After trashing the narrator of the last book I listened to, I want to sing the praises of David Drummond, who did a marvelous job with this one! I had a wonderful, if disturbing at times, visit to Cuba at the time of the revolution, and will very likely be back for more from Carlos Eire, the T Lawrason Riggs Professor of History & Religious Studies at Yale.
Here is the Goodreads Summary of this book, and then my review will follow:
In 1962, at the age of eleven, Carlos Eire was one of 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba, his parents left behind. His life until then is the subject of Waiting for Snow in Havana, a wry, heartbreaking, intoxicatingly beautiful memoir of growing up in a privileged Havana household — and of being exiled from his own childhood by the Cuban revolution.
That childhood, until his world changes, is as joyous and troubled as any other — but with exotic differences. Lizards roam the house and grounds. Fights aren’t waged with snowballs but with breadfruit. The rich are outlandishly rich, like the eight-year-old son of a sugar baron who has a real miniature race car, or the neighbor with a private animal garden, complete with tiger. All this is bathed in sunlight and shades of turquoise and tangerine: the island of Cuba, says one of the stern monks at Carlos’s school, might have been the original Paradise — and it is tempting to believe.
His father is a municipal judge and an obsessive collector of art and antiques, convinced that in a past life he was Louis XVI and that his wife was Marie Antoinette. His mother looks to the future; conceived on a transatlantic liner bound for Cuba from Spain, she wants her children to be modern, which means embracing all things American. His older brother electrocutes lizards. Surrounded by eccentrics, in a home crammed with portraits of Jesus that speak to him in dreams and nightmares, Carlos searches for secret proofs of the existence of God.
Then, in January 1959, President Batista is suddenly gone, a cigar-smoking guerrilla named Castro has taken his place, and Christmas is canceled. The echo of firingsquads is everywhere. At the Aquarium of the Revolution, sharks multiply in a swimming pool. And one by one, the author’s schoolmates begin to disappear — spirited away to the United States. Carlos will end up there himself, alone, never to see his father again.
Narrated with the urgency of a confession, Waiting for Snow in Havana is both an exorcism and an ode to a paradise lost. More than that, it captures the terrible beauty of those times in our lives when we are certain we have died — and then are somehow, miraculously, reborn.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me. That’s how it would always be from that day forward. Of course, that’s the way it had been all along, I just didn’t know it until that morning. Surprise upon surprise: some good, some evil, most somewhere in between. And always without my consent.
I was barely eight years old, and I had spent hours dreaming of childish things, as children do. My father, who vividly remembered his prior life as King Louis XVI of France, probably dreamt of costume balls, mobs, and guillotines. My mother, who had no memory of having been Marie Antoinette, couldn’t have shared in his dreams. Maybe she dreamt of hibiscus blossoms and fine silk. Maybe she dreamt of angels, as she always encouraged me to do. “Suena con los angelitos,” she would say: dream of little angels. The fact that they were little meant that they were too cute to be fallen angels.
Devils can never be cute.
So begins Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire. I loved this book. It was smart, funny, sad, disturbing: everything you would expect of a memoir by a man who fled Cuba as a child, after the revolution turned his family’s world upside down, but much more. Eire is a talented, insightful writer. Eire had a front seat for the major transformational moment of his country’s history, but he viewed it with a child’s eyes, which makes for interesting contrasts in the narrative. His adult self can look back with an understanding of the horrors that were occurring, while his child self enjoyed the excitement of living through things that seemed like movies he loved watching. The book is marvelous because it is a historical account, but also quirkily personal, and the language is brilliantly crafted, with themes and small vignettes echoing backward and forward throughout the tale to maximum effect. We see the life of upper-class pre-revolutionary Cuba, we see the family dramas that unfold in any household, we see the increasing fear that spreads as guns and arrests and neighbors who spy and executions become the norm, replacing warnings about mysterious sins by Catholic priest teachers and breadfruit wars and the theft of toy soldiers when a parent’s back is turned and American movies. We learn of the shock of moving to a new country where one is suddenly poor, friendless, and a despised minority. Eire has a marvelous resilience, and a slightly cynical rapier wit. I can’t wait to read the follow-up Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy.
Updated score sheet for the year:
Around the World (goal: 52 total including at least 6 in each of 6 different regions) 7
Asia/Mideast: 2 (Israel, China)
Europe: 2 (England/UK, Monaco)
Caribbean/Central America/North America: 2 (US, Cuba)
Extra: 1 (Scotland)
Around the US (goal: 50 states, DC, and PR): 3 (CA, NY, RI)
1001 Books (goal 52): 4
A to Z challenge (must be completed in order 26 author last names A to Z then 26 titles A to Z–strategy is all!): 5
Authors: Auster, Beinart, Chandler, Donovan, Eugenides