Duck Duck Book

43 – the uncomfortable dead
03.4.2007, 12:03 am
Filed under: fiction

The uncomfortable dead : (what’s missing is missing) : a novel by four hands / Paco Ignacio Taibo II & Subcomandante Marcos ; translation by Carlos Lopez.
New York : Akashic Books, c2006.
[MCL call number: MYSTERY TAIBO; six copies, no holds]

Most histories of revolutionary groups do not bother to explain how radical organizations work — how they manage discussion and foster creative ideas, how they support their members’ intellectual and political growth, how they make decisions, or how their leadership structures work.  As a person who has spent a reasonable amount of energy engaged in work for social change, I am incredibly frustrated by this gap in our collective memory, and I have often become nearly irate after seeing a movie or reading a book that was advertised as being about how change happened, but which never talked about the actual nuts and bolts.

I did not expect The Uncomfortable Dead to be a lesson in how the Zapatistas get shit done.  It is not a history, but a mystery novel.  The story deals in murder, intrigue, politics, and the business of detection, but since one of the protagonist detectives is Marcos’s Elías Contreras, an Investigation Commission [sic] of the Zapatistas, a bit of instruction in the mechanisms of Zapatista political society does seep in.  For example, in the first few pages of the book readers find a brief lesson about the practicalities of revolutionary life, when Elías explains why his job is necessary:

“Yeah, El Sup didn’t actually show me the paper, but he told me what it was all about.  There was a disappearance.  The message said that one of the women had disappeared and that El Sup should write up a paper blaming it on the bad government.  Which is actually what El Sup is sposed to do, the problem being that citizens, that is, the city folk, are already used to the Zapatistas telling them the truth, that is that we don’t lie to them.  So like I said, the problem is that if El Sup writes is communiqué accusing the government and then it turns out that the woman ain’t disappeared at all and the bad government didn’t harm her, what happens is our word begins to look weak and what happens is people stop believing us.  So then, my job was to investigate to see if she really was disappeared or what and then I was to report to El Sup what it was that happened so he could decide what to do.” (page 18)

Throughout the book, Elías’s story makes it clear that in the Zapatista conceptual framework, police are unnecessary.  What is needed instead are investigators, who are only responsible for finding out what happened.  Investigators have no role in capturing criminals, trying and convicting them, or punishing them. 

So a little bit of the nuts and bolts are in there.  Like many other strategists before him, Subcomandante Marcos seems to be well aware that the medium may be an important element of the message.  The intrigue, the mystery, the gumshoeing in The Uncomfortable Dead are all at least partly in service to another kind of tale, showing a bit of Zapatista life and values to the rest of the world and explicating Mexican history from a people’s perspective. 

As a whole, The Uncomfortable Dead is a disjointed story.  Chapters alternate between the narrative following Elías Contreras and one following Taibo’s Héctor Belascoáran Shayne (a famously popular detective among Mexican readers) and his investigations in Mexico City.  The mystery is rooted in the confusing history of 1968, the massacre of students in Mexico City, the government crackdown and the Dirty War, and the connections these events have to contemporary Mexican politics.  The characters and plot lines are erratic and hard to follow, and the novel’s construction and conclusion are somewhat abstract, but the story has considerable charm as a political document and as a commentary on contemporary Mexican life. 

U.S. readers may find some bits of the story intriguing for historical reasons — for example, one of the characters relates the story of students from the School of Anthropology who went through central Mexico City after the devastating earthquake of 1985 marking buildings with signs saying “Catalogued as a national monument” so that developers would have to face a mountain of red tape before they could demolish and gentrify (page 152).  Reading this, I could not imagine such a tactic working anywhere but Mexico.

But altogether, The Uncomfortable Dead‘s difficulties of obscure narrative flow, a complex backstory, and the jumpiness of switching between different protagonists will be difficult only for some readers.  Anyone who is intrigued by the Zapatistas and their story, or who is interested in the history of left politics in Mexico, or who is already a fan of Taibo or of Marcos should find The Uncomfortable Dead relatively satisfying.

 * * *

Rather obviously, the book I read was a translation.  The Spanish version is:

Muertos incómodos : falta lo que falta / Subcomandante Marcos, Paco Ignacio Taibo II.
México, D.F. : Editorial Joaquín Mortiz, 2005.
[MCL call number: SPANISH Fiction MARCOS; ten copies, no holds]

Before being published as a book, Muertos incómodos was serialized in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada.  In fact, the project came about when Taibo discovered a package on his doorstep, containing the first chapter and a letter from Marcos asking Taibo to write the book with him for publication in La Jornada.  At the time of this first publication, the chapters were available on La Jornada‘s website, but they have since been removed.  However, the full text of what appears to be this first, serialized version (which may not be identical to the book version) is still available elsewhere on the web, in Spanish, of course.


43 – space, style, and structure
03.4.2007, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Space, style, and structure : building in Northwest America / Thomas Vaughan, editor ; Virginia Guest Ferriday, associate editor.
Portland, Or. : Oregon Historical Society, 1974.
[MCL call number: 720.979 V369s (two volumes); seven copies, no holds; one copy reference only at Central Library]

If you want to know about the buildings in our region, what they are like, where they came from, who has used them, and who made them, Space, Style, and Structure is a good place to start.  Although it purports to be a comprehensive history of architecture in the entire Pacific Northwest, its focus is more on Oregon than our neighbor states and provinces, and the parts on Oregon deal more with Portland and the towns of the Willamette Valley than the rest of the state.  However, the book is still valuable as a jumping-off point for anyone seeking an education in the regional history of buildings and architecture. 

Space, Style, and Structure is presented chronologically, in sections devoted to “Origins” (indigenous peoples’ architecture before the arrival of white people, and structures built by the first settler-traders and missionaries), “Pioneer Days,” “Railroad Era,” “Motor Age,” and “Freeway Forms.”  Each section begins with an essay on the regional setting during the period under discussion, followed by essays on development in selected cities and towns, and several brief chapters on specific buildings, gardens, building styles, architectural functions, and other related topics. 

Each chapter has a different author, but the narrative flow and the style of writing is fairly regular throughout.  I would guess that this is due to the vigilance of the editors, and it is an asset to the book.  Still, the writing style can be somewhat florid at times.  Vaughn’s introduction, in particular, suffers from overwriting.  For example, here he characterizes human prehistory:

“The times were almost beyond our conception — eons and then millennia ago — when our hunting ancestors huddled together in the darkness.  Ravening beasts of horrendous description were masters of the night, carrying off their meal from the weakest and the luckless.  The age is barely recorded when men fought beasts not only for food, but over food and to decide who was going to occupy some dry cave or overhang.

“After all, from immemorial time reason tells us that when they could get them our ancestors craved shelter and protection, which meant something over their heads for security such as the vaulted gallery of a cave and eventually the first mud walls, skins and willows or a crude rooftree.  Architecture is first and foremost linked to one of the necessities of life — a shelter.” (page xiv)

The book suffers somewhat from its massive size — it is more than seven hundred large pages in two extremely heavy volumes — and from the fact that although each volume has a separate table of contents which treats only the material in that volume, there is one index for both volumes printed only at the end of volume two.  To make matters worse, the index is only passably useful.  However, as much as I can argue about the details, there is still no getting around the fact that Space, Style, and Structure stands alone as the only book to attempt to explain the complex history of architecture across the Pacific Northwest.  The stories that are told here are told clearly, they are well illustrated, and even more importantly, they are augmented with careful notes and bibliographies to aid future research.

43 – last of the handmade buildings
03.4.2007, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Last of the handmade buildings : glazed terra cotta in downtown Portland / Virginia Guest Ferriday.
Portland, Or. : Mark Pub. Co., 1984.
[MCL call number: 725.097954 F389L; four copies, no holds; one copy reference only at Central Library]

If you stood on the east bank of the Willamette River in the 1890s and looked across at downtown Portland, you would have seen riverside warehouses backed by a dark brick and stone business district, with few buildings higher than eight or so stories.  The same vantage point forty years later offered a view of a modernized city center with tall steel framed buildings, many of them faced in pale, glazed terra cotta. 

Why terra cotta?  When you build a building that is very tall, you have to find a way to keep it from falling down.  Around the turn of the century, steel frame technology allowed for a sincere revolution the design of large buildings — with light but sturdy steel frames to hold everything up, you could build extremely high without having to build walls nearly as thick as you would if you were trying to build out of stone.  But unlike buildings built of stone and brick, steel framed buildings do not have facing material and frame in one package — you have to cover up the steel with something.  Terra cotta is a nice solution because it is fireproof, much more lightweight than stone or brick, it can be formed into decorative and useful shapes easily, and it can be glazed in many colors. 

Ferriday’s thoughtful study of downtown Portland’s terra cotta buildings chronicles the period of their construction and profiles 40 surviving buildings.  She begins with a short but careful history of the development of downtown Portland and the general and local factors that allowed glazed terra cotta buildings to become, for a short period, a dominant architectural form.  Next are chapters on the technical concerns of terra cotta manufacture and application, terra cotta as an ornamental medium, and preservation of terra cotta building components.

Finally, Ferriday inventories 40 of downtown Portland’s glazed terra cotta buildings — from the Wells Fargo Building on SW 6th and Oak (built in 1907) to Charles F. Berg’s glorious department store on SW Broadway between Morrison and Alder (built in 1930), each building is described in detail, including the circumstances of its construction and information about its architect, original owners, initial use, decorative and architectural elements, and historical context.  A contemporary photograph or architect’s drawing illustrates each entry, and Ferriday provides a detailed list of sources for each building — this is the part that makes my librarian heart sing, really, because I know it must have taken hundreds of hours of research to build these little bibliographies of city records, professional and newspaper articles, pamphlets, company archives, and interviews. 

Although Last of the Handmade Buildings is clearly written and easy to read, it is so well illustrated (a useful picture, I think, on just about every page) that even those who do not trouble to read the text should find the book educational and interesting.

 * * *

In addition to her work on this book and as associate editor of the regional architectural history Space Style, and Structure : Building in Northwest America (reviewed above), Ferriday is dear to the hearts of local librarians and researchers for another project: she was the coordinator of a city-initiated inventory of historic properties that was completed in the early 1908s.  The inventory was published in binder form, and provides basic historical information about thousands of glamorous and everyday buildings in every Portland neighborhood, from Sellwood to St. Johns and Montavilla to Portland Heights:

Historic resource inventory, City of Portland, Oregon : identified properties.
Portland, Or. : Bureau of Planning, 1984.
[MCL call number: O- 720.9795 H675i; one copy reference only at Central Library]

 * * *

Those of you who become fascinated by terra cotta buildings should be interested to know that there are certainly other books about them.  Seattle’s terra cotta buildings are tersely inventoried in Impressions of Imagination : Terra-Cotta Seattle (Seattle, Wash. : Allied Arts of Seattle, Inc., 1986), which also includes ten essays on various aspects of terra cotta architecture, a glossary, and a walking map. 

New York City’s terra cotta buildings are lovingly described in Terra-Cotta Skyline : New York’s Architectural Ornament (by Susan Tunick, New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 1997), which includes some really lovely full-color modern photographs of New York City’s rather lurid polychrome terra cotta decoration as well as a helpful history of the terra cotta industry in New York and across the country.

No doubt there are books about terra cotta buildings in other cities as well.