Classic and modern
Photo of Buenos Aires by lrargerich used under a Creative Commons license.

César Aira, Ghosts (New Directions, 2009).
A short novel about a Chilean family living on the roof of an upscale apartment building under construction in Buenos Aires on New Year’s Eve. The day starts with arrival of future tenants who want to inspect the builders’ progress. The crew of laborers works a half-day and then breaks for a lunch where much wine is drunk. They depart, leaving the Chilean night watchman to nao and his wife to prepare to host a New Year’s party that evening. As the day passes, the focus shifts to the watchman’s teenage daughter. Oh, yes — the building is also inhabited by naked, floating, dusty ghosts, who will have their own party. Aira is a prolific Argentina author, but little of his work has been translated into English. This book made me want to read more of his work.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Aira. Google Books lets you read a little. Scott Bryan Wilson (The Quarterly Conversation) says it is ultimately about the mechanics within families and the ways in which they create expectations for our lives. The Complete Review, which has a helpful collection of links (some of which are below), says it makes for an unusual and haunting coming-of-age novel. Jesse Tangen-Mills (Bookslut) sees fugues of free association combined with the ordinary banality of everyday life. Natasha Wimmer (The New York Times) says Aira is one of the most provocative and idiosyncratic novelists working in Spanish today, and should not be missed. Thomas McGonigle (Los Angeles Times) warns that the novel’s opening is shy in revealing the greatness withinThe New Yorker‘s anonymous reviewer says Aira conjures a languorous, surreal atmosphere of baking heat and quietly menacing shadows that puts one in mind of a painting by de Chirico. Megan Doll (San Francisco Chronicle) says Aira makes the strange seem banal, and calls it absurd and pedantic. Chad W. Post (Three Percent) says it’s an incredibly enjoyable book that can be read during an afternoon. Josef Braun (VUE Weekly) calls it a kind of jazzy essay, combining vividly detailed people and places with unfettered, often dazzling abstraction. Andrew Seal posts some favorite passages. Another (unidentified) blogger calls it one of the most uniquely, genuinely odd books you’re likely to stumble across. Mookse says Aira’s imagination and intelligence are for real. Douglas Messerli says Aira’s short novels seem like much longer fictions. David Auerbach doesn’t like Aira’s bad writing — he thinks Aira hasn’t spent enough time thinking things through. Melissa Tuckman says it’s a phantom-novel, airy and gestural, and that’s what makes it so terrifying. Carlos Amantea says it’s a story grounded in reality, but also a ghost story. Robert Birnbaum reads it as an allegory of class consciousness. Will Ashon feels no pressure to make sense of it. Francis Reynolds says Aira creates a strange and unsettling atmosphere.  Kathleen Brazie says it is driven by finding what lies in the space between real and unreal. María Moreno interviewed Aira for Bomb. Marcelo Ballvé wrote about “the ultra-experimental, madly prolific Argentine novelist César Aira” in The Quarterly Conversation. Scott Bryan Wilson interviewed the translator, Chris Andrews, also in The Quarterly Conversation.

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m e r e s t r æ t
Photo by -Proserpina used under a Creative Commons license.

Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia (Penguin, 1988).
A classic of travel writing, a mix of what Chatwin saw in Patagonia and the fruits of his research about the area. Well worth reading in any event, but certainly for anyone heading to that part of the world. Chatwin ought not be mistaken for a historian or a travel guide, as he is fond of tall tales and anecdotes, but all that is part of the charm.  (Notwithstanding, I’ve tagged it as non-fiction.)

Here is a preview at Google BookSearch. Chatwin’s entry on Wikipedia is reasonably detailed. The New York Times ran this obituary for him. Here is a site devoted to Chatwin. The BBC offers this introduction to his life and works. Scott Esposito says Chatwin’s Patagonia has a cultural history consistingly largely of madmen, dreamers, and everyday eccentrics. Ted Mahsun says Chatwin tells a great story. Mike Gerrard read the manuscript. Edward Pickering recommends it. Perrin Lindelauf was unsatisfied. Bs As Theo sees embellishment. Rolf Potts relays thoughts about Chatwin’s fabrications. Terry considered links between Chatwin and W.G. Sebald. As Daniel Buck describes, Adrian Giminez Hutton retraced Chatwin’s path. And Nick Clapson considers Chatwin’s enduring appeal.

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Photo of Buenos Aires by asleeponasunbeam used under a Creative Commons license.

Julio Cortázar, The Winners (NYRB, 1999).
In Buenos Aires, a motley collection of people find that they have won the state lottery, the prize being a luxury cruise to an unknown destination. At sea, things go awry for this ship of fools. The passengers are informed that a disease has broken out and that they must be quarantined. Adrift together, strangers become friends and adversaries, and share confidences and misunderstandings. Some are readier than others to accept the conditions in which they find themselves. Cortázar is lauded as one of the foremost Argentine writers of the twentieth century; this was his first novel to be published.

Here is a useful biography of Cortazar from a Finnish site. Here is another bio, from Salem Press, and yet another. Here are posts from Darby M. Dixon III and Jen.

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Photo of the Paraguay-Argentina border by used under a Creative Commons license.

Anne Whitehead, Bluestocking in Patagonia (Profile, 2003).
National Geographic Traveler recommends this book:

In 1895, young Australian schoolteacher Mary Jean Cameron set sail from Sydney to join an experimental socialist utopia deep in the interior of Paraguay. Traveling alone via mailboat, paddle steamer, steam train, and horseback, hers is an extraordinary journey-and that was just the beginning of her adventures. Author Whitehead follows in the footsteps of this fascinating woman who ended up spending six years in South America, first in Paraguay and then Argentina-and whose portrait now appears on the $10 Australian bill.

Ann Skea reviewed the book. Sarah Macdonald reviewed it for the Sydney Morning Herald. Robin Osborne reviewed it for The Northern Rivers Echo. Frank Bongiorno reviewed it in Australian Literary Studies, and Nick Smith reviewed it in Geographical, but to read them you’ll have to sign up for free trials (I didn’t). Jennifer Strauss reviewed it for Australian Book Review. Or you can listen to a BBC story about Whitehead and Gilmore.

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