirer of Tom Christensen, and so I was delighted to receive a review copy of his latest, River of Ink, a collection of essays forthcoming from Counterpoint. Herewith my blurb:
Truffle-rich, cumin-exotic, from Mutanabi Street to Céline's ballets, Gutenberg and the Koreans, a winged sphinx and an iron man and Nur Jahan--  oh, and a beturbaned Sadakichi Hartmann-- these world-trotting essays make one groovy box of idea-chocolates.
Yes indeed, River of Ink goes on my top 10 books read list for 2014. (Here's the Top 10 for 2013.)

P.S. Christensen mentions the Youtube video of Sadakichi Hartmann dancing. Here it is:

COMMENTS always welcome.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Cyberflanerie: Mexico, Dinofuzz, Head Like an Orange, Keffir, Farnam Street & etc

The always excellent food blog Mexico Cooks! offers a mezcal primer.

My amiga, intrepid traveler Judith Leaver on Finishing Spanish School (Or Did It Finish Me?)

Travel writer Sean Paul Kelley on José María Sánchez y Tapia.

Interesting GIFs on Head Like an Orange.

How to Travel with Keffir and Be a Pioneer.

Hooray for Dinofuzz! (I am still recovering from the elimination of Pluto; now they say dinosaurs had colorful fuzz…)

Shavings: a Blog for Woodworkers by Gary Rodowski.

Alain de Botton offers A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success (Infectious accent alert!!)

More cyberflanerie at Farnam Street Blog.

COMMENTS always welcome.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

My July 2014 Newsletter Just Went Out

Whew, it only took me a year and half. But finally I'm officially announcing the new book, a batch of podcasts, another batch of book reviews, and a big event next week at Mexico City's Palacio Nacional (though that's for an older book, the novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire). 

>Read the whole enchilada here.

I love Mailchimp. Here's the message they sent me after I hit that "SEND" button:

P.S. I'd be delighted to add you to the roster for the next newsletter, which might or might not go out in another couple of months. You can opt in here, via Mailchimp, the leading no SPAM email service.

YOUR COMMENTS always welcome.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Cyberflanerie: Cracking Open the Door to Creativity (A Few Resources)

Giant Golden Buddha & 364 More Free 5 Minute Writing Exercises

Debra Eckerling's new Kindle, Purple Pencil Adventures: Writing Prompts for Kids of All Ages

More for kids (of any age): Karen Benke's Rip the Page!
> Her guest-blog for Madam Mayo, 5 Writers on What It Takes to be a Creative Writer> Her latest book, Leap Write In!
My ever-longer list of highly recommended books on creative process/ life. 

Read interviews with accomplished writers, such as Leslie Pietrzyk.

Read even more interviews in the Paris Review.

Listen Better (Julian Treasure's TED Talk)

Follow poet, writer and creative writing teacher Zack Rogow's excellent "Advice for Writers" blog.

Get inspiration from visual artists (all links to the blog This Is Colossal)
(Whew, even your coffee will taste, like, expanded.)

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> My workshop page with more resources for writers and workshop schedule.

COMMENTS always welcome.