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Book Review – Thoughts Without Cigarettes by Oscar Hijuelos

Synopsis:  The beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist turns his pen to the real people and places that have influenced his life and, in turn, his literature. Growing up in 1950’s working-class New York City to Cuban immigrants, Hijuelos journey to literary acclaim is the evolution of an unlikely writer.

Oscar Hijuelos has enchanted readers with vibrant characters who hunger for success, love, and self-acceptance. In his first work of nonfiction, Hijuelos writes from the heart about the people and places that inspired his international bestselling novels.

Born in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights to Cuban immigrants in 1951, 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 an often prejudiced working-class neighborhood, takes on an even richer dimension when his relationship to his family and culture changes forever. During a sojourn in pre-Castro Cuba with his mother, 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 into adulthood, through college and beyond-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.

First Line:  “Seems just like yesterday (an illusion) that I was sitting out front on my stoop on 118th street, on an Autumn day, in 1963 or so, feeling rather indignantly disposed and pissed off because my best friend from across the way, with a somewhat smug look in his eyes, kept blowing smoke into my face.”

Random Quote:  “Despite the endless stories I’ve since heard about cruel nuns, and aside from have the back of my head slapped and my knuckles rapped by a ruler, and yes, my earlobes tugged painfully when, getting older and more pent up, I turned into a classroom wise guy, I have always thought only fondly of those women, who, in their black-and-white wimpled habits and ascetically appropriate rooms – narrow, with just a bed, a table, a washbasin on a stand, and a crucifix hanging on the wall – seem now to have been nothing less than sincerely devout throwbacks to another time.”

Review:  I’m very fond of Oscar Hijuelos’ writing.  First and foremost it is evocative for me in a way much writing isn’t.  When I read Mr. Hijuelos I hear Celia Cruz in my head, smell smoky bars, and visualize a fantasy New York city in black-and-white tones full of noise, shadows, and smells of black beans, rice, and plantains riding on the breezes (mixing with all the other food smells one can imagine).  I love the musical rhythm of his work and the intimacy of his long stream-of-consciousness sentences – as if I’m sitting on the stoop with him, smoking, and he’s telling me stories.

The Gateway to Morningside HeightsGateway to Morningside Heights – Image by mgarbowski via Flickr
All of this is particularly vivid in his memoir where he shares with us all his memories of growing up, of the stories and people that helped shape the writer he became.  Most poignant, perhaps, is his feeling that he was an outsider within his own culture because he was in the hospital when he was 4 and lost his language.  I know a little about losing your language because my great-grandmother was Native American and mission-raised where they were ruthlessly stripped of their culture and language.  Despite all of that, Mr. Hijuelos imbues his work with the colors and sounds and stories of his culture and if he’s an outsider he’s a really privileged and adored one.

It’s a pleasure to walk along with him at night in my head – going from club to club, smoking, laughing, drinking too much beer, and listening to stories.  Highly recommended.

FTC Disclosure:  Advance copy from publisher for TLC Book Tours

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I’m very honored to be a part of Mr. Hijuelos’ blog tour through TLC Book Tours.  Be sure to check out the other tour stops for more reviews:

About Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos is the first Latino to have ever been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, which he won in 1990 for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.  He is also a recipient of the Rome Prize and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others.  His eight novels have been translated into over twenty-five languages.  Hijuelos was born in New York City and spent a very small part of his early years in Cuba.  He currently spends part of the year in Durham, North Carolina, where he teaches at Duke University.
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Oscar Hijuelos TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Thursday, June 2nd:  Lit and Life
Friday, June 3rd:  The Brain Lair
Monday, June 6th:  Chaotic Compendiums
Tuesday, June 7th:  In the Next Room
Wednesday, June 8th:  Sukos Notebook
Thursday, June 9th:  Rundpinne
Friday, June 10th:  Regular Rumination
Monday, June 13th:  Bookstack
Tuesday, June 14th:  Shelf Love
Wednesday, June 15th:  A Fanatics Book Blog
Thursday, June 16th:  Life is a Patchwork Quilt
Monday, June 20th:  Book Club Classics!
Tuesday, June 21st:  Silver and Grace
Thursday, June 23rd:  Bonjour, Cass!
Monday, June 27th:  Dolce Bellezza
Wednesday, June 29th:  A Library of My Own
Date TBD:  Colloquium reschedule

I’m also very thrilled to offer one copy of Thoughts Without Cigarettes to one lucky winner chosen at random.  Fill out the form below to participate!  The winner will be announced on Sunday, June 12.

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