Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Learning to Die in Miami

Summary: In his 2003 National Book Award–winning memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire narrated his coming of age in Cuba just before and during the Castro revolution. That book literally ends in midair as eleven-year-old Carlos and his older brother leave Havana on an airplane—along with thousands of other children—to begin their new life in Miami in 1962. It would be years before he would see his mother again. He would never again see his beloved father. 

Learning to Die in Miami opens as the plane lands and Carlos faces, with trepidation and excitement, his new life. He quickly realizes that in order for his new American self to emerge, his Cuban self must "die." And so, with great enterprise and purpose, he begins his journey. 

We follow Carlos as he adjusts to life in his new home. Faced with learning English, attending American schools, and an uncertain future, young Carlos confronts the age-old immigrant's plight: being surrounded by American bounty, but not able to partake right away. The abundance America has to offer excites him and, regardless of how grim his living situation becomes, he eagerly forges ahead with his own personal assimilation program, shedding the vestiges of his old life almost immediately, even changing his name to Charles. Cuba becomes a remote and vague idea in the back of his mind, something he used to know well, but now it "had ceased to be part of the world." 

But as Carlos comes to grips with his strange surroundings, he must also struggle with everyday issues of growing up. His constant movement between foster homes and the eventual realization that his parents are far away in Cuba bring on an acute awareness that his life has irrevocably changed. Flashing back and forth between past and future, we watch as Carlos balances the divide between his past and present homes and finds his way in this strange new world, one that seems to hold the exhilarating promise of infinite possibilities and one that he will eventually claim as his own. 

An exorcism and an ode, Learning to Die in Miami is a celebration of renewal—of those times when we're certain we have died and then are somehow, miraculously, reborn. -- Free Press

Last week, I mentioned that my book club read  LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI: CONFESSIONS OF A REFUGEE BOY by Carlos Eire for our September meeting. At first, I was a bit reluctant about reading the book because I didn't think it appealed to me. But, isn't that one of the reasons we join book clubs -- to read books that we might not otherwise read? However, once I read the book's description and flipped through a few pages, I changed my mind. I thought it looked extremely interesting and I was truly looking forward to reading it.

And then a few days before our meeting, I picked up this book and I knew it wasn't going to be an easy read for me. In fact, I found the first 30 or so pages to be almost painful. (I know! Isn't that awful -- LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI was critically acclaimed and the author's first memoir WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA won the National Book Award!) I had an extremely hard time getting used to the author's writing style -- and by that I mean his prose as well as his use of "flash forwards;" and I pretty much concluded that I wasn't smart enough to appreciate all of his literary talents.

But then, I started to enjoy the book -- not love it, but enjoy it. LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI tells the story of Carlos Eire and what happened to him after he and his brother were flown from Cuba to the United States in 1962. It is a touching story about how Carlos assimilated into an American lifestyle, and there are many sad stories about his experiences especially as they relate to the foster care system. I found this book to be an incredibly honest view into what it must have been like for a young child to come to a new country, learn a new language, and at the same time, be without his parents.

Naturally, I was horrified by some of Carlos' experiences -- the chapter with the mice and cockroaches is still freaking me out. However, I was surprised by how much humor was incorporated into the story. I found myself laughing at Carlos' stories about his childhood antics and I loved how he referred to his parents as King Louie and Marie Antoinette. Maybe having a sense of humor is what allowed Carlos to get through all of these ordeals!

So far in this review, it sounds like I enjoyed this book -- and I did to a certain point. However, I ultimately was wanted more from this memoir. Basically, the majority of the book covered a two year period when Carlos arrived in the United States. I did like reading about his experiences as well as his conflicted feeling about missing his parents. But I had a hard time with how the book jumped forward and backward and how he tried to link the stories with a common theme. This is a very literary memoir and there is some gorgeous prose and some very interesting symbols, but I didn't always appreciate these elements. Sometimes they worked for me and other times they didn't.

I have to wonder if I would have enjoyed LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI more if I had read WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA first. I do want to read that first memoir, but I think I need a little break from Mr. Eire's life and writing right now. I have a feeling that I will enjoy it because I now know what to expect!

If you are a fan of stories about overcoming obstacles or literary memoirs, then I do recommend reading LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI. I just might suggest that you read WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA first!


Sandy Nawrot said...

I'm glad that the author was able to inject some humor into an otherwise horrible story. Still, it sounds like a tough read, and one that you'd have to prepare yourself for. I think the main attraction in this for me would be the fact that it is an important part of history of Florida.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

You're so good to have kept at it. I have less incentive when it comes to book club books that I am hating, especially because my husband, who is in the same book club, is not as prone to give up so I can let him do the reading and then tell me about it! :--)

bermudaonion said...

Just thinking about a scene with cockroaches and mice freaks me out. I have a feeling this isn't for me.

Serena said...

this intrigues me. I tend to like more literary memoirs, but the flash forwards might be a bit much.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I *loved* WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA ... I wonder if that background would have helped jumpstart this read for you.

You're a dedicated book group attendee, to stick with it!

Beth F said...

I have his first book here and started it but for some reason never finished it. Not because I didn't like it, but because I got distracted with work or something.

I try the first one before I pick up this.