The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

From 2008 until 2010, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was ubiquitous. It was the book in every bag at the airport, on every lap on the train, and eternally checked out at the library. The Pulitzer it earned that year probably didn’t help if you were hoping for its buzz to die down.

Junot Díaz’s book was taking the world by storm, which should have meant I had a lot of expectations going in, but it didn’t. I can’t remember what made me first decide I wanted to read it—probably the Pulitzer if anything.

The story ended up being more than I could have ever anticipated. The story of a lonely nerd, strained family ties, love and sex, and the violent history of the Dominican Republic all rolled into one neat package.

Poor Oscar, our titular hero, is fat, awkward, and way too into Dungeons and Dragons for his own good. Worse yet, he’s Dominican—meaning he can’t quite fit into the model of the white nerd and he definitely can’t compete with the machismo so prevalent in depictions of Dominican masculinity. He’s adrift, unable to connect fully with either side, and not even the omniscient voice that narrates his story can seem to make sense of him at times.

Which brings me to the first thing I absolutely loved about this introduction to Díaz’s writing: the language. There’s a show I occasionally listen to called Snap Judgment and its tagline is “storytelling with a beat.” Every sentence I read, that phrase ran through my mind.

Oscar Wao is positively lyrical. Some passages seem as at home on the page as they would on the stage of a slam poetry night. Take this description of Oscar’s mother:

“Before there was an American Story, before Paterson spread before Oscar and Lola like a dream, or the trumpets from the Island of our eviction had even sounded, there was their mother, Hypatía Belicia Cabral: a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable longing for elsewhere.”

The rhythm that runs through it pulses like a heartbeat and it’s absolutely intoxicating. It wasn’t hard to understand the love for this book.

There was something else, too—an even simpler facet: Díaz writes in Spanish regularly throughout the book and not once does he ever bother to translate it for the reader. I could not have been happier with this decision.

In stark contrast to Midnight in Mexico which constantly translated its Spanish passages creating cumbersome and unwieldy paragraphs, Díaz trusts us. He’s banking on his audience either knowing Spanish, or being smart enough to look it up for themselves.

Personally, I never needed to. My grasp of Spanish was juuust strong enough to, when paired with context clues, carry me through. This is what I’d wanted out of Corchado’s book. But I digress.

Love for this book aside, I just didn’t have that experience myself. I loved the writing and found the story interesting and I learned more about the Dominican Republic than I ever expected to know. But I wasn’t excited to pick it up. I didn’t have that emotional connection to the characters that so defines the books I love.

It was difficult to put my finger on why this was the case. The concept of fuku, which receives a lot of attention, never really hooked me, and I found myself considerably less engrossed in the flashback chapters dealing with Oscar’s mother and the origins of the family curse. But I’m not really willing to make the commitment and say that those scenes didn’t work.

Díaz’s writing is just too good.

When I try to understand why I couldn’t get excited about Oscar Wao, I wonder if it’s just more of a man’s story, a story that just speaks to something specific within men that just didn’t capture with me. The thing near the core of Oscar’s story, about what it means to be a man in this world, I don’t know why it didn’t reach me.

Yes, we get glimpses of what life is like for his sister and we learn a great deal about his mother, but I still read those passages as if I were only casually passing by.

What did work for me—the references to nerd culture, the longing, the in-your-face vivacity of the narrator, the in-depth exploration of the Dominican Republic’s history—made this well worth while. It’s not a favorite, but it’s not one I could pass up recommending, either.

The House on Mango Street

Even if you hadn’t already read it in freshman english. Even if you didn’t already know Sandra Cisneros’s poetry. Even if it hadn’t already been the pick for One Book, One Chicago. You’d know with a minute of picking up The House on Mango Street that it was pure poetry.

Another title where I’m not sure how it slipped by my literary education—I knew nothing about it until I picked it up for the first time this year.

It almost seems unfair to review it as a novel, considering how short it is (a mere 110 pages), but then that’s a limiting way to judge a book. Written in 1984 and set in my hometown, The House on Mango Street is a series of vignettes told from the perspective of a young latina named Esperanza Cordero. In each chapter, she provides commentary on her neighborhood, her friends, her family, and the desire for a better life.

As short as each vignette is (some just a handful of sentences), together they create a rich picture of a specific time and place in Chicago’s history. Cisneros’s words breathe life into Esperanza’s world in a way that feels like you could almost reach out and touch it.

Mango Street fell short of a home run for me, though it’s hard to pinpoint why. I think it just didn’t fall within the realm of what I typically love (a meatier text, richer prose), but it was still easy to see how it made it into the canon.

Cisneros’s writing is absolutely beautiful and every now and then, one of the vignettes would drop this beautiful little jewel of truth that really hit home for me, as in the chapter, “A Smart Cookie:”

“Then out of nowhere:
Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Beacuase I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.
Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then.”

In the book, so many of Esperanza’s experiences with womanhood were the ones that resonated with me. Cisneros has a knack for distilling the experience of growing up as girl into these truly brilliant moments that transcend race and class (though the way she illuminates those nuances is equally brilliant). In those moments, I felt like we really understood each other.

Even though I can’t say this was a favorite or that I loved it, The House on Mango Street is such a rewarding, quick read that I have to recommend it as something everyone should pick up. When even the slowest reader could finish it in an afternoon, there’s really nothing standing in your way.

Americanah

I often like what I read. I’m a lady of discerning taste, and I tend to gravitate toward what I know I’ll like.

I rarely fall in love with what I read. My love is reserved only for the words that move me most, the stories that wrap themselves around my heart. But I think it might only be just once so far that I can say a book changed me.

Americanah is that book. I read it and it was like I’d been shaken awake. It didn’t just change my perceptions, it changed my understanding of what I thought I knew.

The 2013 novel follows the relationship between two Nigerian teens, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they graduate secondary school, go on to college, and finally, look to leave Nigeria for better prospects. When Ifemelu gets a chance to move to America, Obinze encourages her to go, promising to follow soon after. However, as the weeks turn to months, Ifemelu drifts farther and farther away from Obinze, enveloped in America’s strangeness, promises, and failures until it seems she can never be who she once was.

When the book opens, Ifemelu is no longer a girl, but a grown woman that’s been living in America for 13 years. Most of the novel is framed as her reflections of growing up, punctuated intermittently by the present day as well as Obinze’s own recollections. I liked this structure and the way it alternately reminded me both of how far Ifemelu had yet to go and how far she’d come.

And as much as the book purports to be about both Ifemelu and Obinze, it’s truly Ifemelu’s story. Her chapters far outnumber Obinze’s, and I love it for this, too. It reminded me of how disappointed I was that Revolutionary Road didn’t have more chapters from April’s point of view.

Even more importantly, as much as any brief synopsis might make you think this is a love story, trust me when I say it is not. It’s an immigrant story and an African story and an American story. It’s about race, class, and culture and the way all those things collide in the stew of this country. It’s the deepest exploration of the American dream as a beautiful, tempting lie.

Adichie’s writing was constantly making me re-evaluate my ideas about this country and what it means to be black in it.

In one of Ifemelu’s blogs entries she writes:

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”

In another section she discusses the hierarchy of color (not race), bluntly stating that in America, dark is bad, light is good, and that’s it. Through Ifemelu’s observations, Adichie pulls no punches:

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

These were the moments that rocked me. I already agreed with these ideas, but it was almost as if I never really understood them—not completely—until Adichie laid them out. Even an idea as simple as the immigrant coming to America for opportunity. In our collective consciousness, the immigrant is always fleeing from a nightmare, desperate for a better life, on the verge of dying unless they run.

We never hear the stories we do in Americanah where people like Obinze and Ifemelu are simply middle-class kids looking for options:

“Alexa and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for for choice and certainty.”

It’s such a simple idea, but it’s so easy to never consider it. It’s so easy to ignore the reality of the immigrant story when we can lazily fall back on whatever we think we know, not having lived it ourselves.

Americanah told me the story I needed to hear instead of what I expected to hear. I will be forever grateful to it. Who knows how often I’ll find a book that genuinely makes me feel like I’ve become a slightly better, more aware person.

This one is required reading, you guys.
This one is for the canon.

Revolutionary Road

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I haven’t thought too much about Revolutionary Road since finishing it back in February, but not unintentionally. I can’t think about Revolutionary Road. Reading it nearly sent me into a full on emotional crisis. I was questioning everything about my life and whether I was happy or could be happy or was living up to my potential or my relationship’s potential or was maybe everything really just bullshit after all? Was I lying to myself and was I doing it as well as Richard Yates’s volatile couple, Frank and April?

The book–which was released in 1961 and loved by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Kurt Vonnegut before being more or less forgotten until the film adaptation in 2008–is a story about suburban malaise and the broken promises of the American Dream.

Frank and April Wheeler live in a tidy Connecticut suburb. Frank works in a boring, meaningless office job in the city. April stays at home, playing house and raising their two children. Neither of them are happy, and neither of them know what to do about it. The novel plays out in a series of explosive arguments between the two as they look for an escape from the white-picket prison they find themselves in.

As the book delved deeper into themes of disillusionment and identity, it became increasingly difficult to get through. I couldn’t bring myself to pick the book up for an entire weekend because it depressed me too much. I left it sitting untouched on my bedside table. I’d look at it, considering it, before shaking my head no. “No, not tonight,” I’d think, “I can’t. Maybe tomorrow.”

Finally, on a Monday morning I was able to pick it up again, reading it amid the bustle of my morning commute. At home that night, I raced through it to the end in a mad dash to see where the story would take me. Where would April and Frank end up? What would I see when I reached the end? Would it be myself?

Anyone who’s read the book will understand the frightening melodrama in that thought. No one wants to see themselves in that relationship. Even at the time I knew the thought was ridiculous, and it had less to do with the plot and more to do with the emotional rut I was in. But still. The fear was there.

In the book’s difficult final scenes, I somehow managed not to shed a tear. This is surprising for me because (as you’ll soon see if you keep reading these reviews) I’m a crier, and I always have been. My favorite books tend to tear me up inside, and I avoid reading them in public when I suspect a rough patch might be coming. But not with Revolutionary Road. There was just a sort of… deadness. Which I suppose is actually pretty fitting considering what the characters wrestle with. But it was also satisfying.

My only real complaint is that while the novel shifted perspective, I felt that entirely too much of it was focused on Frank instead of April. It wasn’t that I wanted less of Frank, but that I thought there should have been more of April. I wanted her side of the story to carry exactly equal weight to Frank’s. It was disappointing to see Frank so favored over her and I still have a hard time understanding why this was the case.

It’s certainly clear to me that neither Frank nor April is meant to be a villain. Neither one is right or wrong, they’re just two people grappling to come to terms with who they are in a marriage that’s constantly threatening to disintegrate. For that, I applaud Yates (especially when considering when this was written).

But it wasn’t quite enough. I think the disproportionate amount of focus on Frank’s inner dialogue runs the risk of having more readers identify with him and vilify April. And that is something I have a major problem with.

But ultimately, I loved this book. It hit the sweet spot for me in my reading preferences: realistic, dramatic literary fiction. Yates’s use of language is lovely, and for however flawed the characters were, I empathized with them. It might frighten me to compare myself or my relationship to one so dysfunctional, but I think it’s only human to understand what it’s like to compare reality with your image of what you thought your life would be or what it was expected to be. We all have to deal with such confrontations eventually; we’re just not all quite so doomed to shatter once we do.

[updated from original posting on 3/25/14]