Some books

Here’s a rundown of some books I’ve read lately, besides “Moneyball”, all worthwhile:

“Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut. Though most of the book doesn’t seem to take itself very seriously, it has perhaps one of the most chilling endings I’ve ever read.

“Why is Sex Fun?” by Jared Diamond. Why indeed? It turns out we humans have rather peculiar sexual behavior in comparison with the rest of the animal kingdom. If you happen to like reading about human evolution as much as I do, then I recommend Diamond’s later book “The Third Chimpanzee”, which covers the same ground and more.

Speaking of human evolution, I re-read “Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean M. Auel a couple of weekends ago while I was sick. I read it and re-read it when I was a teenager but haven’t read it since then. Auel provides so much rich detail about the hypothetical lives of Neanderthals and yet manages to make those same lives so soap opera-like. I’ve read some of the sequels and they’re not as good; without the Neaderthal melodrama they’re just Cro-Magnon porn.

And I just finished “Nerd Do Well” a rambly memoir by actor Simon Pegg. If you think he seems a little young for a memoir, you’re right. It’s mostly about his childhood until the last few short chapters which sketch out his professional career in the name-dropping manner of a DVD featurette before an abrupt ending in which he sort of apologizes for not wanting to write more about (besides mentioning their names) the luminous people with whom he presently consorts. The main thing to take away from it is how he transformed his boyhood infatuation with “Star Wars” and other pop culture installations into a personal creative engine. Unlike other more workmanlike actors, he actually likes the movies he appears in. It’s not a good book but if you like Pegg’s movies there is some fun stuff in it.

Halloween

Lore says Halloween celebrations are uncommon in Argentina but everybody seemed to know what to do at our party last Saturday. There was plenty of Halloween cotillon (party stuff like costumes and decorations) in various shops. Everybody came in costume. There were even a handful of trick-or-treaters. It was the typical all-night Argentinian affair. Nobody hurries through a fiesta. We got to bed by five o’clock. We were still sick but made it through and had a lot of fun.

A young woman dressed as a zombie among others in Halloween costumes.
This is my favorite photo from our Halloween fiesta; my sister-in-law is an excellent zombie.

The seasonal themes of common holidays feel a bit off in Argentina. Halloween occurs in the spring, so pumpkins don’t make a lot of sense, but jack-o’-lanterns are still part of the program.

I have a teenaged brother-in-law. He and two of his friends were the party DJs. They hooked up his laptop to a sound and light system borrowed from another friend. They happen to have excellent taste in music, though I had to request “Monster Mash” which nobody had ever heard of. It was a little out of place on the playlist of electronica and cuarteto but it seemed to go down well.

We’ve been bringing American candies with us on these holiday trips. For Halloween, we selected Hershey Kisses, Brach’s Candy Corn, and Smarties. I think we’ll bring just chocolates in the future. The Smarties weren’t terribly popular, though I can’t imagine Halloween without them.

A woman and man dressed as a saloon girl and bartender at a Halloween party.
The author and his wife dressed as figures from the lejano oeste (Old West).

Mendoza and Maipú

My trips to Argentina have been usually confined to the city of Córdoba and its environs. I’ve wanted to see a little more of the country and so we took a side trip to Mendoza, the city at the heart of Argentina’s wine country.

A city seal is diplayed in lights in a plaza at night.
Plaza Independencia is lit up at night.
A tree grows out of a deep open ditch on a city street.
Shade trees grow out of the deep irrigation ditches.

Mendoza is a little smaller than Córdoba and without the big universities the population isn’t quite as youthful. It doesn’t have the elegant churches that you practically trip over in Córdoba. Mendoza does have rather deep open stone-lined gutters—more like trenches—along both sides of each street; you really have to watch where you step so you don’t fall in. The arid region has an extensive irrigation system that supports its agriculture and at first I assumed these ditches were a relic of this old system. I realized later that they are still being used for agriculture: Mendoza’s famously shady streets are lined with London plane trees which grow at orderly intervals out of the ditches.

Students on a field trip gather at a plaza fountain.
Students gather at the fountain in Plaza Independencia.

In addition to shade trees, Mendoza’s centro (downtown) is filled with tidy plazas, including the massive Plaza Independencia and the spectacularly tiled Plaza España. West of downtown is Parque General San Martín, a massive Central Park-like place we wandered around in common cold-induced stupor during our second day in the city. The park has some quiet sunny meadows which, when you’re sick and checked out of your hotel room and have eleven hours to wait for your flight out of town, are excellent for time-wasting naps.

A women rides a bicycle on a tree-lined country road.
We road our bikes along Calle Urquiza in Maipú.

But while still healthy on our first day in Mendoza, we took a city bus just out of town to Maipú, home to a number of wineries and olive oil factories. In Maipú you can rent a bicycle and tour the various bodegas (wine cellars). The terrain is very flat and the town even has a ciclovia (bicycle lane) through the main part of town. South of town the ciclovia disappeared but the scenery was delightful: a shady rural road that passed by vineyards and olive groves. The irrigation ditches flowed with water. We rode out to the edge of town (about 12 kilometers) to Laur, an olivicola (olive plantation and factory).

The museum displayed antique olive presses.

A tour of the facilities included a visit to the trees, the factory, and a museum with a collection of antique presses. The tour was in Spanish, but the guide spoke very clearly so I was able to practice listening. With great concentration I can understand Spanish well enough; my main challenge was tuning out a small group of Americans in which one of the women was providing an English translation.

A shallow pit marks a vacant space among a row of olive trees.
The rows of olive trees were just starting to bud.

I learned that olive trees live for a thousand years but these lazy plants only produce olives for about four hundred years. Each tree produces about twelve liters of oil each year. If I had to guess I’d say that Lore and I go through no more than two to three liters per year, earning us a small minority share of one dusty green olive tree on a farm like this somewhere.

A row of barrels marked with different labels of wine at a vineyard.
Wine barrels with the bodega’s different labels were lined up outside.

After sampling some finger foods prepared with the house aceite de oliva (olive oil), we crossed the street to Carinae, the neighboring constellation-themed winery. We found a couple of Americans from the olive oil tour ready to begin a tasting. The guide spoke excellent English; more impressive was her command of wine jargon which is like its own little dialect.

Before we began the tasting, the guide asked us where we were from, a classic tour guide ice-breaker I have come to dislike and have discarded from own professional methods. It’s never a simple answer with us, Lore is from Córdoba and I am from New York but I prefer to just say that we live in Iowa whereas Lore prefers to relate our respective origins.

One of the American women said, “But you are not from Iowa. I can tell you are from New York.” Back home I make a regular practice of ignoring as many of my compatriots as is practical, and I would have been pleased to continue that routine 9,000 miles away from home. But the guide was surprised and intrigued and wondered how the lady had known that even though I had barely said anything. I didn’t comment (and didn’t care to, though I later suggested to Lore it probably was because I was wearing a rain jacket in the desert—”New Yorkers always come prepared,” an amusement park clown in Florida told my raincoat-clad family while making small talk with us on another vacation twenty years ago). The American lady, who was from San Diego, and had probably seen slicker-wearing New Yorkers jostling their way across her own rainless homeland, added that I probably stood out in Iowa too. I replied that I didn’t think so. This lady was the second person I’ve met on a trip abroad who was both from San Diego and intent on needless gum-flapping (the other was a blowhard in a London bed-and-breakfast about ten years ago who informed me about post-September 11 conditions in New York City).

Stacks of wine barrels in a cool, dark, concrete room.
The bodega had an above-ground wine cellar.

Anyway, we tasted a couple of Malbecs, a Torrontés, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Syrah. I’m not a discerning wine-drinker; they were all very good. The guide then took us on a short tour of the bodega, switching to Spanish for my educational benefit since the Americans skipped the tour. They label each bottle by using a little hand-operated machine.

We wound up the afternoon with a pleasant ride back to the bike rental. The sky was still overcast and cool but the sun came out enough to make the shady country road appealing.

Argentina, 2011