Monday, November 7, 2011

Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner

I am a sucker for books set in Cuba.  I have no right to be.  I'm a white chick living on the West Coast.  I was born waaay after the Bay of Pigs.  I've only known one Cuban in my entire life (as far as I'm aware) and he was only half-Cuban.  (Boy, was he cute, though.  He was the drum major in my high school marching band and my freshman and sophomore years were devoted to trying to act like I didn't have a huge crush on him.) Yet despite my overwhelming honkiness, give me a book by Ana Menendez, Oscar Hijuelos, or Cristina Garcia and I am all over it.

It seems to me that books about Cuba give the reader more of a sense of place than any other book setting.  I think that's because these novels are written by expatriates or their children and Cuba lives so vividly in their memories.  No matter what the plot is or who the characters are, there's always this underlying sense of longing.  Based on my fiction reading alone, Cuba is the place I want to visit most when it opens up some day.

Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner has been on my radar ever since it won the National Book Award in 2008.  What really drew me to it was its point of view.  Whereas the other novels I've read about Cuba are told from the Cubans who left after the revolution or the Cubans who stayed, this was told through the eyes of the Americans who worked for the United Fruit Company during the 1950s.  And what a bunch of oblivious, colonialist twerps they were!

The life of the Americans in Cuba
during the first part of the
20th century
Okay, that's not entirely true (just mostly).  Kushner just paints a fascinating picture of the Americans who chose to leave the U.S. for a chance at riches and stature in Cuba. Not getting the promotions you think you deserved at the company in Smalltown, Illinois? Pick up the wife and kids and transfer to Cuba where you can live in luxury with servants and a whole compound dedicated to giving you the life you've dreamed of (complete with commissary, dance hall, and beautiful salt water swimming lagoons).  "Accidently" killed a man back home? Come down to Cuba and you can be in charge of making sure the cane pickers aren't eating the cane. (Having a big scary guy keep watch over the pickers was actually more humane than what the French in the Dominican Republic did--they made the cane pickers wear metal helmets with mouth guards in 100+ degree weather.)

And then it was all over. . .
This was such an interesting book.  If I haven't convinced you to read it, check out this review from the New York Times.  Also, after you read Telex from Cuba make sure and visit Rachel Kushner's website to see pictures from the era. Kushner's mother was raised in Cuba during this time period and so there are some great family photos.

<I bought this book from the Friends of the Library sale, then donated it to my library since they didn't have it.>


  1. This is a new title to me. I love Oscar Hijuelos and have read pretty much all his stuff except the newest one, which I need to get to soon as I loved The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.

    I am going to see if our library has this one -- thanks for calling it to my attention :)

  2. What a great post! I've never heard of Telex from Cuba, so I'm going to see if my library has it. One of the books I'm currently reading is Havana Real by Yoani Sanchez. It's set in Cuba. So far it's a great read.

  3. @TheBookGirl--Hijuelos is great, isn't he? Mambo Kings is my favorite title of his. I've been meaning to read his new memoir, too, but haven't yet.

    @Vasilly--Is Yoani Sanchez the Cuban blogger? I think I heard her interviewed on NPR and she was so interesting and smart. I just checked and our library has a copy of Havana Real, so I'm going to check it out--thanks for the recommendation! (P. S. I subscribe to your blog and am such a fan--thank you for stopping by!!)