Category Archives: First Novels

Wow!: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Audio)

Audiobook Review — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008. (Yes, I am behind in my reading.) I finally came around to it after listening to Jonathan Davis narrate the audio version of Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (a cyberpunk novel with a variety of accents, male and female voices, foreign phrases, cultural references, hacker jargon, and made-up words, a fast-paced plot set in a near-future America where corporations ride roughshod over government and individuals) so incredibly well that I had to hear more by Jonathan Davis. His reading of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao with Staci Snell is another tour de force of audiobook narration; he deals out Dominican-style epithets, geek references, and the dolorous histories of Oscar Wao, his family, and the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo as if he’d been talking like this all his life.
In case, like me, you were too lazy or disinclined to pick up the book when it came out (maybe because you heard it has so many unexplained references to esoteric topics from comic books to Dominican legends that it requires annotations and so many untranslated Spanish expressions that you would need a glossary) the audio edition will make all the diferencia. (Confía en mí.) If you have even a miniscule smattering of Spanish and geekery, this novel will be more enjoyable, but the audio narrators add so much attitude to the dialogue that you can gather enough meaning from the context and delivery to get by.
There are some footnoted explanations on Dominican history and legends, but why is so much left unexplained? The author explains in this Slate interview that, with this book about an outsider in the Dominican diaspora (which is already outside mainstream American culture), he wanted readers to resort to using a dictionary or to ask someone the meaning of an idiom, just as non-native English speakers often have to do. (Subtext here from the author?: If you want to read it and you don’t know Dominican slang or any Spanish at all, fine, please do, but don’t expect everything to be handed to you on a f***ing platter. )
Though Oscar de León eventually adopts it, “Oscar Wao” is a mean nickname derived from “Oscar Wilde”, given to make fun of Oscar’s ineradicable nerdness, his writing, and his dream of becoming “the Dominican Tolkien.” Unwilling or incapable of putting up social facades or pretending to be different, Oscar is an overweight geeky boy bullied by his Dominican peer group, tolerated by his few friends, disdained as a romantic prospect by girls, and prodded ineffectually by his mother and sister to lose weight, go outside, get exercise, stop reading so much fantasy and science fiction, etc. — who grows up to be an overweight, geeky adult, disowned by Dominicans and unwanted by almost everyone else.
Readers are told at the start that Oscar’s extended family is under a curse, a “fukú”. Here’s the book’s first line:

They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú–generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.

Although there’s a lot of humor in this book, it’s gallows humor. Oscar’s is a sad, violent story; the stories from his mother, aunts, and grandparents’ lives in the Dominican Republic are bloodsoaked and tragic. Lola, Oscar’s sister, who loves him her whole life, also struggles to escape the weight of the family’s curse. The flawed characters in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao may represent the tragic political mistake of the American government (and the American people?) for backing Trujillo’s reign of terror, but they’re also fully developed characters who will linger in your mind long after the audiobook is over.

Listen to an excerpt from the Penguin audiobook edition.
This book may be available to borrow/download through your local library’s Overdrive service.

Other opinions on the audio edition of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (all good):
Audiofile
1330v: Thoughts of an Eclectic Reader

One Sentence Review

Bittersweet Love: Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner

Like a magic trick, Vaclav & Lena, a first novel by Brooklyn author Haley Tanner, is quietly dramatic and deceptively simple — satisfying the human craving for the mysterious and the straightforward at the same time. A best-book-of-the-year review from Hey Lady! got me to read this book despite its bland title and even blander cover, and I’m glad I did. Books about magicians are big right now, but this novel is determinedly down-to-earth, non-fantastical, a realist’s romance, a love story with the illusion of disillusion. There’s a touch of fable in the author’s writing style, but the only magic is Houdini-esque, not Potter-esque.
As young children, Vaclav, a child of Russian-immigrant parents and Lena, who entered school speaking no English, become friends by default. Vaclav is shy and a bit strange, with his magic tricks and obsession with Harry Houdini; little Lena is quiet, still more comfortable speaking Russian over English. Vaclav’s workhorse of a mother, Rasia, who singlehandedly wrested her husband and son out of Russia for a better life, sees that, in America, Vaclav is going to need a friend and that parent-less Lena needs rescue.
For Lena, it’s a relief and an escape for Lena to visit Vaclav’s family after school every day. For Vaclav, it’s settled: when they grow up, Vaclav will be a famous magician and Lena will be his beautiful assistant. Knowing she is necessary to the act, Lena occasionally resents her secondary status, but Vaclav’s better command of English gives him power over the list-making and plans. For Rasia, it’s a worry every time she has to bring Lena home where she is neglected by an aunt.
This is how it is until adolescence when everything changes; the children are separated. The story skips over a gap of years and resumes when Vaclav and Lena are seventeen years old, moving along faster after the halfway point. Everyone’s English skills have improved, but the ability to communicate feelings to one another hasn’t much. Painful secrets are too hard to discuss, whether in Russian or in English.
The novel touches frequently on assimilation (which Rasia wants for Vaclav), and the author has said in interviews that the experience of immigration is part of being American already, but Vaclav & Lena isn’t intended to be a detailed portrayal of the Russian immigrant experience in Brooklyn. (For novels about the immigrant experience, go with Jhumpa Lahiri or one of the many other novelists listed on this list from Cornell University, for example.) Love — romantic and maternal — is the central theme in this story. Some reviewers have complained that the Russian-American characters are either too stereotyped or too atypical. Others have pointed out that Vaclav is a Czech name and that Vaclav’s mother’s name should be “Raisa” not “Rasia”, but these are minor flaws that can be forgiven in a first novel.
Vaclav & Lena is recommended for readers looking for a contemporary love story or family story, not a novel about the Russian-American immigrant experience. It is sweet — in many ways unbelievable — but it is a touching story that sheer grit (especially in the characters of Rasia and Lena’s aunt) keeps from veering into sentimentality.

Read The New York Times review of Vaclav & Lena.

Other opinions about Vaclav & Lena:
Hey Lady!
The Indextrious Reader
That’s What She Read