The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

From the beginning, I was concerned about the hype surrounding Oscar Wao... to the point where I think I scaled back my expectations enough before reading it and ultimately, I was quite pleased with this novel. Don't get me wrong, it has flaws... but I enjoyed the experience of reading it and that makes up for a lot.

In general, the book is about the life of super geek Oscar Wao, who is overweight and obsessed with fantasy & sci-fi novels. He's always hopelessly in love with a girl, but has never been able to actually have a girlfriend. The novel is also about his family, who has possibly been cursed... this fukú has potentially been plaguing his family for generations... though the narrator also notes that it's possible this fukú is on most of the world since slavery and colonization and all that.

Above all, I think this novel really comes down to the narration. Talk about a voice! I quite enjoyed the narrator, even as I recognize some moments of disconnect, but for some reason, they didn't bother me as much as they bothered some other people. I mean, we get some small jumps in perspective, but from the beginning, we have a novel narrated by someone that we don't meet until a good while into the book -- Yunior (who was also a main character in another of Díaz's books, apparently). However, despite being a character, Yunior is also an omnipotent narrator, speaking with knowledge beyond what is possible for a character within the story to know. His narrative is filled with all the geek-infused knowledge of Oscar (even though Yunior is actually a jock and a ladies man), so there's a small question mark that pops up there. But for whatever reason, I just accepted it for the sake of enjoying the novel. Assume that it's part of understanding Oscar and without that knowledge (I was impressed when I could catch a few of the references myself), then the novel would slip into something more mainstream... and you wouldn't be able to appreciate how geeky the author must be in order to have all this knowledge.

Beyond the story that revolves around Oscar, you also have the focus on his family, which includes his sister, his mother, and his grandfather. I know very little about the Dominican Republic, but what I did know before reading this book all seemed to be focused on Trujillo... and so I didn't feel so amazingly confused, as a lot of this focuses on life during and after Trujillo in the DR. It's amazing how much influence this dictator has had on the art that now comes from those in the DR or with Dominican ancestry.

I heartily recommend this novel, even though I'm not entirely sure that the Pultizer was warranted... because for me, Pultizer seems to signify something so amazing... and usually something about the author, who should probably be a little bit more known, yes?

If you haven't read it, I suggest putting it on your short list. It's a very quick read and I don't think you'll regret it. Just try not to expect the world of it and accept it for being simply a good book.


The Watchmen

This is my review pre-discussion with intense Watchmen fans. I'm sure that as a result of that conversation, my eyes will be opened to a few things and I might appreciate a few more details, but I'm also fairly certain that my opinions won't change much. The story is interesting and unique but I think that my view of the book definitely suffered as a result of hype. Not movie hype (because I know that's out in theaters now), but comic book history hype. This is the end-all be-all of comic novels, it seems. The original. The godfather. It clearly forged a new path in terms of longer, more complex and deeper comics. Everyone who has read this seems to worship it. The cover even touts it as one of Time Magazine's 100 best novels. Perhaps I wasn't in the right place for it? Here's what I will say.

The story is this. You have two batches of incredibly screwed up human beings who, for whatever reasons, are compelled to dress up and save the world. We call them "superheroes" even though they actually have no super powers (except for one guy, Doctor Manhattan, who isn't really a human being anymore as a result of the nuclear accident that gave him his powers... and he's blue). You might pause here and wonder, "wait, shouldn't we go into that whole psychology thing a bit more? Why do they do this?" Well... that's not easy to answer. You kind of accept that what spurs someone to feel like they want to "save the world" and don spandex is a bit darker than you might have otherwise thought, but for each character, it's a little different. (Side note... one of the cooler ideas is this: in this world, we won Vietnam and Nixon is still president. Like woah. But even though we won Vietnam, we're teetering on the brink of WWIII.)

But back to the characters. There's a first and a second wave of super heroes, the first of which has essentially retired/died off and the second that is a little out to seed, but are still bigger players in the current scene of things (though both play an equal role in the story, as we spend a lot of time trying to figure out everything that has happened in the past). Why are the "younger" heroes out to seed? Well, a law was passed that made their actions illegal (which resulted from a police strike against the vigilantes), thus forcing them into retirement. The book makes no secret of the fact that these people have to be a little twisted to do what they do. And "a little" twisted is putting it mildly for most of them. (See above.)

On to the plot, which is pretty simple. For some reason, a few of our masked vigilantes have been killed and it's suspected that there's a connection -- a "mask-killer" at work. Our book deals with the question as to whether or not there's a plot to kill masks AND, beyond the masks, whether or not the world is going to devolve into WWIII. Ultimately, the whole comic is more interested in its own style and storytelling (see the comic book within a comic book that was an interesting parallel illustration of losing one's sanity/humanity/values in the pursuit of one's treasured ideals) than developing an intricate plot.

The most interesting character for me was The Comedian. It's his death that spurs the plot, so I guess he would have to be the most interesting, as we spend a lot of time trying to "figure him out" to some degree. He's twisted and mean and clearly full of himself, but each time he entered into the story, I was more interested in what was going on. (Of course, knowing that Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays him in the movie, even before looking at the book, I knew The Comedian would die... because Morgan is always the guy who dies.)

I didn't like Rorschach in the sense that he unsettled me, but I found him to be a somewhat intricate character that, weirdly, was the most focused on the goals of being a superhero. By being the most intolerant and anti-social person, he seemed to epitomize a superhero's mantra of never giving up and always fighting crime and injustice. Of course, he was also a freak who saw the world as a dark pit of despair. So really, Rorschach was the best character.

Nite Owl and Ozymandias were mildly intriguing -- both more so in their "retirement." Doctor Manhattan was engaging if only in his singularity. As the only one with super powers, he becomes less human with the passing of time (though he himself doesn't see time in a linear fashion). Clearly, though, the creative trio were fascinated by him, too, and spent a lot of time on this. His relationship with Laurie Juspeczyk provided for one of the most interesting scenes -- when Laurie wakes up to find two of her blue lovers in the room with her and then realizes that he's become multiple beings as a means of both paying attention to her and continuing to work, thus not actually paying attention to her.

The least interesting characters? Those would have to be the women, Laurie and her mom. It makes me wonder how any women are actually fans of this comic, but then, it might not bother them as much? I wanted to scream at how terrible these women were. Empty shells of creatures. They existed for nothing but sexual plot points (be it rape or consensual) and had little personality and purpose. I would say I'm thankful that they weren't as objectified as women sometimes are, but that such an idea would cross my mind is rather appalling. And I know, I know, that the comic creators were trying to work with existing ideas of women, but guess what? I don't care. They still could have done something so much more interesting with those existing ideas of comic book women and the fact that they didn't made me think they just shrugged them off in the story.

Perhaps what bothered me most was the sheer, unadulterated bleakness of everything, but that can't be a criticism, as it was part of the purpose of the comic, I'm sure (as was the intense nihilism that reduced anyone with a view of right and wrong to be the logical equivalent of a small child). You're being asked to read a comic book about super heroes where the world isn't worth saving. There was nothing bright or good here, really, and certainly nothing lasting. Laurie keeps making arguments for mankind (which are about as compelling as she is), but Rorschach's vision really triumphed. Even the muted colors and the lack of true connection between anyone... it was bleak and never compelled me to feel like I should be roused to support anyone or anything within the pages of the book. On top of that, the actual illustrations weren't as appealing to my eye, but that's personal preference. I wasn't a fan of the style, or the coloring palette, so I was pretty much doomed from the get-go.

I'm not saying I need this to be bright and cheerful and colorful. Clearly that wouldn't be the point of a piece like this, but I just didn't have anything to hang on to that would give meaning to all this.

So... I understand The Watchmen's importance in comic history, but that doesn't mean that I enjoyed the experience. I was intrigued by many of the ideas, but I suppose it's just not my cup of tea.

P.S. I got through the whole review without mentioning The Incredibles and how they totally Disney-fied the idea of super heroes sent into exile! Except for you know, right now. Dammit.


The White Tiger

Written as a series of letters from a "true Indian entrepreneur" to the Premier of China (all of which are written over the course of a week, mostly after midnight), The White Tiger tells the story of Balram Halwai's life from his childhood in "the Darkness" (rural India where electricity and education are scarce) to his eventual rise to be an Indian businessman with his own employees and blood on his hands. From the beginning, he lets the reader know that he is a murderer and that he killed his master, and so you're left to make what you will of his up-front confession as you discover what led up to such actions.

This novel deals with a lot of issues confronting India (and indeed, probably a good part of the world that sees itself divided into the haves and have-nots). At the forefront is the intense social class divide and the feelings of anger and entrapment that result. The idea of being caged and trapped in a caste or in a situation is crucial here. Balram is called out early in his life as a "White Tiger" by a school auditor when he displays all that he has learned from his studies. This idea, that he is a "creature born once every generation," fixes itself in his mind and is what he uses to press onward and upward. Balram also discusses the rooster coop -- his metaphor for life, full of the trapped souls who cannot envision a world outside of their cramped existence, even as they witness others killed and sacrificed. He quotes poets in his struggle to escape the rooster cage and be a white tiger, awake in a world of those who are still sleeping.

On the whole, I enjoyed this and feel like its portrait of India in social turmoil will stay with me for quite some time. This was my selection for book club -- well, one of the several that I presented, and of course, everyone was gung-ho about this one, the one I didn't own already. The cover touts comparisons to Invisible Man and such, but I'm not quite sure I felt that this had the same amount of depth, or perhaps that's simply because this book was so short in comparison to other novels of social inequalities. Certainly, it was a very interesting book and I liked the narrative voice -- it made for a rather quick read but as a result, I think it might have undercut its importance to some degree.


The Devil in the White City

A well-researched and yet captivating look at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Erik Larson has a wonderful voice that crafts a crystal clear vision of this wondrous fair, the obstacles that had to be overcome, and the darker elements at work within and around it. Namely, Larson focuses a great deal of attention on HH Holmes, one of the first true "psychopaths" to receive the designation, who killed at least nine people, many within a building near the fairgrounds during the time of the fair's construction and operation. While Holmes was certainly a creepy and oddly fascinating character, I truly loved every moment spent on Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction. I nearly wept when his friend and business partner, John Root, passed away without being able to see their vision for the fair come to life.
Larson did an excellent job of weaving a great deal of information together to present a coherent storyline, that occasionally dipped off into delightful side-notes. How could he not when the cast of characters included Buffalo Bill, Frank Lloyd Wright, Susan B. Anthony, Nikola Tesla, etc. But what made it come to life was the attention to small details -- not obsessive, mind you, but just right. Perfect selections from written letters and charming anecdotes.

The Devil in the White City has been recommended to me by a very wide range of people, and then my friend and I randomly both purchased it on the same day, entirely unaware of the other's choice. Once I started reading it, though, I couldn't wait for him to do the same, and I simply dove into it. I definitely recommend this to anyone who is interested in the Chicago World's Fair... or who is simply interested in being swept away by someone else's fascination. I feel like Larson brought us along for the ride and I'm quite glad that he did.