The setting for the book I chose for Cuba, Dancing to “Almendra,” by Mayra Montero, is the Cuba I recall from watching the movie The Godfather: Part II. Casinos, extravagant entertainment, mafiosi, and corruption took center stage, while Castro’s revolution percolated in the background.
The book’s protagonist is a 22-year-old reporter named Joaquin Porrata, who is frustrated at being assigned to the entertainment beat when what he really wants to do is cover the mob bosses who have converged on Havana. He thinks he has found his chance when an employee at the Havana Zoo tells him that the escape and subsequent death of the zoo’s hippopotamus had been a warning to mobster Umberto Anastasia. Unfortunately, the message arrived too late, as Anastasia had been killed in a New York barbershop that same day.
Joaquin changes newspapers in order to be allowed to write about the mob, and his life becomes both more exciting and more dangerous. He develops an infatuation for a one-armed woman who may or may not have been the mistress of Mafia boss Santo Trafficante, gets beaten up by mob enforcers twice, and crosses paths with the American actor George Raft, part owner of the Capri hotel and casino.
The title of the book refers to a popular Cuban song called “Almendra.” It takes on significance for Joaquin when, as a teenager, he sees the mother of his best friend, a woman he’s had a crush on since childhood, dancing to “Almendra” with a man who figures prominently in the book.
I enjoyed learning more about the years and events leading up to the Cuban revolution. Now, though, I’d be interested in reading a novel by a Cuban author about life in Cuba since the revolution. Any suggestions?
When one of the early chapters in “Dancing to Almendra” described the meal of pink flamingos, turtles, crabs, and oysters that was being prepared for a group of mob bosses, I assumed I wouldn’t find any inspiration for a vegan dish in the book. Turns out I was wrong. On New Year’s Eve, Joaquin has dinner at the home of one-armed Yolanda, and she gives him white rice and black beans. I found a Vegetarian Times recipe for Cuban-style black beans with rice and plantains that looked pretty good, so I gave it a try. The recipe called for instant brown rice instead of white rice, and I added a little dollop of vegan sour cream for garnish. It was a very satisfying meal, and the sautéed plantains served on top of the beans were a nice touch.
GlobalGiving’s website listed two projects for Cuba, both offering relief to Cubans affected by last year’s Hurricane Irma. I chose the project administered by Global Links, which is working to “deliver medical equipment and supplies that will support health services and hospitals damaged by Hurricane Irma.” These resources will help, not only in the short-term, but will “work to the strengthen the public health system to improve long term sustainability.” More information about Global Links’ Hurricane Irma relief work in Cuba is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/hurricane-irma-recovery-in-cuba/.
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