Books, books and more books, then and now

The best thing to happen in the last two weeks was the launch of a book here in Cañar that was originally published in Denmark in 1977: Juncal: una comunidad indigena en Ecuador (below: front & back covers)

juncal cover 089 (1)JUNCAL contraportadaProduced by anthropologists Niels Fock and Eva Krener, the book was one result of their research in 1973-74, and again in 1977, in the small hamlet of Juncal, nestled in a beautiful valley about 30 minutes from where I live. To give you an idea of this place, here is one of their photographs from that time:EK_077

I knew of Niels, well-known for his research in the Amazon and his writings on Cañar, but I knew nothing of this book until three years ago, when another anthropologist and friend, Jason Pribilsky, sent me a photocopy. Written by Eva, the book beautifully describes every aspect of daily life in Juncal during their time there. (I didn’t know that yet as I don’t read Danish, but I certainly recognised the importance of the great photos taken by Niels.)Juncal_1973-74_0106 Juncal_1973-74_0161 Juncal_1973-74_0170 (1) Juncal_1973-74_0175

At the time I was beginning to think about creating a digital archive of Cañar, so I sent Eva and Niels a formal snail-mail letter in Copenhagen: would they consider donating digital copies of the photos to the Cañar archive? And could I have a copy of their book? Back came a package with their book and the answer: yes, they would have their black/white negatives professionally scanned, and would I like to help (or maybe I offered?) publish a Spanish edition? 

Within months, I received scans of 500 images, with a spreadsheet with data on every image – an archivist’s dream!  Last year they sent another 300 scans of color slides. At our event last Friday, I showed a revolving slideshow of those  images, and the audience was riveted. Here was their village some 43 years ago.EK_004Fast forward: following a translation in Mexico, editing in Cañar, and a printing in Azogues, with support from the Casa de la Cultura and Municipio de Cañar, we had a Spanish edition of the book. On Friday, January 29, at a ceremonial event in the community, we gave copies to everyone who showed up – about 80 people. The young woman below is this year’s queen of Juncal, and she was in charge of getting a signature from each person who received a book. The older woman signed with a thumbprint, a reminder that in her time and place, when Niels and Eva were there, literacy was a luxury not available to many.ñustra y señora (1)It was a happy day. Tayta Geronimo, who had been the local young assistant to the anthropologists, is now an older man – he read the introduction he’d written for the new edition. Gregorio, a local teacher and town councillor who helped plan the event, claims he will translate the book into Kichwa. Here they pose with a banner of the back cover, a gift to the community.gregorio y geronimo
After the speeches, there was some dancing, then lunch at the church hall, and as we left town in the late afternoon, we saw everyone everywhere – young and old – sitting on park benches, in their doorways, or in their patios, reading the book or examining the back cover for someone they knew: grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents. History lives!P1120207.

The Cañar Book Club

"I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books." –Jorge Luis Borges

“I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.” –Jorge Luis Borges

I was thrilled at the enthusiastic response to my first Cañar Book Club post, and I’m going to pass on all the great reading suggestions and comments. But first, my book report: I am not a happy reader these days. I just finished The Sound of Things Falling by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez, who annoyed me greatly with his protagonist’s macho, self-referential view of everything that happened to him in 1980’s Bogota. If I had been his wife, Aura, I’d have left him too and taken little Leticia with me. Then I started A Rose for Winter: Travels in Andalusia, by Laurie Lee, whose first book I’d loved (Cider with Rosie). I dunno. The language seemed so dated, the description of post-Civil War Spain so overblown. I put it aside to read with more patience while we will be traveling in Spain in May. At that moment, while on the bus to Cuenca, Michael handed over his just-finished book: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon  by David Gramm. So I started to read about the British explorer Percy Fawcett who in 1925 disappeared in the Brazil with his 20-year old son, Jack, and his son’s friend. What is it with men doing these crazy impossible things, and dying, and taking their sons with them? (Remember River of Doubt: Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey to the Amazon with his son, Kermit?) Fawcett had been on several other dangerous adventures, and if I’d been his wife, Nina, I’d have left him long before and taken Jack with me.

OK. Now to some recommendations from other readers:

  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon, by Anthony Marra. Just started and it’s great thus far.
  •  Foremost of pretty amazing novels I’ve read this year is Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I’d also include Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, and Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth.
  • I finished the second Ferrante book yesterday evening, relishing every detail of their friendship, but mostly riveted by the politics of class and gender.
  • I read all three of the Elena Ferrante books. Would love to talk to you about them.
  •  I abandoned Elena Ferrante 2/3rds of the way through book 1. Yes, obsessive detail and terribly repetitive (she likes the clever friend, she hates the clever friend, she likes the clever friend, she hates…)
  • Elizabeth is Missing. Superbly written sort of mystery from the point of a woman descending into dementia. Seriously exceptional
  • I just finished a lovely book by Colum McCann, Transatlantic. He is a wonderful writer whose book Let the Great World Spin is on my top 10 of books I’ve read in the last five years.
  • I am loving My Venice and Other Essays by Donna Leon, an American writer living in Venice for thirty years or so. Even better, if you enjoy her writing, you can start to read her twenty mystery novels that are really delightful: the adventures of Commissario Guido Brunetti.
  • For my lighter reading, I like the Louise Penny mysteries. Starting a new book called All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr for my trip to Germany. I recently finished an interesting book called These is My Words, a story inspired by the diaries of a pioneer woman.
  • The Dragon Can’t Dance by Earl Lovelace. Short fiction about Carnival in Trinidad. Very good for a Caribbean read!
  • All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky.
  • The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (slow & pretentious).
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns by the guy who wrote the Kite Runner (can’t put it down).




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9 thoughts on “Books, books and more books, then and now

  1. Judy, I just bought “The Tomb of Seville” by Norman Lewis, about crossing Spain on the brink of Civil war. Haven’t started it yet, so have no opinion. We are also going to Spain in May and I wanted a little history background, other than “Iberia” by Michner.

  2. Well Judy, you got me going with your list of books. Just a few moments ago I stood on a high hillside above, Otavalo, Ecuador and looked at a research marker placed by the french Condomine group of 1735 who spent a remarkable 10 years trekking around south america measuring and documenting the shape of the earth. One of the team had married while here and yet was separated for 20 years from his wife who remained in Peru while he was at the other end of the Amazon. The Mapmaker’s Wife is a book that tells the engrossing story of her solo trip down the Amazon river to reunite with her husband. So if you haven’t read a great and true adventure, this is it.

  3. Judy, thanks so much for the reading suggestions. You’ll help me get out of my reading rut…and eliminate the macho nonsense. Other than Blixen, do you know of women explorers/early travellers?
    Have you read the recent NYT Frugal Traveler report on Ecuador? I fantasize what it would be like if the person was female.


    Pat Z

  4. Ahhh…such great recommendations of books Judy, and glad to say, I’ve read and loved several. Just finished an Alice Hoffman, A Marriage of Opposites…surprise in the end for art lovers! Words filled with color and wonderful imagery.
    Just back from Cuba…if I was in the writer’s mode, I would take to the pages and share my impressions. La Habana is intense, surprisingly so, in terms of infrastructure (which is boldly still in the grip of the Government). I feel for the students held captive by the lack of technology and ability to view the world…more on that later…I’m off to ATL, home, then back to Quito (again, so near, yet so far), and then Rome, followed by Lima…yeah..all work…suck, eh? LOL..besos

  5. Jude this was an especially wonderful chronicle. I read it carefully twice and marveled
    at the 45 year old photos. thank you. Just finished ROOM by Emma Donaghue. If
    you haven’t read it, do.It’s exceptional. An adventure of a different kind. Also
    read River of Doubt , which I loved, and will go search for The Mapmaker’s Wife. On our trip down the San Juan River in Nicaragua last year we took a short “jungle tour”.
    One hour of sucking mud up to the knees, and trees covered in spines we had had
    enough. Agreed! I would have grabbed the sons and run! The Amazon is no place
    for humans.

  6. I enjoy reading the Cañar Chronicles and seeing the great photos, including the black & whites from the 1970s and the more recent one of the two children reading books. Two years ago, on a visit to Ecuador, we stopped at the Picanteria La Dolorosa on the Panamericana outside Azogues. It was just after breakfast and the pig was nowhere near being ready. Next time.
    Thank you for your Book Club posting. My wife and I will look over your recommendations and the ones made by your readers. Here is one that we both read and recommend: “The Distant Marvels,” by Chantel Acevedo. She is a Cuban-American English professor at Auburn University. Her novel is set in Cuba from the 1860s to the 1960s. We’ve been to Cuba twice and appreciate the pictures Ms Acevado paints with her words.

    Dan Noble, RPCV/Ecuador, 66-68

  7. Hi, Judy! What a stunning success to play a central role in getting the Danish anthropologists’ photos back to Juncal, with Spanish translations. I hope you are really proud.

    I’ve been reading a lot lately (benefit of having an extra day off!) Two book recommendations for people who enjoy personal essays/memoirs and want to look under the hood of this particular genre: The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr (written in the same sassy, no BS voice that made her famous) and The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, by Vivian Gornick. . years ago, I enjoyed Gornick’s two memoirs, Fierce Attachments and Approaching Eye Level, centered around her love affair with walking the streets of New York and her complicated relationship with her mother.

  8. What a wonderful story. You have such an interesting life! Can we get a copy of the Danish/Spanish book here? Would love to see all the old photos.


  9. Judy, I greatly enjoyed your pages about old-time Cañar and especially feel pleased that Fock & Krener’s images can now be shared with the young generation. I also saw online announcements about an exhibit of F&K’s photos at the University of Texas Library. I wonder if you took part in that?

    Frank Salomon

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