I have a confession to make as I embark on reading the city's "One Book, One Philadelphia" selection, "Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy."
Not much of a book reader.
Call it ADD or some variation thereof, but I have a tough time sticking with one book because: a) Oh, look it's snowing today; b) Who can I call to microanalyze last week's episode of "The Office"? c) Yipee! Only 23 days left til spring.
See what I mean?
But, there are no distractions when it comes to Carlos Eire's beautifully written book, winner of the 2003 National Book Award for nonfiction.
It's a touching, extremely honest memoir recalling Eire's childhood in Cuba and his subsequent airlift out of the island nation at age 12.
Initially, I thought the book was 98 percent fiction, even though it all felt real. (Like the tidbit about the vendors at Eire's Jesuit school openly selling switchblades to students.)
Eire, a soft-spoken, affable man who teaches history at Yale University, corrected my notion. It's all true, he told me by phone this week.
Yes, his father believed with all his heart that he was King Louis XVI in a previous life and that his mother was Marie Antoinette. A very Catholic man.
When the book was published, his critics except for one, Eire says, believed he had taken magical realism too far. But it wasn't magical realism, it was Cuba.
"Things are different in Latin America," he says, completely underselling the concept.
What has surprised me so far in reading the book is how absolutely funny it is. Laugh-out-loud funny. And that got me thinking about humor. Cuban humor, Caribbean humor, Latino humor: What makes it so?
"That's a tough one," Eire says, pausing for a second. "There are lots of twists and turns. The punch lines are unexpected. If there's anything predictable about Cuban humor it is that it's unpredictable."
Sounds like Venezuelan humor to me. And Puerto Rican. And Dominican.
The humor "makes light of horrible things," he continued. "The darker the situation, the more jokes that spring up."
My late dad, Enrique Medina, was an aerial photographer in Venezuela who took about 1,000 pictures too many at any family gathering or anytime he carried around his 35-mm camera. Somewhere around shot number 894, our mouths would be as straight as ironing boards and he'd say in Spanish the equivalent of "give me a smile like a dead pig!" See, that line is funny in Spanish and sick in English.
As a kid, my dad got me with the word cochino (pig). Yet, it was as an adult, after my dad died in 1994, that I finally understood what he was saying. And I laughed out loud.
Both Eire and Philadelphia resident Santiago L. Parlade chuckled at the line.
Parlade agrees with me to a point about the book's humor. Parlade, a math teacher at Edison High School, left Cuba at age 16 in 1961 on a French cargo ship, eventually settling in Philadelphia with family friends.
"It's funny, but it's very sad, too. It's not like it's a comedy. It's quite dark in some points," Parlade says.
Cuban humor is probably the same as other humor, the 62-year-old Parlade says. He reads the book with a deeper perspective about that period than the average reader. And he repeatedly told me: The book is funny, but mostly "it's so sad."
He was particularly struck by "the sadness of him [Eire] leaving by himself." Eire was one of 14,000 children airlifted to Miami in Operation Pedro Pan between 1960 and 1962 in an effort to help children of Cubans who opposed the Castro regime.
What amazes Parlade is that Eire, who left Havana at a young age, "could still find in himself the Cubanness that he showed when writing the book."
Eire, for his part, says the book is one he had to write for many, many reasons.