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Geoff Parkes (Hampshire, England)

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HAVANA RED
HAVANA RED
by Leonardo Padura
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Who strangled the transvestite?, 3 May 2011
This review is from: HAVANA RED (Paperback)
Havana Red - original title: `Mascara' (= `Mask') - is one of a quartet of detective novels featuring hard-drinking, angst-ridden detective Mario Conde, who'd really prefer to be a writer. After a transvestite is found strangled in Havana Woods, Conde and able sidekick Manuel Palacios set off on the trail of the killer. There is a rich cast of characters, and the pair have to contend with an ageing, ostracised gay writer, a diplomat, several thugs, an enigmatic but erudite housemaid, and police with dubious motives before solving the mystery.

The problem with this book is that it is so uneven. There is a strong storyline, and whenever the author focuses on the main plot, the book is a real page-turner. Too often, however, there are lengthy asides on various topics like the marginalisation of artists and writers, Cuba's troubled past, and biblical analysis, not to mention Conde's repeated philosophising. Translator Peter Bush has on the whole done a good job, especially with the dialogue sections, but you sense that he struggled at times with the dense prose of the tirades, which may make them sound worse than they are. Defenders of Sr. Padura may argue that, given the turmoil in Cuba of recent decades, his characters have the right to rant, that a Cuban detective novel is unlikely to resemble other detective novels, and that for Padura it's obviously important to document social history, not just write a detective novel. All of this may be true, but it didn't stop me finding some of the rants tedious and out of place in a book of this genre, where I want to be carried along by the action.

Despite its shortcomings, there is a lot to like in this book. There are humorous moments, a couple of erotic episodes, and several beautifully-drawn characters. Descriptions of various areas in Havana will mean more if you have been there but might whet your appetite if you haven't. Padura is a true Habanero and his descriptions of life on the street there are authentic and captivating - and it all takes place under the searing summer sun. It's enough to make me try at least one more book of the quartet.


Enduring Cuba (Lonely Planet Travel Literature)
Enduring Cuba (Lonely Planet Travel Literature)
by Bran
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.10

3.0 out of 5 stars A miscellany of first impressions of Cuba, 12 Feb 2009
This Cuba travelogue contains a mix of historical notes, interviews, descriptions of towns and journeys, and anecdotes about chance meetings. Places covered are mainly on the standard tourist route - Havana, Santiago, Baracoa, Trinidad, Viñales, etc. - plus a few like Cayo Sabinal that are not.

Of most interest are accounts of experiences that an average tourist would not have: seeing a cockfight, attending a santeria ceremony, talking to a fearful beleaguered journalist. For historical/factual sections, Ms Brân's research is sound but shows massive duplication of effort: you find the same information, often in more depth, in Moon Guide or Rough Guide to Cuba. She has conversations with a wide variety of locals, including a film director, a couple of writers, an artist, a gay ex-pat and a witch. These can be entertaining, though most are neither more nor less interesting than those any independent traveller will have on a first visit. (It's surprisingly easy to meet a witch, a TV star, a plastic surgeon.)

Author Zoë Brân comes across as likeable, intelligent and highly motivated, but for this type of book, heavily reliant on interviews and conversations, she was clearly hamstrung by her lack of knowledge of Spanish. Taking the first lesson after arrival in Havana was about two years too late! (The Spanish quoted in the book is strewn with errors; why didn't Lonely Planet check it?). This is a book of snapshots rather than deep insights. It can't replace a guidebook, but is a pleasing enough read for first-timers by a first-timer.


What I Did in Cuba
What I Did in Cuba
by Paul Myers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.95

4 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Poland with palm trees?, 30 Jan 2009
This review is from: What I Did in Cuba (Paperback)
This light-hearted travelogue documents a three-week journey spanning the turn of the year 1994/95, i.e. during the period of austerity dubbed the "Special Period" following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The main places covered are Havana, Varadero, Cayo Coco and Trinidad. Written in a racy, colloquial style, this short journal is one you can zoom through in an afternoon. Mr Myers and girlfriend Betty Boo suffered an extraordinary amount of bad luck. Paramount among their misfortunes was what he calls "kidnap", though what he describes is actually false imprisonment plus extortion. He also bemoans continual hunger, gristly meals, constant rip-offs, hustlers, abominable service, lack of maps and lack of music. These days you can't complain about lack of music - it's everywhere - and food is now bland rather than gristly. Though Cuba is still blighted by many of the ills he lists, it has many compensations, not least the infectious warmth of the people. You shouldn't infer that Mr Myers' book is a depressing read: he tries to buoy us up along the way with his joky style - with varying degrees of success. A chance meeting with Gary Glitter adds a bit of spice.

I quite enjoyed this quick romp through a country I've come to know well, but four glaring flaws prevent me from giving it more than three stars. Firstly, Mr Myers dredges up some tired old jokes about the Germans, containing the same old prejudices. Can we stop doing this, please? Secondly, the book is littered with horrific spelling and grammar mistakes, all of which could have been avoided had he used a proof reader. Thirdly, the author falls into the old trap of believing that the US embargo is wholly responsible for Cuba's economic woes. Maintaining the embargo in 2010 is patently absurd, but China has filled the void left by Russia, and Cuba can trade with up to 100 countries, largely through the Panama Free Trade Zone. Lastly, the outlook of the whole book is unabashedly jaundiced. The music, the dancing, the atmosphere of Old Havana and the idyllic beaches are just a few of the uplifting aspects which Myers' book ignores or plays down.

Mr Myers explains that he didn't finish writing the journal till 2008. Back in 1995 he was exhorting us to steer clear of Cuba - "Poland with palm trees". My advice is to give Cuba a chance. For all its annoyances, it's a fascinating and vibrant place, not like any other country, and definitely worth visiting. For more even-handed views of the country, look at The Moon Guide to Cuba and Blue Cuban Nights. For a Cuban native's view of the country's seedy underbelly, and of the daily struggle when you're short of cash, try Dirty Havana Trilogy.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 12, 2010 4:41 PM GMT


El Bano Del Papa [DVD]
El Bano Del Papa [DVD]
Dvd ~ Enrique Fernandez & Cesar Charlone
Price: £13.34

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars High expectations in a small Uruguayan town, 25 Jan 2009
This review is from: El Bano Del Papa [DVD] (DVD)
The inspiration for this film was a real visit made by Pope John Paul II on 8 May 1988 to the small Uruguayan town of Melo, 60 km from the Brazilian border. The film spotlights, with liberal doses of humour, how difficult life is for the impoverished community. Of particular significance is the fact that some men cycle the 120-km round-trip to the nearest Brazilian town, stocking up on goods which are partly for their own use but mainly for resale to their local shops. On cycling home, they try desperately to avoid the attentions of the corrupt, brutish customs officers by using field tracks to bypass the main border crossing.

News of the Pope's impending visit encourages the townsfolk to devise ways of making a quick buck on the day of the visit. As the day draws near, estimates of the numbers of visitors escalate. Whilst most people decide to prepare food for the anticipated hordes, the central character, Beto, hits upon the idea of constructing a quality toilet, for which he will charge entry...

This film is a big tension-builder: for about 80% of the time we're wondering exactly what will happen on 8 May (and of course I'm not going to tell you!). Though you'd have to say it's a bitter-sweet film, you'll spend plenty of the 90 minutes laughing - there's a strong feelgood factor. The film uses a mixture of known and unknown actors. It is totally engaging, with no boring moments at all: thoroughly good entertainment and warmly recommended.

Footnote: the film is in Spanish with English subtitles. Don't expect to understand too much of the Spanish unless you're a native speaker.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 29, 2013 9:24 PM GMT


Moon Cuba (Moon Handbooks)
Moon Cuba (Moon Handbooks)
by Christopher P. Baker
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars The Cuba guide that set the mark for all others, 21 Dec 2008
For a good three or four years, this was the bible for independent travellers to Cuba. With almost 1000 pages, it provided far more in-depth information on all aspects of the country than any other guide. However, this third edition was published in January 2004, which means the research was done in 2003 or earlier, so much of the information is not valid for those travelling in 2011. The sad fact is that we're not likely to see a volume of this quality again. Moon's fourth edition (2006) has slimmed down by around 200 pages and the price has dropped by £2. This is no doubt because (a) it takes too long to keep updating a 1000-page tome, and (b) Moon needs to compete pricewise and weightwise with the other two heavies, Rough Guide and Lonely Planet. This is both understandable and regrettable. The third edition was undoubtedly superior to the fourth; it was worth buying purely for the introductory sections on History, Cuban Society, Flora and Fauna, etc. and for the wonderfully informative sidebars. Now that the third edition is out of date but still widely available, I wonder if it will become a collectors' item? I hope so - it deserves to.


Teach Yourself Improve Your Spanish (TYIL)
Teach Yourself Improve Your Spanish (TYIL)
by Juan Kattan-Ibarra
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent course for intermediate learners, 20 Dec 2008
It was very refreshing to come across this course for two reasons. Firstly, whilst there is no shortage of material for beginners, there is far less available for improvers. Secondly, it is a relief to see that the Teach Yourself series has reinvented itself: gone are the turgid, unappealing tomes with the blue and yellow covers of yesteryear, to be replaced by much smarter, more professional products.

The course is available as a book + two CDs or the book alone. It works as a standalone book because the transcripts of the CD texts appear at the back of the book anyway. I chose the book-only version since I already own many other CDs in Spanish. Buying the book + CDs more than doubles the total cost - as always, CDs are grossly overpriced - but many may feel that the help offered with pronunciation justifies the extra expense.

In UK terms, the level is something like pre-A Level. I used the book for self-study while attending a once-a-week intermediate class at night school. It's aimed at adults rather than teenagers, is full of highly useful vocabulary, phrases and idioms linked to hotels, family, jobs, holidays, shopping, noisy neighbours, etc. It also contains just the right mix of dialogues, texts, small illustrations, grammar notes and exercises.

Most intermediate courses tend to be glossy, large-format books packed with colour pictures and designed for class use. This one has no colour pictures, but that scarcely matters as the good quality and variety of material keeps you motivated. And the clincher: it's less than A5 size, so you can pop it in your pocket and read it on the bus, the train - or the beach! This is the only language book I've ever worked through twice. It helped me enormously and I warmly recommend it.


Our Man In Havana [DVD] [2005]
Our Man In Havana [DVD] [2005]
Dvd ~ Alec Guinness
Price: £4.95

39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining spy spoof set in pre-revolutionary Havana, 20 Dec 2008
What a treat! Here we have one of the UK's finest twentieth century actors (Alec Guinness) starring in a story by one of the UK's finest twentieth century novelists (Graham Greene). It also stars Burl Ives, Ralph Richardson and Maureen O'Hara. This is a light-hearted black-and-white comedy (Greene called it an 'entertainment') about Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, recruited into espionage by Secret Service agent Hawthorne (Noel Coward). Wormold needs the money to finance his daughter's expensive tastes, especially with horses, but quickly finds himself out of his depth when expected to find further recruits at his country club. He files false reports and supplies drawings of non-existent secret weapons, based on vacuum cleaner designs. The story takes several darker turns, but by the end we all have a smile on our faces.

It's wonderful to contrast late-fifties Havana with Havana today. The opening credits show a lady doing languid backstroke down a rooftop swimming-pool, then turning to gaze past the twin towers of the Hotel Nacional towards the arc of the malecon and Old Havana - seemingly unchanged. A street hustler approaches dapper, quick-striding Hawthorne and grows increasingly desperate as Hawthorne fails to bite: "Shoeshine? Pretty girl? Dirty movie?...Palace of Art?!" The hustlers are still there, but these days it's more likely to be: "Cigars? Restaurant? Pretty girl?...Viagra?!"

You can watch this film in four different languages, with a choice of 12 languages as subtitles - great! OK, sometimes the subtitles go astray. "Kettle" gets subtitled as "tetera" (= teapot) - not much good for steaming letters open! According to the subtitles, a man found bound and gagged in the gutter (arroyo) is said to have been found in the "puerta" (= doorway) - not quite the same thing! But these shortcomings are amusing rather than annoying. Apart from being great fun to watch, the film supplies an important piece of social history. The timing is critical: the book was written in 1958 about events in 1957, i.e. the end of the Batista regime. But director Carol Reed needed Fidel Castro's permission to film in 1959, after the revolution. Luckily Castro complied. Buy it and enjoy!
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 31, 2012 2:20 AM BST


Moon Cuba (Moon Handbooks)
Moon Cuba (Moon Handbooks)
by Christopher P. Baker
Edition: Paperback

29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still the most thorough handbook on Cuba, 17 Dec 2008
If you're familiar with Lonely Planet, Rough Guides or Footprint, it comes as a bit of a shock when you first pick up the Moon Handbook - the best researched and most authoritative guide to Cuba (though it needs yet another update!)

Before visiting the island, I spent two days sprawled on a sofa in my local bookshop with a pile of 12 Cuba guides beside me. I went through comparing them town by town, topic by topic, map by map. The Moon Guide was in a league of its own. Four years and five visits later, I repeated the exercise (December 2008) with updated editions. Moon is still in the lead, though by a smaller margin.

Actually, I had never heard of Moon. Their guides, published by Avalon USA, cover USA, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. However, Moon Cuba is written by Englishman Chris Baker, a fluent Spanish speaker who has been to Cuba numerous times, including one epic trip on a motorbike visiting every far-flung corner of the country. He writes with intelligence and wit, telling us all we need to know about accommodation, travel and attractions but also offering insights into the history, people, customs and politics which most writers cannot hope to match. The maps are plentiful and detailed. Information on casas (family-stay accommodation - the best choice for most) is far more detailed than other guides, listing facilities and even interests and characteristics of the owners. The book is aimed at intelligent, curious travellers (most who visit Cuba are), whether backpackers on a tight budget or the less impecunious. So it's the best guide - but is it the best guide for everyone? Maybe not. If you're going for two weeks or less, and you think you'll never go again, you won't need its 800-odd pages. Rough Guide, with about 600, is probably the best of the rest. If you need glossy colour photos to whet your appetite, and you prefer hotels to private casas, choose either the Insight Guide or DK Eyewitness. Lonely Planet, the market leader, is also good (I rate it third) but you may not want it after you've seen Moon! Don't touch any guide with fewer than 300 pages: Cuba is a complex country and you'll need plenty of help!

Finally, remember that ALL guides are out of date before the ink is dry. This is especially true of Cuba, where change is more rapid and radical than most places. If you're wise and/or lucky, you'll buy a Moon edition published within 12 or 18 months of your trip. Buen viaje. Que lo pases bien!


Wonderwall [1968] [DVD]
Wonderwall [1968] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Jane Birkin
Offered by brandsseller
Price: £30.68

13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good atmosphere, great colour, poor story-line, 2 Dec 2007
This review is from: Wonderwall [1968] [DVD] (DVD)
The plot for this film is very basic: eccentric, loner professor (Jack MacGowran) living in ultra-cluttered home spies through hole (later holes) in the wall on swinging, psychedelic household next door and fantasises increasingly about Penny Lane (Jane Birkin), the girl living there with her boyfriend.

As a product of swinging London in the 60s, I bought this film expecting to be transported back to those wild, delicious times. It didn't happen much. There are certainly a number of authentic touches: psychedelic cars, flamboyantly-clad models, Penny Lane's brilliantly decorated and furnished flat (that's extreme - and bang on!), and a predominance of fashion photographers. Accompanying all the extravagant visuals we have George Harrison's soundtrack, dominated by the wailing sitar and reminiscent in turn of Revolver or Magical Mystery Tour, though sadly never as melodic as either.

Our cameo portraits of the 60s are glimpsed as the prof presses his eye to the wall, where he witnesses exactly what you'd expect for the time: drugs, sex, music, models, photography, plus the usual boyfriend-girlfriend dramas. However, don't expect to see people tripping out on LSD or having wild, explicit sex - there's none of that. The prof's episodes of voyeurism are interspersed with fantasy sequences, increasingly of the prof getting together with Penny. These sequences are sometimes amusing, sometimes visually striking, sometimes pointless. Jane Birkin usually provides the eye candy, and without her you're left thinking that the fantasy sequences would often be pretty tedious.

The film does give you some tastes of the 60s, though 'Blow-up' and 'Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush' evoke the period far better. The strongest thing about the film is the striking use of colour. The weakest thing is the lack of a decent plot: Jane Birkin and Jack MacGowran are both fine actors but are not given enough material to work with. The thinking was presumably that creating a psychedelic 60s atmosphere would be enough to carry the film, but the best films of the era all have far stronger story lines. If you're a dyed-in-the-wool 60s fan, you might feel you want to own it; if you're not, you won't.


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