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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Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin

Cover of the novel

Cover of the novel

*1001 Books Book (2006)

Atwood, M. (2000). The blind assassin. New York: N.A. Talese.

With as much as I have read about Margaret Atwood, it has taken a surprisingly long time for me to read any of her works. This and the intriguing book cover encouraged me to read The Blind Assassin.

Many reviews describe The Blind Assassin as being like a Russian nesting doll; a story within a story that is within yet another story. It is definitely like peeling an onion, reading The Blind Assassin. The novel weaves between various plot lines. However, I do promise that it is rather like a fractal and that are worthwhile. After all, it takes all the pieces to form the picture of The Blind Assassin. Atwood managed to integrate elements of Southern Ontario Gothic, Historical Fiction (1900s, 1930s, 1940s, etc), Mystery, Character Study, and Science Fiction into one slow burn of a novel.

The story begins with young wife Iris Chase Griffen saying, “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge” (Atwood, 1). With sparse detail about this event, the reader is next taken to a report of Laura Chase’s death. Beyond this point, there are more news reports on deaths, including that of Iris’ powerful industrialist husband’s body being found a boat in 1947. This is where the reader discovers a book by Laura Chase was posthumously published. After the articles, the reader is taken headlong into to Laura’s work “The Blind Assassin.” “The Blind Assassin” tells the story of a pulp fiction writer and his girlfriend, a young unhappy wife. The pulp fiction writer makes up a story for his lover, also called “The Blind Assassin.” Beyond this point is yet another narrative, it is that of the aged, chilly Iris of eighty-two years of age in 1999.

Iris’ somewhat embittered voice dominates the novel. Through her scope, I found Iris to be a survivor. The unusual and delicate well-being of Laura brings much responsibility to Iris. On the one hand, it seems Iris is cold and careless with her fragile little sister. Otherwise, I find it unfair how Iris was made to take care of Laura simply because no one else did. Whether it is Iris’ nature or it is her upbringing is obviously debatable. Nonetheless, her biting wit and edge make her easily identifiable and sympathetic to me.

I am proud to say that I read this book. The coldness and cruelty of several characters within gave me chills and some weird dreams. Imagining this wicked glint of some characters that shall remain nameless made me sad. Atwood is definitely a master of her craft and I could see her characters and situations all too well. The Blind Assassin is well written but not exactly what I call an enjoyable read.

Three out of Five Pearls

PS (September 02, 2008) When I found out this had been removed from the 1001 Books List, I could have kicked Boxall and myself in one fell swoop. Ugh!

Places: Port Ticonderoga, Canada; Toronto, Canada; Europe; New York, NewYork

Dust Bunnies, Great Balls of Fire, & Ghost Hunter

Goodreads | Ghost Hunter (Harmony, #3) by Jayne Castle

Castle, J. (2006). Ghost hunter. New York: Jove Books. 9780515141405

Ghost hunter is a book written by Jayne Castle, a pseudonym used by Jayne Ann Krentz when she writes science fiction, and is part of the Ghost Hunters series. Castle’s books take place on a planet called Harmony. Sometime in the near future, a curtain between Earth and Harmony opened, making travel and trade quite simple for humans. Harmony is a planet that was apparently deserted long ago by a race that was as alien to it as humans. The aliens left baffling catacombs of green quartz and perhaps a security system of ghosts, balls of destructive energy. Some creatures that live there are dust bunnies; six legged, four eyed, animated pieces of lint. Then, the curtain between Harmony and Earth closes mysteriously, blocking any sort of exchange between the two planets. Life on Harmony is rather primitive for the humans but settlers manage to survive. One of their survival mechanisms is “psi energy” or psychic abilities that are helped along with amber, a kind of fuel for the psi abilities.

This particular book starts 200 years after the curtain fell. Small town woman and botany professor Elly St. Clair is the daughter of powerful ghost hunters, people who channel psi energy to wipe out these ancient ghosts. Her father is a council member of the ghost hunters’ guild in their town of Aurora Springs, her brothers are ghost hunters, and her fiancé, Cooper Boone, is the new, seemingly humorless guild boss. Upon hearing gossip that Cooper and Campbell Frazier, another ghost hunter, engaged in a duel over her, the daughter of a powerful ghost hunter, Elly ends what she views as a loveless engagement with Cooper hangs up life in Aurora Springs and heads for the more cosmopolitan Cadence City. She opens an herb emporium and quickly makes friends with her neighboring shop keeps. A dust bunny named Rose wanders into Elly’s life and moves in with Elly. Things are going well until Elly’s friend Bertha disappears in the catacombs. Elly is worried enough to contact her former fiancé when he comes to Cadence City in order to handle the ghosts of the catacombs. Yet, does she realize that Cooper intends to reestablish their engagement?

This is a work of romantic suspense and science fiction, putting it into the Our Strange World and Genre Blending subgenres. In her futuristic setting, Castle asks “What if there was another planet that was isolated from Earth and dwelled by humans?” Furthermore, Castle contemplates the survival and evolution of humans on Harmony. Humans have had to condition themselves to the ways of Harmony. She explores various psychic abilities in her Harmony books. This particular one focuses on ghost hunters, those who can dismantle detrimental balls of energy.

In some ways, Elly appears to be an outsider since she does not appear to have any really strong psi power. This may have her looking like Marilyn Munster to readers. Another characteristic which sets Elly apart is that she has adopted Rose, a dust bunny. Despite all of this, most characters in the book genuinely like Elly. I was impressed by the sense of community and good neighbor behavior Elly inspired in Cadence City as well as in Cooper.After having the web chat with Jayne Ann Krentz, I decided I wanted to read a Jayne Castle book for the science fiction assignment. I am not the biggest fan of science fiction but I certainly admire its goals and practices. Without science fiction, I do not believe we would ask about things which seriously need to be questioned. Nevertheless, I wanted to read something that could easily fall into multiple genres. The psychic ability concept fascinated me, too.

I liked this book because it had a good plot and did not bog me down with details of this alternate reality. Within this book, Castle shows readers like me that virtues are still valued in another setting. My only complaint about the book has very little to do with the novel or its writer. The book has some hunky Fabio-esque man on the cover. Not only would I be embarrassed to read anything with such a cover in public, I thought the guy on the cover looked nothing like the “male lead” in the book. If I had not wanted a Jayne Castle book, I would have passed this one up altogether due to the cover. Thank goodness for canvas book covers!

I would definitely recommend this book to women who like romantic suspense and science fiction. I think it would be a good gateway for women interested in trying science fiction. There is bad language and sex involved in the book but these elements naturally work with the plot. Readers easily offended by bad language and sexual situations probably should avoid Ghost hunter.

Three Out of Five Pearls.