The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fukú—the curse that has haunted the Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim.

My love of all things from the Spanish-language canon is well-documented. If it sounds moderately interesting and you tell me it was written by a native Spanish speaker, I’m so there.

I picked this book up at a used bookstore some months ago, but sort of forgot about it until I remembered there was a movie coming out about it. Even though it won a Pulitzer Prize, I was still very surprised by how much I liked it.

The novel is highly readable and engaging. Told mostly from the perspective of Yunior, a smart, wise-cracking Dominican guy, this book reads like the least Pulitzer prize winning novel, ever. The novel is smart and clever itself, but beautiful, no. And beauty, sad to say, is an important criteria for prize-winning novels. Well, for prestigious prizes anyway. Which isn’t to say it’s not beautiful. It’s beautiful in a yucky sort of a way. It’s irreverent and exciting and highly sexualized and depressing all at once.


This is the story of the title character, Oscar, but also the story of his family. We’re given, not only Oscar’s (literal) whole-life story, but that of his mother and grandfather as well.

I like the angle of the fuku, the curse, that haunts everyone and everything in the Dominican Republic. I read In the Time of the Butterflies a while ago, which also told the story of Trujillo’s regime, but not like this. This is Trujillo’s regime in all its terrible glory.

Diaz has a masterful grip on pop culture and specifically, nerd culture. He weaves references in with ease, references to things I only know about because I took that specifically traced the history of science-fiction as a genre. Which brings me to the contrast between the two. The science-fiction and the real and how reality is often stranger and scarier than any fiction.

While I was drawn in and engrossed by the high energy of this novel, I ultimately found it very sad. Poor Oscar. I mean, I suspected that things weren’t going to be great for Oscar, but not to that degree. Poor, poor Oscar.

On the other hand, I’m very excited to read more from Junot Diaz. He’s quite a talented and skillful writer.

Have any of you read this novel?


Fiction, In Translation, Reviews, Uncategorized

One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez

The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendía family. It is a rich and brilliant chronicle of life and death, and the tragicomedy of humankind. In the noble, ridiculous, beautiful, and tawdry story of the Buendía family, one sees all of humanity, just as in the history, myths, growth, and decay of Macondo, one sees all of Latin America.

Love and lust, war and revolution, riches and poverty, youth and senility — the variety of life, the endlessness of death, the search for peace and truth — these universal themes dominate the novel. Whether he is describing an affair of passion or the voracity of capitalism and the corruption of government, Gabriel García Márquez always writes with the simplicity, ease, and purity that are the mark of a master.

Alternately reverential and comical, One Hundred Years of Solitude weaves the political, personal, and spiritual to bring a new consciousness to storytelling. Translated into dozens of languages, this stunning work is no less than an accounting of the history of the human race.

I’ve yet to meet someone who read this book and didn’t absolutely love it. The language is beautiful, imaginative, and sweeping. It is the pinnacle of achievement of magical realism.

I’ll admit to harboring a very large soft spot for works of Spanish origin, in translation (see my Author Spotlight on Carlos Ruiz Zafon or my post on Blindness). It’s not a secret and I’ll admit to it in a heartbeat. That said, I can’t exactly what it is that draws me in. At the risk of sounding cliched and generalizing, in all my reading I have discovered that in the translated works of regions of the worlds, there exists in each a flavor of the region. It’s something that’s hard to articulate and even harder to pin down. What is it that makes Chinese literature feel different from Spanish or French or Russian literature? I have no answer for that, other than I would posit that potentially communities of people are connected by more than just language and locality- they are connected by something intangible, but no less real, something that binds them irrevocably to their people.

Anyway, back to the book at hand. The work is thick and rich like a good stew; like a stew, it takes a while to come into its full flavor. It must be enjoyed slowly, with measured sips. Do not expect to be in control while reading- the magic and singularity of Garcia-Marquez’s Macondo will draw you in and hold you fast, attempting to drown you beneath the sweet-sounding prose. It is a drowning yes, but what a sweet drowning it is.

I read this book over a period of weeks last year, only reading before bed. I think this is a book best enjoyed that way, when the day is done, when the night is dark and deep, and when the book may welcome you in with the warm embrace of a dreamer, wrapping and unfolding you until you drift off into a sleep colored by beauty.

This is one of a number of books that make me wish I were fluent in Spanish. I’m told its exquisite in its native language. Of that, I have no doubt. It’s exquisite in translation so how could it be otherwise? Whatever your means, Spanish, English, whathaveyou, I encourage you to find a copy of this book and drink deep of the well Garcia-Marquez.