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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Hardcover – September 6, 2007

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best of the Month, September 2007: It's been 11 years since Junot Díaz's critically acclaimed story collection, Drown, landed on bookshelves and from page one of his debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, any worries of a sophomore jinx disappear. The titular Oscar is a 300-pound-plus "lovesick ghetto nerd" with zero game (except for Dungeons & Dragons) who cranks out pages of fantasy fiction with the hopes of becoming a Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. The book is also the story of a multi-generational family curse that courses through the book, leaving troubles and tragedy in its wake. This was the most dynamic, entertaining, and achingly heartfelt novel I've read in a long time. My head is still buzzing with the memory of dozens of killer passages that I dog-eared throughout the book. The rope-a-dope narrative is funny, hip, tragic, soulful, and bursting with desire. Make some room for Oscar Wao on your bookshelf--you won't be disappointed. --Brad Thomas Parsons

From Publishers Weekly

SignatureReviewed by Matthew SharpeAreader might at first be surprised by how many chapters of a book entitled The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are devoted not to its sci fi–and–fantasy-gobbling nerd-hero but to his sister, his mother and his grandfather. However, Junot Diaz's dark and exuberant first novel makes a compelling case for the multiperspectival view of a life, wherein an individual cannot be known or understood in isolation from the history of his family and his nation.Oscar being a first-generation Dominican-American, the nation in question is really two nations. And Dominicans in this novel being explicitly of mixed Taíno, African and Spanish descent, the very ideas of nationhood and nationality are thoughtfully, subtly complicated. The various nationalities and generations are subtended by the recurring motif of fukú, the Curse and Doom of the New World, whose midwife and... victim was a historical personage Diaz will only call the Admiral, in deference to the belief that uttering his name brings bad luck (hint: he arrived in the New World in 1492 and his initials are CC). By the prologue's end, it's clear that this story of one poor guy's cursed life will also be the story of how 500 years of historical and familial bad luck shape the destiny of its fat, sad, smart, lovable and short-lived protagonist. The book's pervasive sense of doom is offset by a rich and playful prose that embodies its theme of multiple nations, cultures and languages, often shifting in a single sentence from English to Spanish, from Victorian formality to Negropolitan vernacular, from Homeric epithet to dirty bilingual insult. Even the presumed reader shape-shifts in the estimation of its in-your-face narrator, who addresses us variously as folks, you folks, conspiracy-minded-fools, Negro, Nigger and plataneros. So while Diaz assumes in his reader the same considerable degree of multicultural erudition he himself possesses—offering no gloss on his many un-italicized Spanish words and expressions (thus beautifully dramatizing how linguistic borders, like national ones, are porous), or on his plethora of genre and canonical literary allusions—he does helpfully footnote aspects of Dominican history, especially those concerning the bloody 30-year reign of President Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. The later Oscar chapters lack the linguistic brio of the others, and there are exposition-clogged passages that read like summaries of a longer narrative, but mostly this fierce, funny, tragic book is just what a reader would have hoped for in a novel by Junot Diaz.Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels Jamestown and The Sleeping Father. He teaches at Wesleyan University.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books (September 6, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594489580
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594489587
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,194 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #95,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Junot Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Drown; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and This Is How You Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. He is the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, and PEN/O. Henry Award. A graduate of Rutgers College, Díaz is currently the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

706 of 754 people found the following review helpful By Gregory Baird VINE VOICE on September 29, 2007
Format: Hardcover
"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?
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296 of 335 people found the following review helpful By D. Kanigan VINE VOICE on February 3, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The story opens by exploring the life of a Oscar, a promising young Dominican child growing up in New Jersey who morphs into an overweight, unpopular way-out-there nerd who is desperate to lose his virginity. The story goes on to explore the lives of Oscar, Oscar's mother (orphaned, faced class & race discrimination, unrequited love, assault), sister (angst to leave Mother's persistent negativism and see the world) and Mother's family (persecuted by Dictator). The first half of the book was challenging to read as the author uses footnotes and many Spanish language phrases that are not translated (and frustratingly so...and perhaps herein lies the not-so subliminal message to me that I need to learn Spanish). These language challenges, coupled with the weaving back and forth from the present to the past and between multiple characters made the storyline challenging to follow and impacted my enjoyment of the story. That being said, I appreciated author's integration of the political, social and economic history of the Dominican Republic and how the environment shaped many of the lives of the generations who migrated to the U.S. Hang in there as the book warms up at p. 150 and beyond where the main characters develop very nicely.
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58 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Kenny of LA on August 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Before writing this review, I read many of the fine reviews that other readers had previously submitted, and now I want to throw in on some of the oft repeated comments:

1. Many readers objected to the heavy use of slang. Rather than offend me, I found the use of slang lyrical and realistic.
2. Like the prior comment, I enjoyed the use of spanglish. My Spanish is pretty good, and the spanglish added color and depth to the novel for me. However, the spanglish was hardly essential, and I was able to skip over those words I didn't know without any loss of enjoyment.
3. I really enjoyed the footnotes, and thought they added depth and uniqueness to the novel. One of the themes of the novel was the interaction of larger historical events (the demonic Trujillo regime) and the life of this family. In this regard, the footnotes were essential. Moreover, I appreciated the unique mixture of this "street" novel and these very detailed historical references.

At the same time, I was surprised to see that there weren't more reviewers that shared my lack of interest in the thoughts and fate of Oscar, the main character. As hard as I tried, I had a hard time empathizing with this character. For me, the best part of a well-written, well developed novel is the opportunity to inhabit the mind, spirit and experiences of another human being, to feel for them, to feel what they feel. For several reasons, I just couldn't get there in this book.

1. Here, the narrator was neither an omniscient voice, nor the main character, but instead, Yunior, another character who related the facts. To me, Yunior's narration was without much insight or understanding. While it was stylistically interesting, it did little to bring Oscar to life.

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80 of 91 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I loved Diaz's short story collection Drown, and like almost everyone else who read it, have been eagerly waiting years for his next book. Now, something like a decade later, Diaz brings a character from that collection (Yunior) back to narrate the family history of his Rutgers roommate Oscar (who is also the brother of Yunior's sometime girlfriend). This tale begins with Oscar's grandfather and ends up encompassing quite a bit of the modern history of the Dominican Republic. And although the story hopscotches back and forth in time and location quite a bit, Diaz has complete command of his narrative.

To be fair, sometimes the story feels more like "A People's History of the Dominican Republic." than a novel about a geeky kid from New Jersey. Not that this is a bad thing -- Diaz manages to get at the political, economic, and psychological forces that brought so many Dominican immigrants to the U.S . over the last fifty years via captivating and dextrous prose. The dominant theme of this multigenerational story is the "fuku" (curse) Oscar's family lives under. (Of course, as Yunior points out, every Dominican family believes itself to be cursed by the fuku americanus, a curse brought by European colonialists which has turned the Caribbean Eden into a despotic prison to be escaped.)s The fuku first hits Oscar's grandfather, an upper-class doctor undone by the rise of the Trujillo thugocracy (equal to that of Saddam Hussein in horror inflicted on its subjects). His daughter (Oscar's mother) faces her own tragedy due to the fuku, and is the bridge between life in the D.R. and life in America, as she escapes to New York. Her children, Oscar and Lola, represent the generation born and bred in the U.S. -- both connected to, and apart from their Dominican heritage.
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