June 2018

TELEX FROM CUBA
by Rachel Kushner

I’ve been thinking about the recent end of the Castro era in Cuba (both Fidel and Raul), which led me to think about pre-1959 Cuba. Even though I was still in grade school when Batista was overthrown and the revolutionaries took over, I remember it. I don’t know why, as I probably couldn’t even find Cuba on a map then, but it’s stuck in my mind for all these years. I decided I wanted to find out more about the BEGINNING of the Castro era, now that we know the end.

Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut novel Telex from Cuba received several prizes and nominations, as well as wide acclaim. It covers the period from 1952 to early 1959, with bits from more current times. This novel focuses on the eastern end of Cuba where the revolution grew in the more uninhabited, backward, and poverty-stricken areas far from Havana. It is centered in an American-owned and -run enclave including a vast United Fruit Company sugar cane plantation and a nearby nickel mine. Kushner has given a voice to the motley collection of ex-pats who work and reside in the enclave through her selection of characters who tell their stories.

Kushner studied political economy with an emphasis on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America at University which served as excellent grounding for this story. Later she made several long trips to Cuba, where her mother grew up on the actual United Fruit Co. land, and did extensive historical research as well. It’s no wonder that her book feels so REAL; feels autobiographical in its extreme and astonishing detail. Readers can almost smell the sugar cane during its various steps in the process…and when it’s burning in fires set by the rebels.

The key characters telling their stories include:

--K. C. Stites, a young boy of 8 in 1952. His father is the top man in the Cuban UFC branch. His older brother Del actually joins the rebels (obviously a traitorous act) and participates in the actual revolution. K.C. was born in Cuba, has never lived anywhere else.

--Everly Lederer, a young girl a bit older than K.C. and new arrival to Cuba. Her father oversees the nickel mine.

--2 lesser characters are Rachel K (K is her full last name), a Havana cabaret entertainer who also functions as a spy of sorts at high levels such as mistress to President Prio, then President Batista after he overthrows Prio; and a mysterious man named Christian de La Maziere, who becomes her lover when he’s in town. The latter is involved in a variety of nefarious and secret dealings involving arms sales and whatever else comes his way, as he has done since WWII.

--The remaining ex-pats. The various families & family members represent just about every social class, financial, and marital situation, even including a few on the run from crimes for which they would be jailed if they returned to the U.S. Some have re-located from various South American and Caribbean countries. As long as they do their jobs well in Cuba, other issues are overlooked.

Perhaps the facet of this novel that interests me the most are the class/racial/ethnic divisions. Kushner is very good at depicting the lives of the Cubans and blacks at that time. Their home living conditions were appalling. Many of them were employed as servants for the ex-pat families in large modern homes. Those who did not live in would return after work to literal shacks, usually without running water, electricity, or proper sewage disposal. Wages were very low, barely enough for their families to live on, and certainly nowhere near what their employers could afford to pay.

Even worse was the treatment and plight of the cane cutters. These were mostly blacks brought in from Jamaica and Haiti to harvest the sugar cane for processing. Kushner describes what back-breaking and dangerous work it was; how the sharp leaves could cut the men. Time was of the essence in getting the cane cut and processed, so long hours and fast work were required. She also describes how the men were allotted a certain “wage” which they could spend at the company store during their time in Cuba. The Jamaicans and Haitians came to earn money, but often returned home with little to show for their work. In some cases, cutters would spend their entire allotment and return home with no income at all.

In addition to extreme poverty, ordinary Cubans had to deal with a repressive regime led by (at that time) Fulgencio Batista; the Rural Guard, a “police force” of thugs who acted with extreme violence up to and including torture and murder; and the ostentatious flaunting of wealth and privilege by top members of the government and non-Cubans, while they themselves were near starvation and lived barely better than animals. For them, it was a life over which they had little control and in which they were subject to the whims of others, including imperialist outside forces. It’s inevitable that some emerged who felt deeply they needed to change the status quo.

Telex from Cuba is not the easiest book to read—but it’s well worth it if a reader has any interest in Cuba at that time. There are many characters, and readers need to pay attention to keep them straight. Personally, I didn’t have an issue with that and don’t think she made it difficult for her readers.

What I like best about Kushner’s book is that she presents a uniquely HUMAN view of conditions that led to the Cuban revolution. There are many accounts of the dry POLITICAL facets and facts. Kushner provides such detail of the environment that one FEELS as though one has visited that time and place; that it’s now placed in the reader’s own memories.

Donna Rueff

Rachel Kushner has published 2 more novels since Telex from Cuba:
The Flamethrowers (2013) was equally well-received.
The Mars Room was released on May 1, 2018.



May 2018

THE QUEEN’S CORGI: ON PURPOSE

This month’s offering is in celebration of the third child born to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Catherine) on April 23, 2018; and of the pending marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19, 2018.

It also marks the passing of the Queen’s last corgi in the line started by Susan, who was a gift to then-Princess Elizabeth on her 18th birthday. Willow, a 14th generation corgi in that line, passed away in April 2018. The Queen’s love for that breed is widely known throughout the world.

Several of us in the senior reading group have become extremely fond of the Dalai Lama’s Cat 3-book series by David Michie. The books follow a kitten born in reduced circumstances who finds her way by accident—or perhaps Fate—into the Dalai Lama’s life and home through various stages of her life. Each book offers not only a lovely and heartwarming story, but also passes along lessons learned as she encounters people and events in the process of Living. As it turns out, lessons the cat learns are also pertinent and helpful for humans—what a coincidence! Now Michie has written another book every bit as heartwarming and helpful as those three books, but this one is “written” by a male corgi.

Like the DL’s cat, Nelson (as he is finally named about half way into the book) was born in unfavorable circumstances and rose to high office by sheer happenstance. He was born into a household that bred corgis in bad conditions, and whose humans were interested only in the corgis as money-making entities by selling or showing them. Nelson was the runt of his litter, but the one unforgiveable thing about him was that one ear refused to stand up straight. The breeders saw this floppy ear as a flaw, an imperfection, and saw Nelson as worthless to them since he could neither be shown nor sold…so they thought. He was, in fact, saved from a death sentence and whisked away to castle and Queen!

Nelson was very young at that time with many things to learn, starting with the most basic habits and training. Luckily, he had two older, more experienced corgis to help acclimate him. Winston and Margaret—like Nelson—were so named to fit aspects of their personalities. Winston was very old with special characteristics. He saw that the new corgi had potential to take over from him, and took on the new corgi as a trainee of sorts. And so the story unfolds.

As one might imagine from the treatment he had received in his early days, Nelson had a bad case of low self-esteem. The ear that flopped over made him flawed as a corgi in the eyes of many people. What could he do; what could he be? What was his purpose?

Of course, it’s not only this little corgi who asked that of himself. Every human with any sense of self wonders the same thing at some point in life. What is my purpose? Why am I here? This wonderful story provides some guidance to help us. Each chapter focuses on a particular issue that helps us look at our own lives to search for our purpose. Like the DL’s cat books, the lessons are so beautifully, painlessly, and gently taught that we absorb them without realizing it.

I leave it to each reader to discover for him- or herself what these lessons are. Each of us will take something personal and a bit different from this book.

I offer here Nelson’s description of the Queen:

“When you meet the Queen, she is exactly as you would expect her to be—in appearance, at least. But she has another quality that catches most people by surprise…Such is the Queen’s sense of calling that, wherever she goes, she carries with her an almost-tangible expectation that your own deepest wish, like hers, is to serve a greater purpose. To say that most people are caught unawares by this sensation would be an understatement. Expecting restrained and aloof, when they encounter Her Majesty’s gentle but firm expectation of benevolence, they find themselves wishing…to be the best that they can be. To act in accord with their highest ideals.” (p. xiii)

Perhaps that—to be the best that we can be—is the purpose we all have in common. We may each arrive there in different ways, each face different challenges, and Michie’s The Queen’s Corgi: On Purpose can offer gentle help with that part. Our individual best selves will be different, as well. That is as it should be. But the purpose we all share—maybe even our obligation—is to find and live our best selves.

**********

If you wish to find out more about the Queen’s REAL corgis, this article is interesting:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/18/world/europe/corgi-dogs-queen-elizabeth.html

Oh, one more thing: I leave you with the challenge to discover who Michael REALLY is.


April 2018

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: THE COSMIC PERSPECTIVE

When I was in high school all those decades ago, I was firmly anchored to Earth and on the liberal arts track. I had little interest in the sciences, and NONE in physics. All those equations… are you kidding?? What would I need that for? What would I do with it, anyway? I don’t think it was unusual for most young women in those days to have the same attitude. I grew up and spent most of my adult life thinking: I don’t like science, and physics and astrophysics are WAY beyond anything I can comprehend.

Then I encountered the work of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who proved me wrong.

Chances are very good that you’ve encountered Tyson’s work in some way, too. He’s been at the forefront of discoveries about our universe for what turned out to be the most prolific decades of discovery and progress in his field. He has followed in the footsteps of Newton, Einstein, Sagan, Hawking, and many others. He and Carl Sagan met when Tyson was just 17 and already displaying his intense drive to pursue his field.

In fact, it was Tyson’s miniseries remake of the Carl Sagan classic Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey that snagged my attention and subsequent interest. (Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, wrote and directed the 2014 Tyson version available on DVD.) I surprised myself by understanding the material, and enjoying stepping back in time and learning about historical figures and discoveries. Since then, I’ve made a point of learning more about this subject--but I still stay away from equations.

Tyson’s latest work is Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, now on the New York Times hardback non-fiction bestseller list for 46 WEEKS! That figure astonishes me, as does the indication that there must be millions of other people who are now interested in astrophysics--it’s not just for nerds anymore!

This book does exactly what it’s designed to do: it makes astrophysics accessible to any untrained reader in a way that can be consumed and digested in small, easily understandable bites. Readers don’t even need to read the chapters in order, although I do think it’s preferable.

Tyson tells us that the universe definitely is expanding, and why that’s known to be true. It’s also a fact that the same laws (e.g., gravity, speed of light) we’ve found and observed pertain throughout the universe. Following chapters discuss light; what exactly is out there in space; dark matter and dark energy. The latter two especially interest me, as their existence can only be divined by how the things AROUND those areas react to something unseen and (so far) invisible. They remind me of the mysteries where the dog DIDN’T bark.

Tyson explains what quantum mechanics, quarks, quasars, pulsars, protons, neutrons, electrons, hadrons, and many other things, are and what they do. Did you know that “for large cosmic objects, energy and gravity conspire to turn objects into spheres?” (p. 136) Or that our Milky Way “galaxy is flatter than the flattest flapjacks ever made?” (p. 139) We may not have the telescopes available to view “large cosmic objects” or our galaxy, but descriptions such as these allow the reader to visualize them. Also, an index is provided in case a reader just wants information about specific topics.

Tyson has done far too much in all forms of media throughout his career to include here. He’s primarily an astrophysicist at his “day job” as the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. He’s written a number of books, countless articles, makes public appearances to talk about his work, and my favorite, hosts Star Talk on radio and the NatGeo TV channel.

He interviews people from a wide variety of fields, and incorporates those interviews with the chosen topic for that show. Examples are: astronauts Mae Jemison and Scott Kelly; surfer Kelly Slater; singer Katy Perry; film directors James Cameron and Kevin Smith. Every person on shows I’ve seen has surprised me in a good way. Tyson also interviewed Stephen Hawking for his March 4 show—that’s just 10 days prior to Hawking’s death.

I noticed another job description listed for Tyson: that of “science communicator.” In fact, he won the Stephen Hawking Medal for Outstanding Communication in June 2017. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of such an honor. Tyson has promoted the learning and understanding of Science relentlessly for many years. He speaks and writes in a way that makes complicated concepts understandable and ACCESSIBLE to anyone who cares to listen or read this book or others he’s written.

He has a knack for peppering his talks and writings with little nuggets of humor, and his writing flows easily and plainly. He’s mastered the art of getting people to relax and not be intimidated by the material so they can learn almost effortlessly. Best of all, he’s inspired untold numbers of children to become interested in science; lit that spark of interest in their minds. In a nutshell, he’s made Science cool again. THAT, discoveries, and space exploration are what has changed since I was in high school. Science is now part of our everyday lives.

Tyson always ends his shows with closing thoughts that leave us thoughtful and reflective. His comments can be profound in their simplicity. It’s not surprising that the last chapter is the best part of this book and not to be missed. In his own words:

“The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge. But it’s more than about what you know. It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.” (p. 205)

He goes on to list several things, of which my favorite is:

“The cosmic perspective enables us to see beyond our circumstances, allowing us to transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and a mate.” (P. 206-207)

Neil deGrasse Tyson has given the world many gifts, but perhaps the greatest one is the cosmic perspective.

************

For complete information about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s career, publications, and everything you’d ever want to know about him:

http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_deGrasse_Tyson

************

Once can’t think of Neil deGrasse Tyson without the now late Stephen Hawking also coming to mind. Thus, the author wishes to offer the following.

IN MEMORIAM: STEPHEN W. HAWKING 1942-2018

Hawking’s eerie timing: SH born 1/8/1942; Galileo died 1/8/1642; SH died 3/14/2018 (“pi day”); Einstein born 3/14/1879.

Rare early-onset ALS: ravaged his body, but left his brain unharmed.

Technical and computer advances extended his life by 50 yrs. beyond expectation. In an odd way, it’s almost as if he was freed with nothing to do but THINK.

Discoveries & writing of others set precedents so that the world was more receptive to his ideas than they would have been in earlier times.


March 2018

The House of Unexpected Sisters
By Alexander McCall Smith

Whenever a new book in the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is released, it’s an occasion to retreat to our favorite reading place for an uninterrupted afternoon of enjoyment with our old friends who remind us of the important things in life. Alexander McCall Smith’s 18th offering in this series, The House of Unexpected Sisters, is every bit as insightful and meaningful as its predecessors. Smith has maintained his high standards throughout this entire series, and #18 does not disappoint.

Although he is currently a Professor of Medical Law in Edinburgh, Scotland, “Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana,” according to his Amazon biography. This series takes place in Botswana, and it is obvious that he has a deep love for the country, culture, and people of that nation. In fact, “the old Botswana morality, the kindness that lay at the heart of that,” (p. 190) and respect for others constitute the basis for this series.

The detective at the heart of this series is Precious Ramotswe, a “traditionally built” Botswanan woman, and owner of the Agency. Her idea to start such an unusual business in the city of Gaborone, Botswana, typifies her unusual approach to solving her cases. She is also an astute observer of human nature, particularly Botswanan human nature. She uses her creative mind and innately gentle nature in solving whatever odd or confounding cases come to the Agency. Her talent is in finding the correct solution to each case after gathering the facts, as she knows things are not always as they appear to be. She then seeks a solution that will be the best outcome for all involved.

This book, like the ones before it, presents several different cases or situations for Precious and her eccentric staff to resolve. Sometimes “cases” are merely favors for friends or family, with no monetary payment involved. Precious is a person for whom “payment” can mean bringing justice to an unjust situation, and her first case does just that. Charity, a widow with children to support, has been fired from her job at an office furniture store for supposedly being rude to a customer. Precious and her staff dig into the case to find the real reason for the firing. They find that this is one of the cases where the truth is not what it appears to be, and orchestrate a just correction.

In this book, Precious faces two issues of a personal nature. Her first husband, an abusive musician and probably the last person on earth she wants to see, has been sighted in town. While he makes no attempt to visit her (she made it clear in the past that she wants nothing to do with him), the information causes her to dread that he might contact her and will want something from her. Readers who remember Note from previous books will be surprised to learn how he has changed.

The second issue speaks to this book’s title. Precious thinks she has been an only child for all of her 42 years, and that she knows all of the few people who share the Ramotswe last name. However, a visit with a woman in her hometown reveals that this may not be true. She is given a newspaper clipping with a photo of 3 nurses, one of whom has her same last name. Naturally she must discover if they are related, and finds they are indeed half-sisters! Instead of feeling joy, she feels shock and dismay that her late father, whom she has revered and deeply loved for her entire life, seems to have fathered a child with another woman while he was married to her mother. That’s the only conclusion she can draw based on the information she has…but is it correct? If it is true, it would be completely out of character for the man she knew. Her world is suddenly shaken by what seems to be his betrayal.

I won’t spoil it and give away the answer (or why the title uses the plural “sisters”), but readers of this series can trust that the resolution is a good one for all concerned. The only question is HOW it is resolved, and readers will not be disappointed. As always, Smith cleverly manages to show us how a good resolution to one issue helps bring about the same for the remaining ones. In setting Precious’s world right, he does the same for his readers.