March 26, 2008

Junot Diaz's - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I read about Junot Diaz sometime last year in the New York Times, and it was his Dominican heritage that caught my attention. Over the years I've befriended numerous Dominican immigrants who have always impressed me with their joie de vive at the same time surprised me with their machismo that they flaunt with such proud abandon. It was my dichotomous reaction to Dominicans that got me interested in reading Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I was curious to know what a Dominican writer had to say about the immigrant experience; something I'd read and heard extensively about from my Dominican friends, but never from a Dominican writer of Mr. Diaz's fame and caliber. Junot Diaz is perhaps the first ever Dominican writer to have hit the literary scene in such a big way with his debut novel, and is recognized as a contemporary writer with a very distinct writing style.

Diaz came to the US as a seven year old carrying memories of his homeland that he vividly brings alive in his writings. In this novel I was hoping to find a voice that was Diaz'z own. However, neither the womanizer narrator's nor the male protagonist's voice could be pinned down as the voice of Diaz. That may have been Diaz's strategy to have the reader guessing which of these two Dominican males was the typical one. It could also be that Diaz was trying to prove a point here that not all Dominican males are Yuniors, the narrator, who though madly in love with Lola, Oscar's sister, keeps his libido in full gear with other women. But then neither is Oscar the typical either as the overweight nerdy and serious romantic who is constantly involved in serious matters of the heart, unfortunately with women he can never have. Diaz has woven a web so wily where the reader hears the chronicles of a serious lovelorn Oscar from Yunior, a glib 'n easy college roommate of Oscar who is shocked by Oscar's depth of emotion and says he'd "never in... life met a Dominican like him...”

Diaz has produced a very humorous and gripping novel by providing a story that is both endearing and shocking. Oscar, the hero, and his encounters with love and relationships in general make for some humorous and touching reads. Meanwhile, the tapestry against which Oscar is presented is not only vast but also grim and sordid, and it has the capacity to shock. Oscar's story goes back two generations and across two countries to introduce us to his grandparents, the eminent Carbajals, and to his not so honorable parents, Belicia an unwed mother and his father a criminal in cahouts with Trujillo, one of the cruelest dictators in History. With an illustrious family tree such as this it is no surprise that the life of Oscar is both brief and wondrous, and it is to Mr. Diaz's credit that he spun into this 'wondrous' story a historic depth and meaning without alarming his reader. He kept the reader in easy suspended disbelief with his fluid sometimes raunchy language rife with colloquial spattering and identifiable contemporary references; even when he was taking the reader some eighty years back into the history of a small island once called Hispaniola.

Pure coincidence that this may be, but just before reading this novel, I read Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace which also spans across three generations and which includes a coming of age story of an individual within an immigrant family. What a contrast the two reading experiences proved to be! Where I finished Junot Diaz's novel over a weekend and in two sittings, Ghosh's novel took me all of three weeks and uncountable sittings to come to that last page. Storytelling is not an easy art, and writing is perhaps even more difficult, as the writer gets no immediate feedback like the story teller does, through eye contact and body language. Mr Diaz apparently sensed the pulse of his audience because The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao proved a riveting and delightful read.

There is one question though that I would pose to Mr. Diaz if I ever got a chance: how does a novel like this bring him closer to his goal of 'community activism'? What will make this delectable piece of literature irresistible to the majority of fellow Dominican Americans who
"never thought writing was interesting or viable"?

March 21, 2008

Primates Afterall - An Ode to all that's 'Human'

You may not hear it
or see it
but when shrapnel tears your guts
you sure do feel it
You may not call it hatred but...
it can still be it!

You don't condone it
rarely display it
but when a Simpson gets acquitted after double murder
you could resent it
Judge Ito did not call this crime of passion but...
it can still be it!

You may not fear it
or regret it
but at the bulleted Buddhas in Bamiyan
you wondered at it
Politically incorrect to call it ignorance but...
it can still be it!

You don't talk about it
or sometimes ignore it
but when a Katrina happens
you do behold it
Bushes of the world wouldn't term it racism but...
it can still be it!

You may try to hide it
desperately deny it
but when Charles spurned a Diana in favor of a Bowles
you did witness it
decried by all as love forbidden but...
it can still be it!

The natural instincts of man,
every now and again,
do surface to pain.
Much to the chagrin of our moral police
where instinct is taboo
and acquired behavior reigns!

Too evolved to call ourselves human but...
we are still it!

March 19, 2008

Amitav Ghosh's "The Glass Palace" - Too vast a Canvas?

It took me some three weeks to finish reading "The Glass Palace" by Amitav Ghosh, and that is telling. It is rare that a piece of fiction can keep me at bay for this long; the lure of a yarn is immense, and I simply can't resist a tale being spun. However, when a tale has a tail too long, even the most ardent of readers can't stifle those yawns and eventually lets go! That is what happens with "The Glass Palace".

Amitav Ghosh's novel is painted on too large a canvas that spans across multiple countries located in more than one continent! The plot unravels over two and three generations of people seemingly related; either by birth or by social interaction. Ghosh, while relating a family saga, was hoping it would make epic grandeur. Alas! the connectivity between various side plots wore thin at most places, and often left the reader confused. For instance what started as the story of a young and poor Rajkumar amid the ostentatious but strife torn royal family of Burma, gradually becomes a coming-of-age saga of Dolly the pretty and loyal maid of the royal family. It doesn't end there, eventually the story presents Arjun, a soldier, and Dinu, a photographer, on center stage, and against the backdrop of World War II! If you are wondering whether I'm giving it all away; let me assure you that I couldn't give out the story even if I wanted to because of its length and its complex plot. Furthermore, you truly may need some outside help if you did decide to read this novel because of its erudite settings which are crucial to the understanding of the plot. One would have to be a historian or an anthropologist to fully understand the political goings on in the novel that serve as settings at various points in the story. As for the title, I would just let it go, for I shudder to think what new vistas of erudition that would open up and further overwhelm the reader.

It appears Ghosh had a grandiose plan to cover a multitude of disparate happenings within the scope of this novel; unfortunately, he couldn't find a weave to bring it all together as one harmonious whole.

March 16, 2008

Terry Pratchett - Spokesperson for Alzheimers

Terry Pratchett, the British grandmaster of 'Britain's most shoplifted novels' and widely known for his Discworld novels, donated a million dollars toward Alzheimer research yesterday. It was last year that Pratchett revealed that he was suffering the "embuggerance" of Alzheimer's, and by going public about his suffering he hoped to bring in more funding toward Alzheimer research.

Novelist Terry Pratchett donates $1 million to Alzheimer's research

LONDON — British novelist Terry Pratchett said Thursday he is donating $1 million to fund research into Alzheimer's, the incurable brain disease he was diagnosed with last year.

The best-selling fantasy writer announced in December that he had early-onset dementia, a rare form of the disease. Pratchett said it was "a shock and a shame" that less money was spent on Alzheimer's research than on fighting cancer.

He said the donation of about 500,000 pounds would go to the Alzheimer's Research Trust, a British charity.

"There's nearly as many of us as there are cancer sufferers, and it looks as if the number of people with the disease will double within a generation," Pratchett told the group's annual conference.

He said Alzheimer's was "a nasty disease, surrounded by shadows and small, largely unseen tragedies."

Pratchett is best known for his satirical "Discworld" fantasy saga. More than 55 million copies of his books have been sold around the world.

The writer said he had reacted to his diagnosis with "a sense of loss and abandonment (and a) violently coherent fury that made the Miltonic Lucifer's rage against Heaven seem a bit miffed by comparison."

"That fire still burns," Pratchett said, but reassured fans that he planned to continue writing.

The Canadian Press