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August 30, 2016

Book Notes - Brin-Jonathan Butler "The Domino Diaries"

The Domino Diaries

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Brin-Jonathan Butler's book The Domino Diaries is a fascinating blend of memoir and travelogue that vividly captures Castro's Cuba.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"In this striking memoir, writer and filmmaker Butler examines his bittersweet love affair with Cuba through the lens of boxing...More artist than journalist, Butler approaches his material slantwise, and much of his prose is fluid and searching....He has produced a book worthy of Cuba's beauty and sorrow."


In his own words, here is Brin-Jonathan Butler's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir The Domino Diaries:


It requires not talent, but unrestrained genius to take even an ordinary photograph of anything on the island of Cuba. Havana is less a landscape than a dreamscape. Maybe this is why they warn you after arriving that you will never dream like you do on the island. I understand the island less now than after first visiting 16 years ago. Strange and hopelessly unresolvable to encounter a city that ensnares you with so many large and small hooks on a daily basis.

Where can Cuba's melody be found? There are many motifs to choose from. The first place I started was Cubans' haunted relationship with the sea. While writing The Domino Diaries, I tried to use music to get at that complex relationship from as many angles as I could.

Cuban eyes often look close to tears. Tears never seem far away, because both their pain and their joy are always so close to the surface. In Havana, even those that have lost the ability to walk remain convinced they can dance. And where on earth can anyone dance with more transcendent, arresting beauty than this strange, troubled, intoxicating island? It's not an accident that there is no talent or skill more transferable to creating a sublime boxer than the ability to dance. Perhaps this goes some distance to explain how Cubans have, for over half a century, dominated the sport of boxing in the Olympics against much larger and wealthier nations. Every legendary Cuban fighter I met had their own complex melody, expressed not just inside the ring but equally outside it. Cubans of all walks of life were haunted by the decision to stay or leave their home regardless of what they ended up choosing. I've never seen anywhere where a sense of home meant more. That insidious choice, Cuba's answer to Sophie's Choice, stained the fabric of every family on the island. It's a motif imbued with abundant joy and painful nostalgia, and it informed nearly all of the choices of music in my ear as I tried to write this book.



"Sodade" - Cesaria Evora

An arrestingly blissful and heartbreaking ode to farewells. The swell of nostalgia balanced by the weight of melancholy. Havana's Malecon seawall is often treated as the city's collective sofa to look out to sea. Evora's voice just captures the essence of the yearning on the faces staring off at the Florida Straits.

"Political Science" – Randy Newman

Cuba has always been a funhouse mirror reflection on America. This is a take on American foreign policy most Cubans would gleefully enjoy having a laugh with.

"Szerelem, Szerelem" – Marta Sebestyen

My mother left Budapest as a refugee shortly after the Hungarian Revolution and arrived in Canada at 16 without most of her family or a word of English. She summarized the lyrics of Sebestyen's haunting song for me with a guilty cackle: "Love is a curse." While most of life in Cuba is dramatically slowed down, relationships are often absurdly accelerated into dangerous intensity.

"Roman Nepi Tancok (Roman Folk Dances), BB68: NO. 3 – Bela Bartok

I've been told the Hungarian Minor Chord used in this piece was avoided by nearly all composers, mainly owing to its refusal to resolve itself from its disturbing ambiguity. Cuba is treated with the complexity of mini-golf by most of the American media. This is the kind of melody that does some justice to the island's complexity and contradictions and dark beauty.

"Gnossiennes: III. Lent – Eric Satie

There is a mysterious, troubling quality to this beautiful piece by Satie that always serenaded a quality about Cuba asking more questions about where you came from and your values than any hope of encountering simple answers about her.

"Iguazu" – Gustavo Santaolalla

Santaolalla is the composer I listen to the most while writing about anything. This song in particular was something I listened to thousands of times while trying to explore how so many Cuban boxers rejected millions of dollars rather than leave their island. But some of the characters I met and included in my book did leave, or wanted to. Somehow this song spoke to the friction and brooding lament of being forced into either choice.

"Simples Cosas" – Buika

Leidys, my closest friend in Cuba, learned nearly all of her English from music and became so proficient some diplomatic translators I knew who met her assumed she was a government spy. This was a lovely song Leidys introduced me in a small café with a sinister little smile on her face.

"My Baby Just Cares For Me" – Nina Simone

J.D. Salinger wrote, "Probably for every man there is at least one city that sooner or later turns into a girl." Ditto certain songs. This song was secretly slipped into my luggage by a girl I had fallen hard for just as we were saying goodbye. I hated goodbyes to begin with, and she compounded my bias.

"La Comparsa" – Ernesto Lecuona

I first heard this song trying desperately (and futilely) to bring a Cuban girl back to the island after she'd left for her new home in a foreign city. The irony thick given she was in my home country while I was living in her hometown. This is the song the Cuban government uses while you are "on hold" trying to call out of the country. It's playfulness and innocence saturate three of the most frustrating days of my life unsuccessfully reaching somebody I was desperately trying to reach.

"Bella Cubana" -Ernesto Lecuona

Looking for more hair from the dog that bit me, this was the next Lecuona song I ran into. It's a song I've never been able to get the wrapping paper off after endless listens.

"Sixth Symphony: Pastoral" – Beethoven

When it comes to baseball, a conservative man's wet dream of America is long dead in the United States, but it's still thriving in alleys all over Havana with boys playing stickball and strange old men wandering around selling peanuts for those marveling at the beauty.

"Ragtime Nightingale" – Joseph Lamb

Havana opens up like a pop-up book at night and this song just seems to serenade that feeling of watching it happen after the magic hour strikes. Human beauty invading a dreamscape out on the hunt to see where the action is, some gossip or some laughter, or a drink.


Brin-Jonathan Butler and The Domino Diaries links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
Los Angeles Review of Books interview with the author
Miami Herald interview with the author
Signature interview with the author
WBUR interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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