Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Bried Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Still fine-tuning. Here is a cleaned-up version of yesterday's review....

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Diaz was a wild ride. I was really looking forward to hearing the author speak at Butler last week, and sure enough, he did not disappoint. Diaz's voice, just as authentic as the voice of his novel's narrator, Yunior, was a startling mix of writerly thoughtfulness and the colloquialisms of the rough, macho culture of The Dominican Republic. I knew the evening would be interesting when, in telling of the militarism inherent in his upbringing, and in describing his sister, Diaz tossed out the f-word, claiming, "She could "bleep" you up."

The comment that stuck with me the most that night, though, was the one he made about novels, and how they are best understood not by an individual, but by an entire community. This seems especially true of his multi-layered work. I want to read it again to sift through the story and catch layers of meaning I'm sure I missed.

This is the story of Oscar, a hapless, nerdy boy (who Diaz said he based on how he felt growing up) and his family, and how their lives played out through the volatile and violent history of their Dominican Republic homeland. Diaz captures the rhythms and brutality of everyday life there with such specificity that the characters and their stories feel gut-wrenchingly authentic. We look back at Oscar's family's stories and see how every remark or gesture, each seemingly meaningless on its own, impacts on the next thing and in the end, adds up to a life. This honest rendering gives this story its universal appeal. Maybe, in a way, it's everybody's story, as we, just like Oscar, struggle through each day carrying the burden of our own histories and traumas.

This was a great book to listen to, complete with different readers for each of the characters and authentic sounding Spanish accents.

In keeping with the theme of authors from the island of Hispaniola, Butler is bringing Edwidge Danticat to speak tomorrow night. Can't wait.

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