Hidden Corners of Mexico City

About a year ago, when I was still living in Mexico City, a friend and I found ourselves in what seemed to be a small town in the middle of the city. It is not surprising to see this kind of thing here—think, for example, of Coyoacán or Tlalpan, actual towns that were at some point devoured by the metropolis and are now part of it—. What I found surprising was that this place was so close to where I lived, somewhere nearby the Parque Hundido, a very famous park surrounded by tall buildings in the Del Valle neighbourhood. One minute we were walking in the city, and suddenly we found ourselves in a cobblestone street, in a small plaza with a seemingly very old church, a fountain and barely any people.

There was, too, a beautiful, small, quirky bookshop in which we spent almost an hour. Then we left, met some other friends back in the city and I forgot about the church and the bookshop. That is until I wanted to find them again and I couldn’t. I didn’t know the name of the church or the bookshop and didn’t come across them while walking around the park.

Now I no longer live in Mexico City, but I haven’t managed to move all my stuff, so I find myself making monthly trips in which I try to fit as many things as I can in my car. Last month I used one of those trips as an excuse to go on a hike nearby. On my way back, the other hikers dropped me at a gas station in Mixcoac, which meant only a 20 or 30-minute walk home. I guess I was overconfident about knowing my way in the city because at some point I got lost in a series of streets bearing the names of famous painters—Rodin, Millet, Perugino, Carracci—. I knew I was not far because the names were familiar and pride prevented me from using Google maps. And suddenly, just around a very modern, normal-looking corner, there it was: the plaza with the church and the bookshop.

As I saw it, I was walking in the city and then I was not. I was somewhere else altogether. To one side, there was an old church surrounded by palm trees, its roof peeling off, its bells in a bad state, ivy climbing up its walls, squirrels perched on its bell towers. To the other side, across the cobblestone street, there was a small plaza with a fountain, a couple of (old) people sitting in its benches and a few, colonial-looking houses behind (one of those was the bookshop!). This time I made a mental note for I had no time to stay: the street was Rodin, just a few blocks behind the Parque Hundido.

And yesterday I went back, this time knowing where I was going, sure that I could find it. And I did. The church is called Parroquia de San Juan Apóstol y Evangelista (Parrish of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist) and the bookshop is named José María Luis Mora (a 19th-century historian). The plaza is called Gómez Farías after an 18th-century politician. I couldn’t help thinking how cool it is that everything there is named after obscure characters: a historian no one has heard of, one of the only Mexican presidents no one hates because no one remembers him and, let’s put it this way, not one of the most famous apostles.

To get there I just walked past the Parque Hundido—which means “sunken park” because the park is actually in a hole. It’s famous because it’s pretty and because Octavio Paz spent his afternoons there. Or perhaps because Roberto Bolaño said he did in his novel The Savage Detectives. Right behind the park, going East, there’s a strange intersection, and turning left on Rodin street you just have to walk a few yards until you find the plaza. Yesterday there were only three old men scattered on the benches and the church was closed. It is a small miracle to find an empty place in a city like this, so I sat there a while, listening to the birds and wondering how many hidden gems like this are in the city. It was like stepping into a time machine, this place where every building was named after forgotten heroes and thinkers, where everybody around seemed to be old and even the cars parked around were “vintage”. I always find it amusing how little I know of Mexico City.

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Best Reads of 2018

Another year gone by! 2018 was a great year, both personally and professionally. Many things ended this year, and many exciting adventures started to take form. My reading lived up to expectation too, and I found myself reading “the right book at the right time” several times. I did not read as much as other years, but I read things that interested me, inspired me and challenged me, and I even revisited old favorites. So I would say it was a fantastic year for reading. Here are some highlights:

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

This was the first book I read by Ishiguro and I loved it. This is one of the most sadly beautiful novels I have ever read. Narrated from the perspective of Kathy, a girl created for the purpose of becoming a “donor”, along with many other children, for sick people. The whole purpose of these artificially conceived children is to one day give all their functioning organs to deadly ill people. However, Kathy becomes first a carer for other donors and so delays her own donations.

The setting of the book is an England in which kids like Kathy are raised in boarding schools away from society, where they learn about their “mission” and how they’re different from “normal” people. Kathy’s best friends there are Rachel and Tommy. Apart from the romantic triangle between them, Ishiguro builds through Kathy three of the most complex characters in literature who, despite of being told repeatedly that they are not human, love and cling to life bravely and painfully. Kathy herself is a very interesting character, her narrative mixing an honest recollection of the past as well as some reflections on memory and the arbitrariness of it, a topic with which dominates the whole novel and accounts for the generally nostalgic tone of the book.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman

Last December I discovered Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and fell in love with it. So this year I got my hands on a beautiful edition (the UK edition) of the first volume of The Book of Dust. This story is set in an earlier time than The Golden Compass, and tells of Lyra’s Oxford while she was a baby. The protagonist is a young boy called Malcolm, whose parents own an inn and who has a canoe called La Belle Sauvage. The lives of Malcolm and Lyra will become intertwined when a creepy (very creepy, really) villain and Mrs Coulter try to steal her from the convent where Lord Asriel placed her. If you haven’t read His Dark Materials, it doesn’t really matter, although they give a lot of information about how this universe works. I recommend this for any fantasy readers: Pullman is a master of the genre.

 

Wild, Cheryl Strayed

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Strayed tells the story of how, at 26, after her mother’s death and her divorce, she made the rash decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, underestimating both the preparation time most hikers take and the physical demands of hiking. She, however, kept to her word and hiked all the way from California to Oregon. Packing mistakes, snow, terrible heat, water scarcity, getting lost and finding creepy men along the way are only part of the obstacles Strayed came across during her journey.

What most interested me about Strayed’s book was the honesty with which she stated her motives in hiking the PCT. I could not help but sympathize with an unprepared, delusional, female solo traveler. I found the book sincere when describing the things that usually lead to a trip, or an expedition as wild as this: “my life is falling apart”. Such sincerity would have seemed cliché were it not for the honesty with which the author addresses this search for meaning in nature and how she shatters this expectations dropping some truths like: nature is indifferent, there’s nothing glamorous in hiking and having your toenails fall off (yes, that still haunts me), and you’ll probably be too busy worrying about surviving that you won’t have time to ponder over your life. But your life and your choices and who you are will always come out when you’re stripped from your comfort zone and left alone with your courage. Every choice out there, whether to quit or to keep going, will be a step towards self-discovery, and the way in which this books portrays that, with humour and angst and anger, rang true to me.

Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

I really think this book changed my life. Jon Krakauer, with honesty, tact and journalistic mastery narrates what he found about the life and death of young Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, an American who hitchhiked his way to Alaska to live in and from nature only. I love this book because I think the critical job Krakauer does to distance himself from McCandless, without idealising or ridiculing him, is amazing. He talked to people who met him on the road, to his family and friends and collected other anecdotes from people who did similar things, and in the end this book is about more than McCandless, it’s about the urge that moved him and people like him to get away from “civilisation” and find a deeper meaning in life through a restored connection with nature and the hard work of survival. The book does not idealise nature either, it shows it at its best and worse, at its majesty and it’s moodiness and lethality. I recommend reading this to anyone interested in hiking, nature, ecology or American transcendentalism (Thoreau’s writings are a great companion for this).

 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë

My main reason to read this unpopular piece of nineteenth century literature was that I love both Emily and Charlotte Brontë’s writing, so I had to read Anne too. And she’s great as well. The book starts with the arrival of a mysterious young widow in a small town in England. She’s a bit rude and very reserved, so obviously the most handsome dude in town falls for her. Oh, and she has a child. However, people soon start talking about her, as no one knows where she came from or if she’s really a widow, and handsome dude needs to know the truth, so she gives him her diary to read. And her diary is most of the book. Anne Brontë reflects on many things in this novel: first, the social position of women; second, the implications of marriage both as a political institution and as a love affair; third, human nature’s propensity to vice; and fourth, religion’s role in both the submission and the liberation of women.

I must say I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. In style, it is very different from them in the way it uses literary devices like the letter and diary format, prayers and such. Nevertheless I found it a good companion, never too dull in its reflections and never too dramatic in its depictions of the sorrows of marriage. A very recommended for classic literature lovers as well as feminists (this might be Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House antecesor).

Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera

The book narrates the odyssey of a young Mexican girl who crosses the border to the USA in search of her brother. It is an old story, but Herrera’s mythical and poetic prose make it one of the best books by a Mexican author I have read.

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods was one of the most interesting books I have read in a while, and definitely the funniest. Bryson’s talent to turn simple and even dramatic situations into hilarious episodes is outstanding. His honesty while reflecting on nature is also admirable. Whatever Bryson passes, whether it’s a mountain, a town, a refuge, an animal, he investigates about and presents his knowledge to you in a very subtle matter. He rants about the government, hunters, the pioneers. He talks of the beginnings of the earth, the separation of Pangea, the birth of the mountains. He describes the changes in American culture, migration patterns, natural catastrophes. He tells of serial killers, obscure anecdotes of the trail, TV commercials.

And all of this, in some way or other, is part of a more profound reflection on the theme that appears again and again in the whole book: the relationship between civilization and wilderness. 

Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov

Bulgakov is a unique author. Heart of a Dog tells the story of Sharik, a stray dog taken in by a famous surgeon during the Soviet regime in Moscow. Little does Sharik know, he’s the chosen victim of an experiment to turn him into a man. A satire and wit only paralleled by The Master and Margarita, this is a crazy story full of cynicism, dark humor and a heart-breaking insight of humanity and animality. Heart of a Dog is a theatrical, wild ride with the only downside of being too short.

 

Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This year I thought I would read more non-fiction. I ended up reading mostly travel books —Krakauer, Strayed, Bryson— and, by a fortunate twist of fate, revisiting a beloved author. It could seem like this book has nothing to do with The Little Prince, yet the same sense of wander and the conflicts between humans and a hostile world run through the pages of both books. Wind, Sand and Stars is a series of writings about de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot for the airmail carrier Aéropostale. He writes of the planes, the trips, of friendship and love, of death, heroism and of how it feels to be in a plane thousands of feet above the ground, all by yourself. A wonderful book.

 

The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates

This was the creepiest thing I’ve read in a while and, also, my first Joyce Carol Oates novel and I can’t wait to read more of her books. It is a very complex story, but basically what you read is this historian’s account of what happened in Princeton at the beginning of the 20th century, when many women disappeared, were found dead, and other strange occurrences took place within the elite of the town. Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, Jack London and even Sherlock Holmes appear in this crazy book, as well as the devil himself and other creatures (vampires!). When his sister is “abducted” shortly after her wedding, it is up to Josiah Slade, whom we follow through the historian’s doubtful account, to solve the curse that ravages the town. This is a really entertaining, disturbing, scary, funny novel that touches on many social issues like racism and sexism. Also, it is an admirable work of fiction; I am amazed at Oates’ narrative talent and critical insight.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows

Written as a series of letters and diary entries, the book follows the journey of the writer Juliet Ashton to Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, to write a book about the occupation. The book is, to put it simply, an ode to literature and the many ways in which it is intertwined with life, an ode to literature as a means of survival, as a means of resilience and, most importantly, as a means of resistance.

 

Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey

This book is life changing. Edward Abbey got a job as a park ranger at Arches National Park in Utah and this book is formed by a series of essays on different topics that he wrote there, living on a van during the winter. Abbey’s reflexions on wilderness and our relation with it are as actual as his his critique of capitalism. This book is at times bitter as desperate, exasperating and sad, hopeful and exiting. Abbey is such a gifted writer, mixing narrative with his essays, conveying closeness, warning, teasing, teaching. This book is so important for the challenges we face today in regards to global warming and consumerism, and it is also a wonderful piece of prose.

I am currently reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and finding it delightful. It’s been, overall, a very good year for reading. What were your highlight? How should I start 2019?

Teotihuacán

In Ecatepec, Estado de México, one hour and a half away from the busy Mexico City, are the ruins for the ancient city of Teotihuacán, a political and religious centre for the teotihuacanos. The city is said to have been found abandoned by the aztecs, who claimed it as theirs and probably used it as a political centre too, though much about this ruins remains a mistery.

Last weekend I went to see (and climb) the pyramids for the third time. Despite being rain season, the morning was sunny and warm; if you visit Teotihuacan, I definitely recommend starting early, since there are barely any shadowy spots and the afternoon sun can be intense.

The pyramids are located in Ecatepec, and you can get there easily by bus or car, as there is a road that connects the city with the archeological site. Once there, the best thing is to start at gate 5, right behind the Pyramid of the Sun, and make your way through the Avenue of the Dead towards the Pyramid of the Moon. You can climb both pyramids, but as the best view is from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, I recommend leaving that for the end.

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On our way to the Pyramid of the Moon.

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View from the Pyramid of the Moon.

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We were in Teotihuacan on a Saturday in July, although it might sound like a bad idea to go there on a weekend during the summer holiday, there was not many people around until like 1.00 pm. I have been here on October too and honestly I didn’t notice much difference in the weather.

Overall, Teotihuacan is a must visit if you’re in Mexico City. Walking around and climbing both pyramids won’t take more than 3 hours, counting many picture stops, and visiting the site museum at the end will provide you with more information about the ancient city. There are guides you can hire at the entrance; it might be a bit expensive if you’re not in a big group, but a good idea if you’re interested in prehispanic culture and would like to know more about the pyramids that meet the eye.

For more information you could also check out Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living by Esther Pasztory, which incorporates some of the latest theories on where the teotihuacanos came from and what happened to them, as well as speculations on what their mural paintings and architecture might have mean back then.

Have you been to Teotihuacan? What did you think of it?

Five Mystery Books for Long Flights

Sparkling-CyanideSparkling Cyanide, Agatha Christie

I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan and this was the first book I read by her. Seven people sit down for dinner, the lights go off and when they’re back on, someone is dead. Who did it? This books is a classic whodunnit and there lies it’s strength. Following some basic detective fiction structures and creating new ones, Christie’s novel dwells on both the motives behind crimes as much as on the thrill of following clues and discovering patterns where there seem to be none.

This is a stand/alone novel, so you won’t hear about Poirot or Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s most famous characters, but if you want to read a Hercule Poirot Mystery I recommend The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder at the Vicarage for a Miss Marple story. 

  • 300 pages

3687The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

This novel presents a wholly different kind of detective, the kind that is neither a goodie goodie or a lover of truth, but just a very shrewd person trying to survive in a world of corruption. In Chandler’s noir California, Marlow solves crimes for money, and usually things get violent and dirty. Mafia men, underground detective networks, millionaires and evil women are some of the things you’ll find in Chandler’s novels, and The Big Sleep is a very good start. 

  • 200 pages

51RKUXU01fL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Where’d You Go Bernadette, Maria Semple

This is not a conventional mystery. The book is composed by letters, telegrams and other documents that give account of the disappearanceof Bernadette Fox, a notorious woman from Seattle who is a famous architect, the wife of an IT guru and also the mother of a 15-year-old who will do anything to find her. This book is both thrilling and funny, not exactly a YA novel or a mystery, but something in between… and a very enjoyable read.

  • 300 pages

Rebecca, Daphne DuMaurier 

I would describe this novel as a psychological thriller more than as a mystery. A young woman marries a rich widower, Edward de Winter, and moves with him to his beautiful state, Manderley. Being of no noble birth, the new Mrs de Winter will face some social difficulties and the disrespect from the servants of the place, but her greatest challenge will be to compete against the memory of the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca.

Everybody talks of how wonderful Rebecca was and her mysterious death still haunts the place, driving the new occupant Manderley to obsession. Does Rebecca’s ghost haunt the place? And what happened to her really? The plot of the novel takes some unexpected turns and the first person narrative introduces the reader to an obsession verging on madness. This book is a page turner and, if you enjoy period literature, you’ll enjoy this one too.

  • 400 pages

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón

A young man, Daniel Sempere, takes care of his fathers bookshop in Barcelona during Franco’s dictatorship. The business is not going well, but Daniel’s father takes him to a secret place, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he finds a rare book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. Daniel becomes obsessed with the book and starts looking for clues about its author, noticing later that he is been followed too, by a man named after a character of the book, Laín Coubert.

Daniel’s life takes a strange turn as he begins uncovering the truth about the mysterious book, a truth that concerns him, his father’s bookshop and some of his dearest friends. This book is a metafictional adventure that book lovers will enjoy for its grand depictions of forgotten libraries and old bookshops, as well as for its many classic literature references. It is also a very exciting thriller, as the characters find themselves in dangers that go from the political to the fantastic every few pages.

  • 500 pages

Have you read any of these?

Which book has gotten you through a long flight?

Where the Wild Books Are

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

—Virginia Woolf

Aging and decay are characteristics that generally have a negative connotation. The first is a consequence of the passing of time; the second one, a consequence of use. People grow old, health declines, buildings deteriorate, old clothes rip, electronic appliances become obsolete. But not books. What we think of as a despicable mark in most objects, functions differently with books—more like the growth rings of a tree, maybe because there’s a genealogic relationship between them. While everything we consume tends to adjust to the principles of the new and novel, while we make efforts to obliterate the signals of time in the things we possess, books carry those marks with pride, like windows to past lives.

Unlike new books that come wrapped in plastic and are exhibited among the most varied stationary, notebooks and pencils, on shiny shelves with their brilliant barcodes—old books prefer gloom, dark and silent places among ripped pages and dust. They show their stripped backs and their washed covers discretely, expectant yet reserved, as if they knew that no encounter is fortuitous.

Old books, “second-hand” books, usually have yellowish pages. This colour comes in different shades and it is due to the decomposition of the organic and chemical substances present in paper. Their pages are also thicker— as if they fed on dust or as if they breathed and held their breath each time they’re read through. They look like thicker and bigger than those other, thinner volumes, with their white and perfectly pressed pages,  the ones we can find in regular bookshops.

Second-hand bookshops, nhave a characteristic smell, something between decay and humidity. Even when there are common smells to all books, each one has its own essence, a particular fragrance. An investigator from London University College, Cecilia Bembibre, gathered information about these smells and found more than thirty aromas, among which were wood, citrus, chocolate, body fluids and musk. Each book’s smell reveals something not just about its paper composition, but also about the use it has been given, the kind of storage it has gone through and maybe even about its most private history.

Some other marks also reveal part of this history. The most interesting are, for me, stamps, names and dates scribed on a book’s first pages, as well as underlined paragraphs and notes on the margins. It is common to find that many books on second-hand bookshops and thrift stores used to belong to a library. To mark this, it was usual to stamp ex libris on the books, a Latin phrase meaning “from among the books of”. This phrase is most commonly found on the first blank page and it is probably the mark that offers most information about a book’s precedence.

Other books have simpler marks— inscriptions on pencil or pen, in the calligraphy of the first owner, maybe her or his name, maybe a date. It is also possible to find books dedicated to someone, as a gift, or editions signed by its author. Even when much data can be inferred from these marks (if the writing is big or small, inclined, thick or thin), notes and underlining are much more revealing. From light underlining with pencil to highlighting in fluorescent ink, asterisks, brackets, notes on the margins—they are all vestiges of first reading, of an specific personal experience in other time and place.

Maybe to go through the pages of an old book and trace with our finger those parts where a pencil or a pen signalled an idea long ago, a revelation, a connexion, is a form of time travelling. With a bit of luck, books that guard other type of testimonies can be found: old papers, bookmarks, postcards, stamps, supermarket receipts. The most enigmatic experience I have had with a second-hand book happened three years ago, in Cambridge. There are several old-books stands in Old Market Square to which I used to go often. Once I found an old edition of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. The edition was dated 1986 and had a small stamp on blue ink that read A. N. E. Harris—that is all I realised when I bought it and it took me more than one year to read it, during which the book stayed on a pile with many other books I had bought impulsively.

When I finally opened it again, I discovered a little photograph between pages 250 and 251 in which appeared two people, a young man and a young woman, both with blond hair and similar traits, maybe siblings, wearing thick jumpers, smiling and looking at a point above the camera. The photograph is a bit smaller that a Polaroid and the colour is faded. There are not other marks in the book, except for an underlined quote: “He waited day after day, saying that it was perfectly absurd to expect, yet expecting”.

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If one of those people owned the book, if one of them was A. N. E. Harris, if the picture was there by mistake and was looked for after, if it was there for a specific reason and if it had something to do with the quote underlined, are questions I still ask myself. All those questions lead me to think of the place where I found the book and of the process of selection it must have gone through, to end up between all those other books, piled on tables and inside boxes on the floor. What usually happens with that kind of bazaars is that they also place some empty boxes nearby so people who want to get rid of books can leave them there.

Second-hand bookshops work in a similar way, as refuges for books that have started to overflow their owner’s bookshelves or that have been replaced for newer editions. Sometimes bookshops look actively for them, especially those that specialize on rare editions. Whatever the reasons are for someone to get rid of a book, many of them end up in these temporary homes, organized and classified by booksellers that know every corner of their shops and their inventories, by titles and authors and themes and genres, wonderful people that end up acquiring a mysterious air and a slight smell of humidity.

Many of the biggest bookshops sell almost the same kinds of books; it is easy to go there and find something that we already knew we wanted. But in second-hand bookshops there is no way to know what we will find— it is like the labyrinth like corridors, the dust and smell confound us and take us to books we didn’t know we were looking for. These encounters, unexpected but never casual, allow is to think of reading as an experience and not just as an acquisition. Old books show us the intimacy of the act of reading. They show themselves as permeable bodies, subject to time and atmospherically conditions, bodies in which almost all marks are indelible. Of course it is possible to read on many devices, but it would be naïve to think that where we read from does not affect our experience of the text. Because if we think of a book as a container, we should think of it as a container from which we not only take, but as one in which we also leave things, sometimes accidentally.