Posted in Fiction

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

A female was talking to him. (It was an unprecedented change in fortune, as though his threadbare Skein of Destiny had accidentally gotten tangled with that of a doper, more fortunate brother.)

When it comes to stories, Junot Diaz’ novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao demonstrates the concept that it’s not always about the destination – sometimes it’s the journey that counts. Before one even opens the book, they know that the story is about Oscar and that his life is brief and, well, wondrous.

When I began reading, I found the narrative enjoyable and funny as teenagers among the Dominican families of New Jersey went about their usual and sometimes unusual lives. It seemed, though, that it was simply a glorified YA novel (not that there is anything wrong with YA novels). I admit I thought to myself “This won the Pulitzer?”

But it didn’t take long to figure a few things out. The narrative of Oscar’s life as a nerdy, lonely teenager moves forward in a normal chronological plot line. The history of Oscar’s family – his mother and grandparents- moves backwards in a more sweeping saga of the totalitarian regime that rules the Dominican Republic during the middle of the Twentieth Century.

About a fourth of the way through the novel, I again thought to myself “Ah, I’m seeing how this works and I like it.”

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The story is narrated by Yunior, Oscar’s college roommate and Oscar’s sister Lola’s ex-boyfriend. It begins as an odd choice for a narrator as Yunior doesn’t enter the actual plot until Oscar’s college years. Between Oscar’s writing that is never published and Yunior’s relationship with Lola, it begins to make sense that he would know so much about Oscar’s family and childhood.  Yunior is a recurring character in Diaz’ writing and he becomes a perfect narrator in this novel. He is a contrast to Oscar in that he dates lots of girls and is relatively sociable. His interest in books and writing seems to be what he has in common with Oscar.

Diaz gives hints throughout the novel (not the least of which is the title) of the amazing conclusion to Oscar’s story. In his struggle to make a difference in a world that isn’t interested in him, Oscar ultimately makes a sacrifice that may not go down in history but impacts the lives of his family and friends to a degree that lives up to the word “wondrous” in the title and makes the novel absolutely worthy of the Pulitzer.

 

Posted in Books in General

Summer Reading!

With yesterday being the unofficial beginning of summer, I thought I would post a little about my reading plans for the next couple of months. As with any of my reading plans, they are subject to change without notice!

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Right now, I have begun John Irving’s latest novel Avenue of Mysteries. Irving’s novel  A Prayer for Owen Meany is on my list of favorites; however, I have not been able to get into his other novels. This one looks like it might be breaking that pattern.

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Next is Yann Martel’s latest The High Mountains of Portugal. I’ve been a fan of Martel’s ever since Life of Pi. I’m looking forward to more of his work.

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After that, I’m thinking about Junot Diaz’ Pulitzer Prize winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Diaz has long been on my radar but so far I’ve only read his great short story “Edison, New Jersey”.

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I would also like to read Alan Jacob’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. A great title that I’ve heard some interesting things about.

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After that, I plan to resume my adventures with Nineteenth Century Female British authors. George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss has been on my shelf for a few years, now. This is going to be the year I read it. In addition, I would like to round out my Bronte sisters expedition with Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I don’t own this one as of now so I’ll have to get a copy somewhere.

So there you have it! My reading plans for the Summer of 2016 – we’ll see how everything plays out. What books are you planning on reading over the next few months? I’d love to know!

 

 

Posted in Short Stories

Saul Bellow: A Silver Dish

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DEAL ME IN – WEEK 21

Saul Bellow has been on my radar for a long time now, so I was glad to have drawn the Ace of Diamonds this week for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project.  It corresponded to Bellow’s short story “A Silver Dish”.  I admit that when I selected this story from the table of contents of The Best American Short Stories of the Century, the title didn’t conjure up images of excitement.  I envisioned a short story chock full of literary meaning but rather tedious.  I was absolutely wrong.  This is one of the funnier and more irreverent stories I’ve read this year.

Woody Selbst is in his sixties and has done well for himself.  As he faces the inevitable death of his father, Morris, Woody takes a long humorous look at life with his father. Woody’s mother, Halina, converts to Fundamentalist Christianity much to the dismay of ne’er-do-well Morris.  Growing up, Woody manages to walk the straight and narrow until the pivotal moment when visiting the home of a pillar of the church, Morris steals a silver dish by stuffing it in his pants.  Woody becomes guilty by association.  While he continues to have sympathy for those in religious circles, Woody ceases to see himself belonging there.

Saul Bellow at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony

(Saul Bellow, left, at the Nobel Prize ceremonies.  Photo obtained from goodreads.com)

Sharp-witted social commentary add to the fascinating life that Woody lives.  This is the second story I’ve selected in a row that deals with the lives of those immigrating to America:

Up and down Division Street, under every lamp, almost, speakers were giving out:  anarchists, Socialists, Stalinists, single-taxers, Zionists, Tolstoyans, vegetarians, and fundamentalist Christian speakers – you name it. A beef, a hope, a way of life or salvation, a protest.  How was it that the accumulated gripes of all the ages took off so when transplanted to America?

While I’ve only read one story each by these authors, Bellow’s story reminds me of Junot Diaz’s “Edison, New Jersey”. I was reminded of Diaz’ description of pool tables when I read Bellow’s description of church bells:

Woody was moved when things were honest.  Bearing beams were honest, undisguised concrete pillars inside high-rise apartments were honest.  It was bad to cover up anything.  He hated faking.  Stone was honest.  Metal was honest.  These Sunday bells were very straight.  They broke loose, they wagged and rocked, and the vibrations and the banging did something for him – cleansed his insides, purified his blood.  A bell was a one-way throat, had only one thing to tell you and simply told it.  He listened.

I highly recommend this story and whole heartedly agree with John Updike as to it’s inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century.  More Saul Bellow posts should be coming in the near future.

My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Short Stories

Junot Diaz: Edison, New Jersey

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It’s Week 36 of my Deal Me In 2014 project and I’ve selected the Two of Diamonds, only the second wild card so far this year.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Junot Diaz has been an author on my radar for a while and I’ve seen him pop up on all kinds of lists over the last few years.   I recently purchased The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Diaz’ story “Edison, New Jersey” is included and, having been born in 1968, he has the distinction of being the youngest author in this collection.

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An unnamed narrator who could potentially be a fictional version of Diaz tells the story that takes place in an area of New Jersey heavily populated by immigrants from the Dominican Republic (where Diaz is from).  The narrator, whom the reader knows is relatively young, works with his older partner, Wayne, delivering pool tables and game tables for a retail store.  Here is his great description of pool tables:

Most people don’t realize how sophisticated pool tables are.  Yes, tables have bolts and staples on the rails but these suckers hold together mostly by gravity and by the precision of their construction.  If you treat a good table right it will outlast you.  Believe me.  Cathedrals are built like that.  There are Incan roads in the Andes that even today you couldn’t work a knife between two of the cobblestones.  The sewers that the Romans built in Bath were so good that they weren’t replaced until the 1950’s.  That’s the sort of thing I can believe in.

The plot consists mainly of the day to day events of the narrator and Wayne.  They talk about their women and their families while delivering the merchandise.  The narrator refers to his ex-girlfriend as simply “the girlfriend”.   In a flashback, he refers to their morning routine of guessing what kind of people he will come in contact with during his day.  At the end of the story, he plays another guessing game with Wayne as to where they will end up making deliveries.  He takes a map of his district, closes his eyes and points to the map.  It’s Edison, New Jersey.

Sometimes, in literature, this idea of randomness occurs with themes of life’s meaninglessness and lack of purpose.  While this story contains some hints of difficult times for the narrator, his family and community, the randomness here contains potential and possibility.  Yes, the two deliverers spend their money as fast as they earn it; however, this reader gets the impression that the narrator is eventually going to make something of himself.

I see more Diaz on the horizon.