Saturday, November 29, 2008

Yesterday I finished Havana Nocturne by T.J. English.

The books subtitle, "How the mob owned Cuba and then lost if to the revolution", says it all. The book does a nice job of laying out how US based gangsters got involved in Cuba, became very influential by partnering with Fulgencio Batista, the military strongman who dominated Cuban politicals for the first half of the 20th century, and then lost everything when Batista fled the island as Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement took over.

English does a good job of balancing his coverage, keeping his editorial voice under control, and not giving any romantic overtones to two subjects often treated that way - the mafia and Castro.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Crows and Cats

I just finished Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.

The book tells two stories, the first is of a teenage runaway with some Oedipal issues, the second is of an old man who can’t read but can talk to cats. Ultimately, their stories connect even though they never meet or interact directly. The plot, and the characters, move in unexpected directions for the first half of the book. After the midway point, the stories start to come together, after which the events are easier to predict, if not always easier to understand. In the end, not every thing is explained but the underlying shape of what happened is revealed.

In the literary world, this book would be described as magical realism while in the genre world, it would more likely be called an urban fantasy. In either case, the term describes a setting similar to the modern world but with some degree of fantastical elements. In this novel, the fantastical elements are introduced very slowly but turn out to be integral to the plot.

Previously, I had seen a play based on Murakami's work, after the quake.

I liked both of these works quite a bit. Recommended.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I just finished The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam, his history of America's role in the Korean War.

Sadly, before reading this book my main source of info about the Korean War was having seen the entire run of M*A*S*H. For example, I knew the Chinese were involved but didn't know to what extent - that they were the main force the UN was fighting against in Korea for the bulk of the war.

The Coldest Winter is a little light on the actual details of the war - it seems to assume that most readers will be familiar with the details - and instead goes into a lot of detail in a few areas, like the initial Chinese offensive and the siege of Chipyong-ni. He also provides a lot of background material on the key figures involved, like Truman, McArthur and Ridgeway on the American side and Kim Il Sung and Peng Dehuai on the North Korean/Chinese side and on the larger political situation that provided context for the war.

Based on the quality of this book, I may pick up Halberstam's book on the Vietnam War as well.