Oct 18, 2008

Jeff's Montecito Nocturne

Jeff knew from the outset exactly how to fête us, Cubano style. Last Wednesday, with food from Sol, plenty of rum, a temperate outdoors setting, and the aromatic smell of imported Honduran and Dominican leaf, we were transported back to Havana’s Malecón a la 1958.

Jeff’s reticence on the biographical front was set aside long enough for us to learn that he interrupted his classical education (between Andover and Berkeley) to ship out with Royal Viking at the tender age of 19. He wouldn’t disclose his cruise duties, but since it’s well known that he later courted his wife aboard ship, we can only deduce that Jeff’s manly attractions helped him succeed with Royal Viking too!

The Book
Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba—And Then Lost It to the Revolution was reminiscent of Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker in one sense: just as McManus sought to connect the Ted Binion murder trial with the drama of the World Series of Poker, T.J. English spends much of his time educating the reader on the history of the American Mob and the seeds of the Cuban Revolution in order to conjoin the two. Neither author succeeds in linking his two subjects as seamlessly as his book’s subtitle would suggest.

T.J. English set out to persuade us that the mob owned and lost Cuba to the fidelistas. None of us was convinced that the mob exerted that much control over Batista, much less the rest of the Cuban economy, but most of us felt well educated by English’s efforts. Even Stan, with his master’s in Latin American studies, and Chris, with his family’s ties to Latin America and his personal passion for all things mafiosi, were suitably impressed by the depth of research demonstrated by the 45 pages of endnotes.

As a group, we were split on how much we enjoyed the book. Many felt better informed about the Mafia and the Cuban Revolution (Glenn and Dean, for example), but some had misgivings about the quality of the writing (Peter), the loose editing (Larry), the digressive quality of the narrative (yes, every single American mobster from 1920 to 1960 was mentioned anecdotally in this book about Cuba!), and the ambitious conclusions English draws at the end of each chapter.

So, while we were compelled by the subject matter, we were less attracted to its presentation. That may explain why so many couldn’t seem to finish the book before the meeting, but insisted they would later. (Next month we’ll ask Dan, Dean, John, Armando, and Jack if they made it.) Our rating reflected our mixed reactions: Havana Nocturne pulled down a middling 6.0.

Next Up
Dean suggested four unusually disparate titles for our reading next month. We were a little intimidated by Salman Rushdie (whose Satanic Verses is reputed to be among the most admired but least read titles of all Booker winners), unimpressed by Buford (sorry, Dean), and split between another Philip Roth novel and an easy collection of Jack London short stories. In a surprise vote, Jack London’s Tales of the Fish Patrol won a strong plurality. Next month, we’ll see how well London’s early musings on San Francisco Bay hold up.

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