Saturday, November 10, 2012

Book Review: Thoughts Without Cigarettes by Oscar Hijuelos


A beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist turns his pen to the real people and places that have influenced his life and literature. A comprehensive look into the mind of a writer.

Born in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights to Cuban immigrants in 1951, Oscar Hijuelos introduces readers to the colorful circumstances of his upbringing. The son of a Cuban hotel worker and exuberant poetry-writing mother, his story, played out against the backdrop of a working-class neighborhood, takes on an even richer dimension when his relationship with his family and culture changes forever. During a sojourn with his mother in pre-Castro Cuba, he catches a disease that sends him into a Dickensian home for terminally ill children. The yearlong stay estranges him from the very language and people he had so loved.

With a cast of characters whose stories are both funny and tragic, Thoughts Without Cigarettes follows Hijuelos's subsequent quest for his true identity  a mystery whose resolution he eventually discovers hidden away in the trappings of his fiction, and which finds its most glorious expression in his best-known book,The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Illuminating the most dazzling scenes from his novels, Thoughts Without Cigarettes reveals the true stories and indelible memories that shaped a literary genius.

My review:

Oscar Hijuelos was four years old when he contracted nephritis during a visit with family in Cuba. The resulting hospital stay would alter his life forever. He went into the hospital as a Spanish-speaking first-generation Cuban-American. After a year of being insulted and treated badly by English-speaking nurses solely because he did not understand what they said to him, he came out of the hospital as an English-speaking "former" Cuban. I was appalled at the way the nurses treated a small child because of his language and heritage. Apparently, this experience scarred him to the extent that even after returning to his Spanish-speaking home, he refused to speak even one word of Spanish, or even acknowledge that he understood it when he heard it spoken. I find it ironic that he was chastised in the hospital for not knowing English, then spent years at odds with his family for not speaking Spanish.

Due to his hospital stay, Hijuelos started school late, and unable to read either English or Spanish. He struggled with English, feeling that it was somehow forbidden to him. Despite that, he is now very articulate and even eloquent at times. I find it interesting that he didn't even like to read growing up, preferring comic books because he could see what was happening without being hampered by words. He seems to have grown out of that. He is the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

I liked that there were gaps in his memory and that he doesn't claim to remember or know every single thing that has ever happened. I find that this makes memoirs more believable. There was quite a lot of name-dropping, but Hijuelos did have the benefit of being involved in the NYC literary/arts community. Attending several NYC colleges and universities over the years, he also had a broader pool of students and professors than most people would have. I did get the feeling that the author became successful in spite of himself. He turns down or just plain misses opportunities that many aspiring authors would trade anything for.

This is not a dull, dry recitation of the author's life. There is some rambling from time to time, and I had to look up some of the writers mentioned as well as some of the Spanish slang. (I understood the "regular" Spanish.) Small stories of incidents woven through the book keep it interesting and often humorous. Such as when we read about how smoking an iguana out of a butchered pig ended with the entire family chasing and killing tarantulas. Or how Hijuelos sent a frustrated mugger to steal from Columbia students because City College students were too poor. 

This isn't the best memoir I've ever read, but it is worth reading.

About the book:
Title: Thoughts Without Cigarettes:A Memoir
Author: Oscar Hijuelos
Publisher: Gotham
Release date: June 5, 2012
Pages: 384
Where I got the book: I won it 

This is Review #4 in my Hurricane Relief Review-a-thon. Please go HERE for all the details and to make a donation or win a $20 Amazon gift card by helping me spread the word.

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