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Category Archive for 'Cuba'

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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In deciding to explore the complex and agonizing story of her brother’s life, Cuban author Cristina Garcia abandons her usual prose and writes in poetry, a form more appropriate for the intense feelings she bears toward her brother, a sick and broken man who was routinely victimized by his family as a child. Tracing her brother’s life from his birth in 1960, when the family became one of the first families to escape to New York from Castro’s Cuba, she recreates his life through poetry, up to 2007, when this book was first published. The short poems in free verse require the reader to fill in some blanks, and as one does, the growing horrors of this child’s life; the author’s own feelings of guilt for being unable (for whatever reason) to stop the torments her brother endured; her intense resentments against her parents, especially her mother; and her abiding sadness for the shell of a man her brother has become threaten to overwhelm the reader in the same degree that they must have overwhelmed the author.

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Set in 1994, when Cuba allowed its citizens to leave the country for the United States on anything that would float, Ruins, by Achy Obejas is a touching, close-up look at one man and his family and how he represents the life of the failed revolution of 1959. Like his countrymen, Usnavy Martin Leyva, named for the ships outside his mother’s house near Guantanamo Bay, has always lived in the shadow of the United States, ninety tantalizing miles away. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Usnavy truly believes in the revolution and in the revolutionary songs sung by elementary school children. Even now, two years after the Russians have abandoned Cuba, taking away with them the last of their meager financial support, Usnavy believes in the future, though he and his neighbors are starving. The emotions conjured in this book are intense, though the action is limited to the everyday life of Usnavy as he tries to live a real life within a revolutionary framework that he will not admit has failed him. With its compressed imagery and symbolism, and its dark vision of life as it may still exist today, Ruins by Achy Obejas is a memorable addition to “Cuban noir.”

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