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Category Archive for 'Cuba'

In this story which seems to be a memoir, Sanchez Guevara offers a short, often poetic, description of the life of one black man as he faces the interminable boredom life in Cuba in the late 1980s – early 1990s – the lack of privacy, the “repetitive cycle of routine,” and “repetition after repetition of the scratched record of time and grime.” His use of “scratched record” imagery, over and over again – forty repetitions of this image in the space of ninety-four short pages – actually creates within the reader’s own life the same boredom and stultifying lack of variety which the main character feels, and the reader soon begins to feel controlled by some of the same kinds of forces that the author himself dealt with in the overwhelming tedium of a life over which he had little control. The speaker reminisces about his father, his upbringing, his father’s lack of interest in anything to do with the arts, his own technical studies, his record as a model student, always revealing aspects of life which he noted in Cuba at the time. He discovers reading as an escape, and later music, and then the theatre, but every now and then “he wonders what he’s done to deserve this – to have tastes so alien to the tropics and yet live here…” A sexual encounter with a Russian woman leads to his arrest and torture, though he does not know why, and he wonders, yet again, about the point of life. The conclusion reconciles the thirty-three scenes/revolutions of the record and provides an answer to the speaker’s quest.

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It is 1963, as the novel opens, and the devastating Hurricane Flora, “bigger than all of Cuba,” is now lashing the island, having already caused devastation throughout Haiti, where it killed five thousand people. Main character Maria Sirena, age eighty-two, has been forcibly evacuated from her small seaside house by Ofelia, one of Castro’s soldiers, who takes her and seven other women to safety on the top floor of Casa Diego Velazquez, the sixteenth century home of the first governor of Cuba, now an historical museum. For the couple of days, Maria Sirena rides out the storm with the officer, Ofelia, and seven other women, keeping her companions occupied with stories from her own life and the lives of her parents and grandparents as they live through Cuba’s various wars for independence from the late nineteenth century up to 1963. She has much experience as a story-teller, having been for many years a lector, a reader hired by a cigar factory to read stories to the workers so that they will not become bored during their repetitious hand-work as they make cigars. Author Chantel Acevedo, a second-generation Cuban American, wisely keeps her focus on the lives of “ordinary” people like Maria Sirena and her fellow guests of the Casa – hardworking folks, often poor, who have struggled all their lives – showing how they survive and what they have to do to live. It is through this personal focus, rather than any detailed historical focus, that almost a hundred years of modern Cuban revolutionary history emerge for the reader.

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From the explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, to the killings of prisoners by the Cubans and Spanish in the aftermath of the Protocol of Peace on August 12, 1898, American news correspondent Sam Carleton records his day-by-day actions during the Spanish-American War. Sam Carleton is only “six weeks into his twenty-seventh year” when he arrives in Cuba, a five-foot six-inch, one hundred-twenty pound man with a bad cough, who feels that “his literary future is behind him.” The author of a book about the Civil War published in 1895, Carleton, a pseudonym for author Stephen Crane, had abandoned the idea of war as an epic, full of heroes making courageous decisions and willingly sacrificing their lives for a cause. Instead, he focused on the specific – the small, personal aspects of daily life among ordinary Union soldiers – describing how the soldiers feel, what they are thinking, and even, in some cases, their fear. Time moves back and forth, in and out of the past, and in and out of Carleton’s imagination as his story of the Spanish-American war takes place. Another story evolves in parallel with the story of Sam Carleton. Appearing and reappearing without warning throughout this novel, George Fleming, son of Henry Fleming from The Red Badge of Courage, accompanied by Esther Slone, travels to a collapsed mine in western Pennsylvania to help rescue sixty trapped miners. Filled with facts about the life of Stephen Crane, all of which are included in footnotes at the end of the book, the novel creates a powerful picture of Crane’s life.

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Billed as a master of “Cuban noir,” José Latour presents a dark novel of gambling, the American mob, and violence in Havana in 1958, during the presidency of Fulgencio Batista, a friend of mob boss Meyer Lansky. Fidel Castro is making some waves politically with his appeal to the poor, but he is still in the provinces and unlikely to have much influence on Lansky’s gambling empire in the immediate future. Of far more importance to Lansky and his henchmen in Havana is the threat posed by Joe Bonnano and his “family” in New York, mobsters who are threatening to muscle in on a piece of Lansky’s gambling “pie” in Havana. Lansky is deeply involved with the Casino at the Capri Hotel, having made deals with many of the casino’s employees, inspectors, and supervisors. With his direct connection to President Batista, no one in Havana thinks the casino is a mere adjunct to the hotel – the opposite is very much the case. Now, during the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Milwaukee Braves, Lansky’s involvement in gambling extends way beyond the boundaries of the casino, and he expects to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars in bets on the games. Complex and exciting in its plotting and fully detailed in its depiction of 1958 Havana, this is a fine novel, bold and masculine in its presentation and full of the violence and uncertainty which presaged Castro’s arrival into Havana.

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William Kennedy’s latest novel in the Albany Cycle, his eighth, continues the story of several repeating families from Albany, New York, during the heyday of its infamous, politically corrupt “machine.” Focusing on Daniel Quinn, a newspaper reporter who is the grandson of the Daniel Quinn (who reported on the Civil War in Quinn’s Book), this novel begins in August, 1936, when Daniel is a child, watching as his father brings a piano (origins unknown) into the Mayor’s house. Cody Mason, a pianist specializing in Harlem “stride,” is about to put on a private show with the young Bing Crosby. Only six pages (and twenty-one years) later, Quinn, an experienced reporter, is in Havana in March, 1957, hanging out at the El Floridita bar and hoping that Ernest Hemingway, will show up. He also hopes to interview Fidel Castro. These two opening scenes, the arrival of Hemingway and his boorish attack on a tourist, and Quinn’s trip to Oriente province, establish the narrative tone and atmosphere for this novel which focuses on two revolutions, the Castro-led revolution in Cuba and the slightly later revolution in the US in the 1960s regarding civil rights. Humor and irony add considerable charm to the novel, and for many readers will more than outweigh the sometimes wooden characters and wandering narrative.

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