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Telex from Cubaby Rachel Kushner
Synopses & Reviews
An astonishingly wise, ambitious, and riveting first novel set in the American community in Cuba during the years leading to Castro's revolution, this masterful debut will put Rachel Kushner on the map of American fiction.
Rachel Kushner's mother grew up in Cuba in the 1950s, in the United Fruit Company enclave where Telex from Cuba takes place. Calling on a rich trove of family letters, photos, meticulously kept journals, and historical research, Kushner sets free her brilliant imagination in this profoundly resonant story of a world that was paradise for a time and for a few.
For half a century, Americans controlled Cuba's sugar and nickel operations — the country's two most lucrative exports. Between the United Fruit Company's three-hundred-thousand-acre plantation and the nearby Nicaro nickel mines, Americans tended their own fiefdom in Cuba's Oriente Province. Everly Lederer and K. C. Stites come of age in this world. Each has a keen eye for the indulgences and betrayals of the grown-ups around them. Meanwhile, in faraway Havana, a cabaret dancer and a French agitator with a shameful past become enmeshed in the brewing political underground. When Fidel and Raúl Castro lead a revolt from the mountains just above the Americans' privileged enclave, torching sugarcane fields and recruiting rebels, K.C. and Everly begin to discover the complexities of class and race and the barely disguised brutality that keeps the colony humming. If their parents seem blissfully untouched by the forces of history, the children hear the whispers of what's to come, as Kushner deftly merges the rural and urban dramas.
At the time, urgent news was conveyed by telex. Kushner's first novel is a tour de force, haunting and compelling, with the urgency of a telex from a forgotten time and place.
Wonderful reviews have been coming thick and fast for "Telex From Cuba," and they're more than well deserved. This first novel by Rachel Kushner is a pure treat from the cover to the very last page. It's the kind of thing you should stock up on to give sick friends as presents; they'll forget their arthritis and pneumonia, I promise, once they walk into a land that's gone now, but not yet quite forgotten:... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Cuba in the last few years before Fidel Castro took over. For those who remember those days, or even for those who take the Cuba story at second hand, the frame has always been presented to us as Democracy versus Communism. Kushner (whose mother spent several childhood years in the compound of the United Fruit Co., which owned almost all of the eastern half of the island) swivels the camera for the reader. Forget Communism, she says, look past it, or better still, look just there, in the foreground, at the coastal villages of Preston and Nicaro. Preston is for the white employees of the United Fruit Co.: See their fancy houses and squadrons of servants, and out just beyond the edges, the shacks where Jamaican and Haitian workers live without running water? And over there is Nicaro. That's where they've started up the American nickel mine again. The whites who live there are a cut below, but they're still white, and they're living beyond their wildest dreams. And see that one wacky wife who was so scared of the tropics she brought along seven Dubuque canned hams in those huge triangular containers — along with her loser husband and her three daughters — just in case the food on this lush island might be inedible? Losers, these latter-day white colonials. Even the Stites family, the clan at the center of the novel, who live in the biggest house in Preston, whose tyrannical father is the august head honcho of madly powerful United Fruit, might have been a little hayseed back in the States. Mrs. Stites only went to DePauw University, after all, not Vassar or Smith. Mr. Stites rules as an emperor over his domain. Good china, fine silverware, whispering servants, Mrs. Stites ringing a bell between courses during dinner. It's a life, when one thinks about it, not unlike those of Protestant missionaries out in early-20th-century China: provincial Midwesterners, most of them, who made the voyage to save souls and found themselves happily swathed in luxury, until they were kicked out. Kicked out! That's what's going to happen to all these arrogant, nervous, insecure Americans; we know it, but they don't know it yet. The men leech wealth from the earth and its true inhabitants, and they only dimly understand that within Cuba, immigrant Jamaicans and Haitians cut cane, that house servants scorn outdoor servants who, in their turn, scorn immigrant workers. The whites know that up in the mountains, rebels are plotting to change government, but it doesn't worry them unduly. United Fruit has worked with every government before, and aren't Castro and his brothers the sons of a wealthy Cuban landowner? Besides, the Americans can't stand Batista because he's mulatto. They blackball him (unanimously) from their best social club. We see this story mostly through the eyes of two naive adolescents, K.C. Stites, younger son of the United Fruit king, and Everly Lederer, a cross-eyed little girl over in Nicaro, daughter of the Dubuque ham lady. When the family hires a black Haitian houseboy, Everly falls for him. Not in a sexual way. She just recognizes pure beauty when she sees it. Woven through K.C. and Everly's story, like a single silver thread sewn through unbleached linen, is a third narrative, which verges on the mythological. Here the author takes us to the other end of the island, to "glamorous" Havana, showing us its glittery enticements: There's a Cuban showgirl who poses as French, spending hours each day drawing fishnet stockings on her legs, and her suitor, a traitorous Frenchman, whose favorite beverage is "a rum drink with crushed mint and morphine crystals dissolving in a slush of ice." Oh my goodness! Where is that drink now? "Lost" and "Gone," as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the early pages of "The Last Tycoon," lost and gone. A world we'll never see again, any part of it. Rachel Kushner uses her considerable powers to bring it back for us, one last time. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Soundly researched and gorgeously written, the creative story also serves as a history lesson. An imaginative work that brings Cuban-American history to life." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Kushner has written a gripping tale of what it was like to live through a momentous time. It is a powerful, haunting look at the human side of revolution." Booklist
"This first novel by Rachel Kushner is a pure treat from the cover to the very last page. It's the kind of thing you should stock up on to give sick friends as presents....Rachel Kushner uses her considerable powers to bring [this world] back for us, one last time." Carolyn See, The Washington Post Book World
"As a portrait of the 'other' 1950s Cuba, this novel is a departure from most others of its kind. Emphatically 'American' in its point of view and story, Telex offers a glimpse of how American executives and their families lived in Cuba during that crucial epoch of change, and, as such, will offer readers a refreshingly eye-opening account of what went on behind the corporate scenes and in the back rooms of power." Oscar Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and A Simple Habana Melody
"Telex From Cuba is a prodigious work, sparking into life throughout its pages, beautifully balanced in its views of plantation society and the revolutionary force that ultimately overthrows it, written without bombast or self-referring language, as if the writer is so intent on the people she portrays, she writes of them with a kind of rare innocence, the innocence of the true observer who submits to the power of the tale she tells." Paula Fox, author of The Coldest Winter
"Imagination and intelligence luxuriate in Rachel Kushner's fascinating first novel. I marvel at how Kushner blends psychological and political realities, corporate America and insurgent Cuba, into a vivid diptych of the days before Castro's revolution. Rich in compelling characters and historical events, Telex From Cuba is a revelatory, tenderhearted, and powerful work." Lynne Tillman, author of American Genius, A Comedy
"Through the eyes of the innocent and those that are world weary, Rachel Kushner creates a mesmerizing and deeply intelligent tale of the unraveling of the privileged and at times surreal life of Americans in Cuba in the 1950s. Telex From Cuba is a heady and richly imagined tapestry." Lisa Fugard, author of Skinner's Drift
"Telex From Cuba exerts the mysterious pull of a super-saturated postcard from a distant land, sent to you by a stranger. Kushner brilliantly transforms her family history — and history — into a page-turning, elegantly intelligent, and politically enlightening novel that rings as true as anything. Hers is an epic achievement." Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment
Rachel Kushner has written an astonishingly wise, ambitious, and riveting novel set in the American community in Cuba during the years leading up to Castro's revolution — a place that was a paradise for a time and for a few. The first novel to tell the story of the Americans who were driven out in 1958, this is a masterful debut. andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; Young Everly Lederer and K. C. Stites come of age in Oriente Province, where the Americans tend their own fiefdom — three hundred thousand acres of United Fruit Company sugarcane that surround their gated enclave. If the rural tropics are a child's dreamworld, Everly and K.C. nevertheless have keen eyes for the indulgences and betrayals of the grown-ups around them — the mordant drinking and illicit loves, the race hierarchies and violence. andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; In Havana, a thousand kilometers and a world away from the American colony, a cabaret dancer meets a French agitator named Christian de La Maziand#232;re, whose seductive demeanor can't mask his shameful past. Together they become enmeshed in the brewing political underground. When Fidel and Raand#250;l Castro lead a revolt from the mountains above the cane plantation, torching the sugar and kidnapping a boat full of "yanqui" revelers, K.C. and Everly begin to discover the brutality that keeps the colony humming. Though their parents remain blissfully untouched by the forces of history, the children hear the whispers of what is to come. andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; At the time, urgent news was conveyed by telex. Kushner's first novel is a tour de force, haunting and compelling, with the urgency of a telex from a forgotten time and place.
About the Author
Rachel Kushner was an editor at Grand Street and Bomb and now coedits Soft Targets. A frequent contributor to Artforum, she has a BA from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in Los Angeles.
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