Learning to Die in Miami, by Carlos Eire

Carlos Eire, having won the National Book Award in 2003 with his first memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, must have felt author's anxiety as he approached the blank screen a second time. After fearing what he calls the Void all his life, he did what all great writers do—he turned light on it and made it an integral part of his story. "Learning to die" became his phrase for how he was transformed through multiple "deaths" from age 11 to age 60.

The dedication of the book begins, "to the Infant Jesus of Prague, fellow exile," and immediately we enter the territory of the stranger and pilgrim. Eire's parents sent him out of Cuba in 1962, along with his brother Tony, as part of a cold war operation called Pedro Pan, in which 14,000 children were airlifted to Miami to free them from Fidel Castro and communism. Little Carlos carried a single book, a brown leather copy of Thomas à Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. The book plays an important role in his story, first as a totem of his own past life, then as an indecipherable mystery and later as an agent of regeneration. But this is no sweet religious-tract memoir. This is the story of a fighter, someone whose central drama pits life against death, Presence against absence and hope against despair. "Dukes up" is one of his favorite phrases.

Eire pulls us into a story about death and submission through concrete detail. The first chapter starts with a loathsome chicken sandwich that nuns have prepared to welcome the Cuban children to America. Carlos had never touched chicken meat because chicken flesh seemed revolting, like that of reptiles. He now has entered a new culture both reptilian and resplendent. But he has to enter it alone. He feels dead: "To be utterly alone, forever, and to be painfully aware of one's eternal loneliness, this Hell, at least my Hell, the one I entered that morning for the first of many times."