A blog which may appeal to those who enjoy stories about people, politics, economics, sports, and travel. In and around Argentina and the USA.


Book Review: Thirteen Moons

Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons is an effort that unfortunately fails to live up to the standard he set with his outstanding debut novel, Cold Mountain. In Thirteen Moons, Frazier returns to the mountains of western North Carolina to tell the story of Will Cooper, a leader of men modeled on the historical figure William Holland Thomas. Thirteen Moons does have compelling descriptions of Indian culture and the undisturbed American wilderness. And while early chapters are filled with many captivating adventures like Will's initial journey to his new post as a 12 year old, Thirteen Moons largely disappoints. I found the writing hard to swallow and didn't end up attached in any way to the story of Will and Claire. The slave-holding Indians, Bear and Featherstone, are also mostly unsatisfying. And the cranky old narrator who opens and closes the book is just plain depressing. This time around Frazier seems to have lost his own voice and replaced it with a odd mix of McCarthy and McMurtry. I found myself struggling along, all the while missing the wonderful prose, characters and emotion of Cold Mountain.

Thirteen Moons is the story of the amazing life of William Cooper, a man who becomes a white chief of the Cherokees, a state senator, and a confederate colonel. He also overcomes a 6th grade education to become a self-taught lawyer and well-read linguist who teaches himself Cherokee and French. On the business side, Will pulls a double Algeresque rags-to-riches-to-rags- to-riches story thanks to investments in land, mercantile and railroads. And as a bonus, his and Bear's acquisition of hundreds of thousands of acres of tribal homeland allow their people to avoid removal to western reservations. Will travels extensively and meets the rich and famous, but never forgets Claire, the beautiful young girl who somehow belongs to his rival Feather- stone. Near the end of his amazing life and deteriorating mentally, Cooper enjoys passing time by firing a shotgun at his own trains as they roll through his front yard.

Will Cooper shares more than "some DNA" with William Holland Thomas, a 19th century Cherokee chief and Confederate officer. Both Wills are sent to work as trading post clerks in Indian territory, both are adopted by the local chief, and both are given law books in lieu of pay. Cooper and Thomas are both connected to President Taylor and both go to Washington to fight for the rights of their tribe. In the Civil War, both lead their legions in tricky maneuvers against union forces occupying a town in western North Carolina. Upon demanding surrender, both learn that the war had ended a month earlier at Appomattox. Each of them survive smallpox epidemics that devastate their people but end up suffering from what may have been Alzheimer's disease. The real William Holland Thomas, who led the Thomas Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders, spent 20 years living in and out of mental hospitals and died in debt. While he is a very interesting character whose story deserves to be told, this project would have been better off in the hands of another writer. Frazier had much more success when working exclusively from his own imagination.

Some may say that the instant fame Charles Frazier achieved with Cold Mountain was a little too much to handle: they will point to the big award, movie, and advance for this second book. His fans will respond that there is a lot of jealousy out there, and that may well be true. I know a few people who would love to write a book like Cold Mountain and have friends over to watch Nicole Kidman star in the movie version.


Argentina: Hot Destination

Travelers, writers, tango dancers and students are all pouring into Argentina thanks to low prices and world class everything. This is a country that has some of the greatest waterfalls, mountains, glaciers, lakes, fly fishing, horseback riding, trekking, (southern hemisphere) skiing, polo, futbol, steaks, wines, handbags and shoes in the world. And since beautiful people lie on nearby Uruguayan beaches, it all adds up to a great place to visit. That's why people are probably telling you to book your vacation - or better yet - plan your long term stay now. In Buenos Aires new boutique hotels are opening every week and hundreds of apartments are available for short term rental. The regional airport, Aeroparque, is right in town so it's easy to find flights to the tropical jungle setting of Iguazu Falls or the Andean valley vineyards of Mendoza. Those with more time will continue on to unforgettable Patagonian adventures. Think you saw it all last time? You probably still need to check out Cordoba, Salta or Entre Rios. Your friends told you how great it is and now I've done the same, so get yourself on down to Argentina.


Portrait Miniatures at the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo

In the late 19th and early 20th century Argentina was one of the world's wealthiest nations and the Alvear family was at the pinnacle of belle Buenos Aires society. In 1897 Josefina de Alvear, a niece of the city's first mayor and a cousin of President Marcelo T. Alvear, married Matias Erraturiz at the Cathedral of Buenos Aires. After many years in Europe, the family returned in 1917 and moved into their spectacular new palace on Avenida Libertador. Their French architect, Rene Sergent, designed a total of 15 projects for Argentine clients of which 5 were completed. One of the others is the former home of Josephina's sister, the Bosch-Alvear Palace, now the American Embassy residence.

While in Europe the Erraturiz-Alvears undoubtedly visited Auguste Rodin's own exhibit at the Parisian World's Fair. They later commissioned a massive fireplace from him that was never completed. A small model signed by Rodin can be viewed at the mansion which opened its doors as the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo in 1937. The museum features paintings and sculpture from the family's collection by El Greco, Corot, Delacroix, Fragonard and Manet. But the palacio itself is the star of the show and will be truly appreciated by those who enjoy spectacular homes from days gone by. Sergent's concept was a revival of the French neoclassical style of the 18th century and many rooms were inspired by landmark buildings in France: for example the ballroom after the Hotel Soubise and the dinning room after the Petit Trianon in Versailles. Two exceptions are the renaissance Great Hall which was designed to feature the family's existing collection of tapestries, and an excellent neobaroque sitting room by the Catalan artist Jose Maria Sert. The Sert chamber was commissioned at the request of Matias (Mato) E. Alvear, the couple's only son.

Current visitors will enjoy a bonus treat: a spectacular collection of portrait miniatures (the forerunner of the wallet photograph) now on display in the family living room. The collection includes numerous 18th century watercolor on ivory works by well known artists who specialized in miniatures. Most are framed in gold pendants and many are pocket masterpieces. Among the sitters are English, French and Russian nobility including numerous children. A very tiny painting of Nicolas V of Russia is set in a diamond encrusted ring. I enjoyed looking at all those little faces from another time and place. While some of the miniatures served political purposes and were mass-produced, others were one-of-a-kind treasures kept close to the heart on long journeys across an ocean.


Biblioteca Nacional de la Republica Argentina

Hulking hideously over a leafy section of Recoleta is the brutalist Biblioteca Nacional de la Republica Argentina. This raw concrete monster recalls what went wrong in cities and on campuses across North America and the UK during the construction boom of the 1960s. This Buenos Aires project was announced in 1960 - just as municipalities and universities up north were starting to throw up inexpensive slabs of this type. In the 80s, Prince Charles became the most famous critic of the architecture and by the time Argentina's new National Library finally opened its doors in 1993, many of its unpopular siblings in England, Canada and the USA had been demolished.

The library's block-like unfriendliness punishes innocent citizens who happen to look up as they walk by. The top heavy structure, resembling an obsolete offshore oil rig, sits on the site of a house the Perons lived in until Evita's death in 1952. Down the slope on Libertador a statue shows her fleeing the scene, as if afraid the Biblioteca will topple over on her head.

The National Library suffers from problems that are apparently common in brutalist buildings. For example the harsh concrete facade has aged poorly and attracted graffiti. And careless maintenance doesn't help matters. A few letters have fallen off the sign above the hard-to-find entrance, and national flags decorating the broken-tile plaza are faded and dirty. A common garden hose and plastic kitchen pail are visible in the bushes. Celebrating only it's 15th anniversary, the library looks easily three times as old.

Inside I found only one working elevator and a surprisingly small amount of public space. Also missing were any noticeable books. The few students in residence were, however, enjoying absolute silence and spectacular views.

A quote from a wikipedia summarizes quite nicely what was terribly wrong with the decision to build this library in this location: " criticized as disregarding the social, historic, and architectural environment of its surroundings, making the introduction of such structures in existing developed areas appear starkly out of place and alien." The Biblioteca Nacional is unfortunately a spectacular example of this type of incongruous mismatch.


The Brazilian Miracle

Americans have been slow to notice a major developing nation in their own backyard. We all know what's going on in China and India, but how many think of Brazil as a major economic force?

Colin Powell called Brazil an "agricultural superpower" and the country could soon overtake the United States as the world's largest exporter of foodstuffs. Author Michael Reid says that if China is the world's workshop and India its back office, Brazil is it's farm. Roger Cohen points out that Brazil is already the world's largest exporter of commodities such as coffee, beef, sugar and orange juice.

Brazil's cerrado is the endless savannah which was written off for centuries as useless, but is now being brought online thanks to advancements made by the Brazil science agency Embrapa. Embrapa found that the cerrado's soils could be made fertile with an optimal mixture of phosphorous and lime. And Brazil has developed 40 tropical varieties of soybean for the region. Brazil also produces cotton and is now turning its attention to wheat. Embrapa is recognized globally for the importance of it's work, which can be applied to countries in Africa with this type of terrain.

But food is not the whole story. Brazil is a big player in two other product categories the world wants most: natural resources and energy. Two years ago Brazil achieved its goal of energy self-sufficiency. An now Brazil has surplus "oil, gas, biomass and hydro power" all which it will need to manage and develop carefully going forward. If it's successful, it will couple its ethanol program with the recent discovery of an immense deep-ocean oil field to turn itself into a very significant energy exporter for the future.

Brazil is actually already a world leader in biofuel. Brazil makes ethanol from sugar cane which generates eight times more energy per hectare than corn. As far back as 2005, more than 50% of the cars sold domestically were "flex-fuel" - capable of running on any combination of ethanol and gasoline.


Where will George W Bush be Ranked

When George W Bush finally retires to the ranch, he will end up near the top of at least one list of United States Presidents. At the end of his second term, he will end up tied for 2nd with 2922 days served in office.

Joining him in second place are the prior presidents who also served two full terms: Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Grant, Cleveland, Wilson, Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton. FDR served 3+ terms and is easily #1 all time with 4,422 days served. George Washington also served two terms but his inauguration was postponed and he ended up spending 2,865 days as the new nation's leader. Four Vice Presidents, Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, Coolidge and Lyndon Johnson, took over upon the death of their bosses and were subsequently reelected as the top man. This quartet served between 1800 to 2800 days. Richard Nixon managed 2027 before resigning.

Of the presidents named here, many are also ranked in the top 10 for presidential achievement and leadership qualities. At the other end of the table are those whose failures and faults got them in trouble. Coolidge, Grant and Nixon are three that fit this category. With about 13 months to go before inauguration day on January 20, 2009, it's time to start thinking about which of these groups George W Bush will join.

In a Quinnipac University poll of voters conducted in May 2006, Bush was named far and away the worst of the eleven chief executives since WWII. And in a Rasmussen Report poll taken in June 2007, only two presidents were viewed unfavorably by at least 50% of respondents: Nixon and George W. Bush.

If historians rank Bush below Nixon, which seems likely, he will find himself knocking on the door of the bottom ten. The current basement dwellers are (counting down): James Garfield, Zachary Taylor, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Ulysses Grant, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Warren G Harding. Behavioral and ethical problems such as corruption, laziness and drinking are a common feature here.

The man on the bubble is James A. Garfield. Poor Garfield served only 199 days and 80 of these on his death bed following an assassination attempt. In happier times Garfield could simultaneously write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other. It's also notable that Johnny Cash wrote a song about him and Clint Eastwood mentioned him in a movie. So yes, Garfield moves up and Bush locks up a spot in the bottom ten.

The only question remaining is: how far down the list does he fall ? In 2006 historians voted Buchanan's failure to deal with secession the worst presidential mistake ever made. Has that blunder been replaced by the 2003 invasion of Iraq? If so, Bush could join Buchanan and Harding as one of the worst three presidents of all time.

No matter where he ends up historically, George W is guaranteed a memorial in one of his least favorite place on earth: Northern California. San Francisco has the unusual but proud tradition of naming streets after terrible presidents. Always ahead of the game, the city already has a Bush Street up and running. Long after George departs, liberals will be strolling down Fillmore, Taylor, Buchanan, Pierce, Harrison, Grant and Bush. For those keeping score, Warren G. Harding died at the Palace Hotel and has a golf course in San Francisco named after him. John Tyler and Andrew Johnson were unfortunately never honored in the city on the hill. I don't know how Johnson missed out, but Tyler may have been penalized for annexing the Republic of Texas and subsequently admitting Florida as a state in 1845.


Buenos Aires Barrios: Las Cañitas

Las Cañitas is a peaceful 5 square block neighborhood hidden between the polo fields and a commuter rail which parallels Avenida Dorrego. While tourists swarm Recoleta, Palermo, Puerto Madero and San Telmo, porteños fill the restaurants here almost every night of the week. The parrillas: Las Cholas, El Primo and Campo Bravo are among the most popular in the city. If you can pull it off, book a trip to Buenos Aires in early December and head to Las Cañitas on the 8th for the big polo finals. Call now to book a room in one of three new boutique hotels in the neighborhood (listed below).

Otherwise go any night of the week for dinner at one of the numerous restaurants centered around Baez and Arévalo. Afterwards you can enjoy a drink at Soul Cafe, a super funky cool bar/restaurant was one of the first establishments to open here. Watch for people that look like actors, models, rock stars and athletes. (Whether they actually are or not is beside the point). Or if Soul Cafe is too crowded, try Von Koning which is a shrine to princess Maxima of Holland (an Argentine). Check out the small patio upstairs. Homesick sports fans can catch a game and drink beer at Drink Gallery.

And anytime you have an extra afternoon in town, stop by Las Cañitas for a stroll on Boulevard Chenaut and a little shopping on Arguibel where Etiqueta Negra, Rapsodia and a handful of others brands maintain little known outlets. Complete the visit at one of the lunch spots listed below.


Most popular parillas
Las Cholas (A), Campo Bravo (B), El Primo(B), Liborio(B)
Other parillas also with sidewalk tables
La Fonda del Polo(A), La Lunera(B), La Ochava(B), El Estanciero(B)
Neighborhood family style parillas
El Portugese(O&G), La Bagual(O&G), La Espuela(A)
Argentine/Italian Restaurants
Novecento(B), Arguibel(Argu), Eh! Santino (B), De la Ostia(B), Baez(B), Campo dei Fiori(A), Deniro(B), Las Cortaderas(B), Chenaut 1878(C)
Mikado(Arev), Bokoto(H), Sushi Night Cocina Fusion(B), Itamae(Argu), Sushi Club(B)
Morelia(B), Romario(O&G), Tonno(A)
Party Crowd
Soul Cafe(B), Kandi(B), Jackie O(B), Beat House(B)
El Clasico(B),Piegari Piazza(B), Las Cortaderas(B),Bondesee(O&G)
Von Koning (B), Blonda (O&G),Drink Gallery (A), Super Soul(B)


El Campeonato Argentino Abierto de Polo

Where the best polo in the world is played. Runs from November 17 through the big final on December 8th. La Dolfina, led by Adolfo Cambiasso, won in 2006, 2005 and 2002. Go with friends and mingle with the glamorous crowd. Then walk over to Baez for evening festivities.
Hipodromo de Palermo
Across Libertador is this huge 1.5 mile race track. Go to admire thoroughbreds close up, place a few bets, and enjoy the afternoon sun. Races are held on Monday afternoons and various Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. January through September.

248 Finisterra(B), Casa Las Cañitas(H) and Tailor Made Hotel(A)

Key: A: Arce, Argu: Arguibel, Arev: Arevalo, B: Baez, C: Chenaut, H: Huergo, O&G: Ortega y Gasset