Thoughts without Cigarettes


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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A modest yet inspired look back at his Manhattan upbringing by Cuban immigrants takes Pulitzer Prize–winning Hijuelos from the early 1950s through the extraordinary success of his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Hijuelos's memoir, at times verbose, is very much a tender tribute to his parents. A campesino who immigrated to New York City in the early 1940s and worked as a short-order cook at the Biltmore Men's Bar, his "pop" was a largehearted man who loved to entertain his Cuban friends and eat and drink heartily; his voluble, anxious mother, from an upper-middle-class Cuban family, accompanied her new husband to America and remained fairly isolated in their Morningside Heights apartment, without English or job prospects, growing increasingly disgruntled by her husband's big-spending, lady-killing ways. The defining event of Hijuelos's childhood was his contracting deadly nephritis at age four while on a trip home to Cuba with his mother. Not only was he hospitalized for nearly a year and put on a strict diet for most of his childhood, but the illness, termed his "Cuban disease," also caused a rupture from his maternal language and his sense of being Cuban. Gradually he educated himself at City College, winning enthusiastic mentors like Donald Barthelme and Frederic Tuten, and transforming this awkward, rudderless "work in progress" into a gracious writer of well-deserved stature. (June)
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love) proves himself again with his autobiography, a memoir of childhood and early adulthood and a tribute to his father, who died early of heart failure induced by heavy smoking. Hijuelos was born in New York City in 1951, the second son of Cuban immigrants: his father a campesino, his mother from the impoverished upper class. The author's contrast between the richness of Cuban culture and hard times in America is striking, especially the angry brutality of teens from poor working-class families in tenement New York. Hijuelos documents what American teenagers faced in the late 1960s—both the escapades they enjoyed and the injustices they suffered—and does not shun the explicit. Readers will squirm at his description of the slaughter of a pig, be appalled at the callousness of staff at the children's hospital where he convalesced from nephritis, and wish to look away from sexual details of friends—and his parents. Hijuelos admits that his profuse writing style stemmed from desires to remember his father. VERDICT Readers who enjoyed Hijuelos's novels will enjoy his memoir, a revelation of the personal sources of most of his fiction.—Nedra Crowe-Evers, Sonoma Cty. Lib., Santa Rosa, CA
Library Journal
Mambo King Hijuelos gamely chronicles his life in this memoir: growing up in a working-class Manhattan neighborhood; catching a dread disease while visiting pre-Castro Cuba and spending a year shut up in a hospital, hardly able to communicate; hunting for the sense of self he finally found through writing. What's exciting here is how this account promises to illuminate his wonderful books. For all literati; the author's first nonfiction.
Kirkus Reviews

Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Hijuelos (Beautiful Maria of My Soul, 2010, etc.) revisits the people and experiences whose confluence created his most celebrated work, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989).

The author's life did not begin propitiously. The son of Cuban immigrants, he developed a debilitating case of nephritis after a boyhood visit to Cuba. After a year in a convalescent hospital, he was finally able to return home, where his mother, a complex figure whom Hijuelos spent decades trying to understand, protected him ferociously. But the author celebrates his father, notably in the book's dazzling final paragraph. Hijuelos recalls an odd ambivalence about the Spanish language. Able to comprehend it completely, he refrained from speaking it throughout his boyhood, feeling costive whenever he tried. An indifferent student in childhood, he driftedaimlessly through Harlem's schools, finding himself in and out of a variety of scrapes—fighting, smoking, drinking, some dealing. He took up the guitar, found he had talent, and credits this discovery as the first of several that preserved him. After high school, he bounced around, then began some off-and-on undergraduate programs, beginning at Bronx Community College, eventually ending up at CCNY, where he got into a writing seminar with Donald Barthelme, who became a longtime friend. From then on, good fortune hovered nearby, and he met numerous literary luminaries. He eventually crossed paths with just about everyone from the era—Vonnegut, Mailer, Gardner, Irving. His adolescent memories percolate with sex—with his encounters, his fantasies and even with some graphic recollections involving, in one case, whipped cream, in another, a bride who entertains a wedding guest most generously. The tale ends withthe publication of Mambo Kings, its wild reception and its amazing aftermath—and with a stirring condemnation of a literary world that ignores Latino writers.

Uneven—but with peerless evocations of people and of a struggle to find a voice.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781592406296
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/2/2011
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,445,167
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.23 (d)

Meet the Author

Oscar Hijuelos is the international bestselling author of eight novels, including Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, for which he became the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He has also received the Rome Prize and prestigious grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Born in Manhattan in 1951, he divides his time between New York and North Carolina, where he teaches at Duke University.


While reviewers often liken Oscar Hijuelos' dreamy, rich novels to the works of Gabriel García Márquez, Hijuelos himself takes exception to the comparison. These reviewers are "myopic," he told a writer for The New York Times. "I love Yeats and Flann O'Brien."

And the language in Hijuelos' novels is indeed as poetic as the language of his Irish heroes. When The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, the story of two Cuban brothers who move to Spanish Harlem in the 1950s to make their mark as singers, appeared in 1990, readers and critics waxed ecstatic about Hijuelos' writing.

Hijuelos, a second-generation Cuban-American who was born in New York City, writes about assimilation and identity, love and loss, and the power -- and pain -- of family life. In Our House in the Last World, Hijuelos' first book, he explores the world of memory and displacement, following the fortunes of a Cuban family transplanted to New York in the 1940s. In The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, for which Hijuelos received the Pulitzer Prize, Hijuelos created the Castillo brothers, Nestor and Cesar. Their story was recounted through Cesar's memories and fantasies, as he lived out his last days in a seedy hotel. In researching the book, Hijuelos steeped himself in Latin music from the period and in his own remembrances of his childhood on Manhattan's 118th Street. The result is a highly charged yet tender distillation of past, suffused with a crystalline sense of detail that brings Nabokov to mind.

Hijuelos attributes some of this obsession with memory to his heritage. "Latins are predisposed to thinking about the past," he told the Times. "Catholicism has a lot to do with it because Catholicism is a contemplation of the past, of symbols that are supposed to be eternally present."

With The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien (1993), he took his exploration of memory in a different direction, telling the story from the perspectives of several female narrators, and stretching them across several generations. In 1999s Empress of the Splendid Season, he switched perspectives again for the story of a cleaning woman whose life is a stark counterpoint to that of her wealthy employer's. Three years later in A Simple Habana Melody, Hijuelos returned to "when the world was good," in 1920s Havana with a love story told by a Cuban composer whose infatuation inspires him to write the most famous song of his career.

Good To Know

Writers Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag were among Hijuelos's teachers at City College of the City University of New York.
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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 24, 1951
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., City College of the City University of New York, 1975; M.A.,1976

Table of Contents

A Prelude of Sorts xiii

Part 1 The Way Some Things Worked Out

Chapter 1 When I Was Still Cuban 3

Chapter 2 A Few Notes on My Past 53

Chapter 3 Some Moments of Freedom 99

Chapter 4 Childhood Ends 127

Part 2 What Happened Afterward

Chapter 5 Getting By 177

Chapter 6 My Two Selves 193

Chapter 7 My Life on Madison Avenue 235

Chapter 8 Out House in the Last World 267

Chapter 9 Roma 289

Chapter 10 Another Book 323

Acknowledgments 369

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