Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

Reading this book was like journeying through every book I ever loved at the same time. Intense doesn’t seem a strong enough adjective! This book is wild and witty and wonderfully woeful…. It presents a perfect balance of pure and unassuming innocence with lascivious experience which is manifested linguistically and through imagery. The book navigates its way through the bastardisation of English and the devastating destruction of human purity. Junot Diaz has accomplished a truly marvellous feat in this award winning debut novel.

Meet Oscar Wao:  “Oscar de León was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about. He wasn’t no player. Except for one time, he’d never had much luck with women.”

Oscar is the most diverse character I think I have ever encountered. He is Salman Rushdie meets Dostoevsky, he is complex, depressed yet colourful, a deep hue of Latin American culture blended with American Geek Sci-Fi brittleness. Oscar’s life is part reality and part mythology. It is as though he is born out of a dream and so doesn’t belong in any world or anywhere. He is constantly trying to find himself, to fulfil himself, to bring meaning into his life and into the world at large.

Oscar’s life is filled with vibrant people: his long lost sister, Lola, his friend and sometimes room mate and sometimes boyfriend to his sister, Yunior, his larger than life mother and his abuela (grandmother) in the Dominican Republic. These characters make up the core of his world. And, it is through the voices of these individuals that we come to know Oscar. Their perspectives colour our view of him and it is through their sorrow that we come to understand Oscar’s existence. In part, Diaz’s technique of switching between narrative voices allows him to narrate some painful experiences without attaching too much emotion to them.

But, more significantly, perhaps, Oscar is intellectually superior to those around him. He is in love with words and he is left with the enormous challenge of navigating his Spanglish home, Latin American heritage while not betraying his commitment to language. Oscar has visions of writing a grand opus of a novel, an epic series. The tragic irony of this story is that Oscar’s writing never arrives – literally and figuratively.

Read John Self’s excellent review!

Read The New York Times’ review.

Read Salon’s review.

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht

Firstly, kill me that this author is only 25 years old, that she was born when I was already 11 and that she has written such a book and received such acclaim. Kill me.

The novel is called “swirling” by the Washington Post, a “brilliant debut” by Publisher’s Weekly and “dizzingly nuanced yet crisp” by the Library Journal. I agree on all counts. However, I couldn’t finish this book. I loved Obreht’s style, her way with words, how she has manufactured this wonderful lingering narrative that is like smoke, whispy and uncontained. I loved the imagery, the power of her lyricism and her characters. Clearly Obreht’s writing has a vividness that leaps off the page and this is intensified by the breadth and depth of her imagination.

But, 30 pages from the end I surrendered. I just couldn’t go on. Perhaps it was the fact that at that late stage a new character was introduced and that seemed contrived somehow … perhaps it was connected to the grandeur of things that I somehow couldn’t grasp this book.

A strange response: Obreht is a gifted writer. Without doubt. And I am normally a committed reader. But, this one goes into the very small pile of 3 or 4 books which I just never completed. So, I agree with Time Out New York’s 5/5 star rating for this book and I will absolutely be looking out for Obreht’s future work and perhaps in another time and place I will try and attempt this Tiger again!

 

Review from The Guardian.

 

The Final Solution, Michael Chabon

This was my introduction to Michael Chabon, inspired by the nonchalant remarks of Howard Jacobson (of Finkler fame). I had before only encountered Chabon on the periphery of my attention, mentioned by others in the distance, buried beneath other things which captured my interest.

Having no idea what to read as an introduction to Chabon’s work, I picked this one up in the library primarily because the title appealed to me and I found myself wondering what connection to Hitler’s Final Solution Chabon might be implying.

The book is described as a “story of detection” and on the surface it is clearly that, very much sculpted from the tradition of good ol’ Sherlock Holmes. The genre sits nicely with this text and I think that it allows Chabon to make some very perceptive social commentary specific to the time period which he describes.

While the story of detection is clearly at the forefront of the plot, what is much more interesting is the dialogue between what is said and what is kept hidden or silent. The book features our trusty detective whose wisdom is buried behind his old age. The mystery surrounds a Jewish boy who is mute, silenced by the horrors that he witnessed in Europe during the Holocaust which is still raging. The whereabouts of his family are not explored and readers can only surmise that they have perished and the boy’s own survival is clearly, on some level, miraculous. The boy’s solitary companion is a parrot who is verbose, singing and chanting apparently random numbers in German.

There is so much irony here: a boy who has much to say but cannot find words, a parrot who prattles, saying much but meaning little, an old detective who communicates in silence with his bees. The tension between these elements in quite magical and enables Chabon to not only present some wonderful characters, but to also engage with complex issues against the backdrop of complex times.

I will definitely be reading Chabon again!

New York Times Review

The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare

I think that I first read this play many moons ago when I was an undergraduate at university studying Shakespeare’s wit. I studied almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies and tragi-comedies so I must’ve read this one too … but it clearly didn’t make much of an impact because my copy of the text is bare of notes and highlighting … or perhaps I didn’t read it after all as it is clearly the type of text that should make an impact, or at least would make an impact on anyone who was paying attention while reading it!

So, fast forward to 2011, June, and here I am, rereading this play aloud with a student and I am struck by how much it truly is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Problematic in so many ways! Firstly, here is a play which displays clear racial slurs and religious antagonism toward a Jew, a person whose religion Shakespeare seems to know about but couldn’t possibly know about because all Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and the edict of expulsion was only reversed after the performance of this play (1656). Records indicate that there were perhaps 200 Jews living in England at the time of Shakespeare’s writing. At a minimum the awful stereotypes of Jews lasted throughout the period of their absence in England – such is the power of the word.

Conveniently, Shakespeare sets this play in Venice – he tends to set the plays which deal with problematic issues abroad. Meet Shylock, a Jewish money lender who shifts between eloquent speeches about the injustices done to his “tribe” and blatant disregard for his daughter who has run away with Lorenzo, a Christian, and stolen some of Shylock’s wealth.

Shylock is a money lender and has signed a contract to lend one good Antonio a sum of 3000 ducats which Antonio plans to lend to Bassanio who is trying to win the heart of the fair Portia. The bond that Antonio agrees to provide is a pound of his own flesh should he be unable to repay the money borrowed at the required time.

Needless to say, Antonio’s wealth literally sinks in a storm and he is unable to repay his debt and so the drama unfolds with all sorts of name calling and discussion of mercy and the like as the court decides in whose favour to rule – Shylock, who has a legal contract or poor Antonio who is up to lose a pound of his flesh.

As is Shakespeare’s way, the action is neatly resolved with a little subplot and some dramatic declarations of love.

There are some wonderful, if not unsettling, speeches in this play and many ironies. I am always intrigued by Shakespeare’s over-riding interest in identity and disguise and for modern audiences, the image of a young boy playing the part of a girl who is dressed up as a man is always food for a giggle.

I will have to trawl through my old notes to see whether or not I did actually consume this play at university!

Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro

On so many levels, Alice Munro is my new favourite author. She has a clear gift with the subtleties of language and she can carve a story out of experiences as still as rocks. Her collection ‘Too Much Happiness’ is in every way perfect. It resonates, it shocks, it reveals and exposes. It is raw and sensitive, immense and austere. As Leah Hagar Cohen from the NYT Sunday Book Review writes: “Here the nominally momentous event is little more than an anteroom to an echo chamber filled with subtle and far-reaching thematic reverberations.”

The only thing not going for Munro is that she writes short stories and here I have to confess again my own bias. Reading this collection I was so sad that Munro hadn’t written a novel, a gigantic overwhelming epic tome with characters who existed beyond the 30 pages of a short story. I confess I was sad. Sad that everything ended, sometimes in the midst of things; sad that I had taken a journey that was consistently cut short and perhaps it is this that is at the core of my dislike for the short story as a genre.

Nonetheless, I persevered. I read this collection and there were many moments which reminded me of what literary brilliance actually is and should be. Munro is a wizard and now that I have seen her interviewed on YouTube this has only been confirmed. I shuddered through some of her stories, shuddered at the way she could tell them without sounding too attached to the tragedy and the drama and the overwhelming emotion. And, I marvelled (still do) at how too much happiness can amount to so little …

If you like the short story as a genre then Munro is a must. If you are like me and can’t bring yourself to love this genre then you should read Munro anyway, just to bask in her glow.

New York Times Review

The Time Literary Supplement Review

The Globe and The Mail Review (Anne Enright)