This Week's Reads

Loving Che

By Ana Menéndez (Atlantic Monthly Press, $22) ¡Dios mio! This three-part epistolary debut novel by Ana Menéndez—author of the exalted 2001 short-story collection In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd—is as sultry as a Havana summer night. In Che's first and third sections, Menéndez's unnamed protagonist ruminates on a mysterious, motherless childhood growing up in Miami's Cuban exile community with only her tight-lipped grandfather. She then travels to Havana to find the mother she's never known. These portions of the novel feel muted stylistically, perhaps purposefully less developed than its longer, more enchanting midsection: the story of a love affair between her married mother, artist Teresa de la Landre (a fictional character), and real-life revolutionary Che Guevara. This hotly written '60s romance is the reason for reading the book. Menéndez pays close attention to details of color, smell, and even the weather. She vividly renders a wounded yet optimistic Havana, wracked with both violence and exhilaration in the early years of the revolution. It's hard not to be swept up in the fantasy of a secret, extramarital romance that playedout for years between a beautiful, rich young artist and a larger-than-life revolutionary—so why resist? Like Teresa, the reader simply gives in. The incorporation of Che, one of the hunkiest, most charismatic, idealistic political figures in history, makes the book a loaded love story. It's a hypothetical glance into the love life of a man who is already loved by many, a welcome humanization of a martyr made into myth. A former journalist who's the daughter of Cuban immigrants, Menéndez is a keen student of Cuban history; she deftly weaves many well-known details from Che's life into the figure of a dream lover. Blurring the line between fiction and fact, the icon becomes idol. Did the affair really occur? No. But could it have? One can dream . . . and here Menéndez does, gorgeously. KATIE MILLBAUER Ana Menéndez will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Feb. 19. American Sucker

By David Denby (Little Brown, $24.95) I should be this book's biggest fan, because I'm twice the sucker David Denby is. As my fellow film critic confesses in his market-bubble memoir, he fell sagging, midlife ass over teakettle for the crack-pipe American dream hawked by his power pals Sam Waksal and Henry Blodget. All told, he blew about a cool million of his family nest egg in the spring 2000 tech-stock crash. I blew two by selling my options ineptly. I just had bad timing and worse advice, but Denby was a true believer, swept up by Blodget's boyish élan, the futurism of neocon-goon-turned-tech-guru George Gilder, the glamour of Waksal's power-rat-fuck loft parties, and the hypnotizing metallic sheen of a Ming-blue Audi A6 he saw on the street. He was 56 and in shock: His wife abruptly left him for another woman; so he thought he needed to earn a quick million to buy her half of their vast Upper West Side apartment. Denby grants us some fun, privileged glimpses of the scum at the top at the peak of the market. Waksal, circus master of the soon-to-tank ImClone biotech firm, moves "like Groucho Marx chasing a blonde in satin, his torso sweeping low to the ground for extra speed." (Presumably Martha Stewart was his Margaret Dumont.) He captures Gilder's "religio-plutocratic tintinnabulations," Waksal's oily allure, the investor's compulsion to watch TV money pundits and chase the jaw-dropping fiscal news on the Zipper in Times Square. How did the New Yorker film critic gain entrée to such moneyed circles? He originally intended to pen a more upbeat book about the boom—and perhaps some hot stock tips would follow. The bottom line, says Denby: Boom culture was "run by thugs in suits" who wangled a "massive transfer of money from shareholders to managers" and to said thugs. It transformed the meaning of wealth: "To be wealthy in America you need two nice places to live, one in the city and one in the country, and $5 million in liquid assets (some would add a private plane and another $15 million, but such people are nuts)." All very true and well-observed, but Denby doesn't deliver as a good movie critic should. He's coy about his fiscal and marital particulars, so you don't have a real sense of his character. Nor does the narrative hold shape. As a book, Sucker is no Wall Street, and Denby is no Oliver Stone. He indicts the boom's buyers and sellers, but too vaguely. He sweeps up the ticker tape and worthless options with too soft a brush. TIM APPELO Eva's Cousin

By Sibylle Knauss (Ballantine Books $13.95) One of my literature professors once warned that the memoirs and narratives of Holocaust survivors listed on our syllabus would be difficult to scrutinize, because empathy might cloud proper analysis. What then of the memoirs and narratives of Nazis? Does disdain preclude such open-minded reading? Eva Braun's cousin, Gertrude Weisker, denies that she and Eva—who became Hitler's wife just days before they committed suicide in their Berlin bunker—were actually Nazis, but are they guilty by association? Sibylle Knauss' fictionalized account of Gertrude's life makes for a provocative, ambiguous reply. Just 20 years old in 1944 when she was escorted to the Führer's Bavarian retreat at the behest of his mistress, Marlene (as Gertrude is called in the novel) was meant to be the pet of Hitler's pet. However, even at such a young, impressionable age, she was hesitant to fall into the party line. Marlene is perplexed by Eva's blind dedication to Hitler (whom she never actually meets). As an only child, she looks up to Eva, but she soon begins to scrutinize the older woman's strange and shallow life. As Germany collapses around them, Eva changes her clothes seven times a day and eats expensive chocolates. Marlene eventually seeks refuge in a small house off the main property where she clandestinely listens to BBC broadcasts, harbors a young Ukrainian who escaped a POW camp, and ultimately falls in love—with an SS officer. In the late '90s, author Knauss conducted extensive interviews with Weisker, who had kept her past a secret for more than 50 years. Although it's impossible to tell how much Knauss has fictionalized Weisker's experiences, Cousin (new in paper) is nonetheless intriguing. Writing in the first person, Knauss has Marlene travel back and forth in time. Thus, the narrator tells her story innocently while it unfolds, then with regret and sadness as an older woman on a pilgrimage to this fateful place. Thanks to Knauss' engaging style and her questioning, intelligent characterization of Marlene, Cousin fascinatingly portrays the face of German civilian guilt, causing readers to question whether they ever perceived that visage properly. LAURA CASSIDY Something Rising (Light and Swift)

By Haven Kimmel (Free Press, $24) Don't let the cover fool you. This novel is hardly about a sexy pool shark and her wild adventures, but rather about a hard-luck Indiana family held together by tough-talking eldest daughter Cassie Claiborne. Reminiscent of her best-selling memoir, A Girl Named Zippy, Haven Kimmel's second novel is a chronicle full of dysfunctional, sub-middle-class characters. Something Rising follows a family torn apart by its cheating, gambling, no-good patriarch, Jimmy, and the women left behind to pick up the pieces. Cassie, whom we meet at age 10, longs to be loved by her father, but the only thing he gives her is a passion for playing pool. By age 30, after Jimmy books it out of town, she's using this well-practiced talent to support her despondent mother and agoraphobic sister. Between Cassie's rural childhood and adult adventures in New Orleans, Something Rising also relates the typical adventures that the average, bored teen would experience in the heartland. This being small-town Indiana, those adventures consist mainly of hanging out by the river and driving around town. The seeming hopelessness of Cassie's life (and those of every other character as well) could definitely get you down, but Kimmel, a Midwesterner herself, paints a perfect picture of life on the modern prairie. There may not be enough action to inspire you to move there, yet the novel gives you a keener appreciation for those, like Kimmel, who are content to live in the fly-over states. GINGER DONALD

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