La muerte juega a los dados (Death Played with Dice) by Clara Obligado – A Review

La muerte juega a los dados (Death Played with Dice)
Clara Obligado
Páginas de Espuma 2015, 228 pg

Clara Obligado’s La muerte juega a los dados is a loosely interconnected collection of stories that forms a kind of inter-generational family epic. Given the title of the collection, though, Obligado is less interested in a family epic but the capriccios of history. The overarching family story is always there, but Obligado through the different way she constructs her stories, through the sometimes oblique connections of the stories, creates a dark set of stories that are both structurally inventive and rich with characters.

While Obligado suggests one can read the book in order or randomly, she doesn’t quite achieve a Hopscotch like work. Nevertheless, the structure of the book is very loose and each story could stand on its own. The longer, family oriented stories are less experimental, but Obligado’s command of the genre is obvious. One of the stand out stories (the longest of the collection) La peste (The Plague) is a portrait of a patrician family on the decline. Its an almost Gothic picture: the patron of the family confines herself to her room in grief, the children are decadent wastes, and the grandchildren are trying to make sense of it all. In the midst of it all Buenos Aires suffers the March, 1956 polio outbreak. The sense of a world collapsing in on itself and coming to end is ever present. As Obligado shifts her focus in brief sections from family member to family member, capturing each one’s unique collapse, and in the case of the grandchildren, their confusion, the capriciousness of history shows itself.

The power of each story, though, is enhanced with the interweaving of the tragic arc of the family. Starting with the unsolved murder of the patriarch of the family during the 20’s, the survivors are continually at the mercy of the 20th century’s major events. Its a history that Obligado deftly and judiciously recreates. She wisely avoided a greatest hits of the century, instead focuses on the personal, how events shape the characters. As such we follow the newly wed Lenora as she makes her first transatlantic journey with a husband more interested in his strange house keeper Mdme Tanis. In another, she writes of Mdme Tanis’s teenage years in a brothel in revolutionary Mexico. Or she describes the torture and disappearance of Lenora’s granddaughter, Sonia in 1970’s Argentina. Each story has just enough sense of place to carry the story forward, without loading it up with extraneous details. When Obligado veers into occupied France, she connects the story to the other through the presence of a rare book on origami, avoiding the temptation make the family more important that it really is. Its these light touches that make the discovery of each little connection part of joy in reading the collection.

Ultimately, it is Obligado’s ability to tell a story that makes the collection strong. El verdadero amor nunca se olvida (True Love Is Never Forgotten) is perhaps the best of the collection. She captures the strange family dynamic of a distant mother who cares only about appearances and a father who still loves her. It is the daughter who doesn’t understand her distant mother, an Eastern European immigrant who doesn’t seem to fit in Buenos Aries. As the daughter describes her mother, the richness of the story is revealed. The daughter thinks, how could anyone love her? And yet her father all these years later has never given up. The strength of Obligado’s writing is one can see how both positions are valid.

La muerte juega a los dados with its shifting genres, styles, registers, and its sense of decay, is both an excellent collection of stories and a novel.

 

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People by Joe Ollmann – A Review

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People
Joe Ollmann
Conundrum Press, 2014, 242 pg

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Joe Ollmann’s  graphic novel, Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People, is really a collection of short stories in the best sense of the word, rich in character and structure. Moreover, his work includes a broad range of characters that stretches his writing from the sometimes insular biographical approach of other graphic novelists. The dedication to his characters is what makes the collection, and the lack of any self congratulatory nods, is what makes the collection strong.

The collection contains eight stories, which split into two rough themes: adults facing a present over-saturated with the past, and kids trying to understand the present. As overwrought as those kind of stories could be, there is a heavy does of humor in Ollmann’s work. In Oh Deer a nebbish office worker agrees to go on a hunting trip with his coworkers as part of a bonding event. As someone who has never had a gun or even thought of hunting, he is initially elated when he shoots a deer. But when he takes it home he finds himself burdened with a corpse he doesn’t know what to do with. From there he goes into epic efforts to dispose of the deer, ending in a late night of digging in his back yard.

In a more hopeful vain, Hang Over, shows a man whose life is has come to nothing (several of Ollmann’s characters are in this position, but thankfully not all). His alcoholic mother ends up in the hospital and leaves his adult brother who is developmentally disabled alone. He has to step in an and take care of the brother. It is something he hates, thinks is a burden, and wants to hand off to anyone he can. He is a total mess: drinks too much, lost his girlfriend. While the story could easily veer into maudlin sentimentality a la disabled brother makes drunk sober up, Ollmann is careful to keep the story grounded in a deeper reality. One where the brother is conflicted in both directions and not able to truly understand his bothers capabilities. It gives the story a sense of ambiguity.

Ollmann is equally good at capturing the lives of teenagers are the brink of a change. In They Filmed a Movie Here Once, Ollmann draws a Catholic girl whose mother has died and lives with her father who has taken to drinking at night. It is a lonely life, one she fills with the church, but she also wants to love. But here Catholicism puts her in conflict with the two guys she meets. One would like to have sex, but she is against that. She is too strict for that (there is a scene where she goes to confession and admits to swearing). The other guy she likes confesses she has stolen something. In each case she dreams of the men, but each is a disappointment. All the while she is alone. Her father doesn’t truly understand and the women she works with in a diner are too hard bitten to help. Ollmann’s interweaving of humor, disappointment, and lingering hope make this one of his better stories. He is at his best when he can find the right mix of the three.

Ollmann’s work is the right mix of humor and disappointment, one that doesn’t dwell in hopelessness, but finds its just something that sits at the margin. Its how his characters deal with the disappointments that propel his stories .

Amsterdam Stories by Nescio – A Review

Amsterdam Stories
Nescio
Damion Searls, trans
New York Review of Books, 161 pg.

The Dutch author Nescio wrote little over his 79 years, publishing what amounts to a small collection of short stories and a fragment of a novel, itself published as a story. The paucity of his work is both refreshing (no late career disappointments here) and disappointing, for the brilliance of his writing, rendered in Damion Searls excellent translation, leaves one asking, what if there were more? Or maybe its best he left us with his indelible poets and dreamers who are forever watching the colors of the countryside from a Dutch dike.

His reputation rests on three short stories: The Freeloader, Young Titans, and Little Poet. All were written during the 1910-19 and describe the lives of bohemian young me living on the margin and dreaming of become an artistic success. It may sound like well trod ground, but the quality of his writing, almost elegiac, less interested in the physical life, and focused on the spiritual, gives his work a transcendent quality, one that puts you in the same melancholic longing that is part of his reoccurring characters. In The Freeloader, Japi, a man who tries his best to do nothing, lives from friend to friend, handout to handout, trying to do as little as possible. This isn’t the pose of the idle rich who go from event to event, but say they do nothing. Japi just sits and does nothing. Early on he describes himself:

“I am nothing and I do nothing. Actually I do much too much. I;m busy overcoming the body. The best thing is to just sit still; going places and thinking are only for stupid people. I don’t think either. It’s too bad I have to eat and sleep. I’d rather spend all day and all night just sitting.”

In Japi’s case its something he does rather well. But in Necio’s stories it isn’t something glamours. There’s always the physical realities that impinge on his characters: the weather, the lack of food, the lack of sleep. The only thing that allows a freeloader to survive is exactly what they eschew: money. Nevertheless, Japi’s strange appearances and disappearances, his selfish finishing of the narrator’s last bit of food, tea, or tobacco, all have a certain strange charm. But like most of Nescio’s characters, that freedom is short lived. The narrator notes, Japi wanted to “[s]moke a couple cigars, chat a little…enjoy the sunshine,” but the narrator also knows

You can’t sustain that. He knew [Japi] that. It couldn’t last, it was impossible, you’d need a mountain of money. And he didn’t have one. What his old man might leave him wasn’t worth the trouble. And he, Japi, thought that was just fine. Now he spent his time staring. It’s not like it’s possible to accomplish anything anyway.

The same sense of hopeful youth meeting an indifferent reality permeates The Young Titans. In this story, the narrator, Koekebakker (Cookie Baker), the same narrator through most of the stories, describes the excitement and slow disillusion of hope as he and his friends see their great plans come to nothing.

We were kids-but good kids. If I may say so myself. We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic…Was there anything we didn’t want to set to rights? We would show them how it should be.

But life doesn’t go as the men want and they slowly disappear into lives of seeming respectability, their art and works abandoned. Its a melancholy that is pitted against an empty and yet beautiful natural world. If society with its rich men and poor artists is a given, then the cruelest of all things is the countryside.

Every day we longed for something, without knowing what. It got monotonous. Sunrise ans sunset and sunlight on the water and behind the drifting while clouds-monotonous-and the darker skies too, the leaves turning brown and yellow, the bare treetops and poor-soggy fields in the winter-all the things I had seen so many times and though about so many times while I was gone and would see again so many more times, as long as I didn’t die. Who can spend his life watching all these things that constantly repeat themselves, who can keep longing for nothing? Trusting in a God who isn’t there?

The search for a meaning is always there. The search for God, or the seeing of God in little things is a constant refrain. In this sense Nescio’s work reflects back on the romantics who saw something divine in the natural. With Nescio its more of a loss, then a discovery. But when God is revealed in a beautiful sunshine there is a sense of animation in the characters, it is what gives them the spark. Only when they return to the city does that spark dull, grow grey, covered in mud, and diminished to the imperatives to find a cigar or a lump of coal for the fireplace. Ultimately, it is that constant battle rendered in careful prose that makes Nescio’s stories so beautiful.

Perhaps brevity is best, but I can’t help but wish that Nescio published a little more.

 

The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Neuman-The-Things-We-Dont-DoThe Things We Don’t Do
Andrés Neuman
Tran Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia
Open Letter, 2015, pg 190

When thinking about the short work of Andrés Neuman one word comes to me: joy. In all of his stories, no matter how dark or emotive, you see an author at work who loves the exploration of the power of the short story. In his meta fictions it is most obvious he is fascinated by language and story, but even when looking at the loss of a parent, or the hazing of young recruit, I find a belief in the power of  just a few pages to create fragments of a larger world that exists just at the edge of the page. If one is willing to engage in the search, the varied stories of this collection will show a writer who is both capable of literary invention and bringing out the power of the little moments his characters experience, both profound, brief, and, thankfully, absent edifying epiphanies. In Neuman’s hands, a short story is where one goes to work out a single idea, often quite short. The joy is in that search, the experience of being in the story and finding the same potential in it that he does.

The first story, Happiness, completely captures the joy in Andrés’ work. In it the narrator, Marcos, relates how he would like to be like Cristobal:

He is my friend; I was going to say my best friend, but I have to confess he is the only one.

At first it is an innocuous statement or friendship. But Marcos continues to describe how he envies Cristobal because he sleeps with his wife. From the story descends into the hapless monologue of a man who wants to take control of something he’ll never control. It is the kind of inversion of control that can show up in Neuman’s work, where the expected is reversed.

Happiness shows the reversal in a more overt and comedic way, where as Delivery takes a more lyric turn, following the alternating anguish and joy of a man right before his first child is born. He flies from idea to idea, never falling into sentimentality, yet finding in the coming a birth both a union with the new life, his and the child’s, and separation with his old one. Neuman deftly captures the anxiety and excitement at such a moment, and the translation deftly captures the wild exuberance of the one sentence that twists and double backs on itself, leaving the reader in a twisting labyrinth of emotion.

Included within are two stories that pay homage to Borges’ ideas. In one he describes a literary lecture by Borges where all the participants come dresses in gold clothing. The lecture itself is uninteresting and unimportant. What matters is that as a group they left an impression on Borges. The story is an echo of a Borges’ quote, I am going to cause a tiger,” and the story ends as the narrator notes that the audience caused a tiger. It’s a story that expands a Borges idea, both in the sense of a literary essay and the creation of the literary character, Borges. It is indicative of a fascination with the work of Borges and his interest in the writer himself.

The Poem -Translating Machine follows on another theme that you kind find in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. In the story, a poet tries to have one of his poems translated. The translation is a disaster, but instead of trying again, he asks a friend to translate the translation. Although the results are unimpressive and don’t match his work, he continues to pass the various translation on to other translators, going back and forth between the various languages. Eventually, a translator returns a poem to him that is just like his. While, Menard republishes the same thing and it is just the times that make it seem different, here it is the different approaches to language that shifts the meaning and brings out the fluidity of language, making both the point that translation is near impossible, and any writing, even in its original is open to many shifting meanings. It is one Neuman’s celebratory explorations of language and writing, one that makes it clear that he takes a great interest in how meaning shifts.

The Things We Don’t Do collects stories that have appeared in four Spanish language collections of short stories (links are to my reviews, and include descriptions of some of the stories included within): Hacerse el muerto, Alumbramiento, El ultimo minuto, and El que espera. (My one complaint with this collection is there is no indication which story came from which collection) It is divided into several sections, but follow the typical Neuman pattern: stories that are less meta, more interested in character and relationships; literary commentary that can explore a literary idea or just celebrate literature; and epigrams about writing short stories, which are a must read for any short story writer, even if you don’t agree with all of them. In The Things We Don’t Do, the weighting is towards the first type, but every type of story gets its due. My only other complaint is I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of Policial cubista (Cubist Police Officer), which is one of my favorite stories, but that is a small thing. The translation is sharp and well done. The only thing I took exception to was the use of the word “wimp” in Man Shot, instead of the stronger gay epithet that appears in the original and gives a deeper meaning to the story.

The Things We Don’t Do is an excellent introduction to the short stories of Andrés Neuman and will reward any reader with a delightful array of stories.

La habitación de Nona (Nona’s Room) by Cristina Fernández Cubas – A Review

La habatación de NonaLa habitación de Nona (Nona’s Room)
Cristina Fernández Cubas
Tusquets, 2015, pg 186

La habitación de Nona is Cristina Fernández Cubas’ first collection of stories since the 2008 publication of Todo los cuentos. She did publish a novel under the pseudonym Fernanda Kubbs and while it returned to familiar territory of the fantastic, it was a less introspective work, one that felt more like a release than a confrontation. With La habitación de Nona she returns to form, employing the fantastic to navigate the space between realities. La habitación, like some of her other collections, mixes stories that have a strong emphasis in a social reality, although fantastical, and stories that are complete fables or tales of horror in a classic sense. In each she is successful, as always.

The title story is indicative of her work, where the young narrator presents her sister as her enemy, someone whose behavior is so strange, perhaps on the autistic spectrum, that she is both jealous of the attention her parents give her and intrigued by her customs. Naturally, Cubas does not give us a clinical description of Nona, more a series of behaviors that upset the narrator. The story feels as if it is one of simple jealousy, or perhaps a story of the fantastical sister, but Cubas rarely gives such simple motivations. Instead there the question is not who is Nona, but who is the narrator? It’s made all the more enigmatic by the repeated phrase, quien yo me sé (who I know, but with a sense of something more complete) that suggests there is more to the story than the narrator’s claimed interests, which as the story draws to its conclusion sees the power of the narration switch from the narrator to Nona. While it doesn’t quite have the enigmatic power of Mi hermana Alba, there are some similarities in how the strange perceptions of children point to something more profound.

She again uses the perception of children in Interno con figura (Interior with figure). The narrator goes to an art museum where a group of school children are taking a tour. They stop in front of a painting, the one that is part of the cover art of book. When asked what is going on in the photo, one child becomes scared and suggests it is something horrible. The narrator takes this to mean that the child is seeing in the painting her own life and is not narrating what is in the painting. The narrator is never quite certain what to do. Should she talk to the teacher, the police, follow them? She does that for a little, but ultimately she cannot do anything. Her only option as she ends the story is to write a story, an act that brings the interplay between art and reality to another level. Did Cubas witness this? The painting is real, so why can’t this be true? And if it is true is what the child said true? This is not an unknown phenomenon. In Cubas work at its best we’re often left with question, or better said, forced to make a decision: which narrative line do we want believe, and, thus, follow?

El final de Barbero (The end of Barbero) recounts the arrival of a stepmother who becomes the ruling force in the family, much to the frustration of the three daughters. While there is a touch of the wicked stepmother in the story, it does not follow the familiar pattern of abuse. Instead, Barbero steals the daughter’s father and leaves them behind. The enmity she engenders is that of remaking the family, erasing a future that the daughters thought they would have and leaving them in the dark. Barbero is a strange woman. After marring the father a week after meeting the daughters she begins to distance the father from the children. Ultimately, she and the father move out, taking anything of value, including the picture frames, leaving the photos of their late mother on shelves in the office. It is these kind of touches that make Barbero at once an object of hate and pity, a woman who is trying to control, but is so strange that her victories are really pyrrhic. Ultimately, the fate of Barbero is uncertain and in true Cubas fashion, what the daughters find out lesson her power, making the whole marriage a tragic-comedy. It is one of the more successful stories in the book.

La Nueva Vida (The New Life) is one of her few stories written in the third person and is the most obviously personal story of the collection. Cubas lost her husband of many years several years before the publication of the book, and that experience is reflected here. In the story a woman is walking through Madrid and finds herself in the past, meeting with her friends, with her husband. It is a stripped down story, one that is more interested in the emotion of loss. There is no magical jam as in Los altillos de Brumal; she is just there. It is the confusion of memory that is the subject, the way that memory lives, and can bring one to a past as if it really is now. The use of third person here is instructive as to her approach. Typically in the first person, she leaves open doubts, missperceptions, but here it is the complete enveloping experience of a memory that she wants to show. The doubts come via a waitress who sees an older woman having problems. It also makes the story one of her most realistic, even though it feels at first if this is some sort of strange time travel story. It is surprisingly effective and impactful story.

Finally, Días entre los Wasi-Wano (Days Among the Wasi-Wano) returns to the interplay between story and reality. Again, the narrator is a girl who, along with her brother, is shipped off to her aunt and uncle’s for the summer. The aunt and uncle are a strange pair and live in the country side in a little village. The uncle is given to telling stories of his adventures in Brazil exploring the jungle and meeting the Wasi-Wano tribe. It is a fascinating story that the narrator loves. It is also a story that is only real because of the commitment of the uncle. The narrator, though, is hooked and for her the uncle is the most interesting person. However, there are things behind the facade of the marriage. It leaves the narrator both enjoying the beauty of story that Brazil presents and facing cracks in the dream that is her aunt and uncle’s marriage. Cubas brilliantly plays with both ideas, making the fantastical, Brazil, the more solid, while the real becomes unstable. Of course, that instability colors everything about the uncle and suggests that there is more to a story than its credibility. It is a surprisingly effective story, full of dead ends and questions that can never be answered and leave a sense of melancholy that often comes with Cubas exploration of the fantastic, as if the euphoria of the glimpse of what cannot be deflates one.

La habitación de Nona is one of her better collections, and I think rightly called out as one of 2015’s best books (in Spain).

 

Mirar al agua (Looking at the Water) by Javier Sáez de Ibarra – A Review

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Mirar al agua (Looking at the Water)
Javier Sáez de Ibarra
Páginas de Espuma, 2009 pg 187

Javier Sáez de Ibarra is a Spanish high school teacher and author of several short story collections, including the 2009 prize wining Mirar al agua (I Premio Internacional De Narrativa Breve Riberea del Duero). Very little of his work has been translated. So far as I know, only one story in The Portable Museum Vol 2. Stylistically his work is hard to classify because it is so varied, moving from traditional narrative approaches that are easily recognizable as stories to the more experimental works that might not even be a story, lacking all notion of plot or character. Mirar al agua at its best mixes forms to explore different story telling approaches and leaves the reader with a collection that can both be moving and full of literary games.

Thematically, the collection explores the plastic arts, particularly painting, and finds in them a richness of material that is quite unexpected. The first story, Mirar al agua, shows Sáez de Ibarra as a deft and subtle observer of relationships. The story, as if it is a warm up to the collection, has a relatively traditional structure. A man goes on a boring date, or at least what he thinks will be. He insults the woman, but then in an act of shame and contrition begins to walk along with her, not as a friend, but as if he were looking for an invitation to show he isn’t as bad as she thought. In the end a bond forms between them as they work their way through the exposition of modern art. He knows nothing about art and is frustrated by what he is seeing. Only when they come to the end and he sees the word Water reflected in reverse. In that image he sees a metaphor for how images fail, and the water ever shifting is more real. It gives him peace and that first unsettling bits of the walk are over. The two of them just stand there. What makes it work is Sáez de Ibarra’s ability to capture the awkward frustration that acts out and yet is quieted in subtle understanding, a momentary bit of friendship.

In the second story Un hombre pone un cuadro (A Man Hangs a Photo), he uses a style akin to the New Novel. A man is trying to hang a painting in his flat. He goes over the steps, going back and forth between false starts with the hammer and the nail to slowly find in his actions what is driving the need to hang a photo. Slowly it becomes apparent that the photo is of his family and that the act of hanging it is an act of desperation, as if in hanging a representation of them he will actually have them. It is a beautiful story that both explores our relationships to objects and one man’s suffering.

Perhaps his best story in the collection is Una ventana en Via Speranzella (A Window on Via Speranzella) which describes an artist who on finding herself at age 23 trapped with children and the disappointments that come with letting one’s dream slip away, decides one day to open the window of her bedroom and show one of her breasts for a few moments. It’s an act she continues to do the same day every year, an act that becomes something that her neighbors come to expect and look forward to each year. It is not a prurient act, not for her and many of those who watch her every year. It is a liberation from the constraints of becoming a señora whose life has not turned out to be what she wanted it to be. The narrator, a kind of historian who is investigating what is known of the artist and her performance art, notes that it is liberation because it is an act completely counter to what she should do. It is also a private act done in public, one where she acknowledges no one, never looking at anyone while she does it. Nor does she speak to anyone about the act. It is hers to do and control and surprisingly her neighbors give her that space. It is this subtle mix of art theory (most of the stories include epigrams on art) and emotion that makes many of Sáez de Ibarra’s stories remarkable.

In his more experimental vein is Caprichos a play on Goya’s Caprichos. Caprichos contains 21 one or two sentence satirical descriptions of people, often with caustic titles. Much like Goya, these are biting criticism of society and were a welcome change to some of the short story collections I’ve read lately that lack a sense of social criticism. Sáez de Ibarra’s criticism are open ended, but sharp and biting. The following example is indicative of his humor.

Dos negros regresan caminando por la carretera, sus zapatos rotos, los miembros cansados; un escucha lo que el otro le cuenta. En un lado tres furcias, una jamona les enseña su escote
De cada cual según su capacidad.

Two black men return walking along the highway, their shoes are in tatters, their bodies tired; one listens to what the other is telling him. On one side three whores, one a buxom woman shows them her cleavage.
Every one according to their abilities.

Escribir mientras Palestina (Writing While Palestinian) is perhaps his most political work in the collection and one that may have the littlest to do with art. It examines the journey of a journalist to Palestine in 2008, around the time of the Rachel Coury death. In the search he doesn’t find much in the way of answers, just questions about how you approach writing about the problems without becoming a cliche. Ultimately, he comes to the wall that separates Palestine from Israel and sees in the graffiti voices that have lasted, that continue to exist even when people like him come and go.

In the playful Hiperrealismo / Surrealismo (Hyper realism / Surrealism), he takes clips from a Madrid newspaper and constructs a story. The clips are the typical official announcements and routine news that masks a different world, one that is perhaps more true. He then rewrites the clips mixing the ideas into funny combinations. For example, in the realism there are issues with recycling and the economic stability of families. Sáez de Ibarra coverts that into an official pronouncement from the government that children who cannot be cared for will be collected on the streets. The story, much like Caprichos, has a biting humor that is refreshing. The story also plays with form, eschewing plot and charter, and creating a picture of a world that is anything but realistic.

Mirar al agua is an impressive book full of ideas, both in terms of short stories and art, and has at least one story that will interest most readers. The breath of forma and structure is commendable and delightful, although it might be a barrier for some readers. Javier Sáez de Ibarra is a writer that I want to read more of and who should have a few more stories translated.

The Short Story “The Final Days of Daniel Knopoff” by Pablo Besarón up at Contemporary Argentine Writers

The blog Contemporary Argentine Writers has a new short story up: “The Final Days of Daniel Knopoff” by Pablo Besarón. There is also a short bio and an interview with him in Spanish.

The morning of Thursday, February 7, 2007, was a typical summer morning. With suffocating heat settling in for the rest of the day, it was inadvisable to walk or take the subway.

Daniel backed out of the garage on his way to temple. The last week in Buenos Aires; on Sunday, he would take Katia and their three children to Mendoza. A stream with a magnificent canyon in the background, a good way to relax for two weeks after a year-long stretch of demanding work.