Thoughts Without Cigarettes

Oscar Hijuelos wrote his memoir with such honesty and openness that I could not help but relate to it with a profound connection. Me? A woman from the Midwest who has spent twenty-six years teaching elementary children? How could I possibly find a connection to this Cuban writer who was the first Hispanic to win the Pulitzer prize?

It is because of these things: his growing up being protected by his parents; his being separate from the ‘young toughs’ on the street; his lack of inner confidence at his own skills; his feeling he didn’t quite belong; his yearning for a relationship with his parents. (I cannot relate to yearning for such a relationship, as I have one with my parents. What strikes me is the longing he felt for his father, especially after his father’s death.)

When he was four or five years old, Oscar became deathly ill with nephritis. During his long hospitalization, he lost his ability to speak Spanish, and in so doing became alienated from his mother who felt that perhaps he was not speaking it with her on purpose. Cossetted and perhaps overprotected by her, combined with his pale complexion and light hair, he felt separated from his Cuban roots, too. A stranger in this land…how many of us feel that way no matter what our background?

His story tells of his parent’s relationship (perhaps the fighting is glossed over by one of them when the other spouse dies), his great affection for his Aunt Cheo in Cuba, the distress his mother felt over her sister-in-laws not accepting her. He tells of the neighborhood, the drugs and sex that were such an integral part of the 1960s, and the demise of many of the young men he grew up with.

It seems rather a miracle that his writing became so famous. This, from a boy who “lived in dread of being called on (in school), and lacking self-confidence, I always felt that I had to play catch-up when it came to reading and writing, over which I agonized, all the while thinking that I wasn’t very smart.”

He goes on to tell of his years at CCNY, where Donald Bethalme was instrumental in advising and encouraging him to become a writer. Refusing to attend the University of Iowa’s writing program, Oscar nevertheless broke into the writer’s world, and ended up publishing first Our House In The Last World and then Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. (Of course, he has written many more, but this book stops with Mambo Kings.)

I loved his perceptions on other authors, particularly John Irving (an author I’m eager to read more of since learning that Haruki Murakami greatly admires him): “The biggest rising star and resident sex symbol? John Irving, dressed in leather and riding around on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. At a reading he, handsome and Byronesque, held forth with the seriousness of a lama about to raise the dead: his prose electrified the audience; women sighed at the sight of him, as if he were a Sir Galahad in the flesh.”

About Raymond Carver: “Where his (Bethelme’s) experimental fictions had once been considered timely, relevant, brilliant, and cutting-edge, he had been most recently eclipsed by Raymond Carver, whose surgically precise but often maudlin prose had become the new standard of excellence. (And all the more so after the poor man, a reformed alcoholic who often wrote of those trials so transcendentally, died of cancer in 1988.)”

But, if anyone writes transcendentally, it must be Oscar Hijuelos himself who writes of his life, and being Cuban, with an eloquence which makes even non-Hispanics like myself say, “Yeah! I know just what that’s like!” For it is the irony of experiencing what it’s like to be on the outside of the group, even temporarily, that makes us feel on the inside with one another.

Now I am finally ready to open, and appreciate all the more, my edition of his Pulitzer prize winning novel.

“Once I figured out that my humble super had been a mambo king, or the Mambo King, as he would become known in the novel, I still saw him in terms of a contradictory personality: on the one hand he was rambunctious, wild, life loving, woman chasing, devil-may-care, blatantly sexist, big dicked, and altogether, even when long past his prime, herculean in very way possible (or to put it differently, a man of the earth and of a triumphant body, until his vies get the better of him.) At the same time, because I’d always identified that feeling with being Cuban, he had a tendency toward melancholy and so many soulful memories that he seemed to be two “selves,” as it were. That dichotomy puzzled me, until one day I realized that Cesar Castillo was, in fact, two persons: Hence his younger brother, Nestor, came into the world, or, as I thought of him, he had always been there, lingering inside Cesar Castillo’s head.”

The publisher is offering a copy of the book as a giveaway to one reader (US/Canada only, please).  Simply leave a comment if you wish to be entered.

The winner of Oscar Hijuelos’ memoir is A Bookish Way of  Life…congratulations, Nadia! Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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14 thoughts on “Thoughts Without Cigarettes”

  1. Julie, I've not read this novel which seared your heart; nor, for that matter, have I read any of Oscar Hijuelos' fiction. I can tell you, however, that after reading his memoir I'm looking forward to reading his fiction. I should actually read more about the authors whose fiction I read; I'm sure it would greatly enhance my appreciation of their work which is already mostly in awe.

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  2. Mr. Ives' Christmas is the only book of Hijuelos' I've read. And that was years ago, but as I recall, it didn't do much for me. But I love those books in which you mutter to yourself, "Yeah! I know just what that's like!" I'm glad this was a winner for you. Lovely review, too. Mine are getting shorter and shorter!

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  3. Suko, one of the things I really like about being asked to review books is how it exposes me to works I probably wouldn't have picked up on my own. I don't read a lot of nonfiction, and certainly not a lot of memoir, so this was an especially interesting read for me.Les, your reviews are getting shorter and shorter? Mine have always been short! I guess I'm torn between giving too much away, and boring readers to death. I'd say there's nothing wrong with a succinct review, plus it gives us more time to get on our bicycles!

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  4. I really wanted to read this after I read the excerpt in the NY Times the other day. Your review makes me want to get it even more. Sounds fascinating!

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  5. This book sounds absolutely fascinating! Makes me want to read it ASAP! I loved his thoughts on Irving – whose work I love! You have to read some of this stuff Bellezza, it is amazing!! Anyhow, Hijuelos sounds like an author whose work I'd appreciate. So, please throw my name into the hat for the giveaway. Cheers!

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  6. Your reviews have never been short! This one has ten paragraphs. My recent review has one! And I haven't been out on my bike in a couple of weeks. But then again, I'm working 8 hrs/day, plus running errands, walking the dog, fixing dinner, etc. I'm lucky if I get one review out each week! And I won't even talk about how bad I've gotten about visiting my favorite blogs.

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  7. This sounds really fascinating. I will be looking out for this memoir. Somehow, I feel I might enjoy reading the memoir before his fiction in this case?Don't enter me, btw, I'm not from the US/Can.

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  8. Wow! Sounds like you really connected with Hijuelos! I admit that I haven't read any of his books yet but I've got Mambo Kings on audio and I'm really looking forward to trying it out.Thanks for being a part of the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

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