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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

5 Sandwich Time Videos

Esalen Garden Part 3
Like inhaling waaaay too much oxygen

Charlie Todd: The Shared Experience of Absurdity

Becky's Guide to Choosing Your Log Cabin eBook Trailer
Seriously, this is an excellent ebook trailer. I love find finding good book trailers. I don't need a log cabin at the moment, however. Maybe someday!

Discussing "Identity Economics" with Economist George Akerlof

The French cat video. Watch it with your dessert.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Marfa, Texas Chamber of Commerce: Why I Joined

Well, it's not 1996. That's when I started writing Miraculous Air, my travel memoir of Mexico's nearly 1,000 mile-long Baja California peninsula, which was originally published by the University of Utah Press in 2002 (now a Milkweed Editions paperback). I was traveling and writing in the Anglo-American tradition of Robert Byron (The Road to Oxiana),  Frances Calderon de la Barca (Life in Mexico),  Ian Frazier (Great Plains), Sara Mansfield Taber (In Patagonia), V.S. Naipaul (A Turn in the South; Among the Believers), and -- though with a sight more depth into the actual nature, history and culture of Mexico and Baja California -- John Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez (lovely book, but it mainly takes place in his head whilst observing the shoreline from the boat). I mean to say, I was writing a good old-fashioned literary travel memoir, passing through that blissfully cellphone and Internet-free territory within my shell of anonymity or, at least, the expectation that many of the people I encountered would never know much about me nor that they would appear in my book. Some of the people I talked to were not too familiar with books of any sort, and many others, even though I plainly told them what I was doing, could not fathom the nature of a literary travel memoir (no, I do not list and update the prices of hotel rooms!!). Where matters seemed to me especially sensitive, to protect them, I changed their names and some identifying details (and said so). Several of the people I interviewed then have since passed away and, as far as I know, they never had an email address.

But 2012? Different game. I mean, like, can we even have a convrstn w/o texting? "Friends" are snapping pix of their kids, their dogs, their cats, their dogs with their cats, their cats with their kids, and  by the way, the peanut-butter sandwich they ate on Tuesday, and post them all on Facebook. The other day, someone posted a picture of a blenderful of carrots he was about to zap and that peeved me enough to actually, like, lift a finger, and "defriend" him. (Why am I on FB anyway? Sandra Gulland, my amiga the crackerjack historical novelist and Internet book PR expert--check out her excellent podcast-- is why. SANDRA IT IS ALL YOUR FAULT.)

With all this texting and facebooking, does anyone have two minutes to read literary travel memoirs? Well, that isn't going to stop me from writing one (the aim of art, in my view, is to lead, not follow, the market). But with the explosion of digital communication and social media, the experience of traveling for writing is now a kind of ever-possibly public Orphic Journey. (How's that for an oxymoron?)
Engraving by Boris Artzybasheff,
from Padrac Colum's book, ORPHEUS, 1930,
now available online at

Give your name to almost anyone anywhere and chances are (if they are curious and/or have nothing better to do), they'll google you. So it's handy to have a website that offers what you'd like them to see, as opposed to, say, what Creepy Weirdo spewed on some obscure discussion forum.

But not only is the writer with a website (and what writer doesn't have a website?) more potentially visible now, so are the subjects of the writing themselves. Just for example, and to state the obvious, perhaps, even the tiniest B & B or cottage for rent by owner, even the eensy weensy of the weensiest sandwich shops, all have websites and Facebook pages, and many maintain twitter feeds. (Check out the fabulous Food Shark food truck, y'all.)

When I was traveling in Baja California back in the late 90s, many villages had only just-- literally a month or so ago-- gotten their first telephone. The larger towns, such as Cabo San Lucas, had (very patchy) Internet service, but there were so very few websites that when, apropos of my book, I posted a "Baja" page with links, it popped right up near the top of the search engines. Nowadays... ha! My little Baja page is buried on the other side of Planet Jupiter in another galaxy. (I don't even bother to link to it. But here are some podcasts.)

Plus, anyone, including your neighbor's uncle's monkey, can post on,, wikipedia, twitter...  It's totally, ayyy, here comes everybody.

So now when I'm traveling through far West Texas for this latest book project-- as yet untitled-- most of the places I want to see and people I want to talk to have some (or a huge) on-line presence. To just to give you an idea, I'm thinking that, for my next foray, I might:

---> take the rock art tour at Hueco Tanks State Park
---> interview Big Bend Sentinel columnist and historian Lonn Taylor, whose book, Texas, My Texas, I am reading right now
-->get more of that unholy (both literally and figuratively) Swiss chocolate at Squeeze Marfa
--> go stargazing
--> hike to an Apache hideout in the Big Bend with wilderness guide Charles Angell
--> interview Simone Swan, who has a rather astonishing adobe Hassan Fathy-inspired house
Need I mention that almost all the relevant websites have a "contact" page. Click and ye shall communicate.

Far West Texas is a bodaciously big area but, people-wise, pretty small. So who's this C.M. Mayo person? What's she writing about us? As I write and travel, I feel exposed in a way that was impossible to imagine only a decade ago. So I realized when I started this new book that I'd need to approach it in a fundamentally different way. I decided to embrace the Internet and social media, to be as forthright and as visible as reasonably possible (but no worries, I won't show you what I zapped in the blender last Tuesday). Yes, the book itself is under construction and that work, as ever, is a good old-fashioned, I mean solitary Orphic Journey. But the fact that I'm writing it and what, in a general sense, I'm after, information about what I've previously published-- all of this is public with a side project I've dubbed

Towards that end, I made that webpage, frequently mention it in this blog, opened YouTube and vimeo accounts, started a twitter feed, got an iTunes RSS feed going, and. . . drumroll . . .  joined the Marfa, Texas, Chamber of Commerce.

Well, porquoi pas? They are happy to have new members, the price is right, and they are -- bless 'em-- announcing my monthly podcasts in their weekly newsletter.

Here's the latest:
--->Click here for the direct link to the podcast.

(What would John Steinbeck say? Not sure I'd want to know. Oh. Eh, I think he's laughing. In a good way.)

P.S. Check out this article on Marfa by Ramón Rentería in the El Paso Times: "Metamorphosis in Marfa: Newcomers Offer Infusions of Arts, Enthusiasms." (It sounds like the very doppelgänger of chapter 2 of Miraculous Air, about the town of Todos Santos.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Michael Wiese Productions Podcasts (Recommended for Writers)

I just happened upon some helpful podcasts for filmmakers, screenwriters, and just plain ol' writers at Michael Wiese Productions on "BlogTalk Radio":

Michael Wiese publishes some excellent books. Apropos of a note on log lines, I recently posted a mini-rave review of one of them: Blake Snyder's Save the Cat!

I'm on the lookout for good podcasts  by and for writers, so let me know of any you recommend. I like to listen to them, but I'm also looking for helpful links to list in my forthcoming iBook, Podcasting for Writers. 

(My own latest podcasts include "Marfa Mondays" interviews with bee expert Cynthia McAlister; Avram Dumitrescu, a talented painter originally from Belfast; Museum of the Big Bend curator Mary Bones on the Big Bend's Lost Art Colony; and Charles Angell, expert wilderness guide and travel writer. Plus, several in the Conversations with Other Writers series, mostly recently, Elena Poniatowska's biographer, Michael K. Schuessler and travel writer and memoirist Sara Mansfield Taber.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Marfa Mondays Podcast #5 Cynthia McAlister: The Buzz on the Bees

Listen in here.

Cynthia McAlister is an expert on the bees of West Texas, and as those of you who have been following this blog know, I'm crazy about bees, so this interview is one I was especially delighted be able to do. It was recorded in late January when I was traveling in the area for my book (as yet untitled). I've been back since and will be posting more podcasts-- they're scheduled for the  3rd Monday of every month through the end of 2013-- including one on the remote and restful Chinati Hotsprings and an interview with the owner of Marfa's fascinating Moonlight Gemstones. Stay tuned.

Links to surf:
About the Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project

Previous "Marfa Mondays" podcasts:
-->Avram Dumitrescu, An Artist in Alpine (April 16, 2012)
-->Mary Bones on the Lost Art Colony (March 19, 2012)
-->Charles Angell in the Big Bend (February 20, 2012)
-->Introduction and Welcome (January 16, 2012)

More related surfing:

Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute and Nature Center

Cenizo Journal
(download for free and read McAlister's article in the bees in the winter 2012 issue)

Farm Stand Marfa Blog, "The Bee Is Not a Machine" and "The Bee, the Blossom and the Beginning of Civilization"

My Mexico City Melissa Garden (mini-clip video)
(a melissa garden is a garden for bees)

An excellent recent article in the San Diego Reader, "Marfa Moments" by W.S. Di Piero

And another in the El Paso Times by Ramón Rentería, "Old-time Marfa Lives on in Memories" 

Many more links to read about Marfa & Environs here.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories by Bruce Jackson

The Story is True-- by a professor of American Culture at the University of Buffalo--was off my creative writing workshop radar until Charlie Angell, crackerjack-wilderness guide to the Big Bend and contributor to Cenizo Journal, recommended it. I read it, relished it, and, as of today, added it to my workshop page's recommended reading list. 

The essay I found most illuminating is "Bob Dylan and the Legend of Newport 1965." For a long time now I've had in mind an essay on the many legends of Maximilian von Habsburg, Mexico's doomed Emperor, who is a major character in my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. Based on the true story, this novel required several years-worth of original archival research, and extensive forays through the ever-growing bibliography on the Habsburgs and Mexico's Second Empire, aka French Intervention. Well, like the legend of Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965-- that he was roundly booed for playing on an electric guitar-- many stories about Maximilian turn out to have a foundation of precisely nada. That doesn't keep Mexicans from telling and retelling them, however, and with each retelling, the stories take on more polish, more of a volume mistaken for solidity. I am thinking in particular of Maximilian's supposed affair with his Indian gardener's daughter in Cuernavaca and the Empress Carlota's illegitimate son. The stories meet a certain need-- as Jackson puts it, "the moment needed a story...Stories are the way we domesticate the world's disorder. Facts are incidental."

"The Story of Chuck" made me chuckle-- and reminded me why I loathe those Nuremburgoid stadium events, watching TV, or spending one purple cent on Coca Cola. But maybe that's just me.

"The True Story of Why Stephen Spender Quit the Civil War" struck me as very Mexican; that one has to parse seventeen times, why, why did he / she / they say that? Change the names and it would be a short story of merengue-like perfection.

Oh, not to go on about it. Read this book. If you're a writer, it will get you thinking more flexibly and creatively about plot; if you're a citizen, it will make you question the stories you're being sold. Turn them upside down. Turn them inside out. Shake out the pockets. Bet you'll find a purple penny in there.

P.S. Read a Q & A with Bruce Jackson here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sergio Troncoso's From This Wicked Patch of Dust and Cross Borders: Personal Essays

With permission from the wonderful bilingual Literal Magazine, herewith a reprint of my review -- in the current issue, on newsstands now-- of Sergio Tronocoso's two new books, a novel and a collection of essays. 

(Arte Público Press, 2011)

(University of Arizona Press, 2011)

Este maldito terregal,  this wicked patch of dust, is what SergioTronoco’s mother called Ysleta, their barrio in El Paso, Texas, and from this he takes the titles of his new novel and an essay which is included in the collection, Crossing Borders, both published in 2011. 

Ranging from several lengthy and intimately personal essays about family, to lessons in literary politics, to a passel of posts from his blog, Chico Lingo, Crossing Borders provides a rich introduction to not only Tronoco’s new novel, but also his previous work, which includes the novel The Nature of Truth (Northwestern University Press, 2003), and the short story collection, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories (University of Arizona Press, 1999), which won the Premio Aztlán for the best new book  by a new Mexican-American writer. 

Troncoso’s work, by his own admission, is not easy. In “Literature and Migration,” he states his position plainly:“Against much of popular American fiction, my stories are not primarily to entertain the reader, but to unmoor him. I want the reader to face through my characters perhaps what he will not face himself.”

Though born the son of Mexican immigrants in a hardscrabble border barrio, and brought up Catholic, he was educated at Harvard and Yale and went on to marry a Jewish classmate who has since made a successful career in banking. Today they and their two boys, Aaron and Isaac, live in a doorman building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a world as exotic to Ysleta and Ysleta is to it.  If the role of the writer is, as Tronoco argues, to be an outsider, his perch is priviledged indeed, for it has not always been easy to find his way in the northeast, nor, for all his experiences and Ivy League education, to revisit his childhood home. “On good days I feel I am a bridge,” writes Troncoso. “On bad days I just feel alone.”

There were some bad days during his tenure on the board of the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, which he recounts in the essay “Apostate of my Literary Family.” Not to be confused with the unrelated Bethesda, Maryland-based Writer’s Center, the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center is a short train ride from Manhattan into the tony Westchester subsurbs. Initially, Troncoso felt disrespected and treated as token Latino. He tired of “having to endlessly explain issues of literature to those who were not writers, [and] justifying the importance of Latino writers to those who did not read much literature (Latino or otherwise).” But in the end, he learned a valuable lesson: “whether, and when, to  submlimate or redirect instinctual personal reactions into socially acceptable points of view and arguments. Perhaps this is a function of any family, to convert its members into socially funcional human beings.”

Family is the subject of most of the other essays, which include a trio of letters to his sons about their mother Laura’s terrifying and brutal struggle with breast cancer. Though clearly set in turn- of- the-21st century Manhattan, there is a timelessness to the story. The reader can imagine the two boys, once grown, and again, when they too have young children, and then again, decades later when their parents are elderly or perhaps no longer living, reading and rereading, mining ever richer veins of meaning in these heartfelt letters from their father. Laura survives and her husband writes, “We have more days and do not waste them. We do posses an eternal wound in a way, a wound that reminds us of the rarity and fragility of life. Our quotidian fantasy is now a new quotidian reality: vividly colorful days, days of curiosity, days bereft of many useless fears and petty ambitions, these days of wonder.”

The magnet of family flung into in a cultural, economic, political, religious, and geographic centrifuge is the focus of the novel, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, which opens with Mexican immigrant Pilar and her husband Cuauhtémoc’s travails in building a house in the as-yet-unwired desert barrio of Ysleta in the summer of 1966. A dozen years later, their daughter Julia, a UTEP undergrad, is traveling through Italy, having spent the summer as a Spanish translator for the Sisters of Perpetual Charity. Meanwhile, in Ysleta, her parents listen to their old friend Carlos play Mexican love songs on the guitar, while the kids escape to another room to watch Charlie’s Angels. The centrifuge accelerates. Ismael, class valedictorian, earns a scholarship to the Blair Summer School for Journalism in New Jersey, while Julia, with a group from the Mexican-American Cultural Center, has traveled to Nicaragua, and taken a sharp turn to the left into liberation theology.  “Mamá y Papá,” Julia writes, “do not be surprised if this letter has been read by someone in the post office in Ysleta or even by the FBI or CIA.”

Ismael goes to Harvard and finds a Jewish bride; Julia to Minnesota and a conversion to Islam. In late 2011, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Ismael is in New York when his sister, now married and living in Tehran, calls to see how he is. Their conversation is so well-grounded in knowing detail that Troncoso makes what might seem fantastic, a brother and sister so far from Ysleta and so impossibly far from one another, both believable and moving. 

Five years later, after the loss of a beloved brother who was serving in Iraq, Ismael, a writer now, presents their mother with a story, a narrative Ouroboros. “It’s about Ysleta. It’s about how we lived, how we tried. It’s about how we were together for a time.”

In the final essay in his collection, “Why Should Latinos Write Their Own Stories?” Tronocoso answers, “to define ourselves,” and “to challenge ourselves.” In his novel, he has done this brilliantly. 

--Reprinted by permission of Literal Magazine. All rights reserved.

---> Read more of my book reviews here.

Monday, May 07, 2012

May 2012 Newsletter, News on Publish Now and Marfa Mondays Podcasts

The May 2012 newsletter just went out last week. There's plenty in here for writers interested in exploring the possibilities on the digital frontier, Mexico and its great literary artists, the Orphic Journey and the wonders of the Sierra Gorda, and that world waiting for a dream, far-out & far West Texas. Oh, and the Afterlife, too. More succinctly: It features news about the June 23 "Publish Now!" conference at the Writer's Center (in Bethesda MD, near Washington DC), the latest Marfa Mondays podcasts, and Conversations with Other Writers. Read on.

I send subscribers the newsletter as an email via (a great service, by the way, I highly recommend it) that includes the link and passwords for a free ebook with tips on writing. So sign up, whydoncha. I'd be delighted to see you on the list. I send it out a few times a year, and you can unsubscribe or re-subscribe automatically anytime (that's mail for you).

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Cinco de Mayo Edition

I usually post on Mondays and Wednesdays but I had to make an exception this week for the 150th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo. No, this is not Mexico's Independence Day; it commemorates the victory of the Mexican Republican forces against the invading Imperial French Army at the city of Puebla (near Mexico City) on May 5, 1862-- a temporary victory, as it turned out. Before the Republic could be reestablished, there was that brief, tragic, and very painterly interlude known as the Second Empire (Maximilian von Habsburg et al).

Herewith 5 links:

The aftermath of that long-ago battle is in my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire.

Read more about Cinco de Mayo over at my blog post on Donald W. Miles and his work.

My south of the border music selections (ye olde guest-blog post for Wendi Kaufman's The Happy Booker), apropos of my anthology of 24 Mexican writers on Mexico, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion.

My favorite place to visit near Puebla (nothing to do with the battle): Eulogio Gillow's English-style castle in a trout pond.

A really fun and informative blog post about Mexican murals, over at the MOMA blog: "Five for Friday: Mexican Muralists on Cinco de Mayo" by Bonnie MacKay.