King of Cuba

By Cristina Garcia

Scribner | 2013 | 225 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Brothers From Another Mother

Two old men, whose stories intersect at crucial points in their history, narrate this novel. They are men on opposite sides of the political poles, both Cuban.  One, Goyo, has been a successful expatriate, living in Florida since the Revolution, running a successful Cuban diner, investing in real estate and various business ventures.  The other, identified throughout simply as El Comandante, needs no further description: a fictionalized Fidel Castro himself.

Both men are on a slippery slide towards death and they know it; both have certain objectives they want to realize before the end.  Goyo has decided that he can redeem himself and his checkered past of countless loves, wives and mistresses, a son lost to drug addiction and mental illness, real estate that is literally crumbling, in only one way: revenge.  His goal is to assassinate the great leader or to live to the day where he sees him die, even if it means outliving him only by a few minutes.

El Comandante, on his side, though he has handed off a lot of his power to his brother, is still very active behind the scenes, between health crises of various sorts.  He does not want to admit that the sixty-year revolution is at an end, or that it has failed in any way to deliver on its promises to the Cuban people.  He too has had a rich and varied love life, but has mostly failed to recognize the offspring he has produced with multiple women. 

Both men are driven to their inexorable end and we track their progress through a three-month period of July through September.  We are forced to recognize similarities between them, and ways their lives and conduct overlap.  There is also a personal vendetta operating here as El Comandante lured away the great love of Goyo’s life, Adelina, and then abandoned her and her child.  Goyo now blames himself for not forgiving her: the sexual magnetism and charisma of his adversary being generally accepted truths.

Garcia intersperses comments in the form of footnotes throughout the story and lets us hear the voices of the common people who comment on various conditions of Cuban life: coffee adulterated with chickpeas; melted Chinese condoms used as “cheese” on pizzas; mop threads, battered and breaded, sold as fried steaks; ground grapefruit rinds masquerading as beef.  It’s evident that people have rarely had enough to eat and have suffered through unremitting poverty. 

The climax is unexpected in some ways and very powerful.  The two old men are no more.  Only their legacies remain.  How we arrive at this point is often studded with wry humor: the old men beset by inconvenient  fainting spells, digestive problems, car accidents, near drowning in a swamp, being set on fire, rained on by bullets.

Perhaps the scene that etches itself most deeply in the reader’s mind is the one where El Comandante visits prisoners on a hunger strike.  He proceeds to set a full table of delicacies for them and then sits down to a multi-course gourmet meal, relishing every bite.  The prisoners, weakened though they are, do not break down; they accept only a cigar at the end.  But the joy and satisfaction El Comandante experiences in playing with their lives is chilling.  Any doubts about his concern for the people of Cuba vanish in this portrayal, and we are reminded, as he reminisces, of the many times in the past he delighted in executing so-called enemies of the state. 

Garcia makes her point of view very clear: this is a man who cares nothing for others and is motivated by a worship of power alone.  He is a megalomaniac with outsized delusions of grandeur:

“But to El Lider, God remained an elaborate fiction, at least the God of his Latin-spouting Jesuit teachers.  If, as they’d maintained, every man was made in His image, why not simply to a step further and become Him?  After all, the tyrant hadn’t merely survived, he’s lived – flauntingly, outrageously, in the shadow of an imperial power bent on his destruction for the better part of adjoining centuries.  If that didn’t qualify him for deification, nothing could.”

Garcia, a professor of literature and creative writing with six novels to her name, has constructed a very tight plot, given her characters real dimensionality, and crafted a finale that can only be interpreted as a fervent wish-fulfillment for the multitudes of Cuban exiles forced to flee their country more than half a century ago.

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Flat Water Tuesday

By Ron Irwin

Read by: Holter Graham
Macmillan Audio 2013 | 11 hours | 9 CDs | $39.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey

Flat Water Tuesday: Where to start? Let’s see. It’s a novel by Ron Irwin, a writer in residence at the University of Cape Town, a man who writes what he knows. He is a rower from New York State who attended boarding school in New England and has spent time making documentary films.

Why do I almost completely reiterate the author bio? Because, the main character in Flat Water Tuesday, Rob Carrey, is at a glance Ron Irwin. Rob is a skuller (a singles rower) from Nichol City, New York taking a fifth year of high school at Fenton Academy, a school founded for rowing greatness.

As a grown up, he is a documentary filmmaker who takes a lot of work out of Cape Town. In reading the synopsis and author bio, I was not intrigued and, as a non-rower, not excited in the least. I copied the CDs to my computer to find they were broken into fewer and longer tracks (each chapter a full track or two), a format I’ve found makes short sprints of listening while on the go more difficult. From the outset, I felt this book had everything to prove.

The beginning went much as I expected. The cocky, fish-out-of-water, Rob Carrey, was annoying in his inability to rationalize his situation of being required to row on the four-man crew rather than the singles, not to mention the sneering attitude of his competition, Connor Payne.

The book jumps from the grown up Rob struggling to maintain a relationship that is all but over to his experiences at Fenton, including a tragedy (as mentioned in the synopsis) that troubles the members of the rowing team to the present day. The story rolls out to reveal what ruined his relationship and what happened at Fenton that has preyed on Rob’s mind for the past fifteen years. Flat Water Tuesday is ultimately a story of growth, choice, and self-discovery that in the final pages leaves you smiling, nodding your head in admiration.

So I can’t say that I completely enjoyed Ron Irwin’s novel, but I can say that it is beautifully concluded and a worthwhile listen. Irwin’s passion for rowing is apparent and tangible in the heart pounding action of each race.

Holter Graham uses his voice to bring to life the arrogance of the youths, Rob and Connor, that made my skin crawl while listening, but I found myself admiring the reader for his storytelling ability.

 Places where I wouldn’t have imagined a comma, Graham paused, drawing out the moment, and it felt right. The combination of the reader and author kept me afloat and moving towards the finish line. In that Flat Water Tuesday is like one of the rowing races described within it. The novel is a grueling endurance contest all for the sweet taste of victory, and this race is one that Irwin wins, as he won me over in the end.

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The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future

Edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More

Wiley-Blackwell | 2013 | 480 pages

Reviewed by Steven Paul Leiva

The general misunderstanding of evolution has truly been monumental.

There are those, of course, who don’t believe that the natural process of evolution through natural selection exists at all, preferring to believe that some supernatural entity willed all manifestations of life into being in one go, fully formed, complete, and ready for extinction.

No monkey uncles for them, they contend, in fact insisting that the continuing existence of monkeys is the proof against evolution, for if we evolved from monkeys why are they still around?

The flaw in their thinking, outside of the fact that we did not evolve from monkeys, but rather share a common primate ancestor with them, is assuming that evolution is a smooth process of one species not so much evolving as morphing into another species, like the misleading animations of the evolution of particular species (especially us) we have seen in science documentaries for years.

Even people who accept the evolution of life through natural selection seem to have this image of it in their head. And the mistake many of them make, displaying the universal solipsism we seem to have evolved into, is thinking that we today, Homo sapiens in the Twenty-first Century, are not only the end goal of all our past evolution, but of all of life’s past evolution.

The evolutionary buck, it is felt by these people, stops here.

This is simply not true.  The blind forces of evolution have not stopped for any of the species on this planet, including Homo sapiens. The difference, though, between us and all other species—solipsism possibly justified here—is that where they are still at the mercy of the blind forces of evolution; we, because we have evolved to have tool making capabilities, intelligence, and ambition, can wrestle some of those blind forces of evolution and—it is seeming more and more likely —come out on top.

In other words, we can take control of our own evolution and guide us, if we so choose and we most likely will, from what we are today—human—to what we could evolve into in the future—post-human.

The philosophy giving consideration to the science, mechanics, and ethics of how we cross the bridge from the one to the other is called Transhumanism.

The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More would be a good place to begin for anyone uninformed but interested in the philosophy. It’s a necessary book for anyone ill-informed about the philosophy, assuming they would be willing to learn. And it’s a handy, indeed, essential, compilation of the history, ideas, mind-blowing concepts, scary aspects, ethical considerations, existential realities, and controversies of the philosophy.

In the past Transhumanism was more often found in the pages of science fiction, and there are some contributors here known for their science fiction, such as David Brin, Vernor Vinge, and Russell Blackford. But these gentlemen are PhDs and workers in the groves of academia, so the turns of their minds they reveal here are not just fanciful musings on wild concepts, but thoughtful considerations of concepts wild to some, obvious to others.

Also, possibly because they have spent time writing for readers looking for both intellectual stimulation and/or pleasure (not that they are mutually exclusive), their writings in The Transhumanist Reader are among the more readable offerings, other essays rustling with that dry academic language that the non-academic can find sleep-inducing.

But then, this book is intended mainly for an academic audience. Nonetheless, the potential closeness of Transhumanist imaginings becoming reality (decades not centuries) makes this a book I would recommend to any general reader with an interest in the human future. There are concepts and considerations here that should be attended to. We wouldn’t suddenly want to find ourselves evolved into post-humanity without any warning, would we?

Transhumanism is the philosophy of human enhancement through science and technology. It sees that enhancement as focusing on extending our lifespans, possibly to a state of immortality, with the complimentary conquering of illness and aging; and expanding our cognitive abilities with, it is hoped, attendant deeper wisdom and a more refined emotional capacity for joy, sensual pleasures, fun, empathy, and excitement.   Transhumanism sees as inevitable that we will end our confinement to planet Earth, and the enhancements it promotes are possibly necessary in order to end that confinement in a big way.

It is assumed by Transhumanists that we have not yet reached our human potential in this universe, and the question of how we will do that is the concern of Transhumanism.

And yet -- there is the concept of post-humanity. Is post-humanity no humanity at all? As we move through a transhuman phase that may see us melding with machines, either physically for stronger corporeal skills and far longer, and consistently healthy lives, or mentally for exponentially enhanced intelligence; may find us uploading our minds to substrate-independent minds within computers; or existing in a cyberspace that may be larger than the known universe, what becomes of who we were?

Are we, by doing so, gleefully causing the extinction of Homo sapiens? And, if so, is that necessarily a tragedy? Or is it just a transition? A non-spiritual transcendence?

And what about the Singularity? That point when, possibly through the creation of true Artificial Intelligence we create machines that take over the creation of even greater intelligence (disinviting us from the party) creating a world that we, literally, cannot fathom as we cannot fathom the physical laws (if there are any) inside a black hole?

Transhumanism is not simple (and certainly not simple-minded). Human enhancement for a longer, livelier life extending out into the universe sounds fine; a dream come true, in fact, even if we evolve into another Homo species. But signing our own execution order and giving “birth” to non-biological mental entities who may find it embarrassing to think of whence they came, if they think of us at all...?  

All of this is covered in The Transhumanist Reader, and needs to be. For the technology to allow any of these scenarios to happen is coming, cannot be stopped, and so must be given intelligent consideration. Not just by the writers of the essays here, such leaders in the field as Max More, Marvin Minsky, and Ray Kurzweil among others, but by those now studying in major universities around the world who will be there in the future, and by interested members of the public, those in positions of power and those who just vote, who might be called upon to comment, decide, and prepare for whatever lies across the Transhumanist bridge.

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Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns

By David Margolick

Other Press | June 2013 | 400 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Meet John Horne Burns

Let’s deal first with the title.  Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns.  

Translation: “dreadful” was a code word used by novelist John Horne Burns (a gay man) in his personal letters; he used the code to indicate a homosexual person.  Labeling someone “a dreadful” or referring to any “dreadful” antics signified gay orientation.  The military censors never caught on during World War Two, thus the euphemism was exceedingly useful. 

In 1947, John Horne Burns (an Andover-born, Harvard-educated, Irish-Catholic ex-GI) published The Gallery, an unusually structured WW II novel comprised of linked short stories and autobiographical ruminations.  

The Gallery was a critical and commercial success in the late 1940s (lauded by Hemingway and John Dos Passos; selling more than a half-million copies), often cited in subsequent years by fellow “war writers”--from Joseph Heller to Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and others--as one of the best narratives by an American to emerge from the war.

Unfortunately, after his Pulitzer Prize-nominated debut, Burns’ career was derailed by the savage reviews that greeted his subsequent two novels.  He died in 1953, at age 36, soaked in alcohol and furiously self-exiled in Italy. 

It’s an understatement to say that Dreadful is superbly researched.  It seems as if Margolick has retrieved almost every letter John Horne Burns ever sent, and Burns was a compulsive letter-writer.

In John Horne Burns’ case, what his voluminous correspondence ultimately yielded was an unparalleled wartime record of allusions, reports, descriptions, and sometimes not-so-coded explanations of what it was like for a gay man to be swept up into military service during America’s years in World War Two. 

And, as Burns made clear to his primary confidantes (and as Margolick is able to illustrate with endless samples and excerpts from Burns’ rhetorically dazzling letters) it was no draconian, celibate limbo. 

On the contrary, much to Burns’ continual amazement (and sometimes his delight), it turned out that despite the sorry fact that homosexuality was illegal in the armed forces (as it was in society at large), the army bases and their barracks and other adjacent sites were forever steamy with carnally deprived men who figured out myriad ways to relieve sexual frustration.

Whether the men were gay, bi-sexual or straight was not the paramount issue.  The critical factor that never ceased to astound Burns was just how deftly men of all sexual orientations accommodated the conning, dissembling or sheer craftiness required to be able to have whatever sex was available, without being caught and possibly hit with a dishonorable discharge. 

With sixteen million men and women in uniform by the time the Second World War peaked in 1944-45, it’s safe to say that statistically speaking there had to be well over a million gay individuals in the ranks.  And while Burns made cautious efforts to shroud his gay characters in his fiction (the most celebrated part of The Gallery that’s enshrined as a gay narrative is the Portrait entitled “Momma,” which is all about the Neapolitan woman whose gay bar is a beehive each night for Allied men who weren’t necessarily panting over Betty Grable’s pin-ups), he was forthcoming in his letters. 

Repeatedly, he marvels at how much same-sex activity is all around him, whether he’s writing from a training camp or an army base or somewhere in Italy.

But it’s not just sex that was on Burns’ mind.  As Margolick shows, Burns was deeply distressed by what the war indicated about the depths of degradation that human beings were capable of.  And year in and year out, from the suffering of soldiers and civilians to the news about the use of two atomic bombs, Burns’ letters conveyed anguish about the degree to which he felt that civilized life was doomed.

But that’s all the more reason to celebrate Margolick’s wide-ranging biography of Burns.  Regardless of Burns’ many personal flaws—and Margolick offers a surfeit of true-life tales about those peccadilloes—we are reintroduced to a man who lived for the arts and who left behind three novels royally informed by his love for music and poetry.  He was also an artist whose career hit both apex and nadir in record time.

Given how Burns smoked and drank, it’s probable that he was destined to die young, no matter what.  Even by the toxic standards of America in the 1940s and 1950s, he was extreme.  He smoked at least two packs of Lucky Strikes per day, drank heavily each and every night, and neither exercised nor rested particularly well. 

And he also demanded of himself a rigorous, manic, frantic daily quota as an author. 

On the flap-copy of his second novel, readers were told that Burns wrote  “3,000 words daily, seven days a week.”  That’s 21,000 words per week.  A novel a month, by word count.  Such stress, compounded by social isolation, a stalled career, unfulfilling sexual binges, psychological pressures harking back to a severe Irish-Catholic childhood, economic struggles that never resolved (at his death, Burns’ net worth amounted to $109) and whatever expatriate misadventures he had, set the stage for the cerebral hemorrhage that killed him in 1953’s early autumn.

With David Margolick reintroducing the author as we approach the 70th anniversary of the war’s end in 2015, Burns and The Gallery should be appreciated anew:

   I remember that in Naples of August, 1944, I came again to realities I’d all but forgotten.  There are three of them: tears, art, and love . . . between Casablanca and Naples I’d lost all three by watching what was going on around me.  So when they came back to me, I felt like one whose heart begins to beat again when he was despaired of.

I remember that Galleria as something in me remembers my mother’s womb.  I walked backwards and forwards in it.  I must have spent at least nine months of my life there, watching and wondering.  For I got lost in the war in Naples in August, 1944.  Often from what I saw I lost the power of speech.  It seemed to me that everything happening there could be happening to me.  A kind of madness, I suppose.  But in the twenty-eighth year of my life I learned that I too must die.  Until that time the only thing evil that could be done to me would be to hurry me out of the world before my time.  Or to thwart my natural capacities.  If this truth held for me, it must be valid for everybody else in the world.

This is the reason why I remember the Gallery in Naples, Italy. . . .

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