"Our Man Down in Havana: The Story Behind Graham Greene’s Cold War Spy Novel" by Christopher Hull, Pegasus Books, 2019

G Greene.jpg

Graham Greene is one of the foremost prolific British writers of the 20th century. He did not come from money, but enjoyed the high life, and that drove him to write. Lucky for us.

Our Man Down in Havana details the actual story behind the writing of the novel. Twelve weeks after it was published in January 1959, the Cuban Revolution transformed a capitalist playground into a communist stronghold. And in 1962, when the Cuban missile crisis fixed the world on the island, those familiar with Greene’s novel and subsequent movie were amazed at the prescience of his vacuum cleaner like installations in the Cuban mountains.

What did Greene know that others did not? He spent a fair amount of time in old Cuba, hung out with prominent members of the Batista government and wealthy Cuban nationals. He also courted revolutionaries, sympathetic to their original motives. Did he work for the British Foreign Service as a spy? They did pay for many of his trips to Cuba and other world hot spots. While Hull’s carefully research inquiry forms conclusions, nothing is proven and validated due to the covenants of secrecy.

Recommended for lovers of Graham Greene, the history of the entanglement of the UK, the U.S. and Cuba during the 50s and the 60s, and the philology of Our Man in Havana.

"Fight No More: Stories" by Lydia Millet (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019)

Not a short story lover.  But there are some that tell a longer story episodically.  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is like this.  The chapters stand alone.

fight no more.jpg

I dove into Fight No More with the advice from a reviewer that this book of short stories (finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) was episodes in a longer story.  It was, sort of.  The writing is excellent.  I could see the characters and their situations.  But they did not engage me.  All the stories are dark, and all the characters have pain and suffering in their past lives: The Holocaust, familial rape, drugs/alcohol, internet porn.  Naturally this leads to pain and suffering in their present lives, though you do hope that Lexie and Jem escape.  Not likely.

If you like the short story genre, this book will be a good read.  For me, it was a good bedtime read because most stories are short.  Plots are not “resolved”, but neither is life.  These are well made YouTube videos: on and off.  Millet is a prolific writer and I’ll try one of her novels for comparison.  
 

“Reconstruction: A Concise History” by Allen C. Guelzo (Oxford University Press, 2018)

reconstruction.jpg

“The twelve years that are the conventional designation of the Reconstruction period, from 1865 to 1877, teem with associations and developments that seem regrettable, if not simply baleful.”

Massive tomes have been written about the history of the Reconstruction.  Guelzo pockets it into 130 pages, if you choose to ignore the supplements.  It’s a wonder that the U.S. survived as a nation.  Guelzo’s narrative is concise, but not snappy—it’s a bit of a tough read because so much is crammed onto every page.  

The best predictor of the future is the past.  So, we read history, understanding it is one person’s interpretation of the past.  So much of what we see today flows from those 12 years of chaos.  Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice President proved to be the antithesis of Lincoln.  He was a Southerner from Tennessee.  His direct actions overrode Congress’s attempts to set up an orderly transition from war to productive peace.  Instead, former Confederate officers stepped into positions of power and eventually drove out the “Carpetbaggers” from the North.  Johnson was impeached in March 1877, but the measure did not pass.  In November, Ulysses S. Grant was elected, a flawed man with no political experience.

The Supreme Court took advantage of weak executive and legislative leadership, carving new powers for itself.  They became the arbiter of efforts to bring North and South together, more often driving them further apart.  In 1883, the overturned Sumner’s Civil Rights Bill, a deed not rectified until Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.

Though southern blacks were almost immediately elected to new legislative bodies in the South, they proved unable to formulate and negotiate favorable legislation.  They were too poorly educated and underfunded.  No charismatic leader arose from among them who could have led a more effective effort.  Slavery proved no training ground for politics.

Guelzo, in the end, endorsed the theory that the U.S. would have fared much better if the rebellious states had been held and managed by the victorious North until arrangements were made for the integration of the former slaves and the infrastructure rebuilt.  Instead, we proved true to our American need to “get it done” and left the South in shambles for both freed people and whites.

I was enlightened by Reconstruction.  It deserves a second read, but not for a while…