The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

 

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It’s always kinda fun to start reading a book you know absolutely nothing about.  This one has a pretty gold Pulitzer Prize Winner sticker on the front and three pages at the beginning just chock full of praise so I wasn’t too scared of the unknown.  This is the fourth book I picked out of the “Christmas Bag o’ Books” and I’m giving it a 4 out of 6 rating.

Reading this book was a bit like bungee jumping…or maybe bullriding…you just kind of hold on and hope for the best (despite a foreboding sense of doom) while the story races at constant, breakneck speed towards the end, never stopping to take a breath or make any sort of apologies.

The protaganist, Oscar, is a sweet, geeky, overweight young Dominican, living in New Jersey with his mother and older sister.  He is a hopeless romantic and desperately longs for both a girlfriend and to be the next J.R.R. Tolkien.  His constant misfortunes and his family’s long history of bad luck is the focus of the story, and whether those misfortunes were their own doing, or the responsibility of a legendary Dominican curse.  Though the story starts with Oscar, it jumps around to focus on his sister, his mother, his grandparents and great-grandparents whose bad luck started during (and because of) the dictatorship of the tyrant Trujillo.

Usually I am a meticulous reader.  I like to know who is talking and who the narrator is.  If there’s a word I don’t understand, I’ll typically look it up.  If I get confused about chronology, geneology or phrenology, I don’t hesitate to go back in the book and read parts again.  It bothers me to be lost.  BUT, in the case of this book I just let all that go.  It became apparent rather early on that being meticulous was going to seriously undermine the author’s intent.  It all comes together in the end, anyway.  There are entire phrases in Spanish and certain Spanish words used over and over again.  Some sentences even start in English and end in Spanish.  I didn’t let these slow me down and by the end of the book I think my very limited Spanish proficiency had doubled.  (Since my previous Spanish came primarily from Dora the Explorer and since the Spanish in this book was predominantly slang, pejoratives and curse words, I now possess a rather interesting Spanish vocabulay.)

There are also footnotes throughout the book.  At first these felt like reading speedbumps, especially since some of them take up more space on a page than the actual text.  Eventually though, I found myself looking forward to them.  The footnotes tell another story.  While the fiction races along above, the footnotes tell the history of Trujillo’s long dictatorship and the effect he had on his own country as well as the world, always in relation to what was going on with the fiction.  It was a great history lesson.

I also really enjoyed how both fiction and non-fiction were peppered with geek references in homage to Oscar.  There were Tolkien shout-outs a-plenty, but also references to comic books, Japanese animation, role-playing games and science fiction movies.  As a proud geek myself, these references were fun to read.  There were a few that were over my head, making me think that maybe Diaz is a bigger geek than me, and that I like him for it.

From the back of the book:  “Junot Diaz is the author of the short story collection Drown, and his fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review and The Best American Short Stories.  Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and raised in New Jersey, he now lives in New York City and is a professor at MIT.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is available in trade paperback at noteBooks for $14.00

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Published in: on March 25, 2009 at 6:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Wicked Years Series by Gregory Maguire

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I took a break from my “required” reading to revisit an old favorite.  Wicked was written fourteen years ago and is a wonderful retelling of the well-known story, The Wizard of Oz with a focus on the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West.  The book was so well-received that it was adapted for the stage and is currently being performed on Broadway.  Two sequels to Wicked have been published; Son of a Witch (2005) and A Lion Among Men (2008).  When I realized that a third book had been published just last year I thought it was time to re-read Wicked and see if the sequel novels were up to snuff with the first.

Gregory Maguire’s novels are essentially “fairy tales for adults.”  In Wicked, we follow the life of Elphaba, an unusual green-skinned girl born to a mother who is a rebellious heiress and a father who is a hopeless evangelist.  Amidst developing political tensions and growing anti-Animalism (Animals, as opposed to animals, are intelligent, speaking, self-aware members of society who find themselves increasing in disfavor under the Wizard’s regime), Elphaba attends a University in Oz’s academic center, the city of Shiz.  There, she meets Galinda (later, Glinda) and begins to become aware of the moral corruption surrounding the Wizard and his discriminatory laws.  She decides to take an active, secretive role in usurping the Wizard’s power and in doing so realizes that the difference between good and evil is often not clearly defined.  Surprising events lead up to the climactic confrontation between Dorothy and the Witch, and the reader will find themselves mourning the loss of a misunderstood hero rather than feeling triumphant over the death of a villain.

The two novels that follow in The Wicked Years series lack the charm of the first, since there are far fewer easily recognizable references and parallels to the well-known book by Frank L. Baum and the 1939 movie, but they are still compelling enough on their own.  Son of a Witch is the story of Liir, the boy whose early years were intricately intertwined with the final years of Elphaba.  He may or may not be Elphaba’s son, and he struggles with that knowledge and the responsibility of carrying on her legacy.  The Wizard’s rule has ended rather abruptly and there is a succession of short-term rulers causing increasing political unrest.  Mysterious and violent deaths are occurring and there are rumors that the EC (Emerald City) may be involved in nefarious doings.  As a young man, Liir lies unconscious in bed, being nursed back to health by the novice, Candle, and while asleep he recounts the events leading up to the present since the death of the Witch.  The book is a bit slow overall, but ends in a dramatic cliffhanger.

The third book, A Lion Among Men, is the Cowardly Lion’s story.  It does not further the central story line much at all, except to reveal that war has finally broken out in Oz between the Emerald City and annexed Munchkinland.  The Lion tells his story from his earliest memories as a young Lion up to his adventure with Dorothy and everything that followed.  We also uncover the mysteries behind two other characters that have appeared throughout the series; Yackle and Nor, but the entire book is backtracking, not really pushing the story forward.  The third book is entirely different in tone from the first two.  It was much more poetic in nature.  The book ends with the teaser that the cliffhanger of the second book will be resolved, so it seems that there will be at least one more novel.

At the very least, everyone should read Wicked, and then decide for themselves if they are content leaving it at that, or if they want to leave the familiar parallels behind and push forward into Maguire’s more unfamiliar Oz in the next two books.

Gregory Maguire has written other adult fairy tales including Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (1999), Lost (2001), and Mirror, Mirror (2003).  He’s also written nearly two dozen children’s books.

Wicked and Son of a Witch are available at noteBooks in mass market paperback editions.  A Lion Among Men will be available in trade paperback next month.       

Published in: on March 11, 2009 at 4:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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