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50 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 1999
I read this book, for the first time, for a college American Literature course about seven years ago. The teacher warned everyone in advance that it "may appear to be a bit too descriptive, too sexual but to please keep an open mind" because this was an integral part of the book. He was right. I found this book to be fascinating, sensual and written clearly enough that I felt as though I was a character on the sidelines, watching these two brothers go through their lives. To the readers who found this degrading to women, try to realize that these were lovers in the true definition. They were Cuban men who absolutely adored women; they appreciated the beauty of all women and showed it in the most physical sense possible. As a woman, I found the book to be truly sensual and enjoyable. Since reading this book I have made a point to read all of Hijuelos' books and, every year or two, I pick up "Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" to go back to that time of raw sensuality that Hijuelos describes so well.
My teacher was right. Keep an open mind while reading this, or any, book. But, don't deny yourself the luxury of reading such a wonderful book!
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 2005
I had already read Simple Havana Melody and Mr. Ives Christmas and was developing a deep admiration for Oscar Hijuelos' talent as a writer. Since this is his best known work I knew I had to check it out. It is a very engaging book about Cuban brothers trying to make it in the US during the 50's Mambo craze. The story is very entertaining as many memorable characters both fictional and real Cuban musicians from the period are introduced.
The story while full of colorful epsiodes is ultimately tragic as the brothers age and life takes it's toll on each of them in very different ways.
Hijuelos uses sexual imagery and descriptions of food to create a steamy intensity to the story with great effect. That said the lurid sexual descriptions cited by many other reviewers may turn off some readers. While I was enjoying the book enough to overlook this, there are times when he does rely too much on this device and the novel starts to feel like a guilty pleasure. If you are OK with that type of writing then there are rewards to be had in the characterizations and plot. If you cannot stomach the hard-core sexual references that are integral to this book then stay away and try one of his other novels.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2004
This was an excellent read, if not sold simply because of the vivid colourful Latino descriptions of the people, the persusaive sense of the fire of Latin America, and of course, the constant, often coarse, sex scenes.
It was such a bittersweet book, such an undercurrence of sadness and loss. It was essentially, a lament to old age and wasted youth. The detail is incredible, the emotions very real. It effectively captures the horrible sinking inevitability of death.
Hijelo's characters are wild, if not dislikable. This is perhaps the finest point of the piece; the characters are utterly human and terribly flawed.
Cesor's incredible libedo is at the forefront of the work, and there is a sense of humidity, sweat and the smells of sex that pervade the work. Hijelo should be admired for being able to conjuer up such senses. I found it a sensual read, however I disagree with many who describe the sex as sensual. It seemed very coarse, but this is not a criticism, it served its coarse purposes.
The only criticism I have is the distracting nature of many of the sex scenes. The sheer amount of them seemed somewhat unnecessary, however, they began to fade once Cesar aged.
Over all, innovative and superb.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2000
I can see why some people gave up on this Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The best writing is contained in the final 100 pages. All in all I didn't find the book much fun to read. Caesar Castillo, ex-Mambo King band leader, is holed up in the Hotel Splendor, dying from the ravages of alcoholism. The book represents his memeories on the last day of his life. Using an omniscient viewpoint, Hijuelos moves back and forth in time, creating flashbacks inside of flashbacks, but always converging on the final moment. That is the real genius of this work. Hijuelos style, unfortunately, is generally repetitive and boring, with only a couple of examples of the kind of original prose he is capable of. One is a page long description of all sorts of drum sounds and beats; another is a description of the fate of a Cuban boy sent to Vietnam, something like,"On his first jump he landed on a mine and they sent him back in a box the size of a Kleenex dispenser." The overall tone of the book is morose, in spite of the settings in Cuba, New York, California, and in many night clubs. Hijuelos uses a clinical, pornographic style in describing the countless sexual encounters of the stallion-hung Mambo King. After the death of his brother, the Mambo King becomes depressed and survives the next 20 to 25 years of his life only by numbing himself with alcohol, also taking comfort in his prodigious sexuality. But in the end, he has only the memories.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2003
The lives of Cuban immigrant musicians explored. Two brothers, Nestor & Cesar, part of "The Mambo Kings", playing their music, making records, finding fame, until a traffic accident kills the music. This book shows how the brothers' personalities were formed by their abusive father. Nestor: Sorrowful, prone to anxiety attacks, who, even after many years of marriage, is still pining for Maria, who left him for another. He lacks self-esteem and needs sorrow to create his music. Cesar: Made powerless by his father, finds his own power in his sexuality. He beds many women without forming true intimate relationships. He is vibrant, handsome and charismatic and needs happiness to create his music. Be forewarned - there are many graphic sexual situations.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 2000
Despite numerous spelling and grammatical errors in the Perennial Classics edition, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a novel of plucky inventiveness where the "post-modernist, non-linear style" and language lucidly conveys the wants that people -- men especially -- have: the longing for prosperity and achievement, the craving to feel good-looking, comely, the shaking off of a placid guise and to behave wildly, amorously as well as to let the inner appetite of what man wants to contribute to society manifest itself, make it palpable so people in the vacinity mutter to themselves, "I want to do that." Causing people to feel the pleasure and joy that is in one's mind and heart is the kernel of this book.
In this novel, we are introduced to two Cuban brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, both musicians from Havana. One is outgoing and unreserved while the other is cogitative and solemn. As dreamers and immigrants, they hunger to make it is musicians, for that is where the good times are: women, alcohol, food, dancing and recognition. When they reach that peak, from blue-collar workers by day to saucy musicians by night, is the American dream as fulfilling as it was once thought to be? Or is there something in the essence of spirituality or love that can close the vacuous hole that plagues man's heart? Whatever you, as a reader conclude, there is no denying that the novel is brimming with vibrancy and life. A shimmering hue of ideals, culture and language make this book almost impossible to put down, despite the overlooked errors made by Perennial. Though sometimes graphic in its sexual candor and explicitness, the gratuitousness of the sex is what makes the "true love" theme so vitally important.
To quote The New Yorker review/blurb in the book jacket: "The story is so utterly American that it's a wonder we haven't heard this particular version of it before, and a credit to Mr. Hijuelos that we're hearing it now..." To the Amazon.com reviewer who said that Perennial published the book as though they didn't care and that they should apologize, I concur.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 3, 1998
Our book club of 9 recently read this book. Actually, out of the nine, only 4 read it because the others were too disgusted with Mr. Hijuelos never-ending lurid descriptions of the male organ, and that's too bad.
Take away all the sex, and you can understand why Mr. Hijuelos won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. The emotional highs and lows that these men faced, and the demons who plagued them, will have you thinking about this book for a long time to come. The character development and beautifully written prose are two of Mr. Hijuelos strong points, and the introduction of Desi Arnaz into the story line was fun.
Passages to remember: "That was the thing in those days: to be seen with a woman like Vanna was prestigious as a passport, a high-school diploma, a full-time job, a record contract, a 1951 DeSoto."
"His mother's affection was so strong that for one brief moment he had an insight into love: pure unity. That's all she became in those moments, the will to love, the principle of love, the protectiveness of love, the grandeur of love."
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2001
The moment I started to read The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, I knew I would like it. The writing is descriptive and creative, and the author, Oscar Hijuelos makes you want to keep turning the page. The two main characters, Cesar and Nestor, are two musicians trying to make it big in the 1950's writing the music of the time, jazz. While playing jazz, the two brothers experience everything from writing new songs, appearing on the "I Love Lucy" show, meeting other famous musicians, new women, and a new lifestyle after moving to America from Cuba. The brothers experience life as Cuban immigrants feeling the positives and negatives of being the minority in the country. Different clothes, different people, and the love of women are what the two brothers get out of writing their sexy, smooth,jazz songs.
Hijuelos tells their lives before an after as struggling musicians with wittiness, detail, and flair. Hijuelos combines these three aspects causing the reader to become anxious and constantly curious. I have never read an author who wrote with such detail, imagination, and description. The descriptive scenes make the reader feel as if they were another one of the characters in the book. Since the story is very descriptive, the book tends to be long and drawn out at some times, but only occasionally. Don't get me wrong, the book does keep you interested and sometime even laughing out loud. At some points I even found my self in disbelief at the vivid descriptions of the many sex scenes in the book, and the smooth, sly ways of the Mambo Kings. This book has it all, love, heartache, sex, and emotion. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is one that you have to add to your reading collection today!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 31, 2006
Sensual, sensuous, sensitive--Hijuelos's elegy to Cuba, its people, and especially its music is charming, wicked, uneven, humorous and ultimately sad, much like the 78 RPM recordings the fictional Mambo Kings made in their heyday.

The novel opens with the apex of the band's career: an ephemeral appearance on "I Love Lucy" with the Caribbean demigod Desi Arnaz. This opening scene and the epilogue, both featuring Arnaz in fictional mode, are told through the eyes of Eugenio, the son of one of the two brothers who led the Mambo Kings. The novel is, above all, an attempt to understand the previous generation, and the bulk of the book is a wistful look at the world of rumba and mambo and booze and women and more booze and more women as recalled through the eyes of Cesar Castillo, who came to New York in 1949 with his brother Nestor and, at the time the narrative takes place, three decades later, is drinking himself into a lethal stupor in a dilapidated hotel.

During their glory days in the 1950s Cesar only rarely looked back to his youth in Cuba, but Nestor was in obsessive mourning over the loss of his first love (more imaginary than real), a deprivation that caused him to write nearly two dozen versions of "Beautiful Maria of My Soul," the song the duo eventually performed with Arnaz before a national television audience. They are sudden celebrities in their Harlem neighborhood, but their joy is short-lived. It's not giving anything away to reveal that the neurotically melancholy Nestor dies tragically and young, destroying the magic of the Mambo Kings and leaving Cesar to pick up the pieces of his once-exuberant life. He seeks relief in the arms of women--many, many women--and his sexual prowess seems to be the only consolation left to him as he flits from job to job, as a building superintendent, as a night-club owner, as a music teacher.

Hijuelos frequently and almost seamlessly alters the tone of the prose. When recounting the brothers' careers, his style almost echoes the narration for a VH1 documentary, replete with discographies and studio lore. This tone contrasts sharply with the eroticism and occasional violence of Cesar's sexual exploits and the nostalgic romanticism that pervades the portraits of the brothers and their families. I wouldn't have thought such a juxtaposition of the journalese and the literary could have worked, but Hijuelos somehow pulls it off, making me wonder just how much of these lives are really fiction.

If the book has a failing--and it does sometimes falter--it's that Hijuelos consistently favors hypnotic repetition and overwritten description when a sparser, more straightforward style would have better served his characters. But such lapses are hardly the rule. Yes, it's depressing and, yes, it's coarse, but "Mambo Kings" ultimately celebrates Nestor and Cesar and their long lost loves and lives.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 1999
Oscar Hijuelos is a truly gifted writer who makes a uniquely American experience and era of music come alive with a passionate honesty for which he is worthy of great credit. One deeply feels the alienation of the brothers in New York where they search for their Cuban heritage and can never get beyond their longing for their lost country. There is an emptiness, a painful longing that can never be filled except by alcohol, music and love. They are trapped within the machismo prevalent in their heyday and seem to find a hollow solace there -- never quite connecting with a fulfilling or enduring love. The many relationships are exciting but temporary and those that are deep do not last. Yet in them the elder Castillo finds that life is lived intensely, even if the intensity is fleeting. His descriptions of his love for his mother are moving and his sacrifices to learn and pursue his art command respect.They are sacrifices that every devoted artist recognizes. Hijuelos definitely understands the music crafted, like much great art, out of agony of the spirit. The reader is transported to another era with a realism that rings true. Their suffering is the origin of their consciousness and the essence of their best music.The music is omniscient from the clanking on the pipes in claves to the boleros that define their experience. The encounters with Desi Arnaz were a nice creative touch, a rounding out of their experience, and a foil for their own poverty amid the American Dream. Hijuelos seems to have brought some of his own cultural experience in New York into play with great conviction and depth. The writing style is truly innovative and the honesty in the writing is genuinely compelling.
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