Friday, September 24, 2010

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz ***

I like to read books that have won awards, I always want to see if I agree with the illustrious personages who determine which books are winners and which aren't. I don't know who decides the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but I agree with them about 50% of the time.

In this instance, I think the writer is great and the story riveting. But my beef is that I don't speak Spanish. I know it is an extremely common language in the US, but I have to say that when about 20% of the book is in a language other than English, I'm gonna get lost. And I'm also going to feel left out and irritated. I like to know what's going on, and that ain't easy when you don't habla. There's an arrogance about it too, at least in my opinion. Like if I was a decent intellectual I'd know what these words are, therefore I must be an ignorant slob. I guess I kinda like being an ignorant slob. I like things spelled out for me, I'm silly that way.

I have another beef too, in that I can't quite figure out what was wondrous about Oscar's life. I kept waiting for the epiphany, but if it happened it was probably in Spanish. Oscar is an overweight nerd of Dominican lineage, born in the US. He doesn't fit in anywhere, disappoints his family and himself, and can't seem to get a girlfriend no matter what he does. He's the consummate outcast, trying constantly to fit into society while reading and writing science fiction and collecting roll playing game miniatures. We learn about his family and the dark curse over them all, and most enlightening we learn about Dominican Republic history too. I knew absolutely nothing about the state of affairs in that country, so I was very interested in learning more.

As I said, what I could understand of the story was great. It was witty, funny, tragic, heartbreaking, a very good read. But I just don't like not knowing the whole picture, and not knowing Spanish was a huge deficit when reading this book.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

East of Eden by John Steinbeck ****

I thought I'd turn to a classic for my next book. I've read some of Steinbeck's works, my favorites being Cannery Row & Of Mice and Men. I'd seen the movie of East of Eden with James Dean about 15 years ago and I couldn't remember any of it except that JD played an angst-ridden teen, angry at the world. So it was really all new to me.

This was a retelling of the Cain and Able story, set in the Salinas Valley of California at the turn of the last century. There were many themes explored by Steinbeck, but I think my favorite is whether humans have the ability to choose their own destiny. Even though you have tendencies given to you by your parents, can you be yourself and choose your own path?

Cal and Aron are twin brothers who both want their father's love and approval. But only sweet-natured Aron seems to get it. Cal is smart, crafty, and loyal. Yet somehow the things he does to gain his father's attention only seem to offend his dad, while Aron can do no wrong.

The story is more than this, though. It also deals with the boys' mother, a woman who has something missing from inside her. She doesn't seem capable of love and only uses those around her to get what she wants. After giving birth to the twins she leaves her husband and enters the oldest profession in a nearby town. The boys are told their mother is dead, and without the loving ministrations of their father's hired housekeeper, a Chinese-American man named Lee, they surely wouldn't have made it to adulthood.

Lee is a philosopher by nature and it is through his musings that Steinbeck explores his ideas on the meaning of life and man's ability to control his own destiny. I was very disappointed to see that his character was totally lost from the movie version that I'd seen. I knew I didn't remember a Chinese cook in the movie, but just hoped I'd forgotten. It seems a real shame that that opportunity was missed, but then again the movie was made in 1955, just two years after the end of the Korean War. At that point in American history, China was not seen as a "friendly" and unfortunately that fear was transferred to the big screen.

I've noticed that Steinbeck doesn't write very nicely about women in general and this book was no exception, with Cathy/Kate being an icy whore. But he tries to redeem that by creating Abra, the love interest of both Cal and Aron. She is everything Cathy is not and is a mother-figure to Aron, while something more to Cal.

Overall, the book was good though long. I like Of Mice and Men more, but I can't bring myself to read that book anymore since having a son with a developmental disability. Dog and I went to see it performed as a play about 3 years ago and we both left in tears after the first act. It's a very good story, but it hits too close to home for me anymore. If you have never read Steinbeck I recommend it as his best work in my opinion.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer ***

I've been lax. Very lax. It's not that I haven't been reading, heavens no! It's that I haven't been blogging. Now why that is is a multi-faceted, complex, & difficult to describe reason. But I'll take a whack at putting that reason into words: I've been busy. And that will just have to do as far as excuses go.

Now, on to the book. I had seen this movie a couple years ago only because it had Eugene Hutz in it, & I love Gogol Bordello. Not only did Eugene give a great performance, but so did Elijah Wood & Boris Leskin. I highly recommend the movie.

The book was another story (no pun intended). It started out in a hilarious manner as a letter written by Alex, a young Ukrainian man, to Jonathan Safran Foer. You see, JSF is a character in his own book. And while I warmed up to his character in the movie, I grew to dislike JSF in the book. I think this is to be expected since we see Alex improve his English but also grow & change during the course of telling the story of why JSF came to the Ukraine. As Alex learns, he learns to dislike JSF also.

Why is JSF there? To find the woman, Augustine, who saved his grandfather from a Nazi death squad. All he has is an old picture to go by, & the name of the town he's looking for. But how can you find a Jewish town 50 years after the Holocaust?

The book has a lot of very confusing story lines that I just frankly didn't understand. I don't know why the story of Brod was part of this book, it didn't seem to advance the plot at all. And I've got to say I've never been a big fan of stream of consciousness, so when I ran into a few pages of it I had to just put on a determined grin & slog through it.

Overall this is one of those rare books that was, in my opinion, much better as a movie. It made more sense & it had a much bigger impact. I suggest renting the movie & enjoying Eugene & the fellas do a fine job of making pain, beauty, & collecting things illuminated.