Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

domingo, septiembre 30, 2007

Ranas Perdidas y Ranas Extintas

cross posted at daily Kos

How very strange and disquieting. Frogs are disappearing from our planet. Many species have already become extinct and even more are being driven toward extinction.

In 2006 the Washington Post reported:
Rising temperatures are responsible for pushing dozens of frog species over the brink of extinction in the past three decades, according to findings being reported today by a team of Latin American and U.S. scientists.

The study, published in the journal Nature, provides compelling evidence that climate change has already helped wipe out a slew of species and could spur more extinctions and the spread of diseases worldwide. It also helps solve the international mystery of why amphibians around the globe have been vanishing from their usual habitats over the past quarter-century -- as many as 112 species have disappeared since 1980.

Apparently, rising temperatures make frogs more vulnerable to disease.
J. Alan Pounds -- the resident scientist at the Tropical Science Center's Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve in Costa Rica and the study's lead author -- worked with 13 other researchers to pin down the link between rising tropical temperatures and the spread of the deadly chytrid fungus that has wiped out dozens of species of harlequin frogs in recent years.
"Disease is the bullet killing frogs, but climate change is pulling the trigger," Pounds said. "Global warming is wreaking havoc on amphibians and will cause staggering losses of biodiversity if we don't do something first."

According to researchers, around 122 amphibian species have become extinct worldwide since 1980, and another 32 percent are currently considered at risk of extinction.

I am not a herpetologist. And I hadn't heard this news. Or if I did, it somehow didn't make a very deep or lasting impression. But I read Latin American literature extensively. I just finished Mayra Montero's gem of a novel In the Palm of Darkness, which is about love and politics and, yes, the extinction of frogs. The story is a search for the last of the species "grenouille du sang", the Haitian name for "Eleutherodactylus sanguineus" by an American herpetologist and his Haitian guide.

I'm not going to summarize the plot of the book; that would be a disservice. It should be read in its entirety. One quick point: when Latin American writers set a novel in Haiti, they bring their "A game." And Montero's book is a small wonder.

Two vignettes convey the ecological problem:
Every spring thousands of samll, golden frogs belonging to the species known as Bufo pereglenes would appear in the rivers and ponds of the Monteverde forest in northern Costa Rica.

It was the season when they engaged in a curious mating ritual that lasted for several days.

In 1988 only one golden frog was seen in the entire range of the forest.

Two years later, in 1990, the Bufo periglenes becamse completely extinct.
page 67.

In, 1992 four frog species disappeared from Casuco National Park in Honduras.

Eleutherodactylus milesi, Hyla soalia, Plectobyla dasypus, and Plectrobyla teuchestes, whose populations once abounded in the region, had given no prior indications of problems in the habitat, or any signs of decline.

The frogs disappeared without a trace, and not a single tadpole of the four species could be found in any of the numerous bodies of water in the area.

Biologists have emphasized "the catastrophic, unexplainable nature" of these disappearance.
page 157

My grief on learning of these extinctions is palpable. I have no quick solution. There may be no solution.

I hope that mentioning the frogs and Montero's novel can move us toward awareness of the devastating consequences of our failure to pay attention to our surroundings.

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sábado, septiembre 29, 2007

A Wonderful Review of The Dream Antilles

Wow. A special thanks goes out to cfk for this excellent review of The Dream Antilles, that appeared on daily Kos on September 26, 2007.

It is a special treat for me when people read my book and enjoy it. I'm delighted when my book pleases, and I'm especially happy when readers and reviewers say nice things about it.

Did I mention that you should buy The Dream Antilles?

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martes, septiembre 25, 2007

The Dictator Novels

cross posted at dailyKos

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A real, nonfictional dictator (Stroessner)

This is a short reading list of Latin American novels (translated into English) that focus on dictators. These books are essential reads.

Why am I suggesting reading these books so few US readers have heard of, let alone read? What's their relevance? Why are they essential?

If you've been watching the descent of the US into authoritarianism, as I have, and you want to know something about what it might be like when a country hits bottom, there is no fiction more descriptive, more powerful than the following short list (not necessarily in order of merit) of Latin America dictator novels. These are all remarkable works of art, and can be read for that alone. That would be reason enough for reading them. But each of these books also has its dictator, and the way he acts and the way his country responds, is the essential political point in each.

*Miguel Angel Asturias, The President. The Times Literary Supplement:
"Asturias leaves no doubt about what it is like to be tortured, or what it is like to work for a man who is both omnipotent and depraved."

*Alejo Carpentier, Reasons of State
"Reflecting his deep commitment to revolutionary politics, his novels explore the irrational elements of the Latin American world, its rich variety of cultures, and the possibility of its magical transformation."

*Mario Vargas Llosa, Feast of the Goat. Publisher's Weekly:
"This wasn't an enemy he could defeat like the hundreds, the thousands he had confronted and conquered over the years, buying them, intimidating them, killing them." So thinks Rafael Trujillo, "the Goat," dictator of the Dominican Republic, on the morning of May 30, 1961 a day that will end in his assassination.

*Augusto Roa Bastos, I, The Supreme. Publisher's Weekly:
Power is the ruler's only interest and goal; he has neither family nor friends, only the constant presence of his secretary-confidant Patino. Bastos's relentless investigation of the depths of iniquitythat of both the "Supreme" and his antagonistsis an illuminating (and depressing) journey into the night.

*Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Autumn of the Patriarch. America:
"The Autumn of the Patriarch mines one of the darkest veins in Latin American political history. The central character is a composite of Trujillos, Batistas and Somozas. His is a genius at the barren politics of survival, capable and guilty of the most savage brutality, a lonely monster who shuffles through his palace every night, checking the locks, looking for assassins, lighting a lantern for a quick exit."

There are doubtless other books that might be added to this list. Please feel free to add them in the comments.

Note: the links are to Amazon, but if you can get these books in a local bookshop I would be far, far happier. Also, you can get most of these used on line at sites like

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domingo, septiembre 23, 2007

You Ain't Going Nowhere

cross posted at dailyKos

The US Government has the resources for surveillance of where I'm going and what books I'm taking with me when I leave the country, and it says it has the ability to keep all of this on file for 15 years. But it apparently doesn't have the resources in a timely way to renew my passport. Pardon me, but is this just a little bit messed up? And it probably means that despite my travel plans to go to Mexico in October, I ain't going nowhere.

On October 1, 2007, nobody, that's you and me if we're US citizens, is leaving the US for Canada or Mexico or getting back into the US from Mexico and Canada without a US passport. Period. We know this because that's what the State Department says:
beginning October 1, 2007, all U.S. Citizens traveling outside the United States will be required to present a valid passport to enter and depart from the United States. This accommodation does not mean that Americans are exempt from meeting the entry requirements of Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or countries in the Caribbean region.

Fine. In early September, my spouse and I sent passport renewal applications with the fees to be expedited and with return Express Mail envelopes. As of Friday, the State Department web site didn't even note that our applications had been received. But you already know about this insanity from this 9/11/07 diary by Annilow.

So are we leaving or not? Are we buying plane reservations or not? I just don't know. But it's entirely obvious that we're not going to Mexico without the renewed passports.

The government says it has tried to remedy this problem of inordinate delays. According to a New York Times article in July, 2007
To meet the record level of demand for passports that new travel restrictions have created, a State Department official said, the agency has asked its employees to work overtime processing applications and answering phones. The department has also asked retirees to help with the backlog.

That was 3 months ago. And just today, the Times reported
STILL waiting for that passport you applied for this summer? The State Department says it’s on its way. The time it takes to process a passport has returned to the usual six to eight weeks, a welcome change for many Americans whose travel plans were upset this summer as the department’s staff worked through a substantial backlog.

Did you get that? "The usual six to eight weeks". What a joke. Form DS-82, the instructions(pdf , paragraph 3) for applying for a renewal, which I downloaded when I got my application on line says
For faster processing, you may request expedited service. Expedited requests will be process in three workdays from receipt at a passport agency. The additional fee for expedited service is $60....

I'm not laughing.

Where are the "resources" to handle this supposed "security issue" of issuing renewal passports? Evidently, while there are apparently insufficient personnel for the entirely routine issuance of my renewal passport, there is more than enough personnel ready to root through my suitcases and to list the books I carry and their authors.
Homeland Security officials said this week they generally are not interested in reading habits. "I flatly reject the premise the department is interested in what travelers are reading," Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said. "We are completely uninterested in the latest Tom Clancy novel that the traveler may be reading."

But, Knocke said, "if there is some indication ... that leads the inspection officer to conclude there could be a possible violation of the law, it is the front-line officer's duty to further scrutinize the traveler."

OK. I'm carrying and have carried the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (a friend of Allende and a leftist), Robert Bolano (a friend of Allende and a leftist), Pablo Neruda (a Nobel laureate who was a communist). Is that subversive enough? And what about all of the others carrying books by the same authors? Do all of them, like me, have to be surveilled and does the government have to find out what the connections between us might be?

I know all this reading and literary analysis is hard, time consuming work. For all I know, the government may be hiring hundreds and hundreds of literature graduate students to read these books and decide whether particular books are sufficiently subversive to require making connections between their readers. It's a measure of how crazy the government has become that it hasn't been hiring enough people for the ministerial task of issuing renewal passports and it might need people with Masters' degrees to distill data about literature.

Even if one were to put aside all of the legal and Constitutional issues in this bizarre surveillance program, other than creating an even more seemless police state, exactly what is the point of saving all of this literary material for a decade and a half and continuing to analyze it?

Do we all have to watch the wonderful police-state surveillance movie, The Lives of Others, finally to understand what this is all about? And how restrictions on leaving East Germany were used to prop up the government?

Update (9/24): The government website says that my passport has been mailed to me and that I should get it today. I'm delighted. However, I don't withdraw any of the above.

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lunes, septiembre 17, 2007

Garcia Marquez And The Days Of Awe

Initially, it seemed like a clever idea. I’d ask my dad, who is 88 years old, to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s apparently final book, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, and tell me what he thought of it. This was clever: the narrator of the book is celebrating his 90th birthday when he decides to visit the brothel in an unnamed South American city, where he falls in love with a sleeping 14 year-old he will come to idealize and call “Delgadina.” My dad is almost 90, so he might have a unique perspective on the book. The book is thin, Marquez’s thinnest, and spare, and as one critic wrote, requires an almost Biblical parsing. The critics, of course, don’t agree about it. The Times of London noted that when the book was released in 2004 booksellers in Colombia stopped traffic to sell half priced copies to passing motorists and suggested that similar excitement in London would be appropriate. The New York Times, on the other hand, gave it a “D”. Unfortunately, clever ideas hardly ever turn out as planned. My dad said he liked the book, and that it was a testament to the great power of love. There would be no other memorable quotes, nothing more to add to a review.

My own reading of the book evoked my mortality. I’m not anywhere near 90, but some of the future mileposts on the already begun journey of aging are of importance: loss of vibrancy and vitality, diminishing acuity, isolation, loss of love, loss of companionship, withdrawal from the world, all the issues overcome by the narrator’s surprisingly falling deeply in love with the sleeping girl. That this love is unconsummated only intensifies its strength, it’s gift of life. But it’s the unsurprising failure of the narrator’s capacities that undergirds the story and burnishes its brightness in his twilight.

A visit from my dad, in whom I see so much of myself, also tends to evoke the same concerns. I see him, thin, shrunken, weighing less than ever, bundled in a jacket and knit hat and blanket, asleep in a chair with his chin on his chest, Marquez’s book open on the couch next to him. His hearing even with twin hearing aids is poor. His memory disconcertingly returns to events some four decades before, events long forgotten even by the participants, and he talks about their significance and his feelings about them as if they were yesterday’s sharp slight. He tends to repeat himself. His vocabulary is somehow frozen in a previous decade. Is it too obvious to point out that in my mind I don’t think of him like this? I persist in recalling him as a much younger man. His present appearance always comes as a shock. As does his unconsciously making strange faces and noises. And I wonder secretly whether this is where I am surely headed. Will I wake up one morning and be him or be even more like him?

His visit is for Rosh Hashanah. And these are now the Days of Awe. If the Master of the Universe writes on Rosh Hashanah what will happen in each of our lives in the upcoming year, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are for teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedaka, turning inward to assess one’s self, prayer, and good works, before our next year is determined. The Days of Awe are about mitigating the judgment of who will live and who will die, who will prosper and who will suffer, it’s about noticing past errors and making amends for them, it’s about prayer and good works to set things aright. So naturally, this time of year, as the leaves begin to turn, as the winds begin to become colder, as the fruit falls from the trees, evokes the world beyond.

My children wonder why I act so strange, so unusual when my dad is visiting. Why do I seem so ungrounded? Why do I seem so weak? Why do I seem so distracted? I think all of this is a sadness at the inevitability and relentlessness of impermanence. It may be my fear and absorption in the thought that all too soon, my vitality may visibly wane. I may find myself completely alone. I may be stuck in some simulacrum of the remote past, and I may be unable to find passion, excitement, direction, and vibrancy. My body may fall apart. I may fall unknowingly into a strange form of sleep from which I cannot fully awaken. Sometimes, like when I am in the dentist’s chair, impermanence is a friend; sometimes, however, its termites relentlessly attack the beams supporting my present life. It may be arrogant or even insane to ignore the progression of time, but this week my impermanence is directly and constantly in my face. This makes life, and Marquez’s book, all the sweeter.

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lunes, septiembre 10, 2007

9/11, The Sixth Anniversary

There are three 9/11's worth our consideration. 9/11/01 in New York. 9/11/06 in India. 9/11/73 in Chile. Last year, I wrote about Chile and India. And now, six years later, I still don't want to write about New York in the same way that I never liked to write the obligatory essay about what I did during the summer. Frankly, I'd rather think about something else. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. For example, here are the lyrics of the 1998 Cry, Cry, Cry song, The Kid:

I'm the kid who ran away with the circus
Now I'm watering elephants
But I sometimes lie awake in the sawdust
Dreaming I'm in a suit of light
Late at night in the empty big top
I'm all alone on the high wire
Look he's working without a net this time
He's a real death defyer

I'm the kid who always looked out the window
Failing tests in geography
But I've seen things far beyond just the school yard
Distant shores of exotic lands
There're the spires of the Turkish Empire
Six months since we made landfall
Riding low with the spice of India
Through Gibralter
We're rich men

I'm the kid who thought we'd someday be lovers
Always held out that time would tell
Time was talking guess I just wasn't listening
No surprise if you know me well
And as we're walking toward the train station
There's a whispering rainfall
Cross the boulevard you slip your hand in mine
In the distance the train calls

I'm the kid who has this habit of dreaming
Sometimes gets me in trouble too
But the truth is I could no more stop dreaming
Than I could make them all come true

I too am a kid with the habit of dreaming. And when it comes to the constant repetition of words and images and analysis about 9/11 and its aftermath, my mind goes out for a walk. It goes right out the window and it keeps going until it gets somewhere. To be honest, today I really prefer that.

Be well.

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sábado, septiembre 08, 2007

Stopping Anger Writing

I posted the following at daily Kos yesterday, because I've decided to take a respite from writing and posting political arguments. The diaries and comments I'm referring to are here. I've been writing and posting these kinds of things at daily Kos for about seven months. The post:

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

I'm not saying Adios or even farewell. It's more like "see you after a while." I'm just going for a while to the woodshed:
To lock oneself away with a musical instrument and practice, either a particular piece or in general, until the player has improved greatly or can perfectly play the piece he has been practicing.
I'm just going to lock myself away for a while.
I'll be back.

I haven't been here for very long. Many of you have been here much longer than I. After all, I have UID 111,172. I've written a fair number of diaries and a bunch of comments. I feel that what I've written has generally been well received. And I believe that I've been fairly treated, even when there have been disagreements. You haven't troll rated me, and you've often complimented me. So it's not about you, dear Kossacks, that I'm writing this. I feel well treated by the community.

No. It's entirely about me. I notice that I'm falling into a rut. And the name of the rut is being consumed by my anger and perpetuating it and spreading it around and recycling it.

To be frank and very brief, I'm disgusted by all three branches of the Government, and I don't trust them. And I intensely dislike politicians, even the ones, maybe it's especially the ones, who purport to be on "my side." I'm sickened by interminable War and widespread killing of Americans and people from other countries and civilians. I'm outraged by blatant, sledgehammer attacks on the Constitution and the nonsensical arguments used to "justify" them. I'm horrified by repeated human rights abuses in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram. And I'm enraged by oppression of immigrants, gays and lesbians and transgender people, women, minorities, people of color, the poor. The list is almost interminable.

You all know this list, this litany, which I've abbreviated here.

And you all know that being a part of the "reality based community" somehow means seeing these things and learning about them and being angry about these things and expressing that anger vehemently.

I'm concerned about this, because I don't think it's good for me as a person to continue to consume and circulate so much anger so much of the time. I feel like the anger is driving out any pleasure I might find in life. I feel like the anger is overwhelming me.

As Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, a hero of mine, has written about anger:
Not only do we nourish our anger with edible food, but also through what we consume with our eyes, ears, and consciousness. The consumption of cultural items is also linked to anger. Therefore, developing a strategy for consuming is very important.

What we read in magazines, what we view on television, can also be toxic. It may also contain anger and frustration. A film is like a piece of beefsteak. It can contain anger. If you consume it, you are eating anger, you are eating frustration. Newspaper articles, and even conversations, can contain a lot of anger.

You may feel lonely sometimes and want to talk to someone. In one hour of conversation, the other person's words may poison you with a lot of toxins. You may ingest a lot of anger, which you will express later on. That is why mindful consumption is very important. When you listen to the news, when you read a newspaper article, when you discuss something with others, are you ingesting the same kind of toxins that you ingest when you eat unmindfully?

And so it is for me with blogging. In short, what I've been thinking and writing and reading and typing is anger. I'm over-consuming and circulating anger. And I think that I have been doing more and more and more of it, and less and less and less of anything else. I see myself becoming addicted to being angry and self righteous, and I don't think this is good for me. I also don't think it's good for my interactions with others.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches and the days of Awe (the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), I think I want to go on an "anger fast" and a "blog fast." I want to turn inward, to practice Teshuva. I want to stop. And I want to take stock. This is the time for that. If I have offended you in my time here, dear Kossacks, in what I have written, especially in my comments, I apologize to you for that.

This is a very good time of the year for such a fast from blogging. So I intend to take a trip to the woodshed for an indeterminate stay. I intend to stop writing politics for a while, I intend to stop commenting. I intend to stop encouraging others to be angry. I intend, of course, to continue writing my lit blog, and working, and writing my second novel. I'm not fasting from writing. I intend to spend the time I would spend here, reading and writing and being angry, on my family.

And I intend to take good care of my anger, and to increase my feelings of compassion toward all sentient beings. That doesn't make the government less assholes. It just means that instead I'm going to notice the warmth of this season, the ragweed blooms, the wasps, and the change of the seasons. I'm going to focus on things that make me happy, things that bring me joy. I'm going to listen to music I love (Vico C), and I'm going to enjoy the out of doors.

Eventually, I will probably come back to dKos. When I do, I hope that I will have more equanimity, that I will be able to bring joy even in these dire and threatening times, and that I will be able to surf anger rather than drown in it.

Thank you for reading this and for all of your support. Hasta proximo.

And also, dear readers of The Dream Antilles, I want to take this opportunity to say that if I have offended you in what I have written here and elsewhere I apologize.

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