14 June 2018

Miami by Joan Didion




I am so not the right person to be writing this review, mainly because I know ZERO about the topic (even after reading the book weirdly), and secondly because I like Joan Didion a fraction of the amount Meghan does. I've even come to the conclusion this year that I dislike her fiction, which is a very unpopular opinion around here. In any case, please do not let this bad attempt to review one of her older and most niche books dis-sway you from her writing. She has some very, very beautiful books that need to be consumed and you can take a look at her full repertoire in Meghan's author spotlight found here.

This book is about the Cuban exiles in Miami, and impact they have on the state of Florida (mainly Miami as the title would suggest) and the way politics, business, and language now operate there. It is an extremely difficult read, to the point where I had to re-read certain pages multiple times because I wasn't following the chronology or couldn't remember the names of the political figures she was mentioning. It's very dry, and it's very matter of fact. There are no embellished romantic story lines to get you through it.

There were Cubans in boardrooms of the major banks, Cubans in clubs that did not admit Jews or blacks, and four Cubans in the most recent mayoralty campaign... The entire tone of the city, the way people looked and talked and met one another, was Cuban. The very image the city had begin presenting of itself, what was then its newfound glamour, its 'hotness' (hot colors, hot vice, shady dealings under the palm trees), was that of prerevolutionary Havana, as perceived by Americans. There was even in the way women dressed in Miami a definable Havana look, a more distinct emphasis on the hips and decolletage, more black, more veiling, a generalized flirtatiousness of style not then current in American cities."

Didion analyzes life for the Cuban exiles throughout multiple presidents, a few major political events, such as the Bay of Pigs and Watergate, and from multiple perspectives. This was probably my favourite feature of the book, how Didion spoke to different groups of people and documented the way they perceived various events based on their relationship with the exiles, their race, their political views, etc. There was a comedic element to this, how the irony of the way groups saw certain events dictated their behaviours. However, I do not know an ounce enough about the politics at this time to even comment on this aspect of the book.

Joan Didion, the love of Meghan's life (after me)


What was interesting to me is how similar the environment she writes about is to the current situation in America. I'm not American so there's no way to know if what I'm saying is true, but as an observer, it would appear that the way some Americans treat immigrants, whether they are Cuban or otherwise, has not changed so much from 1987 when this book was written. I particularly loved this passage indicating how immigrants are expected to assimilate fully to American culture, except for when Americans like an aspect of their culture, then they can keep it for the American benefit:

Cubans were perceived as most satisfactory when they appeared to most fully share the aspirations and manners of middle-class Americans, at the same time adding "color" to the city on appropriate occasions, for example... on the day of the annual Calle Ocho Festival, when they could, according to the Herald, 'samba' in the streets and stir up a paella for two thousand using rowboat oars as spoons."

I also thought this pamphlet Didion describes was quite funny in a similar vein:

A ten-page pamphlet found, along with $119-500 in small bills, in the Turberry Isle apartment of an accused cocaine importer gave these tips for maintaining a secure profile: 'Try to imitate an American in all his habits. Mow the lawn, wash the car, etc.... Have an occasional barbecue, inviting trusted relatives.'"

What simple doorknobs North Americans must seem like to other cultures... mow the lawn... wash the car...

I also thought that the below passage struck a chord in today's climate. Obviously the instruments are different but you still hear about situations like the one below today. It's insane... we think we've made progress but:

When a delegation of black citizens had asked the same year that a certain police officer be transferred, after conduct which had troubled the community, off his Liberty City beat, they were advised by the Miami chief of police that their complaint was 'silly.' Several weeks later it was reported that the officer in question and his partner had picked up a black seventeen-year-old, charged him with carrying a concealed knife, forced him to strip naked, and dangled him by his heels a hundred feet over the Miami River, from an unfinished span of the Dolphin Expressway."

So to wrap up this shitty review- I really enjoyed the learning aspect of this book. I love Miami (the city) and I love the culture that's there. It was fascinating to get a political history of why it looks, feels, behaves the way it does today. If you've read anything by Didion you'll know her style has the ability to make anything interesting, she could play with the syntax in a way that makes the story of a dog shitting sound glamorous. 

I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone whose not deeply interested in this topic, or at least in American history. It's not that it was bad I just don't know why you'd read it. I don't know why I read it, except of course to read more Didion and feel closer to Meghan (my goal in everything I do).

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