Alina García-Lapuerta

View on Amazon

One of the fundamental functions of biography is the preservation of stories. But it also acts to resurrect the stories that may have fallen from view, reinvigorating the tales of people who, with the passage of time, have become merely names on plaques. In La Belle Creole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris (Chicago Review Press, 2014), Alina García-Lapuerta aims to do just that: vividly drawing the story of Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, a woman who was tremendously famous during her lifetime but who has since fallen into relative obscurity, especially in America. Many Cubans and Cuban Americans will be familiar with her name, but many others will never have heard of her, a misfortune that García-Lapuerta’s work will hopefully correct.

Just on the surface, there’s a compelling plot: a Cuban girl leaves home and meets with social triumph in Europe, where she is hostess of one of the most famous salons of her day. But its the theme of ex-patriotism, which García-Lapuerta (an ex-pat herself) elegantly weaves throughout, that is most striking. The longing to return to Cuba and, ultimately, to write about it. Anyone who’s ever lived abroad will recognize the tensions described when Mercedes visits her homeland only to leave it again, but this is a theme that doesn’t always make it into biographies- at least not biographies of people who didn’t live in Paris in the 1920s. It’s even less visible in books about the lives of 19th century figures and, therefore, all the more welcome and provocative here.

García-Lapuerta has done a tricky thing. She’s written a book about someone a lot of people will not have heard of, from a place to which a lot of Americans, at least, will not have been. And yet she makes both the Cuba of old and her heroine feel hauntingly familiar, breathtakingly real.


Georges Nzongola-NtalajaPatrice Lumumba

February 2, 2015

[Cross-posted from New Books in African Studies] Patrice Lumumba was a leader of the independence struggle, as well as the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After a meteoric rise in the colonial civil service and the African political elite, he became a major figure in […]

Read the full article →

James Mace WardPriest, Politician, Collaborator: Jozef Tiso and the Making of Fascist Slovakia

December 25, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Eastern European Studies] In his biography of Jozef Tiso, Catholic priest and president of independent Slovakia (1939-1944), James Ward provides a deeper understanding of a man who has been both honored and vilified since his execution as a Nazi collaborator in 1947. Priest, Politician, Collaborator: Jozef Tiso and the Making of Fascist Slovakia (Cornell University […]

Read the full article →

S. Duncan ReidCal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz

December 18, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Jazz] S. Duncan Reid has written a meticulously researched and detailed account of the performances and recording career of Bay Area-born and small group Latin-jazz innovator and vibraphonist Cal Tjader. Tjader’s high-energy yet lyrical and melodic playing introduced new demographics of jazz listeners to the soulful sound of Latin jazz for four […]

Read the full article →

Janet Sims-WoodDorothy Porter Wesley at Howard University: Building a Legacy of Black History

October 15, 2014

There was once a notion that black people had no meaningful history. It’s a notion Dorothy Porter Wesley spent her entire career debunking. Through her 43 years at Howard University, where she helped create the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, her own publishing endeavors and collecting, and her unfettered support of the researchers she encountered, Wesley devoted […]

Read the full article →

Mark EpsteinThe Trauma of Everyday Life

October 13, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Psychoanalysis] Being human, much of our energy goes into resisting the basic mess of life, but messy it is nonetheless. The trick (as psychoanalysts know) is to embrace it all anyway.  “Trauma is an indivisible part of human existence. It takes many forms but spares no one,” so writes psychiatrist and […]

Read the full article →

Ernest Harsch Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary

October 10, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in African Studies]  Thomas Sankara, often called the African Che Guevara, was president of Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in Africa, until his assassination during a military coup that brought down his government. Although his time in office was relatively short, Sankara left an indelible mark on his country’s […]

Read the full article →

Rebecca RogersA Frenchwoman’s Imperial Story: Madame Luce in Nineteenth-Century Algeria

October 2, 2014

In the early 1830s, the French school teacher Eugénie Luce migrated to Algeria. A decade later, she was a major force in the debates around educational practices there, insisting that not only were women entitled to quality education, but that women’s education served a fundamental role in the French mission in the colonies. “Woman is the […]

Read the full article →

Karen AbbottLiar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

September 8, 2014

If group biography is one of the exciting new trends in life-writing (and some say it is), Karen Abbott- the historian, not to be confused with the novelist- proves one of its deftest practitioners- first, in her debut Sin in the Second City, then in the follow-up American Rose (which we discussed back in 2012) and […]

Read the full article →

Melanie C. HawthorneFinding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist: The Curious Life of Gisèle d’Estoc

August 10, 2014

“Why write the biography of a nobody?” That is the question with which Melanie C. Hawthorne begins Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist: The Curious Life of Gisèle d’Estoc (University of Nebraska Press, 2014) but in justifying the writing of such a life and then, in turn, excavating its contours, Hawthorne winds up exploring a number of issues […]

Read the full article →