Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Thoughts Without Cigarettes by Oscar Hijuelos

Thoughts Without Cigarettes is a memoir by Oscar Hijuelos, a man who was the first Hispanic author to win the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Although I have not read any of Hijuelos books yet, this is a memoir which although probably more enlightening (especially towards the end) for readers of Hijuelos, has much to offer even for those unfamiliar with his work.

Hijuelos' writing is lovely, he certainly paints a vivid picture with his words. And the original premise, a young boy growing up in New York City, the son of immigrant parents, feelings of lost culture and lack of belonging because his skin was so light, all of this interested me. However when it came to the actual memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes was a slow read that often had difficulty keeping my attention. The book is extremely full of references to famous people and Hijuelos' interactions with them and it often comes across as name-dropping and not at all crucial to the story he is telling. For example, he writes about how he sat near Allen Ginsberg who congratulated him on a talk only not to recognize him later in the evening. Throughout Thoughts Without Cigarettes, Hijuelos also gives his opinion on various other writers. At times I thought he was overly harsh about calling other writers dull, since this isn't a work of literary criticism and he doesn't particularly back up his statements it came across as a bit petty at times- especially when he does it in reference to an author who won an award Hijuelos was also nominated for, for example.

The most interesting parts of Thoughts Without Cigarettes involved Hijuelos' childhood, what it was like to come back home after a serious illness and a year in the hospital, having 'lost' his Spanish in the meantime, only to be treated as a fragile child, unable to play outside and eat candy like the other boys. Hijuelos also discusses what it was like to be pigeon-holed as an "immigrant" writer, and offers a strong reminder that we still have a long way to go when it comes to achieving equal amounts of publicity regardless of race. I couldn't help but be reminded of earlier this year when Jennifer Egan beat Jonathan Franzen for the National Book Award, only to have a large picture of Franzen featured in the LA Times instead, as well as Franzen's book title mentioned in the headline but Egan's only referred to as her "work". Hijuelos contemplates if perhaps his ability to break out as a Latino writer stems from the fact that he does not look stereotypically Latino. The memoir includes some very thought-provoking and interesting discussions on race and the literary world.

There is quite a bit of Thoughts Without Cigarettes which I think would be more interesting if I had previously read Hijuelos' first two novels, as he discusses what it was like to publish them and how he came to write them. Regardless, he has an enjoyable style of writing that I think I would actually prefer in a novel, because what I disliked about the memoir was the name-dropping and slow pace, things that would easily be solved in the case of a plot and a fictional narration. Overall, Thoughts Without Cigarettes offers insight into the mind and life of a famous author, while also pondering some profound inequalities that continue to exist, although it was a slow book for me to read I am glad for the introduction to Oscar Hijuelos and I look forward to picking up one of his novels in the future.

Release Date: June 2nd, 2011
Pages: 384
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This review was a part of TLC Book Tours. Click here to read what other tour hosts thought. For the purpose of this review I was provided with a copy of the book which did not require a positive review. The opinions expressed in this post are completely my own.

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