This and That

Interwebby thingies I read and enjoyed today:

Tingle alley has some flittering thoughts about how fascinated she is by other writers’ acknowledgments here and here. Me too!

Some more Australian gloating about the coming Ashes series.

A cool review of David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy.

Lesson learned today: sometimes google is definitely not all that, and a trip to the library is required. My attempts to find out more about the recording, publishing and reception of Bill Broonzy’s”Get Back (Black, Brown and White)” inspired by Josh’s comment here yielded close to nothing. Anyone out there got any leads please to let me know!

I finished up with the oz version of magic or madness—damn it’s hard to read through your own book a gazillion times. I honestly don’t think I can look at it ever again. But I’m dead pleased to be that much closer to having the book out in my own country! Now, back to the monster that is Daughters of Earth.

Give it a Rest

Australia is going to win the Ashes this year, okay? So all you over-excited pommy journalists and bloggers can just take a deep breath and get over yourselves. No, Australia would not select any of the current Pom players were they available to wear a baggy green. No, not even Andrew Flintoff.

Right now Australia is—by a wide margin—the best in the world, with lots and lots of depth. But it wasn’t always that way. I’m old enough to remember the horror that was the eighties. I remember the glorious West Indies of that period. I confess that back then I barracked for them (come on, people, Michael Holding was so beautiful, er, I mean, such a fabulous bowler) even against Australia, but I have always backed my homeland against every other team in the world. And since the West Indies fell from the heights of heaven (and Michael Holding retired) I’ve only supported the baggy green wearers and I will continue to support them no matter what.

But our supremacy can’t last forever. India, Pakistan, South Africa & England all have much bigger populations to draw from (Australia isn’t much bigger than 20 million). They’ve already, or will in the future, started their own national cricketing academies. They’re already hiring us to coach them. What happened in tennis will happen in cricket. There are fewer Aussies in the top hundred, not because we suddenly suck, but because there are more people in the world playing tennis then ever before. Back in the years of our domination there weren’t any Thai, Japanese, Argentinian, or Indonesian players in the top 100. Now there are.

The only way Australia will stay on top in the long term is if cricket loses popularity in India, Pakistan, South Africa & England, and if that happens you can say goodbye to cricket as a world sport. I want cricket to grow, not stagnate and if it grows the days of Australian supermacy will wain.

In the meantime, we are still the very best in the world and I’m going to enjoy every last second of it. On ya, boys! Thrash those pommy bastards.

A Brief Respite from Deadlines

It’s 7:30AM on Thursday morning and I’ve been awake for an hour, lying on the couch, watching a repeat of yesterday’s cricket in New Zealand (NZ versus Sri Lanka) and reading C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary. I watch Jayawardene batting beautifully, lots of lovely attacking shocks, including some quite exquisite cover drives while C. L. R. James (I love using all his initials) bitches about defensive, boring batting in the 1950s. (His theory: it was because the 1950s was boring.)

I’m having a lovely morning, not just because of wall to wall cricket (I’m also checking scores around the world on my laptop), but because I don’t have to feel guilty about it. The last few months have been work, work, work. But now I’ve met all my deadlines. I turned in the anthology last week and the latest rewrites on Magic Lessons (sequel to Magic or Madness) last night. For the next few days, before my pesky editors get back to me, I can do whatever I damn well please and I choose cricket.

Especially as it’s just this second gone live: the fourth day of play has begun. And even more especially because in just over a week I’ll be stuck in that cricket-free zone: the US of A with little hope of getting to England to watch Australia destoy them in the Ashes. So here’s to inswingers, yorkers, googlies, cover drives, front-foot play, back-foot play, silly mid-on, short square leg and french cuts. And to W. G. Grace, Ranjitsinhji, Learie Constantine, Peggy Antonio, Sid Barnes, Weekes, Worrell and Walcott, Keith Miller, Garfield Sobers, Dennis Lillee, Viv Richards, Micheal Holding, Bruce Reid, Zoe Goss, Makhaya Ntini, Adam Gilchrist, Steve Bucknor and Belinda Clarke. How I shall miss you all!

Sydney, 7 April 2005

Twenty 20

Twenty 20 is a brand new form of cricket, which I—having spent most of 2004 in various non-cricket playing nations (Mexico, USA and Argentina)—had only barely heard of before coming home and hearing about it everywhere. Twenty 20 gets its name because each side faces only 20 overs (in the one-day form of the game they face 50). It’s a streamlined version of the game that takes a bare three hours to play, and that includes the 15 minutes in between the two innings. As opposed to the five days of test cricket match and eight hours of a one-day (pyjama cricket) game, that’s insane. That’s backyard cricket. In England, where Twenty 20 was invented, games have been selling out, and a third of those attending have never seen a game of cricket live before. New converts to cricket? Sounds good to me.

There are some nutty rules: the punishment for a no-ball seems extreme (two extra runs and the batter gets a free hit, ie, for one ball can’t get out except if they’re run out). Why is a no-ball so much worse than bowling wide? But the fielding restrictions make sense, encouraging free scoring, and I love the time restrictions. Each batter has to get to the crease within 90 seconds and the 20 overs have to be bowled in 80 minutes. This prevents cricketers using feet-dragging and procrastination as a tactic and it’s great to see. (Not that Shoaib Akhtar’s use of such tactics isn’t frequently hilarious.)

Yesterday night I got to watch Twenty 20 for the first time. Pakistan versus Australia’s second string team, Australia A. The first innings was a ripper. It was like cricket on crack (or "cracket" as Scott dubbed it). Australia A batted first, scoring fast and furious with a run rate of 9 an over, employing some of the most unorthodox batting I’ve seen in a while. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was entertaining. There were some speccie wickets taken, with Shoaib Akhtar exploding the stumps several times (including once on a free hit when, tragically, it counted for nowt). Seeing stumps cartwheeling and bails spinning through the air. Sigh. One of my very favourite things.

The second innings sucked. Pakistan just couldn’t be arsed actually batting. They looked like they thought Twenty 20 was beneath them, scoring at a rate that would have been slow for test cricket. Running between the wickets as if they were going for a gentle evening jog, not running flat out to save their lives (or, rather, their wickets). The four year old next door runs faster. And the result of their half-arsed running? Run out twice. On neither occasion were the services of the third umpire called upon. The only reason I didn’t switch channels to watch the test match between South Africa and England (c’mon South Africa!) is because I was determined to watch a whole Twenty 20 game no matter what. Australia A won easily. It was dull.

However, I don’t blame Twenty 20; I blame Pakistan. I imagine a game played between two sides who give a toss, who bat and run like they mean it, would be two innings of fun, not just one. It’s a game that addresses the problem with one-day cricket: the predictabilty and boring middle twenty overs. I hear yesterday’s game between WA Warriors (what a dumb name—why not the Sandgropers?) and the Victorian Bushrangers (Bushrangers? Please!) was fair dinkum. A ripper of the first order. Wish I’d seen it first, instead of last night’s fifty percent affair.

And anything that gets more people into watching cricket is just fine with me. Now I’ll get back to ridgy didge cricket: the test in South Africa.

Sydney, 14 January 2005

One More Week

It’s almost summer back home in Australia and in just one week I’m going to be there. Home in Sydney where the jacaranda and flame trees and wattle will be in bloom and the cricket season already started, filling the air with the sound of leather on willow (cricket ball against cricket bat). New Zealand and Pakistan will soon be touring and I’ll get to sit in the stands at the SCG and scream my head off. Or more likely: remember not to scream my head off cause that’s more of a basketball thing than a cricket thing.

The water temperature is already rising to bearable levels and in just one week’s time I’m going to venture into the ocean at Clovelly to snorkel in search of the blue grouper. Well, okay, it’s not that much of a search given that the grouper is almost always around, but I haven’t seen him in well over two years.

In just one more week I can walk from Annandale Street to the Bicentennial Park admiring the gobsmackingly beautiful view of the city on the way. Then I can walk into the city or catch the fabulous light rail and go to the Botanical Gardens and pay homage to the flying foxes and native ibis. I can do and see and hear all the things I’ve been missing.

I’ve already said my goodbyes to New York City, stood on the roof and blown kisses to the Brooklyn Bridge, Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, the church next door, Tompkins Square Park, the East River Park, gone one last time to all my favourite restaurants and bars. Given my very first New York reading. Done the full round of farewell dinners, lunches and brunches with my friends. I am so so so ready to be out of here. It’s too cold already and everyone (including myself) is way too gloomy.

Now all that’s between me and going home is admin: getting my taxes together to file when I get home, figuring out what to take and what to leave, packing, finishing off all the work that must be done before heading to warmer, happier and homier climes. Then twenty-hour hours in two planes and I’m home. I can’t wait.

New York City, 8 November 2004

Keith Miller, 1919-2004

Keith Miller is dead.

One of the the greatest cricketers of all time is dead. He could bat, bowl, field like the devil, play brilliant cricket while completely hungover, and charm the crowd whether he scored a century, got five wickets, or out for a duck.

He was unbelievably physically gifted (he also played Aussie Rules brilliantly), gorgeous, funny, charming, and rebellious. He had Elvis hair that flopped across his forehead when he bowled, causing women (and, I imagine, not a few men) to sigh. He was tall (188cm) and built. The adjectives most frequently used about him are dashing, larrikin, and swashbuckling. Everything I’ve ever read about the man, makes me suspect that those writing about Miller were either in love with him or wanted to be him. His playing career was over long before I was born and yet I’m not sure which of those two camps I fall into. Probably both.

Miller had been a World War II fighter pilot. When asked about dealing with the pressure of playing international cricket he laughed. That’s not pressure, “pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse.”

Some say he was the best captain New South Wales ever had. He was never given the Australian captaincy because he had not mastered the art of sucking up to the cricketing establishment, and they took a dim view of how much fun he had on and off the field. (Bastards.) Ashley Mallet wrote of him that, “He loved tradition, but hated convention.”

Here’s the cleanest of my favourite Keith Miller stories. It dates from when he was captain of the New South Wales side. I have no idea if it’s true or not (for starters Harvey debuted with Victoria, not NSW):

Neil Harvey is playing in his first match, very young, very excited, very nervous. New South Wales is fielding. The team is walking out onto the oval when young Harvey notices there are twelve men. In cricket only eleven of the twelve play, the twelfth man is a glorifed fetcher-of-things. Tentatively Harvey points this out to his captain pretty sure that he’ll be the one demoted, “Er, excuse me, sir. But there’s, ah, twelve of us out here.” Keith Miller looks around, verifies the number of men, shakes his head, and yells out so everyone can hear, “Will one of you lads bugger off?”

He will be missed.

New York City, 11 October 2004

A Beginner’s Guide to Cricket

People from non-cricketing countries (poor, sad souls) often ask me to explain cricket to them. Here in San Miguel I have lost count of how many times I’ve sat at a bar using glasses for batsmen and coasters for the fielders. It seems to me more than past time to set my simple principles of cricket down for the greater world to enjoy. It disturbs me that so many of those sad souls labour under the misapprehension that the blessed game is an arcane and difficult one into whose mysteries you must be initiated from birth, otherwise understanding is impossible.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Cricket is dead easy to understand. Like the world’s greatest board game, Go, the principles are simple, but the variations endless. Anyone can learn to understand, enjoy, and ultimately, love, cricket. Quite simply it is the world’s greatest spectator sport.

Plus you have me, the mistress of easy (er, but not in that sense) to teach you how.

Cricket, of course, is not for everyone. Those readers who have zero interest in spectator sports should stop reading now. Run off to your yoga class, go walk your dog, turn back to that book you were reading. This musing is not for you.

For the rest of you here are the basics of cricket:

Cricket is a team sport. The team which scores the most amount of runs, and gets the other team out, wins. Nothing simpler.

There are two forms of the game:

1) Test cricket—which takes place over five days. Think of it as akin to the novel with all the running dramas, climaxes, anti-climaxes, intrigues and counter-intrigues of that artform. Test cricket is the original and only true form of cricket.

2) Pyjama or One-Day cricket—the shortened form. It is to test cricket as a bad TV advertisment (wheredyagedit?) is to a superb film. Loud, noisy, predictable, wholly lacking in subtlety and eye-jarringly colourful. To be watched only if there is no test cricket available.

For obvious reasons, I will largely be discussing test cricket.

Cricket is played on an oval. A large expanse of green grass usually surrounded by a white picket fence. The grass is kept at a specific height by the groundsman. In the centre of the oval is the cricket pitch (or wicket) which is a strip of paler grass. The wicket (or cricket pitch) is also carefully presided over by the groundsman, but once the game begins grass is left to grow and the wicket to deteriorate. Thus the conditions for playing change over the five days of a test. The condition of the oval and pitch has a large effect on whether the cricket played on it will be high or low-scoring. Some afficionados argue that the groundsman is the most important person in cricket. I think this is going a tad too far.

At either end of the cricket pitch (or wicket) are the stumps (or wicket). The stumps are a wooden constuction of three stakes (Buffy would have plenty of weapons available should she have to deal with a nest of vampires while attending a cricket match) impaled in the ground, with two smaller pieces of wood, known as the bails, balanced on top. In front of these stumps (or wicket) at either end is a white painted line which marks the crease.

Two teams of twelve people play (though the position of the twelfth man is that of gofer. They don’t actually play unless one of the fielders needs to leave the oval for a short amount of time). The two teams take turns fielding and batting. In test cricket each team has two innings. In pyjama (or one-day) cricket they have one innings each.

The team batting has the job of protecting the stumps (or wicket) and trying to score runs. Two batsmen at a time are on the field (unless one of the batsmen is injured in which case they have a runner and there are three batsmen on the field). One batsman is at either end of the cricket pitch (or wicket) defending the stumps (or wicket) and trying to score runs.

Runs are scored by hitting the ball (made of cork covered with red leather) with a cricket bat (traditionally made of willow—thus the expression "the glorious sound of leather on willow" which sound dirty if you’re thinking of a certain character from Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and running up and down the cricket pitch (or wicket). Although only one batsmen can hit the ball at any one time, both must run and get safely behind their crease. If the ball is hit all the way to the boundary (typically a thick white rope, not the fence) it is deemed to be four runs. If it is hit over the boundary it is six runs. The batsmen need not run for these boundaries.

Once a batsmen has run safely from one end of the cricket pitch (or wicket) to the other they have scored one run for themselves and also for their team. The batsman who is facing the bowling is said to be on strike. You do not have to hit each ball. You do not have to run if you do hit the ball. Hitting the ball to the boundary is the most efficient way of making runs because you accumulate runs faster and you don’t have to exhaust yourself running.

Getting fifty runs is good for an individual batsman, getting one hundred (or a century) is better, and getting more still is even better. The most amount of individual runs ever was 380 scored by the Australian Matthew Hayden. (Update 13 April: it’s now Brian Lara with 400 not out. Woo hoo!) The highest ever career average for a batsman is that of Donald Bradman (also an Australian): 99.94. Of course cricket is a team sport and individual feats and statistics are rarely mentioned and of little importance.

The job of the fielding side is to get the batsmen out and prevent them from scoring runs. This is achieved by standing in positions where the team captain thinks they are most likely to get a catch or prevent runs. Only one of the fielders, the wicket keeper, wears gloves to help catch the ball (unlike, say, baseball). The wicket keeper stands behind the stumps (or wicket).

All fielding positions have specific names that indicate their relationship to the batsmen on strike. A deep position is one that is a long way from the batsman and closer to the boundary. A short or silly position is one that is closer to the batsman. Leg or on side positions are closer to the back of the batsman’s legs. Off side positions are closer to the front of the batsman.

When a batsmen gets out they leave the field and the next batsman in the batting order comes out to replace them. The batting order usually runs from best batsmen to worst (the exception being the nightwatchman). There are cricketers who are specialist bowlers, cricketers who are specialist batsmen, as well as that rare beast, the all-rounder, who is good at both. Regardless of batting ability every one on the team (save the twelfth man) must bat.

There must be two batsmen for play to continue so once the tenth batsman is out the innings is over.

The Play

The game begins when the captain of each side walks out on to the oval and a coin is tossed. The winner of the toss decides whether they want to bat or field first. Their decision is based on the weather, the conditions of the pitch, what they know of their opponents and of their own team.

Test cricket play typically commences at 11AM and continues until 6PM, with scheduled breaks for tea and lunch and unsceduled breaks for drinks. It continues for five days, or less, if there is a result sooner.

Results of a test match are win—your team scores more than theirs and gets theirs all out; lose—your team scores less than theirs and is all out; draw or no result—one team scores more than the other team but fails to get them all out; tie—both teams get the exact same score and are all out (exceptionally rare—this has happened only twice in test cricket history).

Once the matter of who bats first has been decided, the two umpires, the fielding team and the two opening batsmen (or openers) walk out onto the oval. The batsmen take up their positions in front of the two sets of stumps.

Opening batsman is a specialist batting position given to the two batsman on the team who are good at accumulating runs, not prone to throwing their wickets away, and work well together. It is essential that the openers have a mutual understanding of when to run and even more importantly when not to run.

At the same time, the fielders take up their positions: the wicket keeper behind the stumps (or wicket) of the batsman who bats first, the opening bowler at the other end of the cricket pitch, and the rest of the fielders in positions determined by the captain and the bowler which they deem to be best for getting this particular batsmen out and preventing them from scoring too many runs.

Some of the factors they take into account when determining these field placings are: whether the batsman is right or left handed, whether the batsman is known to be fond of particular strokes, how the batsman proceeds to bat in this particular innings, and how fast or slow the wicket (cricket pitch) is.

The opening bowler, usually a fast bowler (or quick), bowls an over from one end of the oval. Usually the two ends are named for their geographical locations. At the S. C. G. (Sydney Cricket Ground) there is the Paddington end and the Randwick (or University of New South Wales) end. One of the ends at the ‘Gabba (the major cricket ground in Brisbane) is known as the Vulture St end which has always seemed remarkably ominous to me.

An over consists of six legitmate bowls. If the bowler bowls a ball the umpires deem to be illegitimate (a wide or a no ball) the bowler must bowl another ball and the over ends up consisting of more than six balls (and thus more than six opportunities to score runs for the batsmen). Some overs wind up being 17 or 18 balls long, but this is uncommon. Each time there is an illegitmate delivery the batting team is given an extra run. These are called sundries.

If the batsman hits the ball and gets a run, the two batsmen change ends and the bowler finds themselves having to reset the field (change the positions of all the fielders) to accommodate the new batsman. If each ball results in a single run the batsmen will change end six times, resulting in frequent changeovers of the field.

After the first over is finished a second bowler bowls an over from the other end. At the completion of that over the ends change again and the first bowler bowls another over. The two bowlers thus rotate the bowling until they begin to tire, or bowl badly, or annoy the captain, who replaces them with a different bowler. A bowler can only be replaced once they have completed an over.

In order for a batsman to get out they must be dismissed in one of the following ways:

Bowled. The bowler bowls a ball which goes past the batsman and hits the stumps (or wicket), dislodging the bails. Common.

Caught. The batsmen hits the ball (or it comes off their gloves) into the air and a fielder catches it before it hits the ground. Common.

Handled Ball
. The batsmen picks up the ball. Uncommon.

Hit Ball Twice
. The batsmen hits the ball, it doesn’t go anywhere, so they take a second swipe at it. Uncommon.

Hit Wicket. The batsmen hits their own stumps (or wicket) dislodging the bails. Uncommon.

Leg Before Wicket
. The batsmen does not offer a stroke to a ball that would have hit their stumps were their pads not in the way. Common.

Obstructed Field
. The batsman deliberately tries to prevent a fielder either taking a catch or throwing down the stumps. Uncommon. I’ve never seen this happen.

Run Out. The batsman fails to make it back behind the crease before the opposing side has dislodged the bails with the cricket ball, either thrown or held in the hand. Common.

Stumped. The batsman steps out of their crease to strike the ball, misses, and before they can step back the wicket keeper dislodges the bails with cricket ball in hand. Common.

Timed Out. The batsman fails to come out to bat within three minutes of the fall of wicket. Uncommon. I’ve never seen this happen.

In addition to being caught, bowled or any of the other possibilities listed above there must also be an appeal. An appeal consists of the fielding team leaping in the air screaming "howzat?" and staring at the umpires with a fierce expression that generally means "you’d have to be barking mad not to give the bastard out". If the umpire agrees they will raise their index finger. If they disagree they will do nothing, or shake their head. Umpires are universally known not to be intimidated by the antics of the fielding team and their decisions are always just and fair. Particularly those of Steve Bucknor.

Once a batsman is given out by the umpire they slowly trudge off the field looking miserable (particulary if they have scored a duck [no runs]). Batsmen never look happy getting out even if they have scored a double century. Someone would say particularly if they have scored a double century, because they were deprived of the chance to knock over the world record for number of runs scored. Though of course cricket is all about the team and not about individual statistics.

The score is represented thus: number of wickets taken followed by a forward slash, followed by the number of runs scored. If one wicket has been taken and 23 runs scored the score looks like this: 1/23 which is read as "one for twenty three" (except in England where for some bizarre reason they do it like this: 23/1 or twenty-three for one). As more runs are scored and more wickets taken the score changes. However you will never see 10/ because once ten wickets are taken the innings is over.

The next batsman then comes out, jogging up and down on the spot and generally giving the impression of being raring to go and ready to knock every delivery far, far out of the ground. That is if the next batsman is still an actual batsman and not a bowler masquerading as a batsman. In that case they will walk out somewhat unsteadily holding the bat as if they aren’t quite sure what it’s for or how to hold it. They will stand at the crease and stare up the other end at the fast bowler who is hurtling towards them faster than Phar Lap and they will valiantly try not to panic and run.

Such a batsman is known as a tailender. My favourite spectacle in cricket is when there is only one genuine batsman left and they are in the position of having to stay on strike and thus protect the tailender from getting out and possibly injured (in that order).

Because the strike automatically changes at the end of every over (or every six balls). The real batsman tries to end the over by hitting a single thus ensuring that they keep the strike and the tailender doesn’t have to deal with that scary red thing hurtling towards their body and/or wicket (stumps). This leaves the good batsman in the awful position of sometimes having to resist hitting a boundary for fear of handing the strike over to the incompetent, afraid-of-the-ball, not-quite-sure-which-end-of-the-bat-is-up tailender. Meanwhile the fielding side is doing everything it can to give the tailender the strike so that they can then get them out. Mostly by terrifying the poor bastard into treading on their own wicket. It is most gratifying to watch.

Once the tenth bastman is out the innings ends. The innings total consists of the combined total of all the individual batsman plus all the sundries (illegitimate deliveries) conceded by the bowling side. Let’s say for example that the first side to bat, who we’ll call Australia, score 456 and still aren’t all out. The captain might decide that 456 is a very solid, good, defensible total and declare. A declaration means that the captain has decided to end their team’s innings before they are all out.

The new batting side, let’s call them England, will be aiming to get that much and hopefully two hundred or more besides. So that when Australia bat again in their second and final innings they will have a difficult target to achieve. (Second innings totals are almost always smaller than first innings totals.) If Australia are all out before they reach England’s first innings total then England has won (and pigs would start to fly).

A much more likely result is that England would go out for their first batting innings and tragically (though predictably) make only 123 runs and fall well short of Australia’s first innings total. This means that Australia has a choice: they can now go out to bat and make an even bigger total for England to get in their second innings or they can enforce the follow on. The follow on means that Australia postpones their second batting innings and forces England to bat twice in a row, gambling that they can get England all out before they reach, or get very much further than, the first innings total of 456.

Australia does this and gets England all out for 234. Sadly the two totals 123 + 234 is still less than Australia’s first innings total and England lose by an entire innings and 99 runs. Not an unusual result for either side.

And there you have it. Enough cricket knowledge to allow you to follow a test match without any difficulty. Before long though you’ll find yourself thirsting for more so you can follow the intricacies of the game and not just these bare basics. Don’t despair! Coming soon:

The Slightly More than Beginners’ Guide to Cricket. To be followed shortly after by the Moderately More than Beginners’ Guide to Cricket, and not long after that, by the Substantially More than Beginners’ Guide to Cricket.

San Miguel de Allende, 16 February 2004

Esteban el Centauro

I just finished reading a novel in Spanish, Esteban el Centauro
by Gilberto Flores Patiño (Atenas, Mexico, 1985). My first
ever. Admittedly it’s a very short novel: only 82 pages, coming
in at around 25,000 words. Barely a novella really. But as someone
who’s only managed to struggle through kid’s picture books, and
short simple stories and poems, it felt like a major achievement.
I read the whole thing through without an English translation by
my side. I read it and I understood it and it made me weep. I cried
and cried and cried and cried. And books hardly ever make me cry.
Except for Wide Sargasso Sea and Bridge to Terebithia
and Pride and Prejudice and In Cold Blood and,
okay, lots of books make me cry. But they’re all really good ones.
(Except for the really crap ones which make me cry for different

Esteban is the perfect book for someone with my level of Spanish who can’t cope with reading badly written exercises for people with my level of Spanish. It’s written from the point of view of a small boy, Esteban, talking to his constant companion, his wooden horse. (Hence the title Esteban the Centaur: half boy, half wooden horse.) There’s lots of first and second person (yay, my favourites). Hardly any subjunctive. Not a lot of new vocab, except for all the stuff to do with horses. And lots of repetition: "Because the sea is very big very big very big. Bigger than anything! It has lots and lots of water".

The clause structure is not complicated either, barely a "which" or a "who" in sight. It’s all this and then this and then this. Open any page and it’s littered with "ands", even more visible in Spanish because "and" is "y". An effect I will attempt to duplicate by using "&" in place of "and":

My mum & her friends & their girlfriends were walking & looking at the sand & they were picking up shells & one woman put a shell to her ear & she said she could hear the sea. Then I thought that the sea was talking & the voice of the sea came out of the shells, because all the señores & señoras & my mum were putting the shells to their ears & they started to laugh & say yes yes yes, I can hear it too. & because no one told me what the sea said, I looked for a shell & I put it to my ear, but I didn’t hear anything, & because they were all saying that they could hear the sea I thought that my shell was no good & I threw it away & looked for another & I still heard nothing & I looked & looked & looked, but none of the shells that I put to my ear had the voice of the sea.

I don’t remember the last time I read a story from a small kid’s point of view that so gorgeously captured the rhythms of a child’s speech, the endless stream of questions: "Who invents the words in dictionaries?" and their view from below—looking up at the grown-ups—trying to parse that strange adult world.

And to help my comprehension, Esteban el Centauro is partly set here in San Miguel. Esteban walks down streets I know, goes to Mama Mia’s looking for his mother, sits in the Jardin, looks at the Parroquia. Esteban’s childish eyes capture, too, some of the complex interractions between the Mexican and gringo inhabitants of this fine city. Something else I’m increasingly familiar with.

I’m not sure there’s another book in Spanish so perfectly designed for me. Following my teacher Alejandra’s suggestion, I tried Aura by Carlos Fuentes which also has the virtue of shortness, but it’s wham bam straight back to adult land: complicated structures, zillions of words I’ve never seen before. I can barely read a clause with even partial understanding. Fortunately my edition’s bilingual so I can cheat.

Still, I read a novel in Spanish! And I will keep trying to read others, the way I keep trying to have conversations with people, even though I stumble over verb conjugations, pronouns, masculine and feminine, and haven’t managed to fully erradicate my lisp. But if people don’t talk too fast or use too many unfamiliar words or phrases, I can understand them. And, on occasion, I can even manage a long conversation about tricky subjects, like the relationship between servants and their employers in San Miguel. I even had a shot at explaining cricket. Not recommended. But then I’ve never managed that successfully in English either. Amazing how many otherwise intelligent people fall apart when confronted with phrases like Hit Wicket and Silly Mid-Off. I shall never understand it.

San Miguel de Allende, 22 January 2004