Day 845: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Cover for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoEven after thinking about the novel for some time, I can’t decide whether I liked The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. On the one hand, there’s the energy with which it is written and its inventiveness, wedging a portion of the narrative into footnotes that convey some of the most interesting information (a technique used also in The Sunken Cathedral and by such writers as David Foster Wallace). On the other hand, there’s the unrelenting sexism and objectification of women expressed by the principal narrator as well as by other characters. Okay, that’s an important part of the character’s personality rather than an attitude of the author, but I found it disturbing.

Oscar is a misfit. He is a fat, nerdy boy from the Dominican Republic, highly intelligent and well read but unable to interact normally with people, especially girls. He is interested in Star Trek and Tolkien, but even his other geeky friends eventually get girlfriends while he remains alone and still preoccupied with his obsessions. He dreams of being a science fiction writer.

In college at Rutgers he has one reluctant friend. Because Yunior (Díaz’s persona for much of his fiction) is in love with Oscar’s sister Lola, he agrees to be Oscar’s roommate. He tries to get Oscar to exercise and invites him out with friends. But his efforts aren’t sincere, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that his intentions are mixed, so he eventually gives up on trying to make Oscar more normal.

Of course, Yunior’s perceptions are all colored by his own preoccupation, sex. Although he loves Lola, they break up several times because of his unfaithfulness. Yunior sees Oscar as a young man wanting to get laid. Well, of course he does, but what he really wants is love.

Oscar has grown up with the romance of his sci-fi and fantasy epics. Yes, they are also full of action, but they are in a sense the continuation of the chivalric romances that obsessed another famous character, Don Quixote, and that’s the book this novel reminds me of. Of course, we know from the title that Oscar will die, and we can guess he will die for love. Also like Don Quixote, although the story is ultimately tragic, its tone is comic.

What I found most interesting in this novel was the story of Oscar’s family, for this is an inter-generational saga about the fortunes of his family in the Dominican Republic. In a combination of narrative and footnotes, the novel tells the recent history of the Dominican Republic and especially of the Trujillo regime, where Oscar’s family ran aground.

This time period was also the focus of another book I’ve reviewed, In the Time of Butterflies, which this novel references, along with a lot of other pop culture. I complained of that book that it assumed its readers already understood all about the Trujillo dictatorship. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao does a much better job of explaining Dominican history and exposing us to its culture.

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Day 844: Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Cover for Tess of the D'UrbervillesBest Book of the Week!
I love Thomas Hardy’s rural novels set in southwest England, and one of the highlights of a trip to England years ago was visiting his cottage in Dorset. My favorite of his novels has long been Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I recently reread. I don’t mind admitting that in this reread, I was picturing scenes from Roman Polanski’s wonderful movie Tess, which follows the novel carefully and envisions it beautifully.

There is no doubt about it, Tess is a real tear-jerker, so if you prefer novels with happy endings, this is not the one for you. Still, in its own way, the novel ends hopefully.

The novel spans about five or six years, and we meet Tess as a naive young country girl attending a club dance. There she first sees a young man who will be important to her, Angel Clare, but he does not dance with her.

Hardy can be quite the fatalist, though, and Tess’ fate is sealed already, when her father John Durbeyfield meets a clergyman who dabbles in genealogy. Parson Tringham ironically addresses him as “Sir John” and tells him his family is the remains of the once-powerful D’Urbervilles. Her father immediately sets off to celebrate.

Tess’ foolish and feckless parents learn there is a rich old lady by the name of D’Urberville some counties away, so when Tess is partially responsible for the death of her father’s horse (because her father was too drunk to take the bees to town), they push her to go visit the old lady and claim kinship with her in hope of financial benefit. There she meets the charming wastrel Alec D’Urberville, who knows perfectly well they are not related, his family having bought the name and titles.

Tess gets a job from Mrs. D’Urberville as a poultry keeper, but Alec is always pursing her with his attentions. Tess finds these attentions unpleasant, but she is too naive to know what they mean or what she might fear.

Tess returns home with a past that is obvious to everyone and heartache ahead of her. Eventually, she gets another chance, as a dairymaid. There she meets Angel Clare, a gentleman studying to be a farmer, and finally falls deeply in love. But Angel is an idealist who has fantasized her into the embodiment of a pure child of nature. So, he is the last person to forgive her past.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles was a controversial book when it was published in 1891, because Hardy subtitled it “A Pure Woman.” This subtitle caused an uproar with the Victorians. Hardy’s message is strongly against the societal and religious laws that would condemn Tess.

Another aspect of the novel that I found more interesting this time through is that it depicts a rural way of life that is long gone. Although many of Hardy’s novels are rurally based, this one has more about the customs, work, and lifestyle as we follow Tess from one workplace to another than any of his novels except Far from the Madding Crowd. Tess’ father is a freeholder, a step up from a migrant farm worker, one whose family has leased the same land for generations. But when John Durbeyfield dies, the lease is up, and his widow and family are abruptly evicted so that the landlord can make room for someone who works for him. Such activities, Hardy makes clear, are the root cause of people migrating from the country to towns and cities, not that they were unsatisfied with country life.

Years after reading this novel last, I still became thoroughly engrossed in the story. It is a powerful one, poetically written, with gorgeous descriptions of the countryside and vivid imagery. I just love this novel.

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Day 843: Murder at the Manor

cover for Murder at the ManorMurder at the Manor is another collection of classic mystery short stories published by Poisoned Pen Press. Each of these stories is set at a country manor.

This collection features writers the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, Margery Allingham, and Ethel Lina White. Some of the stories are ingenious, and one is an amusing satire of the genre.

The satire was the story that most stood out, “The Murder at the Towers” by E. V. Knox. Just the first sentence gives a sense of it:

Mr. Ponderby-Wilkins was a man so rich, so ugly, so cross, and so old, that even the stupidest reader could not expect him to survive any longer than Chapter 1.”

And he doesn’t. Mr. Ponderby-Wilkins is found hanging from a tree, suspended by a muffler. His guests decide to “go on playing tennis as reverently as possible” until the detective arrives. When the detective, Bletherby Marge, arrives, he is described as a person who is sometimes mistaken for a baboon. The story continues on to turn the genre on its head.

“The Copper Beeches” by Arthur Conan Doyle is the only story I had previously read. Miss Hunter comes to consult Sherlock Holmes about an unusual offer of employment. She has been offered a job as governess at an inflated wage under the condition she bob her hair. Holmes advises her to take the position but promises to come immediately to her assistance if she summons him. She soon does and explains she has been asked to put on a certain blue dress and sit with her back to the window. Holmes immediately realizes he can prevent a crime.

“The Problem of Dead Wood Hall” by Dick Donovan is another early mystery. This case refers to two mysterious deaths, two years apart, of first Mr. Manville Charnworth and then Mr. Tuscan Trankler. Although no cause of death can be determined, both men show signs of having died the same way. Unfortunately, this story is turgidly written, and the method of murder and identity of the killer are easy to guess.

“Gentlemen and Players” by E. W. Hornung is a Raffles mystery. Raffles takes his friend Bunny along on a weekend at a country house, where they have been invited because Raffles is such a good cricket player. Raffles doesn’t usually rob his hosts, but he resents being invited as if he were an entertainer. And old Lady Melrose has such a nice necklace.

“The Well” by W. W. Jacobs is more of a psychological study than a  mystery. Jem Benson is about to be married. He has a cousin, Wilfred Carr, who continually borrows money from him. But this time Wilfred threatens to tell Jem’s fiancée Olive a disreputable secret if he won’t cough up. The two men walk out to the woods near a disused well and only one of them comes back.

“An Unlocked Window” by Ethel Lina White raises a lot of suspense when two nurses are left alone with their patient. A maniac in the neighborhood has been murdering nurses. Nurse Cherry suddenly realizes she left a window unlocked.

link to Netgalley“The Mystery of Horne’s Copse” by Anthony Berkeley is quite entertaining, about Hugh Chappell, who stumbles over the corpse of his cousin Frank late one night on the way home from dining with his fiancée’s family. Only the body isn’t there when he brings the police back, and Frank and his wife are on vacation at Lake Como. This is an odd state of affairs, but then it happens again and again until the last time the body is indeed Frank’s, and Hugh is wanted for murder. In this story, I particularly enjoyed Hugh’s spunky fiancée Sylvia.

All in all, I found the collection mixed in quality but enjoyable. Some of the stories are truly suspenseful, and some present a good puzzle.

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Day 842: Literary Wives! A Circle of Wives

Cover for A Circle of WivesToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives! If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

Welcome back, Ariel!

My Review

As a detective for the Palo Alto police department, Samantha Adams does not have to deal with many violent crimes. So, when a prominent plastic surgeon is found dead in a local hotel room, registered under an assumed name, the assumption is that he died of a heart attack. But the medical examiner finds bruising on his body and what seems to be an injection site.

The first interviews around the possible crime seem routine. Dr. John Taylor’s wife Deborah is a commanding and cold presence, but nothing seems out of the ordinary. Then someone leaks shocking information to the police. Dr. Taylor had not one but three wives.

To her surprise, Sam finds that although second wife MJ and third wife Helen are completely unaware of the existence of the other wives, Deborah knows all about them. Love having departed their marriage years before, Deborah has compromised to avoid divorce by allowing John to have other wives.

MJ is a middle-aged hippy who has two grown sons by her first marriage and is close to her brother. She works as an accountant and has had a difficult life. Helen is a successful pediatric oncologist living in L.A., who was happy with a part-time married life while John worked in Palo Alto. The coroner’s opinion being brought in as murder, Sam seems to have a choice among three ready-made suspects.

This novel certainly hooked me in, although it never really answered my questions about the kind of man who would do this. As a mystery, it is also complicated. I was able to figure out how to break one character’s alibi, but the solution was more complex than that.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

If we don’t count Samantha’s relationship with Peter, which she doesn’t admit to even being “committed,” this novel looks at three marriages. For Deborah, her marriage seems to be concerned solely with wealth and prestige. She has pushed John into his career because of its potential for making money, his only insistence being on sticking with reconstructive rather than elective plastic surgery. He has stopped doing the things that used to give him pleasure because of her opinion that he isn’t that good at them and they are a distraction. It is not such a surprise that he would have wanted a divorce but more of a surprise that he didn’t just get one. But Deborah’s will seems to have been stronger than his, he seeming to be one of those men who will do almost anything to have peace in the house.

John’s marriage to MJ is based on his having the upper hand. She is so happy to find him that she meekly accedes to all his rules about their relationship, which she later learns were designed to keep her from learning about his original marriage. She does not call his office and just accepts his odd schedule unquestioned. This marriage of six years was the least clear to me. John and MJ seem to have little in common, and the attraction seems to have to do with MJ being from such a different sphere and not being demanding. MJ herself gave the impression that what held them together wasn’t sex.

Literary Wives logoHelen and John are still in the honeymoon phase of a six-month marriage. Although Helen is a private, self-contained woman, she is in love and happy with John. Because her career is so demanding, she has no problem with a marriage where they see each other only a few times a month. Theirs seems like a marriage of equals, but it obviously isn’t, because he has lied by omission about his previous marriages and another worse lie is to come. The newness and seeming happiness of their relationship makes a discovery about a decision of John’s inexplicable.

What the novel seems to say about marriage in general is that a lot depends upon where the balance of power resides. But I think we only get a very surface look at any of these marriages. This novel doesn’t really deal in subtleties.

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Day 841: Night

Cover for NightHere is my review of my Classics Club spin choice for Spin #11!

Night is Elie Wiesel’s spare and harrowing description of his and his father’s time spent in a series of concentration camps during World War II. He begins his story in 1944, where in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, the war did not seem to have touched the Jewish population. They had heard of problems in Budapest, but they knew nothing of the larger Nazi activities aimed at their people.

The first indications came from Moishe the Beadle, a man with whom Elie has been studying the Kabbalah. As a foreign Jew, Moishe was deported to a work camp. But he came back to tell everyone that all of the deportees were driven to Poland where they were forced to dig trenches and then shot. Moishe was wounded but managed to get away and returned to warn them. No one believed him, however. They naively refused to believe the Germans could behave that way. Elie and his family could have gotten a visa out of the country, even at that late date, but they stayed.

Next, all the Jews were rounded up into two ghettos, and not much longer after that, they were shipped out to Auschwitz. Once the women and girls were separated from the men and boys at the camp, Wiesel never saw his mother or sister again. He was 15 and probably only lived because an inmate told him to say he was 18.

At only 120 pages, this is a short but affecting description of his experiences in the camps. It does not dwell overly much on the horrific conditions, but we understand how terrible it was. The book also deals with Wiesel’s spiritual landscape, as he changed from a devout boy to a man who no longer believes.

This book is not a testament to human fortitude, for Wiesel makes it clear that humans under evil conditions behave badly. Instead, it is an important documentation of a black time in human history.

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