Category: Reading List 2017

21. Reading: Alto Rendimiento

Someone recently critiqued my closed-mindedness when it comes to different writing styles (I’m not a fan of traditional scientific prose, for example), so I made an effort to expand my exposure to text forms, genres and styles that would not be the easy choice for me. In the case of Carolina Sanín’s Alto Rendimiento (2016, Matera libros) it was both topic and form: a chronicle about the Olympic Summer Games of Rio, taken from her Facebook page. I have to say that it positively surprised me, especially because I didn’t think I was a fan of obviously ficticious fiction. (This might be worth a longer discussion at another point…) For now, suffice it to say that the chronicle is fun, and with the short entries an ideal bedtime treat.

Also, it is beautifully illustrated by Manuel Kalmanovitz (when was the last time you read an adult book with images that where not photographs?), and an interview with Sanín about the project and how it came into being. It gave me accute flashbacks to that writing seminar with her, as she poignantly corrects and reformulates the interviewer’s questions (not in the literal sense, though), so as to make them meaningful and be able to give a truthful answer.

How did I come across the book?

It was part of my book shopping spree for female Colombian authors. So far, none of the works disappointed me!

When and where did I read it?

In Konstanz, before bedtime, during the last weeks of the semester, and before I started A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

23. Reading: A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Rebbeca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2017 [2005], Canongate) is the first ever non-work related nonfiction essay collection I have read. And I have to say, I don’t think I have ever read something like it. I remember essays from my English classes, where we regularly had to hand in essays on course related topics, and I remember how I hated it. My essays, of course, were nothing like those of Solnit, who mastefully combines the natural, the experienced and the whimsical into thought collages that transport and transform. She elaborates on the theme of getting lost, or of losing the way in unexpected, yes: ways, and the paths she choses to go about her topic are the conversion of the very principle of getting lost, without, however, ever being random. They are not hard to follow, but hard to guess in advance, but Solnit takes you through them like the experienced guide on that tour through the Alpes/Andes/whatever your prefered mountain range is called. At the end of each chapter, you’ll be back to the point from where the excursion started, but most likely be transformed, having gained from the view.

How did I come across the book?

In a Verso christmas sale, I stumbled upon Wanderlust and emailed the reference to a friend. That was the first time I heard of Rebecca Solnit. Later, I found her name again when someone explained the origins of the term “mansplain”. I was intrigued about Men explain things to me, but wanted to make sure I wasn’t deceptioned again. (I tend to expect more radical thinking from nonfiction than the authors are willing to expose.) SO I decided to try something unrelated first, and the Field Guide spoke to the anthropologist in me.

When and where did I read it?

The last weeks of the semester seemed endless, and I really needed a tinyplace to go to on my own, so I got lost in this book whenever I needed a minute to focus.

Nonfiction seems to me photographic; it poses the same challenge of finding form and pattern in the stuff already out there and the same ethical obligations to the subject. (p.144)

16. Reading: Lo que no aprendí

Many novels are announced as treating memory and family, or memory and gender, or memory and politics, or memory and whatever else. Memory seems to be a particularly well vending attribute. Unfortunately, so many of the books announced that way don’t actually talk about memory, but in memories, and confusing these two, one could easily guess everything was memory. One of the blurbs to Margarita García Robayo’s Lo que no aprendí (Malpaso, 2014) therefore allerted me. It said, Margarita would unite memories as if they were flowers. Aesthetically, the comparison of her writing with flowers does most definitely hold. But what Lo que no aprendí has to say about memory is more complicated than that.

Contrary to the common-sensical idea, the difficulty of remembering (read: re-member-ing) in the novel might actually be the invention. To handle those flowers creatively, as if uniting them in a beautiful bouquet for the funeral of a controversial figure, effacing any trace of a more complicated, more nuanced, personality, is the real work for Catalina, the protagonist of the novel. The author presents us with this bouquet of Catalina’s mostly happy childhood memories in Cartagena. In a second part, however, she explains the uses, not of the flowers, but of the bouquet, to us readers, and we come to realize that beautiful flowers can be conventions covering up for the things that cannot, and in the case of funerals conventionally should not, be said. The flowers, it turns out, are memories of a different life, of a different Catalina who has little to do with the woman that today lives in Buenos Aires.

How did I come across the book?

I saw a good friend of mine mention it in a Facebook post from a bookstore in Bogotá, asking for the best book its customers had read in 2016. It is most definitely in the top three of my 2017, thus far.

When and where did I read it?

I found the time and place particularly matching in this experience: A warm summer week in Constance can at least temperature-whise keep up with Cartagena, where the first part of the novel is set. I finished the second part on a lazy sunday morning in bed, which also combined well with a loft in Buenos Aires. But it made me wonder: is Buenos Aires Latin America’s sunday morning in bed?

… si no te gustan mis recuerdos, empieza a juntar los tuyos; y si tampoco te gustán ésos, cámbialos, y así: es lo que hacemos todos. (p. 182)

14. Reading: Chapinero

Without knowing, I already had a book (edited) by Andrés Ospina, of which I am very fond because it has a CD with it. On that very CD is a song called Río Bogotá by a band named Sociedad Anónima. This song has always fascinated me for a line that goes: “Nunca se te ocurra ir con tu novia al Río Bogotá”, which translates to “It should never occur to you to go to the Río Bogotá with your girlfriend”. In the rest of the song, the singer explains that people throw trash into the river and that it’s a health risk to go swiming there. I who I only know the smelly and murky version of the river, was fascinated by the very idea of people actually bathing there. What is more, I never really considered the climate quite warm enough to go swiming outside. But as a Colombian saying goes, gustos son gustos. You can listen to this precious late 1980s rock jewel on youtube.

However, Chapinero (Laguna Libros, 2015) is a novel in which the river Bogotá is never mentioned. But those familiar with the city’s geography might have guessed, rightly, that it’s about the Chapinero district. The history of the quarter, which when Bogota was founded was a distinct settlement, is told in the voices of five different characters through various generations. The first is a Spanish shoemaker arriving around 1655, followed by a struggling father of the late 19th century. Then follows a young adult witness of the quarter’s transformation of the 1930s. The era of rock and hippiedom, in turn, is recounted by the only female character. They are all related to the main protagonist of the novel, who lives in todays Chapinero, through an antique shoehorn.

How did I come across the book?

I was hanging around in bookstores somewhat frequently during my last field trip. And I literally saw it in any one of the ones I visited. Plus, it was on the “Colombian authors to check out” list I had made when I got a gift certificate for a bookstore, together with Carolina Sanín, and Margarita García Robayo.

When and where did I read it?

It took me a while. As can be guessed from my bookmark – a plane ticket from Msocow to Riga – I have started it during my vacations to Moscow. I needed almost a month to finish it, because the number of characters was a little overwhelming in the beginning, and the middle part had it’s lenghts. Only as I started to realize all the characters could be related through family ties and the antique, did I become curious how their stories would unfold. I might read it again, reading not in the order of the book, but each character’s story by itself to better grasp the connections.

Para eso están los vivos. Para preguntales, y no esperar a que se vayan ausentando, hasta eternizarnos la duda. (p. 212)

11. Reading: The Republic of Cousins

Germaine Tillion’s Republic of Cousins. Women’s Oppression in Mediterranean Society (Al Saqi Books, 1983), apart from being a study about kinship and marriage in the southern meditarranean countries, is also an impressive plea for a political approach to the study of culture. From a feminist point of view, Tillion engages in the study of historical and current gender relations in the Mediterranean. She compares data from her own field work with historial sources back to the prophets to show how the place of women in Mediterranean societies is – just like anywhere else – anything but a natural given.

Tillion proposes, furthermore, an “ethnography devoid of virtue”, if it’s a virtue to observe and participate without interpreting what is observed and described. Since Geertz, latest, anthropologists understood that no such thing is actualy possible, because every observation is already shaped by our understandings, and therefore, interpreted in terms of the things we already know. However, it was interesting to see, that these ideas had been around way before Geertz wrote them down (the original work is from the late 1960s). Tillion’s writing offers an interesting mixture of scientific discourse about marriage rules without the pretence of a false objectivity, yet manages to include her political position. She does this transparently but without ever using “I”.

How did I come across the book?

It was recommended to me by my supervisor, because I was searching for more experimental/engaged forms of anthropological writing. I’m not sure it fulfilled this purpose, because I expected something more in the style of Michael Taussig. But it was good to see that “experimental” could also mean something else, and especially Tillion’s willingness to judge other’s customs was interesting to see in an ethnography.

When and where did I read it?

I started during a vacation I was taking right after my latest field trip. I read the first part on my way to and in Berlin, mostly on trains. The second part I finished in Moscow on several nights before bedtime.

13. Reading: Works and Lives

This has been fun! Clifford Geertz is one of those anthropologists whose writing has inspired generations of anthropologists and scholars from other disciplines, as well. I have to admit, however, that I find his theoretical works much more interesting than his fieldwork-based writings. While the latter once are beautifully written stylistically, for my taste they often lack the theoretical vision of his other works. In Works and Lives. The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford University Press, 1988), he dissects the writings styles and construction of a verisimilar perspective on the Other in the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, Bronislaw Malinowski and Ruth Benedict, some of the discipline’s big names.

In six short essays, he shows how these four authors partly owe their place in the discipline to a particular style of writing, each relating to specific aspects of their actual field research, and in alingment with their theoretical proyects. While overall balanced and sensitive to racism and sexism (especially in the cases of the latter three of utmost importance, given their ways into their fields), I found it disappointing to see that only in the essay about the only female anthropologist analyzed in his collection, he found it necessary to speak about her pressumed mental health. While he did judge the other author’s personality traits, only in her case did he go as far as to insinuate “issues”, which was furthermore innecessary to understand her writing.

How did I come across the book?

It was recommended to me by my second supervisor after I presented a chapter on writing affective ethnography at the grad school’s colloquium.

When and where did I read it?

Over the weekend in Konstanz/Zurich. It’s entertaining, insightful and at times very funny. Especially Geertz’s non-fieldwork-based texts have always struck me as beautiful in both scientific and aesthetic aspects, and I am especially thankful for this programmatic advice:

The most direct way to bring field work as personal encounter and ethnography as reliable account together is to make the diary form […] something for the world to read. (p. 84)

10. Reading: Ponqué y otros cuentos

As I said a few times, already, I am not a big fan of short stories. This, mostly, because I really like slow character development and a story that takes time to reveal itself on at least 100 pages. Which is a totally arbitrary approach, I know. Nevertheless, there are always exceptions to my rules, and Ponqué y otros cuentos (Laguna Libros, 2016) by Carolina Sanín is one of them. The collection contains 7 short stories, all of which star strong female characters. It is this aspect I liked most about the stories, which depart from everyday situations like riding a train, listening to the radio, or reading a hand-written note, and usually revolve around quirky aspects of the main character, if not her surroundings. Especially the last two stories stroke chords with me, the darker Carolina en su funeral for its factual approach to loss, and Ponqué, the title story, because it reminded me of the Satanic Verses. This, mostly, because it combines a story of a young woman from Bogota going out to live in New York with the biblical narrative of Joseph (son of Jacob) from the book Genesis.

I was utterly impressed by the accuracy of descriptions and wording. For a long time I haven’t read anything as precise and therefore enjoyable in Spanish, and I am often bored by too long and too forced sentences when reading Colombian authors. I was very happy to see that a different style is possible, and one that appeals to me both in topics and style. And as if marvellous writing wasn’t enough, the book is also really pretty. The edition and illustration are beautiful, and the thick paper makes for a pleasant tactile experience, as well. For so many reasons, this is a book I did not want to stop reading.

How did I come across the book?

I took a creative writing seminar with Carolina Sanín, which turned out to be a live-changing experience. Not because I think writing fiction could be a thing for me – I still don’t, really – but because it happened at a complicated moment in field work and brought back the curiousness about the topic and the willingness to write. I started reading her books only after the seminar, in a way attempting to continue the conversations on writing. Turns out Carolina is not only an amazing teacher, (so if you have a chance to take a course with her: GO DO IT!) but also sticks to all of the rules she teaches. Speaking of authenticity in teaching, she is most definitely a new role model for me to follow.

When and where did I read it?

I started on the plane back from Bogota to Zurich, to make the passage a little lighter. I finished it within the first days while trying to get rid of the jetlag. But fortunately, there are several other works from her left to read in my bookshelf.