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Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz
340 pages

*** The Hype ***

It seems like this book is everywhere right now. In 2008 it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, bloggers are talking about it, some gals in my book club were excited about it, and the author is appearing at a local event this weekend. There is a lot of hype associated with this book and because of that, I was expecting to LOVE it. In actuality, I can't quite make up my mind about it ...

*** The Story ***

This is the life story of Oscar de Leon (aka Oscar Wao). He's an overweight sci-fi nerd growing up in the '80s and '90s in New Jersey. His family is originally from the Dominican Republic (DR) and of course, you can't understand his story without understanding where his family. Hence, the book includes the story of his mother and her parents. Oscar's mom and grandparents lived in the DR during the time of Trujillo, the brutal dictator, a fact that impacted their lives in various ways. And .... I don't want to say more than that.

*** Some Quirks ***
  • References to Fantasy Literature - This is something I greatly enjoyed about the book. Oscar is a huge sci-fi/fantasy fan and his passion invades parts of the book. When the narrator refers to some secret police goons as "Nazgul" ... that is classic! (Of course, those of you who aren't Tolkien fans won't get why that is funny - sorry.) And references like this are found every few pages - it's great!

  • Footnotes - This is another thing I loved about this book - the abundance and length of the footnotes. Whenever the narrator mentioned someone the reader might not be familiar with, the footnote would give the history of that person. In most cases the info was about actual people and events related to Trujillo's dictatorial regime, which many readers are unfamiliar with. I found them fascinating and highly enjoyable. And although there are a lot of footnotes near the beginning of the book, they do get sparser as the story progresses.
  • Use of Spanish - This is one of those aspects of the novel that I'm not completely comfortable with. There are Spanish words and phrases thrown in on every page. My three years of high school Spanish were enough to get me the basics but there was a lot I did not understand. I assume that I got the gist of the story from the context, but I'm not sure. See, if I didn't know basic Spanish I wouldn't understand that Oscar's mother called him and his sister ugly all the time, and that is very important to understanding their relationship. So what did I miss by not understanding the other Spanish phrases? It could be something vital ... or not. I do realize that many bilingual people talk just like Diaz writes - I experienced it firsthand in the home of a high school friend. It is consistent with the characters ... but not necessarily easy to understand.
*** Questionable Language ***

I've mentioned before that I choose not to use bad language. However, that being said, I'm not a prude. I don't let other people's language bother me (provided Kiddo isn't within earshot) and I don't mind bad language in books, as long as it seems relevant. On the other hand, gratuitous bad language DOES bother me. You know what I mean here - those people who can't seem to complete a sentence without a few cuss words thrown in. That drives me nuts. And this book is borderline gratuitous (in both English and Spanish).

My problem is that I can't decide if the language should be there or if it should not. You see, it IS completely consistent with their characters ... but it is still offensive to me. Would the book be the same without it? I don't know, but I doubt it. All I do know is that there was a bit too much of it for my comfort level.

*** But Did I Like It? ***

That's a good question. On the one hand, I really enjoyed getting to know the characters. Being a sci-fi/fantasy nut myself, I really enjoyed the myriad references thrown in. On the other hand, the language bugged me.

Perhaps more telling is my reaction at the end of the book. "What? That's all that happened? That's it?" I couldn't figure out why this book was so great.

However ...

*** The Meaning of the Title ***

When I found out the meaning of the title, things made a bit more sense. According to Wikipedia, the "title is a nod to Hemingway's short story, 'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." You can click here for a summary of that story. After reading that summary, the ending of the book makes A LOT more sense.

*** In the End ***

I can't say that this book was amazing but it was certainly good. It kept my attention, the writing style was unique (in a good way), and the plot and characters all made sense. Learning the meaning of the title helped me understand the ending better, but I'm still not sure I know "the point" of the book. Does there have to be one? No, not really. But would it make me like it better? Yes, certainly.

*** Your Thoughts? ***

For those who have read this, did you have any of the same reactions I did? Maybe you loved it? What do you think "the point" is or is there not one? If you've reviewed it, I'm happy to add a link to your review here.

For those who haven't read this yet, are you interested? What have you heard about it from other people? Is is on or off your TBR list?

I'm attending a talk by the author soon so I'll update once it is over.

UPDATE: Click here for my book club's brief recap of this book and the author talk, click here for my more detailed post at ReadingGroupGuides.com, and on April 28th I'll be posting videos from Diaz's talk so come back for that please!

21 comments:

Lenore said...

I liked it and the Spanish didn't bother me because I speak it fluently, but I came to really dislike the narrator and his sex addiction.

Ti said...

I had planned to read this one awhile ago but many of the members from my book group shot it down and told me not to bother. They didn't understand what the big deal was either.

Also, I'm with you. I don't care for gratuitous cussing at all.

bermudaonion said...

I haven't read the book, so I don't have an opinion on it, but I loved your review. I don't like cussing for cussing's sake either.

Anna said...

Thanks for the informative review. I've seen this book around, but after reading all the reviews, I don't think it's one I'd enjoy.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Trish said...

I'm really nervous about this one because we'll be reading it for our bookclub next month. I should have done a little research about the language and sex beforehand, especially since it is a work group. I hate to be the one where people point fingers at her and say--she chose THAT!?!

Glad you mostly liked it--there are some books where I just can't seem to find a point and I just try my best to accept that.

Heather J. said...

Lenore - Yea, I didn't really identify with ANY of the characters myself.

Ti & Anna - I AM glad I read it, but I can't say if you'd like it or not.

bermudaonion - Thanks so much.

Heather J. said...

Trish - This is my book club's pick for this month. I'm not worried about the meeting though, b/c most of the people can't make it! I think there will be a lot to discuss though, so hopefully it will go well ... and hopefully your club will have a great discussion too.

And I know what you mean about people judging you by the books you pick. I mentioned to another blogger (was it you?) that I chose Mists of Avalon for my club a while back b/c I loved it so much. When we got to the meeting one of the gals pointed out that there was a menage-a-trois in there and said "oh, THAT'S why you liked it so much!" I completely forgotten about that scene ... oops.

ANovelMenagerie said...

This was a tough one for me as well! We read it for bookclub. I reviewed it. It was the toughest book for a review!

Sheri

Amy said...

I still want to read this (I haven't read a blessed thing since Maddie was born!), but a friend who has the same taste in books summed this one up by saying it was "neither brief nor wondrous."

Bybee said...

I liked the incredibly rich gumbo of street language, Spanglish and all the geeky nerd references mixed with 20th c. history of Trujillo and the DR. The nod to Hemingway's title is an added bonus.

Bibliolatrist said...

I had a similar reaction: I respected Oscar Wao, but I didn't *love* it, and I wouldn't reread it in a few years.

Rebecca Reid said...

I intend to read all the Pulitzers, so of course I was interested in this one. I'd heard about the fantasy (thought I'd read LotR first) and the spanish (I understand it fairly well) and I wasn't concerned about those things. But I do not like language, though, so I'm not so excited now.

Heather J. said...

A Novel Menagerie - I loved reading your reviews of this one, and I included them on my book club's blog too.

Amy - HA! Yeah, I'm thinking it isn't your type of book.

Bybee - You hit on some of the things I really loved - the geekery and the history - but I'm just not a big fan of "street language" ...

Bibliolatrist - I can't see myself reading this one again either.

Rebecca Reid - The language is a BIG part of this book, so if you plan to read it you'll have to just let it "wash over you" as another blogger said.

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

this hasn't made its way into my house yet. If/when I do read it I'll keep your mention of the Hemenway story in mind (but won't read that until I'm done with Oscar Wao).

Have fun at the Festival this weekend.

Alyce said...

This one is not on my list because I've read a few other reviews similar to yours in which the reviewers had mixed feelings. I'm definitely not a fan of gratuitous swearing.

Jen - devourer of books said...

I'm actually more interested in reading this book after your ambivalent review. Sometimes I get turned off by massive hype and this is one of those books that happened for with me. This balanced 'it had good and eh points' review now is making me WANT to read it, and I just put it on hold at the library, if for no other reason than so we can discuss what we thought about it.

Heather J. said...

Dawn - Thanks, the festival was great.

Alyce - As I said, it was a bit much for me.

Jen - That's cool! Please let me know when you finish reading it - I'd love to discuss it with you!

Anonymous said...

Please share your ideas on the symbolism behind the mongoose, the man without a face, and the blank pages of books that are mentioned in this story.

Heather J. said...

Anonymous - Sorry, it has been too long since I read it ...

KJ said...

Absolutely not worthy of a Pulitizer. I found it's themes repetitious, and overdone. Also the sci-fi seemed gimmicky.

I am glad to see I am not alone in my review.

Heather J. said...

KJ - Thanks for stopping by and for your comment. As you can tell from my review, I didn't love this book as much as I was "supposed to". However I did appreciate it more after seeing Diaz speak about it. I posted some videos from that talk - did you get a chance to watch them? I'm still not a huge fan but I "get it" a bit more now than I did before.

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