Category Archives: History

From The War On Poverty to the War on Crime

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From The War On Poverty to the War on Crime – The Making of Mass Incarceration in America
By Elizabeth Hinton
Harvard University Press – £22.95

One cannot help but wonder how America’s new president, Donald of Trump Towers, would react to this book. A thought, to which all intents and perpetual purposes of incarceration, is a mode of impossible and inexorable practice, set in place some fifty years ago by President Lyndon Johnson.

Known as the ”War on Crime,” lest it be said that prison cells, unlawful arrest and law enforcement agencies have, for said time period, functioned as the ”central engine of American inequality.” Inequality, being the key word here, as one need look no further than what is happening in the United States right now. In 2017.

A country where one in every thirty-one adults is under some form of penal control, including one in eleven African American men.

It does indeed make one wonder how the supposed land of the free can boast of being the world’s largest prison system; especially when one takes into account that it has more wealth, more oil, more cars, more food-stocks, indeed, more of everything than anywhere else in the world.

Including more guns. And THEREIN lies the fundamental answer to a problem that is clearly out of control.

Out of control, because many would also agree with regards the trajectorial caveat, that America has more than its fair share of stupid people – many of whom buy the guns. Yet, perhaps more importantly still: the country is inundated with greed.

More greed than anywhere you care to name. Not to mention division, whereby most white people automatically receive a far, far bigger share of the pie when compared to their African American compatriots. So it’s hardly surprising the country has more people locked up than any other nation; less surprising still that there are more African Americans in jail than any other racial group. A social breakdown upon which From The War On Poverty to the War on Crime – The Making of Mass Incarceration in America sheds an abundance of clear and refreshing light.

For instance, in the chapter ‘The War On Black Poverty,’ Elizabeth Hinton writes: ”Declining job prospects for African Americans during the second half of the twentieth century exacerbated segregation and poverty in the neighbourhoods where displaced southern agricultural workers congregated. As 2 million white residents left cities for suburban areas, 1.5 million black Americans migrated to industrial centres in the North and West, joined by Latinos and white Appalachians, and moved into the neighbourhoods previously occupied by European immigrants and their children. By the early 1960s, 31 percent of African Americans lived in twelve northern cities, their living conditions characterized by the isolation, marginalization, and exclusion that stemmed from segregation.”

Segregation: a social stasis that throughout these nine chapters, is comprehensively addressed time again as being the most fundamental problem in American society today.
As well as yesterday.
A problem it would seem, that has, and continues to be shamefully exacerbated by society at large and Washington’s domestic policy: ”Under Richard Nixon and his successors, welfare programmes fell by the wayside while investment in policing and punishment expanded. Anticipating future crime, policymakers urged states to build new prisons and introduced law enforcement measures into urban schools and public housing, turning neighbourhoods into targets of police surveillance.

By the 1980s, crime control and incarceration dominated national responses to poverty and inequality. The initiatives of that decade were less a sharp departure than the full realisation of the punitive transformation of urban policy implemented by Republicans and Democrats alike since the 1960s.”

These 340 pages (excluding comprehensive Notes, Acknowledgements and Index), alert us to a problem that has been going on for far too long. So long in fact, it may well end up destroying America. Although it does seem as if Donald Trump is already doing quite well on that score – without any outside assistance whatsoever.

As author of The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, Matthew Lassiter has said, this is: ”an outstanding book – clear, compelling, and essential. Hinton excavates the deep roots of police militarisation, surveillance of minority communities, and the punitive shift in urban policy. Her argument that liberals were key architects of the war on crime is a necessary and even urgent corrective to conventional thinking about mass incarceration.”

So take note Messrs. Trump and Pence, and add this very fine book to your ever increasing stack of necessary, bedtime reading.

David Marx

Marie Antoinette

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Marie Antoinette
By Helene Delalex, Alexandre Maral & Nicolas Milovanovic
Getty Publications – £32.50

I have seen all, I have heard all, I have forgotten all.

I do not share the king’s tastes. He is only interested in hunting and metalwork. I am sure you will agree that I would look quite awkward standing at a forge; I would not make a good Vulcan and if I were to play the role of Venus that would bother him far more than my real tastes, which he does not seem to mind.

The thought of the Viennese born Archduchess dressed as a Vulcan or working in a forge, does make for quite an image. Although had it been a reality, it may just as well have saved her life. That said, this Marie Antoinette essentially examines the the last and ill-fated French Queen’s personal collection at Versailles.

Assembled with all the authority of three curators (Helene Delalex and Alexandre Maral at the Chateau of Versailles, Nicolas Milovanovic at the Louvre Museum in Paris); this sumptuously compiled and altogether stunning book, really is something of a photographic treasure. An artistic approach to a book which sheds oodles of light on a subject, that unless one were actually/regularly in Versailles itself, has continued to remain something of an idiosyncratic enigma. Until now.

That Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793) continues to intrigue historians, writers and film-makers more than two centuries after her death is a nigh given. Her glamorous role as arbiter of fashion and patron of the decorative arts in the French court, not to mention the overtly dramatic circumstances surrounding her death, still does much to trigger the imagination.

Lest we forget, Antoinette was the only French queen to have her own collection, the Garde Meuble de la Reine, upon which she spared no expense (much to the eventual chagrin of the Parisian populace at large might I add): ”Tracing her life from her upbringing in Vienna as the archduchess of Austria, to her ascension to the French throne, and finally to her execution, the three authors discuss the exquisite objects that populated her surroundings: beautiful gowns, gilt-mounted furniture, Chinese porcelains, and opulent tableware. Her more personal possessions are also represented, including her sewing kit, her harp, her children’s toys, and even the simple chemise she wore as a condemned prisoner. Excerpts from her correspondence offer a further glimpse into her personality and daily life.”

A life it would seem, to which she resolutely and openly adhered.

As much is touched on in the book’s third chapter (‘The Queen’) at the very outset of ‘Queen of Europe’s Greatest Kingdom,’ in which the authors write: ””Although God caused me to be born in the rank I now occupy, I cannot resist admiring the arrangements of Providence who chose me, the youngest of your children, for the greatest kingdom in Europe,” wrote Marie Antoinette to her mother a few days after her accession. Full of youthful beauty, charming and vivacious, the eighteen-year old queen was adored by the people of Paris and greeted with cheers on every public appearance, something that touched her deeply.”

From ‘The Future Queen of France’ to ‘Queen of Fashion,’ from ‘Petit Trianon -The Queen’s Refuge’ to ‘Platonic Love?’ to ‘A Tragic End,’ these 209 pages (excluding Bibliography and Illustration Credits) are throughout, more than substantiated with the most lavish collection of truly wonderful illustrations. Many of which, evoke in the reader, a place of the most exquisite, magisterial design.

Furthermore, a place many of us always knew existed, but one that nevertheless, has always remained (subliminally) hard to define. Hard to clarify. Even hard to come to terms with. Until now.

Marie Antoinette is one of those collections one will invariably return to time and time again, because some of the astonishing beauty within will simply refuse to leave us be.

David Marx

Before Auschwitz

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Before Auschwitz –
Jewish Prisoners In The Prewar Concentration Camps
By Kim Wunschmann
Harvard University Press – £33.95

So tomorrow, January 20th, we have President (elect) Donald Trump to look forward to.

He, whose parents were members of America’s Klu Klux Klan organisation, will enter what has to be the most powerful office in the world. An ever increasing, wayward world might I add, in which tyrants and terrorists, deprivation and division, continue to make headlines; while those who kneel at the alter of hedge-fund hypocrisy, continue to succeed in keeping it that way.

It’s as if the populace of the so-called intelligent species, has learnt absolutely nothing.
Nada.
Nic.

Nic that is, other than:
a) wholeheartedly know how to turn away when someone else is in need (as in the cold, blooded murder of the MP, Jo Cox – who, as she lay on the ground being to stabbed to death, hordes of people did absolutely nothing because they far were too busy filming her murder on their mobile phones)
and
b) wholeheartedly embrace the dictum: what’s in it for me?

Just two exceedingly valid reasons why people need to at least be made aware of January 27th, Holocaust Memorial Day, to comprehend an iota of where blatant ignorance can lead. In a word, Trump., in anther word., ISIS., in another (chilling yet infamous) word, Auschwitz.

The world would indeed be wise to take note of Before Auschwitz – Jewish Prisoners In The Prewar Concentration Camps, which pioneers the formulaic and prerequisite ideological stance of nationally condoned suffering, barbarity and murder.

The book’s six chapters, Introduction and Conclusion, compellingly unearths the little-known origins of the concentration camp system in the years leading up to the Second World War, and reveals the instrumental role of these extralegal detention centres in the development of Nazi policies towards Jews (and its eventual plans to create a racially pure Third Reich): ”First of all, a historical study of the imprisonment of Jews before 1939 demands an understanding of the period in its own right. The concentration camps of the pre-war era were different from the wartime camps. They had different forms and different functions. Simply to place them into a seemingly linear development of Nazi anti-Jewish policy […] would miss the particularity of the pre-war period. The development that ultimately culminated in genocide on an unprecedented scale was neither preordained nor the direct result of a single man’s long-standing fantasies. Karl Schleunes’s concept of ”the twisted road to Auschwitz” is more apposite, helping us to grasp a process of gradual development in response to outside influences and internal power rivalries, a process that, at each stage, might have pointed to a different destination.”

A different destination indeed, which, from the relative comfort of hindsight, is all too easy say, come to terms with, and ultimately assimilate. But these 235 pages (not including Appendix: SS Ranks and U.S. Army Equivalents, Abbreviations, Notes, Bibliography, Acknowledgements and Index) really ought to shunt hindsight unto the Rose Garden of The White House – for all the world’s media to witness on a regular basis.

If not the Oval Office itself, although, knowing Trump, he’d probably deny the fact that The Holocaust ever took place.

In investigating more than a dozen camps, from Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen to less familiar sites, authoress Kim Wunschmann uncovers a process of terror designed to identify and isolate German Jews, primarily from 1933 to 1939. During this period, shocking accounts of camp life filtered through to the German population, sending the preposterous message that Jews were different from true Germans: they were portrayed as dangerous to associate with and fair game for barbaric acts of intimidation and violence.

The latter of which is rather like Brexit’s reaction to non-Englanders, only on a far bigger, far more criminal level. But hey, it’s still early days.
And tomorrow we have Trump, to look forward to.

As Robert Gellately, author of Stalin’s Curse: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War has written, Before Auschwitz is ”an impressive, well-written study of a little-known chapter in the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Wunschmann has carried out prodigious archival research, unearthing all kinds of interesting and troubling material, particularly on the fate of Jewish citizens who were sent to the camps without trial and held without rights in what the police euphemistically called ‘protective custody.’ Her book will certainly find a wide readership.”

Here’s hoping it will, because it’s outwardly brave, memorably brazen and overtly bodacious.

David Marx

The Holocaust and Compensated Compliance In Italy

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The Holocaust and Compensated Compliance In Italy
Fossoli dei Carpi, 1942-1952
By Alexis Herr
Palgrave Macmillan – £63.00

Primo Levi begins his short story ”Small Causes” by sharing a conversation he had with a group of friends on the influence that a seemingly innocuous occurrence can have on history. He writes, ”Small causes can have a determining effect in individual histories, just as moving the pointer of a railroad switch by a few inches can shunt a train with one thousand passengers aboard to Madrid instead of Hamburg.” Levi contends that looking back on the definitive past is easy to theorize what might have been if things had been different.

So begins the first chapter ‘In the Marketplace: Fascist Socialization and Consent in Carpi,’ a chapter, which, as Alexis Herr writes: ” traces how the violent ascent of Fascism in Carpi, and the 20 years under Mussolini that followed it, created the maccina di consenso (the machine of consent). We will consider the ways in which violence in the years leading up to the Fascists’ march on Rome in 1922 informed Carpigiani (Carpi residents) reception to Mussolini’s newly minted regime and why Pietro Badoglio’s overthrow of Mussolini in July 1943 failed to inspire a revolt against Fascist structures in Carpi.”

Once again, The National Holocaust Memorial Day is almost upon us (January 27th) and in its lead up, I will be reviewing an array of material that is both pertinent and revisionary.

Starting with The Holocaust and Compensated Compliance In Italy, one can only surmise that the current Italian likes of Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five-Star Movement) and Militia Christi (an extreme-right Catholic fundamentalist party) have conveniently refused to recognise history. Or at least, the relatively recent history of their own country, which, as Herr touches on in this book’s Introduction, has often been complicit within the cloying design of totally unnecessary death(s): ”Sixty-seven years have passed since Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi published his memoir Se questo e un uomo (If this is Man, released in the United States under the title Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity). Untarnished by the passage of time, Levi’s testimony remains a touchstone of Holocaust study. His narrative extends beyond descriptions of physical suffering of camp life and offers a philosophical inquiry into humanity and inhumanity in Auschwitz. For Levi, the camp was a ”social experiment” that released ”the human animal in the struggle for life.” In the fight for one’s survival, common-place categories of opposites such as ”the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the unlucky and the fortunate,” became far more complex.

In two distinct parts: ‘The War Years’ and ‘After the War,’ these 144 pages – excluding Acknowledgements, a List of Illustrations, Abbreviations and Foreign Words (German and Italian), Archive Abbreviations, Notes, Bibliography and Index – consist of six chapters that shed new light on almost every aspect of what took place at Fossoli dei Carpi during 1942-1952.
Much of which unfortunately, makes for disturbing reading.
Especially from that of a purely Italian perspective – let alone German: ”The victim myth, which positions all Italians in Italy as victims of German oppression, simplifies at best, or elides Italian antisemitism and gentile contributions to the arrest, incarceration, and deportation of Resistance fighters and Jews. The acquiescence of regional officials, municipal authorities, and Carpi businesses to Nazi and RSI demands to arrest and deport Jews supported and facilitated the Judeocide. While some scholars and politicians have argued that only Nazi and RSI officials perpetrated the Judeocide, the history of Fossoli suggests another conclusion. Every Italian who took part in, profited from, or enabled Fossoli’s operation to continue – with the exception of Jewish victims and the Resistance – played some part in the murderous function of the camp. Indeed, the history of genocide requires closer scrutiny of perpetrators and their enablers: the silently complicit.”

For this alone, Herr needs to be roundly commended.

As John Foot, Professor of Modern Italian History at the University of Bristol is himself quoted as saying: ”This book is clearly written and argued, and impressively rooted in theoretical and methodological reflections as well as being aware of the key historiographical context both in Italian and English.”

The Holocaust and Compensated Compliance In Italy is indeed, a most reflective read, which in and of itself, warrants all the literary praise it can muster, as well as all the recognition it can get on the 27th.

There again, Alexis Herr is Lecturer in the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Department at Keene State College, USA., so it’s not surprising he has herein written a book that is a clear, concise and inspired invitation for the reader to delve further and generally find out more on The Holocaust.

David Marx

The Treasures of William Shakespeare

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The Treasures of William Shakespeare –
The Life, The Works, The Performances
By Catherine M S Alexander
Andre Deutsch – £24.00

That William Shakespeare was English, is becoming increasingly hard to believe and come to terms with, especially now that Britain has evolved unto a place of nothing other than opium induced, moronic stupidity and shame. The likes of which will be nigh impossible to ever absolve.

But hey, Shakespeare was English, and other than attending a multitude of his plays at the RSC in Stratford or The Globe in London, how better to partake in and celebrate his four-hundred-year legacy, than with a brief overview of his vast, and I do mean vast, body work.

The reason I use the words ‘brief overview,’ is for the very reason that his work(s) are colossal and influential and potentially life-changing in almost every fathomable way imaginable – so far as drama, theatre, and the entire English language is concerned. Hence, The Treasures of William Shakespeare accounting for something of a superlative, yet sneak preview of said drama, theatre and the English language.

For how could it possibly be anything other?

As Catherine M. S. Alexander writes in this book’s Introduction: ”Shakespeare has inspired artists as diverse as William Blake and Pablo Picasso and influenced the fiction of Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens, Henrik Ibsen, Wole Soyinke and Oscar Wilde among many other great figures. Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx wrote about Shakespeare and Winston Churchill quoted him.”

In itself, such wide-ranging influence is almost hard to comprehend, but it ought nevertheless, navigate the reader of these sixty-one, high-quality/glossy pages (excluding Further Reading and Index) unto a tiny chasm of understanding and appreciation of the Bard’s colossus. For as Alexander continues: ”[…] for most people with an interest in Shakespeare, ”the play’s the thing […] and much of this book is concerned with performance. It draws extensively on the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the unique group of actors, directors and practitioners, whose high-quality productions, education and outreach activity aim to ”keep modern audiences in touch with Shakespeare as our contemporary.””

So along with a 53-minute CD of classic excerpts taken from The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare, also included herein are twenty removable facsimile documents which include: King James I’s patent giving Shakespeare and his fellow actors the right to perform plays throughout the country, his Will, an extract from the First Folio of 1623 and finally, an extract from the prompt book for a production of Twelfth Night in 1965, directed by Sir John Gielgud.

Suffice to say, this collection isn’t an in-depth analyses of The Bard’s work, as again, the authoress makes clear: ”Academics have subjected the works to a remarkable variety of theoretical readings: new and old historicism, feminism, Marxism, formalism, structuralism, psychoanalysis, cultural materialism and so on. The Treasures of William Shakespeare: The Life, The Works, The Performances is less concerned with the ”why” of the Shakespeare phenomenon or an analysis of its causes and effects than with providing an illustrated and documented chronological record of his life and work […].”

From ‘The Elizabethan Age’ to ‘Elizabethan Stratford,’ from Shakespeare in Stratford’ to ‘Shakespeare’s London,’ from the aforementioned ”The Play’s the Thing” to ‘The Comedies,’ The History Plays,’ and the ‘Tragedies – Ill-Fated Heroes,’ this lavishly presented book is the perfect introduction of William Shakespeare to that of a younger and (perhaps unbeknown) audience.

David Marx

The Somme & Verdun

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The Somme & Verdun – 1916 Remembered
By Julian Thompson
Andre Deutsch – £40.00

Nowadays, the Battle of the Somme is synonymous in Britain with disaster and the futility of war. This is because the huge casualties suffered by the British army appalled the British public, whose misreading of history persuaded them that Britain’s proper role in war was making a major contribution at sea, and that continental European allies should shoulder the larger part of the burden of engaging the enemy on land – and consequently suffer most of the losses.

From a political perspective, if 2016 will be remembered for anything, it will surely have to be the degree to which so much of the western, so-called, intelligent world, got it so horribly wrong.

A time when much of the British populace decided to turn the clock back to the dark ages. A time of us verses them. A place where rife, acute and open xenophobia appears to be actively promoted – if not applauded. While at the same time in Amerikkka, much of its populace voted for an arrogant, twisted, misogynist misfit, to embrace the most powerful office in the world – that of the White House this coming January.

A prospect which in and of itself, really, really, doesn’t bear worth thinking about.

Then of course, we have fully grown men, purposefully driving articulated lorries into crowds of innocent men, women and children – for the sake of some perverse, impossible notion of redemptive religiosity.

And lest we forget Aleppo.

The list goes on and unfortunately on; on to such a harrowing, nebulous degree, that one cannot help but wonder if mankind has actually learnt anything. Wasn’t two World Wars, The Holocaust, Vietnam, Northern Ireland and an infinite number of other, puerile killing sprees enough, from which to devise that killing one another – ultimately gets us no-where?

Obviously not.

This why I’ve chosen to conclude this terrible year with a review of Julian Thompson’s The Somme & Verdun – 1916 Remembered.

Had the men – who so willingly/gallantly/unknowingly, and in hindsight, stupidly, sacrificed themselves – known what the world was going to emerge into a hundred years hence forth; with for example, the terrible, terrible, vile likes of Nigel Farrage, vehemently promoting what they actually died for, they may well have questioned hurtling themselves unto the barbed-razer-wire, of nigh certain death.

Containing rare removable documents, memorabilia, and an audio CD of veterans first-hand accounts, this most pensive assimilation of words, postcards home, diagrams and maps, is enough to stop one in ones’ own tracks. As in order to take some sort of macabre stock of what actually transpired a hundred years ago: ”Their expressions seemed frozen by a vision of terror; their gait and their postures betrayed a total dejection; they sagged beneath the weight of horrifying memories” (General Petain, remembering the men he had commanded at Verdun).

An overall assessment of an equally terrible year, this collection does a lot to drive home the folly and the futility of intrinsically hollow, disagreement; whereby death panders to yet more death, panders to yet more death, panders to yet further death.

An eye for some sort of eye.

The Somme & Verdun – 1916 Remembered is a most humbling (literary) experience; another reminder of what should have been, what could have been: all those beautiful lives, wiped out.

And for what? King (Queen) and Country? Bollocks..

Merry Christmas.

David Marx

Cuba

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Cuba – What Everyone Needs To Know
By Julia E. Sweig
Oxford University Press – £10.99

Fidel Castro may have recently departed his beloved island to join his compadre, Che Guevara amid socialist nirvana, but the Cuban idea, the whole shebang, replete with legacy of he who toted many a Cohiba, will no doubt go on Ad infinitum.

Indeed, it will continue, both beneath and within the slipstream of many an economic fable according to Fidel – the trajectory of which will now continue to be promoted by his brother, Raul Castro.

Or will it?

My guess is, it’s way too early to tell.
Although, failing a visit to the island itself, Cuba – What Everyone Needs To Know might well be considered a most fine literary springboard from which to embark the investigation.

Written by Julia E. Sweig, Senior Research Fellow at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas in Austin, it’s a book that really does pack a rather mighty, academic punch.

Divided into twelve very distinct parts (‘Cuba Before 1959,’ ‘The Cuban Revolution and the Cold War, 1959-91,’ ‘U.S.-Cuba,’ ‘Cuba In The World,’ ‘The Cuban Revolution after the Cold War, 1991-2006,’ ‘U.S.-Cuba,’ ‘Cuba In The World,’ ‘After Fidel, under Raul,’ ‘U.S.-Cuba,’ ‘Cuba In The World,’ A Changing Cuba Under Raul Castro’s Presidency’ and ‘December 17, 2014, and Beyond’), Cuba is a most readable thesis on the complex fluidity of an ever changing political process.

It’s 315 pages – excluding the Foreword, Introduction, Suggestions for Further Reading and Index – almost read as a form of Q&A, in which Sweig answers the questions most of us would really like the answers to – well, some of the ones I would anyway.

Such pertinent questions such as:

Why does the United States have a naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?
What role did women play in the Cuban insurrection?
Was Castro really a Communist?
Why did Cubans start leaving for exile?
What really happened when Castro visited Washington in 1959?
Why did the Bay of Pigs invasion fail?

And perhaps, the one question which still lingers, still continues to resonate the most:

What was the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Sweig initially responds: ”On October 22, 1962, John F. Kennedy appeared on national television to announce that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy’s dramatic revelations, based on CIA reconnaissance photos of the missile sites, which Ambassador Adlai Stevenson later presented to the United Nations, came in the midst of the most dangerous ”13 days” in the history of the world. Kennedy announced a naval blockade of the island and warned against the consequences of a ”worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouths.”

Written in a style of writing that by far exceeds that of many other books written on and about Cuba; Cuba – What Everyone Needs To Know essentially reiterates what it says on the tin – or in this case, the front cover.

It’s simple prose, is, if anything, an invitation to read, to assimilate, to discover.

As The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has since written: ”For several years, Julia Sweig, America’s premier expert on Cuba, has been my guide for all matters related to this beautiful, cursed, and consequential island nation. This book – economical, information-packed, and exceedingly well-written – is Sweig’s indispensable contribution to our knowledge of Cuba at a particularly tumultuous time in its history.”

Perhaps never more so, than right now.

David Marx