Desperate Literature (or interesting bookstores and libraries)

I fell in love with literature at the American School in London with a couple of great teachers: Soledad Sprackling for Spanish Literature and James McGovern for English. But I did not fall in love with books until college.

At Bentley University I discovered the Bowles Reading Room which had beautiful books. It was glassed in from the rest of the library and every day I went there to do my homework but would invariably end up looking at the wonderful books. I loved that room so much that at the end of my studies, I donated a book about Spain to the Collection. (I contacted the librarians who got me this rare photo of the Reading Room for this post, thanks!).

Bowles Reading Room 1992 (After I graduated) (PC: Bentley Archives)

Bowles Reading Room 1992 (After I graduated) (PC: Bentley Archives)

But I would have to wait until after college to have enough disposable income to buy books, which, living in Boston, was very easy. Some days on my lunch break I would sneak to Goodspeed’s to look for treasures. Such is my love for books and literature, that years later, I ended up getting a PhD in Spanish Literature! (see previous posts)

Speaking of UNC, one of the highlights are the libraries. Plural. The old library is the Wilson Library (which is featured prominently in Robin Williams’ great film Patch Adams). I spent hours studying in this library and a couple of times studying very old books in the Rare Book Collection. The big, modern library is the Davis Library with its 7 million books. There, I soon made best friends with the Spanish book librarians Teresa and Becky. I would walk to their office deep in the heart of the library and talk books, (and gossip). This library is as close to the Borges idea of a library as I have ever been: massive and repetitive, but with a soul.

During my studies at UNC, one summer I got a Fellowship to do research at the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. What an experience! To get to the rare book collection you have to pass not one, but two security checks, you cannot bring in any pens, books, phones, etc. Books there are treated with the care and reverence one would expect of -in my case- over two hundred year old books. I spent every morning that summer reading most of Francisco de Isla’s first editions, manuscripts, and other pieces attributed to him but not his. That experience is one of the highlights of my academic career. (Their coffee shop in the basement was also excellent – and subsidized! but that is for another post)

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

After UNC I moved to Southern Florida, which is a wasteland for books -must be the humidity. But, in 2016 I did read this great article in Vanity Fair, (to which I have subscribed and read every issue from cover to cover since around 2006) about this magical book store in Santorini called Atlantis Books.

Fast forward to 2018 when my dear friend Matthew came to visit me in Madrid. He stayed at a hotel in the old part of town. One evening after I dropped him off, around the corner from the hotel, on narrow Campomanes street, I bumped into Desperate Literature. I was ecstatic! What a discovery, what a find! A tiny bookstore, but filled with books mostly in English, with a few in Spanish and French for good measure. It was a tiny paradise, an oasis of… books!

Books in time of Covid

Books in time of Covid

I soon found out that this bookshop is part of Atlantis Books which I had read about in that Vanity Fair article. It all fit in, a collection of magical bookstores.

During this Covid-19 pandemic I found out they were sending books to folks. I ordered one and I was able to make use of my workout time to ride my bicycle to pick it up.

In conclusion: support your local -hopefully quirky- bookstores, and read.

 

Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach

My only music post on this blog was published in 2014 about Van Morrison. Well, it is time to add to that. Basically the only thing I listen to nowadays is Bach, as in Johann Sebastian Bach.

Of course we are all familiar more or less with his oeuvre, but I must confess that my first conscious contact with Bach was quite late. After college I got a job in Boston’s Financial District. I moved into an tiny attic apartment on Commonwealth Ave.  in the Back Bay. Walking around I found out that Emmanuel Church on Newbury st. performed the Bach Cantatas on Sundays’ mass, so I started going religiously (sorry, bad pun). I missed the Catholic ritual, but the music more than made up for it!

Fast forward to 2013 in North Carolina when I saw András Schiff  perform the Goldberg Variations and it all came flooding back, and I was hooked. As soon as I could I went to the used record store and got Glenn Gould’s original 1955 recording -yes, the one where you can hear Gould humming the tune in the background! I stuck it in my car’s CD player and it stayed there until the car was sold in 2018. That’s five years of listening to the record over and over. Call me obsessive if you want.

The next step for me was the Cello suites. The progression was simple, although it involved a step back. A step back because I had been surrounded by these pieces when I worked at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, eventually observing and participating in Über-conductor Benjamin Zander’s Master Classes at the school. Now I have Yo-Yo Ma’s 2015 Royal Albert Hall performance of the complete Cello Suites on a loop (see video below).

Occasionally, if I want to mix it up a bit I might listen to some of his organ music or, the Passions, or some of his other orchestral and chamber pieces (sonatas and partitas). There are many of these because back in the day (1685 – 1750) the only serious musicians worked for the king or the church. Bach falls in the latter, so he had to produce music basically for every Sunday! In case you had not noticed, I am not a musician -much to my regret- but this music has everything I need musically and spiritually speaking.

You are welcome.

My happy place, El Escorial

 

Although I have talked about it in various posts, I have never dedicated a  post to my favorite building, my happy place, and arguably the most important building in Spain, El Escorial.

I am blessed in that my parents bought a house not far from this place when I was a boy. My restless dad would often take me here for quick excursions, to walk around the palace, the village or the surrounding countryside. As soon as I could drive (17 with my British license) I started going there on my own: to walk around, to read, to write.

Possibly the main reason El Escorial is so special is that it is a monastery that is a royal palace and a royal palace that is a monastery. So it is huge by monastery standards but it is austere and spartan by palace standards. But it is more than a palace and a monastery: it has one of the finest libraries in the world, a magnificent basilica, a pantheon with (most) Spanish kings (and reigning queens), a school, an art museum, etc.

It was built by my favorite Spanish king Philip II. He had such drive and desire to build it that he spent a fortune to have it built as fast as possible. It was built in 21 years from 1563 to 1584. The result is arguably the finest representation of Renaissance architecture in Spain (his dad Carlos V, built another great Renaissance palace in Granada, but that’s a different story). What happens with most huge old buildings is that they took so long to build that they were started in a certain style and finished in another style altogether -and oftentimes, other styles in between. This is most visible in cathedrals. Oh yes, Philip II is the one who sent out the Invincible Armada, in fact, you can see the desk where he worked -and where he received the news of his defeat.

The palace is built entirely of local granite, has 14 courtyards, and thousands of windows, doors, blah, blah, blah. As you can see from the photos, it is amazing, grandiose but sober. There are plenty of books and web sources about it, so I do not need to add to the mountains of information. There is also the village where the palace is. It is a beautiful little village with great food, little bookshops, and cafés. The combination of countryside, palace, and village is really magical. When a group of the king’s scouting committee where checking out where to build the palace they were caught in a fierce storm that they interpreted as a signal. So they figured that is where they should build. There was a semi-abandoned mine there (Escoria means slag, mining residue, thus Escorial). Plus there is evidence of pre-roman, Celtic settlements in the area, adding to the mysticism and aura of the place. I could go on for hours and hours, but a. I will spare you and b. you can hire me to give you a tour!

Many years ago, chatting with a work colleague and friend we discovered that we were both fans of El Escorial, so we soon founded the Asociación A. de Amantes de El Escorial. (The A. stands for apocryphal, but don’t tell anyone), it is a bit of a joke, but we now go at least twice a year for Asociación “meetings” that involve dinner and a walkabout!

Why is this my happy place? Maybe its the radiation from all the granite, maybe the fond memories of walking around, maybe the relaxing qualities of the beautiful renaissance lines, I really couldn’t tell you.

 

Almodóvar

 

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I can’t believe that in 182 posts and almost ten years of writing this blog I have never dedicated a post to Pedro Almodóvar (although I have mentioned him a couple of times). Forgive me, and let me change that.

Pedro Almodóvar is indubitably Spain’s best know director. He has won two Oscars (I think that is double what any other Spanish artist has – but don’t believe me 100%), has had a handful of nominations, a bunch of Goyas (Spain’s Oscars), his breakout film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was made into a Broadway musical, etc. etc. But more important than his fame or awards is the quality of his films. You see, Almodóvar has an instantly recognizable way of telling a story -and what stories they are! I believe part of his success lies in how Baroque his narratives are, and how they key right into our psyche. Along the story, Almodóvar layers his personal punctuation marks: a colorful palette, a stylish, kitsch decor, perfect locations, and a cast he squeezes the best out of, some of them repeatedly, like Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas or Carmen Maura. In that respect he is a bit like Woody Allen -another one of my favorites- in that they really get the most out of the actors, and that, I believe, is the sign of a great director. Then there are his quirks: every movie has a signature song that marks it, his brother Agustín always gets a bit part, so you are always on the lookout for that. This, by the way, is something Hitchcock also did -insert himself in his movies, which I think is what inspired Almodóvar. Finally he sprinkles a touch of post modernism and surrealism here and there, just to keep the viewer on edge.

I do not have a single favorite Almodóvar film, I have a few. Both Volver and Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) stand out. Both of these are staples of my Advanced classes, as many of my students will testify. I just watched Almodóvar’s 21st film (which was what prompted me to write this) Dolor y Gloria (Pain and Glory). It is good, all his films are good, but not the best. So, although it received an Oscar nomination, it was not really up to snuff. I will not divulge any spoilers this time (you are welcome), only to say that it is, or at least it feels, autobiographical. 

Most of Almodóvar’s films take place in and around Madrid, with a few of exceptions. Todo sobre mi madre splits between Madrid and Barcelona, Volver, like the name implies takes us to a village in La Mancha not unlike the one Almodóvar is from, La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) takes place in the countryside of Toledo, Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces) takes a turn in the Canary Islands, and a few other exceptions. Madrid is part of the story, it becomes another character. This is something Woody Allen also does with New York, blending it into the narrative.

Also interesting is to see Almodóvar’s evolution as a filmmaker. His first film Pepi, Lucy, Bom y otras chicas del montón (Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom) coincides with the birth of La Movida which was an artistic/cultural reaction to 40 years of dictatorship. La Movida was a radical pendulum swing for Spain, it was an over the top celebration of freedom, and Almodóvar hits the note with a raw, sexual, low budget film that captures the Zeitgeist of the time. His current films on the other hand have the sleek look of the bottomless budget of a Hollywood darling.

If you are already an Almodóvar fan, tell me your favorite film of his -and why- in the comments. If you are a newbie grab one, any one, of his films and enjoy!

 

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

The_Man_Who_Killed_Don_Quixote_poster

One good thing about the Covid-19 lock down is being able to catch up on things you were meaning to do. I will not come up with Differential Calculus like Newton did during the Black Death plague of 1665, but not because I am horrible at math, but because Newton already invented Differential Calculus!

At any rate, I had been wanting to write about a film I saw last year at the Círculo de Bellas Artes, the artsy film theater in Madrid, and I finally found the ticket stub to remind me. If you consider that the film took 29 years to make, a year to write about it is not so bad!

The film is The Man Who Killed Don Quixote by Terry Gilliam. If the name sounds familiar it is because he used to be in Monty Python, remember them? At any rate, the film started filming in 1999, but the lead had a herniated disk on his first day of filming, then the set flooded… So, Gilliam had to duke it out with the insurance, then try to find new financing, then casting, etc. It finally premiered in 2018.

The film is not an adaptation of Don Quixote, it takes the characters and the story and riffs on them to create a brilliant Byzantine, Postmodern, surreal, Baroque work, drenched in Chiaroscuro.

But the plot is not the only asset of the film, the shifting narratives and narrators are accompanied at all times by a great cast led by Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, and a numerous international cast and crew. The set and locations are straight out of the novel, there is no denying you are in La Mancha, and you can feel it, and smell it, and taste it.

I do recommend the film, with the caveat that it is not for everyone. If you are looking for a logical, linear story, this is not for you, otherwise: enjoy!

Letting go of the Ego, the second half of life: Wayne Dyer and The Shift

My dear friend Felipe recommended I see The Shift and I finally had the time to see it!

It is a film by Dwane Wyer who was a motivational speaker or a Coach, really a self help guru, although marketed like a spiritual guide, since that is what sells. Although the message is strong, based on Lao Tzu, San Francis of Assisi, or Jung, he dilutes it with some of his new age, self help gibberish like the Quantum moment and things like that, which I understand as a way to explain his thinking.

To be honest, the film is not really that good: predictable, bad acting, etc. But, it is filmed in Asilomar, a wonderful location in Monterey, California, and what is really important here is not the film per se, but the message.

The Shift talks about changing your life from the first half of life to the second half of life. This is something I have written about before, what Kierkegaard called the three stages of life: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. Dyer simplifies them to two, which skips a step, but that’s okay. The gist is to lose the ego to become a spiritual being. How? you ask, well by giving, by realizing that the world is not about you and the best way to do that is by selflessly giving what you have, but preferably your time, your knowledge, your patience, your care, in short by loving. Love is the answer.

As youths and adolescents we need a lot of ego to become independent, to become who we think we are. Once you have reached that stage the ego is useless, more of a hindrance than a help. Unfortunately most people do not lose that me, me, me until sometimes just before they die (I recently mentioned this in a post about the book The Grace in Dying). A good way to work on this is to quiet the mind, to meditate, to stop and listen. This is difficult but rewarding. Give it a try!

The film begins with this quote from Carl Jung which is basically the whole precept of the film, sorry, not sorry, for the spoiler:

“Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life. Worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and our ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.” ― Carl Gustav Jung

 

 

Your friendly neighborhood kiosk

Over the last few months, my friendly neighborhood kiosk closed and was eventually removed. This was heartbreaking.

Cities are living organisms that have evolved over centuries and have developed tools to make life easy, efficient, and enjoyable. The neighborhood kiosk plays (played?) a key part in this mechanism. Not only can you buy any newspaper, local, national, regional or international, you can get any magazine, books, any everyday necessity: chewing gum, tissues, postcards, water and sodas, cigarettes (come on, this is Europe), and all sorts of assorted knick knacks, but more importantly your friendly neighborhood kiosk owner knows everything about the area and every inhabitant in a mile radius!!

A funny anecdote: Hola magazine, the flagship and doyen of gossip magazines, has their offices in our block. In fact, Doña Mercedes, the owner, used to live next door (she died last year), and every Wednesday when the magazine came out she did not grab one from the pile in the office, she would go down to the kiosk and buy one from Yuste!

While I am overall positive about technology, I am not a reader of on-line newspapers. When you read a newspaper, you have to look at every page so you see what is going on internationally, nationally, locally, sports, culture, you even have to pass the obituaries. And if an article catches your eye, you read it. On-line newspapers do not give you that kind of thoroughness. You click on what catches your eye, but you are missing a lot of stuff you normally would not skip on a paper newspaper. Go ahead, call me old fashioned, but on any given day if you “read” an on-line newspaper and I read a paper one, I bet you I have seen -and likely read- more than you.

Our kiosk was inaugurated in 1965, the year I was born! and was run by the Yuste family since! They were friends. Over the last few years they complained about the loss of sales since fewer and fewer people bought newspapers -and I live in an old folks neighborhood! Stopping for a newspaper means having a bit of a chat, checking in, sharing a joke, commenting on the news, or whatever. Yuste once had me run to the bank to deposit a check for him!

At any rate, tired of not making ends meet and with aggravating health issues. The Yuste family finally closed their kiosk this Winter. A few weeks after closing a truck came and dismantled it. A few days later they paved over the site. Another victim of technology.

Paco runs the kiosk up the street in the Plaza de Chamberí, he seems like a nice fellow.