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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

No zoot suits and no jitterbugs, please.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Mambo Kings is the tale of two brothers who leave their home country of Cuba and make it to the big-time (sort of) in the Big Peach Apple. Cesar Castillo, the older brother, is quite the lothario (sidebar: I just looked that up to confirm its meaning - 'selfish and irresponsible in his sexual relationships with women' and thought OH YES mmhmm that's exactly what I mean) while Nestor, the younger brother, spends most of his life hung up on an ex named Maria (Mar-EE-ah, I just met a girl named Mar-EE-ah...and suddenly that name, will never mean the same to MEEEEEEEEE). Nestor marries and has two kids, Cesar leaves his first wife (and daughter) in Cuba and doesn't marry again, the brothers end up on an episode of "I Love Lucy" by connecting with Ricky Ricardo, and they continue to eke out a living with their medium-sized fame. Nestor never gets over Maria (which I'm sure his wife, Delores, LOVES) and eventually dies in a car crash, Cesar gets uglier, sicker, and fatter, but no less lothario-like, and eventually he kicks the bucket, too. El fin.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

No me gustó este libro. (nb: I do not speak Spanish, and therefore am likely making errors in my silly attempts to sneak it in. Google translate isn't perfect, y'all! ;) I really resented being pulled into Señor Hijuelos's machismo parade, and honestly, that was a big part of why it took me so long to finish it. I've disliked books on these lists before, but this one felt degrading and misogynistic, and I didn't care about any of the characters. I think I also came to expect a certain level of misogyny and degradation of women in the older books, and gave them just a TEENSY "well, you're a product of your time" pass, but this book was written in the 1980's, so it has No Excuse. Also, I didn't think the writing was all that great! It won a Pulitzer and I am frankly baffled by that. Maybe someone hid all the other books written that year from the judges like Easter eggs and they just threw up their hands and said, OK OK we pick The Mambo One!

Maybe I'm being a bit harsh, but I also feel like the other books I have disliked are ones I had strong reactions to, and often ones I felt I didn't fully comprehend. Here, I comprehended the world Hijuelos created, I just didn't like it at all and didn't give a whit what happened in it. (No more rhyming now, I mean it!)

In any case, here are the rest of my pensamientos on el libro (my spanglish es MUY BUeno, no?)

Maybe we need better nets to catch those z's.
Both Cesar and Nestor go through periods where they can't sleep, but for different reasons, and this is sometimes accompanied by joy, sometimes by sadness. I liked the idea that you can have different types of sleeplessness:
  • After Nestor meets Maria: "Although he couldn't sleep that night, his was a joyful insomnia that buoyed his spirits, so that he felt like leaning out the window and shouting out to the world."
  • Later, when Nestor is pining: "He'd only begin falling asleep after the sun had started to rise."
Lately I've had a lot of trouble sleeping (which is weird, because I have the Apnea! usually I have trouble waking UP!) and some nights it's a thoughtful insomnia, while other nights it's a scary or unwanted sleeplessness. What kind of insomnia do you have, reader? (Perhaps you sleep a perfect sleep. Lucky you!)

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
While I mostly hated Cesar, I liked this line from when he becomes the superintendent of his building after he's stopped playing mambo music:
  • "He liked the happy-looking row of electrical meters and the fact that they ticked off in 3/2 time, claves time, that the multiple rows of pipes with their valves whistled, water whirring through them. He liked the crunching noises when faucets were turned on, the conga-drum pounding of the washroom dryer: the thunder of the coal-bin walls." I thought it was cute that what Cesar enjoyed about this drab basement office was the musicality of its atmosphere. Sometimes I like to harmonize off of electronic devices in my house (the vacuum, a fan, the microwave). Music (and perhaps more importantly rhythm) is all around us!
I have always loved the spectacle of museums, and most especially the idea that something other than the traditional visits would take place there. In one of my favorite books, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the main character and her brother end up staying in the museum after hours and secretly living there. I have always thought that was The Coolest Thing. I got to spend the night twice in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia (once as a 6th grader, and once again with 6th graders from my Breakthrough program) and sleep near the simple machines and the life-sized anatomical heart, and they were two of my favorite nights ever.

At one point after Cesar has stopped playing official gigs, he goes to play with some friends:
  • "One of his favorite jam sessions took place when Benny the conga player invited him over to the Museum of Natural History, where he worked, in his reincarnated life, as a guard. Around nine one night, when it was really dead, Cesar showed up with a few other musicians and they ended up playing in a small office just off the Great Hall of Dinosaurs, Benny playing the drums and a fellow named Rafael strumming a guitar and Cesar singing and blowing the trumpet, this music echoing and humming through the bones of those prehistoric creatures — the Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex and Brontosaurus and woolly mammoth, breathing heavy in the vastness of that room and click-clacking onto the marble floors melodies caught in their great hooked jaws and in the curve of their gargantuan spinal columns." This was probably my favorite line in the book. It reminded me of when I went to a concert at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, and it took place in a concert hall directly underneath the hall of the dinosaurs. The Emerson String Quartet played several Shostakovich string quartets (including my favorite - #8) and it was one of my all-time favorite concerts. 
Cuba then, Cuba now
I found it intriguing that I was reading this novel precisely when President Obama visited Cuba. I don't really have anything deep or meaningful to say here, just that it seemed amusingly appropriate.

here are a few lines I liked about Cuba:
"And he remembered standing in front of the Arab’s shop with his younger brother, el pobre Nestor, and finding among the lard, rice, sugar, coffee, the endless strands of sausages, near the dresses and Communion gowns and coils of rope, wire, spades, and axes, the shelf of silk-skirted dolls, a guitar. And who taught him that? A lanky insect-looking mulatto named Pucho, who lived in a forest of crates and palm fronds. He’d find him in his yard, sitting on the hood of an abandoned car, singing with such a tremor in his voice that he made the hens run in circles under his feet."

Cuba is not on my list of places to travel, predominantly because I don't like the idea of traveling to places we have contentious relations with as a country, but I loved the bright colors of these photos I found.

"It was nothing like what the brothers had known in Cuba, a modest house made of pine timbers facing a field ringed by fruit trees and rhapsodic with bird-song in the late-afternoon sun, a sky bursting with bands of red, yellow, pink, and silver light and burning treetops, and orange-tinged black birds."

I Love Lucy
The book opens with Eugenio, Nestor's son, running into the house to wake up Cesar to tell him that his father is on TV again, well after Nestor has passed away. Here is the description of Eugenio watching the brief cameo of the brothers on 'I Love Lucy':
  • "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." Now that my grandmother has passed, I really miss hearing her voice, and seeing her face. I have a few pictures and several letters, but I often think how nice it would be to have a video of her, a place where she could come alive again, even just for a few moments. 
Let's NOT talk about sex, baby.
Here are some of my favorite notes from the margins of my copy:
  • 'gross, grosser, grossest'
  • 'gag me'
  • 'barf'
  • 'ick'
  • 'uggggggggggg'
  • 'I don't think there's a woman in this world who likes it 'every which way'.'
I really despised the sex in this book. I stopped to think about it for a little while, because there has obviously been plenty of sex in the other books on my list, but I think what I really disliked was that here the sex was so male-centric, so defined by the Needs and Urges and Desires of the man, and so completely devoid of any kind of meaningful connection or feelings on the part of the woman. I honestly couldn't tell if Hijuelos was being hyperbolic in Cesar and Nestor's sexual voracity, but I started skim-reading sections that involved things like 'engorgement' and 'member'. It also just felt so graphic novel-esque. Trust me, Oscar, no one wants to read the word MEMBER that many times. 

Here's Cesar in a nutshell: "So I was led around by my penis, so what?" Cool coo coo coo cool.

Suzuki - it's not just a motorcycle.
Here's what Cesar's first mentor says he's looking for in a bandmember: "What I'm interested in is a man who can really feel the music, instead of someone who can only play the charts."

I liked this line because it reminded me of when my sisters and I first learned to play the violin. In the Suzuki method, you don't learn to read music right away - first you listen to the pieces on cassette tape (I guess MAYBE now they use MP3s or something newfangled, but we had the classic cassettes) and then you learn how to mimic the pieces, and then LAter on you learn to read the music. Some people take issue with this, and think it's harder to learn to read music later on, but I credit this as the reason we can all play with such vigor and feeling and emotion.
Thanks, Shinichi! And thanks, Uncle Chris, for my cello, and Grandma for the lessons, and Mom, for driving us back and forth to Blair!

Sometimes footnotes are helpful and informative.
Sometimes footnotes are funny and ironical and go on tangents.
Sometimes footnotes are stupid and useless and you wish they weren't there.
Can you guess which sometimes Mr. Hijuelos's footnotes fall into?
Delores, on reading
Delores was one of the ONLY female characters who was remotely developed in the book, and she was obviously my favorite because she loves reading. Here are some of my favorite lines: 
  • "She liked to read because it took her mind off her loneliness, gave her feelings of both solitude and companionship."
  • "At her sister's urging, she'd go out on dates. Some of them were Americans and some of them were Romeos just up from Cuba or Puerto Rico, friendly, garrulous fellows who seemed more like children than like men. She liked a few of the American boys, but would have nothing to do with them romantically. She always had the feeling that she was 'saving' herself, for what or for whom she did not know. She'd sometimes feel saddened by her increasing indifference to romance but would tell herself, ' I'll know a good man when I see him.'" OK, so this one wasn't about reading. But this is how I feel, Delores! I'll know a good man when I see him! 
  • "She would leave her children with her sister, Ana Maria, who loved them, and then go sneaking into the big libraries of the university and sit thumbing through their books. She pretended that she was enrolled in the college and she would nod and say hello to her fellow students." I thought this was adorable. 
Palabras que aprendí (cool new words I've added to my vocabulary):
claves - one of a pair of hardwood sticks used to make a hollow sound when struck together

killer-diller - a musician that really plays all out; typically a horn player, from the big band era

duenna - an older woman acting as a governess and companion in charge of girls, especially in a Spanish family; a chaperone

gallego - a person from Galicia, Spain

voluptuary - a person devoted to luxury and sensual pleasure (AKA CESAR #gagbarfpuke)

Hermosas frases (some stunning sentences):
  • "They played in towns without modern plumbing or electricity where people hardly knew the name of Hitler, in countryside so dark that the stars were a veil of light and where the thready luminescence of spirits moved through the streets and over walls at night and where the arrival of Julian's orchestra was greeted like the Second Coming of Christ, with children and dogs and crowds of teenagers following behind it, clapping and whistling wherever they went."
  • "Julian was a good orchestra leader and good man. Cesar would have thought of Julian as a 'second father' if the word 'father' did not make him want to punch a wall." heh. heh.
  • "Sometimes there were three or four of them down in his apartment or in his basement workroom, drinking until their faces peeled off and all that was left was shadows."
Well, dear readers, that about sums it up! It's snowy and brisk here in NH (I think the seasons got their signals crossed) but I don't mind because I don't like summer anyway! Summer summer, stay away, come again some never day! 

Sending you a little imaginary mambo music (but no members to go with it, thank you very much) and thoughts of sunshine for spring! Onwards to 'Pretty Singing'! Join me (and Jessica) if you dare!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! It's so terrific that you can find the most beautiful turns of phrase in a book you openly dislike! Another delicious entry! And I Love your graphic illustrations, too.