Book Bag: ‘Memories of Buenos Aires,’ UMass Press; ‘Views From a Window Seat’ by Jeannine Atkins

Last modified: Thursday, January 09, 2014

Edited by Max Page

University of Massachusetts Press


The so-called Dirty War (“Guerra Sucia”) in Argentina, from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, was a period of state-sponsored terrorism in which Argentine military and security forces tortured, killed and “disappeared” an estimated 30,000 people, most notably members of left-wing groups, trade unionists and others deemed subversives. Even today, observers say, the horror of those years continues to reverberate in the country (including anger at leftist guerillas who bombed and killed police and government forces).

But in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, grassroots and human rights groups have countered the dark times with a wealth of small memorials that recognize the victims of the Dirty War, often in artistic ways. From newly planted trees and gardens, to plaques and murals, to decorative stones and tiles set in walkways, these tributes have proliferated in the city, though some have invariably been destroyed or damaged by vandals.

The memorials, which also recognize historic buildings such as churches that witnessed some of the violence, have been cataloged in an extensive guidebook, “Memorias en la Ciudad: Señales del Terrorismo de Estado en Buenos Aires,” that has now been translated into English by the University of Massachusetts Press in “Memories of Buenos Aires: Signs of State Terrorism in Argentina.”

The guidebook offers color photos of the memorials and text that summarizes the history behind each one, and it includes an introduction by Max Page, professor of architecture and history at UMass. Page discovered the Spanish-language guidebook when he was in Buenos Aires in 2009 doing other research and brought it back to the Valley to see if it could be translated into English; he also served as editor for the English text.

That version of the guidebook is part of a series, “Public History in Historic Perspective,” that UMass Press publishes and which is edited by UMass history professor Marla Miller.

“Memories of Buenos Aires” can make for grim reading for those — likely including many Americans — unfamiliar with the Dirty War (the Argentine military also received support from the U.S. government). As just one example, a description of memorial trees in one section of Buenos Aires recounts the kidnapping off a street corner of journalist Roberto Walsh, an opponent of the miliary dictatorship, in March 1977 by eight men from the military group ESMA.

“ESMA survivors have confirmed that Walsh was killed before reaching the Clandestine Detention Center,” the text reads. “His body was riddled with bullets when it was brought in.”

The book also includes an epilogue by writer Ilan Stavans, professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, who chronicles his experience visiting Buenos Aires and reflects on the value of memorials, particularly in Latin America — where much of history, he writes, “is indeed an open wound.”


By Jeannine Atkins

Stone Door Press


Children’s book author Jeannine Atkins of Whately, who teaches children’s literature at UMass, has often written about notable women who have been overlooked by history: explorers, pilots, paleontologists. “Girls Who Looked Under Rocks,” for instance, examines the lives of six female naturalists, from modern figures like Rachel Carson to the less well-known Maria Sibylla Merian, a 17th century German scientific illustrator and painter.

In her new book, “Views From a Window Seat,” Atkins has penned a series of essays and observations about the writing life, from tricks about creating historical fiction not weighed down with too much information, to the struggle she sometimes faces at the midpoint of a new book.

The essays are short enough to read while finishing a latte or a cup of tea, and they mirror the seasons; in the spring section, she considers the challenge of starting a new work, for example, while in summer she writes about ways to find fresh inspiration, whether through revisions or stepped-up pacing.

In “Sharks in the Kitchen,” for instance, she writes that when she was younger, she loved the slow pace of books by Virginia Woolf and Alice Munro: “I could happily read hundreds of pages in which not very much happened.” She still likes “quiet” books, she says, and seeing that word in rejection letters for her own writing “makes me get pretty loud.” At the same time, she adds, she’s reconsidered her approach to prose over time, especially in a hyperactive, media-saturated age that’s made publishing more challenging.

“Sometimes we should tramp into new territory and aim for different notes, volumes and rhythms,” she writes. “I find my character tipping, when she can use a good push. Or raising her eyebrows when she needs to slam her fist. ... I’m not going to put sharks in my kitchens, but I want to keep readers turning pages.”

Ultimately, she writes, writing “is forgiving. It means learning to say, ‘Good enough,’ and moving on, trying to make the next line or paragraph the best yet.”