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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao [Paperback]

Junot Diaz
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (977 customer reviews)

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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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. What a bargain to have Diaz's short story collection, Drown, included (on the last five CDs) with the talented, emerging Dominican-American writer's first novel. Davis reads both superbly. He captures not only the fat, virginal, impractical Oscar, but he also gives a sexy vigor to Yunior, who serves as narrator and Oscar's polar opposite. Davis also gives voice to Oscar's mother, Beli, whose fukú curse infects the entire family, except for Oscar's sister, Lola, performed in a flat voice by Snell, whose performance overlooks Lola's energy and resolve. Both Snell and Davis move easily from English to Spanish/Spanglish and back again, as easily as the characters emigrate from the Dominican Republic to Paterson, N.J., only to be drawn back inexorably to their native island. Listeners unfamiliar with Spanish may have difficulty following some of the dialogue. However, it's better to lose a few sentences than to miss Davis's riveting performance, perfect pace and rich voice, which are perfectly suited to Díaz's brilliant work.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Reviewers agree that Junot D’az's first novel was well worth the 11-year wait. D’az established his reputation with Drown (1996), a collection of short stories that drew widespread praise. With The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, D’az has cemented his place in the literary stratosphere. He garners admiration for the "slangy and kinetic energy of his prose" (New York Times), as well as for the way he hop scotches between high- and lowbrow culture and ties together Dominican and American history (and the problems therein). Some critics cite a distracting (mysterious) narrator, too many digressions, and a difficult narrative structure. Despite these minor flaws, fans of literary fiction should dive right in.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Díaz's gutsy short story collection Drown (1996) made the young Dominican American a literary star. Readers who have had to wait a decade for his first novel are now spectacularly rewarded. Paralleling his own experiences growing up in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, he has choreographed a family saga at once sanguinary and sexy that confronts the horrific brutality at loose during the reign of the dictator Trujillo. Díaz's besieged characters look to the supernatural for explanations and hope, from fukú, the curse unleashed when Europeans arrived on Hispaniola, to the forces dramatized in the works of science fiction and fantasy so beloved by the chubby ghetto nerd Oscar Wao, the brilliantly realized boy of conscience at the center of this whirlwind tale. Writing in a combustible mix of slang and lyricism, Díaz loops back and forth in time and place, generating sly and lascivious humor in counterpoint to tyranny and sorrow. And his characters—Oscar, the hopeless romantic; Lola, his no-nonsense sister; their heartbroken mother; and the irresistible homeboy narrator—cling to life with the magical strength of superheroes, yet how vibrantly human they are. Propelled by compassion, Díaz's novel is intrepid and radiant. Seaman, Donna --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“Funny, street-smart and keenly observed…An extraordinarily vibrant book that’s fueled by adrenaline-powered prose.”—Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

“Díaz finds a miraculous balance. He cuts his barnburning comic-book plots (escape, ruin, redemption) with honest, messy realism, and his narrator speaks in a dazzling hash of Spanish, English, slang, literary flourishes, and pure virginal dorkiness.”—Sam Anderson, New York Magazine

“Genius...a story of the American experience that is giddily glorious and hauntingly horrific...That Díaz’s novel is also full of ideas, that [the narrator’s] brilliant talking rivals the monologues of Roth’s Zuckerman—in short, that what he has produced is a kick-ass (and truly, that is the just word for it) work of modern fiction—all make The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao something exceedingly rare: a book in which a new America can recognize itself, but so can everyone else.”—Oscar Villalon, San Francisco Chronicle

“Astoundingly great.”—Lev Grossman, Time

“Terrific...High-energy...It is a joy to read, and every bit as exhilarating to reread.”—Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

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.

From The Washington Post

Reviewed by Jabari Asim

Nowadays, there may be Hmong in Madison and Somalis in St. Paul, but some of us still have trouble keeping up with all the intense cultural mixing and melting going on amid our purple-mountained majesty. For example, mention the Dominicans among us to the average Tom, Dick or Andy Rooney, and he's liable to speak of a mythical Shortstop Island from which wing-footed infielders plot their takeover of America's pastime. As for the Dominican Republic's history, imports, exports, that sort of thing? Well, its national baseball team is one of the best in the world, right? Or is that Venezuela?

Junot Díaz has the cure for such woeful myopia. The Dominican Republic he portrays in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a wild, beautiful, dangerous and contradictory place, both hopelessly impoverished and impossibly rich. Not so different, perhaps, from anyone else's ancestral homeland, but Díaz's weirdly wonderful novel illustrates the island's uniquely powerful hold on Dominicans wherever they may wander -- a borderless anxiety zone that James Baldwin would describe as "the anguished diaspora."

Thus, that nation's bloody history, often detailed in Díaz's irreverent footnotes, intrudes periodically in Oscar Wao, as if to remind Dominicans that tragedy is never far from one's doorstep. Or maybe it emerges simply to instruct the rest of us, because Díaz's characters are already painfully certain that they are destined for misfortune. Or, more precisely, cursed.

Fukú americanus, Díaz explains, is "generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World." It seems especially contagious and deadly in the Dominican Republic, where "it is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world." How exotic. How ominous-sounding. How very similar to the pet profanity of New Yorkers from Staten Island to the Bronx. But the tale begins in Santo Domingo, where "a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow." It revolves around several generations of one Dominican family, of which young Oscar de León, a depressed, overweight substitute teacher, is among the youngest descendants. The clan's patriarch, a brilliant doctor named Abelard Luis Cabral, came down with an ultimately fatal case of fukú back in 1946, having run afoul of the malady's high priest.

That would be Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the tyrannical sadist who bedeviled his fellow Dominicans for more than three blood-drenched decades. Naturally, his terror-mongering casts a large, threatening shadow over much of the novel's action.

Abelard's fukú apparently becomes part of his family's DNA, traveling through time and blood cells to infect his grandson. ("Oscar Wao" is how one of the tormentors of his college years charmingly mutilated "Oscar Wilde," a derisive nickname young de Leon accepted without protest). In no rush to spill the details of his hero's short, star-crossed adventures, Díaz maneuvers his plot through various time shifts, settings and narrators. From Santo Domingo to Washington Heights, N.Y., to Paterson, N.J., various generations of de Leons wrestle with fate and lose. Along the way, Díaz liberally sprinkles his pages with allusions to authors, books and especially stories from the science-fiction and fantasy genres to which Oscar is devoted. So don't be surprised when a discussion of Caesar and Ovid morphs into the Fantastic Four versus Galactus, and Mario Vargas Llosa gets short shrift compared to Jack Kirby, the late, lamented genius of Marvel Comics's glory years.

Adding to our reading pleasure, Díaz excels at making fun of despots. At the mercy of the author's machete-sharp wit, Trujillo becomes the Failed Cattle Thief, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated, the man who was Mobutu before Mobutu was Mobutu. Of Joaquín Balaguer, Trujillo's successor, he writes, "Like most homunculi he did not marry and left no heirs." And it's hard to resist his clever nickname for François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, the madman whose pillaging made a wreck of Haiti: P. Daddy. Clearly a believer that membership has its privileges, Díaz makes cracks about Dominicans that the average Andy Rooney could never get away with. Reflecting on the ebony skin that keeps bubbling up in the de Leon bloodline, Díaz writes, "That's the kind of culture I belong to: people took their child's black complexion as an ill omen." Another character observes, "That's white people for you. They lose a cat and it's an all-points bulletin, but we Dominicans, we lose a daughter and we might not even cancel our appointment at the salon." There's also the distressing but all-too-credible spectacle of so many dark-skinned Dominicans spitting the word "nigger" more often than Timbaland at a freestyle battle or Harriett Beecher Stowe at her abolitionist best. "No one, alas, more oppressive than the oppressed," Díaz explains.

But enough about that. As Yunior (one of Díaz's narrators and a welcome holdover from Drown, his acclaimed story collection) reminds us, "This is supposed to be a true account of the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

Obese and socially awkward, Oscar is obsessed with food, girls, role-playing games, girls, anime, girls -- you get the picture. Trouble is, female companions remain tantalizingly beyond his grasp, as do all other kinds of companions, who eventually abandon him to his habitual depression. Oscar couldn't find a pal on the Island of Lost Toys. "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," Díaz writes. "Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest." Does Oscar ever overcome his ungainliness and find romance or a sense of belonging? The brevity of his tale prevents me from telling you much. Although I found the big guy totally sympathetic, he's often way too stubborn for his own good. In addition, it's not his fault that nearly every other character holds our interest just as easily -- more of a reflection of Díaz's broad palette than Oscar's lack of dimension. But Oscar clearly is not intended to function as a hero in the classical sense. Is he meant primarily to symbolize the tangled significance of desire, exile and homecoming? Or is he a 307-lb. warning that only slim guys get the girls? Are we to wring from his ample flesh more of that anguished diaspora stuff? Could be, but I find sufficient meaning in the sheer joy of absorbing Díaz's sentences, each rolled out with all the nerdy, wordy flair of an audacious imagination and a vocabulary to match. It's easy to imagine Díaz smiling as he uncorked a description of a woman with "breasts like sunsets trapped beneath her skin" or writing of Trujillo, "Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor."

Díaz pulls it off with the same kind of eggheaded urban eloquence found in the work of Paul Beatty (The White Boy Shuffle), Victor LaValle (Slapboxing with Jesus), Mat Johnson (Drop) and his very own Drown. Geek swagger, baby. Get used to it. Notwithstanding his neological dazzle, he's anything but longwinded. And he's patient -- maddeningly so. Díaz made us wait 11 years for this first novel and boom! -- it's over just like that. It's not a bad gambit, to always leave your audience wanting more. So brief and wondrous, this life of Oscar. Wow.

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From AudioFile

Although the listener may be a bit confused at times, both Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell do well in narrating Diazs long-awaited novel in Spanglish, a difficult English and Spanish language mix that characterizes the culture presented. Diaz presents the impoverished side of the Dominican Republic with a no-holds-barred approach. Exposing both the raw, carnal explorations of young protagonists and the environments that molded them, Davis and Snell work hard at portraying the intentions of each character, as well as the snarling contempt of their world. The settings of the stories from Diazs first book, DROWN, include New Jersey and New York. They are well done and realistic. D.L.M. © AudioFile 2008, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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