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This rich and juicy book by Cabrera Infante (Infante's Inferno, 1984; Mea Cuba, 1994; etc.) makes the current crop of coffee table books on the subject seem like mere ephemera. The author was born in Cuba, where Columbus first witnessed the ur- cigar being enjoyed by the locals. The brave admiral (in a fit of early political correctness) didn't partake, but a colleague did, and the stink of the stogey soon spread 'round the world. Cabrera Infante is quick on the draw, tracing the history of the habit in a playful, relaxed narrative. He discursively discourses on the growing of the leaf and the manufacture and various forms of what was first described as a "horizontal chimney." Fillers, binders, and wrappers, shapes and shops, mores and manners, true Havanas, cigarettes, pipes, snuff, and ash are all covered in the pun- encrusted, addictive text. Smoked out, too, is every movie reference to the tobacco habit, with fulsome, funny references to performers from W.C. Fields to Wallace Ford, Groucho Marx (of course) to Percy Kilbride. The movie allusions give way to literary allusions with a miscellany that includes Hammett's Continental Op, the great Myles na gCopaleen, Baron Corvo, Sherlock Holmes (of course) and (of course) Kipling. Written in the days when Castro still smoked and Orson Welles still walked among us, this text refers to a Davidoff as "the most expensive cigar in the world . . . around ten dollars each." Alas, even that awful price has been far surpassed in recent years.
But no matter. Cabrera Infante's pyrotechnics have not yet been equaled. Take a leaf from this book and have some robusto fun.