Published June 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours
Oscar Hijuelos has entranced readers with the characters in his books, mostly notably in his Pulitzer-prize winning effort The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (in 1992 it was made into a movie starring Armand Assante and Antonio Bandaras). In Thoughts Without Cigarettes, Hijuelos doesn't need to create great characters, he only needs to tell us about the ones he grew up with.
Born in New York City, Hijuelos is a second-generation Cuban-American, grew up in the 1950's in a neighborhood that was culturally diverse. When Oscar was only four, Magdalena Hijuelos took her two sons home to Cuba for an extended stay. While there, Oscar contracted a disease that resulted in nephritis and a year-long stay in a ward for similarly ill persons. As best he can recall, Oscar's father never visited him there. Although his mother did visit, she was not allowed to touch him and the more he was exposed to the English language during his stay, the less he understood of the Spanish that his mother spoke, creating a barrier between the two they were never able to overcame.
When he returned home, Oscar was smothered by his parents, particularly his mother. He was not allowed to play outside and was on a very restricted diet (in a home where rich foods where a part of the daily diet) for years after his release from the hospital. When he was finally allowed to go to school, he found himself playing catch up with the other students. Dealing with his alcoholic father, and suffering through his parents' high voltage marriage, made life at home difficult at best. All of which contributed to Oscar spending the rest of his life trying to discover his place in the world.
Interestingly, writing was not on Hijuelos' radar as he grew up; being a musician was first desire, but if that didn't work out, his plan was to be a teacher. Teachers along the way, however, recognized that Hiuelos had a gift and encouraged him to write. A chance encounter with the author William Burroughs (Naked Lunch) further convinced Hijuelos that writing might just be his thing.
Certainly Hijuelos lived an interesting life and paints a vivid portrait of New York City, his home life and his family.
"Inside the bowels of the subway he would go, with its dirty platforms and penny Chiclets and five-cent Hershey bar dispensers on the columns, and board his train downtown and eventually over to Grand Central, the seats in those days still often covered in lacquered cane."Perhaps it was reading back-to-back non-fiction works (something I never do). Perhaps it was the feeling I couldn't shake that someone had shaken up Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and thrown in some Cuban spice. Perhaps it was the fact that early in the book, Hijuelos repeated guessed at what might have happened or what might have been said (obviously, he would have been too young or not directly involved in certain conversations to be able to say things with sureness). "Possibly" and "I can only suppose" only work for me, even in a memoir where exact details are not necessarily required, when the possibilities or suppositions have some basis in reality. For whatever reason, even though I enjoyed Thoughts Without Cigarettes, it didn't really flow for me, feeling more like something I had to read, rather than something I wanted to read. Which is a shame, because Hijuelos really is a marvelous writer.
"Yet, while he [Hijuelos' father] offered me affection, that cubano, a union man and hotel cook of simple tastes and longings, he never really taught me anything at all, not how to dress (though he could be quite dapper), not to dance the mambo or rumba (at which he, like my mother, had excelled), nor, among so many other things, even how to drive a car (he, raised on farms, which horses, never would learn). And when it came to something as important as restoring that which had been taken from me, a sense of just who I was, I doubt that, as with my mother, it hardly occurred to him that something inside of me was missing, an element of personality in need of repair. Earthly in his needs and desires, he just didn't think that way."
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. For other opinions on this book, check out the other stops on the tour.