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Dancing to 'Almendra'    by Mayra Montero order for
Dancing to 'Almendra'
by Mayra Montero
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, Softcover
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Travel back to Havana, Cuba, in 1957, and join narrator Joaquin Porrata, a reporter for Diario de la Marina, as he begins work on what turns out to be one of his most exciting and intriguing news stories.

Usually assigned to interviewing singers, dancers, actors, and comedians, the twenty-two year old Cuban journalist is surprised when he is sent by his editor instead to report on the killing of a hippopotamus in the zoo. Someone at the zoo confidentially tells Porrata that the murder of the exotic animal was, in fact, meant as a warning to the notorious mobster, Umberto Anastasia. Porrata knows, though, that Anastasia had already been gunned down in a barbershop in New York City, so the notion of the animal's death as a warning seems either pathetically erroneous or humorously ill-timed. In any event, Porrata's instincts as a journalist tell him he may be on to an interesting story. After all, Porrata has always been fascinated by the world of organized criminals, many of whom consider Havana and its casinos to be their special Caribbean playground; now Porrata senses - quite correctly - that he is on the trail of something special.

So, the wry and craft Porrata - one of modern fiction's most beguiling protagonists - begins looking into the connections between the hippopotamus and the mobster, and soon Porrata finds himself head-over-heels in the midst of an exotic tale of dangerous passions, murderous mobsters, and singular mysteries.

Populated with eccentric characters (including well-known mobsters - like Meyer Lansky - and a cameo appearance from movie-star George Raft) and remarkable in its stylish, fast-paced narrative, Mayra Montero's Dancing to "Almendra" is spellbinding and seductive (like the song included in the novel's title, 'a melody that could hypnotize the people who danced it'). In a masterful translation from Edith Grossman (the award-winning translator of many works by major Spanish-language authors, including Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Miguel de Cervantes), Montero's cinematic and quirky tale of pre-revolutionary Cuba is absolutely fabulous fun.

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