“It’s this Fantasy Epic storyline that tells us that our actions matter…”
Library readers share their favorite books – the ones they spend 10 minutes enthusing over, until you agree to read them too.
In honor of Arlington Reads 2013, we bring you:
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Reviewed By Rebekah Jones
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was the odd book out in my English 201 class. The professor was a portly man in his mid-forties who wore glasses and passionately loved Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorn. He smirked as he announced the assigned book to the class because he knew it was going to throw us.
It’s hard to pick out what impacted me so powerfully about this book, what made me fall in love with it. I identified with Oscar in many little ways. There were times his experiences stung me with their familiarity. I understand being the person so awkward in a group of freaks that even they are a bit ashamed of you. I know what it’s like to read books I love even as the stories dismiss people like me as unimportant or even villainous. I could connect with those things. Like Oscar, I have been struck by the knowledge that a genre I love and escape into isn’t really for me – how the stories ignore people like me, or worse, are sometimes even hostile. Oscar was a black immigrant who read in Tolkien’s books about the dark-skinned savages from the south. I was the girl who read about women who were only good as prizes, sacrifices, or temptresses for the man. It’s hard enough to admit your heroes who wrote stories and worlds you fell in love with aren’t perfect. It’s incredibly painful to admit that your very presence as a fully functioning and independent human being is something they find offensive or unbelievable.
But Oscar is just a single part of the story. He shares the spotlight equally with his mother, his sister, Lola, and his friend, Yunior. All of them have a history and tale of their own, all are affected by the evil dictator Trujillo in a thousand ways big and small – perhaps that is what captured me most. In much of modern-day literature set in our reality, the characters are individuals within small worlds impacted by other individuals within small worlds. Junot Díaz plucked what I have always seen as so realistic and true about fantasy narratives – the far reaching consequences of actions, the resounding and terrifying power some people have for good or ill – to tell the story about people who society often sees as a footnote. Because they were affected, they were impacted, and they all are small people who are part of a large world with its stories and myths and echoing effects.
This book was one that made me think about how reality works. It discusses the structure of oppression and of everyday and institutional dictatorships and about the ways we reinforce them and use them to knock each other down. It recognizes the damage our own culture and those in power cause, and talks about struggling to break the cycle instead of continuing to perpetuate it. It’s this Fantasy Epic storyline that tells us that our actions matter, that we may be small people, but that our struggle to break the cycles of oppression is something that connects with everyone, that goes beyond ourselves and frees others.
Rebekah Jones has a BA in English from VCU, works for the SPCA, and hopes to soon go overseas to teach English.