Spitzit’s House

Where serious topics come to relax

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao – Book Review

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Did you ever go see a movie that after reading all the rave reviews and hearing all the hype…and then walked out of the movie feeling really let down and thinking ‘this was not nearly as great’ as you were expecting or wanting it to be?   Well, that is what this book pretty much did for me…A really big let down.

The 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, that also managed to rake in a plethora of other literary awards and too many other accolades to even count, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao chronicles…well, I can’t really say what the hell it chronicles, but I can tell you its not Oscar.   I guess you could say it chronicles the various family members of the de Leon family…and how the dark cloud of the “fuku” curse has followed and affected each of them ever since  Grandpa de Leon managed to piss off the evil Dominican Dictator Trujillo back in the 40’s.

Call me picky, but I generally enjoy a book that is compelling, intelligent, and that flows fast but smooth and keeps me turning each page with anticipation.   That was not this book…in fact, I found it frustrating, irritating, and it didn’t flow well for me at all.   First, if you don’t speak Spanish, you are going to miss a lot of what is being said because much of the dialogue from the characters is in Spanish (with no translation) and it switches from English and back again without warning and with no apparent reason, and left me feeling alienated and wondering what the Fuku they are talking about.

Second, the book has many footnotes to explain certain parts of Dominican history, or comic book references and “what not”, as if these asides are somehow critical to the story.  Some of the footnotes are quite lengthy and quite frankly unimportant in my opinion.  I have never read a fiction book that had foot notes, and quite honestly, there is a time and place for foot notes such as college thesis papers, etc…not fiction, but then again Diaz is an MIT professor, so I guess that would explain that.

Third, about half the time I can’t tell who is narrating the book, who is speaking, when they are speaking, or if they are speaking at all.    Call me an idiot, but good use of punctuation, quotation marks, etc. helps stupid people like me know when people are speaking in a book.   And another thing, the book is riddled with F bombs and N words used in the same sentence as big fat obscure intellectual words that normal people just don’t use.  The profanity does not bother me and neither do big “smart” words, but in this book it does not read naturally and feels forced, as if intentional and calculated to prove “street cred” and “superior intelligence” at the same time.  It just comes off pretentious to me.

If you are planning on reading this book and are of average to slightly above-average intelligence and do not speak Spanish, then you will need a dictionary, and translator as well (a computer opened to Google translator and dictionary.com will work as well).   You need to expect the book to flow something like this…

  • Read for a minute or two, then stop to translate a Spanish sentence
  • Read for a minute or two,then stop to look up an obscure word in the dictionary
  • Read for a minute or two, then stop to read a foot note
  • Repeat bullets one through three over and over again

On a positive note, there is a good story buried in this mess and I managed to translate some decent cultural imagery from it.  I know more about the Dominican Republic than I ever thought I would need to know, and I found Oscar to be a fascinating character.  In fact they are all pretty good characters and I found Lola’s and Beli’s stories to be the most interesting.  Oscar, though is the real and unexpected hero, and in my opinion he is the one who faces his destiny and falls on the Fuku sword like a true but tragic comic book hero.  He literally takes the Fuku “bullet” in the name of love and to restore all that should be right in the world…

“One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them. One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

This was not the worst book I ever read, just the most frustrating book I ever read.   After reading so many rave reviews, I can’t help but feel like the only guy that didn’t think this book was the greatest book of the year.  I definitely don’t think it was Pulitzer material, and am truly glad that I purchased it at Half Price Books.   I set my expectations too high and I was let down.  No big deal and no regrets.  I’m glad I read the book, and I will watch the movie, if they decide to make one (which will hopefully have subtitles), but I won’t be recommending this one, or placing it on my list of fave books.   I do congratulate Junot Diaz regardless of my own opinion.  Dude, you evidently did something right, because you really got the literary world drinking the Dominican Diaz Kool-Aid.

That’s my Opinion…and I am sticking with it all the way to the cane fields.

April 19, 2009 Posted by | Book Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review – The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy was published in 2006, and won the much coveted Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007. This is a difficult review to write because this is one serious and profound book, and yet I am compelled to find something shallow and humorous to say in what is a completely humorless book.

I was recently browsing the list of Pulitzer prize books to find something that would stimulate my inner literary genius, when I cam across The Road. ‘Man and son traveling cross country in a Post-apocalyptic world’. Sounded fascinating and exciting and so we set out to 1/2 Price Books to immediately get started on what was sure to be an adventurous story. Afterall, Cormac also authored No Country For Old Men, All The Pretty Horses, and Blood Meridian which all became or are becoming motion pictures, as well as a slew of other popular books that I have never read.

Before I even cracked the book open, images of Kevin Costner in Waterworld and The Postman were already swirling in my head. These were awful movies, of course,but entertaining just the same and I was certain that The Road would be the God Father of all Apocalyptic stories. I was salivating to start reading and as soon as I read the very first page …’Oh My God’ I thought to myself. I quickly thumbed through the rest of the book…’NO, OH NO NO NO NO!’ There were no chapters, there were no quote marks…just page after page of what appeared to be small lyrical paragraphs that were going to be just like the first page. I panicked, and asked my wife to listen as I read the first page aloud to her. “Did any of that make sense to you?” I asked her. Of course it didn’t, and my worst fear was becoming evident. I was about to embark on a journey of some 270 plus pages of nonsensical poetry. UGH!

I resisted the strong urge to put the book down, and pressed on determined to finish the book whether it made sense to me or not. I’m truly glad that I did, because I really enjoyed the book and managed to finish it in just a couple of days. For me, the book was very profound, yet very simple, and deeply moving. How is that, you ask? Well, it just was and it is hard to describe.

The two main characters are known simply as the Man and the Boy. There are no names, and the region itself is relatively anonymous other than it is in the US. Some kind of undescribed catastrophic event has taken place in the past ten years, and the world is now a desolate gray place, unable to sustain life of any kind. There are very few survivors left, and in the midst of all the nothingness, it is quite evident that Good and Evil have both managed to survive and Evil seems to be running up the score.

There is no sun, no moon, and no stars due to the ever present ash obscuring the sky. The days are gray, and the nights are black…pitch black. There are no animals, no birds, no bees, no bugs, not even any roaches. The trees are all dead, the rivers are black, and the rain, snow and ocean are all gray. The world itself seems to be completely cold, silent, and dead. The man and his son are traveling the road south to find warmer climates, while trying to avoid the occasional marauding gangs of cannibal survivors. The boy was born into this world and has no preconceived notion of any other kind of world that existed. The mother…well, she is no longer around simply because she did not have the will to go on.

I’m cold

I know

I’m hungry

I know, I am too

I’m scared

It’ll be alright

OK

The verbal exchanges are brief and to the point. This novel is graphic and disturbing in some of its literary images, and silent and completely depressing in others. It paints a grand picture of complete hopelessness and how some manage to eke out survival despite it all. So here is where I break down what it meant to me, and is not to be interpreted as the true meaning of this book at all.

For me, this book is about life and even more about death. It is about good and even more about Evil. It is about hope, but more about hopelessness. It is basic primordial human nature and how we struggle against the fear of death and evil within ourselves. The Road for me signifies Time, and how it continues on with or without us; How we are trapped by it, with no real choice but to follow it with only the slim hope that around the next curve or over the next hill something better is going to be waiting for us. Sometimes there is and mostly there is not, and either way, it is always fleeting and temporary. The only thing that the Road guarantees is that you will die here and it will continue on. The man seemed to represent that basic humanity as he struggles to remain human in the face of hopelessness and the imminent end. The boy, well, for me he seemed to represent the future; A future with no knowledge of the past, and the tiny glimmer of hope that good could prevail while Evil would eventually devour itself. The world that McCarthy paints in this book is our world and there is nothing in it that does not already exist today. However, he has done a magnificent job of simply stripping out everything, and I mean everything, so that the reader has to focus on the cold hard reality. Imagine humanity as we know it stripped of all distractions…no color, no noise, no movement…no love. Pure nothingness. The only emotion is basically fear and the will to survive. Where each day is basically the same as the one before, and everything hinges on evading the inevitable embrace of death one day at a time.

If that all sounds real deep and depressing, that is because it freakin’ is. When I finished this book, I checked on my kids in their beds, kissed them, went to my kitchen and opened the pantry door and stared at all of the food and canned goods and thanked God for all of it. I don’t even like black-eyed peas, and yet I am still so glad I have a can in my cupboard. I resisted the urge to start opening cans and begin eating like it might be my last supper.

Granted, The Road is not at all what I expected it to be when I read that first page. In fact, it turned out to be something entirely different, but better. It is one of those rare books that you read, and when you are done, you truly take something away from it; something that affects you, makes you think…and it is something different for everybody I would imagine. It is no doubt a lit teacher’s wet-dream, chock full of all kinds of symbolism, irony, and other literary stuff, but I am not for one second going to try and tell anyone what old man McCarthy was trying to convey when he wrote this book.

I am very happy to see that Viggo Mortensen will play the man in the movie to release in November. Charlize Theron as the wife?? Don’t get that since there is barely half a page dedicated to the wife in the whole book, but I won’t argue about seeing Charlize in anything. Add Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce and you have a pretty star studded feature film based on a book that really has very little interaction or characters other than the man and the boy.

On a side note, one thing unique or irritating about the book is Mccarthy’s writing style. He has no use of quotation marks or other important grammatical points, and therefore it is sometimes difficult to tell who is speaking or if they are speaking at all. The book is indeed written in a lyrical prose kind of style and I have the distinct impression that he makes up words from time to time, or just uses really obscure words to make the prose sound more intelligent, poetic, or whatever. At any rate, many will undoubtedly consider his style genius, but to me, it sucks when obscure words are used that I don’t know or have never heard of. It makes me want to reach for a dictionary which then just distracts from the flow of the story. I personally find it pretentious and unnecessary, but what do I know? I am just your every day dummy who likes to read, and old Cormac is quite possibly the Hemingway of his generation.

Loved the book, and would recommend it to just about anyone, But you really have to be an open-minded reader with a taste for a bit of necessary gore and a hard dose of death and hopelessness.

This is really just my incredibly intelligent opinion, and I am sticking with it…until the end of the world and someone tries to eat me.

October 1, 2008 Posted by | Book Reviews | , , , , , , | 1 Comment