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The Sugar King of Havana



The Sugar King of Havana, John Paul Rathbone

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ 

I found this book on a sidewalk sale rack at one of my favorite bookstores in downtown SF.  I took a punt and figured that a New York Times bestseller should be a good bet.  I can’t remember the last time I started a book and didn’t finish; Rathbone’s monotonous, documentary-like account of the rise and fall of Julio Lobo put me to sleep one too many times so at roughly a third the way through the book I gave up.

Publisher’s Weekly: The rise and fall of sugar trader Julio Lobo becomes a window into prerevolutionary Cuba, the mechanics of building an economic empire–and the author’s own personal history–in this atmospheric biography by Rathbone, deputy head of the Financial Times’s Lex column and former World Bank economist. Lobo, “Cuba’s richest man and one of the world’s greatest speculators,” is an intriguing subject (“friends nicknamed him El Veneno, the poisonous one, for his charm and sibylline tongue”), and Rathbone handles his volte face, from hobnobbing with Bette Davis to the loss of his fortune and death in exile in Spain, with finesse. Ample drama–multiple divorces, audacious hostile takeovers, assassination attempts–is given gravity by Rathbone’s parallels with and personal connections to his subject: his family traveled in Lobo’s social circle in Cuba during the first half of the 20th century. An exceptionally rich portrait not only of an empire and its progenitor but Cuba itself, and the economic legacy of Castro’s revolution, the loss of capital, and the end of Cuba’s “great age of sugar.”