MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
J: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus." Her pick for our series You Must Read This is a sentimental favorite, one that enthralled her as a young girl growing up in Cuba.
NORRIS: In 1975, the year I turned 11, I was sent to work in a tobacco field in one of the small red-clay towns that surround the city of Havana like a string of pearls. This was not a punishment, rather, it was an attempt by the Cuban government to turn children like me - children who couldn't even make our beds or brush through the knots in our hair - into hard-working and loyal communists.
Anticipating evenings of intense boredom, I prepared for my 45 days of work in the country by visiting the school librarian and asking her for books, any books, as long as they were not about the Soviet space program or the war in Vietnam. She understood, gave me a tight little smile, and led me to a section in the stacks where I had never been before. French Literature, the label read. She pulled out a thick tome. This, she said, I think you're ready for this.
The book was a collection of short stories by Guy de Maupassant, a name I had never heard of and couldn't pronounce. But yes, she was right. I was ready. This is what I remember from one of Maupassant's best-known stories, "The Necklace."
"She danced, intoxicated, swept away, heady with pleasure, thinking of nothing, in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her conquest, in something like a cloud of happiness made of all that homage, all that admiration, all that compete victory that is so dear to a woman's heart."
When I read those words, I felt elated, curious about the life of luxury and beauty that the woman with the necklace aspired to, so different from hers, so alien to mine. Who was this man who so completely understood the teenager I thought I was and the woman I then hoped to become?
In my early adolescence, Maupassant was the author I called my favorite. I even kept a framed picture of him, copied from a book, on my night table. That picture and his book remained behind when I left Cuba in a rush in 1980. With time and other books, the obsession passed, but not the lessons.
This summer, I went back to Maupassant just as one returns to an old love, unsure of whether the feelings are still there, afraid the magic may have dissipated. I need not have feared. Thirty years ago, I had read Maupassant because the worlds he created held me enthralled. He used strong verbs, precise descriptions, few adjectives, just like a journalist should. He was, I see now, the writer I always wanted to be. His sentences are the type that I labor over. His themes - sex, mystery, madness and greed - still make my heart flutter with the anticipation of a good read.
SIEGEL: Journalist Mirta Ojito teaches at Columbia University. She's author of the book "Finding MaÃ±ana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus." And you can find more You Must Read This recommendations, including some online exclusives, at npr.org. Click on Books.
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