The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007)
Fiction. Recommended to me by one of my former students in New York City.
Takes place in Paterson, New Jersey and chronicles one family's history in the Dominican Republic under the rule of Dictator Rafael Trujillo. Different from anything else I've ever read. It gave me a lot of insight into Dominican culture, which was interesting after teaching a large population of Dominican students in New York, and also taught me a lot about Dominican history. It isn't a happy story, though. The main character, Oscar, is a tortured boy who doesn't fit the typical Dominican male stereotype of his homeland, but also doesn't fit in in Paterson either. He is overweight, has no "game" whatsoever, is obsessed with science-fiction and fantasy and writing, and is possibly the biggest romantic ever to live, all factors which conspire against him. I am sure some of the magic of this story was lost on me with a lot of Spanish in the book, a lot of slang, and a lot of cultural references that I didn't understand. To help non-Dominican or non-sci-fi-loving readers at least somewhat, the author filled the story with historical, cultural, and literary footnotes. The writing style is non-traditional, very modern, and sometimes it took me a few minutes of reading to figure out who the narrator was or what time period/setting we were in. I can't say that I loved it, but I did find it interesting and was eager to reach its conclusion.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (2009)
Non-fiction. Recommended by Matt Weiss and Meghan Woo, who left the book here after their visit in the summer.
The story describes the experience of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath for an upper-middle-class Muslim-American family living in New Orleans. The blurred lines between the government's approach to addressing the city's problems while still fighting its war on terror on the home-front were news to me. It is an educational story filled with rage and fear and love and sorrow and politics and EVERYTHING. Dave Eggers, already an amazing writer, really outdid himself with this book, working with and receiving full cooperation from the family, who donate all proceeds of the book to their foundation to promote religious tolerance and help rebuild New Orleans. It is, by far, the most important piece of writing I have read in a very, very long time. It should be used in high school and college classrooms the world over to teach writing, religion, politics, and history. B-r-i-l-l-i-a-n-t.
The Alchemist by Paola Coelho (1988)
Fiction. Recommended by lots of people in the world.
This was a book I've had on my "read" list for years, but I've just never gotten around to it before now and BOY WAS I MISSING OUT. Written in 1988 by the Brazilian Coelho, the story is spiritual and religious, it is "new age" and traditional, it is magical and down-to-earth. Telling the tale of one boy's journey towards his "Personal Legend", Coelho pushes the idea that if you want to achieve or accomplish something, all the universe will conspire to help you do it. The story teaches of love and courage and free-will. It is a simple story - a fable, actually - that reminded me of The Little Prince (I know I'm not the only one...); it was also a nice reminder that something so simple could be so profound. Kristoffer read it a long time ago and when I finished it last night, we ended up having a really important discussion about it and our lives for the rest of the evening. It also made me itch a bit to get into the classroom...from the minute I finished it my brain was coming up with ideas for teaching the text to my students! What fun that would have been!
Stay tuned for next week's reviews...and happy reading of your own in the meantime! Also, if you have suggestions for what I should be reading and reviewing, please let me know.