“You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a co “I did all I could and it still wasn’t enough.”
“You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.”
Meet Oscar de León. Once upon a time, in elementary school, Oscar was a slick Dominican kid who seemed to have a typical life ahead of him. Then, around the time he hit puberty, Oscar gained a whole lot of weight, became awkward both physically and socially, and got deeply interested in things that made him an outcast among his peers (sci-fi novels, comics, Dungeons & Dragons, writing novels, etc.). A particularly unfortunate Dr. Who Halloween costume earns him the nickname Oscar Wao for the costume’s resemblance to another Oscar: playwright Oscar Wilde (Wao being a Dominican spin on the surname). His few friends are embarrassed by him, girls want nothing to do with him, and everywhere he goes Oscar finds nothing but derision and hostility. And he’s not the only person in his family suffering through life: his mother, a former beauty, has been ravaged by illness, bad love affairs, and worry regarding her two children; and his sister Lola, another intense beauty, has been cursed with a nomadic soul and her mother’s poor taste in men.
The kicker about the de León family? They just may be the victims of a bona fide curse (a particularly nasty one at that, called a fukú) as a result of their history with Rafael Trujillo, a former dictator of the Dominican Republic renowned for his brutality, and whose enemies uniformly met with disastrous ends one way or another (historical details about Trujillo and the history of his reign are scattered throughout the novel, a tidbit that may turn some off of the book, but rest assured that Díaz is so utterly entertaining a writer that they are a joy to read). The de Leóns are on a collision course with disaster, but can they break the curse before it’s too late?
“you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.”
Embroiled in all this mess is Yunior, our primary narrator and Oscar’s former college roommate (not to mention the philandering ex-boyfriend of Lola, the novel’s other narrator), whose experiences with the de León clan will haunt him for the rest of his life. His attempts to help Oscar become more popular fail, as do his tries to escape Oscar’s grasp. “These days,” he remarks at one point, “I have to ask myself: What made me angrier? That Oscar, the fat loser, quit, or that Oscar, the fat loser, defied me? And I wonder: What hurt him more? That I was never really his friend, or that I pretended to be?”
Oscar is far and away the most poignant character to come along in a great long while; in my book he’s every bit as memorable as Ignatius J. Reilly, Holden Caulfield, Randall Patrick McMurphy, and other literary giants. Furthermore, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a phenomenal novel that is hysterical, hypnotic, heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal parts (and quite often at the same time). The plot is a madcap high-wire act balanced with astonishing dexterity by Junot Díaz. If he has a misstep it is in the denouement, which is rather sudden and slightly lacking in clarity for an otherwise thorough novel. Nonetheless, I loved, loved, loved this book. And, naturally, I highly recommend it. Grade: A...more
"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever."
At the risk of overstating things, All the Light We Cannot See is far and aw"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever."
At the risk of overstating things, All the Light We Cannot See is far and away the most sumptuous, beautiful, and heartfelt book I've read in a great while. This is a book to get swept away in.
Werner Pfennig is a boy growing up in a foster home in a German mining village leading up to World War II with no options. Brilliant and full of yearning, he seems bound for a life in the mines where his father was killed. Until, that is, his unique skills with radios capture the attention of Nazi recruiters, who bring him into the Hitler Youth program to begin putting his skills to use.
Marie-Laure is a French girl who goes blind as a child. Her father works as a locksmith in a Parisian history museum and teaches her to be independent--using elaborate models of the city to teach her how to get around, and teaching her braille so she can get lost in worlds of fantasy like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When Nazis invade France, Marie-Laure's father is sent on a mission to protect a precious gem in the museum's collection--a gem that has a powerful curse on it, according to legend.
Naturally, the book is sending Werner and Marie-Laure on a collision course. Most authors would try to pretend that this is a secret, but Anthony Doerr plays with the structure of his novel by opening with scenes of Marie-Laure and Werner trapped in a city on the coast of France as bombs are dropped, flashing back and forth between past and present to show both how they ended up in this situation and what happens when they arrive there. It really pays off, especially since he makes you care for his characters so deeply that you can't help but feel suspense regarding where they'll end up by the time you get to the last page. There's suspense--and not because Doerr is employing narrative tricks, but because you genuinely care about what happens.
With Werner, Doerr gets at a subtle, unique frame of mind about war. Nazis are usually used as stock villains in books and movies, and while they are villains here, we feel for Werner because he is trapped. As a poor boy, he doesn't have any options. He has no control over his own position in life. War wasn't something he chose, it was something thrust upon him. He had dreams bigger than the mines, and war was his only option to even attempt to go after them.
Marie-Laure's subplot adds a dash of magic, but without laying it on thick. The Sea of Flames, the cursed gem that falls into her possession, is the most literal example of this. But even here, Doerr is really just playing with the possibility of magic more than implying that it exists--and that is where All the Light We Cannot See really catches fire. There is an allure to magic and fantasy. You might even throw hope in the same category as magic and fantasy during times as dire as the one in which Werner and Marie-Laure live. In those situations, hope is an audacious but essential thing.
I read this book very slowly because in a weird way I wanted to spend more time with Doerr's characters. That is probably the greatest compliment I can offer.