The Sixteen Pleasures

Yesterday, I wrote about the novel I had just finished reading – The Shadow of the Wind. Today I want to tell you about a different one, also set in Europe, that is another of my favorite books.  The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga has everything I look for in a novel – a sumptuous setting – a riveting plot with unexpected twists and turns every few pages – a complex protagonist – art, intrigue, self-discovery – and unforgettable secondary characters.

The tale begins in 1966 when torrential rains cause the Arno River to overflow into the streets, churches, libraries and museums of Florence, Italy. Margot Harrington, a 29 year old Chicago book restorer flies there to help salvage the centuries-old tomes that have been damaged in the flood.

She settles into a more or less permanent job at a convent, repairing damaged books in the library – a collection of 2,500 volumes donated by one of the Médici noblewomen who entered the contemplative order in the XVII Century. Margot develops close relationships with the nuns and comes to greatly respect and admire them.

One day while she is out buying supplies, the novices find a rare volume. The prayer book cover gives no clue that inside, are sixteen erotic sonnets by Pietro Aretino, each accompanied by an engraving by Giulio Romano. The book is a sort-of Italian Kama Sutra, known as, The Sixteen Pleasures.

Quite sure the book is the only one of its kind – Margot agrees to restore it and take it to auction – all the while keeping it out of the greedy bishop’s hands. He has heard about the unique find and wants it for himself.

Margot has the adventure of her life as she evades professional thieves, savvy Customs agents, and the Holy See. Of course she also attracts the attention of an attentive Italian lover. Lots of intricate plot interweaving in this book.


Jorge and Joanna in Florence

I don’t remember how I originally found the book, but I remember that I read it with great relish. When Jorge and I traveled to Florence a few years later, I got ahold of another copy and re-read it on a grassy bank of the Arno River.

THAT was one of the best book experiences I’ve ever had.

If your literary taste is anything like mine, The Sixteen Pleasures is a book you will savor for years to come.

The Shadow of the Wind

The Numero Uno position on my list of the top ten novels – EVER – has been filled by a new title. Last night I finished reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. It is set in Barcelona, Spain, and although I have never been there, after reading the author’s descriptions, I feel as though I have:

“Plaza de San Felipe Neri is like a small breathing space in the maze of streets that criss-cross the Gothic quarter…”

The novel opens at the end of the World War II. Daniel Sempere is young and struggling to overcome his mother’s death. One night, to distract the boy, his father takes him to a mysterious place called, The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There Daniel finds a novel, The Shadow of the Wind – it is so intriguing that while reading, he is able to forget his pain. But when he tries to find more books by the same writer, Julian Carax, he discovers that someone is systematically destroying all copies of the author’s novels – in fact it appears that Daniel’s copy might be the only one left. He tries to track down Julian Carax and the identity of the destructive villain.

Soon enough, Daniel finds himself opening the door to Barcelona’s dark past. The Shadow of the Wind is full of beautiful prose :

Dawn was breaking, and a purple blade of light cut through the clouds, spraying its hue over the fronts of mansions and the stately homes that bordered  Avenida del Tibidabo…

Daniel Sempere’s quest continues for a decade. A cast of memorable  accomplices such as his tender-hearted father, a tramp he rescues, a blind girl he falls in love with, and a woman who worked for the author’s publisher all contribute pieces that help solve the puzzle.

You’ll read no hints about the ending in this post. But I will say that I enjoyed reading every word of this spectacularly crafted novel.

A Perfect Way to Handle Imperfection?

I fuss ALL THE TIME about Merida’s high humidity, the heat, the pedal-to-the-metal drivers, taxes, corruption, the economy, the class system, and, and, and – I complain long, loud and frequently.

This country is not – perfect – far from it.  But still I love living here because of the people – they are remarkable. They are creative, funny and they live in the moment. These past three days have once again hammered that home.

Despite almost unanimous dissatisfaction with national policy and looming international calamities (like potentially seeing Trump elected as president of the USA) Mexicans are able to live their lives with far less angst than most other people on this planet.

We’re winding down from a long weekend of celebrating Mexico’s Independence. Our family and friends have ditched the diets and indulged in copious numbers of tacos, bowls of pozole, and platters of chiles en nogada.  There has also been plenty of tequila and beer drinking, and most importantly – there has been music.


Most fiestas get revved-up once the day has cooled down. The music starts off loud – ideal for singing along and spirited dancing. Dinner is served about midnight and often a mariachi will appear for an hour of rousing trumpets, strumming guitars, booming baritones and trilling falsettos. Sweet sad laments of love gone wrong, follow in the Mariachis’ wake. And at this point, most families who have  children head on home. But a surprising number of hardy partiers will stay on. With arms around their best friends, they spill their sorrows, and by about 3 am, they’ll have caught their second wind. Couples sway seductively to sultry romantic ballads that play for the rest of the night – and at sunup – everyone still standing will make a wobbly exit to the Santiago market  for tacos de cochinita.


Those not brought up with such marathons often ask me – Why does the music have to be so loud? Isn’t this excess, escapism, and avoidance – bad for the eardrums, kidneys and cholesterol levels? Shouldn’t those little kids be in bed a lot earlier?

Actually, I used to agree but have come to believe that this national penchant for fiesta is healthy. It is a way to cope. Of course there are people who overdo it, and do so too often. But for the most part – the next day – life is back to normal – hard work replaces hard play. And the memory of a good time helps people handle the tough realities. Their resentment and frustration have been released, and don’t manifest in school shootings or other rampages.


Just as we accept our own limitations and put up with character traits we don’t altogether appreciate in those we love, Mexicans tolerate the shortcomings of the country they love. Yes, they hope that some of the worst problems will be resolved sooner rather than later, but meanwhile they don’t let imperfection keep them from enjoying life.


Lux Perpetua

I think that September (rather than January) marks the true beginning of each year. Students start their new courses, and those of us who live in the tropics make believe that the cooler weather will be coming soon. Friends who spend the summer away from Merida let us know what date they’ll be returning.

After the quiet days of summer, September ushers in a busier social calendar – the Symphony season gets underway and the first benefit events are scheduled.

I always enjoy the increased number of art shows — last Wednesday, John Wallner invited me to see his four pieces included in a collective show at the LUX PERPETUA Gallery in Itzimna.

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John obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Washington University in St. Louis. He then moved to New York for his Masters of Fine Arts at the prestigious Pratt Institute. His first day there he met Alexandra, a writer and illustrator. They married and for decades the couple worked in the USA. Happily for us, they now they live here in Merida.

John and Alexandra Wallner in front of the four collages that are part of the current collective exhibition
John and Alexandra Wallner in front of the four collages that are part of the current collective exhibition

Architect, Jimena Gutierrez designed the gallery by re-purposing an old art deco building she discovered on a street in Colonia Itzimna. Actually, she tore down most of the original structure, but kept the iconic façade.  The exterior features glass tile, and colored reflectors, that make for a trendy, upbeat-looking venue. Inside the walls are high and the layout is airy – a space that shows art to its best advantage.


Gallery manager, Nadia Perez and her team have done an excellent job of putting together work by some of the best artists in Yucatan.

John’s four pieces in the collective show are collages – fashioned from vintage letters, photos, and other unusual snippets found in flea markets and antique stores – along with paint, ink, and stamps.

“I show ‘layers of time and memories’, ” says John.

I spoke with two of the young female artists who also had a couple of pieces in the exhibition. Silvia Barbotto comes from Turin, Italy. Her work is bold and passionate.

Silvia Barbotto
Silvia Barbotto

Samia Farah, from Campeche, is an architect and painter who studies photographs for inspiration. She told me she finds old vacation photos are particularly interesting. I liked the sensation of “time-space” she affected by blurring some of her subjects’ features.

Samia Farah
Samia Farah

If you are looking for dynamic art, don’t miss LUX PERPETUA , located on Calle 20 No. 87E, on the corner of Calle 15, Colonia Itzimna.

Friends at the gallery opening
Friends at the gallery opening

The fox is loose in the henhouse

I now realize just how many USA voters have been deluded by Donald Trump’s rhetoric. And after last Wednesday, Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto also sees the writing on the wall.

Instead of denouncing Donald Trump for the insults he has dumped on our country, Enrique Peña Nieto invited him to a private tête à tête. I suppose our naïve president thought he could reason with the US republican candidate, but alas, that is not possible. The invitation was tantamount to turning the fox loose in the henhouse!

No ambiguity with Trump though – once safely back in his homeland, he cynically spewed more venom against Mexico. He continues to insist he will build a wall along the border (that Mexico will pay for) and he will deport 11,000,000 Mexicans from the USA.

During his campaign, he has beaten Mexico to a bloody pulp. And in the process, he has fostered deep racial division between citizens of the USA and their Latin American neighbors. Whether he wins or loses the election, the hatred has been cultivated. I fear it will endure because everyone wants to blame someone or something for their own deficiencies. I resent Donald Trump more than you can possibly imagine.

Donald Trump has but ONE perspective – his own. He was born into wealth and he is used to getting his way. His arrogance blinds him from the realities of the world as a whole. And like it or not, the president of the United States of America MUST demonstrate global vision and rational behavior.

The population of Mexico is about 120,000,000 – 55.3 million of them living in extreme poverty. The government provides sporadic food hampers, basic health care and rudimentary education to its most needy citizens, but this is like trying to stop a hemorrhage with a Band-Aid. Children all over the country go hungry. Thank God, I have never seen my family in need, but if this ever happened, I am quite sure I would not think twice about trying to work “illegally” in a neighboring country.  What would you do?

These desperate people are the 11,000,000 “evil” Mexicans that Donald Trump lambastes every chance he gets.  Certainly a miniscule percentage of the arrivals from the south must be criminals – every nation has bad elements. However, US law enforcement agencies quickly spot their kind and “dispatch” them – by one means or another.

The vast majority of the illegal immigrants are young men. They risk their lives to enter the USA because they don’t have any alternative. Most have known back-breaking labor since childhood – like carrying heavy blocks on their heads and mixing cement all day in the sweltering sun – to earn a pittance. They dream of going “north” where they will make enough money to help support their families. Even $100.00 USD a week is an enormous help. Can you imagine that?

Young women also try to make it across the border. They hope that sewing in an American sweat shop or cleaning hotel rooms will open doors for them. During the journey, many disguise themselves as men to avoid sexual assault.

Farming families living in cardboard shacks beside their dried-up fields hear about the fertile agricultural land in los Estados Unidos and they travel on foot to get there.  Many who start the journey die along the way. If they actually enter the USA, they are sitting ducks for all sorts of ruthless individuals who will exploit them – any way they can.

Trump claims these illegal immigrants steal jobs from Americans. Fruit picking, heavy clearing and cleaning, gardening, service industry positions and the like – the new arrivals get hired because they show an eagerness to work under almost any terms. They are used to being exploited – they don’t care – as long as they make the money they need.

Illegal drug use, racial inequality, gang violence, and other traps have ensnarled many US-born citizens in a vicious cycle of poverty. BUT even the most down-on-their-luck families have access to social assistance programs. Many do not seek help because they don’t have the confidence to do so. They have been duped into believing they are not in control of their destiny.

Donald Trump does not care about the human drama on either side of the Rio Grande – he uses fear to his advantage. I detest how his Machiavellian maneuvering has eroded the innate goodness and ingenuity of the American people. He has successfully deluded millions of US voters into believing his outright lies and exaggerations. He makes scapegoats of the poor who have no rights in “the land of the free”.

Donald Trump’s behavior repulses me. I remember seeing him pointing his finger and shouting, “Dismissed!!!” on his reality TV show. He looked as though he enjoyed seeing the rejected interns cringe and cry. I see the way he disrespects and degrades women, especially us older ones. He is a braggart and a bigot.

Yesterday I saw a post by Roald Dahl on Facebook:

roald dahl

I shared the post on my own timeline and commented:

In this competitive world, “kind” is not cool. But I agree with Roald. Kindness and loyalty are what it takes to keep the world on track. Come to think of it — maybe the absence of these two attributes is why our planet is in such a mess?

Citizens of the USA need to vote – and vote responsibly – no one will benefit from having a despot like Donald Trump in the White House.

***Note: Please feel free to share the content of this post, but if you do so, please let me know where and how it will be used.

Writing and Intercultural Living…

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