The News from Ecuador this Week

My weekly Ecuadorian news round-up is over at Southern Exposure. Sneak preview: it contains volcanic eruptions and naked prison protests. (Southern Exposure, by the way, is now a part of Living in Latin America.)


El Nino, Lightning, and Civil War Ninjas

These are the best couple of essays I’ve seen since Civil War Ninjas.


“Wimps and Barbarians”

Terrence O. Moore says boys today too often don’t grow up to be real men of character. But he’s got a solution: teach them to be neither wimps nor barbarians.



FYI, Limecat is not pleased.


A Few Notable Items

mypetfat “consists of a 1oz. replica of body fat and a set of thoughts that are called mind stretches. Together, they are the mypetfatTM program.” (Thanks to David Z. for the link.)

–The ever-prescient Nick M. sends along this excellent link: “The Road to Turducken, Part 2”: “The second day of the journey to the heart of turducken is one of brutality and strife, a far cry from the homey warmth of stuffing smells and southern comfort foods.”

–The most laughable thing I’ve heard in a long time: Dubya says “No President has ever done more for human rights than I have.” Um, okay. Just ask those POW’s–sorry: “enemy combatants”–down in Gitmo. I’m sure they’ll agree.

AP: “BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – A man was mauled by a lion after jumping into its pen at the Buenos Aires Zoo and holding out his jacket as if it were a bull fighter’s cape, doctors said Monday.”


Dispatch from DC

I’m back in DC. All’s well. I arrived Sunday evening. The trip was fine. It’s good to be back in Washington.

I’ll be living and working here (minus a few out-of-town weekend sojourns) until late February. Then it’ll be back to South Carolina for a few days before making my way West-ward (to the Pacific Northwest) in order to head Far-Eastward (Asia) for my next English teaching job.


Once Again, I’m Hittin’ the Road…

I just cannot settle down in one place, it seems.

I won’t be posting again until Monday or Tuesday. I’m leaving tomorrow morning to brave I-95 and drive from here, the southern coast of South Carolina, up to Washington, DC. My second such drive in less than two weeks. Eight hours of interstate highway excitement. (And yes, I’ll be stopping, like I always do, for a burrito and an orange soda and some fireworks at South of the Border.)

I’ll be doing some Web strategies consulting in DC through late February and will be living with my friend Chris D. I’m looking forward to it; afterwards, I’ll be returning home to SC for a brief visit before beginning teaching in East Asia in March.


My Favorite Bloggers’ Favorite Books of 2003

What was the best book you read during the last year?

I surveyed a select group of my favorite bloggers and asked them just that. Their answers–which ranged from the Chicago Manual of Style to a compendium of writings by a Ukranian anarchist–didn’t disappoint:

Blogger: Dana
Blog: NumberOneHitSong

Dana says:

“…I am ashamed to admit that this year has not been an auspicious one for me in terms of reading. I think I’m still catching up with 2002. As a matter of fact, I do believe that the only two new books I’ve bought this year are Genesis by Jim
Crace (still unfinished) and the reissue of Erroll Flynn’s autobio. I’d have to say, then, that for me the bestest, mostest book of 2003 that *I’ve* read is the newest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style.

It’s really awesome, and totally scandalous in that they’ve changed a whole buncha rules (no more periods in degree abbreviations! Horreur!) and offered, for the first time, a grammar section. I know, it’s no Vernon God Little, but I’m an editor–to me, this is like Christ (to paraphrase Dostoeyvsky).”

Blogger: Lockhart Steele
Blog: Lockhart Web Presence

Lockhart writes:

“Gary Shteyngart, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.” The first novel I’ve read that compels me to cite “Confederacy of Dunces” as the best comparison. Bonus: For my money, does the best job handling the Eastern European zeitgeist all the rage these days among big-ass novelists.”

Blogger: Choire Sicha

Choire responds:

Manhattan, When I Was Young
Mary Cantwell, 1995

Putting aside all beloved and be-hated books by friends, acquaintances, and enemies, I read a few great books by strangers this year, not one of which, I think, was published in 2003. Well, clearly: the best book published in 2003 was Joan Didion’s Where I Was From, with its absolutely startling end and painful roaming. Honestly I have no idea if the Didion book was as brilliant as I think it is, as I was overwhelmed this year myself by a return to the California of my childhood. My California, it turns out, was identically fraudulent to hers. Horrible amazing place — soon enough I’ll be compelled to live there as punishment, I’m sure.

Anyway. So a book about Manhattan, and about being young. This memoir is rather a perfect antidote to the New York diaries of Ned Rorem as he careens in the same years from AA meeting to Yadoo to sexual and spiritual deflation. Mary Cantwell’s autobiography of becoming a woman in Greenwich Village in the 50s and 60s benefits from what she says is her absolute recall or amnesia of moments and events. I never trust a memoirist, and am often disgusted (usually pleasantly) by a diarist — so often the past is rearranged into pretty retrospective equations. But one absolutely believes the Cantwell book. Her omissions are complete, and her inclusions seem intensely accurate. It’s a book to appreciate particularly after one has been in Manhattan for a good while, and one can look back on one’s old apartments and lovers and fuck-ups, and think: I was that scared, and as misguided, and I kept at it anyway as well.”

Blogger: Randy Paul
Blog: Beautiful Horizons

Randy says:

“My favorite book of the past year was (drumroll, please): Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”, which also won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s incredibly well researched, the documentation is solid and the content is very prescient.”

Blogger: Brendan Huhn
Blog: Ask Brendan

Brendan answers:

“These are the best books I read in 2003. As I mentioned I try only to read paperback, so I’m usually a year behind the times.

I don’t like hardcovers because they are too heavy and I always lose the dust jackets. I also feel obligated to keep hardcovers, which I hate, because I’m a free-spirit and I don’t need worldly things to weigh me down.

Anyhow, my list: Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L. Bernstein

Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker by James McManus

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker

Friedrich Hayek: A Biography by Alan O. Ebenstein

The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek

Law’s Order: What Economics Has to Do with Law and Why It Matters by David D. Friedman”

Blogger: Al Giordano
Blog: Big, Left, Outside

Al says:

“That’s not an easy question. Right now I’m reading “Los Hombres Verdaderos: voces y testimonios tojolabales,” by Carlos Lenkersdorf, a 1996 work by a linguist who has put in the leg work since 1973 living and sharing with Tojolabal people in their communities in Chiapas, Mexico, and whose findings are causing problems for me (and others) because if what he’s saying is true – that the Tojolabal language has no objects, only subjects, or what he calls “intersubjectivity” it could potentially erase, or severely amend, 30 years of conclusions about the cracking of the Maya code, of the phonetic nature of the glyphs found on ancient Maya ruins.

I’m also reading a delightful draft of a book, so far without title, by Raquel Guti�rrez Aguilar, the Mexican mathematician and La Jornada columnist, that is both autobiographical and analytical: much of it was written, or begun, from a women’s prison in Bolivia when she was imprisoned for years, accused of being comandanta of the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army, telling the story of what really happened.

Other books I really liked reading a lot this year were two about Tina Modotti… “Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti,” by Patricia Albers, and “Tina Modotti: A Fragile Life,” by Mildred Constantine, both in English, which, you can imagine, as an Italian-American with various economic and sometimes even legal exile problems, in Latin America, there’s a strong identity factor with Modotti and her trials and travails.

I should also give a runner-up to “Nestor Makhno: E A Revolu��o Social na Ucr�nia,” a collection of the early 20th century Ukranian anarchist’s writings, which, when I started learning Portuguese during three months in Brazil this year was the book through which I took out the dictionary and started looking up the words, one by one.

Ah, but you want to know the “best,” which is sure to get me in trouble…

The best book I read in 2003 is one I started in December 2002, and a book I totally disagree with, to the point of it having angered me, a book so infuratingly compelling that it made me want to write a rebuttal: “The Rage and the Pride,” by Orianna Fallaci. Although I completely differ with her conclusions about interpreting September 11th, her longform essay journalism doesn’t get any better than the way Fallaci can still do it. She takes you, the reader, punches you in the nose, grabs you by the collar, and shakes until you want to either surrender or punch back.

I don’t read – or at least don’t finish – a lot of books by journalists about Latin America or the oft-mentioned Latin American novelists of our time. Lord knows I *try* to read a lot of it. But I find most of them to be total crap, written from formula, trying to impress the elites and not succeeding at telling much truth. The kind of work Fallaci produces, or, likewise, in the ongoing book that might be called “the communiques of Subcomandante Marcos,” or even what some of my journalism students have been producing over the past year, simply wipe the floor with what most people who call themselves journalists or writers who get published churn out these days for a price. My view is that if a book doesn’t provoke me it has failed me as a reader. That’s why this year’s “best” goes to a work with a thesis that I don’t share. But it’s so well told, that I forgive even its wrongheaded conclusions.”

Blogger: Miguel Octavio
Blog: The Devil’s Excrement

Miguel writes:

“Fiction: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

An imaginative book with sentences full of wisdom as Pi (for Piscine, swimming pool in French) Patel grows up in India and describes his terrible ordeal fleeing. Some of the situations are so absurd but despite that fact Martel makes them credible. The book just flows through, easy yet imaginative and very enjoyable. Quite different and some phrases are insightful. I loved these two:

To prosper, a zoo needs parliamentary government, democratic elections, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, rule of law and everything else enshrined in India’s Constitution. Impossible to enjoy animals otherwise. Long-term, bad politics is bad for business.

People move because of the wear and tear of anxiety. Because of the gnawing feeling that no matter how hard they work their efforts will yield nothing, that what they build up in one year will be torn down in one day by others. Because of the impression that the future is blocked up, that they might do all right but not their children. Because of the feeling that nothing will change, that happiness and prosperity are possible only somewhere else.

Non-Fiction: The future of freedom by Fareed Zakaria.

A book about democracy at a time that people either take it for granted or don’t realize you have to defend it and fight for it. I particularly liked the descriptions of why the concept is hard to sell in Islamic societies. It also discusses how sometimes it is difficult to defend democracy despite its attributes. Definitely food for thought.”

Blogger: Dan Drezner

Dan writes:

“The best book I read last year was Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales’ Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists. An outstanding book on the merits of open markets and the political economy of efforts to prevent such openness.”

Finally, this humble blogger, who spent 2003 living in Ecuador and lacking a television and other distractions, read plenty.

And while Richard Ford’s “The Sportswriter,” as I’ve mentioned, renewed my hope in novels about American men, my nod goes to “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Jared Diamond’s sprawling treatise on global history.

The book is stunning in power and scope–and it offered an answer to a question I’ve always wondered about: why is that civilizations on different continents have developed so differently? Why does Japan flourish while the Ivory Coast decays? Why did colonists from Western Europe subjugate the rest of the world, and not the other way around? It all depends on environmental factors, Diamond says. And he makes a very convincing argument.

That’s it for this year. Thanks to the bloggers above, who kindly took the time to send me their thoughts.


Miscellaneous Items

–My friend Colin R. recently launched a New York-based software development firm called Cyrus Innovation. If Cyrus’s excellent site is any indication of the work they do, then they clearly produce user-centered, high-quality stuff.

–I mentioned Richard Ford in my last post. He’s a writer I’ve begun reading recently. And man, is he good. I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on his work all these years. “The Sportswriter” is a brilliant book. Ford captures, better than anyone else writing today, what it is to be an American man. And I mean that. Here’s a profile of Ford, and here’s a link to “The Sportswriter.” I now put Ford on the list of my favorite writers, right up there with Truman Capote, Joan Didion, and Flannery O’Connor.

–The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a funny article about how some academics and publishers want to banish the colon from book titles. Someone once said that the problem with academia is that professors get paid to be clever–not to be right. (Related: Check out the Postmodern English Title Generator, which, I must point out, makes ample use of the colon.)

–Tom Friedman says 9-11 “amounts to World War III” and lays out some ways to ensure that Islamic militants can’t “erode our lifestyle.” I’m waiting for the day when Friedman, who’s so good at explaining big-picture stuff like globalization and terrorism, says he was wrong to advocate the Iraq war as an effective way to make America safer. I guess we won’t know for a while either way, though.


Why I Love Wilco

This is a topic I’ve been meaning to address for many months. I’ve been putting it off because I’ve felt I can’t possibly articulate how much I love the music produced by Wilco. But I’ll try.

I discovered the Chicago-based band about a year ago, when I attended, within the span of a month, 1) a screening of the documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” about the recording of their latest album, and 2) a live Wilco performance at Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club. Several of my friends, notably Chris D., Chris H., and Miles B., had been praising the band for years, but I’d never listened to any of their albums.

After seeing the excellent film and then seeing the band live (they play a mixture of, and I know this is gonna sound ridiculous but there’s no way around it, alt-country/pop/folk/rock), I purchased just about all of their albums and have since come under their spell.

Why? Because their songs are both complex and catchy. Wilco’s music is multi-layered and well-conceived and well-played–but it always contains elements of pop. Wilco’s musicians value instrumentation, but you can always tap your toes to their tunes. If their albums were books, they’d be the novels of Don Delillo or Richard Ford: artful, intricate, and really smart, but accessible.

Wilco was formed when the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo split up in 1994. Jeff Tweedy, one of the singer/songwriters, formed Wilco, and Jay Farrar, the other, founded Son Volt. While Son Volt continued Uncle Tupelo’s tradition of alt-country–steel guitars and lots of twang–Tweedy and his bandmates have, with each successive album, embraced stylistic evolution.

Wilco’s first album was 1995’s A.M., which was straight-ahead rock/pop/country. Then, in 1996, came “Being There,” a resounding critical success: the double album featured, among others, gems like the heartrending “What’s the World Got in Store” and the driving, up-tempo “I Got You (At The End of the Century).”

Next, the band collaborated with Billy Brag to record 15 previously-unreleased Woody Guthrie songs; the result was 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, followed by Volume II, which came out in 2000.

In 1999, sandwiched between the Mermaid Avenue albums, Wilco released “Summer Teeth,” which was at once rife with bubble-gum pop electronic melodies and biting, dark lyrics (such as “I dreamed about killing you again last night / And it felt all right to me”).

And then, in 2002, the story of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” emerged. It was, besides being Wilco’s best effort to date, a metaphor for the modern music industry: the band’s label, AOL Time Warner’s Reprise, heard the finished version of the album and said it needed to be changed–it wouldn’t sell. Wilco refused, was allowed to buy the album back, and, after a bidding war, sold it to another AOLTW subsidiary, Nonesuch.

Wilco, like so many other bands, wanted their artistic freedom; Reprise, like so many other labels, wanted a return on their investment–they thought the album would flop. They were wrong. And their short-sighted misjudgement caused them to lose (only to see their parent company re-buy) one of the best albums of 2002.

Brent Sirota, at the time of the album’s release, said it best:

So does Yankee Hotel Foxtrot justify the controversy, delay and buzz? Everyone, I think, already knows that the answer is yes; all I can offer is “me too” and reiterate. And after half a year living with a bootleg copy, the music remains revelatory. Complex and dangerously catchy, lyrically sophisticated and provocative, noisy and somehow serene, Wilco’s aging new album is simply a masterpiece; it is equally magnificent in headphones, cars and parties. And as anyone who’s seen the mixed-bag crowd at Wilco shows knows, it will find a home in the collections of hippies, frat boys, acid-eating prep schoolers, and the record store apparatchiks of the indiocracy. No one is too good for this album; it is better than all of us.

Beneath the great story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there are all the tropes and symbols and coincidences of a little mythology; but under that is a fantastic rock record…

Of course, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Wilco. My impression, though I haven’t met anyone who feels this way, is that some people think the band’s self-consciously hip–that they try awfully hard to be cool. As someone wrote on Metafilter when the buzz surrounding “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” reached fever pitch,

Wilco — and I’ve tried, honestly I have — have always struck me as like a moody blurred charcoal drawing, and if such things appeal to you, then bravo. As it is, I appreciate the occassional concrete detail, I like to be compelled to dance or something rather than be moodied on, I don’t like the marriage of songcraft with mopiness, and I don’t get such apparently-obvious concepts as what, say, the phrase “summer teeth” is supposed to evoke. Or, for that matter, “I assassin down the avenue.”

Okay, that was a rant. Wilco’s all right. But they do cause overreactions among people who think that blakck-and-white film and uncapitalized titles are Very Arty Indeed.

But I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who agree with that sentiment.

Looking ahead, Wilco has recorded a new album; it should be released this spring.

I can’t wait.