I just finished reading my pal Tom Miller’s latest gem, Cuba, Hot & Cold (The University of Arizona Press), and it’s left me with a smile on my face.
Miller, author of his 1992 classic, Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba, knows a thing or two about Cuba, having not least wed a lovely Cuban lass he met in 1990, giving him an insider’s track to understanding quirky life on this topsy-turvy island of eccentricity and enigma.
His latest book offers a delightful 107 pages of insightful, mostly anecdotal, vignettes spanning history, politics and, of course, Cuba’s often confounding and always defiantly soulful culture. Most of the accounts are Miller’s own rehashed stories first published in the 1990s in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, etc. Other chapters bring the book up to date, including a concluding chapter that encapsulates contemporary history in a nutshell, closing with President Obama’s March 2016 visit.
But the overall theme is one of wistful reflection, from a pally meeting with photographer Korda (he shot the famous image of Che Guevara, “head slightly tilted,” writes Miller, “the wispy mustache, his eyes burning as he looked just beyond the forseeable future”) to escorting Mariel Hemingway on her first visit to Cuba, and to the time the CIA tried to recruit Miller to spy on Cuba during his travels.
Miller is a master story-teller, and one with a truffle-hunter’s capacity for nosing out priceless nuggets, such as ferreting out the aged luthier who crafted a tres guitar for Ry Cooder (the U.S. guitarist responsible for the Buena Vista Social Club movie) in his “almost barren workspace,” where a “single fluorescent light hanging from the ceiling illuminated more spiderwebs than guitars.”
For all the pain Miller, and I, witnessed traveling through, and living in, Havana during Cuba’s surreal and distinctly unfunny ‘Special Period’ (the time of extreme hardship post collapse of the Soviet Union), Cubans’ indomitable smartass spirit shines through. Descriptions of their “essential frivolities” are spiced too with Miller’s equally irrepressible trademark dry wit.
The compendium of yesteryear recollections offers prickly cinematic takes on a Cuba quickly fading to myth as Raúl’s economic reforms–and the spillover of mass U.S. visits–take hold. One dispiriting anecdote stands out: “I once rode a bus down Insurgentes Sur, Mexico City’s major north-south artery, with my wife. We passed Subway Sandwiches, Alphagraphics, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Hertz Rent-a-Car, Chevrolet, and a dozen more neon American franchices. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘you bad-mouth Fidel, but five years after he dies this is what Havana’s going to look like. You’re going to miss the old fart.’ ‘You don’t understand,’ she countered. ‘This is what we want.'”
As Miller himself replied to the crude CIA recruitment effort, “Puh-leeze!”