Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Hey-o, William and Kate, I actually have been reading the blog, I promise- just behind on commenting, that's all. Also, I refuse the read posts about books I plan to blog about, so that I can't be unduly influenced. I'm very easily swayed by others. (I'm not going to read Waiting, not just this minute, anyway.)

I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in Korea, while my cousin abandoned me (just kidding, 오빠- mostly) and I was stuck in a town (Seoul) I didn't know, on Lunar New Year weekend, when not much was open. (It is so bizarre, but it feels like I went to Korea about three years ago. Hawaii must have a numbing effect on the mind. Or I pickled my brain with rum.)

I distinctly remember being rather cold while I read this book, and warming up when I read it. Not because the story is so warm and cuddly and sweet (it's NOT), but because Diaz describes hot, humid weather so well that I could feel it. As a child of the desert, I break into a sweat whenever someone even mentions the word "humidity"- that's how much I loathe it.

First off, the footnotes and the Spanish:

- Footnotes: let me be clear. I might work in films now, but I am still and will always forever be a nerd. I like footnotes, because I like being overwhelmed with information. There is no such thing as knowing too many facts. However, footnotes hinder the flow of reading, in a way- it interrupts the story to insert generally relevant and often amusing snippets.

- Spanish: I understand a bit of Spanish, enough to just skate by. Anyone that grew up in Southern California has a rusty knowledge of Spanish. But my grasp on the language was not nearly enough for this book, especially because of all the slang. I read this entire book with my phone by my side, to Google any unknown Spanish words. That doesn't really work well on colloquial phrases, let me tell you. I also found the abundance of Spanish to be a hindrance in the flow of reading. (It did make me wonder if there will ever be a book written in Konglish, with Korean sprinkled into the English without any explanation. There are plenty of books written in Spanglish, after all, and even Franglish. I hate myself for using these stupid portmanteaus, I promise.)

That's out of the way, whew.

Though the footnotes and the Spanish were a bit on the distracting side, I found that Diaz is such an engrossing author that I was easily caught back into the narrative. I loved the style- a bit unconventional, far left of proper prep-school English, and with rather broken grammar- and I loved the characters. A lot. I had a very clear picture in my head of what these people looked like, how they were dressed, and the tics and mannerisms that would characterize them.

Yes, there were some cliches and rather a lot of what I thought was stereotyping, but it worked for this particular book. The nerd, the cool guy, the Latina with attitude, the overbearing mother- all things that have been written before. (Especially the overbearing mother, which reminded me of a vastly different Spanglish (Spanish translated to English, this time) book, Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel- no, I have not watched the movie, don't ask.) Esquivel took a more gentle approach, with soft references and rounded allusions, whereas Diaz took a harder approach, with rough words, rougher actions, and a lot of in-your-face circumstances.

I guess I should get to what the book was actually about. Oscar Wao is a fat nerd. It's about his life and his visits to the Dominican Republic.


Yes, based on the plot alone, this book is interesting. But I think the character development, the unveiling of the truth in each character, really made this a great book. I define "great book" as one that makes me think, that stays on my mind, and that I want to read again. This one was great- I reread random portions of it, I think about what nighttime in the Dominican Republic would look like, and sometimes, I can almost taste the blood in my mouth, though I've never been beaten up in my life.

I know that I would never be able to think up a story like this one, which makes me appreciate Diaz's work even more.

The words of warning, though: This is not an easy book to read. There are footnotes and Spanish, remember? Also, there are acutely uncomfortable events and horrible things that happen to mostly innocent people. I think that if I had read this book in high school, it would have given me nightmares. Once you get through all that, if you can, you're left with almost an exhaustion, as if you've lived through Oscar's life yourself.

Great. Book.

(Great choice, Overdue Fines!)

As for Book #3, I really did read The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. I just didn't remember that I had already written a post on it until ... now. Forgetful, thy name is Jeanny.

Current reading material is nowhere near as literary as Oscar Wao, but it's fun and it's kind of mesmerizing- The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum. I picked it up at the Honolulu airport. Much better than the movie, and I really like the movie! Another two hundred pages to go, then I'll think about the next book.


Amanda,  April 6, 2010 at 9:16 AM  

I read a book about some Korean-American girl in NYC and there was Korean sprinkled in it. I know my students have read some books with Korean in them, too. I hate it actually, because they ask me and hell if I know what Korean words are when written in English!

william April 9, 2010 at 7:38 AM  

yes, it is a fine book. i don't think i liked the book as much as you did, but i'm happy that i read it. now if only i could find the time and energy to read devil in the white city...

jeanny April 20, 2010 at 10:43 AM  

Amanda, that sounds annoying. I would want the words written in Korean, not transliterated! Booo.

William, I did really like the book, and that surprised me. Or maybe it was because I was so happy to be reading in English whilst surrounded by Koreans in freezing weather??