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The Mambo Kings...and my salsa shoes

Four years ago, I started to keep a note of all the books I read in a notebook. My only conscious motivation at the time was to keep track of them, to make it possible to look back later. Doing so now for the first time, each list reads like a diary of that particular year, reminding me of what was happening in my life at the time and – with the distance created by hindsight – the choice of titles seems to reflect that too.

So, inspired by all the ‘Best Books of 2011’ lists which have been circulating recently, I’ve decided to jot down some of the books which particularly impressed me this year. They weren’t all published in 2011, but I think this reflects the way I – and probably many others – tend to read; despite our best efforts to keep up with the latest releases, different books call out to be read at different times.

So without further ado, here’s the first, to be followed by more throughout the rest of the week:

Oscar Hijuelos – The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989)

This novel jumped out at me from my favourite second-hand bookstall down Brick Lane. The impact of spending New Year in Buenos Aires (my first ever visit to Argentina, and Latin America in general) is clear when I look back at my list for 2011 – Latin American authors and fiction about Latin American culture come a close second to German-language ones.

Hijuelos was born in New York City to Cuban parents and grew up in the Bronx, and ‘The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love’ won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. Reading this novel was an intense and unrelenting experience, and one which left me feeling lost once there were no pages left to turn. Beginning in 1949, it tells the story of two brothers, Cesar and Nestor, Cuban musicians who are lured to New York from Havana by promises of wealth and success in the music world. The long, smoky nights in the dance halls, the glamour and the grit they encounter, their struggles and successes – everything about this story is larger than life. The four hundred pages of beautiful prose are like one long, intense, pulsing salsa song, singing both sadly and joyfully of love and life.

‘Delores would lock herself up in the bathroom and clean out her womb with a douche that resembled a poultry baster, which she’d filled with bicarbonate of soda and seltzer. One afternoon, while waxing the rich man’s parquet floors, she had the sensation that her womb was filling up with light, like stars at dusk rising slowly in the dark sky, and it occurred to her that these intimations of light were those of a soul, a breath, life itself.’

Part two tomorrow…

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