Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Green Books Campaign: Havana and Other Missing Fathers by Mia Leonin

This review is part of the Green Books campaign.Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on "green" books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

The book I chose to read for this campaign is printed on acid-free archival-quality paper containing a minimum of 30%  post-consumer waste (or recycled materials) and processed chlorine free.

Havana and Other Missing Fathers by Mia Leonin

Havana and Other Missing Fathers by Mia Leonin is a memoir published in 2009 by The University of Arizona Press as part of their Camino del Sol: A Latino and Latina Literary Series. I already own a few issues from the Camino del Sol series and when I decided to join this campaign and saw that this book was available, I couldn't pass it up.

In 1967, Norma drives away from her home in Kentucky and makes her way to Missouri to give birth and begin a new life. Sixteen years later that child, a daughter, learns that her life thus far has been based on a lie. Norma breaks down and tells her child that her father is not dead; indeed he's not her first husband Jerry, but a Cuban doctor -- a foreigner -- who is very much alive. Mother and daughter cry, wash their faces and go for ice cream.

Four years later at age 20, Mia lands in Miami Airport for the first time to meet her father hoping to find a place in his life, to understand the man and in the process parts of herself. She shares moments but no real intimacy with him, and his wife Zoraida seems to be too surprised at Mia's unexpected existence to show her true feelings. Unfortunately after that first meeting, she comes away with more questions than answers about the man, the father and a new culture that she's about to embrace.

Mia, on her father and language:
My father didn't give me explanations, apologies, or answers. He didn't "take responsibility" in any concrete way. He broke off language like pieces of hard candy that caught the light before dissolving in my mouth.
Even after a few years Mia's attempts to know and understand her father elude her, as the immutable Zoraida's resentment grows and prevents Mia from reaching him:
"Mi papa," I venture, "No lo conozco."
Conocer. The verb hangs in the air like the steel blade of a guillotine. Conocer means to meet and to know. Yes, I've met him, but no, I don't know him. How do I join the meeting and the not knowing of my father in one verb? It's more than a grammatical question.
This need for understanding and acceptance gives Mia the necessary impetus to go forth on a personal journey that will take her from Missouri to Miami, Florida to Bogotá, Colombia and eventually Havana, Cuba. Instead of searching for her roots, she finds herself in Havana exploring Cuban culture through the unique joys and sufferings of its people, their compulsive and sensual obsession with food, and the unique rhythms of its music and language. She falls in love with a man and the island's passions as she experiences highs and lows, glorious moments and betrayals, clarity, uncertainty and anguish along the way.
I thought I was just going to come here and "discover" my heritage or somehow feel connected to it, but this island doesn't merely give, it exacts a price for what you take from it. Not flowers or offerings of fruit, but flesh, memory, balance.
Ms. Leonin successfully uses a combination of dialogue and narrative to tell her story. Havana and Other Missing Fathers is a memoir, but it reads more like a novel with poetic overtones. The narrative switches from present to past in a flowing manner with few narrative interruptions as the story unfolds to its conclusion of partial resolutions and personal revelations.  The author writes in a lyrical style and uses language as the core to keep the reader engrossed and focused in the story. While the book is written in English, Ms. Leonin is particularly successful in the effective adaptation of Cuban Spanish, as she applies its unique rhythms, oblique meanings and double entendres to her exploration of roots and culture, both here and there.

Finally, I'll say that this book was an unexpected pleasure. Havana and Other Missing Fathers turned out to be a very personal and forthright journey where no one is spared, least of all the author. She captures the dichotomies in Cuban culture: intricacies and subtleties, beauty and unpleasantness, strengths and weaknesses. I connected with this story and was right there on that roller coaster ride of self-discovery and emotional upheaval with Mia. That's the highest recommendation I can give this book.

Category: Memoir
Series: Camino del Sol: A Latino and Latina Literary Series
Released: September 1, 2009
Source: Eco-Libris & The University of Arizona Press
Grade: B+

Visit Mia Leonin here.


  1. What a lovely review! I hadn't heard of this series. I'm doubly impressed it's part of the eco paper program.

    I love these excepts. Especially "language like pieces of hard candy"

  2. I'm not one for memoirs, but this one sounds wonderful. I like stories that juxtapose the culture of one group with another. Sounds like a good read.

  3. Carolyn, all the issues I've read from this series so far have included quality writers. This book is no exception. The eco-friendly paper is a plus! RE: the excerpts, I had a tough time choosing, there are other favorite passages... just short on space. :)

    Serena, I don't usually go for memoirs either, but this one was definitely worth the read. I see you have a poetry blog, the author (Mia Leonin) is a poet and that is reflected in her writing. Thanks for stopping by. :)

  4. I love memoirs and the excerpts you quoted from this one sound really great. I'm adding this one to my wish list!

  5. Thanks for the information on the Green Books campaign. I try to be green when it comes to bills, etc. by viewing statements & paying online. Good to know about the books too.

    I loved this review Hils. I'm not big on memoirs either, but I like this and it doesn't sound like it would bore me. Most I've tried tend to do that. :)

  6. avisannschild, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Mia's story kept me glued to the pages. :)

    Leslie, you know I went with ebooks two years ago, but I still buy and read plenty of print books. I learned quite a bit by joining this campaign, and well... green is good! Everything helps. :D

    I'm glad you enjoyed the review, and I'll say this... memoirs are not my usual type of read either. This book, however just called to me. It's great that it "reads" like a novel (the narrative is not dry or boring), the subject matter is really interesting, and the one thing I forgot to mention on my review it's 163 pages long which makes it manageable. :)

  7. This does sound good, wonderful review.
    I really like that quote about 'concocer'.

  8. Very nice review, Hils :) Like everyone, I enjoyed the quotes. I don't think I've ever read memories - not something I'm usually into.

    I wonder why they don't print more books on recycled papers... I mean, with all the unsold books, sounds like it'd be a nice solution.

  9. I love the idea of eco-friendly paper!

    I connected with this story and was right there on that roller coaster ride of self-discovery and emotional upheaval with Mia. That's the highest recommendation I can give this book.

    WOW! It sure is. It's like you said when you commented on my most recent post - if you're unscathed at the end of reading a book, then it's not worth it. And a true connection with a book is worth all the emotional upheaval :)

  10. This sounds like a really unusual read, as well as an incredibly personal account. Nice review.

  11. I'm lamenting that I never clicked over to find out more about participating in the Green Books Campaign after we spoke about it in person last month. I would have enjoyed being a part of that. I'll have to get on board for next year.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the memoir, Hilcia and how great that it goes with your Camino Del Sol collection! I haven't read many memoirs, but I can say that I like when they are entertaining and insightful like a really great story as opposed to a simple telling of events... if that makes sense? It sounds like this memoir is definitely well written.

  12. Naida, that was one of my favorite quotes. I loved the way Leonin used the meaning of the word in that small paragraph. Going to check out your review. :)

    Nath, for me it depends on the type of memoir. This one was a winner. :) It would be wonderful if all books were printed fully or at least partially on recycled materials at this point. They now do a wonderful job of making those pages look and feel great. It just makes sense.

    Orannia, yes! Our discussion was quite timely as this is an example of one of those stories where you must keep reading and taking that risk. For me it was worth it. :)

    Prophecygirl yes, this account was very personal and beautifully written. I enjoyed it.

    Christine, next year we'll both participate! It has been a wonderful experience. I was amazed at the diversity of books that were included for review in the campaign. There are some gorgeous reviews and great blogs out there to visit and that was just a plus added to this experience.

    That this was part of the Camino del Sol series was definitely a plus. I knew there would be quality writing involved. However, the way the memoir was narrated was a complete and enjoyable surprise. LOL, I already have 3 people (family & friends) waiting to read it. *g*

  13. Hi Hilcia. Nice review. It's something I would like to read. What do you meant by Cuban Spanish? Is there a particular way Cubans speak Spanish? Hemingway was very capable of capturing Spanish syntax into English in "For whom the bells tolls" and "The sun also rises".

  14. Thanks Oscar. In re: your question about Cuban Spanish, the answer is yes. Cubans have a particulary way in which they speak the Spanish language, it's quite distinctive. I found that Leonin captured some of that in her writing, specifically in the sections where she is exploring Havana and afterwards. I hope you enjoy this book if or when you read it.

  15. Hils, what a wonderful review and this memoir sounds like something I would want to read.

    In a household that went green years ago with several family members who are active in the environmental movement I am somewhat ashamed to admit I did not know about this campaign, even worse it is sponsored by Canada's largest book store chain Chapters/Indigo. My contribution to going green has been to switch most of my reading to ebooks, I rarely purchase print books anymore. But buying books on recycled or FSC-certified paper is something I will definitely pursue in the future when I do occasionally purchase print books. Thank you for raising awareness on this.


  16. Indi, I think you might enjoy it too. :)

    I've been reading a mixture of ebooks and print books for about two years now. But now I know I'll be looking for those books with FSC-certified paper. You can always join the campaing next year! :)


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