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.)
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.”
"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."
"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 Cubathe 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
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.
While living in Cuba, journalist Cooke discovers dynamic and, often, depressing scenes as the last generation of Cubans raised under Castro try to reanimate life in a disappearing era of stagnation. Noting long food lines and black markets, Cooke finds Cuba suffering economic collapse from the loss of Russian subsidies. The author details the daily life of a lost generation, many of whom hope for the chance to emigrate. A powerful and readable portrait of post-Castro Cuba. (LJ 4/15/14)