Everybody’s Fool (Russo)

I am pre-disposed to like Richard Russo. Despite a recent slump, I think this book demonstrates his return to form. Though darker than NOBODY’S FOOL, the Russo trademarks are all present. Humor. Small-town blues. Relationships. Remarkable characterization. Optimism. (“‘I also think it’s possible for us to be better people tomorrow than we are today.’ He had no idea, of course, whether any of these things were true, in whole or in part. Still, what possible good could come of believing otherwise?”)It’s hard to read Sully and not think of Paul Newman, but I think that’s okay because even Russo said Newman got the character – based on Russo’s own father – just right.

Russo does take some risks – with race, for example. While they don’t always come off successfully, it is nice to see an old dog trying new tricks. Has Russo been influenced too much by his work with movies? Well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but maybe a bit.


Telex from Cuba (Kushner)

I really loathed Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. I found it to be self-indulgent and dull. So it took some convincing to get me to read this one, but a wise and experienced reader friend convinced me, and I’m glad she did. This is not only a much better book, but it was also a really balanced story about a range of people living in Cuba just as the revolution is building steam. I enjoyed it.

Race in Cuba: Essays on the Revolution and Racial Inequality (Dominguez)

Dominguez, refreshingly pro-Revolution, makes many good points, both in his essays and his interviews, about the challenges of race in Cuba. The problem – likely more the fault of his editor – is that he makes them over and over again. He recognizes that despite Castro’s claim to the contrary, racism was not eliminated in 1962. And he is probably right to say that ignoring the issue for a long time not only did not help the situation but almost certainly made it worse. And he has recommendations, both for Cuba and for those who would seek to have input there (i.e., the United States).

The problem is his goal. He wants racism eliminated. Is that possible? His methods are legislation, social programs, and education. But I’m not sure even those three can eradicate it. He says the racism is not institutional, but holds the government responsible for not acknowledging the histories of the various groups when they leveled the playing field. And he never adequately explain how the government is supposed to both acknowledge the history of a group and maintain socialism.

So, read 1-2 or two of these essays. Or hear him talk or be interviewed. But this whole collection? Not necessary.


City of a Hundred Fires (Blanco)

Blanco’s gentle poetry evokes a strong attraction to Cuba – the land, the food, all of it, including his mother. He concludes “Mail for Mama” by addressing her: “your eyes forever fixed / by a sentence of time, in a garden of never.” And then in “Mother Picking Produce”

I see all the folklore of her childhood, the fields,

the fruit she once picked from the very tree,

the wiry roots she pulled out of the very ground.//

And now, among the collapsed boxes of yuca,

through crumbling pyramids of golden mangos,

she moves with the same instinct and skill.

The first stanza is Cuba; the second, Miami.


He writes of his father as well, teaching him something in The Lesson:

What was the lesson, say it was a unique metaphor for what now

I understand as the necessity of killing beyond human wishes,

the very instincts that drive me to consume even what I love.

Notice the shift in tense.


I love Blanco’s verbs. A few examples —

“these faces will collage very Americanly” – “Photo Shop”

“We gypsy through the island’s north ridge” and “staked oars crucifixed on the shore”  — both from “Varedero en Alba”

Other favorites are “El Cucubano” and the beautiful “Palmita Mia.”





The Prince of Los Cocuyous: A Miami Childhood (Blanco)

This is a story of in-betweens. Blanco is in between Cuba and Miami, in between waves of Cuban immigrants, in between his family’s expectations of him and his expectations of himself, in between Spanish and English, and in between becoming aware of his sexuality and acting on this awareness.

Blanco has a way with set pieces – meeting an older Jewish woman, community picnics, working at a grocery store and so on. But the book never really builds momentum. It kind of meanders which is mostly okay. Some passages, like the ending, have an impressive energy. Still, based on my reading of Blanco’s poetry, I think he does better in the shorter form.



Che Guevera: A Revolutionary Life (Anderson)

Like others, I imagine, I knew the name from the image on the poster and t-shirts —

but I knew very little about the man. Anderson (http://www.newyorker.com/contributors/jon-lee-anderson), who seems to be something of an expert on this topic (he was one of the first people called when – spoiler alert – Che’s body was found) has compiled a remarkably compelling story of a man, devoted to his mother and his country and seriously troubled by asthma, who tried to live according to his ideals and, sometimes brutally, tried to persuade others to do so as well.

I was struck by two aspects of Che, the young man. First, his travel. He was passionate about and privileged to be able to see a great deal of Latin America as a young man, though he did not travel in anything resembling a comfortable way. He also read – voraciously.

Anderson’s account of ideological development, his friendships, and his introduction to Fidel are riveting. Yet, he also knows when to stop, offer an asterisk, and write ‘see notes for more.’ The account of the Cuban Revolution brings you right there. Anderson’s tone is spot on. He offers his insights into Che’s perception of people and the big enemy, the United States, not in a detached fashion, but a reasonable one. Che’s real issue, it seemed to me, was with colonization.

Tellingly, the book bogs down when Che does. The Revolution, having been won, is know about details. Che digs in, but he seems to be a restless soul. It reminded me of the end of the Robert Redford movie The Candidate, Redford’s character, having surprisingly won an election, escapes the chaos of the celebration and earnestly asks his advisor, “What do I do now?”

Anderson’s work on Che’s efforts in the Congo and in Bolivia are harder to track, perhaps, as he points out, because the number of sources narrows. Still, this is a portrait of man who, until the end, tries to match his vision to his life, and I found, though I wanted to offer him advice at times (is there really a revolutionary formula?), I had to admire. I understood his rejection of the political process and wonder about it even in our days.

Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba (Gjelten)

Gjelten has chosen an excellent angle into Cuban history. In this very engaging book, he has interwoven the stories of the Bacardi family and company with the history of Cuba, particularly the rise of Fidel Castro. Unlike other efforts at these kinds of non-fiction narratives, these two stories actually matter to each other. The Bacardi family was very involved in Cuban politics. They saw it as their social responsibility and when thngs with Castro did not turn out as expected, they saw it as political, patriotic, and – to the chagrin of those charged with attending to the bottom line – personal. And the Castro brothers & Che also became very interested in the production of rum (and everything else).

Cuba’s place in the world is changing these days. And to understand its present and future, one must understand the past. I’m sure there are other histories of Cuba. I’m not sure there are any that are more engaging.