The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz
Reading Around the World: Dominican Republic
How obtained: second hand store ($3)


Oscar used to be a typical Dominican boy- read a lady-charmer- until one day his luck stopped. At age seven, he had two girlfriends, but soon after he broke up with one, the other broke up with him, and he never had a girlfriend again. His nerdy tendencies became a source of ridicule. And he became fat.Was it fukú- the family curse? Maybe, but most of the younger generation of Dominicans were sceptical of fukú, especially those now living in America like Oscar.

It’s never the changes we want that change everything.

What follows is  a snapshot into the lives of Oscar and his relatives- his punk sister Lola who struggles to get her own space away from their mother, his proud wilful mother whose life had many times of danger, his upperclass grandfather who couldn’t quite stay quietly unnoticed by the dictator… Above everything looms the shadow of Trujillo, the dictator whose 30 year reign was one of the bloodiest in the history of the Americas.

This book is written in the voice of one of Lola’s friends, who decides to research the family. he speaks informally- it abounds with slang and swearing, and has footnotes about the political/historical context scattered throughout, as if he is talking to us in an aside.

Initially I found the offbeat style (and educational aspects) to be enjoyable and interesting, but after a while the constant stream of bad things became wearing. Every character had struggles and traumas. He paints a pretty bleak picture of the Dominican Republic- with corruption, intense poverty, extreme sexism and power disparity between genders and violence. While these were perhaps at a peak during Trujillo’s reign, the sins of the old leader are perpetuated by the ordinary person still. It is a sad reflection of what happens to a society when it goes through such horrible times, and what people retort to.

“Lola swore she would never return to that terrible country. On one of our last nights as novios she said, Ten million Trujillos is all we are.”

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran- Azar Nafisi
Reading Around the World- Iran


I picked this book up a couple years ago after meeting a few Iranian refugees. In some ways it was a prelude to starting my journey of reading around the world.

I have mixed feelings about the book- there were many things that I learnt about Iranian history, the description of life in Tehran before the Iranian Revolution was a surprise to me (I don’t know much about history but am rectifying that slowly!), the language was often beautiful… I was initially loving it, but most of the bits I liked and found interesting were in the first third. So I became a little disappointed as I read through the rest that it wasn’t as captivating as the start.

 

This book is about big evil and small mindedness, and little joys and quiet good. It is about change-that happens to you, and that you cause. It is about choice.

None of us can avoid being contaminated by the world’s evils; it’s all a matter of what attitude you take towards them.

It takes courage to die for a cause, but also to live for one.

 

The veil has been a big topic in the West recently. It is interesting to see that the same discussions were played out in the Middle East years before the question came here- is it a sign of oppression? Should women be allowed to wear? Should they have to wear it? Before the revolution few wore it, they were sometimes disadvantaged by wearing it, but chose to anyway. After everyone had to, and were oppressed if they didn’t. And so there were some who wore by choice, and some because they had to…

She resented the fact that her veil, which to her was a symbol of scared relationship to god, had now become an instrument of power, turning the women who wore them into political signs and symbols.

Finally this book is about literature, and how it can both reflect real life and be an escape from real life.

In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world. Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life. The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter.

Forbidden Love

Forbidden Love- by Norma Khouri
Reading Around the World: Jordan
How obtained: second hand book sale


 

It was the biggest storm 50 years, with >100km/hr winds bending the big electricity towers to the ground (you know those metal ones that look like little Eiffel towers). There was a statewide blackout, ICU patients being bagged-and-masked after a generator fail in the hospital, and flooding waters all around. After spending the last two hours at work seeing clients in the dark, without the computer records, I went home to work out how to spend an evening alone in the cold dark house. Well, not entirely alone- there is always the cats, bless their furry little faces.

I actually did quite alright- having been on a boat in 100km/hr winds before I feel completely safe in my own home. I had all the makings of a really good salad. And I had enough candles that I could read easily, although with just a slight crook in my neck from trying to hold the book at the right angle to not have shadows on the page.

I picked one of the shorter books on my pile, and managed to read it in one evening. Although it is fairly short for a novel and written in an easy to read style it is not always the easiest book to read. It follows two young women who do not readily accept the longstanding culture amongst Arabs in Jordan regarding men and women. Their world is dominated by men (who must be obeyed, respected and agreed with no matter what), strict rules about who they can talk to (almost no one) and a feeling that they can do nothing to change this (or risk being killed for disobeying).

Jordan is a place where men in sand-coloured business suits hold cell phones to one ear and, in the other, hear the whispers of harsh and ancient laws blowing in from the desert. It is a pace where a worldly young queen argues eloquently on CNN for human rights, while a father in a middle-class suburb slits his daughter’s throat for committing the most innocent breach of old Bedouin codes of honour.

It is a book about the developing love between Norma’s best friend, a Muslim, and Michael who is a Christian. Norma seems to imply she writes to educate on the injustice and abuse women in traditional Jordan families face, and honour the story of her friend.

Given the general increase in lack of tolerance, and even fear, of other religions over the past few years, I usually aim to see the good in others, and try to increase my understanding of them. I struggled a bit with this book, because it focussed on all the bad things which are predominantly associated with Muslim culture in the Middle East (honour killing, oppression of females etc), but I note that the author points out these are actually common to families of all religions in the country- she points to Bedouin ancestry/culture as the source.

To make matters more complicated, although originally claimed to be a true story, it was later found to be a fabrication- after locals noted lots of small factual errors and investigation found that Norma actually immigrated to USA as a child, and was not in Jordan at the time of the happenings of the story. She had been living as the Norma of the story- petitioning the UN, travelling the world telling her story etc and denied the evidence which started to mount up- houses in America, bought with a husband, neighbours who remember her and her children, and a family who didn’t know where she had disappeared to. Had I known this, before I read it I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it. But I actually find it fascinating. I still find I can’t really believe that someone would make up an entire life story in order to sell a book, and then keep on with their new persona. It makes me wonder about the author and if she perhaps not entirely normal. They call it ‘literary fraud’- I had never really thought about such a thing existing outside of academic papers.

The power at my house came on at 10pm, and after a few more days of rain the sun came out again. Unfortunately, there was not a similarly happy ending to either the characters in this story, for the book itself which is now called one of the greatest literary hoaxes, or for the women who do find themselves victims of honour killings and do not have a true  voice to speak for them.

 

Castles, Follies and Four-Leaf Clovers- Rosamund Burton

Castles, Follies and Four-Leaf Clovers- Rosamund Burton
Reading Around the World– Ireland
How obtained: given to me last year (and thus on my already owned TBR pile)


This book is a recounting of the journey a woman takes as she walks along Saint Declan’s Way. Born in Ireland, schooled in England, currently living in Australia, Rosamund doesn’t know quite where she belongs, but identifies that Ireland is where her heart yearns to call home, despite now not having lived there for most of her life. She walks for 3 weeks along an old, almost forgotten path that is reported to be a route that Saint Declan once walked. As she does so, she stays with various Irish people- many who area well known or related to famous historical people. She contemplates nature and religion, history, tradition and what it means to belong.

As I listen to Lauren’s yearning for a different way in life, I recognise in me that desire to belong to a community that doesn’t sit night after night in front of a television, but sings, dances and plays music together in the evenings. I, too, ache to belong to a people that have a history on their land.

At times it can get a little boring hearing all about her parent’s friends and her friends who are somehow all either important or connected to important people- not having a personal connection with them, or a strong knowledge of Irish history it just doesn’t mean much to me. But the writing style is easy to read, and her range of focus is varied enough to keep it interesting. I particularly enjoyed the insights into current Irish culture, and the beliefs about the mystical (fairy stories, ghost stories etc).

In the end, she doesn’t figure everything out about what she believes and how/where to belong while on this pilgrimage. But after a detour into increased confusion, she does find some kind of peace with where she is at.


Other book related  things:
Coffee Addicted Writer question of the week: Name one book that scared you so badly that you couldn’t finish reading it.

I don’t tend to read scary books. But I remember there was a book that had a scene that was really awkward- and that was enough to get sensitive younger me to stop reading- I can’t remember which book it was, but it was by Colin Thiele, and it as something to do with a girl being found while swimming naked in a river…

Book Beginnings on Fridays: The Opening line of this book

People are quick to tell me I’m not Irish, but if you were to put a label on me it could say ‘Made in Ireland’

What shapes our identity and where we belong is one of the major themes.

Friday 56: A quote from page 56

The first thing he did, after saying his prayers, was to feel for his hump, bit it wasn’t there. He was also wearing a suit of new clothes

A fairy tale of a hunched back man who encounters fairies, and ends up blessed by them after adding to one of their songs.

Top Ten Tuesdays- Villains

This week at Broke and Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesdays it is all about the villains.  So here is my list of 5 Villains that provoked interesting reactions in me:

  1. Pitch- Rise of the Guardians
    • Pitch Black is a re-imagining of the bogey man- he is the Nightmare King, and as belief in the ‘good’ magical beings like Santa and the tooth fairy decreases, children are more susceptible to negativity and his nightmares. He tries to take over the world and kill of the good magical beings, but does so with such style in his long black coat and tall sleek looks, and with a lovely smooth English accent, that I found myself drawn to him. I also feel sorry for him- as there is a sense of loneliness about him- he wants to be believed in, and seen, but because of who he is he is always on the outskirts. I really wanted things to work out for him- for there to be someway he could be included in a healthy way.
  2. Kilgrave -Jessica Jones
    • Oh this character I felt so conflicted about! I would be watching this show ravenously, fascinated not so much by the story line, as by watching my own reactions to what I was watching. Kilgrave is probably one of the worst villains you can get- a combination of a super power that is almost impossible to stop and a lack of empathy and of moral understanding. He can get people to do whatever he wants, and doesn’t see why he shouldn’t do this, and doesn’t care if it causes irreparable harm to them. In fact at times he enjoys causing pain- physical and psychological. He does utterly repulsive things. But he is also charismatic, and extremely well acted by David Tennant. His ‘love’ for Jessica is a twisted ugly thing that takes no account of what is actually good for her or her own feelings, but you believe it and want to believe it can redeem him. He has the blood of many murders on his hands, but you can also see the tortured young boy, who was in some ways forced to become what he was, but maybe was always a sociopath. How can you feel attracted to someone you can see is evil- really evil? All I can do is give an internal standing ovation to the writers and actors of this show.
  3. Snape- Harry Potter
    • Snape is a character that has provoked conflict, not internally like the above characters, but between friends. There are some people who were quick to forgive all his Death Eater actions, and bullying of Harry, once they found out that he carried a torch for Lilly and was a double agent. One facebook friend wrote a post along the lines of how Lilly should have been with Snape, how the poor man was friendzoned etc- I think I offended him when I mentioned that when Lilly was alive, Snape was a terrorist. But it is true- any of the redeeming things he did after she died in memory of her, and even then a lot of it seemed reluctantly after Dumbledore reminded him that it is what Lilly would have wanted. While she was alive he was a creepy teenager who was obsessed with dark magic, then the follower of a man who believed in torturing and killing muggles,  excluding non-purebloods and so on. He would have taken part in acts of violence, on the basis of blood (our equivalent of race), or for political power. And then when Harry was at school, he let his hatred of his father get in the way of his love for his mother, and his job as a teacher. He was a bully. But he did also put his life at risk, and eventually gave it, for the ‘right’ side. It is true he was brave, and did things that he never would have done otherwise because he knew as someone trusted by Voldemort, he was the only one who could do it. And he did love Lilly.
  4. The Wicked Witch of the West- The Wizards of Oz
    • In early high school, I landed the role of the Wicked Witch of the West in an amateur musical. The role actually doesn’t have much stage time compared to the other main characters, so I had a lot of time in rehearsal to make up my own backstory (not having seen Wicked). It as something about being teased because of my skin, and actually being hurt and misunderstood… I can’t remember exactly what now, but I had fun with it.
  5. Maleficent- from her own movie
    • another case of exploring the backstory to the villain, I loved the movie Maleficent. There is some good in all of us!