This is a transcription of Episode 11 — Cuba: Castro, Conga, Cars, and Cigars.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to season one, episode 11 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Cuba.
David: You’re listening to Fusion Caribe; they play on the streets of Havana. If you could use a little mental break at the beach, you could mix yourself a rum and Coke with a wedge of lime, put them on YouTube, and probably be about halfway there.
Melissa: Boy, that music puts me in a good mood! We have one tiny connection to Cuba, but not really.
David: What’s that?
Melissa: We were married in Austin, Texas, and about two blocks from our house is a really awesome Cuban restaurant and that is where we had our wedding dinner.
David: That’s right.
Melissa: And we had two cakes, which is just the best thing that ever happened.
David: One of them was a tres leches cake.
Melissa: Which is so good. And a traditional wedding cake. And we had leftovers of both. And every time I walked by the refrigerator for the next 11 days, I ate bites of cake. [
David: [laughing] Tell everybody what a tres leches cake is.
Melissa: It’s a white cake with three kinds of milk: cream, evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk. And you bake the cake and you pour the different milks over the top of it and it soaks into the cake. So it’s really sweet and moist and rich. It’s fantastic.
David: Yeah, I mean it’s very moist. Okay. Sort of sitting there sobbing in the milk for yeah, a little bit.
Melissa: Parts of it become like pudding. And I don’t even like pudding, and I love this cake.
David: There’s a delicious sort of cream icing.
Melissa: Whipped cream.
David: Yeah. Are you ready for the 101?
Melissa: I am already. Cuba is the largest Island in the Caribbean, and it’s located just a little over a hundred miles off the coast of Florida. So let’s all visualize our world maps. There’s the Northern hemisphere, the United States, Florida’s down there in the lower right corner. About a hundred miles away, you’ll find the Island of Cuba.
David: Havana is closer to Miami than Orlando is.
Melissa: Whoa, that just blew my mind.
Melissa: From the air, Cuba is shaped like a crocodile, so in Spanish it’s sometimes called El Crocodrilo and El Caima. The capital city is Havana. The official language is —
Melissa: Correct. The population of Cuba is a little more than 11 million people and geographically, it’s about the size of Bulgaria and the state of Pennsylvania.
David: So: big.
Melissa: Pretty big. Cuba has everything. It’s like a Stefan nightclub. It’s got really, really beautiful green mountain forests and rolling hills and jungles and rainforests. And in those rainforests are two of the smallest animals in the world.
David: What are they?
Melissa: There is the bee hummingbird, which is the smallest bird on the planet. It is five centimeters long, which is about two inches.
Melissa: It’s so tiny. There’s also a frog called the Monte Iberia frog. It is one centimeter long, which is just, like, a third of an inch. It’s like your pinky fingernail. Little bitty tiny frog.
Melissa: So cute. We’ll put pictures of those in show notes cause they’re adorable and we are all about cute animals right now. Cuba also has amazing beaches.
David: If you just do a Google image search for Cuba —
Melissa: We were looking at pictures yesterday, and Cuba was really showing off. It’s so photogenic.
David: It’s bright and lovely and it looks hyper-saturated even though I don’t think the photos are saturated.
Melissa: Yeah, blue, blue sky and green, green leaves, and the people are really colorful too. Yeah. Outfits and the buildings, which I’m going to talk about in a minute. The original Cubans were an indigenous tribe called Taíno people. But you probably know what my next sentence is going to be —
David: It went poorly for them?
Melissa: In 1492, Columbus arrived and claim the island for Spain. Many of the Taíno people were forced into slave labor and later African slaves were added into the mix. Oh, Columbus. [sigh] So Cuba was a Spanish colony until the Spanish-American War when the U S pushed Spain out, and an 1898, Cuba became part of the United States, which was new to me.
David: Yeah, I did not know that.
Melissa: And then in 1902 it gained its independence, but the U S stayed really involved until 1959 when Castro came to power with his communist supporters.
David: Arguably, they still maintained a healthy involvement in Cuba.
Melissa: Yeah. The next big historical milestone is the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 —
David: — which we’ll talk about.
Melissa: In 2008, Fidel Castro stepped down, and in 2015, the US actually reopened its embassy in Cuba. And the relationship between the two countries started to warm up a little bit. So that’s some background. Let’s talk about why we would want to visit Cuba. Because there are lots and lots of reasons to visit Cuba. As we already said, visually, it’s just stunning. The architecture is a combination of Spanish colonial buildings, which means there’s a Moorish influence — so those are arches on the street level, and then also the windows have arches. There are balconies with really ornate wrought-iron railings. The churches have domes with tiled roofs, but then there’s also Baroque architecture. My mental shorthand for that is that everything looks like wedding cakes. There are fancy grewgaws and statues —
David: Yeah, ornamental additions to windows and the tops of buildings.
Melissa: And then there’s also neo-classical, which gives you very majestic domed buildings and columns — think about something like the White House or the Lincoln Memorial. That’s the kind of elements that you find in neo-classical — and all of that is kind of mushed together in Havana. And most of the buildings are painted pastel colors. So it’s very romantic looking and some of the buildings are kind of crumbling a little and that also makes it just seem super romantic. It’s beautiful. The other thing, that kind of lens a fairy tale quality to it is that there are tons and tons of cars — American cars from the 1940s and ’50s.
David: Which are there because trade stopped in the ’50s. There was a bunch of cars that came in in the ’50s, and the United States trade embargo on Cuba, and they got no more cars. So Cubans have been keeping those cars running for the last 50 years.
Melissa: Big Buicks and Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles — big curvy with lots of chrome. What’s really interesting is that on the outside, it looks like a ‘57 Chevy, but on the inside, the parts are often from Japan or from, like, a Russian Lada because they couldn’t get the American parts and they had to cobble it together on the inside from countries that they were trading with.
David: Yeah. Something I read said that some of the best car mechanics in the world are in Cuba.
Melissa: I buy that. Yeah. Let’s talk about cigars.
Melissa: Cuban cigars are famous around the world for being the best in the world. The speculation is that the reason the cigars are so good is because they’ve making them there for so long and they haven’t changed the process. They’re still made by hand and it takes about a hundred steps to make a hand-rolled cigar.
David: Does it?
Melissa: Yeah. I will now list all of the steps.
Melissa: The ritual of making them really hasn’t changed very much in the last hundred years. And I’m actually going to talk about that a little bit later. When I talk about one of my books. For our US audience, it is still illegal to sell Cuban cigars in the United States, but you can now purchase them elsewhere and bring them into the country, but you cannot sell them.
David: Personal experience: I walked into a cigar store in Prague here and they had Cuban cigars and I was, like, ‘They have Cuban cigars.’ Then I thought, ‘Of course they have Cuban cigars.’
Melissa: Yeah, they’re pretty much available around the world. Let’s have a cocktail!
David: There’s so many good cocktails from Cuba.
Melissa: Oh my gosh. So many. And they are primarily made with rum —
David: Because rum is made in Cuba.
Melissa: We’ve got the daiquiri, which is usually frozen, and that’s fruit and rum. You’ve got the Mojito, which is a little bit lighter. That is mint, lemon and rum. We’ve got the piña colada, which is not traditionally Cuban, but is very popular there. Coconut milk, rum, and pineapple. And the one drink I know you know how to make —
David: Cuba libre.
David: Which is rum and Coca-Cola —
Melissa: And some lime.
David: I found out it’s not Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola doesn’t officially exist in Cuba because of the trade embargo.
Melissa: And then of course to go with your cigar and your cocktails, you need food. Oh, the Cuban food is so good. Cuban food, just to make some broad generalizations, is spicy but not hot, so it’s very flavorful, but it’s not going to sear your taste buds off of your tongue. And there’s a lot of contrast between sweet and savory and crispy and chewy, so it’s just flavor explosions in your mouth. A lot of people are probably familiar with the Cuban sandwich, which is roasted pork and ham and cheese and pickles and mustard on grilled bread.
David: So good.
Melissa: There’s a lot of good stuff beyond that. Arroz con pollo; it’s chicken and rice, which is very popular. People make that at home. These are things that people would cook at home and give to the people they love. Ropa vieja, which is shredded beef cooked with peppers and onions and tomatoes and spices. Picadillo, which is fun to eat and fun to say. [laughter] Ground meat with spices, raisins and green olives, so you get sweet and salty in one bite. It’s so good.
Melissa: Finally, Cuban music.
David: I was hoping you were going to mention Cuban music.
[exuberant Cuban music]
Melissa: There is music everywhere in Cuba, and one of the books I’m going to be talking about in a little bit, it just sounds like in the 1950s Cuba was a 24-hour musical party. Cuban music blends African rhythms with kind of European style melodies, so it’s like African drums fell in love with the Spanish guitar, and they had a really awesome baby.
David: Also, they have like a full emotional range. From nonstop party to something very close to the blues.
Melissa: Yeah. Covers your whole emotional palette.
David: It does.
Melissa: Many of the upbeat styles are associated with specific dances. So if you think about your Dancing with the Stars episode, you have the cha cha cha and the rumba and the salsa — and those dances all have their own specific type of music and really fancy costumes.
Melissa: So our audience probably doesn’t know this, but you know this because you’ve known me for a long time. I am not really a beach person. I don’t like to be hot. I don’t like humid weather. So Cuba should not be a place that is high on my list of destinations that I would like to visit. I want to go to Cuba so badly. [laughter]
Melissa: It really does have something for every kind of traveler. And for readers in particular, there are things that are really interesting. There are some really awesome indie bookstores. If you could imagine your ideal, beachside used bookstore — palm trees and sand and then really nicely curated selection of books. There are also several historical libraries in Havana, which are really, really beautiful. And of course, Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba for 20 years and wrote two of his most famous books there: The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. It’s 99.8%.
David: Yeah, it’s better than the United States, which is kind of amazing. It used to be much lower. When Castro came to power, I think it was somewhere between 40 and 60% but part of the platform that he came to power on was education and literacy. And he nailed that.
Melissa: So if you like cocktails and awesome music and flavorful food and a rich literary history, Cuba seems like a really lovely place to visit.
David: Are you ready for two truths and a lie?
Melissa: I hope so. I feel like I failed miserably in our last episode, but hope springs eternal.
David: Now, I’m going to say three statements. Two of them are true; one of them is a lie. Mel does not know which one of these is a lie. Statement number one: Cuba’s most lucrative export is doctors. Statement number two: We need a little bit of backup for statement number two, so let’s talk about Miami Dade County. Miami Dade County is the home of Miami. It’s the most populated county in Florida, and it’s the seventh-most populous county in the United States. It’s just after Orange County and right before Dallas. There are more people in Miami Dade than there are in Brooklyn.
David: Second statement is: One-fourth of Miami Dade County is Cuban-born. Not just Cuban ancestry, but they were born in Cuba. Third statement is: The CIA tried to assassinate Castro by delivering a poisonous birthday cake. Castro didn’t eat it because they spelled his name wrong.
Melissa: [laughing] I mean, of course I went that one to be true. Okay. Biggest export is doctors. A quarter of Miami Dade County is Cuban-born. And deadly birthday cake.
Melissa: I think it’s true that one-quarter of the population is Cuban born.
David: That is true. According to the Miami Herald, Miami-Dade is home to nearly 700,000 Cuban-born residents, and, as of 2017, that was 25.7% of the total population. It is the largest population of Cubans outside of Havana.
Melissa: Okay. I’m going to say — I mean what they really misspell his name on the birthday cake?! Okay. The birthday cake thing is a lie. It is true that Cuba’s biggest export is doctors.
David: You are correct. According to an article in Time magazine, Cuba leases healthcare professionals to foreign governments and that brings in about $11 billion a year. It is a bigger industry than tourism.
Melissa: Good job, Cuba.
David: Yeah. That all got started because when Castro took power, part of his bedrock platform was universal health care and free education, and he was wildly successful in that. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, which we already mentioned. Life expectancy on the island is higher than in the US, and Cubans have almost three times as many doctors per capita. They have some many doctors that they lease them out to others for a fee. According to the article, there are currently about 50,000 Cuban doctors working in 67 countries.
Melissa: Right on.
David: Yeah. Castro.
Melissa: The cake!
David: Yes. Castro’s former head of security says that there were 634 attempts on Castro’s life while he was in power.
David: On the average, that’s one a month for the 53 years that he was in power.
Melissa: Do you think he was anxious all the time?
David: [laugter] Can you imagine somebody trying to kill you on average once a month? The height of that, of course was during the Cold War and most of those were from the CIA. The CIA tried seemingly everything they could think of from exploding cigars to a radio rigged with a gaseous form of LSD to a poison syringe that looked like a fountain pen. One attempt involved a chemically-tainted underwater suit because Castro liked to dive.
Melissa: That is so mean.
David: Another was a giant exploding seashell because Castro loved to dive and they were hoping he’d stop and look at the shell. And it got a little Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner for awhile. And then for one of the attempts, they recruited Fidel’s girlfriends. So there’s a femme fatale and in Castro’s story they also got the mob involved. None of that worked. Fidel died a peaceful death in 2016 at the age of 90.
Melissa: So was there really a cake with his name misspelled?
David: No, I made that up.
Melissa: That was a good eon.
so did I put it there really a cake with his name. Ms. Bell. No, I made that up. [inaudible] That was a good one.
David: That’s two truths and a lie. You want to talk about books?
Melissa: Yes. My first book is Havana Bay by ye Martin Cruz Smith. I have to say that when you go looking for books set in Cuba, you get dozens that start with ‘Havana’ and end with some other word. I’m actually going to be talking about a book a little later called Havana Fever, but there are many, many books with Havana in the title.
David: Havana Night. Havana Day. Havana Beach. Havana Dance. Havana Elephant.
Melissa: I don’t think there’s Havana Elephant, but maybe. This is Havana Bay, and it’s a thriller that has a lot of political intrigue and the structure of a crime novel. So it’s a page-turner. There’s a lot of suspense. And there’s bad guys and a good guy. It’s set during the 1990s in Cuba. And for context, I need to talk about that a little bit because it’s known as the Special Period.
Melissa: And the reason it was special is because it was not so good. The Soviet Union broke up in 1991, and Cuba had been getting a lot of subsidies from the Soviet Union. So when the Soviet Union came apart, Cuba was left without a lot of financial resources and it was really difficult for the people who live there. There was food rationing. There were blackouts every day. Utilities only worked for certain hours during the day because they just didn’t have the financial resources that they used to have. So in addition to making daily life really challenging, that also made for resentment and distrust toward the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union, and Russians, in particular. And that’s the backdrop for this story.
David: That sounds really tense.
Melissa: Yeah. The other thing to know is that this author Martin Cruz Smith is famous for his character Arkady Ranko who is a police detective and people might know him from Gorky Park, which was a really popular novel in the 80s and led to a movie starring William Hurt. The movie doesn’t hold up —
David: Oh? it doesn’t?
Melissa: Don’t watch the movie, but the book is great. I actually read Gorky Park for our Russia episode and then loved some of the other books more. I knew that I was going to be talking about Havana Bay, so I put that aside, but that’s also a really good book.
Melissa: The story begins when Arkady arrives in Cuba and he’s in Havana and he goes to a crime scene and they’re pulling a body out of Havana Bay. And the victim is a neumatico. This is a real thing.
David: What’s a neumatico?
Melissa: In Cuba, a lot of men go fishing in the Bay in the big inner tubes from tires, so it’s like your own personal boat. You sit in the middle of the ring, and you have your reel and nets and fishing lures and all that kind of stuff hanging over the sides of the inner tube, and you paddle out into Havana Bay and do your fishing.
David: So you’re tubing, but you’re also fishing.
Melissa: It’s really dangerous, but it’s also really cheap and it’s a way to get out into the water and catch fish. They’re called neumatics because — and that’s my awesome English pronunciation of a Spanish word — they’re called neumaticos because that’s what tires are called in Spanish. So this is a thing that was happening in the ’90s —
David: Because food was hard to come by.
Melissa: Yes. So the victim was one of these fishermen, and there’s speculation that Arkady’s spidey sense is just going off. His friend was an old-school, hardcore Russian. So the idea that he was going to sit in an inner tube and go fishing is completely unrealistic. The victim is really waterlogged., so they can’t make a positive identification. And the cops are acting really suspiciously, like, they just want to get this case wrapped up as quickly as possible and they’re rushing to say, ‘Yeah, this is totally your Russian friend. Move on. Go back to Russia. We don’t need you here.’
Melissa: So he’s very suspicious about what’s going on. And because he’s a detective and he’s a good man in tough circumstances, he digs in his heels and he sticks around to find out what’s really going on. This is a really well-plotted police procedural, but it also has elements of a spy thriller because everyone is trying to hoodwink everyone else. They’re all trying to find out information. They’re all keeping secrets. It’s really unclear who is loyal to Moscow, who’s loyal to Castro, and who’s just basically trying to stay alive. Allegiances shift or seem to shift throughout the story. It’s really a page-turner, but the thing that really gives it heart, which is why I love it, is Arkady. He’s just one of those detectives that’s broken in a way that makes him really interesting and sympathetic.
David: What’s his background?
Melissa: When we meet him at the beginning of the novel, it’s obvious that something emotionally devastating has happened, but we don’t really know what it is at that moment. You get the feeling that he was probably a really great detective at one point, but maybe his days are behind him.
Melissa: Or maybe he thinks his best days are behind him. It’s unclear if he’s really lost his footing or if he just thinks he has. And then as the story goes on, we get more of his backstory, both immediate and his childhood, which gives you a really deep understanding of why he’s so hellbent on getting justice for people.
David: So this sounds super-noirish. He’s a good man in a tough situation. But he himself does not necessarily believe he’s a good man.
Melissa: Yes. He thinks he’s trying to be a good man. So in addition to a page-turning mystery and the kind of hero that I really love to get to know, I love this for Strong Sense of Place because it really brings in so much of what it’s like to live in Cuba, but it’s woven into the story. It’s not like a trabelogue where it’s slapped into the introduction. Cuban life is what is driving what’s happening in this story, and it’s really, really well done. And you really get a sense of what it was like to live during the Special Period just by seeing how people are living; it’s not drawing attention to itself.
David: From what I’ve read, it’s never been an easy time to live in Cuba. Cuba’s kind of a tough country. For residents. But right after the fall of the Soviet Union would have been particularly awful because they were depending on the Soviet Union to maintain a lot of it, food trade and all of that. And then for that to suddenly disappear with no alternative in sight would be awful.
Melissa: On the upside, there are also a lot of really evocative details about Santeria and Cuban music and the glory days of Cuban casinos and dancing. There’s a party that Arkady goes to that is, I’m not going to give anything away — it’s amazing. It has everything. And this is actually the second time I read this book. I read this, I don’t know, 10 years ago, and I remembered that party scene when I got to it: ‘I know this party. This is a really intense party.’ So this version of Cuba in this book is super-dangerous and really humid and sweaty and vaguely sinister, but I also really, really want to time travel to this version of Havana and drive along the beach in one of those vintage cars with Arkady.
Melissa: So that’s Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith.
David: My first book is _One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro On the Brink of Nuclear War. It’s hard to overstate how close the world came to nuclear war for 13 days in 1962. We were so close a number of times, and it’s also hard to frame how different the world was
Melissa: I didn’t exist yet.
David: Neither of us existed. Also, one of the players in the Cuban missile crisis was famous for leading the world’s last great cavalry charge.
Melissa: Wow. That’s amazing. That really puts into context how quickly the world was changing.
David: Yeah. That guy with his knowledge of horses, he was trying to figure out how to deal with nuclear missiles.
Melissa: Potato, potahto, Dave.
David: Yeah. So things are different. In case you’ve forgotten. Here’s the basic setup for the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviets, in retaliation for some of the things that the US did, which included an invasion of Cuba, decided to put nuclear missiles in Cuba and the US found out about it. And that’s it. That’s the basics. Act one: nuclear missiles on the mount.
Melissa: That is a big poke with a stick through the bars of the cage.
David: Yeah. And then things got crazy after that. There was a naval blockade and diplomatic saber-rattling and spy planes and all kinds of 1960s James Bond stuff. And for 13 days we were on the precipice of a full-out nuclear war. This book is a recreation of those 13 days. It is at times a minute-by-minute recreation. It’s got just, like, a cast of thousands and a potentially world-ending crisis and details that are amazing and scary and interesting and sometimes funny.
David: We’ve got famous people, famous, like, ‘put their face on a coin’ famous people, and we’ve got just average Joes just doing their job, trying to take command and and do the stuff they want to do. There are three problems that come up over and over again. First, there’s the bit that in the modern age we’ve come to accept that a nuclear war is unlikely because of the mutually-assured destruction problem. Right? If we shoot missiles, they’re going to shoot missiles, and we’re all going to die.
Melissa: See the 1980s movie Wargames —
David: Or pretty much any other nuclear movie. In 1962, there was the idea of a limited nuclear war. That maybe we could take out one of their cities, and they would take out one of ours and then we’d stop and talk about it.
Melissa: Even Steven, we’re done.
David: Yeah. Worse than that, there was the idea that, well, maybe the other guy believes that. If you’re Kennedy, do you think Khrushchev is going to think of limited nuclear war is okay? And how much does Khrushchev care if we put a nuclear missile in Havana? That’s the tension there.
David: Second, there was a command issue. Now we think that nuclear war is less likely because it would have to come from a direct order from the White House. Right? And there are nuclear codes, and there’s two guys, and they have to unlock it and this whole thing. But, then three guys in the field in Havana could launch a nuclear missile. And there’s a story in the book about how we came one guy from having a nuclear war. One guy had the motive and opportunity to launch a nuclear missile and thought, eh, better not.
Melissa: I’m just making a face with really big eyes. I don’t even know what to say to that.
David: [laughter] Yeah. So third, there’s the communication problem, right? So now, you can get a message across the world instantaneously. I can get video feed from, you know, my father’s living room to our living room.
Melissa: In real time.
David: In real time. Then, if you wanted to send a message from the White House to the Kremlin, you wrote it down, you split it into four parts, you ciphered the parts and then you sent the different parts through different methods to Moscow. It took about 12 hours to get a message from the White House to Moscow and back again.
Melissa: That is a really long time for someone who’s got their finger hovering over a button.
David: And there there was no red phone then. The red phone exists because of the Cuban missile crisis. Diplomats used telegrams to get their messages through, so they’d call Western Union. A guy would come on up bicycle. They tell him what he wanted to say. He would bike back to the office, put that in Morse code, and that’s how they did business.
Melissa: It seems so quaint now.
David: It really does. We have a situation room because of the Cuban missile crisis. The writer is Michael Dobbs, not the one who wrote the House of Cards trilogy, but another one. This one spent much of his career as a foreign correspondent covering the collapse of communism. He worked for The Washington Post for most of his career, and he was the Bureau chief in Moscow from 1988 to 1993.
Melissa: Wow. That’s intense time to be in Moscow.
David: Yeah. So he had some ins and his writing style is exactly what you would expect. He’s super-aggressive with this research. In the preface, he talks a little bit about how he triangulated interviews of US and Soviet participants with existing documents and he studied raw intelligence film to understand what was happening in Cuba and he published a map he uncovered in the national archives to dramatize the showdown.
David: He was one of the first Western reporters to talk to some of the Soviet participants. This is one of a trilogy of books of the relationship between the United States and Russia that he’s written. Ultimately, the stories about Kennedy and Khrushchev and their beliefs about each other and their respect for each other. It’s about empathy. This is a story about empathy, and I found it fascinating and surprisingly emotionally rich, and I highly recommend it.
David: It’s called _One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs.
Melissa: My next book is completely different. It is a historical novel set in 1963 Cuba, and it’s called The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo. It’s narrated by our heroine. Her name is Maria Sirena, and she has a very special job, but before I get into the details of her job, I want to give you the setup.
David: What’s the setup?
David: Okay. It’s 1963, and in real life, Cuba was hit by Hurricane Flora, which is one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes in history.
David: Cuba’s got a rough man.
Melissa: The downside of living on a beautiful tropical Island is you get hurricanes from time to time.
Melissa: Miami weather bureau chief said that Hurricane Flora was ‘probably the most damaging hurricane to hit Haiti and Cuba since the days of Columbus.’ It was so bad that they retired the name Fora afterward and now the name for F in the hurricane alphabet is Fern.
David: So Flora is the Jackie Robinson of hurricanes.
Melissa: Yes. So that was happening in real life. In the book, the hurricane is bearing down on the Island and seven women are forcibly evacuated to the governor’s mansion. They don’t want to go. They want to stay in their houses. They’ve been through hurricanes before, but the army comes and makes them leave their homes and go to the governor’s mansion and then they’re guarded by a young woman who’s in Castro’s army.
David: Why these seven women?
Melissa: They’re just rounding up people from the town. The storm is raging outside and the floodwaters are starting to rise and the women are really, really scared because it’s the worst hurricane they’ve ever seen. And there’s this really weird tension between them and the soldier that’s watching over them because they’re kind of lukewarm on the whole Castro situation.
Melissa: There are traditional older women and then there’s this young girl who’s in the army, and they just are not seeing eye to eye with each other. So everyone’s really scared, and Maria Sirena starts telling them stories. And she takes them all the way back to the Cuban Qar of Independence in the late 1800s and she tells them about the passionate love affair that her parents had. Her dad was a freedom fighter. She talks about her own first love, clawing and scraping to make a life for themselves.
David: And she’s telling them all of this just to calm them down>
Melissa: Just to entertain them and distract them from what’s going on outside. So the stories are like big swashbuckling adventures and some of them are really heartbreaking and sad. This is the meat of this book. Like, the whole thing is just a love letter to storytelling and the power of stories to distract you and to help you forge connections with other people.
David: That’s great.
Melissa: Which leads me to Maria’s job. Ask me why Maria Sirena was the one chosen to tell the stories.
David: Why was Maria Sirena the one chosen to tell the stories?
Melissa: Because her job is a lectora the cigar factory.
David: What’s a lectora?
Melissa: I’m so glad you asked me that.
David: Yeah, like I’ve been set up a little bit.
Melissa: The lectores are people whose job it was to read to the tobacco workers in the factory as they rolled the cigars. I read that detail in the book and thought to myself, ‘Please, please, let that actually be true.’ And I went to Google and found out that it is in fact a real thing.
David: So there’s a cigar factory with a bunch of men and women rolling cigars and there is someone job it is to sit there and read to them. Yes. Oh that’s nice.
Melissa: Yes. When it first started, the lectora would just be one of the other people who worked in the factory. They wouldn’t get paid for the hour they were reading, so the rest of the cigar workers would pool their wages and pay them to read to them for an hour. Now, it’s actually a position that is specifically hired for and if they don’t like the way you read, you are out.
Melissa: The lectores served two purposes. First of all, in the past, they helped to educate people who came to work in the factory. Many of the people who worked there came from out in the countryside, so they would read them the newspaper in the morning and novels in the afternoon to help educate them. And the other reason was to keep them occupied because you’re just sitting there rolling cigars. They didn’t want people chitchatting and plotting and gossiping and maybe thinking about another revolution or something while they were working.
Melissa: Reading to them kept their minds and imaginations occupied. As time went on. The lectores is also became the middleman between the workers and the management. So if there was an issue on the floor, the lectores would go and talk to management and try to get that worked out. It’s actually a a well-respected position and your storytelling skills better be on point or you’re going to have a lot of cigar rollers ready to kick you out of your job.
David: That’s so fascinating.
Melissa: So instead of a radio, well at the time it started they didn’t have radios and it’s quiet because everything is done by hand. We’ll put some photos in show notes, and we also will have a blog post with more details about how the whole thing worked. But I just love the images of people — they sat on a tall chair and just read to the rest of the room.
David: It’s hard to imagine the relationship you would develop from somebody reading to you like that over the course of a year.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s really oddly intimate and very sweet. So when I visualize this story in my mind, it’s very sepia-toned. It’s a little bit dreamy and magical. It’s not quite as far into the magical realism as, say, Like Water for Chocolate, which I talked about in our Mexico episode, but it’s very fairy tale-ish.
David: Fairy tale-ish. In what way?
Melissa: Well, one of the first things we learn about the narrator Maria, is that she was named by a mermaid. And that’s kind of a play on her name ‘sirena’ which is the Spanish word for mermaid.
David: Is that just a story she tells? Or is that presented as magical realism?
Melissa: Yeah, it’s the story. Is that the truth? Does it matter? Don’t know. And a lot of the other women’s names in the book also reflect their personalities. There’s a woman who’s kind of glowing and her name is Illuminada and there’s a really sad woman and her name is Inconsolada.
David: [chuckles] Right.
Melissa: So those little details make it just a little magical and special. And do you make you question the veracity of all of the stories that you’re learning. But it almost is beside the point. So it’s a big engrossing sweeping story about family. And while it’s talking about all of these like small moments, you also learn a lot about the big stuff that was going on in Cuba, the War of Independence.
David: And so the story she tells knit together?
Melissa: She’s basically taking everyone through her life story. And she does that by circling through her parents and the loves of her life. And while telling those stories, you get Cuba’s history. So you get the War of Independence and Castro’s rise to power. It’s a really great way to understand Cuba’s history without cracking a history book. Because you’re getting it through the lives of ordinary, but really special people.
Melissa: That is The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo.
David: My second book is This is Cuba: An American Journalist Under Castro Shadow by David Ariosto. I picked this book because I was curious about what it’s like to be in Cuba now. It really delivers. This is a nonfiction book about a young reporter arriving in Cuba. David Ariosto is a journalist for CNN when he got to Havana in 2009. It comes up all the way till 2018 so you guys are very current. You get eight years of recent history and a lot changes in that time for Cuba. The internet arrives, the economy changes, Castro dies, the regime changes, stuff happens. It starts out as a bit of a fish-out-of-water story at the beginning is a little bit of a newb when he gets there. For instance, his sink is stolen by the workers who come to repair it.
Melissa: What do you do when someone steals your sink? That doesn’t seem serious enough to call the police, but yet also you don’t have a sink.
David: Where are you going to get a sink?
Melissa: I’m guessing there’s not a Home Depot down on the corner in Cuba.
David: Yeah, not so much. He doesn’t have air conditioning on an island nation south of Miami. His house is empty because his furniture never shows up. He learns how Cuba works and what it’s like to be a resident there. At least as a foreign national and so do we. We find out. A lot of it is just his day to day: how he gets groceries and who he meets and how he figures out how to navigate the different groups in Cuba. He gets wiser and he gets more cynical. A lot of the book explores what it means to live in a culture that is frequently without, so food isn’t scarce typically, but it can take forever to get, and you get what they have.
David: Light bulbs be challenging. At one point Ariosto, the author, has a motor scooter and it needs a spark plug and that takes weeks of adventure. We learn about the black market in Cuba, which I found really fascinating. For instance, there’s a section about how one guy, like, ONE GUY is that the head of the pirate media distribution network in Cuba. He downloads movies and newscasts and music and then he goes out and he sells it and resells it to smaller and smaller distributors. A terabyte of the latest media will cost you about $17 in Cuba. The pirate tells Ariosto that the government knows and ‘are some of his best clients.’
Melissa: He’s a media mogul.
David: He’s a media mogul, yeah. He’s a distributor. As a result of the government knowing about it, his packages include no pornography or anything political or against the revolution. The service is called the Weekly Package. Just about the time you’re getting sad about the oppression of the Cuban people while you’re reading this book, the author talks to a woman and her husband who made it over to the US and she talks about how she misses her former life. He asked her about it and she says she misses her freedom. That struck him weird because Cuba’s one-party state, where everything is subject to communist rule and revolutions are suppressed and sometimes violently. He asks her about it and she says she just misses her time. Time to socialize and relax and think without the distraction of iphones and TVs and all that.
Melissa: We’ve heard that a little bit from some of our friends here who were alive under communism and now are living in the democratic Czech Republic. All of them have said life is definitely better now, but they’re also a little nostalgic for some of the things that made life easier.
David: Yeah, that was really fascinating to me. The detail that I hang onto is that it was great for kids. Our friend who was describing living under communism was talking about how everybody was in an apartment. Everybody had what everybody else had. The kids all got to play together all day long. If anybody had, for instance, a camera, everybody had the same camera.
Melissa: There was no competition or feeling less-than because of the brand you had. And the oranges at Christmas time
David: Yeah. And that was another thing, right? There were things that were special. You only got oranges at Christmas time —
Melissa: And they came from Cuba.
David: And they came from Cuba and now you can get anything anytime and it’s not special anymore. So that was a really interesting way of looking at the world. And you know, as US-born and bred, that was all news to me. That somebody could be nostalgic for communism and that they could be nostalgic for the time when they didn’t have or the time when the thing was special. So that’s part of this book. Ariosto realizes that freedom might mean different things to different people. Like I said, the book goes all the way up to May of 2018 so you get a sense of what the Trump presidency has done. It’s a little noirsh, the book. And many of the stories that we talk about from Cuba — the title alone, This is Cuba is taken from a phrase that he hears from the locals when they talk about how crazy it is to live there and the different things that they have to go through, but it was also hard —
Melissa: Is it accompanied by a shoulder shrug?
David: Yeah. ‘This is Cuba.’ But it was also hard not to hear that the same way that said in the movie Chinatown.
[audioclip of the line ‘It’s Chinatown’ from the movie]
David: Cuba’s a tough town. It was a tough place to live. So ultimately, a little bittersweet, this book. It paints a picture of a place that is romantic and dangerous and beautiful and hard on the people who have to work there. But if you’re interested in Cuba’s recent politics or what it’s like to live there now, this is a good read.
Melissa: That sounds really fascinating. Both of the books you’ve talked about today. I would like to put that knowledge directly into my head.
David: That is This is Cuba; An American Journalist Under Castro’s Shadow by David Ariosto.
Melissa: My last book is an excellent book with a cheesy title: Havana Fever by Leonardo Padura.
David: How can a great writer choose a title like Havana Fever?
Melissa: And he is a GREAT writer. He has some major credentials. Leonardo Padura was born in Havana and was an investigative journalist before he started writing screenplays and stories and novels. In 2012, he was awarded the National Prize for Literature, which is Cuba’s big literary award that recognizes how a writer has enriched the legacy of Cuban literature.
Melissa: It’s like a lifetime achievement award. So this book is actually the fifth book starring his detective character, but the first four are a quartet that go together. You don’t have to read them in order. So this is a crime novel. It’s a murder mystery that’s set in 2003 Havana. But the mystery is about a murder that happened in the 1950s and has ties to gangsters.
David: Cold case.
Melissa: It’s a cold case and it’s very steamy and romantic. Our hero Mario is retired police detective, and he is big on hunches. He’s really smart and experienced and driven, but he really lets his feelings guide what he’s doing, which sets him apart from by-the-book kinda cop. He’s even not really sure why he became a cop in the first place. He questions that a lot throughout the course of this book, and he’s much happier now because he has a new career as a used book dealer.
David: [laughter] That’s quite a career shift.
Melissa: So he’s very — he’s a reader, he’s a word man. He trusts his instincts and then he’s also dealing with cops and crimes. He’s a really fun character. Now that he’s off of the police force, he’s created a really, really nice life for himself. He has a girlfriend that he loves. He has a found family of misfits that are really fun to get to know and they hang out and they drank and they eat. They’re in Cuba. They’re sitting on the porch talking about life, smoking a cigar and everyone calls him The Count. So he spends his days ferreting out good book collections. He pays a fair price to people who desperately need it. And then he resells their books. So one day he stumbles onto this huge library, thousands of really valuable books, and he literally stumbles into it.
Melissa: It’s his habit to just walk around the neighborhood, nice fancy posh neighborhoods and ring doorbells to see if he can find anything worth selling.
Melissa: Yeah, that’s his approach. Which again, is such a foreign idea for someone, I think, who lives in the United States but is not weird in the context of Havana. So he rings the doorbell at the super-fancy house and there’s this huge library that hasn’t been touched since its owner, who was a really rich guy, had to flee Cuba in 1959. So to put that into context, the communists came into power. If you were a super-rich guy in a posh house with a fancy library, you needed just skedaddle. So he got the heck out of Cuba, but his library is still there intact. And The Count decides he’s going to go through the library, he’s got to buy some books and he’s going to resell them and make a boatload of money
David: Because he’s got unknown riches in this library.
Melissa: Yes, he pulls a book off the shell and he’s daydreaming about how he’s going to spend all of his new-found wealth and a newspaper clipping falls out of a book. And it’s about a bolero singer from the 1950s named Violeta Del Rio.
David: Everything about this sounds fantastic right now.
Melissa: I mean, can’t you just see the newspaper clipping fluttering out of the book with this picture of this beautiful woman on it? Havana in the 1950s was a big party. There were huge, glamorous nightclubs where you could see live music every night, all night long, and the audience was made up of gangsters and movie stars. So you could run into, like, Marlon Brando and Cab Calloway and Errol Flynn and Josephine Baker all in the same night. It was like spring break and Las Vegas and Coachella all mushed together. And in the fictional world of this book, Violeta Del Rio it was right in the middle of all of that.
Melissa: So the article leads the count to find out that Violetta died under mysterious circumstances. Was it suicide or was it murder? He becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her and what her connection is to the library. Why was that clipping inside that book? And then he finds out that there’s some connection to his own father as well. That’s the setup.
David: That’s a great setup.
Melissa: It’s an amazing setup and the action just kind of takes off from there. Yeah. As you might expect, he goes poking his nose into dangerous places all over Havana and we get to go with him.
David: And back in time?
Yes. So we’re jumping back and forth between 2003 and the 1950s which is one of my favorite things to do. The atmosphere is thick; you are right in it. You have to wipe the sweat off your brow when you’re reading it. Leonardo Padura is a beautiful writer: the action is amazing and the mystery is really compelling, but the words are really beautiful. It’s just like the whole package, and I want to call out the translation because these books are translated from Spanish to English. The translator is Peter Bush. He’s just done such a good job. The dialogue has this really nice rhythm to it, so it really feels like the way people speak to each other. They’re beautiful.
David: Pretty much want to start reading this immediately.
Melissa: The whole thing feels like kind of boozy. You’re worried about The Count at the same time that it’s really a thrill ride to go with him as he’s going into some sketchy neighborhoods and digging around in old gangster business. At one point you run into Meyer Lansky, the gangster.
David: Oh, cool.
Melissa: Yeah, and then there’s a lot of references to the things that happened in Cuban history because again, every decade in Cuba was really dynamic. This book takes place just after the Special Period. People are kind of recovering from the ’90s when there were food shortages and rationing. So they’re, like, bruised, but they’re not still broken. There’s some really poignant bits. It’s a super page-turner. I had no idea I needed a retired detective who was also a book dealer until I met The Count, and now I’m in
David: New career goals.
Melissa: And the most recent book in the series came out last year, and it’s set in Havana’s Chinatown.
David: I didn’t know that Havana had a Chinatown.
Melissa: These are the things we learn when we read books.
Melissa: So this one is called Havana Fever by Leonardo Padora. There are four that come before this one. There are several that come after, so you could spend a lot of time with The Count and it is a good time.
David: Those are five books we love set in Cuba. There are good times and there are good stories and Cuba has a lot of all of them. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Mel, can you tell us about the blog posts you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: I became fascinated by the lectores,so I have a blog post that goes into more detail about how the lectores came to be and what that job was like and the role they played in the cigar factories. It’s really fascinating, and they still exist, which I just find so interesting and I kind of want to work at a job where I sit at a desk and do something with my hands and someone reads me stories.
Melissa: I realize as I’m saying that out loud, it’s making it sound really romanticized and that it probably wasn’t that kind of experience all the time. But I do like that the approach was ‘We will entertain these people by reading to them.’ And the other blog post this week is Food+Fiction, which will be out on Wednesday. And is a recipe for picadillo with plantains. It’s really easy to make, so you don’t have to be a super-wizard in the kitchen, and it’s very comforting and very delicious. And you could have some a seltzer with lime or Cuba Libre on the side and play some Cuban music and it would be almost like being there.
David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place. For more on Cuba including the books we discussed today, more book recommendations, and literary landmarks, visit our website at strongsenseofplace.com. Be sure to sign up for our weekly newsletter. Mel works on that all day Friday. It’s great, it’s awesome. There’s so much good stuff in there, and please follow us on Instagram for photos and illustrations and short book reviews and other stuff we are @strongsenseof.
Melissa: Thank you so much to everyone who sent us emails to let us know how much you’re enjoying the podcast. They really make our day. We read them out loud to each other — sometimes several times. Thank you for the support. It really means so much to us. If you do like this podcast, another way you can help us is to rate it and review it on your favorite podcast app, on Apple podcasts, wherever you feel most comfortable doing that. And if you don’t like to do that, you can just tell a friend. Everyone you tell helps us immensely.
David: And if you’ve already told somebody, thank you so much.
Melissa: e really appreciate you.
David: What are we covering in our next show?
Melissa: First I want to say that our next show is our last episode in this season. Episode number 12. And it’s going to be a really good one because we are going to the circus.
David: Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Daniel Klein.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is ©2023 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.