The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba

Overview

Change looms in Havana, Cuba's capital, a city electric with uncertainty yet cloaked in cliché, 90 miles from U.S. shores and off-limits to most Americans. Journalist Julia Cooke, who lived there at intervals over a period of five years, discovered a dynamic scene: baby-faced anarchists with Mohawks gelled with laundry soap, whiskey-drinking children of the elite, Santería trainees, pregnant prostitutes, university graduates planning to leave for the first country that will give...

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The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba

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Overview

Change looms in Havana, Cuba's capital, a city electric with uncertainty yet cloaked in cliché, 90 miles from U.S. shores and off-limits to most Americans. Journalist Julia Cooke, who lived there at intervals over a period of five years, discovered a dynamic scene: baby-faced anarchists with Mohawks gelled with laundry soap, whiskey-drinking children of the elite, Santería trainees, pregnant prostitutes, university graduates planning to leave for the first country that will give them a visa.

This last generation of Cubans raised under Fidel Castro animate life in a waning era of political stagnation as the rest of the world beckons: waiting out storms at rummy hurricane parties and attending raucous drag cabarets, planning ascendant music careers and black-market business ventures, trying to reconcile the undefined future with the urgent today.

Eye-opening and politically prescient, The Other Side of Paradise offers a deep new understanding of a place that has so confounded and intrigued us.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
02/17/2014
As journalist Cooke writes in her nonfiction debut, a multilayered collection of vignettes about her time in Cuba: “Havana reveals itself in snippets that build, one atop another, in a constant waterfall of places and scenes.” Bypassing many of the clichéd Cuban experiences, Cooke focuses on the day-to-day lives of Cuba’s young people—a population that, in recent years, has been leaving the country in droves. She quickly discovers that blackouts and service interruptions are as common as raucous street parties, that a box of Canadian corn flakes sells for $12, and that it’s possible to score five mojitos for a dollar, all while learning about the country’s dramatic history. It’s not all gloom and doom: Cuba now has a vibrant gay community, and punk rockers gleefully mix their metaphors. Cooke tries admirably to cover a subject that only seems to expand as she digs deeper, examining Santería, and the ever-present specter of government surveillance and Communism. Unfortunately, the more she digs, the more Cooke finds herself trying to nail down mercury as she shifts from subject to subject, never reaching a definitive conclusion or analysis. As a travelogue, the book is a fine example of the author’s experiences. As an analysis of an incredibly complex and ever-changing culture, it falls short. Agent: Diana Finch, Diana Finch Literary Agency. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
“Cooke introduces a world that somehow makes sense in its lack of reason, as understood by American readers. An excellent taste of Cuba today, without tourist plans or political agenda.”
Kirkus Reviews

"This irresistible gander at Cuba today features the liveliest prose and the sharpest eye for detail. The contradictions and improvisatory adjustments within this strange society are brought home through a series of vital portraits by the author, Julia Cooke, whose sympathy never gets in the way of her search for the elusive truth."
Phillip Lopate

"With top-notch reporting and an eye for detail, Cooke dives deeply into post-Fidel Cuba to deliver an intimate, exuberant, poignant account of lives spent waiting for change."
Elisabeth Eaves, author of Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents

"In a series of nimble profiles, Cooke expertly documents what is likely to be the last generation of the lost youth of Cuba—the teens of the transition, with all their contradictions, sorrows, and calluses. The Other Side of Paradise is a tear-through read, full of vitality and compassion."
Deb Olin Unferth, author of Revolution

Library Journal
★ 04/15/2014
In this debut book, journalist Cooke takes readers on a remarkable trip to present-day Cuba, focusing on life in the country following Fidel Castro's 2008 resignation. Cooke lived in the country for five years, during which she met and interacted with a group of young adults who only knew life under Castro and the revolutionary government. The author's storytelling about Lucia, Carlos, Adrián, and other young Cubans will engage readers in these individuals' daily lives, desires, prospects, and dreams. Their families initially benefited from the communist government's policy changes but subsequent reforms limited their capacity to make any economic gains, and most have at least one family member who has left the country or know somebody who has done so. The narratives discuss the slight economic openings made under current leader Raúl Castro, Fidel's brother, but also the remaining cultural limitations and black market for banned literature and music. Cooke provides an insightful look into contemporary Cuban life, interweaving historical events into her writing and enabling readers to understand the challenges facing Cuba's youth and its hopes for a better life either on the island or elsewhere. VERDICT An absorbing and educational read about contemporary Cuba, the love of its people for their country, and their hope for opportunity. Fans of Latin American culture should definitely include this one on their reading list.—Susan E. Montgomery, Rollins Coll., Olin Lib., Winter Park, FL.
Kirkus Reviews
2014-02-06
Following multiple trips to the island—organized by an unnamed friend, the "Communist fairy godfather"—first-time author Cooke (Writing/The New School) chronicles the lives of nine Cubans and their families in the years immediately after Raúl Castro replaced his brother as president. "I wanted to collect the stories of today's young Cubans in the fragile pillow of transitional time between Fidel and whatever would come next," writes the author. "I wanted a hint at what their revolution could resemble." Despite diverse backgrounds, families and future goals, the stories of these young Cuban nationals share many similarities: an overwhelming sense of unease, the haze of unrest and the lack of an obvious path toward change. Some of the author's subjects include Lucía, a recent graduate of the University of Havana who was "putting in the two years of social service that ‘paid for' the degree"; and Sandra, a prostitute who viewed her plans for the future as "clouds she thought she'd walk into; they'd envelop her and then everything would be different." Not all of them want to leave their homeland, but all struggle with an ever-changing flow of plans for achieving a stable life. The book flows naturally from subject to subject, not chronologically but still organically. Cooke revisits each of her subjects at different times during their lives, which helps to round out the narrative, and the inclusion of their families and friends also adds welcome depth. Though the author does not provide a resolution to each of the stories, despite the multiple visits and a one-year-later denouement, this lack of an ending is mostly a function of the still-changing Cuba. Despite a few meandering, unfocused sections, Cooke introduces a world that somehow makes sense in its lack of reason, as understood by American readers. An excellent taste of Cuba today, without tourist plans or political agenda.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781580055314
  • Publisher: Avalon Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/1/2014
  • Pages: 248
  • Sales rank: 232,316
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Julia Cooke is a freelance journalist and teacher who has lived in and reported from Mexico City and Havana. She has received fellowships from the Norman Mailer Center and Columbia University, where she completed her master of fine arts in creative nonfiction writing. Her essays about Cuba have been published in Conde Nast Traveller, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing anthology, among numerous newspapers and magazines. She is fluent in Spanish.

Cooke grew up in Portland, Oregon, and now lives in New York City, where she writes and teaches at the New School. The Other Side of Paradise is her first book.

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