The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

Hijuelos. Oscar. The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989.

Reason read: March is Music month.

Delve into this book if you want a cultural education in Cuba and its music. Taking place in the 1950s, two Cuban brothers emigrate to the United States with big dreams of conquering the music scene. Cesar Castillo looks back on his life, playing mambo music with his brother, Nester and having a small spotlight in the fame arena after a guest appearance on an episode of I Love Lucy. I read this book on the heels of the Netflix documentary about Desi and Lucy so it seemed as if the couple was everywhere. Confessional: I couldn’t really get into this book. The parts where Desi Arnez makes an appearance were my favorite and, as the story went on, I began to skip scenes that involved sex or Nestor pining over “Beautiful Maria.” I grew weary of the repetition. I did appreciate all the references to music of the era.

Author fact: Hijuelos was honored with the 1985 Rome Fellowship in Literature of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Book trivia: The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was made into a movie starring Antonio Banderas in 1992.

One of the best aspects of Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love is the musical education you will get. Singers, composers, pianists, violinists, and lyricists from Catalan, Dominican, Cuban, Columbian, and Puerto Rican backgrounds flood the pages of Mambo.

Playlist (because this is a book about music, there was a lot to mention.): Musicians and composers – Alberto Beltran, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, Beny More, Cesar Nestor, Desi Arnaz, Enric Madriguera, Ernesto Lecuona, Fletcher Anderson, Glorious Gloria Parker, Maurio Bauza, Mongo Santamaria, Miguelito Valdez, Manny Jimenez, Nelson Pinedo, Nat King Cole, Noro Morales, Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Olga Chorens, Ornette Coleman, Rene Touzet, Tito Rodriguez, and Vincento Valdez.
Songs: “Acercate Mas,” “Besame Mucho,” “Beautiful Maria of My Soul,” “Cielito Lindo,” “Frenesi,” “Hong Kong Mambo,” “In the Still of the Night,” “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “Moonlight Becomes You,” “Mambo de Paree,” “Mambo Nine,” “Mambo for a Hot Night,” Mambo Number Eight,” and “Twilight in Havana.”

Nancy said: Pearl included a sentence about the plot for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called Cuba Si!” (p 68)


The Namesake

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Reason read: Vasant Panchami is a holiday celebrated in India to mark the coming of spring. I also needed a book for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge in the category of “a PPL Book of the Week pick.”

While this is the story of Gogol Ganguli, first we must start from the beginning. Perspective must be established. Before Gogol’s birth and as a Bengali Indian keeping with her culture, Ashima Ganguli comes to the United State to partake in an arranged marriage. By 1968, Ashima has only been in Cambridge, Massachusetts for eighteen months before becoming pregnant with her first child. This is where Lahiri first draws attention to the many differences between American and Indian practices and this is where Gogol’s life begins; in this state of conflicting cultures. But back to Ashima. The first evidence of cultural confusion: the fact women in Bengali do not give birth in a cold, sterile hospital. They birth in the warm and comforting home their parents. Gogol is out of place even before he has been born. Then a subtle example of cultural ignorance: once Ashima is in labor the nurse cannot figure out how to fold Ashima’s six yards of silk sari. Most importantly (and the crux of the story), Indian parents do not choose the name of their child on a whim. It is this last detail that sets the stage for Gogol’s life story: the importance of identity; the necessity of belonging; the eventual learning to compromise in order to belong in harmony. We follow Gogol through childhood into manhood as he navigates relationships with his family, love interests, and homeland.

As an aside, when Lahiri mentions the Boston Globe story about Andrew Wyeth and his Helga paintings it grounded me to time and place.

Lines I really liked, “American seconds tick on top of her pulse point” (p 4) and “If there is nothing decent on television she leafs through books she has taken out of out the library, books that occupy the space Ashoke normally does on the bed” (p 163). This last quote struck me because I do the same thing when my partner is away.

Author fact: Lahiri is American, but her parents are Indian immigrants from West Bengal.

Book trivia: The Namesake, New York Times bestseller, was made into a movie. Of course I have not seen it. Yet.

Nancy said: Pearl said The Namesake is slightly less depressing than Mukherjee’s Jasmine.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “The Immigrant Experience” (p 123).


Fixer

Malamud, Bernard. The Fixer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.

Yakov “Ivanovitch” Bok is a poor Jewish handyman in Russia, a fixer. When his wife of five years couldn’t produce a child he stopped having sex with her. This prompted her to run off with another man. Left with his father-in-law and no prospects for work, Yakov decides to leave his little shetl for the bigger city of Kiev. He knows that leaving the safety of the Jewish village is a dangerous risk. Kiev is full of anti-semites hungry for the blood of his people. But, he is 30 years old and is losing faith, just short of becoming desperate. A short time after arriving in Kiev he comes across a drunk man lying face down in the snow. His manner of dress tells Yakov the man is not only wealthy, but an anti-semite. Despite this Yakov helps him out of the snow. Nikolai Maximovitch is indeed wealthy and, feeling very much indebted to Yakov, gives him work. He further rewards Yakov with a job as overseer at his brick company and gives Yakov permission to see his only daughter, a crippled by the name of Zina. Despite Yakov’s fear of being found a Jew and against his better judgement he reluctantly accepts the job but has nothing to do with Zina. A series of misfortunes lands Yakov in jail where he is accused of being Jewish, attacking Zina, and worse, committing murder. Based on a true story this is a very, very difficult story to read. Yakov’s plight is horrible, his situation, dire and it doesn’t improve despite his innocence.

Favorite lines: “Where do you go if you have been nowhere?” (p 29) and “The more one hides the more he has to” (p 41).

Author Fact: I read The Fixer in honor of Malamud’s death month being in March. He died on the 18th in 1986 at the age of 72.

Book Trivia: The Fixer was made into a movie in 1968.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “The Jewish American Experience” (p 133). False alarm. Pearl admits The Fixer is not about the Jewish-American Experience. She just mentions it because Malamud wrote other books that would fall in this category and The Fixer was worth mentioning because it won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. IMO she should have had a chapter called “Pulitzer Pleasers” or something and listed her favorite award winners. Maybe something for a new Book Lust? She could call it “Lauded Book Lusts” or something. Each chapter could be a different award: Newbery, Caldecott, Push Cart, Pultizer…. okay, I’ll shut up now.


In Country

Mason, Bobbie Ann. In Country. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985.

In Country is deceivingly simple. The language is so straightforward and uncomplicated you think it was originally written for children. Here’s the scoop: 17-year-old Samantha Hughes acts obsessed with the Vietnam War. She lives with her vet uncle and pesters him daily about the possibility of Agent Orange reeking havoc with his health. He has bad acne on his face and strange headaches. Despite having a boyfriend her own age Sam also starts to fall in love with a local mechanic, another vet. To the average witness Sam’s fixation with all things Vietnam is borderline mania, but Sam has good reason. The father she never knew was lost in the war. He died when she was only two months old. He never came home. No one knows very much about him and if they do they aren’t saying much. As a result Sam feels her entire existence is shrouded in mystery. After being rejected by the vet and reading her father’s journal Sam decides she needs a change of pace. She loads her uncle and paternal grandmother in her clunker car and travels from Kentucky to Washington D.C., to The Wall. There the entire family finds some sort of closure.

I had to come back and modify this review because I forgot to point out the best thing about this book. Sam has another obsession – music. I love the way the hits of the 80s, especially Bruce Springsteen’s album ‘Born in the USA’ ground the reader and orient him/her to the timeframe of the story.

Author Fact: Bobbie Ann Mason wrote criticisms and short stories before writing In Country, her first novel.

Book Trivia: As a best-selling novel In Country was made into a movie in 1989 and starred Bruce Willis. In Country is even studied in high school English classes.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called “Maiden Voyages” (p 159). Pearl liked it enough to mention it again in another chapter called “Teenage Times” (p 216).