Saturday, September 29, 2007

Finally, some worthwhile reads!

Back from vacation and feeling very relaxed. Punta Cana was lovely. Definitely going back. Okay, on to the books.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: Needless to say this book will be taught for generations and generations of writing and lit students because it's a work of art -- plain and simple. What this guy does with language is just pure and maddening genius. I'd say the language upstages the main character Oscar for most of the novel. I don't have permissions so I can't actually quote here but I've highlighted several passages that I know I'll read over and over and over for years to come. This novel is Greek tragedy scored with strains of Bachata, Salve and Merengue and even some hip-hop beat-boxing thrown in for good measure. And though I didn't get most of the Sci-fi references, it worked for me!

Oscar is the quintessential tragic figure who will live and die for love, and, yes, the story could have begun and ended there but nooooo. We get the wonderfully told history of the Dominican Republic's brutal political past under the dictatorship of Trujillo (T to the illo!!!) and how that legacy screwed up lives, families, and a nation. Diaz delivers this rich history lesson with much black humor and well-placed profanity -- you'll find yourself laughing when you should be outraged and/or crying. And he does most of it in footnotes! Footnotes!!! The women around Oscar, his mother Hypatia, sister Lola, grandmother, and all the girls he's loved but never won made me draw all kinds of crazy parallels that the writer probably didn't intend so I won't go into them. (How does he write women so well??? Scary!)

Like most Caribbean/diaspora writers, Diaz shows much facility capturing the characters' longing. As Third World folks are well familiar, this "longing" begins at birth and never quite ends. It's as ubiquitous as the oppressive heat, corrupt governments, the consuming poverty and class/color warfare -- there's no escaping it in this life. It's not "American" longing because here you could just go take on a second job (like Oscar's mom), go to the mall, buy a car or an expensive bag to make you feel temporarily better. Right? But "back home" the longing is unquenchable and it makes you do crazy things: It makes you hate yourself and other folks who have what you think you should have, it makes you treat your kids like crap, it makes you sick, it eventually kills you. It makes you believe in "Fuku." Matter of fact, it's the ultimate "Fuku."
Read this book. At least twice.

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin: First, I'd like to ask the world to leave Clarence Thomas alone. Please. I've had just about enough Clarence Thomas bashing. Okay, I'm done.
I liked this book and I suspect that any one who has even a rudimentary interest in the Supreme Court will too. It's very accessible because Toobin's writing is very smooth, his reporting is top-notch so you get the feeling that you're really getting the inside scoop -- even though a lot of this stuff has already been told. This reads more like a Vanity Fair piece than "something-written-by-a-legal-scholar" so it's quick -- but there's still good, substantive material in there. I liked that Toobin quoted from some of the oral arguments in the major cases. I laughed out loud when Ted Olson got the smackdown from Justice Stevens in Rasul v. Bush. It's comforting (to me anyway) that even the veterans can get tripped up and tongue-tied in a courtroom even with all their years of experience. I'm disappointed that I didn't get deeper insight into the personalities of the justices but I don't think that's Toobin's fault. It seems The Nine do a very good job of keeping what they want out of sight hidden. Great read.

Diary of a Country Prosecutor by Tawfik al-Hakim: I picked this up at an independent bookstore -- a total impulse buy. It's only about 140 pages but it's a deep little book. It's an Egyptian comedy of errors about, well, a country prosecutor who's trying to solve a murder case. Just madness. Think Alexander McCall Smith's charming Number One Detective series but add about 100 levels of perversity. The author uses satire to demonstrate the corruption and absurdities of this bureaucratic quasi-religious legal system. He layers in a a strange cast of characters -- from the midwife who wiped her hands on straw before trying to deliver a baby (which died) to the surgeon who has all his non-doctor buddies come by for a chat while he operates on patients. This little book takes you to a time and place that makes you appreciate where you are right here and right now. I mean, I don't want to be the guy who's wrongly accused of stealing his own crop and is summarily sentenced to jail! The novel is partly autobiographical so some of this stuff may indeed have happened. The writer was born in 1898 and died in 1987. Entertaining.

More reviews to come.

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