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Dancing to "Almendra": A Novel Hardcover – January 23, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Montero's compelling latest (following Captain of the Sleepers) is set in Mafia-dominated Cuba in 1957, before Castro took power but during his military campaign from the hillsides. It tells the story of young journalist Joaquín Porrata, who's investigating the murder of mob boss Umberto "Albert" Anastasia, who really was murdered in 1957. Joaquin is warned at every turn to stay away from the story, but he persists, traveling to New York and back, drawing a beating for his trouble. His hard-bitten voice alternates in the narrative with that of Yolanda, his one-armed mulatta lover, who provides a more magical realist take on the surreal Havana of the '50s. Period figures like Meyer Lansky and George Raft play pivotal roles in nicely imagined sequences about a city where charm and corruption were indivisible. But it's in the death of Joaquín's brother, Santiago, tortured and murdered by the dictator's enforcers, that the reality of the coming revolution is brought home, making it clear that much more than a gaudy city of casinos and nightclubs is at stake. Montero blends fact and fiction with narrative aplomb: as in Graham Greene, the drama of a nation disintegrating in crisis is made very personal. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

The Cuban-born Montero, a newspaper columnist in Puerto Rico and the author of several critically acclaimed novels (Captain of the Sleepers , 2005), returns to her homeland with this atmospheric tale of prerevolution Havana. Joaquin Porrata, a young journalist obsessed with the role of the Mafia in Cuba, gets a tip that the killing of a hippopotamus in the Havana Zoo is somehow connected to the murder of Umberto Anastasia in New York. His attempts to follow the story land him in predicaments both absurd and life threatening, and as his obsession grows, his personal life also swirls out of control--his affair with a former circus performer yields mysteries of its own, and his brother's involvement with revolutionaries leads to tragedy. Like Thomas Sanchez in King Bongo (2003), also set in 1957 Cuba, Montero draws on the nightclub lights, big-finned cars, and white-suited celebrities (Meyer Lansky and George Raft both make appearances) that have become icons of '50s Cuba, but--also like Sanchez--she probes beneath the surface to expose the tangled emotions and complex allegiances within a society on the eve of destruction. Bill Ott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (January 23, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374102775
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374102777
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,215,132 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Jon Hunt on March 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
You know when you pick up a novel and read that the central character's initial thrust is an investigation into a hippopotamus murder in Havana which is linked to a Mafia rubout in New York and that character's main love is a one-armed circus assistant who is deeply in love with a man with leprosy who in turn turned out his own male Swedish lover after possibly infecting him....well, you've either got a turkey of a book or a terrific one. Fortunately, "Dancing to Almendra", a recent offering by author Mayra Montero, falls into the latter category. It is two hundred sixty pages of unadulterated joy.

Set in 1957 months before the overthrow of Cuba's Batista, Montero invents a host of people that are incomplete, to say the least. But this is not Scarsdale and the color that Montero provides through her descriptions of the men and women who dot her book are second only to a powerful and well-paced narrative. Montero brings out the best in these flawed people, as they simply try to hold their lives together. I must admit that the beginning of "Dancing to Almendra" flies by with characters too many to keep track of sometimes, but the good news is that this book gets better with each passing page. She paints a portrait of the last days of Cuba before Castro, and how accurate that portrait really is doesn't matter. It surely contains many elements of a free-wheeling Cuba in its last free-wheeling days, much to the nostalgia (and perhaps anger) of those who don't or can't live there today.

"Dancing to Almendra" is rich in every way. Too crazy for words perhaps is Montero, but she finds the words and then some. One would like to fly to Havana, sit back and have a couple of rums and read this wonderful book on its own turf. I highly recommend it along with thanks to the author for a much appreciated endeavor in writing it.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Three Guys from Miami on March 2, 2007
Format: Hardcover

We're suckers for novels that are set in Cuba during the "golden years." Havana in the 1950s was an exciting time, and in her new book, "Dancing to Almendra," Mayra Montero plunges us into Havana during the final weeks of Batista. The story begins with two deaths: the murder of mafia chieftain Umberto Anastasia and a hippopotamus at the Havana Zoo. A young entertainment reporter, Joaquín Porrata, gets assigned to the big story --the killing of the hippo.Porrata, who is definitely looking to move up in the journalism world, is a little under whelmed by his assignment -- until a zoo employee tells him about a strange link between the two killings.

The paper he works for refuses to publish his story, and Porrata soon finds himself working for a rival newspaper. What follows is a journey of discovery, from Havana to upstate New York and back again. Along the way, Porrata befriends a zoo keeper with a strange obsession for George Raft, Yolanda, a one-armed circus performer; and several shady mafia characters.

What is unique about this book is the counter story: Yolanda tells her own story in frequent interludes. On one side -- the present -- we have the plot driven and action packed narrative of Porrata. On the other, we have the slow meandering stream of Yolanda's life story, mostly remembrances of her past. Reading this book involves shifting from plainly written prose to stream-of-conscious poetry, but Montero manages to pull it off with aplomb.

The original Spanish text has been lovingly translated by Edith Grossman. If you speak and read Spanish, you might want to tackle the original. However, for English readers this novel is an engaging read. Yes, you won't want to put it down.
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Format: Hardcover
This opening line introduces a crime thriller that takes off at a gallop--a unique combination of dark actions and absurd, often humorous, commentary. Set in Havana in 1957, when Castro was still organizing his revolution in Oriente Province, and Mafia bosses Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante were sending suitcases full of money from their Havana gambling interests to Miami, the novel captures the last moments of Cuban high life, just before the revolution. Joaquin Porrada, a twenty-two year-old entertainment reporter, reads the teletype report of Mafia boss Anastasia's death in New York, and soon gets a tip that the gunshot death of the escaped Havana hippo was a belated warning to Anastasia from other Mafia dons--Anastasia was not being an "obedient hippopotamus."

Filled with period details of Cuban night life, Havana's American Mafia, the corrupt officials of Fulgencio Batista's ironman rule, and the lives of ordinary Cubans and their families during this turbulent period, the novel follows Joaquin as he investigates the deaths of the hippo and Anastasia and decides to report on them. To get at the truth, he visits strippers and prostitutes; covers the action at Trafficante's club; meets George Raft, who is host at the Capri; travels to New York to investigate the recent Apalachin meeting of mobsters; falls in love with a one-armed woman maimed during a performance of "magic"; and eventually is warned, beaten, and threatened with death.

Cuban author Mayra Montero's novel, ostensibly in the tradition of Cuban noir, is filled with broad humor, and the absurdities she highlights within the narrative provide a light, sometimes farcical, touch which keeps the reader amused, even as the blood is flowing.
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