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83 of 93 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ironic verdict on the Dominican Republic
This is a good book. I'm English, not merely old but "old school", so a full-length novel written in "hip" American ghetto slang and liberally peppered with Spanish terms and phrases unknown to my large Collins Spanish Dictionary, and with a heavy reliance on references to science and fantasy fiction and comic books (all of which I despise), I would not usually touch with...
Published on 2 April 2008 by riverside

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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not too brief, and definitely not wondrous
Overall, I was disappointed with this Pulitzer Prize Winning novel, despite an interesting sounding storyline. The story centres on a Dominican family living in the USA, and principally on Oscar, a hugely fat comic-book obsessed nerd. In telling the story of Oscar and his family, it also relates the 20th century history of the Dominican Republic under the dictator...
Published on 6 Jun 2009 by BookWorm


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83 of 93 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ironic verdict on the Dominican Republic, 2 April 2008
By 
This is a good book. I'm English, not merely old but "old school", so a full-length novel written in "hip" American ghetto slang and liberally peppered with Spanish terms and phrases unknown to my large Collins Spanish Dictionary, and with a heavy reliance on references to science and fantasy fiction and comic books (all of which I despise), I would not usually touch with a barge-pole, but I loved this one and neglected my other duties until I had finished it.

I have read most of the ninety-odd reviews of the book on Amazon UK and US and I think that many readers miss the point when they complain that the title is a misnomer because only a small part of the book describes Oscar's "life" and that while he may be a physically well-rounded person his character is flat and clichéd. The title surely is ironic. Oscar has really neither a life or a personality to speak of. He is just a peg on which to hang an analysis of Dominican society on the island and in New York, which the author perceives to be generally nasty. It is Dominican "culture" itself which is the "fukú" and bad things and bad people will inevitably surface because the whole fabric is built on rotten foundations of ignorance, greed and racism. You could almost say that the heart of the book is in its historic footnotes.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Family's History of the Dominican Republic, 8 Jan 2008
By 
A. Ross (Washington, DC) - See all my reviews
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I loved Diaz's short story collection Drown, and like almost everyone else who read it, have been eagerly waiting years for his next book. Now, something like a decade later, Diaz brings a character from that collection (Yunior) back to narrate the family history of his Rutgers roommate Oscar (who is also the brother of Yunior's sometime girlfriend). This tale begins with Oscar's grandfather and ends up encompassing quite a bit of the modern history of the Dominican Republic. And although the story hopscotches back and forth in time and location quite a bit, Diaz has complete command of his narrative.

To be fair, sometimes the story feels more like "A People's History of the Dominican Republic." than a novel about a geeky kid from New Jersey. Not that this is a bad thing -- Diaz manages to get at the political, economic, and psychological forces that brought so many Dominican immigrants to the U.S . over the last fifty years via captivating and dextrous prose. The dominant theme of this multigenerational story is the "fuku" (curse) Oscar's family lives under. (Of course, as Yunior points out, every Dominican family believes itself to be cursed by the fuku americanus, a curse brought by European colonialists which has turned the Caribbean Eden into a despotic prison to be escaped.)s The fuku first hits Oscar's grandfather, an upper-class doctor undone by the rise of the Trujillo thugocracy (equal to that of Saddam Hussein in horror inflicted on its subjects). His daughter (Oscar's mother) faces her own tragedy due to the fuku, and is the bridge between life in the D.R. and life in America, as she escapes to New York. Her children, Oscar and Lola, represent the generation born and bred in the U.S. -- both connected to, and apart from their Dominican heritage.

The story thus enables Diaz to examine how nationality, culture, and language become more and more blended over generations (non-Spanish speakers should note that the book is full of untranslated Spanish words and phrases, which can be a little frustrating at times). The segments of the book set in the D.R. under the Trujillo regime tend to be a great deal more compelling than the contemporary storyline. The story of Oscar's mother's childhood and teen years are far more colorful and dramatic than the on-again, off-again romance between Yunior and Oscar's sister Lola, and are definitely more interesting than Oscar's own geeky problems. Fat, obsessive, and devoid of social skills, Oscar makes it hard for people (including the reader) to sympathize with him and his dual dreams of becoming the "Dominican Tolkein" and losing his virginity. The final section of the book, in which Oscar pursues love with the trademark oblivious obsession that has made him an outcast, is pretty much straightforward classical doomed love, and thus the least interesting and convincing.

The overall effect of the book is a good deal more sad and depressing than I had expected. Although the title and opening chapter alert the reader to the brevity of Oscar's life, for some reason, I hadn't expected it to unfold quite as pathetically and tragically as it does. Similar tragedies unfold in the previous generations, and by the end of the book, there is little consolation of any kind to be found. Diaz writes with so much compassion for his characters that one would be hard pressed not to be affected. However, the sexual themes that pervade all the storylines act as somewhat of a life-affirming counterbalance to all the death and disappointment. And above all, there is the sheer exuberance and dexterity of the prose, which makes the book well worth reading from a purely stylistic or technical perspective. Not exactly a masterpiece, but well worth reading.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Junot Diaz's Masterpiece, 27 May 2009
By 
Herman Norford "Keen Reader" (Birmingham, UK) - See all my reviews
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I haven't got enough space to set out my full praise of this masterpiece, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. That it is a masterpiece is upheld by the fact that it has won two of America's four most prominent literary awards - namely, the National Critics Book Circle, 2007 and the Pulitzer, 2008. While literary awards are not necessarily a guide to great novels, in this case they are, nonetheless, a good indication of the stature in which this novel must be held.

So what's the excitement about? Junot Diaz debut novel is set in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, USA. But symbolically it is a novel that ranges wide in its geographical scope to take in the whole of the Caribbean basin. From the title of the novel one would believe that it was solely a story about Oscar Wao but that is not the case. Instead, along with telling us about Oscar, (his story is the kingpin on which the others hinge) Diaz also sets out three further stories in the novel: Oscar's sister, Lola, his mother, Beli, and grandfather, Aberlard gets a good airing. The effect of these multiple stories is to render a family saga set in the time and context of the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo. The whole family sometimes suffer inexplicable disaster and the only explanation that Diaz can offer is that of a "Curse and Doom of the new world" - better known as "Fuku Americanus". Almost in one stroke of genius, Diaz's Fuku myth links the so called discovered new world by the Admiral, Christopher Columbus, with Europe and Africa. The Admiral's discovery led the way to the slave trade, brutality and almost as if by a way of easing the pain all this gave rise to the Fuku.

Diaz tells his story through at least two narrators from the first person narrator to the third person omniscient narrator, Yunior de Las Casas sometimes boyfriend to Oscar's sister, Lola. Diaz's writing style is economical but powerful in its analysis and revelations. On the one hand, he is capable of crafting beautiful long flowing sentences that are laced with humour and relevant metaphors, for example: "And then there was Lillian, the other waitress, a squat rice tub, whose rancour against the world turned to glee only when humanity exceeded in its venality, brutality and mendacity even her own expectations." On the other hand, Diaz also displays a staccato rap style language when narrating the youthful lives of Oscar and Lola.

The text is also littered with numerous references ranging from other novels, sci-fi fiction and films, right through to opera and architecture. I found these references sometimes amusing and telling. Furthermore, the prospective reader should not be deterred by Diaz's extensive use of Spanish. As someone who does not understand Spanish I do not feel that my enjoyment and appreciation of the novel was significantly diminished by its use.

The novel presents an interesting character in its main protagonist, Oscar Wao. Oacar is a bit of a nerd; he is not a typical Dominican youngster. He likes sci-fi and to some extent he is a bit of a loner. He is eventually driven to attempt suicide probably because of the overwhelming expectation of Dominican culture, which he never escapes, even though he resides in the USA, namely that every young Dominican man is expected to make it with the opposite sex which he fails to do until, speculatively, during the last pages of the book. This failure in Oscar provides for an important theme in the novel, namely that the overarching influence of culture and history is hard to escape.

By examining Oscar's and his family's life both in the Dominican Republic and the USA, Diaz lays bare the social conditions of these lives. His shift from the Dominican Republic to the USA is subtle and skilful. The reader has to be on guard for these shifts as Diaz tries to show how each setting and social life affects the other. To express this in another way, in a relatively short novel Diaz gives us a brief history, but of epic proportions, of the socio-political conditions of the Dominican Republic through one family's struggle for survival and their optimism for the future. Here is an example of how Diaz describes that optimism found in the character Beli, Oscar's mother: "Hers was a generation that would launch the Revolution, but which for the moment was turning blue for want of air. The generation reaching consciousness in a society that lacked any."

The idea of endurance is a theme that I found moving and at the same time disturbing. The ability and the capacity of the mixture of the people in the Caribbean to endure hardship is an experience to condemn on the part of those who perpetrate it and to celebrate on the part of those who remain resilient and optimistic.

Some of Diaz's achievements are that on the back of a family saga he manages to lay bare social life in some parts of the Caribbean: its poverty, its dictatorship elite, its racial internecine competitiveness and sadly the need for vast numbers of its population to migrate. At the same time against this grim reality, Diaz manages to conjure up a novel that brittles with comedy, it had me laughing out loud on many occasions. Further, if you are a reader who wants to gain some understanding the factual characters in the novel you will find that like me you will be Googling names to look up brief biographies. This is a masterpiece that should be read by all who love great literature.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A look into one of the US's subcultures, 18 May 2011
By 
This is one of the most entertaining books i have ever read. It was beautifully written in modern English, with spanish mixed in. Not the type of grammar, or language, you normally see written. All in all it was a great story told from varying perspectives, which kept it fresh the whole way throgh.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Oscar WOW!, 2 April 2011
This review is from: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Paperback)
One of the most stunning books written in years.The quality of the writing is quite exceptional and fresh.No wonder it won the Pulitzer.Suffice to say that I have given copies to a load of friends who have reacted similarly.Wonderful.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great novel on the fulfillment of family patterns and the weight of history, 25 May 2011
By 
rob crawford "Rob Crawford" (Balmette Talloires, France) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Paperback)
This book took a while to engage me as a reader: the chief protagonist is an obese youth who cannot get laid and loses himself in modern American scifi-fantasy junk. Not the most easily empathized with character, to say the least. But by the end, he and his family's history are totally sympathetic.

After one failed attempt to read it, I picked it up again and became utterly enthralled with the story. Somehow, it suddenly clicked and I was unable to put it down. This is one of the BEST novels I have read in years.

The plot revolves around what is taken as a family curse, a circle of destruction and difficult survival. There are mythical beings that appear, but it is not magical realism at all. They are part of the imagery passed from one generation to the next is some mysterious way, appearing at crucial moments of danger. Call it what you want: a curse, destiny, psychology, genetic determinism, but all the characters conform to the circle, working it out in their own ways.

The history starts with a terrible tragedy in the Dominican Republic, the kind of thing that takes place under dictators. It is so vivid that I found it painful to read, yet fascinating as several dear friends of mine from the past are Dominican. I learned a lot of history from the novel - where they came from and what their particular dictatorship was like. From there, the survivors remain caught in history's web, either acting out the same pattern or consciously attempting to live a life that negates it. Everyone that follows the tragedy is a bit player, perhaps escaping at the very end of the third generation. I do not want to reveal anything here as a spoiler, but to give my interpretation.

What makes the novel such a success is that you really believe in all the characters, see their motivations and limitations as real and inexorable, and understand the island's history (a universal story, really). It is pathetic, sad, funny, and occasionally uplifting. Genuinely a stunning performance, a real work of art.

An added treat is the experimental manner in which it is written: peppered with SPanish words - I kept a dictionary on hand, not that it helped that much given how much dialect patois was in it - and full of allusions to scifi, comics, and role-play games. (Being something of a nerd myself, I got about half of the references to Dune, Lord of the Rings, Marvel COmics, Octavia Butler, and Star Trek.) The author creates a quirky language that resonates with life.

Warmly recommended. This is the work of a true original.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'Tis Better to Have Loved and Lost Than to Never Love at All, 9 Feb 2008
By 
Donald Mitchell "Jesus Loves You!" (Thanks for Providing My Reviews over 124,000 Helpful Votes Globally) - See all my reviews
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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a family saga about identity, love, loss, oppression, hexes, sexuality, and fate. Don't give up during the first 50 pages where Oscar, the fat science-fiction and fantasy aficionado Dominican-American in the ghetto, is introduced . . . it's the least interesting part of the book.

From there, you will be transported into the past and future lives of Oscar's sister, mother, aunts, grandparents, and college roommate. Those lives are, in part, shared to present the history of the evil, repressive regime of Trujillo and its heirs in the Dominican Republic. The stories shared in this book rival anything you've read about the disappeared ones in Argentina.

Any book with such a sad point needs a little levity to release the reader's emotions. Junot Diaz accomplishes that result by having Oscar be the most unRomeo-like Romeo you can imagine.

Beneath the story line, the book asks a classic question: How much should we suffer for love?

Oscar is in many ways a modern Don Quixote who is troubled by having sexual desires as well as platonic ones. The humor is more subdued, but the parallels are striking.

If all you know about the Dominican Republic is that great baseball players come from there, you'll be pleased with this story. It's sweet and sad at the same time.

If you don't know Spanish, keep a dictionary handy. You won't quite know what some of the references are otherwise.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Wondrous Book That Ought Not to Work, 19 Mar 2009
By 
Quicksilver (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Paperback)
On the surface, 'Oscar Wao' has little going for it. One of its main characters is an overweight Sci-Fi-Fantasy Nerd, there are numerous quotes from the 'Lord of The Rings', the author takes liberties with conventional grammar, the text has Spanish words sprayed through it with alarming regularity and there are endless footnotes on a country I knew almost nothing about. It just shouldn't work as a novel, but it does; extremely well.

The novel is narrated by a family friend and focuses on three generations of San Dominican immigrants, who now live in New Jersey. Being an overweight fantasy nerd myself, I particularly enjoyed the tragi-comedy of the sections that dealt with Oscar, but all of the narratives have much to recommend them.

The stories of 'Beli', Oscar's mother and grandfather Abelard, are really an examination of despotic cruelty. I had never heard Rafeal Trujillo; he may have been a relatively small player in World history but as Diaz reveals, Trujillo and his henchmen cast a dark shadow over the Dominican Republic for thirty years. The stories of Oscar and sister Lola, deal with the aftermath of a dictatorship, and the reality of life as an immigrant, in even the most cosmopolitan of melting pots. All four stories are well balanced and beautifully drawn.

This novel is not without its flaws. The repeated references to fantasy and comic book fiction, I imagine would grate on a reader not familiar with the genre. The unusual use of punctuation, particularly around dialogue, seemed entirely gratuitous and was occasionally confusing. My main gripe though, was the repeated use (mainly in Lola's tale) of colloquial Spanish. This was not only off-putting but also meant I often lost the sense of an entire sentence. All of these factors together ought to have made for a terrible novel, and it is testment to the quality of Diaz's writing, the strength of his story and his vivid characters that all times 'Oscar Wao' remains a compelling read.

Above all this is a novel about fate; were Oscar's family cursed or were they the architects of their own downfall? According to Diaz the San Dominicans are great believers in destiny, but his novel artfully shows, that for the oppressed, a difficult life often offers very few alternatives. This novel may have its flaws but it is powerful, important and above all, well worth reading.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not too brief, and definitely not wondrous, 6 Jun 2009
By 
BookWorm "BookWorm" (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Paperback)
Overall, I was disappointed with this Pulitzer Prize Winning novel, despite an interesting sounding storyline. The story centres on a Dominican family living in the USA, and principally on Oscar, a hugely fat comic-book obsessed nerd. In telling the story of Oscar and his family, it also relates the 20th century history of the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo.

I found it a very hard book to 'get in to' and struggled to relate to any of the characters, even Oscar's bright, rebellious sister, Lola. Many crucial lines are rendered in Spanish and it is littered with Spanish words, none of which are translated. For the non-Spanish speaker this is very frustrating and hinders understanding whilst spoiling the narrative flow. At the least they should include a glossary for those of us who are not bilingual.

The identity of the narrator is often confusing, particularly in the earlier part of the novel, and I found this increased my sense of detachment from the text. The lengthy footnotes on Dominican history are very hard to read - being in tiny print and sometimes being as long as a page - and pervade the novel with a sense of bitterness.

Even the storyline did not grip me, though some parts were better than others. The story around Oscar was not very fresh or credible, and the ending was ridiculous. I enjoyed the sections set in the DR during Trujillo's time the best, as these were more gripping and better written.

On the whole, a literary but not engaging book and not one I would want to read again or recommend.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, engaging read, 8 Mar 2008
By 
I loved this book. I found Diaz's style of writing a breath of fresh air. The stories he tells are compelling, shocking and passionate to the very end. I could immediately relate to Oscar but maybe that's something I shouldn't admit!

I began the book knowing nothing about the Dominican Republic but Diaz presented the history and folklore in a fascinating way.

A brilliant first novel, I eagerly await more from this captivating writer.
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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Paperback - 5 Feb 2009)
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