Oh my paperback fools, it’s been far too long since I graced you with an update of my reading life. I apologize! Alas, it’s been an obsessive week of reading, with two fabulous books consuming my every waking minute (and then some). In fact, my computer is acting a little slow so I’m still reading during the minutes it takes to catch up with itself.
Let me begin by saying how truly wondrous Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao really is. Words really can’t describe how I felt about this book–it was that good. I knew it had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. That’s why I bought it. I knew it was supposed to be good. That’s why I chose it rather than the other books on the B&N display table. Little did I know how good it was going to be.
Now, let me start by saying I know nothing about the Dominican Republic. I can’t tan in my lovely suburban backyard, and so I can’t even pretend to know what it’s like living in the ghettos of New Jersey as a dark-skinned minority. Besides the “ghetto nerd” blurb on the back cover of the book (which made me smile), I didn’t expect to relate to much in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Now, I expected the writing to be superb and the story brilliant. Those expectations were filled. Diaz’s voice shifts throughout the novel, jumping from the story of the supremely nerdy Oscar, to his sister, his mother, even the grandparents killed by Dominican dictator Trujillo in the 1940’s–the original sin that cursed the de Leon family for generations. Each family member must confront their handicaps in order to assert something of themselves–claim whatever shreds of love, acceptance, independence and success they can before it’s inevitably wrenched from their grasp.
It’s a powerful story, and a hilarious one at that. Oscar’s love of science-fiction, unbelievably nerdy role-playing games and Lord of the Rings trivia (the sign outside his college dorm room says “Speak, friend, and enter”…in Elvish) is worth more than few laughs (self-conscious ones, on my part). Plus, you never can tell who the narrator is but the random footnotes are priceless and an interesting way to construct narrative. But what really surprised me was how intimately I became involved in the story. There were some truly heart-wrenching parts, and I felt my entire self consumed by this story. I found myself dwelling on it, remembering random passages, at odd moments during the day. I couldn’t shake it. But what I loved the most was the writing and Diaz’s language. It’s crude–there’s a lot of cursing. How else do you think they talk in the ghetto? But then, there would be one sentence that I would stumble over. Not because it didn’t make sense or was poorly written. And not because I was having trouble keeping up with the diction and narrative rhythm. I’ve read a lot of difficult texts in my day, and I pride myself on being able to fall into narrative patterns quite easily. But Diaz tripped me up. These sentences would be so brilliantly constructed, and so insightful–penetrating to the very depths of what it means to be human–and I would scramble to re-read them, unable to believe what I had just read. They surprised you like that. I would then read these sentences again and again, savoring them slowly and enjoying their genius. For someone who doesn’t do that enough, it was amazing.
Upon finishing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I was ready to keep on reading. Unlike the Lord of the Rings–books I couldn’t let go–Oscar Wao ended just where it should, leaving me satisfied and ready to move on. So I began Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a book I’ve had lying around from my trip to New York. It was a thick hardback, and from the description seemed like enjoyable high-brow chick lit with a college setting. And so far, that’s what it is.
Admission follows the life of Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan, who’s neat little life is quickly becoming unraveled. She has to face her past, confront who she really is, decide if her life at 38 is really where she wants to be….yada yada yada. It’s all pretty contrived and easily predictable, but I don’t mind. Actually, I’ve become scarily addicted to this book. It took a few chapters–there was a lot of nonsense at first about Portia visiting two very different schools and giving presentations on Princeton. You know, plot stuff. Then, she and an old friend from Dartmouth get it on in the hotel, brought together by some unexplainable but very irresistable desire. Oh yeah.
The rest of the plot unfolds in bits and pieces–Korelitz likes to reveal things very slowly–such as Portia is actually in a sixteen-year relationship with an Englishman, but they’re not married (you won’t learn why for another 200 pages). Portia conveniently forgets about the tryst in the hotel until the Englishman reveals he has cheated on her, another woman will be having his child, and he’s leaving Portia for this other woman. Dun dun DUN! There are plenty other emotion-heavy revelations like these scattered pretty evenly throughout the story, and they’re all equally as satisfying. My favorite character is the Dartmouth lover, John–a man who doesn’t and will never exist. However, Korelitz has happily created John for women like me, women who like reading about: compassionately good guys, English teachers, men who adopt Ugandan children by themselves at 25, and (of course) men who are hot in bed. Don’t forget, John’s also been secretly pining for Portia since their days at Dartmouth, biding his time teaching, raising his adopted son and passing in an out of non-serious relationships until the very day Portia walks back into his life. BAM, it’s literary magic.
Now, as you can see, I’m focusing solely on the book’s romantic element, because I think that’s where it’s strongest. All the information on the college admissions process (the author was a part-time reader of Princeton applications) is interesting, especially if you’re applying to college yourself. I’m not, so most of the time it seemed like overkill. The soul-searching, life-changing bit…well, you can read it here and it’s just as believeable as it is anywhere else. I’m personally plowing through these lengthy monologues for the next scene with John, the wonder-man. Other than that, the prose is a bit dense at times: it can be repetitive and annoying, and sometimes you wonder if people actually think things through that extensively. Korelitz attempts some “real” teenage dialogue at one point, which is full of way too many “likes” for my taste (hey, I was only a teenager a short 3 years ago). But you know what, dense prose or unbelievable men aside, I’ve been reading this book obsessively since I started it two days ago. I couldn’t fall asleep for four hours last night thinking of it. That, my friends, is a good book.