ABCs of 1001 Books: Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

A – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz is NOT appropriate for all ages. The narration can get very blunt and crass, like teenagers in a locker room, especially when describing female bodies and sexual relations. It’s not obscene or titillating, but I’d give it an R for language if it were a movie.

B – I understand why the author chose “brief” to describe Oscar’s life, but I don’t understand why he chose this title for the novel. The story belongs as much to other members of his family as to him, in terms of time spent telling their stories.

C – No matter how much you love sugar, this novel will make you very afraid to set foot in a canefield.

D – The novel tells the stories of a Dominican American family – Oscar, his older sister Lola, and their mother Beli.

E – I watched the first minute of 3 youtube videos before I heard someone pronounce Junot Díaz’s name because I wanted to know if the í was pronounced like a long “e” sound. It is. (His first name is pronounced as though it didn’t end with t.)

F – I listened to the audiobook version, so I had no idea until reading the Wikipedia article that this novel is notable for its extensive use of footnotes. I would’ve said Díaz gives a satisfying amount of historical background in just the right places to invigorate rather than detract from the main story.

G – Oscar’s great aunt, La Inca, is my favorite character, although she is relatively minor. She has a fierce faith, compassion, and practicality.

H – I’d put this novel in the genre of historical fiction through family history. I love all the details Díaz adds in to flavor the narrative. The history is as cunningly described and developed as his characters.

I – The audiobook’s illustration of a kid in a superhero mask reading a comic book is not a good fit for the novel. It seems to indicate Oscar will be a kid for the significant parts of the novel, when in actuality he is a young adult. Maybe because he’s always a kid at heart? Even so, I don’t like the illustration.

J – Oscar wants to be the next J.R.R. Tolkien. I appreciated all the references to Middle Earth and other fantasy and comic book elements.

K – An important person is killed in the course of the novel, and it won’t be a surprise who if you’ve read the title. Three other characters are killed. The deaths of historical figures and historical masses are also included.

L – Lin-Manuel Miranda is a fantastic reader! He was the perfect choice for Yunior’s narration. As Miranda read the opening paragraphs about fuku, I thought he was reading song lyrics quoted before the actual text of the novel, but quickly realized his speaking style made the narrative pleasingly lyrical.

M – Like footnotes, I didn’t realize this novel contains magical realism until I read the Wikipedia article. Oscar and his mom, Beli, have visions of a mongoose at crucial moments in their lives, but I didn’t think Díaz meant these visions to be taken as reality by the reader. The Wikipedia article does mention that not all critics believe it belongs in the magical realism genre. I agree with those dissenting critics.

N – Oscar grew up in New Jersey, as did its author. Regrettably, I know as little about New Jersey’s current culture and history as I do that of the Dominican Republic.

O – Karen Olivo reads the sections narrated by Lola instead of Yunior. While I don’t have as much praise for her as I do for Miranda, she does a respectable job. I like that the creator or producer chose a female reader for these parts.

P – Like Wharton’s Age of Innocence, Díaz’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Also, he and Wharton were Pulitzer Prize “firsts” – he the first Dominican American to win the prize, she the first woman.

Q – Two quotable quotes from the novel. “It’s never the changes we want that change everything.” ““Success, after all, loves a witness, but failure can’t exist without one.”

R – I can’t remember exactly why this novel made it onto the reading list I’ve been keeping in a notebook since 2003. (I only started putting in shorthand notes for where I got recommendations two years ago.) Judging by the titles around it, I think maybe a college friend suggested it. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I read it!

S – To get the í in Díaz’s name as I drafted this blog post in a Google doc, I went to the Insert menu, selected Special characters…, typed an i into the box, and chose the character labeled “latin small letter i with acute.” A cute what? I don’t know.

T – I feel guilty that I didn’t know who Rafael Trujillo was in history before reading this. He was a dictator in the Dominican Republic. Why didn’t I learn about him along with Hitler and Stalin? And on that note, why don’t American public school textbooks have more in them about the Dominican Republic, which is such a close neighbor to us? My guilt makes me want to read more nonfiction about the country.

U – Oscar suffers from misadventures in unreciprocated love. It’s hinted at but not explicitely stated that he ultimately doesn’t love himself and can’t be truly contented with who he is. As illustrated in this funny but sad interchange with Yunior:

“- [Oscar:] Nothing else has any efficacy, I might as well be myself.
– [Yunior:] But your yourself sucks!
– [Oscar:] It is, lamentably, all I have.”

V – I don’t usually like when audiobook readers try to “do voices.” However, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a performer, and he does voices right! I laughed out loud in places because of the way he read dialogue.

W- I consulted Wikipedia to write this post. Yay for collaborative online resources!

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – Until I read Wikipedia, I didn’t know the main narrator’s name, Yunior, began with a Y. I thought he was Junior pronounced a Dominican way.

Z – When I typed zafa into a Google search, it suggested “zafa oscar woa” as search terms. Yunior is plagued by ideas of fuku and zafa, severe curses and potential counterspells, found in Dominican folklore. I hadn’t heard of these concepts before, but they added an interesting layer to the storytelling.

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