Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy

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Sitting with the Longshots at the National Book Awards

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A new addition this year: The red carpet that greeted celebrity guests.

For my money, Domingo Martinez was the coolest person in the house. And that’s saying something because the house — a cavernous marble ballroom on Wall Street, site of Wednesday evening’s National Book Awards ceremony — was full of very cool people, including Elmore Leonard, Martin Amis, Terry Gross, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, and Dave Eggers.

But they’re household names to book lovers. They were supposed to be in the house. Domingo Martinez was not. This year, in an effort to blunt criticism that the awards were being watered down by a tendency to honor obscure authors of obscure books, the National Book Foundation told judges not to be shy about nominating popular books by well-known authors. The judges complied magnificently. The fiction finalists were four big names — Eggers, Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, and Ben Fountain — plus first-time novelist Kevin Powers.

Same for the non-fiction category. Four of the finalists — Robert Caro, Katherine Boo, Anthony Shadid, and Anne Applebaum — had won at least one Pulitzer Prize apiece, and each had worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post, or Newsday. The fifth finalist was unknown Domingo Martinez, a first-time author who wrote a blistering memoir about growing up in Brownsville, Tex., called The Boy Kings of Texas.

As the cocktail hour wound down on Wednesday evening and guests began taking their seats for the $1,000-a-plate dinner, I spotted a rotund, merry-looking guy in a corner of the ballroom, regaling a small crowd with a story. It was Domingo Martinez. His agent, Alice Martell, was standing nearby, and she told me that the manuscript to Boy Kings had come to her unsolicited and, against some seriously long odds, it jumped out of the slush pile and grabbed her by the throat and wouldn’t let her go. “This almost never happens,” said Martell, who represented Carlos Eire, whose memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2003. “I only work with authors I like,” Martell said, “and Domingo’s a doll.”

Non-fiction finalist Domingo Martinez, fueled by ginger ale, telling a story.

He finished telling his story, one hand chopping the air for emphasis, the other wrapped around a wine glass full of…

“What are you drinking?” I asked.

“Ginger ale,” Martinez replied.

“But there’s an open bar!”

“I know, but I don’t like to drink alcohol before I read.” He made a squinting face. “You know, it can make the words run together.”

This was astonishing, and beautiful. Martinez was not one of those dewy-eyed longshots you always see on the Oscars show, those first-time nominees who gush about what an honor it was just to get nominated and get a chance to wear an ugly dress and share Meryl Streep’s oxygen, blahblahblah. Screw that. Despite the long odds against him — a rough childhood in a border town, a manuscript that got plucked from the slush pile, some ridiculously stiff competition for a major literary award — Martinez had prepared an acceptance speech. And he wanted to be silver-tongued and alert when it came time to deliver it during the awards ceremony after dinner.

Domingo Martinez didn’t come to New York just wanting and hoping to win a National Book Award. He had come here prepared to win. Like I said, the coolest guy in the house.

It didn’t happen, of course. The non-fiction prize went to Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” grant. Not what you would call a dark horse.

The next day Martinez, the longest of the night’s longshots, wasn’t answering his telephone. Was he disappointed?

“Anybody would be disappointed,” Martell said. “Win or lose, in the aftermath of these things there’s a certain exhaustion. You suddenly hit a wall. Domingo hit a wall.”

It’s a safe bet that the people who run the National Book Foundation were not disappointed by Boo’s victory, or by the renowned Louise Erdrich’s in the fiction category. Overall, it was a good night for boldface names. Venerable, indefatigable Elmore Leonard was handed a medal by Brooklyn’s highest profile new resident, Martin Amis. Though teen-actress-turned-author Molly Ringwald failed to show, many other literary stars came out. The known trumped the unknown, which may be just what the doctor ordered for a foundation worried about becoming irrelevant in an industry that’s facing terrifying challenges.

Stephen King talks to a fan, the German filmmaker Marianne Schaefer.

I’ve never been a big fan of prizes for artistic achievement, but seeing the Domingo Martinez story unfold this year gave me a new appreciation for the argument that anything that sells books in these dire times is a good thing. Martinez’s career got a to-die-for jump start. What’s wrong with that?

“Books, obviously, are not the same as other commodities,” Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, acknowledged in a telephone interview before the awards ceremony. “Competition between artworks is not accepted universally, and you can’t judge artworks the same way you judge consumer goods. But the National Book Award gives people the opportunity to disagree. It opens the conversation, which is a good thing.  Literature should be discussed. In talking about books, we come to understand them better.”

Fine. But please, in your effort to become more mainstream, don’t get rid of all the longshots. They’re the real stars of any awards ceremony.

Also, check out The Millions’s recap and related coverage of this year’s National Book Award winners.

On the Ground in Philadelphia


We got back late last night from Los Angeles (where we had attended the wedding of two great friends), and are now wading through stacks of boxes in our still freshly moved into apartment in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, it turns out that when you go on vacation two days after moving, you don’t return to find all of your things miraculously unpacked and where you want them to be.However, after a few days of catch up (and thanks to the resourcefulness of Mrs. Millions) we should eventually approach normalcy. As for the digital realm, I still have many emails to respond to and my Bloglines “unread items” number in the thousands, but regular posting will ramp up again here over the next couple of days.In the meantime, I noticed that Philadelphia announced its 2007 One Book, One City selection this week Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, a National Book Award winning memoir. It tells the tale of Eire’s boyhood uprooting from Cuba and the subsequent “rootlessness” of his life in the United States. The selection puts the focus on our country’s immigration issues, though the question of Cuba has been less “hot button” of late. I, for one, prefer to “One Book” programs select fiction as I think there is something more special about a whole city reading a novel together. And anyway (though I read as much non-fiction as fiction), fiction is more in need of support from our public institutions. However, some consolation can be found in the fact that Waiting for Snow in Havana is literary and not just topical.

Diversions and Distractions Part 1: A Reading Journal


I am back. My long hiatus was partially due to grad school applications, heavy workload, holiday binge drinking and just sheer laziness. I have been meaning write about all the books I read, some of which definitely stand out, as (I hope) you will see. The first book I want to mention is Crash by J.G. Ballard. I rarely stop reading books that I begin, even if I strongly dislike them. The only book/memoir I stopped reading in the recent years is Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire, which I found pompous, belittling and badly written. Nevertheless, that is not why I stopped reading Crash. I intend to finish Crash one of these days. That is, if I can overcome the absurdity of the main character Vaughan’s obsession with car crashes and reconstruction of scenes for erotic purposes, which did not resonate too well with me. I am an avid fan of weird and disturbing situations (e.g. Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris), but Ballard’s dry, calm style and heavy language adds another layer of complicity to an already shocking storyline. I have by no means given up on Crash, though I find it difficult to return to the read. Good luck to any and all that pick up this novel. FYI: I have not seen the movie, but I heard that it is quite weird and disturbing.Around the period that I was reading Crash, I was also studying for the GREs and took a week off from work to visit my aunt in Madison, WI to study and get away from NYC. I figured that Crash was not the best book to read while trying to study for the GREs and turned to Harry Potter for a dose of happiness, as well as to clear my mind. I had not read The Order of the Phoenix and borrowed it from my roommate Uzay. I started on the plane and by the time I landed in Madison I was, as with the previous four novels, hooked. So much for studying for the GREs. I read straight through The Order of the Phoenix and was pleasantly surprised to find that J.K. Rowling decided to reveal a darker side of Harry Potter. I was curious to see if Rowling would ever cast Potter as the not-so-perfect adolescent, which she successfully did in this installment. I enjoyed the clash between Dumbledore and the Ministry, the background stories that came with the introduction of the Order, the blackmailing campaigns that attempt to undermine evidence of Voldemort’s return and the developing relationship between Sirius Black and Potter. After a long sleepless night and not studying for the GREs, I headed straight to Borders and picked up The Half Blood Prince, which had been published very recently.The Half Blood Prince was an entertaining transition to the approaching grand finale. There were the cutesy parts of love stories and jealousies between Hermione and Ron, and Potter and Ginny Weasley, as well as the development of a closer camaraderie between Dumbledore and Potter, which I had long anticipated. The mystery surrounding the identity of the Half Blood Prince is well crafted and kept me guessing until the very end. Potter’s rival at Hogwarts Draco Malfoy has, in the meanwhile, been recruited by Voldemort to carry on mysterious activities at the school. As Dumbledore is showing Potter Voldemort’s past and preparing him for the looming battle (one book away, I dare say) Malfoy is brewing his own plans. The Half Blood Prince is a good staging book, with clever twists and turns, that left me hungry for the last novel. I am a big Harry Potter fan for a number of reasons (they’re easy to read, fun, thrilling and I feel like I’m on Prozac when I read them) but the series’ foremost quality is its continuity and how, at the end of each book, it gets me waiting for the next one. I hope it is soon.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5See Also: Emre’s previous reading journal

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