Questions and Topics for Discussion
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 does Hijuelos's youth compare with 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?