Mar 132017
 

James F. Kelly was a writer and novelist who lived in Ajijic for more than twenty years from the early 1960s. More usually referred to as Jim Kelly, James Frederick Kelly was born in 1912 (in Ohio?) and educated at Staunton Military Academy, Swarthmore College and Columbia University School of Journalism. He also studied at the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, and at the US Maritime Diesel School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

During the second world war, he was a member of the Merchant Marine and remained in the US Naval Reserve after the war, reaching the rank of lieutenant commander by the time his service ended. Kelly’s naval career took him to ports-of-call ranging from New Zealand, New Guinea and the U.K. to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador; Peru and Chile.

kelly-james-insiderAfter the war, Kelly and his wife Gerda (a Danish-born model and circus performer) lived in Westport, where Kelly dedicated himself to writing while Gerda worked in the New York fashion industry. Kelly reviewed books regularly for The New York Times Book Review and The Saturday Review, wrote pieces for the New York Times Magazine and other publications and also undertook work, both creative and executive, for Compton and various other New York advertising agencies.

Kelly and Gerda, with their two children (Jill and James Jr.) moved to Ajijic at some point prior to October 1964. After moving to Mexico, he continued to write and to submit articles to U.S. publications. In October 1964, he took photographs of the piñatas at a party given for the 26th birthday of David Michael (son of Ajijic artist and boutique owner Gail Michael), “for an article he is doing for a New York publication.”

A few months later, “pretty, blond Jill Kelly”, is reported to have given a marionette show at La Quinta (Jocotepec’s best known hotel at the time), which “proved that talent runs in the family”.

In January 1966, Gerda and Jim Kelly purchased their own home in Ajijic: Casa Los Sueños (“House of Dreams”), the converted remnants of Ajijic’s former friary whose origins date back to the sixteenth century). They moved in to their new home, purchased from Ruth and Hunter Martin, the following month.

In the spring of 1966, the U.K. edition of Kelly’s novel On the Other Hand, Goodbye was published, and he was reported to be working on his next novel, which had a publisher’s deadline of August. (It is unclear which novel is being referred to here.)

In 1968 the couple founded and ran an Ajijic real estate venture, Servicios Unlimited. After eight months in temporary premises, the company moved into a building on Calle Independencia, opposite the Posada Ajijic, and next-door to Helen Kirtland’s looms (today, this is the store Mí México). In addition, Gerda Kelly worked as a columnist for the Guadalajara Reporter.

James Kelly continued to write the occasional piece for U.S. media into the 1970s, including an article about Dr Marcos Montaña Zavala and his wife Dra Soledad Ascensio de Montaña, who co-founded the Sanatorio de Santa Teresita, a health clinic in Jocotepec. This piece first appeared in Spanish in Selecciones (August 1970) and then in Reader’s Digest later that year.

James Kelly was the author of at least six novels: From A Hilltop (1941); The Insider (1958); On the Other Hand, Goodbye (1965); No Rest For The Dying (New York: Nordon Publications 1980); Music From Another Room (Dorchester Publishing, 1980) and Blind Passage (date unknown).

Music From Another Room is a murder mystery set in Michoacán, Mexico at the fictional hotel Hacienda de las Golondrinas. The characters and plot are eminently believable, testament to Kelly’s keen powers of observation and good knowledge of Mexico.

James Kelly passed away in December 1993; Gerda died five months later.

Acknowledgment:

  • My sincere thanks to Jill Kelly Velasco for her help in compiling this profile of her father.

Sources:

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 8 October 1964; 7 January 1965; 9 September 1965; 20 January 1966; 26 February 1966; 2 April 1966; 29 July 1967;  21 June 1969; 8 August 1970; 20 April 1974; 6 September 1975;
  • Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Feb 202017
 

Novelist Ramón Rubín (1912-2000) lived much of his life in Jalisco and was a staunch defender of Lake Chapala. Rubín never actually lived on the shores of the lake but his novel, La Canoa Perdida: novela mestiza (“The Lost Canoe: a mestizo novel”), reveals an excellent understanding of the people and places that make the lake such a special place. Sadly, the novel has never been translated into English.

In the early 1950s, Lake Chapala was in serious trouble. The lake level was going down rapidly, year on year, mainly due to a prolonged period of lower-than-average rainfall throughout the basin of the River Lerma, the main river feeding the lake. At the same time, the Jalisco state government was seeking to channel more water from the lake to satisfy the thirst of the ever-growing city of Guadalajara and federal authorities were prepared to give permission for wealthy landowners to reclaim farmland by draining sections of the lake. (This scheme would have echoed that in the early part of the twentieth century when a massive area of the lake was reclaimed for agriculture).

The hydrology of Lake Chapala is discussed in more detail in chapters 6 and 7 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

Rubín had grown up by the sea and loved the lake. He had traveled widely throughout Mexico and seen some of the adverse impacts of so-called “development” schemes. In about 1948 he had seen dredgers working near Ocotlán on the north-east shore of Lake Chapala. Local people had no idea what was going on, which caused Rubín to investigate further. That research became the basis for the excellent geographical understanding demonstrated in the early chapters of La Canoa Perdida, first published in 1951.

As the lake’s problems intensified, Rubín became more politically active and in 1952 presided over Comité Provisional para la Conservación del Lago de Chapala, a committee formed to defend the lake. This organization morphed into the Comité pro Defensa del Lago Chapala and played a decisive role in preventing the implementation of any further reclamation schemes and opposing greater use of the lake for the inhabitants of Guadalajara. Heavy rainfalls in the second half of the 1950s eventually restored the lake to its rightful level.

In addition to his novel, Rubín published several later articles designed to draw attention to the lake’s problems. The most interesting of these, from our perspective, is his 1959 story, “La Draga, cuento casi real en tres actos y tres tiempos” {“The Dredger, an almost-real story in three acts and three times”).

The lake’s outflow powered hydro-power generators immediately below the Juanacatlán Falls that supplied electricity to Guadalajara. In “La Draga”, an “ecological” story, a worker at the Hydro Company tries to convince people of the benefits of draining the lake further, claiming it would help avoid depriving central Mexico of power [a smaller lake meant less evaporation, an increased average depth and a greater head of water] while simultaneously giving farmers a bonanza when the former lake bed was transformed into productive farmland. In the story, this creates three new millionaires in a single season at Jamay [a town on the northern shore, mid-way between Ocotlán and La Barca]. The story ends with an apocalyptic vision of the future in which the Lerma River is dry, only little meandering rivulets of water still flow, and most of the region now looks like the arid Chihuahua desert far to the north. The fact is, “we killed the lake, and now we’re paying for our crime.”

In La Canoa Perdida, as historian Wolfgang Vogt rightly points out, the extended descriptions of the lake in its early chapters are among “the best ever written about the lake”. But what about the book’s plot? The protagonist, Ramón Fortuna, comes from a ranch between Chapala and Ocotlán. Fortuna is an impoverished fisherman who supplements a meager income by hunting birds. He dreams of buying his own canoe.

One day he stumbles across two ringed birds (with tags from Winnipeg, Canada) and learns that each tag is worth the princely sum of 5 dollars. This unexpected good fortune gives him the chance to win the heart of “La Guera Hermelinda, the ambitious daughter of a neighbor and woman of his desires. Fortuna writes to claim his reward, but fails to include any return address, and therefore waits in vain for any money to arrive.

Incidentally, Rubín includes a wonderful line in his narrative comparing “gringos” to Mexicans, saying that the former write short letters but wage long wars, unlike the latter who do the opposite.

Fortuna decides to change career and goes to work at the hydro company at El Salto (giving Rubín the opportunity to explain the changes of rural life engendered by industrialization). Fortuna also turns his hand to clearing lirio (water hyacinth) and is part of a plan using dynamite to blow up the thick, clogged masses of aquatic weed.

At one point or another, Rubín introduces many of the famous Chapala legends and tales into his novel, including the story of El Señor del Guaje in Jocotepec, the history of Mezcala island, the sinking of the lake steamer at Ocotlán in the late nineteenth century and the presence of oil deposits in the lake.

Fortuna eventually saves enough money to buy a canoe named Amanda, but then discovers that it has gone missing from the shore where he left it. Did the waves come up the beach and float it away? Has it been stolen? Has it been taken by his rival in love? Fortuna searches desperately all over the lake for his canoe, allowing Rubín the chance to include detailed descriptions of many north shore settlements from Jocotepec to San Pedro Itzican, and all along the south shore, complete with their varied degrees of environmental damage. At one point, convinced he’s found it, he starts to row it away from a village, only to discover as the rightful owners pursue him, that it’s not really the right boat!

Eventually Fortuna finds his canoe on Mezcala Island (Isla del Presidio) where it has been hidden by a local. He steals his canoe back, almost sinks on his return trip to the shore, but finally gets home, only to find that his girlfriend has married his rival.

Like millions of Mexicans, Fortuna has had a constant struggle to make a living and to “be someone”, in a social and cultural environment that is hostile. This is a novel that can be read on so many different levels that it is worth reading and re-reading. It is one of the earliest novels in Mexico with an overtly ecological theme. At the same time, it is a sociological study of fishing communities that no longer exist. Rubín’s insightful narrative digs deep into the psyche of the many individuals – campesinos, engineers, technicians, hunters, mariachi musicians, traders, etc – that constitute the cast of characters in La Canoa Perdida.

This is a novel whose message resonates far beyond the immediate confines of Lake Chapala.

Sources:

  • Ramón Bustos, Luis. 2001. “Donde la sombra de Ramón Rubín“. Jornada Semanal, 16 de septiembre del 2001.
  • Rubín, Ramón. 1951. La canoa perdida: novela mestiza (Guadalajara: Ediciones Altiplano); illustrations by Víctor J. Reynoso. 483 pages. Reissued in 1993 by Fondo de Cultura Economica, Mexico, D.F.
  •  Rubín, Ramón. 1959. “La Draga, cuento casi real en tres actos y tres tiempos”, in Xallixtlico, 1, 1 November 1959, pp 28-36.
  • Vogt, Wolfgang. 1989. “El Lago de Chapala en la literatura”. Estudios Sociales. (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara), Año II, #5, 37-47.

Other twentieth century novels set largely, or entirely, at Lake Chapala include:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Feb 132017
 

Mexican author Ramón Rubín Rivas (1912-2000) wrote a novel set at Lake Chapala: La canoa perdida: Novela mestiza. He wrote more than a dozen novels and some 500 short stories over a lengthy career and this work, first published in 1951, is considered one of his finest, though it has never been translated into English.

Rubín was a particularly keen observer of the way of life, customs and beliefs of Mexico’s many indigenous groups. His writing is based on extensive travels throughout the country and prolonged periods of residence with several distinct indigenous groups including the Cora/Huichol in Nayarit and Jalisco, the Tarahumara (raramuri) in the Copper Canyon region of Chihuahua, and the Tzotzil in Chiapas. His novel about Lake Chapala, which we will look at in more detail in a future post, is the story of an indigenous fisherman who wants to acquire a canoe, set against the background of a lake facing serious problems. During the 1950s, Rubín was an ardent campaigner for the protection of the lake when drought and overuse threatened its very existence.

Rubin Ramon. Credit: Archivo-CNL-INBA

Rubin Ramon. Credit: Archivo-CNL-INBA

The early history of Rubín’s life is hazy. His “official” biography states that he was born to Spanish immigrant parents in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, on 11 June 1912, and that the family moved to Spain when Rubín was two years old. However, some researchers have found evidence suggesting that he was actually born on that date in San Vicente de la Barquera in northern Spain, and subsequently “adopted” Mazatlán as his birthplace as he became known as a Mexican writer. Rubín would apparently respond to questions about his birthplace by saying that his only source of information had been his parents, and they had said he was born in Mazatlán. The lack of a Mexican birth certificate is not surprising given that the public records in many parts of Mexico were destroyed during the early years of the Mexican Revolution, which erupted in 1910.

Wherever he was born, Rubín attended school in Spain until 1929 when, at the age of sixteen, he relocated to Mazatlán in Mexico. It was while taking typing classes in Mazatlán (as a means of earning a living) that he wrote his first stories, allegedly because he was sitting too far from the blackboard to copy what the teacher wrote as practice exercises. The teacher agreed that he could write whatever he wanted, provided there were no typing errors, and Rubín’s literary career was under way.

Working as a salesperson, Rubín traveled widely in Mexico. When he settled for a time in Mexico City, he had several short stories, based on his travels and experiences, published in Revista de Revistas. He later became a regular contributor to newspapers, especially to El Informador and El Occidental. Rubín’s direct approach to narrating stories owes much to his childhood, when he was entranced by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and by the adventure novels of Emilio Salgari.

In the Spanish Civil War (1938), Rubín enlisted as a merchant seaman on the side of the Republicans. While not formally a member of the International Brigades, he took a cargo of arms and ammunition to Spain and was lucky to escape alive. Franco’s forces dropped 72 bombs on his ship, none of which hit their intended target.

Rubín enjoyed a measure of literary success in 1942 with the publication of the first of an eventual five volumes of short stories, all entitled Cuentos mestizos (“Mestizo tales”). Later short story collections include Diez burbujas en el mar, sarta de cuentos salobres (1949), two volumes of Cuentos de indios (1954 y 1958), Los rezagados (1983), Navegantes sin ruta: relatos de mar y puerto (1983) and Cuentos de la ciudad (1991).

Rubín had traveled to Chiapas for the first time and lived among the Tzotzil in 1938. He put this knowledge to good use in his first novel, El callado dolor de los tzotziles {“The silent pain of the Tzotzil”) (1949). Literary critics consider this to be a seminal portrayal of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. The novel goes far beyond mere description or adulation of indigenous lifestyles and is a genuine drama about the intolerance of an indigenous community towards a couple who are unable to have children. In line with tribal tradition, the woman is banished to the mountains, the man leaves the community to live for a time among the mestizos. When he returns, his mental state altered by his experiences, he spirals downwards and seeks refuge in alcohol.

In a later indigenous novel, entitled La bruma lo vuelve azul (“The smoke turns blue”) (1954), the main character is a Huichol Indian named Kanayame who is rejected by his father, stripped of his indigenous roots in a government school, and turns to banditry. Rubín’s other indigenous novels include El canto de la grilla (1952), La sombra del techincuagüe (1955) and Cuando el táguaro agoniza (1960).

In addition, Rubín wrote the novels La loca (1949), La canoa perdida (1951), El seno de la esperanza (1960) and Donde mi sombra se espanta (1964). Some of his work has been translated (into English, German French, Russian and Italian) and several stories have been adapted for the stage. Rubín also wrote a short autobiography – Rubinescas – and several screenplays, none of which was ever made into a film, though Hugo Argüelles’s 1965 film Los cuervos están de luto is a plagarized version of Rubín’s original story “El duelo”.

Given that Rubín’s books have a wide appeal – cited as valuable sources of information about people and landscapes by anthropologists, biologists, sociologists and geographers – and were acclaimed by famous contemporaries, including his good friend Juan Rulfo, and literary historians, including Emmanuel Carballo who saw fit to include him in his Protagonistas de la literatura mexicana – why is it that Rubín is not much better known?

First, many of his books had small print runs, and were often self-financed, not the work of major publishers. Many of his books are, therefore, very difficult to find.

Second, Rubín was very much an individualist and neither living in Mexico City nor a member of any mainstream literary group.

Third, according to the author himself, his public disagreements with another famous Jalisco novelist, Agustín Yáñez, who served as Governor of Jalisco during the crisis affecting Lake Chapala in the 1950s, led to him being denied support by any of Yáñez’s numerous friends. Rubín was a vigorous opponent, on ecological grounds, of many of the “development” (drainage) schemes proposed during Yáñez’s administration.

Indeed, when he was chosen as the recipient of the Jalisco Prize in 1954, he declined to accept it on both intellectual and moral grounds, not wanting anything to do with the Yáñez administration which he believed had failed to do enough to protect Lake Chapala. (He was eventually awarded the Prize in 1997).

Rubín was proud of the fact that his work was based on travel and first-hand research, and did not derive from library sources or from his imagination while sitting at his desk. His writing shows that action and plot are more important to him than relaying introspective thoughts or feelings. However, he disliked the suggestion, sometimes made by literary critics, that he was Mexico’s Hemingway.

Rubín lived the bulk of his creative years (1940-1970) in Guadalajara. He taught at the University of Guadalajara and owned two small shoe manufacturing companies in Jalisco, both of which he eventually gave to his employees. In the early 1970s, he spent three years in Autlán, in the southern part of the state, before moving to San Miguel Cuyutlán, near Tlajomulco, for a decade. He then lived in a seniors’ home in Guadalajara for two years. Notwithstanding the many websites that claim he died the year before, Ramón Rubín Rivas died in Guadalajara on 25 May 2000.

Rubín did not win as many awards as might be expected from the quality and originality of his work, but he was awarded the Sinaloa Prize for Arts and Sciences in 1996 and the Jalisco Literary Prize in 1997. Prior to either of those awards, he had been recognized in the U.S. by the award from the New Mexico Book Association in 1994 of their “Premio de las Americas”, as the writer “whose work best exemplifies the common humanity of the peoples of the Western Hemisphere” – a truly fitting tribute to this man of the people.

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Dec 192016
 

Poet and writer Jim Levy lived for about a year in Ajijic from mid-1968 until May 1969. Many years later, he has started publishing some of his poems,  essays and stories.

Levy, whose father was a Freudian psychoanalyst, was born in Chicago in 1940 and raised in Los Angeles. As a child, he spent several summers in Taos, New Mexico, a town he would return to later in life.

Levy attended the Thacher School in Ojai, California, and studied two years at Pomona College before traveling through the Southwest and Mexico by (like the Beats) hitchhiking and riding freight trains. After a year in Europe, he started classes at the University of California at Berkeley. Levy graduated with a B.A. in English and History and a teaching certificate.

At Berkeley he met Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, a married woman with two children. The couple married in 1966. In 1968-69 they spent a year in Ajijic.

From Ajijic, Jim and Deirdre returned to the U.S. to live in Taos. In a memoir entitled “¿Paradise Lost?” published in Hakod in 2009, Levy recalls their arrival in Taos:

We — my wife Deirdre, her two children, and I — came to Taos in a VW van in May 1969 with a white rat named Fortunata smuggled in from Mexico rolled in a sleeping bag. We had been living for a year in Ajijic on Lake Chapala. The scene in Ajijic was crazy, but in a Mexican village there was only so much trouble you could get into. In Taos, we found more ways.”

They tried to live as close to the land as possible:

– Although Deirdre and I had BAs and teaching credentials from Berkeley, we didn’t mind living without indoor plumbing or a phone — in fact we thought it was glamorous. We used a two-seat outhouse and carried water in buckets from the Rio Hondo. Like our counterculture neighbors, we “returned” to the land — a purely hypothetical return because my family was Jewish from Los Angeles via Newark and Germany, and Deirdre’s was Catholic from New Jersey via Ireland. My father was a Freudian psychoanalyst and her father was middle management for Bendix Corporation.”

In Taos, Jim edited a local “hippie newspaper called The Fountain of Light” for a time, on which Phaedra Greenwood (who would later become his second wife) was the staff reporter.

Levy’s marriage with Deirdre Blomfield-Brown ended in 1971. Deirdre subsequently changed her name to Pema Chödrön and became a Tibetan Buddhist nun, whose teachings, such as When Things Fall Apart and The Wisdom of No Escape, have reached a very wide audience. She is the director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Also in 1971, Levy destroyed much of his previous writing, including several completed novels, because he did not deem them to good enough for publication. (He destroyed other works, on the same grounds, in 1985).

In 1972, Levy began living with Phaedra Greenwood and her son. Levy and Greenwood had a daughter two years later and married in 1977. In 1978 Levy embarked on a 35-year career directing non-profits, starting with the Harwood Foundation of the University of New Mexico.

Between his divorce from Phaedra Greenwood in 1994 and their eventual reconciliation in 2003, Levy lived and wrote in a variety of places, including Pátzcuaro and Oaxaca in Mexico, Montreal in Canada, Spain and California. Levy and Greenwood continue to make their home in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico.

Levy began publishing his writing and poetry at the age of 74. His published works include Corazón (and Merkle): A man, a dog, and another dog (2014), Cooler Than October Sunlight, selected poems 1959-2004 (2015); The Poems of Caius Herennius Felix (2015), an extraordinary work about the discovery and translation of an imaginary first century Roman Spanish poet; Joy To Come, Literary and Cultural Essays (2016); and The Fifth Season: A Journey Into Old Age (2016).

Acknowledgment:

  • My thanks to Jill Maldonado (daughter of Beverly Johnson, unofficial town photographer of Ajijic in the 1960s) for bringing Jim Levy and Deirdre Blomfield-Brown to my attention. Johnson herself will be profiled in a future post.

Source:

  • Jim Levy. 2009. ¿ PARADISE LOST ? in Hakod – “The Voice of the Taos Jewish Center”, Vol 8 #2, Winter 2009/5770.

Other Lake Chapala artists and authors associated with Berkeley

Several other Lake Chapala artists and authors have close associations with either U.C. Berkeley or the California College of Arts and Crafts in Berkeley. They include the writers Ralph Leon Beals, Earle Birney, Witter Bynner, Willard “Spud” Johnson, Clement Woodward Meighan, Idella Purnell, and Al Young and the artists Tom Brudenell, Ray Cooper, Sylvia Fein, Gerald Collins Gleeson, Dorothy Goldner, Paul Hachten, John Langley Howard (1902-1999), Alfred Rogoway, Alice Jean Small, and Richard Yip.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Dec 122016
 

In my on-going quest to document the authors and artists associated with Lake Chapala, I occasionally come across individuals about whom very little is known. In most cases, diligent research eventually unearths a few savory tidbits, even if I sometimes still lack sufficient material to compile a formal biography.

zepeda-la-ondina-de-chapala

Salomón Zepeda is an exception. I have found absolutely nothing about this writer, beyond the fact that he is the author of La Ondina de Chapala (“The Water Nymph of Chapala”), a 149-page Spanish-language novel published in 1951 by Imprenta Ruíz in Mexico City. The cover art appears to be by “Magallón”.

I know there are a small number of copies in libraries in the U.S., including one in the “Southern Regional Library Facility” of the University of California Los Angeles. If you have a copy, or access to a copy, or know anything about this author, please get in touch!

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Dec 052016
 

The distinguished Black American poet, novelist and educator Al Young visited Lake Chapala sometime in the mid- to late-1960s. It was in Ajijic that he first met Black American artist Arthur Monroe, the beginning of a long artistic friendship.

Al Young subsequently published two works with a direct connection to the lake. “Moon Watching by Lake Chapala” is a prose poem first published in the Berkeley literary journal Aldebaran in 1968, and reprinted in The Song Turning Back Into Itself (1971). The poem was also chosen for the collection We speak as liberators: young Black poets; an anthology, compiled by Orde Coombs (1970).

In 1975, Young’s novel Who is Angelina? was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. It includes several scenes set at Lake Chapala, with passages relating to Chapala, Ajijic and Jocotepec. (We will consider this novel more closely in a separate post).

Chapala is also mentioned in a 2011 poem, “Elegy for a Live-Loving Friend” written in memory of Edith Eddy (1919-2011), which opens with the lines:

Light-years ago: Chapala afternoons,
a lake-like feel and smell, the way we met,
three children California-born, full moons,
the world not yet as gone as it would get.”

Albert James Young was born 31 May 1939 in Ocean Springs on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. His father, Albert James, was a professional musician and, after the family moved to Detroit, an autoworker. Young’s childhood in the rural south gave way to adolescence in urban, industrial Detroit.

young-al-poet-laureate-california-emeritusYoung attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor from 1957-1960 and was co-editor of Generation, the campus literary magazine. In 1961 he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and proceeded to have a variety of jobs (folksinger, laboratory aide, disk jockey, medical photographer, clerk typist, employment counselor) before eventually completing an honors degree in Spanish at University of California, Berkeley, in 1969. In 1963, Young married Arline Belck, a freelance artist; the couple’s son, Michael James, was born in 1971.

Young’s academic life has been grounded in California. In addition to holding a a variety of editorial positions, he taught creative writing classes at Stanford University, 1969-1976, and was a visiting writer-in-residence at the University of Washington, Seattle, 1981-1982. He has also taught at the University of California (at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Davis branches), at Bowling Green State University, Foothill College, the Colorado College, Rice University, the University of Washington, the University of Michigan, the University of Arkansas, and San José State University.

In the 1970s, Young worked as a screeenwriter, for Laser Films (New York) in 1972, Stigwood Corporation (London and New York) 1972, Verdon Productions (Hollywood) 1976, First Artists Ltd. (Burbank, California) 1976-77, and for Universal (Hollywood) 1979. His screenplays include Nigger (1972) and Sparkle (1972.)

Young has received numerous awards including National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1968, 1969, and 1974; a Guggenheim fellowship in 1974; two Pushcart prizes, two American Book Awards, a PEN-Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction and a Before Columbus Foundation award in 1982.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Young served as a cultural ambassador for the United States Information Agency, making trips on its behalf to South Asia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank.

Al Young’s novels include Snakes (1970); Who Is Angelina? (1975); Sitting Pretty (1976); Ask Me Now (1980); Seduction by Light (1988); and Straight No Chaser (1994). Among his short Stories are, “My Old Buddy Shakes, Alas, and Grandmama Claude,” published in Nexus (San Francisco), May-June 1965; and “The Question Man and Why I Dropped Out,” in Nexus, November-December 1965; “Chicken Hawk’s Dream,” in Stanford Short Stories 1968 (1968)

Poetry collections by Young, who was Poet Laureate of California 2005-2008, include Dancing (1969); The Song Turning Back into Itself (1971); Some Recent Fiction (1974); Geography of the Near Past (1976); The Blues Don’t Change: New and Selected Poems (1982); Heaven: Collected Poems 1958-1988 (1989); and Heaven: Collected Poems 1956-1990 (1992). His works have been translated into many languages, ranging from Spanish and Serbo-Croat to Urdu and Korean.

The distinguished poet and novelist has also published several “Musical Memoirs”, including Bodies and Soul (1981), Kinds of Blue (1984), Things Ain’t What They Used to Be (1987) and Drowning in the Sea of Love (1995).

In the words of William J. Harris in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Al Young’s art destroys “glib stereotypes of black Americans.” Harris adds that “His work illustrates the complexity and richness of contemporary Afro-American life through a cast of highly individualized black characters. Since he is a gifted stylist and a keen observer of the human comedy, he manages to be both a serious and an entertaining author.”

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Nov 132016
 

A significant section of Al Young’s novel Who is Angelina?, first published in 1975, is set at Lake Chapala, where Young had spent some time in the mid- to late-1960s.

young-al-where-is-angelina-3The plot of Who is Angelina? is relatively simple. Angelina Green, an intelligent, 26-year-old, life-loving woman living in Berkeley, after the hippie phase, goes to Mexico to find herself. In Mexico City, she meets, and has an affair with, a tall, charismatic, enigmatic character named Watusi.

They then house-sit in Ajijic for a while (for friends of Watusi) before Angelina receives news that her father has been attacked in his home, in Detroit, and is hospitalized.

Angelina races north and is forced to reexamine old family ties and friendships. After her father recovers, Angelina returns to California, takes up transcendental meditation and finds a job at an “alternate” school. Unexpectedly, Watusi shows up, but their connection has inevitably and irrevocably changed.

The novel was generally well-received, though Roberta Palm, in a review for Black World (September 1975), writes that “Young is as alienated from his character [Angelina] as she is described to be from herself and her peers.” She thought that Angelina remained “an ambiguous shadow in the novel”, despite Young’s “perfect ear for dialogue” and the fact that his characters spoke “with realistic tone and in genuine cadence.”

Young’s writing shows that he is a keen observer of life in Mexico, with a good ear for Mexican Spanish. Leaving Mexico City, the couple travel to Guadalajara by overnight train and stay in the Hotel Francés for a day or two before taking a bus to Chapala, and then a taxi to Ajijic. As Watusi observes, this is a time when, “Bebop done played out. Beatniks done played out … Bomb shit done played out. Psychedelic shit done played out. Bullshit revolution done played out. Hippies done played out and, look here, I’ll tell you somethin–nigger shit done just about played out too!”

In passing, the novel offers some insights into what Ajijic and Chapala were like in the 1960s. As Watusi and Angelina arrive in town, “All the Mexican passengers who’d ooo’ed an ahhh’d at the sight of water as the bus wound around Lake Chapala a little ways back were now scrambling to line up for the grand central get-off. One Indian woman was carrying a live chicken under one arm.” (81)

Once in Ajijic, Angelina asks Watusi if there are many hippies in the village. “Use to”, comes the reply, “but the Mexican government done just about shut the door for good on that jive. They tolerate the native hippies cause all of em come from upper-class families that’s got a lotta power and pull, but long-haired freaks from Gringoland got to straighten up when they step cross that border cause these crazy people down here don’t be playin! It used to be a gang of em layin out round here in Chapala and Ajijic but… the local people got to where they couldnt put up with they shit no longer and teamed up with the law and run they doped-up boodies clean out the state.” (86-87)

The room in which the couple share a joint and make love has a “quaint hip poster left over from the Mexico City Olympics” which “rounded out the homey effect”. (91) This is a reference to one of the series of posters designed for the Olympics Committee by Austrian artist Georg Rauch, whose studio was in Jocotepec.

Among the many footloose characters that Angelina and Watusi encounter at Lake Chapala are two stereotypical foreigners: an elderly English couple writing travel articles for British and American magazines, and an American girl in her late 20s, a former New York junkie who married a Mexican traveling salesman and is writing her memoirs. Another character they meet is a middle-aged freelance photographer who works in Guadalajara but lives in Chapala. (97)

While Who is Angelina? may not be Al Young’s greatest ever novel, it is still an interesting, enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

Book details: Who is Angelina? First edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975. First paperback edition: University of California Press, 1996.

Other twentieth century novels set largely, or entirely, at Lake Chapala include:

  • Charles Embree: A Dream of a Throne, the Story of a Mexican Revolt (1900)
  • D. H. Lawrence: The Plumed Serpent (1926)
  • Arthur Davison Ficke: “Mrs. Morton of Mexico” (1939)
  • Ramón Rubín: La canoa perdida: Novela mestiza (1951)
  • Ross MacDonald: The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)
  • Eileen Bassing: Where’s Annie? (1963)
  • Barbara Compton: “To The Isthmus” (1964)
  • Willard Marsh: Week with No Friday (1965)

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Nov 102016
 

The famous American writer, composer and translator Paul Bowles (1910-1999) was a frequent visitor to Mexico in the late 1930s and early 1940s prior to moving to live in Morocco in 1947. Bowles spent a few relaxing weeks in Ajijic, on Lake Chapala, in the first half of 1942.

Paul Bowles was born in New York on 30 December 1910 and displayed early talent for music and writing. After attending the University of Virginia, Bowles made several trips to Paris in the 1930s, and also visited French North Africa in 1931. During the late 1930s and most of the 1940s, Bowles was based in New York where he composed music (primarily for stage productions) while making frequent trips south to explore the sights and sounds of Mexico and elsewhere, trips which had a profound influence on his musical compositions.

Bowles’ interest in visiting Lake Chapala dates back to 1934, when he was considering accompanying Bruce Morrissette in traveling around Mexico. In March 1934, Bowles wrote to Morrissette that, “A while ago I made a list of what seemed to be the best places there: Campeche, Necaxa, Toluca, the baja part of Baja California, Mazatlán, Pátzcuaro, perhaps Lago Chapala, Morelia, which looks to be lovely, Tepatzlán, Cholula, Amecameca and Xochimilco …”

In 1937, Bowles met Jane Auer at a party. When they met again, accidentally, a few days later, Jane suggested to Bowles that he “take her to Mexico with him.” Auer and Bowles married 21 February 1938, and had a successful, if unconventional, marriage that lasted until her death in 1973.

[Jane Sydney Auer (1917-1973) was an American writer and playwright. Her novel, Two Serious Ladies, first published in 1943, may have been the catalyst that resulted in Bowles’ own novel-writing career. Jane Bowles suffered a stroke in 1957, from which she never fully recovered. She died in 1973 at a clinic in Spain.]

bowles-paul-autobiographyThey took a Greyhound bus to reach Mexico on their first trip together in 1937, with Bowles hiding 15,000 anti-Trotsky stickers in his luggage. In Mexico, he met the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas and attended a concert at which Revueltas conducted his Homage to García Lorca. Bowles took a second trip to Mexico later in 1937 in order to live for a short time in Tehuantepec (on the recommendation of Miguel Covarrubias, whom he had met in New York), where he worked on an opera about a slave rebellion.

On 23 February 1938, two days after their marriage, Bowles and his wife attended the first performance of Bowles’ Mediodia (Mexican dances for 11 players) in New York. The couple then left on a honeymoon, “with 27 suitcases, two wardrobe trunks, a typewriter and a record player”, aboard a Japanese freighter, the SS Kanu Maru, on a trip that took them to Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Barbados and Paris, France. They returned to New York in September.

They visited Mexico again in 1939 and stayed in Acapulco and Taxco (where Jane first met Helvetia Perkins, who would later became her lover). On this trip, they met a still unknown Tennessee Williams, and a young man named Ned Rorem, then only a teenager, who went on to become a composer and diarist, and win a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

bowles-paul-on-musicSome idea of the exalted literary and musical circles in which Bowles and his wife moved can be gained from a list of their roommates in the rented house they occupied in 1941. The house, at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, New York, was rented by the novelist and editor George Davis, who occupied the ground floor. Paul and Jane Bowles lived on the second floor, together with the theater set designer Oliver Smith. Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and W. H. Auden shared the third floor, while Golo Mann lived in the attic. It was in this house that Bowles composed Pastorela, a Mexican Indian ballet commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for American Ballet Caravan.

Early in 1942, when Bowles and his wife revisited Mexico, he was taken ill with jaundice and spent several weeks in a “British hospital in Mexico City” before going to Cuernavaca for convalescence. In Cuernavaca, Jane let him read and critique her manuscript of Two Serious Ladies, though it was greatly rewritten and edited prior to its publication the following year. Jane, accompanied by Helvetia Perkins, left for New York at the end of March, while Bowles remained in Mexico a few more weeks, staying at Casa Heuer, the small posada run by siblings Paul (Pablo) and Liesel Heuer in Ajijic.

In a letter to Virgil Thomson, Bowles wrote that, “As soon as she had gone I came to Chapala. Reasons for my not going with her were several.” During his stay in Ajijic, Bowles visited the house in Chapala where D.H. Lawrence had written the first draft of The Plumed Serpent in 1923; Bowles found it “depressing” and poorly ventilated, with the ambiance of a dead-end street. According to his autobiography, Bowles discovered a whole new world of “delightful” literature during his time in Ajijic. He started with García Lorca, then completed two novels by Bioy Cásares and the memoirs of Mario Alberti before turning his attention to Mexico’s early colonial times, and then to short stories by Jorge Luis Borges.

bowles-paul-and-janeBowles’ compositional creativity was in full flow during these years. In 1944, for example he composed the incidental music for the Broadway opening of Tennessee WilliamsThe Glass Menagerie. (The success of this work enabled Williams to spend the summer of 1945 at Lake Chapala).

In 1947, Bowles moved to Tangier, Morocco. His wife, Jane, followed a year later. Except for a series of winters spent in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), and occasional trips elsewhere, Bowles lived the remaining 52 years of his life in Morocco. His fame was undiminished and a succession of famous writers and musicians made the pilgrimage to Morocco to visit him, including the most famous names of the Beat generation: Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg.

When Gregory Stephenson interviewed him in Morocco in 1979, he found that Bowles had mixed memories of Mexico:

“When I mention the Tarahumara, Bowles says that he once translated some Tarahumara myths for a surrealist magazine. He rummages in his bedroom and returns with a copy of View for May 1945, a special “Tropical Americana” number which he edited. There are black and white photographs, collages and translations, including sections of the Popul Vuh and the Chilam Balam, all done by Bowles. A myth titled “John Very Bad” has been rendered by him into English from the Tarahumara. There are also bizarre and gruesome news stories selected by Bowles from the Mexican press.

Bowles speaks of the extreme poverty and squalor he encountered in parts of Mexico when he visited that country in the 1930s. Mexico was a land of gloom and chaos, he says, but also poetry, mystery and great natural beauty. Places such as Acapulco and Tehuantepec were very pleasant in those days and living there was very cheap. Yet he was often very ill in Mexico, afflicted with diverse ailments.”

The astonishingly prolific writing and composing career of Paul Bowles was drawn to a close by his death in Morocco on 18 November 1999.

Bowles’ extensive musical output included Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet (1931); Horse Eats Hat, play (1936); Who Fights This Battle, play (1936); Doctor Faustus, play (1937); Yankee Clipper, ballet (1937); Music for a Farce (1938); Too Much Johnson, play (1938); Huapango – Cafe Sin Nombre – Huapango-El Sol, Latin American folk (1938); Twelfth Night, play (1940); Love Like Wildfire, play (1941); Pastorela, ballet (1941); South Pacific, play (1943); Sonata for Flute and Piano and Two Mexican Dances (1943); ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, play (1943);  The Glass Menagerie, play (1944); Jacobowsky and the Colonel, play (1944); Sentimental Colloquy, ballet (1944); Cyrano de Bergerac, play (1946); Concerto for Two Pianos (1947); Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds and Percussion (1948); Oedipus, play (1966); Black Star at the Point of Darkness (1992) and Salome, play (1993).

Novels by Bowles include The Sheltering Sky (1949); Let It Come Down (1952); The Spider’s House (1955); and Up Above the World (1966). His collections of short stories include A Little Stone (1950); The Delicate Prey and Other Stories (1950); A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard (1962); Things Gone & Things Still Here (1977); Collected Stories, 1939–1976 (1979); and A Thousand Days for Mokhtar (1989). Poetry works by Bowles include Two Poems (1933); Scenes (1968); The Thicket of Spring (1972); Next to Nothing: Collected Poems, 1926–1977 (1981); and No Eye Looked Out from Any Crevice (1997).

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Nov 032016
 

David Dodge was already a successful author of plays, novels and travel books when he and his wife Elva settled in Ajijic in 1966.

David Francis Dodge was born in Berkeley, California, on 18 August 1910. When his father, an architect, was killed in an auto accident, the family moved to Southern California. After attending Lincoln High School (and leaving before he graduated), Dodge had a succession of jobs, as a bank messenger, marine fireman, stevedore, night watchman and in an accounting firm. He became a C.P.A. in 1937, a year after marrying Elva Keith who had worked as a publishing company representative. Their daughter, Kendal, was born in 1940.

dodge-david-coverDodge’s career as a writer dates back to 1936 when his play A Certain Man Had Two Sons, won the Northern California Drama Association’s Third Annual One Act Play Tournament. The play was later published by the Banner Play Bureau in San Francisco. Dodge co-wrote (with Loyall McLaren) a second play, Christmas Eve at the Mermaid, which was first performed as the Bohemian Club’s Christmas play of 1940.

Drawing on his experiences as a CPA, he then wrote Death and Taxes (1941), the happy result of a $5 bet with his wife that he could write a better detective story than the one she was reading. Death and Taxes introduced readers to James “Whit” Whitney, a San Francisco tax expert turned amateur detective. Whitney continued his investigations in Shear the Black Sheep (1942), Bullets for the Bridegroom (1944) and It Ain’t Hay (1946). These books were completed despite Dodge joining the U.S. Naval Reserve during the second world war, and rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander by the end of his active service three years later.

Following his navy service, Dodge and Elva decided to drive to Guatemala. The family’s adventures in Mexico, Guatemala, and then in South America, became the subject matter for several travel books. They also provided Dodge with the raw material for another fictional tough-guy private investigator, Al Colby, who first appeared in The Long Escape (1948).

The novel Dodge completed the following year, Plunder of the Sun (1949), was turned by Warner Bros. in 1953 into the movie of the same name.

However, Dodge’s greatest success, beyond any doubt, was the novel To Catch a Thief (1952). In the Guadalajara Reporter in 1966, Anita Lomax explained that,

The way David came to write “To Catch a Thief” is a thriller in itself… the Dodges were living on the Riviera when the house next door was robbed of a fortune in jewels – they left early the next morning, before the robbery was discovered for a trip to the Far East and they were in Cambodia when they learned that they were the chief suspects and were being “hunted” by the French police! Fortunately, the real thief was caught by the time they returned to France to clear themselves.”

To Catch a Thief was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1955 Paramount film starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

His career established, Dodge spent the next decade alternating between novels and lighthearted travel books. His Poor Man’s Guide to Europe (1953) was revised annually and became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. He also wrote travel articles for several magazines, and was a regular contributor to Holiday Magazine from 1948 to 1968.

dodge-hooliganIn 1966, David Dodge and his wife settled in Ajijic for a few months, while David worked on a travel article for Holiday and on his next novel. The novel is presumed to be Hooligan (1969), which features a Treasury Department agent named John Abraham Lincoln who “is sent to Hong Kong to investigate a series of insurance claims for U.S. dollars following a devastating typhoon.”

A reference in 1966 to the couple taking “their former home in the Neill James’ compound” suggests that they were already very familiar with Ajijic prior to this, though the precise timing and length of any previous visits is unclear.

During their stay in Ajijic, Elva (“Elvita”) Dodge took part in at least one group art show, held in the Posada Ajijic for Easter. The exhibition was held in the first half of April, and included works by Jack Rutherford; Carl Kerr; Sid Adler; Gail Michel; Allyn Hunt; Franz Duyz; Margarite Tibo; Elva Dodge; Mr and Mrs Moriaty; and Marigold Wandell.

While David and Elva Dodge were in Ajijic in 1966, their daughter, Kendal, flew down from her job in New York with CBS to visit them. Within a few weeks, she had met and married a Guadalajara portrait photographer named Joaquin Reynoso Escatell. They lived in Guadalajara, where Kendal worked in Joaquin’s studio and taught languages and American History part-time at The Butler Institute. Their daughter, “Kendalita”, was born in 1967. In order to be closer to their daughter and granddaughter, David and Elva “retired” to San Miguel de Allende in 1968, the last major move in their global wanderings. When Kendal and Joaquin separated a few years later, Kendal and her daughter returned to the U.S. More than a decade later, in December 1983, Kendal married Frank Butler, the founder of The Butler Institute and her former boss; the couple settled in California. The early years of the life of Kendal Dodge Butler (1940-2007) were portrayed by her father with great  charm, humor and sensitivity in How Green Was My Father (1947) and the subsequent travel accounts of the family’s adventures through Central and South America.

Dodge’s travel writing is exemplified by his Fly Down, Drive Mexico: A Practical Motorist’s Handbook For Travel South of the Border, published by Macmillan in 1968 with a Special Guide to the XIX Olympic Games in Mexico City (held 12-27 October 1968), which was reissued the following year as The Best of Mexico by Car. Dodge’s passion was travel and he viewed writing as a means to an end: he did not travel in order to write but wrote in order to travel.

Elva Dodge died on 17 October 1973; David’s own travels came to an end less than a year later on 8 August 1974. Both Elva and David Dodge are buried in San Miguel de Allende.

Dodge’s extensive bibliography includes fourteen novels published in his life time, with another novel published after his death, as well as several plays and nine travel books.

His novels are Death and Taxes (1941); Shear the Black Sheep (1943); Bullets for the Bridegroom (1944); It Ain’t Hay (1946); The Long Escape (1948); Plunder of the Sun (1949); The Red Tassel (1950); To Catch a Thief (1952); The Lights of Skaro (1954); Angel’s Ransom (1956); Loo Loo’s Legacy (1960); Carambola (1961); Hooligan (1969;) Troubleshooter (1971).

Dodge’s travel books are How Green Was My Father (1947); How Lost Was My Weekend (1948); The Crazy Glasspecker (1949); 20,000 Leagues Behind the 8-Ball (1951); The Poor Man’s Guide to Europe (1953); Time Out for Turkey (1955); The Rich Man’s Guide to the Riviera (1962); The Poor Man’s Guide to the Orient (1965); Fly Down, Drive Mexico (1968), revised as The Best of Mexico by Car (1969).

Several of Dodge’s books have been reissued in recent years, including Plunder of the Sun (2005), Death and Taxes (2010),  To Catch a Thief (2010) and The Long Escape (2011). In addition, a previously unpublished novel, The Last Match, was published posthumously in 2006.

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Oct 312016
 

Help needed! I have managed to learn very little about the writer Arthur Brooke Caden (ca 1871-1906) beyond the fact that he accompanied American novelist Charles Fleming Embree and his wife on a multi-day boat trip on Lake Chapala in 1898, and wrote about their experiences in “Mascota’s Cruise”, published in The Mexican Herald on 13 September 1898.

embree-1The boat trip included visits to Tizapan and Mezcala Island, and gave Embree the opportunity to acquire the background knowledge of the lake’s geography that he employed so skillfully in his novel A Dream of a Throne, the Story of a Mexican Revolt (1900), set entirely at Lake Chapala.

Arthur Brooke Caden is listed as the author of a 239-page novel entitled An imaginary story, published in Chicago in 1903, but beyond that I have learned nothing about his upbringing, education or writing career. The available evidence suggests that Arthur Brooke Caden died in Manhattan, New York, on 31 March 1906 at the tragically young age of 35. Charles Embree himself had died the year before, following a short illness, at the even younger age of 31.

Who knows what these two talented young authors might have achieved had their lives not been cut short in their prime.

This post is a tribute to these two writers timed to coincide with Mexico’s annual Noche de Muertos (“Night of the Dead”), more popularly known as Day of the Dead – see Mexico’s Day of the Dead: nine of the best places to visit.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Sep 122016
 

In an earlier post, we looked at the somewhat adventurous life of actress, playwright and novelist George Rae Marsh (Williams), aka Georgia Cogswell (1925-1997), who lived for many years in Ajijic in the 1950s and 1960s with her first husband, the accomplished novelist Willard Marsh. Two years after her husband’s death in 1970, George Rae married the science fiction writer Theodore R. Cogswell.

marsh-george-as-georgia-cogswell-obsessionAs Georgia Cogswell, she published the mass market paperback novel Golden Obsession. (Zebra Books, 1979). While the book is not set at Lake Chapala, it is a mystery story completely set in Mexico and involving a wide cast of characters, some more disreputable than others. The author makes good use of her inside knowledge and experience of the country, its people, customs and beliefs.

The back cover blurb sets the scene:

It’s strictly illegal to take ancient artifacts out of a country, especially in Mexico. Archaeologist Brad Bradley knew and respected that law – only he got killed. It happened right after he notified the museum of the priceless pre-Columbian gold mask he uncovered at the Witches’ Mountain dig – but the mask was never found.

The authorities told his beautiful young wife Hally that it was an accident; that he was brutally attacked by a jaguar. She saw his mangled body and the jagged ripped flesh, yet somehow, she was not convinced. So she decided to stay in Mexico and decode Brad’s maps and notes to find out the truth about his death and discoveries.

Unfortunately, a lot of other people had the same idea. Was it a coincidence that she met a charming, attractive man who knew woo much about her late husband’s work? Was it unusual that her house was ransacked and Brad’s files completely searched? Hally knew only one thing: Brad had dug up more than a buried treasure – he had unleashed a corrupt and greedy murderer who was consumed by a raging GOLDEN OBSESSION.

This is not a prize-winning book, but is still a good read to while away a rainy day. It is not very easy to find, but used copies occasionally appear on sites such as abebooks.com.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Aug 292016
 

The multi-talented African American poet, novelist and artist Clarence Major spent some time at Lake Chapala in 1968.

Major was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1936 and grew up in Chicago. In the early 1950s, Major studied drawing and painting under painter Gus Nall (1919–1995) and attended the Art Institute of Chicago, where his teachers included Addis Osborne (1914–2011). Coincidentally, the enigmatic African American artist Ernest Alexander, who lived for several years in Ajijic in the early 1950s, had also studied in Chicago and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago shortly before Major took classes there.

In 1966, after two marriages which both ended in divorce, Major moved to New York to begin a distinguished teaching career. Over the next 30 years, he taught creative writing and/or literature classes at Brooklyn College, Queens College, Sarah Lawrence College, University of Washington, Howard University, University of Maryland, University of Colorado, Temple University, and the State University of New York (Binghamton). In 1989, Major moved to California, where he taught until his retirement in 2007 at the University of California at Davis.

In 1968, Major left New York and visited Mexico for several months in the company of his then girlfriend Sheila Silverstone. During the trip, Major was revising his first novel, All Night Visitors, published in 1969. Major’s first collection of poems, Swallow the Lake, was published the following year and won a National Council on the Arts Award.

Clarence Major. Self-portrait. Image reproduced from wikimedia (Creative Commons license)

Clarence Major. Self-portrait. Image reproduced from wikimedia (Creative Commons license)

In Mexico, the couple spent some time in Puerto Vallarta but also visited Lake Chapala, which became the basis for at least two poems published in Symptoms & madness: poems (1971).

The first poem is entitled “IN CHAPALA, JAL” and describes them sitting, reading, in “a red mud / colored 30 pesos per day hotel room”.

The second poem, entitled “EIGHTEEN-DOLLAR TAXI TRIP TO TIZAPAN AND BACK TO CHAPALA” was later included in the collection Configurations: New & Selected Poems, 1958-1998, published in 1999 and a finalist for a 1999 National Book Award. This poem tells how their taxi driver (“with a good life / who has four children, / a pregnant wife, / and who lives in Guadalajara”) drives them, “radio going / cha-cha-cha” through a storm around the south side of the lake.

Major’s poetry and short stories have been published in dozens of literary magazines and anthologies. Major has won dozens of major awards and served as a judge for many important literary contests including the the PEN/Faulkner Award (1997-1998), the National Endowment for the Arts Awards (1987) and the National Book Awards (1991). Major helped edit several literary periodicals, including Caw! and The Journal of Black Poetry. He was a regular columnist for American Poetry Review and the first editor of American Book Review.

In 2015, Major was awarded the “Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts,” by The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Major’s novels include All-Night Visitors (1969); No (1973); Reflex and Bone Structure (1975; Emergency Exit (1979); My Amputations (1986); Such Was The Season (1987); Painted Turtle: Woman With Guitar (1988); Dirty Bird Blues (1996); and One Flesh (2003).

His poetry works include Swallow The Lake (1970); Symptoms & Madness (1971); Private Line (1971); The Cotton Club (1972); The Syncopated Cakewalk (1974); Inside Diameter: The France Poems (1985); Surfaces and Masks (1988); Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in The Latter Part of The Century (1989); Parking Lots (1992); Configurations: New and Selected Poems 1958–1998 (1999); Waiting for Sweet Betty (2002); Myself Painting (2008); Down and Up (2013); and From Now On: New and Selected Poems 1970–2015 (2015).

His nonfiction books include Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970); The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work (1974); Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994); Necessary Distance: Essays and Criticism (2000); Come by Here: My Mother’s Life (2002); Configurations (2010) and Myself Painting (2011).

In his parallel career as a visual artist, Major’s first solo exhibition of paintings was at Sarah Lawrence College in 1974. Other galleries that have hosted one-person shows of Major’s art include First National Bank Gallery, Boulder, Colorad (1986); Kresge Art Museum, East Lansing, Michigan (2001); Schacknow Museum of Fine Art, Plantation, Florida (2003); Exploding Head Gallery, Sacramento CA (2003, 2004, 2006); Blue Hills Gallery, Winters, CA (2005); Phoenix Gallery, Sacramento CA (2006); Hamilton Club Gallery, Paterson, New Jersey (2007); Pierre Menard Gallery, Harvard Square, Cambridge (2010); and University Art Gallery, Indiana State University, Terre Haute (2011). His work has also featured in numerous group shows in New York, Los Angeles, and Davis, California.

His paintings now hang in many private and public collections, including those at Indiana State University, Terre Haute; Passaic County Community College Permanent Collection of Contemporary Art; the Schacknow Museum of Fine Art, Plantation, Florida; and The Linda Matthews MARBL Collection at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

The covers of several of Major’s books, including Myself Painting, Waiting for Sweet Betty, and Down and Up feature his own paintings.

Works about Clarence Major

His life, art and literature are described by Bernard Bell in Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African-American Postmodernist (1998), by Nancy Bunge in Conversations with Clarence Major (2002) and by Keith Eldon Byerman in The Art and Life of Clarence Major (2016).

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Aug 012016
 

The distinguished Canadian poet Earle Alfred Birney (1904–1995) traveled in Mexico in the 1950s and wrote several poems based on his experiences, including one entitled “Ajijíċ”.

birney-ice-cod-bell-stoneBirney was born in Calgary, Alberta, on Friday 13 May 1904 and raised on a farm near Creston in British Columbia. After short stints working on a farm, in a bank and as a park ranger, he attended university to study chemical engineering.

By the time he graduated, his academic interests had changed. Birney graduated with a degree in English from the University of British Columbia (1926). He also later studied at the University of Toronto (1926-27); University of California, Berkeley (1927); and at the University of London in the U.K. (1934).

During the second world war, he was a personnel officer in the Canadian Army, the basis for his 1949 novel Turvey, which won the Leacock medal for humor in 1950. Immediately after the war, Birney took a post at the University of British Columbia, where he was instrumental in founding and directing Canada’s first creative writing program. He retired from that university in 1965 to become the first Writer in Residence at the University of Toronto.

His poetry was widely acclaimed, published in more than hundred journals and regularly featured in anthologies. It also resulted in him becoming a two-time recipient of the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s top literary honor. Birney also wrote plays, novels and non-fiction, as well as working at different times as literary editor of Canadian Forum, editor of Canadian Poetry Magazine and supervisor of European foreign-language broadcasts for CBC.

Birney died of a heart attack on 3 September 1995 at the age of 91.

Birney’s poem “Ajijíċ” [sic] is one of a series of 12 Mexican poems that forms the second section of his Ice Cod Bell or Stone: A Collection of New Poems (1962). The other poems are entitled: “State of Sonora”, “Sinaloa”, “Njarit”, “Late Afternoon in Manzanillo”, “Irapuato”, “Pachucan Miners”, “Six-Sided Square: Actopan”, “Francisco Tresguerras”, “Beldams of Tepoztlán”, “Conducted Ritual: San Juan de Ulúa”, and “Sestina for Tehauntepec”. The place names in the titles clearly shows that Birney traveled quite widely during his time in Mexico, from Sonora and Sinaloa in the north to San Juan de Ulúa in Veracruz and Tehuantepec in the southern state of Oaxaca.

In Ajijíċ, Birney describes a “hip gringo” who, while enjoying a morning tequila, brings out “from under the bar”, “his six feet of representational nonart.”

The poem’s final section includes a description of sundown when,

“Outside the fishermen will pass /
and the blobs of pescada blanca in the nets /
swaying over their shoulders will flake /
their bare shanks with mica as they trudge” …

[Note that the correct Spanish spelling for Lake Chapala’s whitefish is pescado blanco.]

Birney’s Mexican poems were very favorably reviewed by other noted Canadian poets and literary figures. A.J.M. Smith, in his “A Unified Personality – Birney’s Poems”, praised this “brilliant series of Mexican poems. I don’t know where you’ll find anything better in modern North American poetry than the combination of wit and sentiment, pertinent observation and auricular, almost ventriloquistic precision than “Sinaloa”, “Ajijic”, or “Six-Sided Square: Actopan”.”

Mexican literary analysis of Birney’s poetry has been more critical. For instance, Claudia Lucotti, an academic at UNAM (Mexico’s National University),  argues that Earle Birney describes a Mexico of cliches, a simplistic country, one seen only through tourist eyes. She regards Birney’s attempt to record the typical speech patterns of a Mexican speaking English as patronizing and stereotypical. Incidentally, in the same chapter, which examines how various Canadian poets have looked at Mexico, Lucotti considers the same to be true for Al Purdy, another Canadian poet associated with Lake Chapala.

Birney’s poetry collections include David and Other Poems (1942), Now Is Time (1945), The Strait of Anian (1948), Trial of a City and Other Verse (1952), Ice Cod Bell or Stone (1962), Near False Creek Mouth (1964), Memory No Servant (1968), pnomes jukollages & other stunzas (1969), Rag & Bone Shop (1970), what’s so big about GREEN? (1973), Alphabeings and Other Seasyours (1976), The Rugging and the Moving Times (1976), Copernican Fix (1985) and Last Makings: Poems (1991).

Birney’s fiction works include Turvey: a military picaresque (1949), Down the Long Table (1955) and Big Bird in the Bush: Selected stories and sketches (1978), while his non-fiction writing includes The Creative Writer (1966), The Cow Jumped Over the Moon: The writing and reading of poetry (1972), and Essays on Chaucerian Irony (1985).

Sources / references

  • Wailan Low. Undated. Earle Birney : Biography.
  • Claudia Lucotti. 2000. “Nosotros en los otros: visiones de México en la literatura canadiense contemporánea de lengua inflesa”, in Canadá un estado posmoderno, coordinated by Teresa Gutiérrez-Haces (Plaza y Valdes, 2000).
  • A.J. M. Smith. 1966. “A Unified Personality: Birney’s Poems,” in Canadian Literature. (Vancouver, British Columbia, 1966), 30, 4-13

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Jun 272016
 

Willa Gibbs (1917-1999) was already a much published writer by the time she arrived in Chapala from Palm Springs, California in the winter of 1965/66, to spend some time at the historic Nido Hotel, the building now used as Chapala town hall. It is unclear whether or not Gibbs was working on a novel at the time, though it seems unlikely.

Relatively little is known about the early life of Willa Elizabeth Gibbs though one of her fans, Amy Murphy, has compiled an extensive website – Finding Willa Gibbs, Author 1917-1999 – describing her own quest to find out more. Kudos to Ms Murphy for her work; this mini-bio draws heavily on the material available at her site.

gibbs-willa-elizabeth-portraitGibbs was born 25 September 1917 in Hanna, a remote town in Alberta, Canada to a young Californian lawyer Guy Vernon Gibbs and his wife Estella G. Harris. Gibbs would later claim, perhaps accurately, that her mother had given birth in “a tavern because there was nowhere else for me to be born in Hanna.”

Her parents had moved to Hanna six months previously with Willa’s brother Guy Vernon Jr., who was 3 years old at the time of Willa’s birth. Tragedy struck before Willa’s second birthday. Her father was stricken with influenza and died on 6 January 1919.

The following year, the family returned to California, which became Gibbs’ home for the rest of her life.

Willa Gibbs was a precocious writer. By the age of 12, she had “found two hobbies: writing and Napoleon”. It is, therefore, no coincidence than several of her later novels are set in Napoleonic times. A newspaper piece (Chester Times, 23 November 1931) about Gibbs, when she was 14, said that she had written poetry from the age of 7 and had just completed a 70,000-word manuscript about the French Revolution.

gibbs-the-dedicatedHer Napoleonic era novels include The Twelfth Physician, published in 1954, and set in the period immediately following the French Revolution. In the novel, “Charlot Florian, alone of the handful of physicians who had survived, dared to risk disaster by taking over secretly the instruction of a handful of dedicated youths.”

After graduating from school in Woodland, California, Willa Gibbs became a newspaper reporter, but also worked as a taxi driver and as a horse breaker.

In 1957, Gibbs announced her religious conversion, and several of her books written after that date have a religious theme.

Novels by Willa Gibbs include, Tell Your Sons: A Novel Of The Napoleonic Era  (1946); Seed of Mischief (1953); The Twelfth Physician (1954); The Tender Men (1955), about San Francisco newspapermen, and later reissued as Fruit of Desire; All the Golden Doors (1957); The Dean (1957); The Dedicated (1959), a romantic novel about the 18th century battle against smallpox; Simon of Leicester (1960); According to Mary (1962); A Fig in Winter (1963); The Shadow of His Wings (1964).

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

May 162016
 

Award-winning novelist Glendon Swarthout (1918-1992) wrote 16 novels, many turned into films, and numerous short stories. His short story entitled “Ixion”, set at Lake Chapala, was later turned into a screenplay by his son Miles Swarthout as Convictions of the Heart.

Glendon Fred Swarthout was born 8 April 1918 in Pinckney, Michigan, and died on 23 September 1992 in Scottsdale, Arizona. He attended the University of Michigan, where he majored in English and played the accordion for a four-piece band he formed. He married his childhood sweetheart Kathryn Vaughn on 28 December 1940, shortly after they both graduated.

After a year writing ad copy for Cadillac and Dow Chemical at the MacManus, John & Adams advertising agency in Detroit, Swarthout traveled with his wife to South America aboard a small freighter, sending a weekly column back home to various newspapers. After Pearl Harbor, they returned to the U.S. When Swarthout was denied entry to officer’s training for being underweight, the young couple both took jobs at Willow Run bomber plant near Ann Arbor. Within six months, and despite working long hours as a riveter on B-24s, Swarthout had written his his first novel Willow Run, a story about people working in a bomber factory.

In the latter stages of the war, Swarthout served briefly in the U.S. infantry in Europe, but ruptured a disc in his spine and was shipped home. He would be plagued by back problems for the rest of his life.

Glendon Swarthout. Credit: http://www.glendonswarthout.com

Glendon Swarthout. Credit: http://www.glendonswarthout.com

After the war, Swarthout earned a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan and began teaching college. His teaching career included spells at the University of Maryland, at Michigan State University, and at the University of Arizona.

In 1951, Swarthout spent six months in Ajijic with his wife and their young son, Miles, born in 1946. During this time, he worked on another novel, Doyle Dorado, which, in Miles’ words, later “ended up in the stove, making hot water for Dad’s shower.” Swarthout also wrote a short story set at Lake Chapala. Though not published until several years later, “Ixion” was the “semi-autobiographical story of a young advertising man attempting to write his first novel in the little artist’s colony of Ajijic.”

New World Writing #13

New World Writing #13

“Ixion” was first published in New World Writing #13 in The New American Library (Mentor, 1958). A contemporary reviewer praised “Ixion” as being a “much worthier” work than Swarthout’s second novel, They Came to Cordura, which had been published a few weeks previously. “Ixion” was later reprinted in Easterns and Westerns (Michigan State University Press, 2001), a collection of short stories, edited by son Miles, who later turned it into a screenplay, Convictions of the Heart.

According to Miles, the family might have remained much longer in Mexico in 1951 (despite his father’s failed attempt at writing Doyle Dorado) if the lake had been clean. “The real reason my parents left Mexico in a hurry was to seek emergency medical treatment in Brownsville, Texas, for five-year-old me, after I’d contracted para-typhoid fever from swallowing sewage water in Lake Chapala.”

Back in the U.S., in 1955 Glendon Swarthout gained his doctorate in English Literature (based on a study of Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Cary and Charles Portis) and began to sell short stories to magazines such as Cosmopolitan and The Saturday Evening Post. One of the first stories he sold (for $2500), “A Horse for Mrs. Custer”, became the Columbia Pictures low-budget western 7th Cavalry, released in 1956.

Swarthout’s next novel established him as a professional writer. They Came To Cordura was published by Random House in 1958 and became a New York Times bestseller. The film rights were sold to Columbia Pictures, whose major movie, starring Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth, entertained cinema audiences the following year. The book is set in 1916 Mexico during the Pershing Expedition to capture Pancho Villa.

Swarthout’s career took off. His next novel, Where The Boys Are (1960), the first lighthearted novel about the annual “spring break” invasion of southern Florida beaches by college students, was transformed by MGM into a low budget, high grossing movie.

In the early 1960s, Swarthout retired from teaching to become a full-time writer. His other novels, many of them optioned for movies, include: Welcome to Thebes (1962); The Cadillac Cowboys (1964); The Eagle and the Iron Cross (1966); Loveland (1968); Bless the Beasts and Children (1970); The Tin Lizzie Troop (1972); Luck and Pluck (1973); The Shootist (1975); A Christmas Gift (also known as The Melodeon) (1977); Skeletons (1979); The Old Colts (1985); The Homesman (1988); And Pinch Me, I Must Be Dreaming (published posthumously in 1994).

Swarthout was twice nominated by his publishers for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (for They Came To Cordura by Random House and Bless The Beasts & Children by Doubleday) and received numerous awards for his work.

He and his wife Kathryn Vaughn Swarthout (1919-2015) co-wrote six young adult novels, several of which were also published overseas. In 1962, the couple established the Swarthout Writing Prizes at Arizona State University, for poetry and fiction, which are among the highest annual financial awards given for undergraduate and graduate writing programs.

Glendon Swarthout died at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, on 23 September 1992.

Acknowledgement

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Miles Swarthout (1946-2016) who graciously corresponded with me about his father, via e-mail at an early stage of this project.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

May 092016
 

Dr. Arvid Shulenberger (1918-1964), who taught English at The University of Kansas for many years, wrote academic works, poetry and at least one novel. Shulenberger lived in Ajijic for part of 1955. In his 1992 booklet, Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey, Michael Hargraves, who inadvertently curtails the author’s surname to Schulenberg, wrote that the professor “lived at Ajijic in the late 1940’s—early 1950’s but apparently was never published.”

Arvid Leroy Shulenberger was born on 9 September 1918 in Wessington Springs, South Dakota. He married Margaret Louise Anderson on 24 November 24, 1942; the couple had four children.

During the second world war, Shulenberger served in the U.S. Air Force in the 548th Night Fighter Squadron. A 1947 book, “American Jews in World War II”, by I. Kaufman, describes “the rare combat exploit of Lt. Arvid Shulenberger”, who piloted the U.S. Black Widow night fighter plane which brought down a pilot-less B-29 headed for the American base on Iwo Jima. Arvid’s son Eric Shulenberger, an oceanographer, is the author of Deny Them the Night Sky: A History of the 548th Night Fighter Squadron, which details the story of his father’s squadron.

After the war, Arvid Shulenberger studied at Yankton College in South Dakota, and then at the University of Chicago which awarded him a PhD in English Literature in 1951. He taught as a professor of English at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, from 1952 to 1964.

Shulenberger-Arvid-Cover-of-Roads-from-the-Fort-1957In 1954, he published his first novel, Roads From The Fort. Described as a serious novel of the Old West, Kirkus Review called it, “A first novel of contagious sincerity.” The novel was a Book-of-the-Month recommendation.

Following publication of his novel, and of a serious academic work, Cooper’s Theory of Fiction: His prefaces and their relation to his novels. (University of Kansas press, 1955), Shulenberger took a year off from teaching and spent the latter half of 1955 in Ajijic on Lake Chapala.

A profile of Shulenberger in the 11 December 1955 issue of the Salina Journal in Kansas, says that he “has just returned with his family after spending five months in Mexico – writing another novel…. Before attempting his first novel Shulenberger, broad-shouldered and soft-spoken, had not written a single short story, but had limited himself to criticism and poetry.” I have been unable to find any evidence that this second novel was ever published.

A collection of poems by Shulenberger, entitled Ancient Music and Other Poems, was published by Allen Press in 1960. Shulenberger had several poetry credits in The New Yorker and in the magazine Poetry. He also wrote “The Orthodox Poetic,” (1963), an article in which he compared four important worldviews: the classical Greek, the Old Testament (“Hebraic”), the Christian, and the “modern”.

Shulenberger died in an auto accident on 23 June 1964, in Leavenworth, Kansas, on his way home from teaching night classes in English literature to inmates of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

May 022016
 

Chester (“Chet”) P. Hewitt lived in Ajijic for a time in the early to middle 1950s, according to Michael Hargraves in his 1992 booklet, Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey. Hewitt wrote The Gilded Hideaway. a novel set in Mexico (though not at Lakeside), which was published in New York by Ace Books in 1955, under the pseudonym of Peter Twist. The novel appears to be Hewitt’s only published work.

Hewitt was born in New York City on 7 November 1922 and, after a single year of college and as yet unmarried, enlisted in the U.S. Air Corps on 18 March 1943.

hewitt-chester-p-as-peter-tiwst-coverIt seems likely that Hewitt was only in Ajijic for a relatively short time, since, if an article in the Waco-Times for 20 July 1967 is to be believed, Hewitt left the U.S. for St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands) in about 1952. The article describes Hewitt as a “slender, mustachioed”, 43-year-old “retired civil engineer”, who worked in construction in St. Thomas and saved enough money to move to Mexico City, and then, nine months later, to Acapulco, where he and his wife Lucy “took over a four bedroom house overlooking the ocean, with a swimming pool in the front yard”.

The scant evidence from immigration records shows that he entered St. Thomas on 5 December 1957, presumably from Mexico, on a return trip to the island.

The focus of the Waco-Times article is Hewitt’s humanitarian role in assisting American and Canadian prisoners locked up in the Acapulco jail. Apparently, Hewitt was detained overnight following a vehicle accident outside a prominent hotel, and, while there, compiled a list of foreign prisoners, the charges they faced, and contact details for their families.

On his release, he set about contacting families and trying to arrange for some of the prisoners to have fines or other debts paid and thereby gain their release. In many cases, his efforts proved successful. Hewitt visited the prisoners regularly, twice a week, with “books, food and hope”.

Please contact us if you are able to add more details about the life and work of this noble novelist.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Apr 182016
 

Ruth Ross-Merrimer and her husband Robert Merrimer first lived in Ajijic in 1986 and she returned there in 1999, shortly after her husband’s death in Tucson, Arizona. In 2004, she moved to Palm Springs, California, where she died on 6 June 2011, at the age of 86.

While living in Ajijic, Ross-Merrimer wrote and self-published Champagne & Tortillas (2001) which is set in a retirement community that seems surprisingly like Lake Chapala and Ajijic, despite the disclaimer at the start that:

Champagne & Tortillas  is not a roman a clef. To all who may believe they recognize one or more of its characters, I can only say that your imaginations are working overtime. This is a work of fiction, and the characters who cavort through its pages are figments of my own imagination.

Just as the place called Lake Azul will not be found on any map of Mexico, the characters in Champagne & Tortillas were conceived from bits and pieces of all the people I have ever known..”

The back cover blurb for Champagne & Tortillas describes it thus:

“In a blend of fiction and historical fact, the novel chronicles the lives of a tightknit group of mainly U.S. expatriates, living in a town in Mexico called Lake Azul. They spend lazy days loving, hating and backbiting; their passion for one-upmanship exceeded only by their unrelenting interest in each other and each other’s lives. But when one of them is mysteriously murdered by two others in the colony, it becomes a recipe for the perfect crime.”

ross-merrimer-ruth-coverRuth Ross (later Ross-Merrimer) was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on 26 May 1925. She studied at St. Louis University and worked as a professional singer on tourist boats on the Mississippi River.

She moved to Southern California in 1962 where she was invited to record a song for a documentary film being made by Robert Merrimer (1908-1999) of Keystone Productions. She and Bob married and first visited Ajijic in 1966 after the film company was asked to produce seven documentary publicity films for the Mexican National Tourist Department, ahead of the Mexico Olympics of 1968.

The couple traveled all over Mexico shooting the Tourist Department movies, with Ruth working as a researcher and scriptwriter, and from 1968, established their home in Puerto Vallarta, where they lived for about a decade.

After her return to Ajijic in 1999, Ross-Merrimer reported on local news for the Guadalajara Reporter (1999-2003) and other English language publications, including El Ojo del Lago. She was a founder member of the Ajijic Writers Group.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Mar 282016
 

Stephen Schneck was born 2 January 1933 in New York and died on 26 November 1996 in Palm Springs, California. He led a varied life, including stints as a novelist, author, actor and screenwriter, among other pursuits.

schneck-nightclerkSchneck studied at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and then spent several years traveling around Mexico, where he lived in the Lake Chapala area from about 1954 to 1957) and Central America. According to Michael Hargraves in his 1992 booklet, Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey, Schneck claimed “to have written some of his best short stories and spent the better days of his youth while there”.

In 1960, Schneck apparently founded the American Beauty Studios, on 42nd Street, New York. It was during the 1960s that Schneck worked as a reporter for such “underground” periodicals as Ramparts and Mother Jones.

He subsequently moved to San Francisco, where he wrote his first, and best known, novel, “The Nightclerk” (Grove Press, 1965). The novel’s hero is an overweight hotel clerk (weighing 600 lbs), described by one reviewer as “the fattest man in American literature”. The hotel is a seedy San Francisco establishment. The clerk whiles away the long night hours reading erotic paperbacks, cutting up old magazines, and reminiscing about his beautiful and corrupt wife, Katy. The clerk’s real life lies in his “erotic, pornographic, sado-masochistic, orgiastic, unnameable” fantasies. This somewhat surrealistic novel became an international counterculture favorite, and won the $10,000 Formentor Novel Prize.

schneck-nocturnal-vaudevilleSchneck followed this with a second novel, Nocturnal Vaudeville (E. P. Dutton, 1971), but then turned to non-fiction works and screenplays.

In the second half of the 1970s, he wrote several non-fiction books for pet lovers, including The complete home medical guide for cats (Stein and Day, 1976) and, with Nigel Norris, The complete home medical guide for dogs (Stein and Day, 1976). The two authors co-wrote A. to Z. of Cat Care (Fontana Press, 1979) and A-Z of Dog Care (Fontana, 1979).

By that time, Schneck was gaining success as a screenwriter. He wrote or co-wrote Inside Out (1975); Welcome to Blood City (1977), which won first prize at the 1976 Paris Science Fiction Film Festival; High-Ballin’ (1978), which starred Peter Fonda; and Across the Moon (1995), in which he also played the part of a prison chaplain.

TV credits included two episodes of The Paper Chase (1985-1986), an episode of In the Heat of the Night (1992), as well as episodes of All in the Family, Archie Bunker’s Place, and Cheers.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Mar 142016
 

I was surprised when I first read Barbara Compton‘s To The Isthmus (1964). The only review I had seen made it sound like a lightweight romantic novel in which the inclusion of scenes at Lake Chapala was largely incidental to the main plot. In fact, the chapter set at the lake plays a key role in both the geography behind this novel and in the new direction the plot takes thereafter. Perhaps not a “great novel” but certainly engagingly written and an interesting, if introspective, account of one woman’s search for fulfillment.

The dust jacket describes it thus:

To The Isthmus is a serious novel about the shaping of a modern woman’s life: a brilliant delineation of the conflict between the force of circumstance-which dictates whom we shall meet and how-and the forec of our inner vision, which demands an absolute fulfillment of desires.

The protagonist is an Englishwoman, an intelligent, educated, emotionally alive young woman. She is seen in many roles and in many places-as a dutiful daughter who cares for her invalid mother in an English suburb before World War II; as an imaginative and loving mistress to her psychiatrist lover, Paul, in London; after the war as a good wife who cares enough for Paul to “love and hold, love and let go” as they live in separate apartments in Manhattan; and finally, as the companion of a new man on a trip to Mexico, to the isthmus of the title.

Life and death have pulled Peg Walter from city to city, from country to country, from person to person-through a world of complex and forceful people with whom she has tried to live in honesty and love and with some degree of happiness. This is the story of her failure and her success.”

There is absolutely no doubt that the novel is largely autobiographical, and one in which the events and characters are only thinly disguised. The main characters (with real-life names in parentheses) include:

  • The protagonist, Margaret, or Peg (Barbara Keppel-Compton)
  • Her husband, psychoanalyst Dr. Paul Walter (Barbara’s first husband, Dr Gerhard E. Witt)
  • Her friend Anne who lives in New York (Barbara’s sister Ursula Niebuhr)
  • Anne’s husband Oliver (Ursula’s husband Reinhold Niebuhr)
  • Robert Radich, guest at Casa Heuer (Barbara’s second husband, Richard Z. Moravec, to whom the book is dedicated)

compton-to-the-isthmusOther characters, too, are almost certainly based on real-life friends and acquaintances of the author.

The timing of events and many of the descriptions of character traits ring true as well. For example, we quickly learn that Dr. Paul Walter is German, and his work focuses on the relationship between medicine and psychology. During the war, Peg, on account of her language skills, works at a British intelligence agency in Cambridge. Future husband Paul writes poems and also sculpts and paints. He had wanted to become an artist but switched to medicine. This closely mirrors the lives of Barbara Keppel-Compton and her first husband Dr. Gerhard Witt.

The book is equally interesting from the perspective of reconnecting novels to their geographic settings. To The Isthmus has eight chapters. The fifth chapter, “To Mexico”, is the fulcrum around which this novel pivots. It includes lots of details and descriptions relating to Ajijic in the late 1940s.

Traveling to Ajijic in those days was an adventure in itself. Peg arrived from Mexico City by bus, via Guadalajara, after a thirty-hour trip:

“After Chapala the road lost its surface and two villages away petered out into an unpaved lane between thorn trees. The bus driver told me when to get out along this village street.” [141]

Casa Heuer, where Peg stayed, was a simple establishment on the lake shore run by a German brother and sister, Enrico Schmidt (Pablo Heuer) and Gertruda Schmidt (Leisel Heuer).

In To The Isthmus, Enrico is described as “a tall emaciated figure” who wears a dressing gown most of the day, has huaraches on his feet and smokes cigars.

“By daylight his skin is like deeply tooled leather. He has a gaunt John the Baptist look about him, as if he lived on locusts. When he smiles, one notices several teeth are missing.”

Gertruda Schmidt is portrayed as aloof and distant. She

“remains remote, and perhaps needs to, since out of that calm, wide-eyed contemplation of hers she sometimes writes articles on the country and people here which she sends to German-language newspapers in the States. She gave me some to read. The stress was on the rhythms of blood and soil, but without mentioning sex and violence, and so rendering only half the picture.” [167]

Casa Heuer is located “at the end of a rutted lane”, which “looks like the end of nowhere.” “Only a low stone fence below separates this place from the slowly shelving shore and the sheet of light that is the lake.” [146]

The main building is “like a long shack”, with a sunken kitchen. Bedrooms, with shuttered windows that lack glass, are lit by hurricane lamps and candles; the bed “is tolerable, even if the pillow seems stuffed with cement.” [142]

“By day my room is pleasant, with its writing table under the window on the yard. Through the opposite one, on the porch, the light from the lake comes in, reflected.” [149-150]

The dining room has “a refectory table running the length of it with a few hard chairs at either side.”

“And the yard behind is not just a chicken run with privy in one corner discreetly concealed by shrubs—as I thought in the dark last night. There’s some sort of one-room abode built against the wall on the lane on one side of the gate, and on the other some little whitewashed cells. There is also an arbor of bougainvillaea in front of them, where one can sit at a bench and table; also a mango tree.”

A rival hostelry, Posada Ajijic, gets a passing slight when Radich informs Peg that,

“it’s just as well you didn’t go to the Posada down the road, you wouldn’t have survived a day. All the tourists go there. But the second day they all come here, where at least the water is safe, and the food.”

The village has a small foreign colony, mainly Americans. Peg takes a walk through the village and finds the pool where women are doing their washing:

“Behind the two long streets there is a plaza, deserted and bare, with two rows of dwarf trees down the middle for a minimum of shade, and a large church behind tall palings at one end. There is no one about here or in the streets. The children must all be at school, the women all busy in their houses, the men presumably away working. There being nothing immediate to take hold of, I follow a stony path up and out toward the mountain slope which crowds the village to the flat strip along the lake. Perhaps a view of the village from above will take from it that blind impression which the empty streets and shuttered windows have given. As the path winds up, the few dry stunted thorn trees give way to a tall and slender growth clinging to the hillside. The path dips, and there is a rich shining grove of eucalyptus trees, and the sound of water and voices. It is a deep emerald pool set in a basin of rock, round which some half dozen women are doing their washing. It is my first encounter of the morning, but the women are far too immersed in their gossip to pay any attention to me as I pass, even to turn and stare at a stranger. So I climb on.” [148-149]

This is precisely the scene painted only a few years earlier by Ann Sonia Medalie.

It is the rainy season, and Peg’s Spanish teacher, Lola, tells her about,

“the fearsome storms that sometimes sweep over the village at the height of the rainy season. This story was rather beyond my Spanish, so she acted it out until I gathered that what they most dread is a waterspout that can sweep everything, houses, people, cattle into the lake. Apparently this thing forms itself out over the lake from among the clouds, and slowly winds itself into the form of a snake overhead. When this happens, all the women go out from the village in a solid phalanx to pray that the snake remain in the cloud above and not point its head down to strike.”

Violence is not confined to the skies. One morning, Peg arrives for a Spanish lesson and finds Lola distraught because “a man was killed last night” in the street outside her house. [165-166]

For his part, Radich, sharing his extensive knowledge of Ajijic, asks Peg if she has noticed one of the local celebrities (Zara Alexeyewa, the “Russian” dancer):

“Ever seen a woman riding through the village, draped in some sort of white Cossack outfit, and doing her shopping from horseback? Having been a dancer, she gave herself a Russian name. Well, when she couldn’t make the grade any longer, she came out here-—lives in that house by the shore, hidden behind the eucalyptus grove at the end of this lane…” [170]

It is also worth recalling that only a few months later, that same year (1946), it was precisely at Casa Heuer where novelist Elaine Gottlieb had her precipitous romantic fling with Elliot Chase, the basis of Gottlieb’s short story, “Passage Through Stars”. It seems like there must have been both “writing in the air” and “love in the air” on Lake Chapala at Casa Heuer in 1946!

Other twentieth century novels set largely, or entirely, at Lake Chapala include:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

error: Content is protected !!