The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – fuku and family

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a hard book to pin down but it reminded me a bit of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, the way it pinpointed its characters in place and time. Lots of foreign words go unexplained in the course of this book – readers must learn by osmosis: you are dropped into the world of the de León family and you have to feel your way around. Nothing is contrived– Díaz is not interested in reader exposition and I like that.

The author’s offering is the story of a family cursed over generations by the Dominican terror: fukú. This curse can take many forms, as we come to see. As far as the family de León  goes, there is Oscar, firstly and most predominately. Oscar is a lovesick ghetto nerd – a kind of tragedy version of Manny from Modern Family if he grew up in a different, more difficult way. Oscar loves women but they don’t love him back in the way that he wants when he outgrows his chubby childhood cuteness. His sister Lola, meanwhile, is fierce and wild – she battles with their mother Beli in her diminished, cancer-ravaged form. But when Beli’s young life is revealed, we learn that she was once wild and beautiful herself – a world away from the bitter crone she has become.

Díaz always wants to make sure we know why things are the way they are in this family. With every new story, with every step back in time, a new influence the their lives is revealed. Everything is recounted via our trusty narrator Yunior, Lola’s old boyfriend, who becomes entangled in Oscar’s sad and lonely life and can’t quite seem to shake himself free. There is a conspiratorial tone to the book – as readers, we are peeking in through the windows of the de León family home, watching events unfold.

The book explores the Dominican culture of hyper-masculinity, to which Oscar, with his melodramatic soppy tendencies, can never truly belong, and which will crush Beli and Lola’s spirits in its own way. It explores issues of race – the yearning to be lighter, straighter-haired, more European-featured (the words prieta, morena and black-black are everywhere). It also details the hissing jealousies that come with being thought of as too pretty, or too confident, by your peers. But, as with other things in this book, race and gender identity aren’t topics as such, they’re more of a backdrop to the story. Díaz offers a snapshot of Dominican life through the lens of one troubled family. It’s a book to be swept away in, not one to analyse, po-faced, in a dusty room. So in that spirit, I will step back from the book and just say that Díaz is a very strong writer with a powerful sense of place. His book will have you wanting to keep mining the seams of history he has cracked open, and he will have you learning something new without you even noticing.

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This Book Will Save Your Life – or at least stay with you

I read this book ages ago when I was working all summer at a concert hall in Brighton. It was my job to take tickets and for the hours when I wasn’t doing that (which was all the long, stretching hours of concerts, evangelical conferences and whatever else) it was my job to sit there and read. It was a hot summer and I was about to go off to uni and I read this book and I just loved it. My mum bought it because it was one of the first Richard and Judy book club titles but she never read it.

I liked the donuts on the cover. I remembered that I liked the feel of the writing too. The thing is, I read so many books that lots of them inevitably slip out of my mind afterwards. But I remembered Richard Novak.  He’s a man who wakes up in middle age to realise he’s been living life in a vacuum. He barely knows his son, his ex-wife is long gone. He hasn’t spoken to his parents for years. He has a nutritionist, a housekeeper but apart from that he is alone. When he finds himself suddenly in pain and is rushed to the hospital, they ask him who he’d like to call and he realises there’s no one on earth he wants to speak to. No one he still has that connection with. This is a book about him putting his life back together from nothing. Finally, Richard starts to interact, to say yes to human contact. The man in the donut shop. The woman crying in the produce aisle of the supermarket. His next door neighbour. The 911 operator. He starts spending his money, spending his time, following the flow of life, doing whatever comes next. He reconnects. He opens Pandora’s box.

There’s just something so feel-good about this book! I never re-read – there are so many new things out there but this book drew me back in and it was just as good the second time. It’s basically a story about a man having a mid-life crisis but there’s something so real at the heart of it. It treads the same ground as a Richard Curtis film, plugs you into an idea of humanity you can believe in. It won’t change your life, not in any kind of profound way, but there’s a warmth in it that will stay with you. From life in a vacuum to horses and helicopters and have-a-go-heroism, A.M. Holmes takes you on a winding and inexplicably wonderful adventure back to life.

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The Wolf Road – made for the big screen

The Wolf Road is the story of Elka and her adoptive daddy Trapper – at least Trapper’s who he is to her. But the posters slapped up all over towns and trading posts across the cold, wild north call him Kreager Hallet – bloodthirsty, child-killing monster of the woods.

Seven-year-old Elka is taken in by Kreager when a thunderhead (a giant tornado-esque storm prevalent in this post-apocalyptic landscape) rips her from her hard-bitten Nana’s home (her parents having left her there to chase the gold rush some years earlier). Hallet teaches her his way of life – animal-trapping, hunting, fishing and surviving in the bleak, harsh, snowy wilderness. He’s not a lovey-dovey type, but he’s her daddy and Elka is shocked when at seventeen she goes into nearby Dalston on an errand and sees the posters. It’s there that she runs into ice-queen Magistrate Jennifer Lyon – Lyon’s got it in for Kreager Hallet; she lost the most precious thing in her life at his hands, and she’s not going to stop till she catches him…

I don’t want to say much more about the plot of this book because suspense and secrets are what it’s built on. The reader roots for Elka, this little wild woodland creature who spent her childhood in a killer’s lair, who called this monster daddy. It’s hard not to admire her grit as she ploughs through the post-apocalyptic wasteland, surviving against the odds, running towards a childhood fantasy (will she find her gold-hunting parents in the far reaches of the north after all this time?) and desperate to escape the horrors of her time with Hallet, which she’s kept padlocked in the dark corners of her brain until now.

I quite liked the dialect the book was written in – it didn’t feel awkward or forced to me like I imagine it easily could do. But the thing I liked most was the way Lewis builds this post-apocalyptic world of Elka’s. It’s not big on the details – we have to build the picture ourselves as we go along. There was a catastrophe called The Damn Stupid that’s left a world of fake forests, dead land and poison lakes. In some ways it’s like we’ve gone back to the old wild west where survivalist skills and trade in basic life necessities (furs, food etc.) are how a person gets by.

Lewis isn’t a JK Rowling or a Terry Pratchett, building whole new worlds down to the very last detail. She sets a scene with just the lightest descriptive touches and lets your imagination do the rest. A little bird told me that there’s been some interest in the film rights to the book and, having read it, that doesn’t surprise me one bit. The book feels like a film. It’s like you can hear the blood pounding in your ears and the smothering silence of the snow around you. Like you can smell the pine. It’s easy to imagine the voiceover in Elka’s distinctive dialect, or a well-cast Kreager Hallet’s terrifying tattooed face as he stalks the snowy woods for his prey.

On the whole I avoid films of books I enjoy because they leave so much richness and detail out, but there’s a sparseness about The Wolf Road and a cinematic heart to it that meant it played almost like a film real in my head as I read it. It’s a thrilling read on the page, pacey and engaging … but I can’t help but think how truly magnificent it could be on the big screen. I hope someone picks it up!

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The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician – a patchwork quilt for people-watchers

I read Tendai Huchu’s Hairdresser of Harare many years ago and the thing I remember most about it was its sense of atmosphere and colour and brightness and heat. The man makes you feel and that makes reading easy, makes you forget you’ve been on this train for an hour and a half, or that you’re tired. So I was excited to try The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician and I bumped it up my TBR list pretty soon after I received it.

The book tells the story of three Zimbabwean expats in Edinburgh. It introduces you to their family and friends, pinpoints their lives at a moment in time and watches how they run parallel, interweaving occasionally in unexpected ways. I don’t want to say too much about the plot of this book as I came to it thinking it was one thing, enjoyed it for what it was and was fascinated towards the end to find it was something else entirely.

Though Huchu’s native Zimbabwe is everywhere in his work, it never feels like a cultural lesson. Songs are not translated, terminology is not explained and I like that sort of thing. It’s not always practical perhaps but I like to learn language by context. It’s how children learn their native tongue and it’s how big readers get a good vocabulary, find words in their brains they know the meanings of even if they don’t quite know how they got there. In a world where so many half-hour TV shows offer a five-minute recap at the beginning of every episode, it doesn’t hurt not to have everything spelt out for us.

In this book, Tendai Huchu writes varied voices masterfully. I imagine him as the sort of person who listens to other people’s conversations on buses, catches snatches of them over his shoulder in coffee shops, listening to the lilts and language choices and filing them, perhaps even unconsciously, for future use. I suppose I’m one of those people too and that’s why I enjoy his work. It’s a tangled web of connections with some satisfyingly twisty turns. His characters are funny, sad and frustrating at times and his book is people-watching in paper form.

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Farenheit 451 – Watch it burn

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a jewel of a book. Sparsely yet beautifully written, it is a novel that peers into the depths of the modern soul. Bradbury paints a world not too different to the current age, where technology has driven people apart from one another and replaced that intimacy with a wall of televisual chatter. Books are forbidden and in these times, when houses are fireproof, firemen only exist to burn the books hidden in the houses of the few faithful after anonymous tip-offs. Of course, the beauty of the new world order is that this is barely even necessary. With their short attention spans and lust for sex, violence and the thirty-second summary, the people in Bradbury’s world are to all intents and purposes self-policing. Novels are mocked for their inconsistency with one other and dismissed for being untrue. Deep thinking is discouraged and people are urged to spend their time laughing at the spectacle of other people hurting themselves. Deep at the heart of the society, despite all the high-octane ‘fun’ that is being blasted at citizens, there are sky-high suicide rates as people try to find a way out of their loneliness. In this bleak world, where pondering is prohibited, fireman Guy Montag  is jolted out of his complacency by a young girl who stops him on his way home from work one night and asks him impertinent questions about dandelions and love, and the way things were before books were banned.

I can’t recommend Fahrenheit 451 highly enough. So bleak and chilling and realistic is its message that it really made me really think about the world I’m helping to bring about by reading the Daily Mail’s ‘sidebar of shame’. By joining in with the merciless clicking on brain-death stories (has she lost her baby weight yet? Is she too fat/thin/haggard/heartbroken? Has he been caught cheating/taking drugs again?) we create a world where that is the only news that will sell, till that’s the only news we get. Bradbury’s book is a stark and important warning not to be too complacent, not to be too complicit, not to give over the responsibility of educating ourselves to commercial interests. He invites the reader to consider what sort of future they are painting with the path they are following.

I would love to see this on every GCSE syllabus. It is fearless, thought-provoking and singularly impressive. It should be as famous as Orwell’s 1984 – it is just as great a cautionary tale.

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26a – The illusion of the living mirror

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Identical twins Bessi and Georgia live at 26a Waifer Avenue. The loft there, ‘a place of beanbags, nectarines and secrets’, is their private space. Downstairs live their older and younger sister, their faraway Nigerian mother and their shy, tightly wound father, who is both Jekyll and Hyde. The book spans the twins’ lives from the womb to their twenties and family life spreads through the book like a tree, setting down roots, branching out in places you don’t necessarily expect.

There is such an immediacy in Diana Evans’ writing. You are there. You can smell the fading strawberry smell of the beanbag, you can taste the promise in the teenage air. The book is a fascinating exploration of the nature of being a twin. You are one person and yet you are not. Differences work their way into the cracks of Bessi and Georgia’s lives. Georgia is fatter, Bessi is louder. The novel expands as the girls stretch and grow to meet their destinies.

If you’re a Zadie Smith fan you will devour this book but watch out for a darker more jagged edge to Evans’ writing. It’s interesting that the author herself is a twin. The twins in her book learn later than other people that everyone has to walk their own path in the end. Twin-ness gives the illusion of a living mirror, of someone who is genuinely, symbiotically yours, but in the end Bessi and Georgia fracture like everyone else.

The book is immensely readable – the style is easy and enjoyable – so much so that the sadness of the story crept up on me. When things changed for the twins I was as unprepared as they were. I sympathised with their bewilderment at the world. 26a is a hymn to the simplicity of childhood and the sibling bond, before the world comes in, before we start making choices and mistakes, and narrowing down the field of our lives until we wonder how we chose this path in the first place. Diana Evans asks her readers whether it is even something we choose. Do we become who we are by degrees, by a series of random strokes of luck?

The fascinating thing with the twins in this book is that you can see the different impressions the world makes on them in an unusual way, because of their original oneness. 26a is a book about the baggage we all pick up at some point in our lives; it’s about how some of us pick up more than others and how sometimes it can be difficult to carry.

I finished the book weeks ago now and I’m still carrying the twins around in my head a little bit. 26a is thought-provoking, lively and gripping, a novel about the way the world in our heads collides with the world as it is. It deals with the disintegration of innocence, of endless opportunities; it deals with loss. It’s about growing up, its pleasure and its pains, its certainties and all its unwanted shocks. Diana Evans has got some serious talent.

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Walden – ponderings and ponds

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

I started reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden simultaneously with an old friend, the idea being that we’d discuss it once we’d both finished. That discussion is still pending as it took me an unconscionably long time to finish this book. I was suffering from a sort of reader’s block which was definitely not helped by the fact this was the hardest book I’ve read in a while.

Published in 1854, in the days when books were the preserve of the educated (see rich) and reading wasn’t something to be stuffed in on your train journey to work, Walden is probably the exact sort of book that turns some people off English literature when they encounter it at school. It’s easy to mock (the man devotes whole chapters to the quality of his local pond) and it percolates slowly through your brain. Expect to re-read whole pages, and forget about trying to read the odd bit here and there in the bath. This is a book that requires mental commitment.

Walden is Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on life in the woods in Massachusetts, where he retreated to live a simple life beyond money, beyond the rat race, raising his own crops and building his own home. The book is wonderful both for its look into a different age (it’s a lot more difficult to do what Thoreau did in New England these days, I’ll bet!) and for its timeless truths, beautifully expressed.

Thoreau weighs in on everything from fashion to eating meat and is fascinatingly relevant even in 2013. He discusses the slavery of money and work, the concept of progress, education, ant battles (seriously), friendship, death and just about every other human preoccupation in a fresh and thought-provoking way. In the middle of a Robinson Crusoe-esque ode to pond geography he will come out with something totally profound, something that catches you off your guard.

So if you’re looking for a refreshing read that strips away modern superficiality and examines the truth of the human condition and you have the patience to get through (or have a fondness for) lots of praise for ponds you could do a lot worse than reading Walden.

On that note, I’ll leave you with some of my favourite quotes from the book – Thoreau says it better than I could.

“Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.”

“If a man does not keep pace with his companion, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”

“The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”

“And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter – we need never read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?”

“The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.”

“I mean that they (students) should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics.”

“As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.”

“But man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little have been tried.”

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

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