When you get off the plane in Managua, Nicaragua you are greeted by giant portraits of country's two national heroes: the general, Augusto Cesar SandiWhen you get off the plane in Managua, Nicaragua you are greeted by giant portraits of country's two national heroes: the general, Augusto Cesar Sandino, and the poet, Rubén Darío. Little paperback copies of Azul are standard issue for Nicaraguan school kids and can be found behind the counter at every librería around. Although he's not well known outside Latin America, Darío is a pretty big wheel in Spanish literary history, known as the "prince of Castillian letters" and the father of the modernismo poetry movement.
Azul... is a brief collection of prose and poetry. Darío's native habitat is the gardens and parlors of the classically-educated bourgeoisie, and there are a lot of nymphs and satyrs and other classical references. Although he writes almost exclusively about the European-influenced upper classes, many of his stories are fairly critical of them and instead lionize the artist's struggle. The poetry is mostly florid love poetry, although he does do some interesting things with imagery and structure. I found the collection in general to be a bit dated, although diverse enough to be interesting. Plus, it gave my Spanish vocab a big workout....more
Un breve libro de "cuentos de fantasmas" que se basa en los mitos y leyendas tradicionales nicaragüenses, tales como La Cegua y la Carreta Nagua. // AUn breve libro de "cuentos de fantasmas" que se basa en los mitos y leyendas tradicionales nicaragüenses, tales como La Cegua y la Carreta Nagua. // A brief book of "ghost stories" based upon traditional Nicaraguan myths and legends such as La Cegua and la Carreta Nagua....more
Moises Hassan is a ex-Sandinista politician of some note. A U.S.-educated physicist, he was a member of the five-person junta who assumed control of tMoises Hassan is a ex-Sandinista politician of some note. A U.S.-educated physicist, he was a member of the five-person junta who assumed control of the government in 1979 after Somoza fled, and was later mayor of Managua. However in 1988 he became the first high-level Sandinista to publicly break with the FSLN, accusing them of corruption and a general betrayal of the revolution. His exit from the party was a precursor to the schism that happened after their loss in the 1990 elections, when many former comrades broke with Daniel Ortega. Hassan's prescience bolstered his reputation as an independent and principled voice in Nica politics. He has played a Ralph Nader-like role in the decades since: honorable, but marginal, with a couple of doomed presidential runs under his belt.
He's an interesting guy, so it's too bad that he's not very good at writing books. Actually, it's not too surprising - most people aren't very good at writing books. His memoir reads a lot like what you would expect from the un-edited musings of an amateur writer. For starters, the book is almost comically disorganized. The chapters have no discernible themes and meander through recent Nicaraguan history, sometimes bouncing back and forth by decades. He belabors minor points for pages on end, but neglects to add in the necessary context that would make the book more readable. In other words, this is a book in desperate need of an editor.
More problematic is the book's tone and its framing device. Hassan takes the colonial-era folk-theater of El Güegüense as a metaphor for all that is wrong with Nicaraguan political culture: the acceptance of lies and deceit as a way to personal gain. Hence the "curse" of the book's title. With this metaphor in hand, Hassan indicts every major Nicaraguan politician, not just Somoza, not just Ortega and Alemán, but Violeta Chamorro, Enrique Bolaños and so on down the line. In the end, he concludes that the fault is not in the leaders but in the quality of the citizenry that lifts those leaders up. Although corruption is indeed a serious problem, this strikes me as bad sociology that seriously undersells the strengths of the Nicaraguan people. He is raising serious questions, although he admits he doesn't know the answers.
At times he writes as if he were the only honest man in the country, which lends his writing an unpleasant bitter aftertaste. His version of the revolution is a series of endless meetings between government functionaries in sterile offices where someone says something corrupt, or mendacious, or cowardly. In short the book is too disorganized to be read as history, too impersonal for a memoir, and too defeatist to serve as a manifesto. A better organized and edited volume would certainly be worth the effort....more
A fairly technical and academic introduction to neotropical ecosystems. Happily it is also highly readable, consistently fascinating and even amusingA fairly technical and academic introduction to neotropical ecosystems. Happily it is also highly readable, consistently fascinating and even amusing in places. The highlight for me were the long, clear discussions of forest succession and evolutionary patterns in tropical rain forests. Less consistently engaging than Tropical Nature, but also more useful in case you actually wanted to identify that strange [tree, bird, bug, snake] you are looking at....more
In 1966, the Catholic priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal traveled to the Solentiname archipelago in the south of Lake Nicaragua, and there founded an inIn 1966, the Catholic priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal traveled to the Solentiname archipelago in the south of Lake Nicaragua, and there founded an intentional Catholic community. The islands became an outpost of liberation theology, which was then sweeping through Latin America, and the birthplace of a remarkable artistic flourishing. The local people developed a distinctive primitivist style of painting that remains highly influential in Nicaragua, and the songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy journeyed there to compose his song-cycle La Misa Campesina (The Peasant's Mass). In the worship services, Cardenal replaced the traditional sermon with a participatory Bible study, which was tape-recorded and later published as the 4-volume The Gospel in Solentiname.
This very brief book pairs passages from the Bible studies with some of the luminous, primitivist paintings of the Bible passage under discussion. If you're (like me) not likely to dive into the full Gospel in Solentiname this book is a fine introduction to Solentiname's version of liberation theology. And the paintings are fantastic....more
With one exception. In this book, Boff gives himself more space than before to talk about cosmology and quantum mechanics, with disastrous results. For example:
"The fermions within us are our individual and bodily dimension, while bosons are our relationships and spiritual dimension." (p.54)
Gaaaah! Just. No.
And here it's not just a few paragraphs here and there. Basically all of Chapter 2 is devoted to mixing up a big salad of cosmology, quantum mechanics, ecology, biology with a dash of New Age seasoning. Boff's heart is in the right place--he's enthusiastically pro-science, whatever it is--but it's clear that he's read too many popular science books without speaking a word to an actual working scientist. His understanding of the science is superficial when not factually incorrect. This is a big flaw in an otherwise interesting book, and almost a disqualifying one.
The book recovers a bit after Chapter 2, especially in two of the more grounded chapters--one on the destruction of the Amazon, and another on St. Francis of Assisi (the patron saint of ecologists and, one assumes, hippies). The book remains interesting and even moving in places, but too often you have to dig through a lot of guff to find those pearls of wisdom....more
Kinzer's book on Nicaragua in the 1980s, Blood of Brothers, is one of the best and most engaging histories I've read in recent years. (Seriously, if you're at all interested in Latin America or US foreign policy, you should pick it up). But where that book was a panoramic look at revolutionary Nicaragua seen through the lens of a reporter's experiences, Bitter Fruit is much narrower in scope, an intensely detailed analysis of a brief period of time in a small country, much of it based on diplomatic cables and internal documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
The precipitating event for the coup was the agrarian and land reform undertaken by the Arévalo and Arbenz governments, attempting to address the vast social inequalities that had existed in Guatemala since the time of the conquista. In particular, Arbenz sought to take the vast tracts of unused land owned by the Boston-based United Fruit Company and redistribute it to poor farmers. (In an ironic twist, Arbenz offered to pay the greatly undervalued price that UFCo had submitted as its tax evaluation.) The fruit company had enjoyed decades of monopoly, virtually un-taxed profits, unenforced labor laws, compliant governments and full ownership of the country's only Atlantic port and railway. It was practicing capitalism at its most primal, and it had earned an unsavory reputation in most of Central America. Pablo Neruda even wrote a poem about the company's influence.
The authors make the case that Arévalo and Arbenz were not Communists, but rather liberal reformers who admired FDR and wanted to bring the New Deal to Guatemala. Naturally, their reforms were portrayed as a "Soviet beachhead" in the Americas by McCarthy-era Washington, DC. UFCo's lobbying and public relations efforts soon attracted the attention of the incoming Eisenhower administration. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA chief Allen Dulles, quickly put together a small-scale but effective operation to isolate, weaken and ultimately knock Arbenz out of power. It's a pretty intriguing story, replete with phony radio broadcasts, disguised arms shipments, chartered Cessnas dropping leaflets and other 1950s-tech spy stuff.
In a way, it is grimly amusing to see how easy it was to show Arbenz the door. The CIA was even (mostly) able to keep their name out of the press accounts, which presented the coup as the work of anti-Communist Guatemalan patriots. Future CIA operations would not be quite so clean. However, the mendacity of this sort of work does take your breath away when you see it spelled out in all its cynical glory. I recall in particular a US attempt to fake a bombing just over the border in Honduras to better portray Guatemala as an aggressive nation who was a danger to its neighbors. Blame your enemies for your own worst sins, I guess.
As the book's final chapter shows, the 40 years following the coup offered neither stability nor democracy. The authoritarian Castillo Armas lasted three years before being assassinated. He was succeeded by a series of military leaders who oversaw the descent of Guatemala into a lawless right-wing state stalked by death squads. Unable to enact even mild reforms, the left and the indigenous groups retreated to the jungle to wage guerrilla warfare, while the generals hunted them down, along with trade unionists, student leaders, dissident priests and anyone who might pose a challenge to their authority. By the time the peace accords were signed in 1996, over 200,000 Guatemalans were dead or disappeared.
All too often US foreign policy has mistaken the legitimate grievances and nationalist ambitions of other nations for communist subversion, and has acted to place US business interests above respect for democracy or human rights. Guatemala is an unusually clear and uncomplicated example of this. In addition to the tragic consequences for those affected, it's not even clear that this strategy succeeds on its own terms. The 1954 coup only looks like a US victory in the very short term. After that it's a bit of a disaster....more
Lots of books are described as labors of love, but Paul Dix and Pamela Fitzpatrick's somber, moving photo essay certainly qualifies. During the ContraLots of books are described as labors of love, but Paul Dix and Pamela Fitzpatrick's somber, moving photo essay certainly qualifies. During the Contra War of the 1980s, Dix was a Witness for Peace photographer documenting the consequences of war for rural Nicaraguans living in the war zones. Decades later the authors returned to Nicaragua with a stack of 100 photos and criss-crossed the country in buses trying to track down the (usually unnamed) faces found there. Some people were found in the very same village, others had migrated across the country. The result is a beautiful but harrowing portrait of a nation in recovery.
To be honest, the book is fairly grim in places. The contras targeted civilians, especially those with ties to the Sandinistas - literacy volunteers, farm-coop members and the like. And so we meet orphaned children, widows and widowers, grieving parents and an overwhelming number of people who lost limbs to landmines or ambushes. Almost to a person the interviewees say they cannot forget or erase the moment in which violence changed their lives, and even those whose bodies remain whole carry scars. But miraculously, there is a lot of forgiveness found here too. Turning a shoulder to the past is a necessity, in part because contras and Sandinistas come from the same families, still live together in the same villages, and still congregate at the same churches.
By and large, the economic situation for the people had not changed much in the follow-up interviews and the neo-liberal governments that followed the 1990 elections had rolled back many of the Sandinista reforms regarding access to education and health care. The subtext of the book (as well as the subtitle) is the consequences of U.S. policy, and the authors often pose the question, "What would you say to the people of the United States?" More than one person connects U.S. involvement in Nicaragua in the '80s to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today. (Many of the follow-up interviews were conducted in 2002 during the run-up to the Iraq war.)
The U.S. is seemingly constantly at war, but we always arrange to conduct those wars in somebody else's backyard. This book is a reminder of the terrible costs that war exacts on the locals. These sorts of books are typically published years after the war in question is finished, but they still carry important truths that we should keep in mind for the next one....more
An excellent book for anyone who wants to, um, live abroad in Nicaragua. When we were thinking of, you know, living abroad in Nicaragua we were quiteAn excellent book for anyone who wants to, um, live abroad in Nicaragua. When we were thinking of, you know, living abroad in Nicaragua we were quite pleased to find such a specifically titled resource available for purchase. Joking aside, it's actually pretty well done. The authors have many years experience as ex-pats and opine on the many details you'll have to think about. Like any guidebook, the specific details are already expired before it hits the printing press, but the general outline of what to think about is well-done....more
Did not like. This book is basically Oh the Places You'll Go minus the brevity, the charm and the rhyming couplets.
The whisper of a story found hereDid not like. This book is basically Oh the Places You'll Go minus the brevity, the charm and the rhyming couplets.
The whisper of a story found here actually has some promise. The author pulls together some graceful moments and the central idea (spoiler alert: you should follow your dreams!) is plenty good enough to build a book around. When the author confines himself to characterization and description, it's not a bad read.
But as the book goes on, those moments are buried under an avalanche of clumsy, didactic, self-help nonsense. Even worse, this self-help schema is oddly shoehorned into A Complicated Mythology centered around alchemy and stealing bits from various world religions and traditions. To top it off, the last half of the book is basically various characters blathering back and forth in a way that manages to be pompous and cryptic all at the same time.
Finally on page 145 the personified voice of the desert has had enough, crying out "I don't understand what you're talking about." Amen to that, personified voice of the desert! Amen to that.
The main problem here is that the vague philosophizing has completely swallowed and digested the actual story. A lighter touch would make it a much more effective book. A paragraph here, a paragraph there, perhaps a longer section at a dramatic moment. As it is, every page is like a jackhammer driving home the idea of finding your Personal Legend. Enough already. Show me, don't tell me. And the ending is fairly dumb; I really wasn't sure why I was supposed to be inspired by that part at all.
In the interest of finding something nice about the book, I will say that I appreciate the spirit of the endeavor. Serious Important Literature is so often bogged down in miserabilism and drama-mongering that it misses a good portion of the human experience. How many big name award-winning authors can you envision writing about living a happy, good life full of enthusiasm and emotional resiliency. Paulo Coelho hasn't figured out how to write compelling stories about that side of life either, but at least he's trying....more
A pretty entertaining read. Grann tells the tale of Percy Fawcett, an old-school British explorer who disappeared in the 1920s in the Amazon looking fA pretty entertaining read. Grann tells the tale of Percy Fawcett, an old-school British explorer who disappeared in the 1920s in the Amazon looking for the titular lost city. He weaves this together with stories of other obsessives who have followed in search of Fawcett, including the author himself, whose interest in the story leads him to visit the same region where Fawcett disappeared.
For me, the most interesting subtext of the book was the shifting scientific perspectives on the Amazon and its inhabitants -- from the fantastical initial accounts of the conquistadores to the age of scientific colonialism and up through the fascinating recent archaeological discoveries indicating that the region did in fact support advanced, centralized farming civilizations in the centuries before the Spanish arrival.
As others have noted, the ending is a little ridiculous. Grann's considerable showmanship slightly outstrips the content of the story, giving it the occasional feel of a poorly-produced reality TV show that keeps over-promising a big reveal at the end that it can't realistically deliver on. Perhaps this has something to do with how the book started out as a New Yorker article, before being expanded for publication. It's too bad, since the reveal at the end is actually pretty cool, from a scientific perspective....more
A well-written and frequently fascinating overview of tropical rainforests in the Americas, Africa and Asia. A good companion to Tropical Nature, whicA well-written and frequently fascinating overview of tropical rainforests in the Americas, Africa and Asia. A good companion to Tropical Nature, which focuses exclusively on the science, Caufield's book delves into the economics, politics and history of rainforests. Various chapters touch on the ability of traditional forest dwellers to live and farm in the forest and their shameful treatment by colonizers, stories of Costa Rica's Quaker dairy farmers and New Guinea's gold miners, the history of quinine (an anti-malarial drug derived from the bark of the cinchona tree), and above all the tragic, far-reaching and unexpected consequences of deforestation. Caulfield competently integrates a tremendous amount of information, and when she dips into her personal experiences, she can be a funny, tart observer. The only knock on the book is that it is several decades in need of an update....more
A fairly dry academic treatise on U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean. Published in 1982, it's necessarily an incomplete history thA fairly dry academic treatise on U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean. Published in 1982, it's necessarily an incomplete history that misses out on Iran-Contra, the Panama invasion and other notable variations on the theme. Still, it is a valuable piece of historical research, stuffed with information. The explanation and analysis of U.S. economic dominance in the region is especially valuable, since that often takes a backseat to the political and military interventions that normally grab headlines, but is in many ways more important to understand....more
Revolution is a memoir of the author's year spent tramping around Central America with her boyfriend looking to "foment revolution," as the goodbye leRevolution is a memoir of the author's year spent tramping around Central America with her boyfriend looking to "foment revolution," as the goodbye letter to her parents put it (+1 for the use of "foment" in this context). It doesn't seem to have gone very well for her (to say nothing of the Central Americans); it starts off funny and ends up grimly funny. They get fired from several "revolution jobs," get sick, get robbed, spend many weeks living in spider-infested hostels, start to question their pure, undying love for each other. Then they go back home to college.
It's a pretty funny book, and a quick read at 175 pages. The author crafts short, punchy chapters, each relating a self-deprecating story that feels like it's been sanded down by years of sarcastic re-tellings to late-night groups of laughing friends. She adopts a tone of amazed wonderment at her younger self, amazement at her naivete, amazement at the crazy stuff she went through.
There are many sharply realized observations of central america in the 1980s: the grim paranoia of El Salvador under military rule, the manic contradictions of Sandinista Nicaragua, Costa Rica's smug normalcy. I can report that many things about Nicaragua then are still true today -- like the spider-infested hotel rooms. But despite what the blurb says there's no "rumination" about the legacy of the 1980s. Central America is just a bit player in a story about the author's relationship and her process of growing up.
What the book doesn't include is any real sort of emotional summing up. I kept hoping for a little forgiveness for her youthful idealism, some peace made with mistakes made. There is a conclusion of sorts at the end of the book, but it is way less conventional. No doubt this is by design because perhaps the author still doesn't feel summed up about that period in her life. ...more
The story about the Zapatistas has always been that their rebellion, launched on New Year's Day 1994, was in protest of NAFTA, which went into effectThe story about the Zapatistas has always been that their rebellion, launched on New Year's Day 1994, was in protest of NAFTA, which went into effect on that day. Collier's book makes it clear that the economic, social and political changes that fueled the rebellion were mostly local and national in origin, and had been brewing for decades. NAFTA was a convenient post-facto news peg, although a compelling one since the treaty promised an accelerated version of the economic disruption that sparked the uprising in the first place.
The book discusses a number of changes to the society of southern Mexico over the years -- including the abandonment of agrarian reform by the ruling party, the oil boom and credit crisis in the early 1980s, the rise and co-optation of numerous peasant movements -- documenting how those changes reverberated through the indigenous social and economic networks. One key conclusion seems to be that a neo-liberal economic agenda paired with an authoritarian political structure is a recipe for trouble.
Although the book is a great introduction to context in which the Zapatistas arose, they themselves are largely absent from the story, appearing only in a handful of manifestos and media interviews. It was originally published in 1994, only a few months after the EZLN burst onto the international scene and well before anyone knew quite what to make of them. That also makes the book fairly dated. Eighteen years of NAFTA, plus rising drug violence and mass migration across Mexico's "other border" have surely re-written the story of southern Mexico yet again....more
Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian theologian and former priest who was one of the early proponents of liberation theology within the Catholic Church. AfterLeonardo Boff is a Brazilian theologian and former priest who was one of the early proponents of liberation theology within the Catholic Church. After several high-profile feuds with the hierarchy, Boff left the church in 1992. Since then he has written extensively on the connections between environmental destruction, poverty and injustice. He remains fairly influential in Latin America and has close ties with a lot of social movements in the region. His goal for this book is to articulate (or resuscitate?) an ecumenical, post-Berlin Wall version of liberation theology and base it in the critical need to conserve the environment.
Boff's general focus and conclusions are good stuff, and there is a lot to like and think about in this book, but for the most part I found his method of writing frustrating and a little bit baffling. Boff is an exuberant writer, but not a precise one. He doesn't build up his arguments piece-by-piece with an eye towards convincing you that they make sense, instead he plucks declarative sentences from the sky and arranges them in front of you. You get stuff like "mysticism is life itself apprehended in its radicalism and extreme density" (p.161). If you're already on his same wavelength then maybe that's really deep and moving, but if you're not, well, Boff never offers much to help you figure what the heck he's talking about.
(Two caveats: one, the translation seems poor and perhaps it's more compelling in the original language, and two, from the little I've read of Cry of the Earth Cry of the Poor, that book seems tighter and more analytical. Also: I've not read much of this type of theological writing before, so maybe it gets easier with practice.)
I was most interested by the incorporation of science into this paradigm. He occasionally prompts eye-rolls when he cites the "weirdness" of quantum mechanics or relativity as direct support for his mystical worldview (Deepak Chopra would be proud). Other times he pushes a maximalist interpretation of legitimate scientific conclusions that is at odds with the cautious, evidence-based perspective of working scientists. To give one example, he claims "the basic concept of nature seen from an ecological standpoint is that everything is related to everything else in all respects" (p.10). Really? In all respects? This sentence takes a mundane insight of ecology (that life webs are rich and complex) and amps it up to the level of mystical revelation.
In Boff's defense, he is emphatically pro-science and is not one of those who is pushing for skepticism of scientific findings in the name of preserving religion. Indeed, the Big Idea in this work is that theology should learn from the insights of ecology, and that a truly ecological perspective brings us closer to the Divine. In addition, his advocacy of "mysticism" turns in part on a redefinition of "spirit" to avoid the long-standing problems of dualism. In other words, his mysticism is at least somewhat reconciled to science. He does finger "rationalism" and "scientific messianism" as the main culprits in environmental contamination, but is clear that this criticism does not extend to "science" writ large.
In the end, perhaps it is best to approach this book like you would a book of poetry, or a sermon, and on that front, Boff can be fascinating, beautiful and moving in places. YMMV....more
This book contains the transcripts of 5 lectures given at the Universidad Centroamerica (UCA) in Managua, Nicaragua in early 1986. The lectures outlinThis book contains the transcripts of 5 lectures given at the Universidad Centroamerica (UCA) in Managua, Nicaragua in early 1986. The lectures outline Chomsky's views on U.S. foreign policy with a specific focus on Latin America and the then-ongoing contra war that the U.S. was waging against the Sandinista government.
In Chomsky's view, U.S. foreign policy is guided by the need to secure U.S. interests (primarily corporate business interests) rather than by the ideals of human rights and democracy that are typically the stated goals. This leads to consistent U.S. support for right-wing factions in other countries, even murderous ones, and to oppose left-wing movements, even peaceful democratically elected ones. Paraphrasing JFK, the U.S. prefers to support democracies, but will support "a Trujillo" (right-wing dictator) if that is what is needed to prevent "a Castro."
Chomsky marshalls an impressive level of evidence for his hypothesis -- skillfully deploying internal U.S. documents and letting the sordid history of U.S. 20th century involvement in Latin America speak for itself. It's hard to disagree with this thesis after learning the history of the Contra War in Nicaragua, or the civil war in El Salvador, or the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, or numerous other examples.
Having read a lot of Chomsky in my time (I took a fantastic class on him in college), my main gripe with him is his rhetorical style. One could quibble with his analysis and the way he bulldozes over wrinkles and complications, but his role as a counter-narrator is important and vital. More problematic is how he revels in making statements that are shockingly counter to mainstream U.S. political discourse, but then characterizing those statements as "obvious" and not deserving much in the way of supporting argumentation. More often than not this comes off as anti-pedagogical, and I can only imagine fuels his marginalization. If you're not already on board with his analysis he doesn't exactly lead you by the hand. Probably since he's been railing against the mainstream consensus for so many decades now it might be hard to muster the effort anymore. Over time he tends to repeat himself as well, such that one can almost predict what phrase he is going to use in advance.
Still, Chomsky is essential reading for understanding U.S. foreign policy, even if you don't necessarily buy into every facet of his analysis. At this point in my life I'm more interested in writers and thinkers who can communicate outside the choir, so I am always wishing that Chomsky would engage more with the mainstream and rather than simply dismissing that position. Still this volume of lectures is actually a pretty good, and brief, introduction to his thinking.
(In one of the Q&As included here there is an interesting moment as Chomsky smacks down the suggestion from a questioner that the USSR -- at that moment a Nicaraguan ally -- is better than the US. As hard as he is on the US, he brooks no suggestion that the Soviet Union was anything other than a brutal and repressive dictatorship.)
[First read this for a class in college, back in early 1997. Re-reading it now because... Managua!]...more
Gioconda Belli is one of Nicaragua's most famous and widely-read authors, and Sofia De Los Presagios (Sofía of the Omens) is her atmospheric second noGioconda Belli is one of Nicaragua's most famous and widely-read authors, and Sofia De Los Presagios (Sofía of the Omens) is her atmospheric second novel. As a young child, Sofía is accidentally abandoned by her gypsy parents in the small Nicaraguan village of Diriá, where she is taken in and raised by two members of the community.
The first section of the novel is a classic feminist tale of a young (and beautiful, and rich) woman struggling to escape a suffocating marriage and find her own voice. For those who have read Belli's excellent memoir, The Country Under My Skin, the autobiographical echoes of Sofia's struggle will be apparent. Unlike her author, Sofía doesn't run off to join the revolution, but leaving her husband does exact from her a high social price within the confines of her village.
Belli is writing here in the Latin American tradition of magic realism. Sofía is guided in her journey by a trio of brujos (witches) who try to read and shape her destiny and help her develop her feminine, earth-mother-y power. The magic here isn't as fantastical as you might find elsewhere, but instead serves as vehicle for understanding the protagonist's psychology.
The book's second act is both more interesting and less exciting. Once freed from her marriage, Belli allows her heroine all sorts of screw-ups. We see Sofía as selfish, self-deluded, reckless, occasionally cruel. As she works through her deep-seated fears of abandonment she wrecks all sorts of havoc on her friends and enemies alike. It's good drama, but I kinda lost track of how many midnight, mountaintop cleansing rituals there had been, and what their supposed point was.
The biggest flaw here is the occasional essentialism -- Women are like this! Gypsies are like that! The one who comes off worst is Fausto -- a passive and sexless Gay Best Friend straight out of a '90s rom-com. But minor flaws aside, an enjoyable read....more
Dickey spent some time dodging bullets with the Contra comandante "Suicida" in the north of Nicaragua and his vivid recollections of that time form thDickey spent some time dodging bullets with the Contra comandante "Suicida" in the north of Nicaragua and his vivid recollections of that time form the heart of the book. But his reconstruction of the creation of the Contras (the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces, or FDN) following the 1979 Sandinista revolution is just as fascinating. His thoroughly reported history is a glimpse into the murky world of CIA covert operations, touching on El Salvador's network of right-wing death squads, Cuban-funded left-wing guerrillas, and the ever-shifting alliances of Latin American politics. The narrative swashbuckles like a spy thriller, but, you know, in real life.
The picture that emerges of Suicida in particular and the Contras in general is not pretty. While many of the Contra footsoldiers were small farmers with legitimate grievances with the (often corrupt and/or incompetent) Sandinista government, the book makes clear that the Contras were birthed by exiled officers of Somoza's guardia, nurtured by significant funding from the CIA and given political cover from the highest reaches of the Reagan administration. It's no surprise that war turns out to be hell, and Dickey describes in detail the unrestrained violence of the contra forces: attacks on civilian centers, bus bombings, bridge detonations, land mines, forced conscription, execution of prisoners, even the mining of a civilian harbor.
The main message that emerges from the narrative is that conflict strengthens the hard-liners on both sides, making negotiation impossible. Reagan believed the Sandinistas to be a Soviet beach-head in the Americas, so he organized a Contra assault on the country. The Sandinistas responded by declaring a state of emergency and turning to Russia for support and arms. The ideologues on both sides were able to say to their more conciliatory colleagues, "See, I told you so."...more
Tropical Nature provides an elegant and engaging introduction to the ecology of new world tropical rain forests. It is organized into 17 pithy chapterTropical Nature provides an elegant and engaging introduction to the ecology of new world tropical rain forests. It is organized into 17 pithy chapters each of which focuses on a particular piece of the ecosystem: frogs, army ants, birds, etc. Each chapter provides an introduction to the various critters as well as a fascinating history of how that species evolved to fill its particular niche. Indeed, one of the book's strengths is its continual focus on the how's and why's of evolution as the drivers of the astounding biodiversity on display in these forests.
All in all, a truly excellent piece of popular science writing. After reading this I feel ever so slightly less ignorant about biology!...more
This is the first full book that I've read in Spanish! It was slow at first because I felt this weird pressure to look up every single word I didn't kThis is the first full book that I've read in Spanish! It was slow at first because I felt this weird pressure to look up every single word I didn't know, and since Belli is a poet there were a lot. As my Spanish got better I started being able to read more fluidly and I felt more confident about picking up stuff from context, rather than constantly combing the dictionary. (Don't worry, it's available in English translation too.)
El Pais Bajo Mi Piel (The Country Under My Skin) is the memoir of Gioconda Belli, an upper-class Nicaraguan woman who rebels against her loveless marriage and the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship (not necessarily in that order). She makes a splash by publishing a book of feminist-themed poetry (shockingly sexual for its time) and secretly joins the underground Sandinista movement -- part Betty Friedan, part Che Guevara. The story of Belli's personal life is intertwined with the history of the successful 1979 uprising and the following decade of Sandinista government, where she served as a mid-level functionary.
The book also works as a lively introduction to recent Nicaraguan history (pair it with Stephen Kinzer's excellent Blood of Brothers). Her early steps into the shadowy world of the guerrilla movement have all the excitement of a spy thriller, complete with secret rendezvous and police chases. After a crackdown forces her into exile in Costa Rica, Belli works at running guns, transporting documents and serving as an international spokesperson for the FSLN.
The book is a good read. Her accounts of meeting Fidel Castro and a creepy, attempted seduction by Panamanian president Omar Torrijos are great storytelling. She doesn't blink from the painful and embarrassing episodes of her personal life either. It is particularly poignant to see her reassess her younger self's romantic decisions and gauge the impact her revolutionary life had on her kids.
After the emotional high of the 1979 triumph, her narrative loses some steam, mirroring her growing disenchantment with president Daniel Ortega's leadership. She skims over the entire Contra war in a few paragraphs, to arrive at the FSLN's 1990 electoral defeat and her departure for the U.S. with her American husband. Others have pointed out that, despite years of hardship and obvious commitment to her cause, Belli never really shows the poverty and repression that most Nicaraguans experienced under Somoza, and remains in a somewhat privileged position. It's a fair point, but then again, it is her memoir....more
A brief, focused murder mystery where the fact of the crime is announced in the first sentence and the unveiling of the story seems to generate more mA brief, focused murder mystery where the fact of the crime is announced in the first sentence and the unveiling of the story seems to generate more mysteries with each chapter and revelation. By the end we have collected many facts but are lacking insight into what we really want to know. (This inversion of the traditional mystery structure reminded me of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 -- another short, entertaining read, although very different in tone.)
The story concerns the death of Santiago Nasar. After Angela Vicario is returned in dishonor to her parents on her wedding night, her twin brothers set out to avenge her lost virginity by killing the man who supposedly took it. Márquez is not overly concerned with the personalities of his characters as much as the social context of the crime. As the details of the murder are reconstructed 30 years later, the townspeople make up a guilty Greek chorus. It becomes clear that the entire town knew the crime was going to occur but no one warned Santiago or took any steps to prevent it... even as no one really bought that he was the right guy.
There's a lot of ideas packed into a mere 118 pages, from the meaning of honor and justice to the thick network of social bonds that run through any community. GGM uses a more straightforward, journalistic style here with only occasional dollops of his trademark magic realism. For example, the opening sentence is classic Márquez. Read it and try not to be intrigued....more
Blood of Brothers is a fascinating and highly readable history of Nicaragua written by the former New York Times bureau chief in Managua. Kinzer was aBlood of Brothers is a fascinating and highly readable history of Nicaragua written by the former New York Times bureau chief in Managua. Kinzer was a first-hand witness to much of Nicaragua's turbulent '80s -- from the last days of the Somoza dictatorship through the Sandinista revolution, civil war with the U.S.-backed contras and the eventual ceasefire. Online consensus seems to be that this is the place to start if you're interested in learning about the country, but I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good recent history.
Like many good journalists, Kinzer writes with a lot of dynamic range -- he's good with both the grand historical sweep as well as intimate interviews with ordinary Nicaraguans. You get the sense that he is sympathetic to the Sandinista cause, but some of the book's most vivid scenes describe the economic shortages, petty tyrannies and general misrule of the comandantes. The result is big-hearted, fair-minded and never dull....more
Like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed, Coyotes is first-rate undercover journalism. Ted Conover lived and worked among Mexicans working illegallLike Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed, Coyotes is first-rate undercover journalism. Ted Conover lived and worked among Mexicans working illegally in the U.S. -- sharing their jobs, living space, food and (as much as is possible for a gringo) the risks they take to be in our country. The book is about 20 years old, but it still feels fresh and relevant for today's immigration debate
Conover is a solid writer and he wisely frames the novel firstly as adventure tale, secondly as cultural reporting and only occasionally as overt political statement. This makes for an exciting page-turner of a book ... with an unmistakable political under-current.
One harrowing border-crossing through the Sonoran desert reminded me of nothing so much as Sam and Frodo's march toward Mt. Doom. Other incidents are funnier, but you never lose sight of the precariousness of their lives and Conover communicates a deep respect for the courage, tenacity and cleverness required to be an illegal immigrant. Good stuff....more