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April 21, 2009


Posted by carol
Heather Johnson's book club had a change of scenery for their last gathering. They attended an event featuring Junot Diaz, whose novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was their most recent selection. Heather recalls Diaz's colorful talk and what insight it provided for their discussion of the book.

Quick personal note here. Last November I wanted to see Junot Diaz at the Miami Book Fair, but the room was filled to capacity before I got to that panel and thus I missed seeing him. Last week he spoke at Fordham University, where my son is a freshman. It was a wonderful opportunity for the students studying the book to hear from him about what informed his writing --- and interact with him, but since it was a class event I could not attend. (For the record, his language was just as salty there as he was in the post that Heather describes below, which amused my son given the academic setting.) He will be appearing at the American Library Association conference in Chicago this July. I plan to attend. May the third time be a charm.

My book club's most recent read was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and, as luck would have it, Junot Diaz was scheduled to speak at the CityLit Festival in Baltimore this month. We decided to plan our meeting to include his talk, followed by lunch and discussion at a nearby restaurant. This is definitely a departure from our normal meeting style, but we figured we were due for a change.

I don't think any of us knew what to expect when we began reading Oscar Wao. We knew it was getting lots of buzz in the book community, we knew it had won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008, and we knew it was about an overweight Dominican sci-fi nerd...but that's about it.

The reality is that this book almost defies explanation. It is the story of Oscar, but it is also the story of his family. It is the story of his family, but it is also the story of the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo. It includes a host of sci-fi and fantasy illusions, but it relates them to reality, to Trujillo, to every aspect of Oscar's --- and his family's --- life. It is a Dominican story, complete with an abundance of Spanish and traditional Dominican stereotypes. It is a story of the streets, full of profanity and slang. The title is a nod to Ernest Hemingway's The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Talk about some strange and varying elements, right?!

Diaz was certainly a big draw for the Festival. The auditorium was packed to the gills, and the audience was very interested and engaged. People of all ages (excluding small children) were there, including a 9th grade English class brought by their teacher. I was a bit shocked by Diaz's language --- he's just as "colorful" in person as his narrator is in Oscar Wao --- but I really enjoyed myself all the same.

One of the things our club found challenging was the profusion of Spanish in the text. During his talk, Diaz addressed this issue. He joked that the Spanish wasn't there to make English-speakers "FEEL the immigration, sucka!" Rather, it was there as an invitation to engage other people who are out of your normal circle. He explained that his mom would understand all the Dominican references but that she'd never get all the sci-fi stuff --- she'd have to talk to a "geek" to understand that part of the story. "Groups that wouldn't normally interact are forced to talk to each other to understand the novel," said Diaz. For me, this was a very intriguing thought and it definitely added to my understanding and appreciation of the book.

After hearing Diaz speak we walked from the huge downtown library where the event was held, on a gorgeous spring day, to a local pub. Over lunch we discussed both the book and what Diaz had to say. Some of our topics were the use of sci-fi/fantasy allusions, writing about a culture you are familiar with, the use of street slang, the character of Beli (Oscar's mother), the treatment and imagery of women, and the meaning of the book's title. One gal pointed out that, for her, this book had the same subversive feel as The Catcher in the Rye. We all agreed that hearing an author talk about his book provides a great deal of insight into the novel and that the trip was well worth our time.

Has your club ever attended an event like this as a group? Or maybe you've done it on your own? Did hearing the author change your impression of the book for better or worse? Late summer and early fall are the times for most book festivals across the country...maybe your club would consider attending a local festival together or reading a book whose author will be featured at that event. There's certainly time enough to plan ahead!

---Heather Johnson