Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Book Cover

Book Cover

Díaz, J. (2007). The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books.

All the Pulitzer buzz proved irresistible. Then, I saw Díaz on CBS Sunday Morning and in Criticás. Initially, I liked hearing and reading that there was another writer out there grateful to libraries and librarians.  Learning that Oscar Wao was actually a mispronunciation of Oscar Wilde and that the characters were from part of the Dominican diaspora increased my interest.

My fascination with the D. R., a place narrator/watcher Yunior “Yuni” de las Casas describes as being very “sci-fi,”  stems from Dominican American writer Julia Àlvarez. Àlvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies was even referenced in one of the many footnotes in this book. My mom requested the book and I read it in a week.

Oscar is a sad, obese New Jersey “ghetto nerd” (Díaz, Chapter One) of Dominican descent. He voraciously consumes all the Sci-Fi the Paterson, NJ libraries can offer; they and his sister Lola are the only ones who do not reject him. Instead of being in Middle Earth, he must do his best in the real world. However, he and his family seem doggedly ill-fated, being heavily pursued by an old Dominican curse of “fuku.” Fuku haunts Oscar’s family since his erudite grandfather said the wrong things about the D.R.’s former despot, Trujillo. Yet, the romantic temperament of Oscar does not keep him from avoiding the grips of “fuku.”

Immediately, I liked the authentic characters and the believable depictions as given mostly by our watcher, the womanizing Yuni. I also felt as though I experienced the true life of the first generation in the US through Oscar, Lola, and Yuni.

I had a love/hate relationship with the Spanglish of this novel. My limited understanding of Spanish drove me to my language dictionary often.  Nevertheless, it made  Yuni and the rest of the characters completely real. By the end of the book, I was convinced I could meet up with some of the characters. Another love/hate relationship derived from the multitude of footnotes. While I liked the context offered, it also distracted from the story.

The language definitely earns this novel an “R” rating.  I was particularly  troubled by the constant use of the “n word.” While I understand it’s both permissible and commonplace amongst these characters, I didn’t like it and I refuse to even type the word in my blog.

One of the most impressive feats Díaz manages is creating a Fantasy novel. In the strictest definition, the parallel universes of late Twentieth Century New Jersey and the Trujillo days of the Dominican Republic offer the reader a work of folklore-laden Fantasy and contemporary Historical Fiction.

All in all, I’m glad I read his book and I quickly requested Díaz’s collection of short stories Drown via ILL.

Four out of Five Pearls

Places: The Dominican Republic; Paterson, NJ; New York, NY, New Brunswick, NJ

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Have Moral Compass, Will Travel?

Goodreads | The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1) by Philip Pullman

Pullman, P. (1996). The golden compass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 9780679879244

The Golden Compass is the first of Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. Before the story begins, Pullman says The Golden Compass takes place in universe like ours, the second book is set in our universe, and the third one shifts between these universes.

Eleven year old orphan Lyra Belacqua has lived at Jordan College, Oxford, in a world similar to that of the reader but not exactly the same. Adventurous and precocious, Lyra and her dæmon (a small creature peculiar to a human in this alternate universe), Pantalaimon, are normally left to their own devices. She and the children of servants at Jordan College can do as they please. While spying from a wardrobe upon return of Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asrael, from the Far North, Lyra and Pantalaimon save Lord Asrael’s life. Lord Asrael has remarkably found something in Far North that he refers to as Dust, an element drawn only to adults. With Oxford’s support, Lord Asrael can do more field research of Dust in the Far North, and Lord Asrael is on his way.

After Lord Asrael’s departure, Lyra notices numerous disappearances of children in Oxford at the hands of an enchantress and the Gobblers. When her best friend, Roger, vanishes, Lyra becomes frantic. However, she is distracted by the enchanting Mrs. Coulter and her dæmon’s, a golden monkey, appearance at Jordan. Shortly, Lyra is the apprentice of the charming Mrs. Coulter and they move to London. Before she leaves, though, the Jordan College Master gives her an alethiometer, a golden compass, which detects truth. The Master warns her not to show it to anyone and tells Lyra she must learn to use it herself. Being lavished with luxury and attention by Mrs. Coulter, Lyra begins to ease into her new life. However, upon hearing of a connection between Mrs. Coulter and the Gobblers, Lyra escapes and strives to rescue the kidnapped children from the Gobblers in the Far North.

Numerous elements within The Golden Compass secure this book’s place in the fantasy genre. The dæmon is a distinctive part of the story. Each dæmon represents its human owner. A child’s dæmon can take all sorts of shapes while one of an adult is fixed into one form. Throughout the first story, Pantalaimon morphs into all sorts of creatures – from an ermine to a moth to a dragon. However, Lord Asrael’s dæmon remains a snow leopard and Mrs. Coulter’s never shifts from the form of a golden monkey.

Speaking of Mrs. Coulter, she certainly has number of ways to enchant children into doing as she wishes. Lord Asrael also seems to be able to manipulate things to his liking. Lyra is regarded as someone to be well treated and often “gets by with a little help from her friends.” To some extent, they are all characters that the other characters like to some degree.

As previously mentioned, The Golden Compass is set in a different place. The time seemed reminiscent of the Victorian Era and additional literature about this trilogy draws parallels between His Dark Materials and The Chronicles of Narnia. Also, The Golden Compass seemed slow to start due a lot of plot thickening and explanation of this world.

To place The Golden Compass within a subgenre is much trickier. Like high fantasy, The Golden Compass alternates between parallel worlds. Additionally, there are humans, dæmons, and talking bears with opposable thumbs. Later on, Lyra goes on a quest to save kidnapped children from the diabolical hands of the Gobblers. When the reader finds the depravity of Mrs. Coulter’s soul, the narrative becomes very dark. Magical animals such as the dæmons and the aforementioned bears are pivotal in The Golden Compass.

I chose The Golden Compass for this assignment for a multitude of reasons. What sparked my interest was that a movie based on the novel is about to come out in theaters. Due to the movie, a nay saying forward regarding The Golden Compass has made it to my inbox a number of times. This forward says the book is inappropriate for children and gives them bad information about organized Christianity. As both a Christian and a children’s library employee, I felt compelled to find out for myself. Personally, I did not find the first book offensive nor did I feel that it was inappropriate for young adults. When I discovered it was Pullman’s version of Paradise Lost, I found no objections. The bottom line is that it is fiction.

Personally, I had difficulty reading the book because the pace in the beginning was slow. If the reader, regardless of age, has the patience to read it, then I do not see any problems in recommending The Golden Compass. Someone who enjoys a somewhat dark twist on fiction, science fiction, and a struggle between good and evil would probably like The Golden Compass.

Three and a half out of Five Pearls

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