Monday, February 28, 2011

Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper by C. Marina Marchese

This delicious book by beekeeper and founder of Red Bee, C. Marina Marchese, should go to the top of the reading list for anyone who cares about honey-- and why not care about honey? It's delicious, it's nutritious, and the bees (and good beekeeping practices) help us all in so many ways, and most importantly, in pollinating major crops such as apples, almonds, blueberries, cucumbers--- you name it. The book is a mix of personal memoir (how the author got her start after a career in design, and many of her beekeeping adventures and misadventures), and advice, some of which far surpasses the everyday practical (e.g., use a Pfund color grader to evaluate color). The book also includes a glossary, bibliography, and resources. The appendices, the multilingual "Deciphering a Honey Label" and "75 Varietals of Honey" are especially useful for traveling honey aficionados.

I have tried some of Marchese's artisanal honeys, which are extraordinary (I loved the Tupelo and Golden Rod). Find out more at her webpage,

More anon.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Links Noted: Art & Word Editions, Redacción sin Dolor, Francis Ford Coppola on Art + Money, Christine Boyka Kluge, Real Delia, Rose Rosetree, and more

Art & Words Editions
Founded by Kris Waldherr in New York. This is the future of publishing, people. Wow. Sign up for the mailing list and get your goddess PDF. (Thanks, Diane Saarinen, for the tip.)

Washington Independent Review of Books
Amidst the general catastrophe that has befallen newspaper book reviewing, I am delighted to see this. Founded by historian David O. Stewart in Washington DC.

Redacción sin Dolor
El blog de Sandro Cohen, Mexican writer and esteemed writing teacher.

The Bleat
Dancing Chiva Literary Arts, S.C.: Limited editions, e-books, writing workshops, and more. P.S. Sign up for my Techniques of Fiction workshop May 28 with Dancing Chiva in Mexico City.

Francis Ford Coppola on Art & Money

Christine Boyka Kluge
Poet with a camera and eyes beyond Rimbaud.

Real Delia
The "Finding Yourself in Adulthood" blog of the Politics Daily columnist has a bright new look.

Better Book Titles
(Thanks, Mary Kay Zuravleff, for the tip.)

Rose Rosetree
Aura Reading of Lady Gaga, face reading of Hosni Mubarak, Q & A with Mr Enlightenment, and why smoking mota opens your aura to nasty whozits (really). Fiction writers: can you read your character's auras and faces?

More anon.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Harry Crosby and Baja California's Magnificent Cave Paintings

Some years ago, as part of my research for my book on Baja California, Miraculous Air, I had the honor of interviewing the great photographer, and cave art and Jesuit mission historian Harry W. Crosby. I have more respect than I can say for his work: his deep research, painstaking documentation, and splendid photographs, have fundamentally changed and vastly enriched our understanding of the peninsula. Among his many works are: Tijuana 1964; Antigua California; and The Cave Paintings of California. Crosby has kept a low profile in recent years, but tomorrow, Thursday, February 24, he will be speaking in San Diego about the cave art. If you are in the area, or anywhere near the area, be sure to go.

Here is the announcement that came to me from his publisher, Sunbelt:

As a writer and as a historian, Harry W. Crosby’s extensive explorations and archival research have established him as one of the foremost authorities on the colorful past of the Californias. On February 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm, he will make a rare appearance at Adventure 16 to share the lifetime of knowledge he possesses on the pre-historic cave murals of the Baja California Peninsula. His presentation will be based on his highly acclaimed book The Cave Paintings of Baja California.

A celebrated octogenarian, Harry Crosby rarely schedules public events to promote his many publications. For this occasion, he has partnered with good friend John D. Mead, President of Adventure 16, in hopes that they might remind travelers of the lately overlooked beauty that can be found south of the border. Discover Baja travel agency will also be in attendance to educate on safe travel practices through Mexico.

The evening will begin with a wine and cheese reception, followed by Crosby’s presentation, and concluding with book-signing. Several specialty books on Baja California will also be available at Adventure 16 exclusively during the event including classics like Backroad Baja, which contains several maps that are one-of-a kind, and The Camino Real and the Missions of Baja California, which is partially authored by Harry Crosby.

Crosby’s presentation will include a slide show with pictures from the dramatic cave murals of the Baja California peninsula. His research on the topic began in 1967 when he was commissioned to provide the photographs for The Call to California, requiring him to ride over 600 miles on mule back on Baja’s El Camino Real. The trip piqued his curiosity and led to another decade of interviewing ranchers of the remote mountains. Exploring with local guides he found over 200 previously undiscovered murals and rock art sites, which he documented in The Cave Paintings of Baja California.

1997 saw the publication of a completely revised and expanded edition of Crosby’s The Cave Paintings of Baja California, which garnered praise from readers, critics, and book clubs. The books popularity led to subsequent reprints in 2001 and 2010. His years of field and archival research into Early California history also yielded such works as Antigua California, the now standard history of Spanish California’s first 70 years, and Last of the Californios. Released in 2001 were his first novel, Portrait of Paloma, and a book of his early photography, Tijuana: 1964.

WHO: Harry W. Crosby
WHAT: Presenting on the Cave Paintings of Baja California
WHEN: Thursday, February 24, 2011 @ 6:00 pm
WHERE: Adventure 16 4620 Alvarado Canyon Road San Diego, CA 92120-4390

---> No guest-blog post this Wednesday, but be sure to check the archive which includes posts on Baja California and/ or Mexico by Stephanie Elizondo-Greist, Michael Hogan, David Lida, Graham Mackintosh, Greg Niemann, Isabella Tree, and many more.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Maximilien: Ópera historique

A couple of years ago, the late great Mexican art historian el maestro Ricardo Pérez Escamilla very generously gave me his copy of a rare French libretto and program of the opera performed in the Académie Nationale de Musique et de Danse, "Maximilien . . . CONTINUE READING over at my other blog, Maximilian ~ Carlota (for researchers of the Second Empire or "French Intervention").

Monday, February 21, 2011

Techniques of Fiction: The Number One Technique in the Supersonic Overview

I've been giving this "Techniques of Fiction" workshop for a few years now at the Writer's Center, Dancing Chiva, the San Miguel Workshops and San Miguel Writers Conference, and upcoming this weekend at the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference and again at the Writer's Center (near Washington DC).


There are 2 versions: the Supersonic Overview, a 3 hour workshop (or a little longer, as for Dancing Chiva) and the Ridiculously Supersonic Overview (as for the writers conferences), which typically go for about an hour.

You can get a PhD in creative writing (people actually do, shake my head at that as I may), and though I do believe learning to write is a never-ending, ever-deepening process, I also believe that because of the way the human brain is wired, the same very few but very powerful techniques have provided, provide, and-- barring bizarre genetic mutations-- will continue to provide the most effective instructions to the reader to form, in John Gardner's words, "a vivid dream" in her mind.

That's what a novel is: instructions for a vivid dream. Sometimes I get all Californian and call it a "mandala of consciousness." But whatever you call it, a novel is about providing the experience of someone else's experience: Anna Karenina's, Madame Bovary's, Scarlet O'Hara's, Harry Potter's, [insert name of your main character here].

How do we, whether as readers, or as any human being (say, folding laundry, or maybe digging for worms with a stick) experience anything? Well, last I checked we are not free-floating blobs of consciousness (except maybe when we have out-of-body experiences and/ or when dead); we are in bodies. We experience what we experience through our bodily senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch-- and I would add a "gut" or intuitive sense as well. So any fiction that is going to be readable -- a successfully vivid dream--- needs to address the senses.

The reader responds to specific sensory detail such as the color of the sweater; the sound of the wind in the ficus; the droplet of honey on her tongue; the mustiness of the refrigerator that had been left unplugged in the basement; the cottony bulk of an armload of unfolded towels; the sudden twinge of tightness in his throat just before he picked up the telephone.

There are an infinite number of techniques, but this -- giving the reader specific sensory detail --- is paramount.


He was sad.
He sank his chin in his hand. With his other, he reached across the table for a Kleenex.

Poor people lived here.
The hallway smelled of boiled cabbage and a bathroom that needed scubbing.

Rich people lived here.
Everything gleamed and behind her, a pair of white gloves pulled the door shut with a gentle click.

She disliked him.
The sight of him made her grit her teeth.

She ate too much.
She didn't leave one crumb of Mrs Ward's crumbcake.

The neighbors were obnoxious.
Though the Hip-Hop came from three houses down the block, she could feel it in her breakfast table when she put her hand on it.

Here's my favorite quote about detail, from a letter by Anton Chekhov:

In descriptions of nature one should seize upon minutiae, grouping them so that when, having read the passage, you close your eyes, a picture is formed. For example, you will evoke a moonlit night by writing that on the mill dam the glass fragments of a broken bottle flashed like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled along like a ball. . .

More anon. For more about my workshops at Bay to Ocean and the Writer's Center next weekend, click here.

P.S. For some fun exercises to generate specific detail for fiction, check out "Giant Golden Buddha" and 364 More 5 Minute Writing Exercises.

See also my recommended reading list on craft.

And: many more resources for writers here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Querétaro: El último príncipe del Imperio Mexicano

This evening in Querétaro I'll be presenting El último príncipe del Imperio Mexicano, which is the Spanish translation (beautifully done by Mexican writer Agustín Cadena) of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, my novel based on the true story of Agustín de Iturbide y Green in the court of Maximilian.

The event will be at the Galería DRT, 5 de Mayo No. 80, esquina Altamirano, Centro Histórico, and it is thanks to my good friend the very talented writer Araceli Ardón. (By the way, her superb short story about Querétaro of the 1930s, "It is Nothing of Mine," appears in my anthology, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion -- read her complete story at the website of National Public Radio).

Querétaro, one of Mexico's largest and most distinguished cities,
has long been associated with Maximilian. During the Second Empire, its deeply Catholic conservatives supported him and, in 1867, when Maximilian surrendered to the Juaristas, after a trial, he was executed just outside the city's center, on the Cerro de las Campanas. (The photo, above, is of the chapel dedicated to Maximilian on the Cerro de las Campanas.)

I will be presenting the novel in Mexico City a little later this year, and it is truly an honor to be able to present it today in Querétaro with Araceli Ardón.

There should be plenty of time for Q & A, and there will be copies of the novel in Spanish for sale at the event, which as ever, I'm delighted to sign. The novel is widely available in Mexico at bookstores such as Sanborn's, Gandhi, Sotano, etc., as well as CostCo and (yes) Office Depot. Click here for full information on how to find a copy in Spanish and here for information in English.


This Saturday, Mónica Lavín, a well-known Mexican literary novelist-- whose short story "Day and Night" also appears in Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion-- will be giving a special seminar for the San Miguel Writers Conference in nearby San Miguel de Allende.

On Sunday, also for the conference, I'll be reading, briefly, from the original English version of the novel, and giving a 90 minute workshop on "Techniques of Fiction: A Supersonic Overview."

Next week: The Bay to Ocean Writers Conference in Maryland, and a one day "Techniques of Fiction" workshop at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

More anon.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Guest-blogger Michael Hogan on The Irish Soldiers of Mexico

A well-known figure in Mexican history circles, and also among English-language writers in Mexico, Michael Hogan (shown above, with an actor in uniform) has been researching and writing about the "San Patricios" for many years now, so it is a special honor and a delight to have him guestblogging this Wednesday on the occasion of two of his books being released on Kindle.

The Irish Soldiers of Mexico
by Michael Hogan

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day: a history and a novel about the Irish in Mexico. The history is The Irish Soldiers of Mexico (Revised edition, 2011, $9.99) just released on Kindle. In this book I recount the little known story of the Irish battalion which fought in the Mexican War. This is the least studied and least documented war in American history, although the U.S. invasion and subsequent conquest of Mexico deprived Mexico of half of its territory, enriched the U.S. by two- fifths of its current land mass, and relegated Mexico to Third World nation status.

Manifest Destiny and a pervasive Anglo-based American ethnocentricism were the powerful impulses prodding mid-19th century American politics, resulting in the nation’s imperialistic designs on Mexico and precipitating the Mexican American War. Critics of the war included, among others, two future presidents, Lincoln and Grant, and author Henry David Thoreau who wrote his famous "Civil Disobedience" in reaction to the U.S. invasion of its southern neighbor. Within the U.S. there were over 9,000 deserters; a larger number than all our other wars combined. Among the latter were Irish-Americans, many of whom, for diverse reasons (including discrimination against the Irish and anti-Catholicism) joined the Mexican military, forming the St. Patrick’s Battalion. In this study I explore the motivation of these Irishmen, their valiant contributions to the Mexican cause, and the consequences when they were captured, including military courts-martial and hangings.

An MGM film, “One Man’s Hero” starring Tom Berenger, was based loosely on this history, in addition to two award-winning documentaries which were shelved by U.S. distributors but viewed widely by international audiences. Last year, Ry Cooder and the Chieftains released an album called “The San Patricios” commemorating the Irish battalion which demonstrates the on-going attraction of this period of history and these Irish renegades.

Molly Malone and the San Patricios, the second book on this subject and the winner of the Ojo del Lago Award for fiction in Guadalajara, Mexico, has just been released this month in a Kindle Edition in English ($5.99). Hungry, homeless and in trouble with the law after eluding slow death in the Irish Famine, Kevin Dillon enlists in the American Army. When he discovers that the “Army of Observation” in Texas is poised for the invasion of a peaceful Catholic country, Kevin and his friends slip across the Rio Bravo at night. There they join John Riley of the St. Patrick’s (San Patricio) Battalion and fight on the Mexican side.

The last of the recruits, a golden-eyed Doberman dubbed Molly Malone, proves to be a warrior of unquestioned loyalty and courage. She follows Kevin and the Irishmen through the deadliest of battles, even to the gallows where 85 of them are hanged. Praised by critics for its characterization and by the Mexican military for the accuracy of battle descriptions, this recreation brings the history of the era alive with all its violence and nobility, contradictions and ideals.

A earlier book on the topic, The Shamrock and the Sword (1989) by Robert Ryal Miller is often compared with my book. The Shamrock and the Sword drew largely on U.S. military sources and gave the perspective from the American side. The Irish Soldiers of Mexico was written to some extent in reaction to it, with Professor Miller’s blessing. I am a permanent resident of Mexico and bilingual so I had opportunities that Miller did not have. I was able to search the Mexican military archives at my leisure, to visit all the battlefields, to translate personal papers and documents of contemporaries of the period, and to interview descendents of the Irish soldiers. I drew largely on Mexican sources and contemporary accounts of anti-Catholicism, racial discrimination against the Irish, and solidarity of Irish and Mexicans. Both books, however, are thoroughly documented with hundred of notes and extensive bibliographies as well as with maps and photographs. Miller tells the story from the perspective of the winners (as most histories do), while I give the perspective of those who fought gallantly and lost.

More links:

*Review of Irish Soldiers by Hans Vogel of Leiden University (Netherlands) from HNet.

*A video showing the Museo de Intervenciones which is the museum depicting the history of the many invasions of Mexico by foreign powers, primarily France and the United States. It is also the former Convento de Churubusco where the fiercest battle between the Saint Patrick’s Battalion (San Patricios) and U.S. forces took place.

*Homepage of author with photos of the filming of the movie, battle scenes, opening events with Berenger and excerpts from both books.

-- Michael Hogan

---> For the full archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts, click here.
Guest-blog posts include Roberta Rich on 5 + 1 Books to Inform an Historical Thriller; Solveig Eggerz on 5 Works of Historical Fiction; and Stephanie Elizondo Griest on 5 Glimpses Into the Mexican Underworld.

P.S. Small world! I have also been in touch with Robert Ryal Miller (may he rest in peace). See my post on Miller's alerting me to a rare unpublished eyewitness memoir of Maximilian in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal by Thomas M. Settles


As the subtitle indicates, most of Thomas M. Settles' splendid biography of John Bankhead Magruder (1807 - 1871) is dedicated to a detailed examination of his role in the U.S. Civil War, specifically, his audacious if nonetheless inevitably doomed defense of Richmond, and later, Galveston. Though this part of the narrative does not have direct bearing on Mexican history, it informs the portrait of an unusually flamboyant Confederate who, in defeat, looked south to a future in Maximilian's Mexican Empire. . . CONTINUE READING at my other blog, Maximilian~Carlota.

"Maximilian ~ Carlota," my blog of resources for researchers of the tumultuous period of Mexican history known as the Second Empire or "French Intervention," is updated on Tuesdays.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cheese, Cheese, and Texas Cheese

The first time I can recall really appreciating cheese as something special was when I tried the fresh goat cheese in the remote sierra rancherías of Baja California. I met the goats, I patted the dog that guarded them, and I was able to interview some of the people at length. I wrote about that in my memoir, Miraculous Air (it's available from Milkweed Editions in a paperback edition). And now that I have taken Colette "Madam de Fromage" Hatch's excellent French Cheese seminar, well... it has become a fascinating subject, this humble and ancient food that, it turns out, has infinite layers of complexity and quality. (Translation: DOWN with Kraft squares!) I recently had the chance, while on a sojourn in Texas, to mosey on over to the Southwest Dairy Museum (pictured above) in Sulphur Springs. It's a charming little museum, mainly serving local school children. Especially charming: the displays with antique machinery (butter churners, cheese presses, cream separators, tins, etc) donated by local farm families. It was impressive to see how dairy production has developed just in my lifetime. I remember, when I was a kid, seeing the glass bottles left on the doorstep by the milkman. People my parents age will remember the wagon drawn by horses. Now we all drive over to Wal-Mart and pick up some pasteurized-to-zip nonfat "milk" that, nutritionally, resembles raw milk from grass-fed cattle as a Twinky resembles Grandma's crumbcake. When I think about the hormones and antibiotics and GM corn fed to cattle in large-scale commercial operations... um, actually, let's not think about that.

Another thing that has struck me is the increasing number of artisanal cheesemakers in the U.S. with with websites varying from pedestrian to superb. A few even offer on-line shopping.

Herewith some notable websites for Texas artisanal cheesemakers:

Pure Luck
And they offer cheesemaking workshops.

Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese
Raw milk!

Brazos Valley Cheese

Haute Goat Creamery
In Lubbock. Their "story" and the pages about the goats are very fun.

Latte Da Dairy
Goat cheese, and more about LaManchans (no ears) and Nubians (all ears).

Veldhuizen Texas Farmhouse Cheese
I've tried their cheeses... a-ma-zing!

Plus, check out:

Brief video on artisanal cheesemaking on "Cooking Up a Story"

News from the Cheese Caves: Artisanal Premium Cheese Blog
Check out: How Much Cheese Can I Eat?

Cheese Underground Blog
By confessed "cheese geek" Jeanne Carpenter

Rivers Edge Chevre
Goat cheese from Oregon

More anon.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Links Noted: Amusing, Curious & Mexico-Related

Amusing, Curious & Mexico-related:


World's Smallest Movie Theater, Sol Cinema
I want one of these for my backyard! Oh, wait, I don't have a backyard.

Via the excellent Real Delia, Eddie Izzard's "Death Star Canteen"
A tewwibly British bit of improv.

Also via Real Delia, Hyperbole and a Half

Bethesda World News
By my amiga, writer Paula Whyman (P.S. check out her bread head guestblog post for Madam Mayo here.)

Papa's Pugs blog

The Fun Theory (by Volkswagen)

I Am Baker's How to Make a Heart Cake

Cute Overload on Monkey Jell-o Wrestling


Swan Bones Theater

How to Find Real Food at the Supermarket

Using Hand-Held Clickers to Keep the Kiddies Attentive
(Strikes Madam Mayo as both very useful and more than a bit sad...)

Mexico- Related:

Radio Free San Miguel de Allende

Naomi Andrade Smith's Villa Victoria Blog

Perros Guia para Ciegos

"Links Noted" appears every other Thursday, except when not. More anon.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Guestblogger Roberta Rich on 5 + 1 Top Books to Inform a 16th Century Historical Thriller

To write, one must first read, and to write historical fiction, goodness, one's reading can get exotic indeed. It's a very special delight to host my fellow novelist-- and a fellow English language writer-in-Mexico-- Roberta Rich, author of the hot-off-the-presses The Midwife of Venice (Random House Doubleday Canada), an historical thriller about a Jewish midwife who breaks the law and endangers the Venetian ghetto by delivering a Christian baby. As Rich herself puts it, "When in a facetious mood, which is often, she describes her book and being the story of a nice Jewish girl with really poor impulse control, who lived in 16th century Venice." Roberta currently lives in Colima, the Eden-like lime capital of Mexico, perhaps most famous as the fictional "Comala" of novelist Juan Rulfo.

5 + 1 Books to Inform a 16th Century Historical
by Roberta Rich

My life as a writer of historical thrillers is not an easy one. I need to know how people in the 16th century cooked their food, went to the bathroom, had sex, had babies, and thought about
their spouses and their children. What kind of clothes did people wear in 16th Constantinople and how they washed them? The six books I schlepped down to Mexico this year to answer these and other pesky questions as I worked on the
sequel to The Midwife of Venice were:

1. The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York
by Claudia Rodan
This is a cookbook, history book, family memoir, and account of the Jewish Diaspora. Rodan is a culinary Scheherazade. I am not tempted to prepare any of the recipes, not being a lover of stuffed lung or cholent but I eagerly await her next book. Rodan’s writing is as personal and intimate as if she was chatting to you in your Aunt Rivka’s kitchen making kugel. (>>More Jewish recipes click here.)

2. Court Midwife
by Justine Siegemund
This remarkable woman, midwife to the Hapsburg family in Germany in the 1700’s, wrote a manual of childbirth practices complete with beautiful engravings. The tone of the book, instructional and reassuring, is written as a dialogue between herself and an apprentice. The book is an insight into how surprisingly advanced the knowledge
of obstetrics was in those days. (>>More reading here.)

3. Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light
by Jane Brox
The breadth covered by Brox is staggering―- from burning lumps of stinking fat in the Pleistocene age, to tallow and beeswax candles in early modern history to the wearable LEDs of present day. I bought it for my husband who is an energy economist. Poor guy. He hasn’t had a chance to look at it yet and it was a Christmas present.

4. Turkish Embassy Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Lady Montagu was the wife of the English Ambassador to Turkey in 1716 and a keen observer of women in Ottoman Turkey. Her observations are interesting, sometimes a bit tart, but never judgmental. One of her best letters is written to Lady Rich, who, my overheated imagination tells me, was an illustrious ancestor of mine. On her
deathbed Lady Montagu’s exit line was, “It had all been very interesting.”
(>>More reading on Turkish harems here.)

5. Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey
by Raphaela Lewis
Ms. Lewis is a lover of all things Ottoman. Her book is rich in the kind of kinky and strange detail novelist need such as lead ladling as a means of foretelling the future and tales of the beloved Hoza Nasreddin, a Turkish figure in folklore and homespun philosopher. >>More reading on Turkish customs here.

6. The Perfect Red
Amy Butler Greenfield
Cochineal was a dye made from the bodies of crushed insects. It was introduced to Spain and then to the rest of Europe when Cortes saw it in the markets of Tenochtitlán in the early 1500’s. He realized its value as a dye, pigment for paints and a cosmetic. The villain in the book I am working on now, steals some of this precious dye and does something very nasty with it. Ms. Greenfield has a lovely website in which you can see a video of her, dying a piece of silk with cochineal.

--- Roberta Rich

---> For the archive of all Madam Mayo guestblog posts click here.

>>Most recent guest-blog: Novelist Ellen Meeropol on 5 Political Novels to Change the World

>>See also Novelist Solveig Eggerz on 5 Works of Historical Fiction and novelist Sandra Gulland on 5 Top Research Sites for Historical Novelists.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Confederates in Mexico: A Brief Bibliography

An exotic but enduring subject of interest among U.S. Civil War history aficionados is the role played by Confederates, such as Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury (pictured right), and later, a passel of ex-generals (Shelby, McGruder, and more), in lending, or perhaps I should say, attempting to lend prestige to Maximilian's monarchy in Mexico. After the surrender at Appomattox in 1865, an important number of ex-Confederates immigrated to Mexico, many (though not all) with the aim of establishing colonies. To war-weary ex-Confederates, Maximilian's Mexico might have appeared a delectable glass of water, but as quickly as if left out in the Mexican sun, it evaporated. . . . CONTINUE READING over at my other blog, Maximilian ~Carlota: for researchers, both "armchair" and serious, of the Second Mexican Empire, the tumultuous period also known as the French Intervention.

P.S. I'll be presenting the Spanish version of the novel, El último príncipe del Imperio Mexicano, translated by Agustín Cadena, in Querétaro next week. Check my events page for more information. (And yes, I plan to present it in Mexico City later this spring.)

Monday, February 07, 2011

Picadou, Pug Snugglies, Red Bee, Etsy, and the Flourishing of Micro-Niche Markets

Finally, after only about 789 years, I got an iPhone so I can snap photos and instantly mail them to myself for this blog (maybe one day I'll become the David Lida of Coyoacán?). This photo (left) is my 10 year old pug, Picadou, modeling her winter coat from Pug Snuggly. Pug Snuggly is a company started by Jett Crane, a California-based pug owner who realized, about ten years ago--just when I needed to buy Picadou her first coat-- that the fact that it's not easy to find a coat that fits the cobby pug body represented a very nice business opportunity. Good for her and good for us! In other words, supply and demand in the pug couture niche have found their felicitous equilibrium.

Some of you know that, about 992 years ago, I used to work and publish as an economist under the name Catherine Mansell Carstens. I specialized in Mexican finance, and my last book under that name, published in 1995, was Las finanzas populares en México, which looked at the surprisingly rich variety of financial markets and instruments utilized by low-income people-- so of course, I had a lot to say about micro-credit for micro-businesses, etc, etc. (I left that career to write fiction and essays as C.M. Mayo because, after writing two books and more articles than I could count, I realized what appealed me most was the writing itself and the opportunity to explore the wider horizon of subjects that interest me --and frankly, after all that writing about economics, I was bored-to-Jesus writing about economics). All of this is to say that I can't help it, I still see the world through the lens of economics and I find it fascinating to watch, in the midst of this world-wide recession, the way Internet-based micro-niche-businesses, such as Pug Snugglies, are flourishing.

On the supply side, it is much easier to order on-line than it was ten years ago. The "shopping cart" features are better designed and more reliable, and most Internet connections faster and more stable (though, OK, I can complain about that sometimes, too).

On the demand side, I've noticed my own shopping habits veer dramatically away from malls in the past couple of years. I've been ordering books from and for an eon, but recently, just for example, I began ordering varietal honey from apitherapist, author, and beekeeper Marina Marchese's Red Bee website; Filofax refills from, and some wiggy protective covers for the laptop and iPhone from

Last December, rather than elbow into a parking space and endure long lines at the mall, I did most of my holiday shopping in late November on et voila, by December, the boxes just showed up on my doorstep. If you're not familiar with etsy, it's a gigantic on-line "mall" of micro businesses selling owner-made handmade items of all kinds, plus a few "vintage" thises- and-thats. Though items are not auctioned, otherwise, it operates very much like ebay: buyers and sellers can rate eachother (so bad apples are shown for what they are), and buyers do not give their credit card numbers directly to sellers, but pay via PayPal.

Some of the items listed on etsy are very unusual-- all I can say is, it makes for dangerously fun surfing (do check out "When Zombies Met the Baby Jesus Anti-Holiday Card" by Tina Henry, aka tinaseamonster who says, in her product description, "If you are offended by this, please don't write to me. I am a nice person and if I go to hell, that is totally my problem.")

And yes, there's a lot of vintage, um... steampunkerie galore, and stuff that looks like a 5th grader made it. But there are endless wonders made by expert artists and craftsmen/ -women who-- you can tell by the feedback and how quickly they "convo" (that's etsy-speak for reply to their customers' messages)-- truly value their customers.

To give an idea of the etsy's staggering variety: so far I've bought, among other things, a beautifully-made laptop shoulderbag (and, by the way, at a very low price), several sheets of gorgeously marbled paper, and a box of peanutbutter cookies.

Ay, and how could I forget to mention fiverr?

My own Internet-friendly micro-business, which I hope won't remain micro for long, is Dancing Chiva Literary Arts, S.C. Since 2007 I've been offering occasional writing workshops via Dancing Chiva in Mexico City (I had to slow down on those when I started my book tour for The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire in 2009). Later this year we'll begin publishing e-books and limited editions, specializing in Bajacaliforniana, Maximiliana, and works for writers. Want news about that? We'd love to see you on the Dancing Chiva mailing list (click here to sign up).

More anon.

Argentina: A Traveler's Literary Companion

Whereabouts Press, publisher of the Traveler's Literary Companion series-- and publisher of my anthology, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion--- has just brought out Argentina, edited by Jill Gibian, Professor of Spanish and Latin Ameican Studies at Eastern Oregon University, and an expert on tango. It looks like a beautiful collection, with works by Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Luisa Valenzuela, and more than a dozen more Argentine writers. This is one I am especially looking forward to reading.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Guestblogger Ellen Meeropol: Five Political Novels To Change the World

This week's guest-blogger, Ellen Meeropol, is the author of House Arrest, a first novel published this month which received a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly: “Meeropol's work is thoughtful and tightly composed, unflinching in taking on challenging subjects and deliberating uneasy ethical conundrums.”

Meeropol began writing fiction in her fifties while working as a nurse practitioner in a pediatric hospital. Since leaving her nursing practice in 2005, she has worked as the publicist and book group coordinator for an independent bookstore and taught fiction workshops. She is a founding member of the Rosenberg Fund for Children and author of the script for their dramatic program “Celebrate.” Drawing material from her twin passions of medical ethics and political activism, her fiction explores characters on the fault lines of political turmoil and family loyalties.

She holds an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine and lives in Massachusetts. Her stories have appeared in The Drum, Bridges, Portland Magazine, Pedestal, Patchwork Journal, and The Women’s Times.

Five Political Novels to Change the World
by Ellen Meeropol

Can fiction change the world? Novels have been credited with offering the political imagination necessary for true societal change and with sparking actual political transformation (e.g. Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook convincing Czar Alexander to free the serfs and Ignazio Silone’s Fontamara playing a major role in discrediting Italian fascism). Literary responses to tyranny and injustice, from Man’s Fate to Things Fall Apart to The Dew Breaker, demonstrate that the novel can be a powerful vehicle for shifting our political consciousness. Our world today could use some major transformation, so here are my nominations for five recent political novels that just might kick us into action for social justice.

by Naseem Rakha
After nineteen years in prison, the man who killed 15-year-old Shep has stopped his appeals and is scheduled to die by lethal injection. The story follows prison superintendent Tab Mason and Shep’s mother Irene back and forth between the family’s Illinois farm and the town in Oregon where the murder took place, from the family’s move to Oregon in 1983 to the execution date in 2004. As the plot twists unfold with seamless transitions, the reader travels Irene’s road of fierce hate and revenge-hunger to eventual forgiveness and re-connection. Rakha does an admirable job of avoiding the pat, the easy, the black and white sound bite and of challenging the reader both emotionally and intellectually.

by Chris Cleave
Little Bee is a teenager from a small, oil-rich Nigerian village. Sarah is a well-to-do British editor, wife, and mother. They meet on a Nigerian beach when Sarah and her husband are on vacation and Little Bee is running for her life. Although the author doesn’t reveal what happens at that meeting until late in the book, we know that the event is brutal and pivotal, keeping the narrative tension high. We also know that whatever happened on that beach binds these women together in profound and complex ways. There you’ve got it, precisely what interests me so much in reading - and writing - political fiction: the powerful and complicated intersection of people (okay, of characters) with the political worlds we inhabit.

by Kamila Shamsie
follows two families across five countries and sixty years like a relay race. The narrative baton might be the stunning image introduced early in the book when Hiroko dons a silk kimono “white with three black cranes swooping across her back” and goes to meet her German fiancé, Konrad. Minutes later, the atomic bomb is dropped on Nagasaki, burning the pattern of the cranes into Hiroko’s flesh. The baton passes from Nagasaki to Delhi on the cusp of partition in 1947, to 1983 Pakistan and the mujahideen. Finally, inevitably, the story reaches 9/11 New York and Guantánamo Bay. All these characters – and all of us – are branded by the history we live.

by Sadie Jones
Small Wars is the story of British army major Hal Treherne, dispatched to Cyprus during the 1956 “Emergency” and eager to be tested as a soldier and an officer. His wife Clara and their young twin daughters accompany him. While Hal faces the morally difficult role of leading an occupying army during a guerilla war, Clara faces increasing danger and loneliness. Their parallel battles and inner struggles as the violence escalates and the marriage flounders evoke a wonderful tension for the reader, one that remains authentic to the era while suggesting strikingly contemporary issues of means versus ends in waging war.

by Randy Susan Meyers
The Murder's Daughters finds its subject much closer than Cyprus or Nigeria; this novel of social injustice begins in the small Coney Island apartment of Merry and Lulu on the day their father kills their mother. These are two wonderfully complex characters, stubborn and determined to survive despite heavy odds. The prose is fresh and strong, the story compelling. Despite the shattering event that opens the novel, the narrative shimmers with healing, sisterly love, and hope.

--- Ellen Meeropol, author of the new novel House Arrest

---> For the complete archive of Madam Mayo's guest-blog posts, click here.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Eulogio Gillow, Carlota, the Iturbides, and the English Mini-Castle

One of the most moving and curious things about having written a book about the 19th century is that, on many an occasion, I am reminded that it wasn't all that long ago. CONTINUE READING at my other blog, Maximilian ~ Carlota.

[The other blog, Maximilian ~ Carlota, is where I share my research on Mexico's Second Empire / French Intervention which I did for my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. I have so many things in my files... and I am still learning... I'll be updating that blog on Tuesdays, until further notice.]

Juan Cole on Egypt's Class Conflict

This sounds so much like the latter days of the Mexican Porfiriato (before the Revolution of 1910): the erosion of the regime's original political base, international economic and financial woes, inflexibility of an aging strongman, and a succession crisis. But who plays Madero (visionary democrat guided by spirits)? Zapata (leader of angry peasants)? Villa (leader of more angry peasants, northern version)? Huerta (army heavy)? Hero (martyr or Machiavellian) of the urban workers? Darling of the intellectuals? Of the middle class (slim as it may be)? Of the regional caciques? The favorite of the religious institutions? What will the U.S. do?

U.S. reporting on Egypt -- and um, whatever happened to Tunisia?-- is embarrassingly poor, though of course, much better at this moment when all cameras are trained on Cairo, but then... expect another near-vacuum. (One small example: why has it taken this many days to start googling up articles about such a key figures as Gamal Mubarak?)

Professor Juan Cole remains one of the few consistent sources of, as his blog puts it, Informed Comment. Another interesting read, after scrolling down the news about his novel, is at Sic Semper Tyrannis. AlJazeera in English is finally having its day. And Deutsche Welle (English version) isn't bad.

Phronesisiacal offers some good Egypt news and background readinglinks.

P.S. The doom and gloom continues over at Jim Kunstler's well-informed-on-oil-issues Clusterfuck Nation. I am beginning to keep a Cheez Whiz count-- the number of times he mentions that all-American processed orange stuff. The "Cheez Whiz" tally is higher this week... Though it's a dark drumbeat in Kunstlerlandia, there is wisdom, and his way-out metaphors always make me laugh. Gotta laugh.

More anon, and not about Egypt.