Reading Group Guide
1. In his memoir, Oscar Hijuelos brings to life the locales that shaped his sense of self, from Morningside Heights to his mother's hometown in Cuba and his glorious sojourn in Spain and Italy. Which neighborhoods, towns, or countries capture who you are? Where were your most important memories formed?
2. Thoughts Without Cigarettes describes a life that defies stereotypes. How did Hijuelos's youth compare to your assumptions about him?
3. Hijuelos describes his father's world of work, in an era when salaries were distributed in envelopes of cash and time off was a rare luxury. Later, his father seemed quietly surprised by his daughter-in-law's good salary in a white-collar job. How was Hijuelos's relationship to money different from his father's? How did they define rich and poor?
4. What did Pascual and Magdalena teach their sons about love and romance? How did Hijuelos's relationships, including his first marriage, reflect his evolving idea of who he was and his place in the world?
5. What sets this memoir apart from others you have read? How do Hijuelos's storytelling gifts, combining nostalgia with raw candor, make Thoughts Without Cigarettes read like a novel?
6. Hijuelos's novels are steeped in memory with characters who (like his parents) look back on their lives wistfully, sometimes haunted by a pivotal decision. What aspects of Hijuelos's best-known characters, the Castillo brothers from The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, recur in the real-life figures of this memoir? How do the flashy César and the poet Nestor capture two sides of Hijuelos himself?
7. Discuss the role of food in the formation of memories. What are your most powerful childhood memories of food? How did it affect Hijuelos to be deprived of his mother's cooking? What other types of hunger did Hijuelos experience as a child?
8. Hijuelos vividly captures the cultural transformation of New York in the 1960s and 1970s as drugs and crime (and Columbia University construction projects) spread throughout his neighborhood. How did this cultural revolution make Hijuelos a better writer? How did this time and place compare to the village atmosphere where his parents had spent their youth?
9. How did Catholicism influence Magdalena's view of the world? What rituals, religious or otherwise, gave comfort to the other immigrants living in Morningside Heights?
10. Even after he was released from the Connecticut convalescent hospital, Hijuelos continued to feel isolated in school, among neighborhood boys, in his family, and eventually in college. How was he able to create such pitch-perfect renderings of the communities he did not feel welcomed by?
11. In many ways, Hijuelos's success beat the odds. What does his journey --- enduring a literary community rife with snobs and harsh critics --- say about the way creative talent is developed in America?
12. On the surface, Pascual and Magdalena seem to have a household that would never foster creative sons. Yet both Oscar and José follow unconventional career paths in the humanities after leaving behind stable careers in advertising and the military. How did their upbringing enable them to make these leaps of faith?
13. Which members of Hijuelos's extended family made a lasting impression on you? How was Oscar affected by being the namesake of a beloved uncle who had died tragically? What led Aunt Maya to finally let Pascual manage his own life? Would you have felt more at home with Magdalena's relatives or Pascual's?
14. Discuss the themes in Thoughts Without Cigarettes that echo throughout the author's fiction. Out of the Hijuelos novels you have read, which ones had the greatest effect on you?