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.

ABCs of 1001 Books: The Age of Innocence

A – I listened to an audiobook version performed by Susie Berneis, and I would highly recommend it. Berneis speaks with the compelling vivacity of an elderly aunt sharing all the best gossip about people you don’t know. Her cadence helped me catch more of the sarcasm and other nuances in Wharton’s style than I think I would have reading it on the page.

B – My dog, Buddy, was my companion as I listened to the audiobook on our late evening and/or morning walks.

C – Newland Archer is the main character of the book. He is engaged to the perfectly proper May Welland, but becomes interested in her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who is in New York fleeing from an unhappy marriage.

DDaniel Day-Lewis may earn you double points as an answer in Scattegories, play a fascinating villain in the movie The Gangs of New York, and be one sexy Mohican, but he was not a good fit for the role of Newland Archer in the movie version. He’s too visibly restrained, serious, and self-possessed to portray the anxious, confused, passionate Archer blundering his way through a forbidden romance.

E – This novel made it onto Entertainment Weekly’s list of the 100 Greatest All-Time Novels back in 2013. I added 40-odd titles from that list to my to-read notebook. I only managed to cross off 4 of them before being gift-challenged with 1001 Books in 2016. So I’m doing the proverbial killing of two birds with one stone here.

F – Many of the characters’ personalities are revealed through how they manage the food at dinner parties. I love it!

G – May and Ellen’s grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott is my favorite character. I don’t know if Wharton even intended her to be sympathetic, as she somewhat represents the hypocritical etiquette and repressiveness of the age, but I love the way she commands respect and makes the family come to her.

H – Another of Wharton’s novels, House of Mirth is a major reason I chose to read this one. I read it in a book club years ago. Honestly I don’t remember any plot details, but I remember enjoying Wharton’s style.

I – What age holds the innocence of the title? Is it the time period age? Or the age of the protagonist at the time of the story’s main plot? Maybe both. I’m glad I read the description in 1001 Books before reading the novel. The editors note that Wharton won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for this work set in the 1870s. Only an author looking back 50 odd years could consider an age “innocent,” with or without irony.

J – Sillerton Jackson is a fun name. Sillerton Jackson. Sillerton Jackson. Like a snake. I pictured him played by Ian McKellen.

K – No one is killed in the course of the novel.

L – Archer and his rich class of friends have a great deal of leisure time. He only pretends to practice law, so it’s amusing when his dabbling accidentally gets him entangled with the Countess Olenska, and later when he fails to use his pretend job when he actually wants to tangle with her.

M – I watched the 1993 movie version a year or so ago, and I would not recommend it. It’s one of those movies that you realize fairly early on must have been based on a book because it’s all about what the characters are not saying and not doing. The type of plot that works better as a book when you can read about the character’s thoughts, pasts, and motivations.

NNewland is a fun first name.

O Olenska is an official sounding name, like she should own a company. Olenska Incorporated. Olenska Fabrics.

P – Michelle Pfeiffer, like Daniel Day-Lewis, was not a good choice for her part in the movie version, Countess Ellen Olenska. Pfeiffer does her best acting with her voice because her eyes are unexpressive and her face too severe. But the movie script doesn’t let her talk much.

Q – When I Googled “discussion questions” for the novel, I found an interesting resource: Spoiler Alert! The questions are meant for after reading.

R – The editors of 1001 Books call the novel’s main plot “a romance doomed by duty.” I’d call it an interior, thwarted romance.

SSparknotes are available for this novel. I referenced them to spell characters’ names.

T – In a later chapter, Wharton uses the phrase “tyrannical trivialities” to describe small items in a room. It caught in my mind because it also seems evocative of the social customs and rituals that are keeping Archer and Olenska from being with one another.

U – I’m feeling too unimaginative to come up with a relevant U word.

V – There’s usually a family with “van” or “van der” in their name in novels about rich people. Wharton doesn’t disappoint with the noble couple Henry and Luisa van der Luyden.

W – I guess a novel set in the late 1800s written by a woman in the early 1900s doesn’t have to be “about” women’s issues, but in a way it can’t help but be. Wharton does a good job of noting the social inequalities between men and women through the male main character’s without being preachy. For example, Archer thinks about the fact that he can conduct his life, especially his romantic life, in ways a woman is not free to do.

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – New York is only important as the setting of this novel because the main conflict is fueled by the social customs of the rich in that city in the 1870s. Wharton doesn’t spend much time describing the physical setting of the city as such, though she does give enlightening descriptions of the insides of the characters’ homes.

Z – I enjoyed reading this period piece in which nothing much happens except in the mind as a break from my usual fare of murder mysteries, zombie stories, and urban fantasies.

ABCs of 1001 Books Challenge

For Christmas in 2016, a good friend gave me a book called 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (edited by Peter Boxall, published by Universe, revised and updated 2010 edition). I read an average of 60 books a year – for fun, work, and school – so I did some quick math and told her, “You just gave me a 20 year challenge!”

Challenge accepted. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a gross underestimation and it actually takes me closer to 30 or 40 years!

Thanks to my high school AP English course, an undergraduate major in Language Arts, and seven years of teaching middle and high school English, I had read 79 of the books on the list before receiving this gift-challenge. One of the indexes lists the titles in alphabetical order. So I gave myself an easy challenge in 2017 – read one book from each of the letters for which I had zero books read. I read books for letters K, Q, U, V, Y, and Z.

In 2018, I am challenging myself to read 26 books on the list – one for each letter of the alphabet. That means 2 books a month with the 2 extras thrown into the summer break (or perhaps hastily crammed in at the end of December, depending on how the year goes).

To have even more fun with the challenge, I’m making this blog. For each book, I’ll blog my thoughts in at least 26 sentences, each with a key word in alphabetical order. Thus, I’ll have my ABCs for each book. Although I may not be able to restrain myself from critical commentary due to my English teacher background, these ABCs won’t be strictly reviews. I’ll also write about my experiences while reading and tangential thoughts ignited by words or phrases in the text.

I get some of my inspiration for this from The Shelf from LEQ to LES by Phyllis Rose. Rose chose a shelf at a lending library she frequents and read every book, then wrote and collected essays about her reading experience, which often included research about the book’s author and critical reception. This blog won’t be as scholarly as that book, but I wanted to give a shout out anyway.

I’ll aim to post every 2nd and 4th Friday.

First book up: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

Blog reader questions: What reading challenge did you accomplish in 2017? What reading challenge are you giving yourself for 2018?