Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Dominican Republic

Author: Junot Diaz
Title: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Publication Info: Riverhead Trade (2008)
ISBN: 1594483299


This novel tells the story of Oscar De Leon (I’ll let you read the novel to learn how he gets the nickname Wao), a Dominican-American growing up in 1980’s New Jersey.  He’s no ordinary boy as he’s overweight, enamored with science fiction and role-playing games, and a talented writer determined to become the “Dominican Tolkien.”  The references comic books and gaming terms are about the same level of confusing as the colloquial Spanish sprinkled through the book.  He’s also terminally lovelorn, unable to find a girl who will return his affection and devotion.

Despite such a compelling title character, much of this novel is about his family with sections devoted to his attractive and popular sister, Oscar and Lola’s mother Belicia who was also tragically naive in matters of love, and Belicia’s father Abelard a successful doctor who meets a grizzly fate.  The overarching theme of the book is the fuku – or curse – that lies upon the De Leon family, and the menacing, omnipresence of Trujillo, the dictator whose cruel reign bloodied the Dominican Republic from 1930-1961.  The novel is full of lengthy footnotes about the Trujillo Era that are almost as compelling as the main text

Much of the novel is narrated by Yunior, Oscar’s college roommate, who attempts to befriend Oscar out of love for Lola but comes to respect Oscar for himself.  Other portions are narrated by Lola and perhaps a third-person narrator.  I think I would have liked the book even better if Oscar played more of a role in the story and the reader could hear his voice more directly.  The structure of the novel does work well though, unfolding different portions of the De Leon family curse in a non-linear form.

Recommended books: The Lost Legends of New Jersey by Frederick Reiken, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Rating: ****

Book Review: All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer

Author: Stephen Kinzer
Title: All the Shah’s Men
Publication Info: [San Clemente, Calif.] : Tantor Media, 2003.
ISBN: 9781400151066


A gripping history of the first covert operation by the CIA to overthrow the popularly elected government of another nation in 1953.  That nation is Iran and the deposed leader is Mohammad Mosaddeq, the Iranian prime minister who dared stand up against Western imperialism.  The fascinating thing about this book is that for much of Mosaddeq’s reign many US leaders supported Iran’s self-determination and attempts at democracy.  Iran’s squabble was with Great Britain, especially regarding the exploitative nature of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.  When Mosaddeq nationalized Iranian oil, British leaders wanted him removed, but needed US approval which was eventually gained by the specter of Communism.  A number of familiar names play a role in the plot: Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, CIA director Allan Dulles, CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, Jr.  (grandson of Theodore), and Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr. (father of the Desert Storm commander).  Kinzer tells the story in great detail with the ultimate outcome balanced on the coming together of some very unlikely events

Kinzer concludes that the immediate result – a stable and anti-communist Iran under the Shah – was beneficial to the United States but the long-term results were disastrous.  The Shah’s tyrannical rule in Iran, and the knowledge that the US supported him, turned most Iranians virulently against the United States.  When revolutionary Iranians took hostages at the US embassy in 1979 it was because the embassy had been a base of covert activity in 1953.  Finally, it set a pattern of CIA-sponsored activities in other parts of the world that have contributed to the loss of the USA’s image as a standard-bearer of freedom.

Recommended books: The Devil We Know by Robert Baer
Rating: ***1/2