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Michiko KakutaniBy turns street-smart and lyrical, impassioned and reflective, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Loveis a rich and provocative book—a moving portrait of a man, his family, a community and a time.
—New York Times
It was a Saturday afternoon on La Salle Street, years and years ago when I was a little kid, and around three o'clock Mrs. Shannon, the heavy Irish woman in her perpetually soup-stained dress, opened her back window and shouted out into the courtyard, "Hey, Cesar, yoo-hoo, I think you're on television, I swear it's you!" When I heard the opening strains of the I Love Lucy show I got excited because I knew she was referring to an item of eternity, that episode in which my dead father and my Uncle Cesar had appeared, playing Ricky Ricardo's singing cousins fresh off the farm in Oriente Province, Cuba, and north in New York for an engagement at Ricky's nightclub, the Tropicana.
This was close enough to the truth about their real lives--they were musicians and songwriters who had left Havana for New York in 1949, the year they formed the Mambo Kings, an orchestra that packed clubs, dance halls, and theaters around the East Coast--and, excitement of excitements, they even made a fabled journey in a flamingo-pink bus out to Sweet's Ballroom in San Francisco, playing on an all-star mambo night, a beautiful night of glory, beyond death, beyond pain, beyond all stillness.
Desi Arnaz had caught their act one night in a supper club on the West Side, and because they had perhaps already known each other from Havana or Oriente Province, where Arnaz, like the brothers, was born, it was natural that he ask them to sing on his show.He liked one of their songs in particular, a romantic bolero written by them, "Beautiful Mania of My Soul."
Some months later (I don't know how many, I wasn't five years old yet) they began to rehearse for the immortal appearance of myfather on this show.For me, my father's gentle rapping on Ricky Ricardo's door has always been a call from the beyond, as in Dracula films, or films of the walking dead, in which spirits ooze out from behind tombstones and through the cracked windows and rotted floors of gloomy antique halls: Lucille Ball, the lovely redheaded actress and comedienne who played Ricky's wife, was housecleaning when she heard the rapping of my father's knuckles against that door.
"I'm commmmmming," in her singsong voice.
Standing in her entrance, two men in white silk suits and butterfly-looking lace bow ties, black instrument cases by their side and black-brimmed white hats in their hands--my father, Nestor Castillo, thin and broad-shouldered, and Uncle Cesar, thickset and immense.
My uncle: "Mrs.Ricardo? My name is Alfonso and this is my brother Manny..."
And her face fights up and she says, "Oh, yes, the fellows from Cuba.Ricky told me all about you."
Then, just like that, they're sitting on the couch when Ricky Ricardo walks in and says something like "Manny, Alfonso! Gee, it's really swell that you fellas could make it up here from Havana for the show."
That's when my father smiled.The first time I saw a rerun of this, I could remember other things about him--his lifting me up, his smell of cologne, his patting my head, his handing me a dime, his touching my face, his whistling, his taking me and my little sister, Leticia, for a walk in the park, and so many other moments happening in my thoughts simultaneously that it was like watching something momentous, say the Resurrection, as if Christ had stepped out of his sepulcher, flooding the world with fight-what we were taught in the local church with the big red doors--because my father was now newly alive and could take off his hat and sit down on the couch in Ricky's living room, resting his black instrument case on his lap.He could play the trumpet, move his head, blink his eyes, nod, walk across the room, and say "Thank you" when offered a cup of coffee.For me, the room was suddenly bursting with a silvery radiance.And now I knew that we could see it again.Mrs. Shannon had called out into the courtyard alerting my uncle: I was already in his apartment.
With my heart racing, I turned on the big black-and-white television set in his living room and tried to wake him.My uncle had fallen asleep in the kitchen--having worked really late the night before, some job in a Bronx social club, singing and playing the horn with a pickup group of musicians.He was snoring, his shirt was open, a few buttons had popped out on his belly.Between the delicate-looking index and middle fingers of his right hand, a Chesterfield cigarette burning down to the filter, that hand still holding a half glass of rye whiskey, which he used to drink Eke crazy because in recent years he had been suffering from bad dreams, saw apparitions, felt cursed, and, despite all the women he took to bed, found his life of bachelorhood solitary and wearisome.But I didn't know this at the time, 1 thought he was sleeping because he had worked so hard the night before, singing and playing the trumpet for seven or eight hours. I'm talking about a wedding party in a crowded, smoke-filled room (with boltedshut fire doors), lasting from nine at night to four, five o'clock in the morning, the band playing one-, two-hour sets. I thought he just needed the rest.How could I have known that he would come home and, in the name of unwinding, throw back a glass of rye, then a second, and then a third, and so on, until he'd plant his elbow on the table and use it to steady his chin, as he couldn't hold his head up otherwise.But that day I ran into the kitchen to wake him up so that he could see the episode, too, shaking him gently and tugging at his elbow, which was a mistake, because it was as if I had pulled loose the support columns of a five-hundred-year-old church: he simply fell over and crashed to the floor.
Posted October 1, 2007
I can not believe that this book won a Pulitzer Prize. It is borderline pornographic and recants the story of two brothers whose lives were spent womanizing and drinking and to a small extent making music. It drones on and on and yet none of the characters are developed. It is disgraceful how it portrays Latin-American society and dwells on Desi Arnaz as if he were the pinnacle of achievement for Cuban-Americans. If this was the best they could find in 1990 it would have been better to issue no award!
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Posted April 28, 2006
A novel about passion, life, music and sprited Cubans... what could be better! The novel takes you on a whirlwind of emotions as you relive the lives of these musicians with a colorful new york backdrop. The book moves quickly at times, but drags on and on at others. There is not much dialogue and it may become tedious to read, however the stories are thrilling and heartbreaking all at once. The ending was slightly depressing and somewhat disapointing, but how else could it end?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 15, 2005
This novel was simply a joy to read. The most obvious theme would be music, but this also very much a book about family, about memory and loss, and about love and sex. It is every human experience packed into one busy, beautiful, and colorful novel. The tale of the very different but equally fascinating Castillo brothers and their struggles to make a happy life for themselves in New York-- while making peace with their past in Cuba--is one the most magical I have ever read. The story grabs you within the first few pages and transports you back in time. It's very easy to read this novel and get lost in all of its wonderful detail of life in 1950's New York. The story is written in a charming, humorous, sometimes sad, and sometimes explicit way, and will stay with you long after you've finished reading it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 30, 2005
Wonderful and entertaining story of the Mambo Kings. What a difficult life each had, yet there was such a bond of love and devotion that is almost unreal. Full of culture, politics, and unrest this is an eventful read that is entertaining, riveting, and full of character development.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 4, 2005
This is a story of the whorlwind life of two brothers who live for music. Their struggles, partying, and passions consume this book and make it emotional and full of cultural Latin America. A recommended read if you want something a little different!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 31, 2004
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a wonderful and passionate novel. It is a look inside the heart of a culture that has added much to it's adopted country. I grew up with many expatriot Cubans and pieces of Cesar Castillo could be found in all of them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 14, 2002
The best novels seem to be able to take the reader to worlds that they may never get to see. In 'Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love,' we are taken to the Cuban-emigre community of New York City, particularly the mambo craze of the 40's and 50's, culminating in the Castillo brothers' appearance as Ricky Ricardo's cousins on 'I Love Lucy.' This gives the brothers lives that they could never even dream of back in their native small Cuban town. What makes the novel really remarkable is the ability to transcend the usual stereotypes of the 'Latin Lover,' which Cesar seems to be early in the novel, or the bitter Cuban emigre, that brother Nestor can be sometimes. Instead, we see both brothers affected deeply by life, love, and loss that makes itself manifest in the vibrant forms of mambo. As the novel concludes, we the reader have also felt life, love and loss, and no novel could acheive better. My only complaint might be that this novel should come with a soundtrack. (I cannot comment on the effectiveness of the film's soundtrack--I'll leave that to others).Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 29, 2008
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