Sunday, May 31, 2015

PBW's Book of the Month

In May I tried to read every day, primarily to practice focusing the new eyes but also to get back to a more normal-for-me reading routine. I also tried some new-to-me authors and finally tackled a novel that I've been dithering about reading for about a year. Turns out my favorite read from the whole pile is the book I dithered over, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, which was also the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008.

I should note that prior to this month I've read exactly three Pulitzer-prize winning pieces of fiction:

#1: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1953 winner) which an English teacher assigned in school. Honestly, I skimmed it and thought it was boring, but I was thirteen and at the time interested only in sonnets and YA science fiction novels.

#2: Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1940 winner) which an English teacher assigned in school two years after Hemingway (seeing a pattern here?) which still ranks #2 on my top ten list of reading experiences that emotionally scarred me for life. That particular novel was actually so upsetting to me I silently vowed never again to read Steinbeck, even when it got me an F the next year for flatly refusing to read a single word of East of Eden -- and to this day I have kept that vow.

#3: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1961 winner) which I read voluntarily much later on in life when I didn't expect everything to be Shakespeare, feature space ships, or offer decent endings. Okay, I had to read it to help my kid do her homework because her English teacher had assigned it.

Now you understand my dithering, yes? I didn't want to be Grapes of Wrathed again. Had quite enough of that in school, thank you very much. Fortunately Oscar's author is not a Steinbecker. He probably would have felt right at home growing up poor with me and mine in the Cuban-Haitian-Jamaican melting pot of South Florida, however, which is the other reason I liked this book so much. It was a bit like going back home and hanging out with the chicas.

While I wax nostalgic that wasn't an easy life, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is likewise not an easy book to read. It's fun and funny in a sad, sort of desperate way, the way too many people who come to this country have to live. In this story, the characters are from the Dominican Republic, and it's full of their lives both there and here, in a crazy almagum of Spanglish and superstition and some truly horrific stories about the country and the atrocities they left behind. Lots of footnotes, lots of family drama. As a genre lover and the first goth in my high school, I certainly identified with the title character, Oscar. For most of the book he was like a mirror in which I watched a clumsy, hostile teenage me burying herself again in A.M. Lightner and Shakespeare and Star Trek.

The writing is simply amazing. Very real and funny and poignant and like having a conversation with the characters. I think Faulkner himself would be impressed by the effortless stream of the narration, and how it conveyed the story. I also think this story is important because it chronicles with an unromantic eye the lives and experiences of people who don't often get books written about them. So those are the dazzling points.

On the flip side, the story had two things that bugged me: zero quotation marks and innumerable footnotes. I like quotation marks; they're a visual aide that helps me hear the story in my head, and while excluding them may be more hip the text becomes textbookish to read. Also, while I don't mind a few footnotes, too many of them aggravate me because a) footnote type fonts are so damn small I can hardly read them and b) very long footnotes wholly interrupt the read and c) nearly all of the footnotes in this book are very long, and d) why footnote fiction with fictional footnotes? I don't get it.*

Sidebar practical suggestion: if you ever see a footnote crop up in your own fiction story? Stomp on its pointy little head until it turns to dust and work what you're trying to footnote into the story so I don't squint and mutter bad words when I read it.

I didn't mind how depressing the book was, probably because I knew going in it was a prize winner and that's almost a guarantee it's going to be a downer. Also, the footnotes kept my temper at a medium-high simmer, which is too hot for depression to set in. But despite all this, as the story progressed I actually forgot about the footnotes and became very invested in the title character. I wanted Oscar to prevail in his quest. I knew from the beginning what his fate would be (see title) but by the second half of the story I began silently cheering him on and hoping I was being lied to and that it would all work out in the end. I'm not going to spoil the ending, but it was true to the title and perfect. Genius. Absolutely deserved a Pulitzer, just for the ending.

I doubt I'm going to break my Steinbeck vow, and maybe this was just a fluke, but after reading Oscar I think I may try reading another Pulitzer Prize winner. I'll also be investing in every this author writes, because it's never a chore to read an amazing novel -- even if the next one has a million footnotes and no quotation marks, too.

*Probably because I've never taken a single writing class.


  1. I agree with you on several points. I generally avoid anything 'award winning' simply because it was probably voted in because it is so convoluted those who awarded it feel like intellectuals. Secondly, footnotes in fiction? Really? And while I try to stay away from 'classics', I have East of Eden on my bedside table along with his journal Steinbeck keep while writing it. I want to see his writing process. Then I'll put it down and go back to reading and writing my paranormal and fantasies.

  2. The only Steinbeck I've ever read was Of Mice and Men. Not a happy book. But it did help me understand a couple things from Bugs Bunny. "I will pet him and stroke him and call him George." Yeah, I tend to shy away from anything that's won an award. It's almost guaranteed to have a horrible sense of life in the pages. Give me heroes I can believe in, who win in the end - no matter how rough the road, and give me a happy ending (at least happy for now).


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