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Brian Winter’s “Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien”

61fT6UbTSFL[1]Argentine tango. It’s rhythmic and pulse-quickening. It’s melancholic, nostalgic, and soulful. It’s exciting and exhilarating. It’s beautiful. And it’s addictive.

So addictive that my daughter became obsessed with it just after a few beginner classes. I was envious. And became obsessed too—with watching tango on YouTube. 🙂

Then I looked for a book on this dance, and I found a treasure.

Brian Winter’s Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien is a memoir describing his obsession with tango during the four years that he spent in Buenos Aires after his graduation from college.

How does he end up in Buenos Aires? Well, unlike his classmates landing sixty-hour jobs at big corporations, Brian wants “to measure himself as a man by putting himself in an extraordinary situation, just for the hell of it.” He wants to move to a place where “things still happened,” things like rallies and riots and revolutions. See, his ambition is to become a journalist—someday. So maybe he’ll find the material worth reporting—someplace. He chooses Argentina for his adventure, and that’s what he gets—an adventure.

Since the economy in Argentina is at its lowest in the year 2000, Brian can’t find employment at an American corporation or at school as an English instructor, so he spends his days wandering around Buenos Aires, exploring. That is, until he meets a man passionate about tango. When Brian gets acquainted with other people, he discovers that all Argentines are passionate about tango. It is their dance! It is the soul of their country! Shouldn’t Brian give it a try, too? After all, when you go to another country, don’t “you look for the soul of that country, for the roots?” Hell, yes!

So Brian, presumably with no talent for dance, picks up tango and falls in love with it. He dances his feet off in a bar called Nino Bien, night after night after night.

Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien is filled with accounts of milongas, as well as descriptions of Brian’s private lessons he took from a beautiful instructor, Mariela.

Brian becomes so obsessed with tango that he buys books galore, researching its origin and evolution.

Which makes this memoir so remarkable. In it, Winter draws parallels between the destiny of tango and political life in Argentina throughout history, pointing out that tango’s popularity or decline depended heavily on the country’s prosperity or turbulence. Still, Argentines have always loved their dance so much that their milongas were impervious to the crisis. Each time tango went nearly extinct, it was resurrected like a phoenix from ashes.

Winter also dwells on the reaction to the dance in other countries—whether it was loved or spurned. The Catholic Church of New York, for instance, called tango “wild and shameless.” In the French port of Marseille, in 1906, where the crew of an Argentine frigate performed their dance, “the tango was immediately denounced as criminal, lascivious, and immoral; in other words, it was an instant sensation.” 🙂

Long after Midnight at the Nino Bien is a fun read, filled with fascinating facts about Argentina, its history, people, and tango. Winter tells his story with self-deprecating humor. His love for tango and the country made me want to go to Argentina. But I can’t dance! Why don’t I learn how? I’ve learned these beautiful terms—cabaceo and barrida and gancho—for starters.

So I signed up for tango classes. 🙂

My favorite lines: “The tango is not an athletic competition. It depends above all on your ability as a man to show the woman what to do, to guide her, to make her feel comfortable, to make her feel like a woman.” 53

“Against all odds, people kept coming back to the tango, a century-old dance that had gone out of style in the 1950s. There was no logical way to explain it. It must have been that damn embrace.” 233

Author Karen Essex’s Invitation

Karen Essex, the author of the bestseller Leonardo’s Swans, is inviting us to Milan.  Awww….

Sounds so wonderful! I looooove Italy! I’ve been to Rome, but not to Milan. I just wish I could book a plane ticket and fly over there… I wish…

Thank you, Karen Essex for the invitation. 🙂

Sources of Inspiration for Writers

I love art. Strolling the halls of a museum is my favorite pastime. Needless to say, I love reading art books and stories exploring the art world. Some of them (The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, Girl with a Pearl Earing and The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, The Passion of Artemisia and Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud) I cherish, keeping them on my bookshelves. Now, I’m about to start reading The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt and I have several others on my reading list.

From the clip below that I stumbled upon on YouTube, I’ve learned that nowadays, contemporary art captivates the attention of novel writers  more often than before. Why?

Well, one of the essential factors of writers’ fascination with art is that its “high drama can be a backdrop for their novel.” So naturally, they love to attend art exhibitions.

Learn about the other factors in the dialogue below.

Claire Messud Reads an Excerpt from “The Woman Upstairs”

Here’s the first chapter of  The Woman Upstairs, read by the author, Claire Messud.

As I never listen to audio books, I find it fascinating to hear an excerpt from a novel read out loud by the very person who has written this piece, who lets us see how it’s supposed to sound and feel. Or at least we know how the words felt and sounded for their creator during the writing process, and what she was trying to say.

Enjoy!

Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs”

cover[2]When I finished Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs today, my heart raced and my throat was tight. I was shocked and angry and extremely upset. I still am, after several hours. I feel for Nora Eldridge, the protagonist, as if she is my friend. And I ask myself a question: Is there no limit to human treachery and cruelty? Judging by what has been done to Nora, apparently no. No limit.

That’s a visceral emotion for you, evoked in me by The Woman Upstairs. Frankly, I don’t remember another novel that made such a strong impact on me, and I’ve read a lot of excellent ones.

The revelation! It’s not just a fireworks effect that Claire Messud has achieved; it’s an earth-shattering explosion! An explosion that will reverberate in us for a long time.

After I read the last lines, I flipped the pages back to the opening, to Nora’s question: “How angry am I?” And she answers, “You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.”

This “that” hooks our interest immediately. Just what disaster has struck this woman so badly that she wouldn’t wish it on anybody else? And we’re dying to know. Especially after she tells us about herself—in a tirade, throbbing with rage and pain—how good she’s always been.

She says, “I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, straight-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty f… years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids…” and on it goes.

No, Nora Eldridge is not a girl, but a forty-two-year-old elementary school teacher, unmarried and childless, and she really is good—generous, kind, accommodating, even-tempered, polite, loving, selfless, reliable, and totally undemanding. But that’s what people see in her. As Claire Messud said at the Book Festival (see my blog entry, Sept. 1st), she likes to explore the “interior” life of a person. And explore she does. No one even suspects that Nora is also passionate, dreaming, ambitious, and deeply dissatisfied. Yes, she helps everyone willingly, but it doesn’t mean that she likes to be taken for granted, to be overlooked. A closet artist, she wants to be her own self, to create her art, to be recognized, but she’s too unsure of herself and of her artistic talent. She’s always dreamed about a career as an artist, but she doesn’t “seem to make the cut.” She can’t connect her dream in her head of being an artist, and her dream in the world of being an artist. (196)

And then she tells us about what has happened to her, why she’s left devastated. She tells all of it. How she received a new student in her class and how she met his intellectual, well-traveled, fascinating family from abroad, and how they became close friends, and how at the end she’s “rewarded” (my word) for her devotion to them. This “reward” is their betrayal on an unprecedented scale. Which astounds us to the core.

I hope I haven’t revealed too much, and if so, I do apologize. Actually, I haven’t said more than you can read on the jacket of the book.

Claire Messud shows us just how blind and gullible we can be when we admire and love someone; and how the betrayal and treachery of someone we admire can feel worse than murder.

Claire Messud is an extraordinary writer. I love her writing style. Her sentences are long. And I mean, long! But there’s so much passion and meaning packed in every one of them that you read them in one breath, eager to go on and on, until you finish. Yet, paradoxically, the novel is not a page turner in a usual sense of a thriller (despite its suspense), because it’s so profound and thought-provoking that you want to take a break, here and there, and think, really think. The novel is brilliant; it engages your entire being—your heart, your soul, your mind. It is a masterpiece!

With The Woman Upstairs , Claire Messud has set a high bar for other writers. And I applaud her! She’s certainly my big inspiration.

One of my favorite lines: “I’ve discovered over the years that the simplest explanation is almost always the right one; and that hunger of one kind or another—desire, by another name—is the source of almost every sorrow.” (57)

I highly recommend The Woman Upstairs and I would absolutely love to talk about it with you—it is so rich for discussion!

Library of Congress National Book Festival

2014-08-30 12.33.33Yesterday, the 14th Library of Congress National Book Festival was a blast! This year, it was moved from its traditional spot on the National Mall to the Washington Convention Center, a huge three-story building with plenty of room for all kinds of programs, and proved to be a perfect venue for such an extraordinary event. You could see hundreds (literally hundreds!) of book lovers of all ages strolling around the hallways, carrying big green bags filled with free brochures and posters, and the books they purchased. The rooms where authors, poets, and illustrators spoke about their work were filled with captivated audiences.

I was lucky to listen to several writers, but I was especially impressed by Claire Messud, Siri Hustvedt, and Lisa See. All three are incredible writers and speakers.

 

 

Claire Messud said that some books she’d read in high school had a fireworks effect on her. Clearly, that’s what she’s been strivingClaire Massud in her own writing—to affect her readers the same way. And that’s exactly how I felt while listening to the opening of her latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, that she read to us. It sounded like a powerful free verse and yes, it sounded like fireworks!

The opening of this novel is a tirade of a 42-year-old elementary school teacher, a closet artist, who rants about her joyless, unappreciated, unsatisfying life, and she captivates your attention right away. But I’m not going to dwell on what the author said about this woman, because I’ll post my opinion of the book as soon as I read it (soon!). Yes, I bought it and had it autographed—yay! J  I’ll just say that Claire Messud loves ranters—disagreeable people, eccentric people, people with problems. She wants them to be heard, so she gives them a voice.

The Woman Upstairs is about someone who wants to be an artist and about someone who is an artist. In Claire Messud’s view, everybody is an artist, in a way, because every one of us has a creative artistic side—whether it’s cooking or building something or writing. But, unfortunately, “so much of our life never breaks the surface,” and that’s what she likes to explore in her novels—“the interior life” of a person. Intriguing? Yes!

 

2014-08-30 14.21.37Siri Hustvedt talked about her latest novel The Blazing World, which was nominated for the Booker Prize this year. In it she explores the problem of sexism in art, how a woman artist’s work is unappreciated and neglected mainly because of her gender. So when Siri Hustvedt leaned about the nomination for this prestigious award, her first thought was not about her own recognition, but the recognition of her protagonist—“Oh, Harriet will be so happy!”

Highly interested in philosophy, psychiatry, psychology, and neuroscience, Siri Hustvedt brings these subjects into her work. “Where do we draw the line between ‘normal’ people and not so normal (with mental illness)?” is a question she keeps asking herself, and her answer is: “It’s all about how we manage in life.”

Her advice to aspiring writers: 1. No one can write well without reading. So read, read, read! 2. When you’re stuck, read a great piece by another author, and then do “automatic writing”—immediately! That’s how she overcame her writing block. After her first poem had been published in a magazine (1980’s), she wasn’t able to write anymore because she scrutinized every line she wrote, comparing it to “great literature.” Luckily, she took David Shapiro’s advice about “automatic writing” and she knocked off 30 pages at one setting!

 

Lisa See, whose two novels I reviewed in this blog, spoke about a person’s identity, the reason she writes about China, and her latest novel China Dolls.2014-08-30 15.05.19

“How do we identify ourselves?” Lisa See asks, and answers, “We identify ourselves by the people around us.” She has 400 relatives, many of them Chinese, many American, or mixed. So no wonder she’s influenced by her heritage.

“Art is the heartbeat of an artist.” And that’s what her writing and her books mean for her—they are her heartbeat.

Is it easy for her to write a book? No. Sometimes she spends long months in a “dark place,” trying to make it right. So it is hard. But she hopes that she’s improving with every book.

Her advice to aspiring writers: Writing is not a “one-night-stand” but “a long marriage.” There are too many distractions in your life that can prevent you from writing. So be passionate about it! Live in the clothes of your characters. Care. Write 4,000 words a day—every day! Or at least 500 words, but do not stop!

Well, what a better advice can you get?

I was absolutely thrilled by the festival. And I must say, it’s one of the greatest sources of inspiration for me.