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  • Robert Birnbaum

CUBA Si...

Updated: Aug 23, 2018






Jose Marti, Apostle of Cuban Independence poet and essayist, patriot and martyr,

One of the splendid by-products of the brave new world of hyper-everything, is the derangement of time‚ causing small metrics of temporality ‚ a contemporary decade, for example, to take on the weight of centuries and millennia. So, the middle of the (20th)previous century — might as well be ancient Rome for all our rampantly ahistorical citizenry cares.


Cuban Poet, Essayist,Patriot and Martyr



Havana Cuba, January 1959

Havana,Cuba, January 1959, Viva Cuba Libre


Not so long ago— looking back to the 26th of July 1953, Fidel Castro led an ill-planned, ill-fated attack on the Cuban army's Moncada barracks which is today commemorated as the inauspicious beginning of the triumphant Cuban Revolution. The final victory occurred six years later on January 1, 1959 with the abdication of the thuggish U.S. puppet Fulgencio Batista and the entrance of the 26th July movement forces into Havana.


This anniversary is a good time to catch up on the ever-expanding Cuban bibliography that continues to validate the long standing allure of Cuba, the jewel of the Antilles:


Cuba on the Verge: 12 Writers on Continuity and Change in Havana and Across the Country by Leila Guerriero


Who knows what normalization of relations between the imperialist USA and the proud beleaguered island nation of Cuba would look like—past history doesn't offer much hope for something equitably bilateral. Despite all the noise Cuba continues to fascinate and this anthology of 12 essays by stellar writers provides evidence pf and insight into Cuba’s storied past and legacy.


From Carlos Manuel Álvarez’s story of being among the last generation of Cubans to be raised under Fidel Castro to Patricia Engel’s (It's Not Love, It's Just Paris)look at how Cuba’s capital has changed through her years of riding across it with her taxi driver friend. Jon Lee Anderson ( Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life), who traveled with President Obama on the first trip to Cuba by an American president since the twenties)ruminates on being a foreigner in Cuba during the so-called "Special Period" Novelist Francisco Goldman (The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?) expiates on the famous Tropicana nightclub, then and now, and Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura (The Man Who Loved Dogs, Heretics, The Havana Quartet) offers a native take importance of baseball in Cuban culture. 




The History of Havana by Dick Cluster, Rafael Hernández

Founded early (1519) in the Age of Imperial Conquest (commonly known as the Age of Exploration), Havana was one of the three largest cities in the Hemisphere until the late 18th century

(with Mexico City and Lima) and a magnet for all manner of peoples. This updated and revised second edition of Cluster and Hernández's history draws on oral histories and cultural artifacts and balances these anecdotal narratives with accounts of the rich culture and roiling politics. Its a easily readable and balanced survey with black-and-white photographs and maps) of what is generally believed to be the most alluring metropolis in the Caribbean Basin.


Havana: A Subtropical Delirium by Mark Kurlansky


There may be a handful of writers whose oeuvre covers the broad swathe of subjects that Kuralansky has written. His first major success was the internationally acclaimed 1997 book, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. As Havana has been destination for Kurlansky for over 30 years ,he gives us an insider, idiosyncratic view which includes a travelogue of sorts, a cookbook, some cultural history , pen and ink drawings and photographs, references to the great Cuban writer like Jose Marti and Alejo Carpentier and quotes foreign writers like Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene (Our Man In Havana) who were well acquianted. And, of course, no portrayal of Havana would be complete without attention paid to baseball and music.



Revolution Sunday Wendy Guerra's Achy Obejas(Translator)


Internationally celebrated Cuban poet, actress, novelist Wendy Guerra (Everybody Leaves ) new novel protagonist Cleo mirrors some parts of Guerra's biography as she travels to Spain to accept a prestigious literary award. The trip creates some political problems for her and the affair she takes up with a Hollywood filmmaker further complicates her tenuous life as she begins to question her family's history.






The Corporation: An Epic Story of the Cuban American Underworld by T. J. English


T.J. English (Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution),apparently enjoys writing about crime as he has made a career of it. Anybody who is familiar with the Godfather trilogy knows that pre Castro Cuba was a haven for whatever you want to call organized crime—the mob, the Mafia. la Cosa Nostra. Having spotlighted those offshore machinations in a previous tome, English focuses on organized crime in South Florida's exile community and the powerful llicit organization known as "the Corporation." The main focus of this substantial treatise (592 pages) is the rise and fall of Jose Miguel Battle – his alliances and conflicts, and the gruesome magnitude of violence he he unleashed in building his organization. Along the way we learn about the Corporation's ties with covert CIA-partnered organizations like Alpha 66 and Omega 7 and the lucrative gambling racket called “bolita” , a lottery that originated in Cuba that generated more money for the Mob than any other racket except narcotics.


Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know®  by Julia E. Sweig


Of course there are an exponentially large number of guide books and travelogues that profess to unlock the treasure chest of experience that is the mysterious island that rests a mere 90 miles of the Florida coast. Dr. Julia Zweig's revised 3rd edition is a not exactly one of those. Set aside the prosaic title of her book Sweig's professional credentials offer a clue.



Julia Sweig is a practitioner, entrepreneur and scholar—three unique skills honed in 30 years of experience in policy think tanks, business and academia. All three came in particularly handy over the past decade: as one of the foremost U.S. authorities on Cuba, Julia leveraged her relationships to position herself at the crossroads of foreign policy and business during the historic opening of relations, formerly unimaginable in our generation. Julia’s ability to synthesize and communicate complex foreign policy issues for laypeople, achieving accessibility without sacrificing substance, has made her a popular primetime guest on CBS, CBSN, NBC, MSNBC, ABC, CNN, PBS, BBC, NPR, and even Comedy Central’s Colbert Report.


What Everyone Needs to Know presents a huge amount of complex history with clarity and and uncomplicated prose Beginning with the 19th century Cuban war of independence from Spain through the end of Castro's rule in 2006 Sweig's subtext is how and why the Cuban revolution, embattled as it has been has lasted. Obviously without the tastes and coloration of the above mentioned Kurlansky boo, It is a concise, useful survey of Cuban- Uncle Sam in relations.







Our Woman in Havana: A Dipomat's Chronicle of America's Long Struggle with Castro's Cuba by Vicki Huddleston


Surprisingly, not many US diplomats (other than Wayne Smith) have documented their experiences and views on their Cuban service. Vicki Huddleston, State Department veteran and longtime Cuba hand was the United States top diplomat in Havana under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.


The U.S. closed its Cuban embassy in 1961 fracturing diplomatic relations until a thaw under the Carter administration opened the US Interests Section, a de facto embassy in Havana. Ambassador Huddleston's memoir is a riveting chronicle of her efforts in Cuba; an insider view of major events ( e.g. the Elián González custody battle) and her insights into theist failures and lost opportunities for detente as well as what a Castro less Cuba may look like. Unlike Graham Greene's [Our] Man in Havana, Our Woman is Havana provides an intelligent and measured perspective of that Uncle Sam's pesky Caribbean gadfly. And, oh yeah, there a photographs...





Cuba: The Cookbook by Madelaine Vazquez Galvez and Imogene Tondre



This another outstanding addition to Phaidon's regionally focused cookbooks. Cuba the Cookbook collects 350 recipes of universally loved Cuban cuisine inclusive of its multitudinous influences —the Spanish colonists who brought livestock, bean soups, and spices, frican slaves who cooked in the plantation kitchens with okra, plantains, taro root, Haitians who brought coffee, cocoa, the Chinese, who popularized rice, which was already grown on the island and the Soviets who introduced borscht and beef Stroganoff. And, as they say, soup to nuts.



Moros y Christianos (Moors and Christians), a dish of black beans and rice (Moors ruled medieval Spain); corn arepas, made with fresh ground corn, which the Soviets turned into a mix; Cubano sandwiches, which were not invented in Florida as is commonly thought; Cuban fried rice, courtesy of the Chinese residents; “eggs in their beds,” in which taro root, onions, and bok choy become a hash; salsa criolla, an everyday tomato sauce with peppers and cumin; yuca flan, which is a popular party dessert; and fresh pineapple juice with cucumbers and mint The book’s final chapter highlights a handful of dishes and the restaurants in which they’re served, like a guava and cream cheese pie from a Cuban restaurant in Brooklyn, and a maduros old-fashioned, made of sweet plantains, from Asia de Cuba in Londo Nicely illustrated and designed though my old eyes found the type on the small side.



And a Bottle of Rum, Revised and Updated: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis


Rum being a distinctly Caribbean Basin libation ,originally distilled from the wastes of sugar production, like cigars has always been associated with Cuba Famously found in the mojitoto, the Cuba Libre, the Havana daiquiri and the resurrected Planters Punch. Wayne Curtis has taken on the onerous task of distilling a history of rum with that of the Americas. As with so many consumer goods there is a gamut of rums as almost every Caribbean country has its own distinctive potion. This useful and enlightening guide also provides some adventurous recipes


Having done some research in this area, I can attest to the excellence of Puerto Rico's Ron Barrilito (3 and 5 star), Haiti's Babancourt (5 and 7 star), Venezuela's Pampero Anniversario and Nicaragua's Flor de Cana (12 and 18 year old). Given there Are we'll over 4000 brands of rum to choose from , you are free too do your own investigation







Havana Living Today: Cuban Home Style Now

by Hermes Mallea


Who doesn't like pretty pictures? Cuban born architect Hermes Mallea (Great Houses of Havana) eschews the cliched, preserved in amber perception of Havana, collecting lively contemporary domestic interiors which, among other things. signal a change in Cuba's economic conditions. As the publisher claims "...an insider’s view... taking the reader into the elegant, eccentric, sophisticated, and classical melange of the city’s finest and most fascinating interiors... offering fresh inspiration to design aficionados and homeowners in warm climes." Its a well designed and printed tome by a premier art book publisher.




Heretics by Leonardo Padura ,translated by Anna Kushner Leonardo Padura may be familiar to you as the writer of the Havana Quartet, available on Netflix as Four Seasons in Havana. His latest novel, Heretics, ably translated by Anna Kushner, features Mario Conde (protagonist of the above-mentioned noir novels), a former Cuban police detective and failed writer turned private investigator with a taste for rum and a dog named Garbage II. It's a far reaching story with the infamous Saint Louis incident of 1939 at the center. The doomed Kaminsky family, along with hundreds of other asylum seeking Jews, victims of Cuban corruption, were turned away, sent back to the hell of Nazi dominated Europe. On board with the Kaminskys is a small Rembrandt portrait of Christ which they own and had expected to buy their safe passage with. Seventy year later , the Rembrandt reappears in an auction house in London, and Daniel Kaminskys son hires Conde to track down the history of the family's lost treasure. And so the narrative travels back to 17th century Amsterdam and further east to a Polish stetl, and bounces back to the complex challenges of contemporary Havana. Heretics is a riveting mystery and a poignant historical tragedy.


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Cuba Bibliographical Update 2017


Cuba Bibligraphical Update 2016


Four Season in Havana trailer


Jon Lee Anderson on Leonardo Padura