My family and I had a wonderful time vacationing in Mexico City last week. We rented an apartment in Condesa, a friendly, walkable neighborhood marked by shade trees, lush gardens, and robust parks. And dogs. Lots of lovely dogs. Over eight days, we took in as much of the city as we could (as well as some excellent day trips to Grutas Tolantongo in Hidalgo and Teotihuacán in Edomex). The city is huge, with more than 150 museums, and the food is excellent. While the four members of our family share common interests (including a love of art), making sightseeing somewhat streamlined, I left Mexico City feeling like I had barely scratched the surface. It reminded me in disparate ways of New York City, Bangkok, and New Orleans. Like those cities, there’s not a single aspect that intrigues me, but rather a vibe. But this is not a travel blog, it is a book blog, so:
The first thing I noticed is that the selection of titles in the several bookstores I visited (a few just very briefly) was generally excellent. Shops tended to feature big-ell Literature titles in lieu of bestsellers and airport novels, with new releases like Mircea Cartarescu’s Solenoid and Yuri Herrera’s La estación del pantano getting prominent displays.
I visited both locations of Cafebrería El Péndulo, and picked up an inexpensive Debolsillo edition of Roberto Bolaño’s La literatura nazi en America, resisting the urge to grab one of the big novels. I’ve read Chris Andrews’ translation of Nazi Literature in the Americas a few times, and I figured that it would be better for me to attempt reading and comparing the shorter sketches here than to jump into 2666 in Spanish. Although I practiced my Spanish for a year in preparation for the trip (it helps to have a Spanish professor friend whose office is down the hall from mine), my vocabulary is still limited and my conjugations are a mess.
Also Bolaño-related: We lunched at Café la Habana, a charming restaurant boasting a history as a salon for poets, politicians, theorists and other bullshitters. In Bolaño’s Mexican opus The Savage Detectives, Café la Habana appears as Café Quito.
I also visited Under the Volcano, a tiny and charming bookstore in Condesa that carries English-language books–mostly literature. The store is named for Malcolm Lowry’s excellent novel, but there didn’t appear to be any of his books there the day I visited. There was a first-edition hardback copy of Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, but it was jacketless and out of my price range. There was also a standalone magazine-sized Dalkey Archive edition of William H. Gass’s story Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, which, based on its price, the owner seemed to believe the most valuable item in the store. I also spied a copy of Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel Ransom, notable because it’s the first and so-far only hardcover of a Vintage Contemporaries edition I’ve ever seen.
I wound up with two books from Under the Volcano: a Europa Editions of Steven Erickson’s Zeroville and Vintage edition of Aldous Huxley’s Beyond the Mexique Bay. I listened to the audiobook of Zeroville a few years ago, loved it, and have kept an eye out for a reasonably-priced copy ever since. I admit that I picked up Huxley’s essay collection in large part because of its title and its cover design (by Bradbury Thompson). I only found it because I was looking for a copy of Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun. I’ve been falling asleep to an audiobook version of Devils for about three weeks now.
I stopped into a La Increíble Librería at random while walking through Condesa. It’s a charming store that specializes in art books and arty children’s books. They also sell a small but excellent selection of Latin American titles in English translation. I picked up a coffee table book there called 50 íconos de la Ciudad de México. The book is in both Spanish and English, and features lovely illustrations of iconic Mexico City locations by ten different artists. Here’s a detail from Diego Huacuja’s illustration of the Auditorio Nacional:
As we looked through this book this morning, my wife remarked on just how few of the fifty icons presented we missed seeing on this trip. And although we saw a lot that’s not in the book, it nevertheless confirmed my feeling that we need to visit Mexico City again.