Category Archives: Carribbean American

A Handbook to Luck by Cristina García

Handbook to LuckTell me if you’ve heard this one before: a Cuban, an El Salvadorean, and an Iranian land on the page and spend decades trying to find their place in the world. Yes? Then, you must have read Cristina García‘s A Handbook to Luck. No? Then read Cristina Garcia’s A Handbook to Luck!

In 1968 Los Angeles, 9-year-old Enrique Florit’s wait for his widowed father’s career as a magician to take off seems to be finally over when Papi announces they’re Las Vegas-bound where he’ll be the warm-up act for Sammy Davis, Jr. Further south in San Salvador, Marta Claros, also just 9, has been forced out of school to sell used clothes to help her pregnant mother; she manages to sneak visits to her brother Evaristo who left the family and lives in a tree. Two years later, on the other side of the world in a Tehran garden, Leila Rezvani is annoyed at her mother who won’t stop flirting with her imported, sweating British horticulturist, even as she’s somewhat awed (then manipulated) by her dying older brother.

Over the next two decades, these three lives (with rare intrusions by the tree-dwelling fourth) will dovetail. Misguided Enrique will prove to be a math wiz who gets into MIT but finds himself unable to abandon his increasingly erratic, gambling father; both remain forever haunted by the accidental death of Enrique’s mother. Desperate Marta finally gets off the San Salvador streets by becoming a teenage bride but finds true contentment thousands of miles away with a married Korean immigrant whose manhood was damaged by seven months of torture. Privileged Leila with her Swiss diploma and her should-have-finished UCLA-degree will marry half a twin and lose herself over and over again. And runaway Evaristo will eventually climb down from his tree, detour through California, before climbing a remote mountain alone …

Cuban-born García – best known for her 1992 National Book Award finalist debut novel, Dreaming in Cuban – moves fluidly between viewpoints and dates, while changing gender, ethnicity, social status, backgrounds with ease. If you choose to stick the book in your ears, narrator Staci Snell effortlessly matches García’s pace, adjusting inflections and tones to voice each developing character. García deftly reveals details of her protagonists’ lives in limited parcels, making sure each chapter both hints at and holds back just enough to keep reading to the next, and next, and next. Magic and accident, running from and running to, entitlement and entrapment – life is about perspective and, as García’s Handbook attests, it’s also about luck.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Carribbean American, Iranian, Latin American, Latino/a

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

This Is How You Lose HerThus far, mega-award winning Junot Díaz (also recently bestowed the “Genius” moniker by the MacArthur Foundation) hasn’t written a book without his sort-of autobiographical stand-in Yunior de las Casas. Díaz’s 1996 fiction debut, Drownintroduced Yunior through interlinked short stories; a decade-plus later, Díaz turned over full narrative control to his pseudo-alter-ego in his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winnerThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Yunior stars again in Díaz’s latest award-studded title which, if you choose to stick in your ears, you get the added experience of Díaz’s own narration. Both Drown and Oscar are superbly narrated by Johnathan Davis; here, the switch to Díaz is both disturbing (I know this is fiction, but all that first-person confession seems suddenly heavier) and rewarding (who doesn’t want to hear an author read his/her own writing … uh, except for maybe Michael Ondaatje’s surprisingly disappointing performance of his – also filled with autobiographical overlaps – The Cat’s Table).

Given the title (not to mention the endless fawning media attention), This is not a collection of lovey-dovey happy-endings. Of the nine stories, eight belong to Yunior who has an uncontrollable problem with fidelity. “I’m not a bad guy,” the first story – “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” – opens, “I’m like everyone else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.” His cheated-on girlfriend disagrees: “She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an a**hole.” Having witnessed his father’s and brother’s wandering ways, Yunior thought he could be otherwise: “You had hoped the gene missed you, skipped a generation, but clearly you were kidding yourself,” he admits in “Miss Lora.” By the final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Yunior’s sucio red-letter badge threatens permanence.

Half of Yunior’s eight stories expand his immigrant childhood into searching teenagerhood: the family’s not-so-warm New Jersey reunion with a cold, controlling father in “Invierno”; his brother Rafa’s teenage, testosterone-charged exploits in “Nilda”; Rafa’s leukemia with the neverending complications of his too-active love life in “The Pura Principle”; and Yunior’s own cheating-on-his-high-school-girlfriend extracurricular relationship with an older woman in “Miss Lora.” Yunior’s college and young adult experiences get confessionally aired in “Alma,” “Flaca,” and “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” then jumps ahead to Yunior as an almost-middle-aged Harvard professor who, in the novella-length “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” suffers many wrenching lonely years after his fiancée discovers his staggering, well-documented, on-the-side record and (no surprise) leaves him.

While Yunior commands the spotlight – the majority of the women here are temporary diversions, even the pined-for fiancée – at least two women demand lasting attention: Yunior’s mother who is neglected, oppressed, abandoned, and finally liberated with a Spanglish coven regularly available for prayer and gossip; and Yasmin, the protagonist in the single story that doesn’t belong to Yunior, “Otravida, Otravez,” who is a Dominican immigrant whose lover has a letter-writing wife back in the DR.

Beyond the repetitively bad behavior in every story, Díaz imbues each cheating tale with layered depth, including challenges of immigration and assimilation, absent and abusive parents, isolation, socioeconomic barriers, gender gaps, and racial divides. Indeed, as Yunior proclaims, he’s “not a bad guy”; he’s just a horrible lover, but he can be a caring friend and – thanks to that ex who compiled his exploits into “the Doomsday Book” and mailed it to him with a note, “… for your next book” – he turns out to be quite the provocative storyteller.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Carribbean American

Conquistadora by Esmeralda Santiago

I think I must have been a Boricua in a former life. I can’t seem to stay away too long from La Isla del Encanto (especially my favorite Isla Culebrita), and I get the fiercest cravings for Bebo’s and mofongo (it’s all about a full belly). So how thrilled was I to get an invitation to visit a friend’s book club to discuss Conquistadora, an epic historical novel set in Puerto Rico. Alas, alas, if I tell her fellow Boricuas what I really think, it’s likely they will never invite me back … so the truth might just have to stay here.

As a girl growing up in 18th-century Spain, Ana Larragoity Cubillas – a señorita de buena familia (you’ll hear that moniker often!) – discovers the journals of an ancestor who was one of the first visitors two centuries prior to Puerto Rico when it was still called Borínquen. Ana’s adventurous aspirations come to fruition when she marries into a family that has inherited considerable holdings in Puerto Rico. Ana, her husband Rámon, his twin brother Inocente, plan to tame the sugar plantation that they name Hacienda los Gamelos (yes, House of the Twins). Ana’s romantic notions of wild island life are hardly what her reality turns out to be, and yet nothing will make her give up the challenge to achieve her Hacienda dreams – not murder, not motherhood, not widowhood, not epidemic deaths, not betrayal after betrayal.

Slavery, colonialism, the evolving role of women, gender power plays – such important storytelling potential quickly sinks into messy, missed opportunity. The narrative, with its telenovela twists and turns, relies heavily on eye-rolling moments to sustain a sort of train-wreck momentum: Ana’s furtive premarital couplings with her convent schoolfriend (a distant relative of the twins) who gets relegated to saintly spinsterhood most of her life, the ménage-à-trois-marriage Ana endures with both twins, too many white male characters’ forcible production of a shocking supply of hapa slave offspring.

Beyond the narrative, most characters prove to be predictable one-note caricatures: driven Ana, weakling twins, wallflower Elena, wannabe Severo, hysterical Lenore, doting Eugenio, spoiled Miguel. The few moments of grace belong to the long-suffering – dare I say – noble slaves: Olivia who dreams of telling her future children her whole life story because she never even learned her own mother’s name, José who lovingly immortalizes the cholera-dead into a piece of beautiful mahogany because all that is left of his loved ones are scattered ashes. As the book ends with Ana barely in middle-age, I fear a sequel must be in the works.

Conquistadora is not my first Esmeralda Santiago title: her debut, a resonating memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, was definitely my favorite; its sequel, Almost a Woman, proved disappointing, which was my excuse for not picking up the next sequel, The Turkish Lover; her predictable novel America’s Dream remains unfinished; and now her latest might have to be my last. I confess the only reason I made it to the end had to do with my belly (did I not mention cravings?). Yes, really – the friend who so graciously invited me to meet her Boricuas, promised to reward me with Pastelon de Amarillos. I admit it: I will read (almost anything) for amazing food! After alternating between the 432-page book and the almost 18-hour audible version narrated by a subdued Santiago herself, I can only hope I’ve earned tomorrow night’s dinner.

Readers: Adults

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Carribbean American, Latino/a, Puerto Rican

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano

Not to confuse anyone, but I have to start with p. 177 because that’s where you’ll find a reference to “that cool new show Sesame Street” (which debuted 1969), because first-time novelist Sonia Manzano has been playing Sesame Street‘s Maria for the last 30+ years! While the title says Evelyn Serrano, the book’s revolutionary events are directly inspired by Manzano’s own experiences, as well as real-life newspaper headlines. Manzano even borrowed her protagonist’s name from her own grandmother, Guadalupe Serrano Manzano, and her cousin Evelyn.

Just so we’re clear now: Sonia is not Maria, but she is Evelyn although not her cousin Evelyn. Got that?

Rosa María Evelyn del Carmen Serrano announces on her 14th birthday she’s dropping ‘Rosa’ for ‘Evelyn’ – “the least Puerto Rican-sounding name I could have” – because “El Barrio, Spanish Harlem, U.S.A., did not need another Rosa, María, or Carmen.” Summer 1969 is hot, and Evelyn has been released from working in her parents’ stifling bodega to get her first job at the Third Avenue five-and-dime.

She comes home one day to find she’s been displaced from her bedroom by a flamboyant grandmother she’s never met before, newly arrived from Puerto Rico. Abuela, Evelyn quickly realizes, is nothing like her subservient, long-suffering Mami. At first, the three generations of women hardly get along: Mami still resents Abuela for neglecting her most of her life, Abuela can’t understand why Mami doesn’t have a political bone in her body, and Evelyn just wants their bickering to stop.

Then the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, takes over the neighborhood streets with brooms, piling up the garbage that the city sanitation department seems to have forgotten and eventually setting it ablaze. They move from the streets to a local church, demanding to set up a free food program, offer clothing, and even health services for their struggling immigrant community. Abuela eagerly joins the protesters. Evelyn gets swept up in their change-making energy, gaining new pride in her Puerto Rican culture and history. Even Mami gets distantly involved, at first only to ensure Evelyn’s safety … but stays long enough to realize she can make her own contributions.

The tumultuous Puerto Rican history – on both islands, in the Caribbean and on Manhattan – certainly makes for an exciting read; as a novel, however, that excitement glosses over occasional narrative gaps, especially the lack of any mention of the new school year, since the story unfolds between summer to the following winter. As for characters, stepfather Pops’ backstory seems necessary to balance knowing that Evelyn’s birthfather died while Mami was still pregnant, and smooth-talking Wilfredo’s sudden redemption feels rather forced.

What Revolution might lack in continuity and literary finesse most likely won’t keep readers turning the pages. While Evelyn’s name graces the cover, Abuela’s larger-than-life presence, her buried memories, her emotionally complicated struggles, are what spark and inspire the evolution that becomes Evelyn’s revolution.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Caribbean, Carribbean American, Puerto Rican

A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez

Neither Julia Alvarez nor her husband Bill can remember exactly when she fell in love with a Haitian boy named Piti. But both distinctly recall the first meeting, which happened in 2001 on one of their many trips to Alvarez’s native Dominican Republic. “[S]hort and slender with the round face of a boy,” Piti – whose Kreyòl name means “little one,” was 17, 19, possibly even 20. “Somewhere in Haiti,” Alvarez realizes, “a mother had sent her young son to the wealthier neighbor country to help the impoverished family.” Never having experienced childbirth herself, something about Piti nonetheless releases “unaccountably maternal” feelings in Alvarez: “Who knows why we fall in love with people who are nothing to us?” she muses.

Piti becomes ingrained in the hearts and lives of both Alvarez and Bill as they travel frequently from their Vermont home to their organic coffee farm in the Dominican mountains, where eventually Piti comes to work. One night, Alvarez promises she will be at his wedding, “[o]ne of those big-hearted promises … you never think you’ll be called on to deliver someday.” Eight years later, ‘someday’ arrives … and so begins Alvarez’s latest – her 22nd! – title, A Wedding in Haiti.

A week before the Aug. 20, 2009, nuptials, Piti announces his intention to marry Eseline, the mother of his infant daughter, and wants to know: Are Julia and Bill coming?

After arguing with her conscience (she was supposed to attend a conference at the same time), Alvarez and hubby arrive in Santiago, DR, two days before the wedding. They assemble their motley crew of attendees, pack the truck, and head toward Haiti, which Alvarez describes “like a sister I’ve never gotten to know.” In spite of the shared border, Alvarez has been next-door only once before, a quarter century ago. Piti’s family’s remote home doesn’t have an actual address or even appear on any map, but the adventure – long, uncertain, occasionally illegal – will end just in time for Alvarez and Bill to preside as the revered godparents as Piti and Eseline exchange vows.

The truck must depart immediately after the ceremony, this time with the newly-wedded threesome, as Piti doesn’t want to subject his new family to public transportation. That neither wife nor baby has any immigration documentation is an obstacle they must face at the border. In spite of her fear and frustration with the situation, Alvarez “will not abandon them.… There is a bottom line below which you cannot go and still call yourself a human being.” Over just three days, Alvarez’s familial constellation changes remarkably.

Five months later, the horrific 2010 earthquake hits Haiti: its government reports “316,000 dead, 300,000 injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,300 houses destroyed.” Piti and Eseline finally learn their immediate families have survived, but Eseline is not well; a trip home is deemed necessary. In July, Alvarez and Bill, Piti, Eseline, baby Ludy, and three more extended near-family, overload the truck and head over the border into devastated Haiti, bearing witness to indescribable tragedies.

“The one thing we cannot do is turn away,” Alvarez insists. “When we have seen a thing, we have an obligation. To see and to allow ourselves to be transformed by what we have seen.” Her bond with Piti allows Alvarez to experience Haiti through Piti’s shocked eyes, and witness his transformation “[f]rom laborer to capataz [supervisor] to president of CJM [Young People of Moustique Cooperative],” as he “work[s] toward the future of Haiti.”

Alvarez, internationally renowned for her novels, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, says of her latest book (in an essay included with the advance copy), “[r]ather than a ‘me-moir,’ I prefer to call this book an ‘us-moir.’” While Piti’s story takes center page, Alvarez also weaves in her own marriage to her beloved Bill, her parents’ decades-long love story still unbroken in spite of the mutual dementia that has stolen most of their memories, as well as the complicated relationship of two less-than-sisterly nations.

Although Wedding occasionally reads too much like an unedited personal journal – especially the first half (which, Alvarez reveals, is how the book began) – Alvarez’s devotion, her admiration and hope, and most clearly, the love for her extended family, is palpable throughout. The small black-and-white-pictures scattered on the pages help emphasize the individual humanity throughout. Indeed, as Alvarez explains, Wedding proves to be “a love story that is many love stories; a story of how history can be reimagined when people from two countries, traditional enemies and strangers, become friends.”

Review: Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Caribbean, Carribbean American, Latino/a

Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez

Here’s a rather unique literary coincidence: Julia Alvarez‘s Finding Miracles ends with an uncle missing the grandmother’s wedding because of hemorrhoid surgery. Return to Sender begins with the mention of another uncle (in a totally unrelated story) suffering through a hemorrhoid operation. Try and find two books to repeat that experience!

Oh, but I digress …

In Return to Sender, two different families meld into each other, initially from circumstance, and then with heartfelt connections. Tyler Paquette, 11, is shocked to learn that because of his father’s debilitating accident, the family is hiring three Mexican migrant workers (who are brothers) to help run the family farm in Vermont. With them arrive three young daughters; the oldest, Mari, is Tyler’s age, and will soon enough be in his sixth-grade class. Tyler is even more troubled to realize that the Cruz brothers – as competent, reliable, and farm-saving as they will prove to be – are also illegal immigrants. Interwoven with Tyler’s story, are Mari’s letters to her missing mother. Many months ago, Mari’s mother left the family when they were still living in North Carolina to visit her ailing mother in Mexico, and seemingly disappeared somewhere between there and here.

Over the months, the Paquette and Cruz families blend: Tyler and Mari become especially supportive friends; the girls help alleviate Tyler’s grandmother’s paralyzing loneliness after losing Tyler’s grandfather; and Tyler’s parents are gratefully relieved that the Cruz brothers have returned the family farm to full function. Of course, challenges are plenty, too: Mari is targeted at school as an outsider; enough disgruntled townspeople speak out loudly against the illegal workers; immigration raids are not uncommon; and the Cruz family finally learns the fate of the mother.

Alvarez is certainly working with a difficult, timely topic and, while readers will have no doubt as to her own views, her characters openly express battling opinions. The children are certainly the most effected: Tyler’s love of his country and the need to respect his country’s laws are painfully questioned; Mari, as the only sister not born in the U.S., faces a precarious future as she worries about the possible deportation of her parents and uncles, and the challenges her sisters will face if they are forced to live a very different life in the family’s Mexican village. Alvarez thoughtfully offers no easy solutions.

Alvarez won the 2010 Pura Belpré Medal winner for narrative with this title; the prestigious Pura Belpré Awards from the American Library Association “is presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” The strength of Alvarez’s story is clearly in the individual relationships created and cemented by people with vastly disparate backgrounds. Beyond the official rules and regulations, beyond borders, beyond the headlines, are two friends who share a love of the stars, whose families and lives converge long enough to establish a lasting, human bond.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Carribbean American, Latino/a

Finding Miracles by Julia Alvarez

Sandwiched between sister Kate and brother Nate, Milly Kaufman is the only adopted child of their Jewish father and Mormon mother. She began life with the name Milagros (as in ‘miracles’), until she was claimed as an infant by parents working with the Peace Corps in a troubled, never-named Latin American country. While the family has always been candid about her birth, 16-year-old Milly just wants to fit in with the rest of their small Vermont town.

Milly’s faraway past arrives at school one day with the appearance of new student Pablo Bolivar, a refugee from her birthcountry. She overcomes her initial discomfort when their families begin to spend more time together, and Pablo proves to be a gentle, thoughtful soul who, in spite of his youth, has seen too much of a violent, troubled world.

As both families grow closer, Milly wonders more openly about her own history. When she inadvertently finds out that her wealthy grandmother’s revised will treats her differently from the other grandchildren, her concept of family shifts – and, for the first time, she’s ready to find out who she really is.

When new elections allow the Bolivars to return to their home country that summer, Milly decides to accompany them, even as her parents worry – her sister Kate most of all – that they are losing their little girl. Buffered by the extended Bolivar clan – especially by Pablo who becomes her guide, confidante, and more – Milly learns of her country’s horrific history … to which her own past is inextricably linked.

Julia Alvarez, whose own turbulent family history in the Dominican Republic has inspired multiple bestselling titles (most notably How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies), treads an uneven line in Miracles, shifting between something akin to a happily-ever-after fairy tale and shockingly gory nightmare.

The miraculous coincidences Milly experiences in her birthcountry (finding someone connected to her orphanage almost on arrival, for example) seem just too convenient. Her selfish grandmother (who comes with her own European Jewish family baggage) has too easy a redemptive turnaround. To the other extreme, the horrors Milly learns that are part of her personal history seem far too graphic and gruesome for a middle grade/young adult title, as well as just too jarring with the rest of the story.

Disappointments aside, Daphne Rubin-Vega (who also narrates Alvarez’s Once Upon a Quinceañera) will convince you to keep the ‘play’-button on, bestowing gravitas on Milly’s growing awareness. What might occasionally flounder on the page definitely gets a lift from her husky, emotive voice. Now you know your options, choose wisely.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2004

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Carribbean American, Latino/a

Stir It Up by Ramin Ganeshram

Food writer Ramin Ganeshram shares her Indo-Caribbean culinary prowess in her debut title for younger readers about eighth-grader Anjali Krishnan who really knows how to stir things up … and make it all taste great. Working part-time in her family’s busy roti shop – which specializes in Trinidadian comfort cooking – in Richmond Hill, Queens with her father and grandmother, Anjali has delicious dreams: “I want to have my own show about Caribbean food. No one has done that yet. I’ll be the first.”

At 13, she’s well on her way to chef-dom, learning all the family recipes from her grandmother, testing and sharing her own unique creations with some of the shop’s appreciative regulars, and taking serious classes at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan. Then Anjali gets a chance to compete in a reality show featuring kiddie chefs: making the finals turns out to be the easy part, but convincing her parents to let her go to the auditions proves to be a much tougher challenge, especially since tryouts are the exact same date and time as the admissions test for a coveted spot to  Stuyvesant High School.

Regardless of her parents’ old-world immigrant insistence on education first, Anjali is not about to give up her dream, especially when she’s can practically smell the curry: “‘… we curry just about everything.’” As talented as she is, however, Anjali’s still got a thing or two to learn about cooking up true success.

With all her cooking and writing experience, Ganeshram gets the blend just right in this toothsome tale about food, family, and feeding not just the belly, but nourishing the mind and soul, as well. The recipes read deliciously, too … as I’m an utter disaster in the kitchen, maybe I can rally my teenagers to give me a helping hand!

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Carribbean American, Indian American

Drown by Junot Díaz

Talk about a surprisingly fortuitous bonus: If you get the audible version of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, included in the deal is Junot Díaz‘s debut title, Drown, a collection of 10 mostly-related short stories. That both Díaz titles are read with such fluency by Jonathan Davis melds the two together, as if each book is a complementary extension of the other.

If you haven’t discovered either book yet, the audible versions are highly recommended together. The main reason is Yunior, Oscar‘s narrator, who in spite of his near omniscient vantage point in the novel, reveals little about himself beyond his love for Oscar’s sister Lola which is never enough to curb his extracurricular exploits. Instead, Drown is where Yunior’s life gets revealed in snippets: his origins in the Dominican Republic, growing up with a mostly absent father who left for the United States, his adventures (sometimes brutal) with his older brother Rafa (“Ysrael”), the struggles his mother faces trying to raise her two sons abandoned and alone (“Aguantando”).

Meanwhile, in New York, Yunior’s father works numerous dead-end jobs, trying to figure out how to reunite his family, and falls into another marriage, another life (“Negocios”). The family is eventually reunited, adding a little sister for Rafa and Yunior. Yunior is prone to car sickness earning his father’s violent wrath (“Fiesta 1980″), worries about his sexuality (“Drown”), yet knows all the certain love moves for girls of different ethnicities (“How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie”). As an adult, he’s mourning the loss of his girlfriend for whom he used to steal spending money at his pool table delivery job (“Edison, NJ), although he thinks he might get over his latest breakup by befriending the model in the apartment below whose lover has recently broken her heart (“Boyfriend”).

Díaz’s stories here, about Yunior or not, are all raw, visceral, and each aching with need. The rejected suffering endured in the Dominican Republic does not necessarily abate with an American address. Material and physical comforts (food, transportation, a home) are not enough for the good life, especially with fractured families that can’t seem to find a way back together, regardless of closing distance. Yunior and Oscar: two overlapping books, two diametric lives, one parallel quest for lasting true love.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1996


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Carribbean American

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Here are a few new things I learned from Junot Díaz‘s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner that many of you already read long ago …

I get why Junot Díaz’s “guiltiest pleasure of all” is Naoki Urasawa’s 18-volume manga, Monster. I’m right there with him!

I now recognize the splattered gruesome-ness of the cover.

I understand why Díaz deserved the Pulitzer. Who else can go so seamlessly and effortlessly from Toto to Dungeons & Dragons to Scooby-Doo to Elvish … and spout perfect political theory, rant about colonialism, and enlighten you about “linguistic and computational complexity”?

I rejoice once more for Jonathan Davis who narrates Oscar Wao in the audible version, who rightfully won’s 4th Annual Tournament of Champions of Audiobooks earlier this year with his recitation of Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Davis works the same fluid magic with Oscar and company.

But back to Wao (WOW!). In spite of Oscar’s name on the cover, the contents are shared by his extended family, including the many unrequited loves of his life. Narrated by Yunior (who I’m assuming is the same Yunior from Díaz’s short story collection, Drown), the story begins and ends in the Dominican Republic with Oscar’s first and last amors.

Dovetailed with Oscar’s endless search for love – from his 7-year-old Dominican Casanova self, to his rotund New Jersey teenaged years obsessed with role-playing games, to his depressed overweight adult incarnation scribbling hundreds of pages of fantasy novels (not to mention his expansive erudite vocabulary) – is an intricate family saga that spans two countries, three generations, multiple decades, and the heinous reign of “Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated.”

From the barest distance, Yunior – as Oscar’s friend and short-term roommate who should have been Oscar’s brother-in-law if only he could keep his manhood from wandering – omnisciently fills in Oscar’s family tree. Oscar’s protective older sister Lola is a feisty, independent woman forced to grow up too soon by a mother incapable of showing the love her daughter craves. Mother Beli with secrets of her own, is dying from cancer, but determined to protect her children any way she can. And Oscar and Lola’s waiting grandmother La Inca back in DR is the holder of an ancestral nightmare her grandchildren will never know, but from which we readers cannot turn away.

The resulting collage of legends, memories, curses, and history is as gorgeous as it is horrific. Brief, yes. Wondrous, yes. And shattering, funny, wrenching, inspiring, tortuous … and finally, hopeful. “The beauty! The beauty,” the final page hauntingly echoes …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Carribbean American