WHIRL (What Have I Read Lately) Books is a site for readers to find books for themselves and their book clubs. Liz at Literary Masters runs book groups and literary salons where we "dig deep" into literary treasures.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wrapping Up The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is truly a wonderful book. All my book groups enjoyed it, and the conversations were lively, opinionated, and everyone had something to say. It's interesting how differently individuals reacted to this book. Some found it angry while others hadn't seen that part of it. Some found it hilarious although tragic. Some found it depressing. Just about everyone found it to be an interesting read. A real page-turner.

I'll highlight below some of the points that were made in the various groups. You may or may not agree with them:

This really isn't Oscar's story. It's Yunior's story. You can hear his voice change, grow, as he narrates the book, and you can watch him change and grow, too. He comes to terms with who he is as a Dominican man.

Although the men acted macho, this story just underscored that it was all an act, a role they were playing, a mask they were wearing. The women were the really strong characters in the story. They were the ones who, although severely restricted to a limited space by the patriarchal society in which they lived, took action when action was called for. The results weren't always great, but at least they did something.

Lola took on her masks, "performing" to others' expectations, until she figured out how to be true to herself. Oscar was the only one who didn't wear a mask, who didn't play a role, perhaps because he didn't know how to.

The question of complicity came up. And destiny. How much control do we really have over our lives? How much control must we cede to others? We talked about how Trujillo was a brutal dictator, but the Dominicans helped elevate him to mythological status with their stories about him.

Speaking of stories, and histories, and TRUTH, we talked about the structure of the book, especially the narrator and how he mediated the voices of the other characters coming through him.

What stories do we tell our ourselves? We talked about this, and the reason we tell ourselves stories.

We were all interested in the Macombo (magical realism elements) versus McOndo (gritty, street-wise realism) that are opposed to each other yet work side-by-side in this novel.

Oh gosh, we talked about much more: themes of identity, belonging, the "space in between," authority--I couldn't help but view the book through the lens of post-colonialism. And we talked about the brilliance of Junot Diaz. One of my members blurted out that she just so wished she could speak to him--a bit ironic, I thought, as we were talking about authority and how we give it over to others!

Bottom line: Run, don't walk, to read this book; it's amazing.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Wow! April is flying by! And I've been neglecting my blog! I'm so sorry to all of you--how have you survived? Have you had to turn to other reading? Hmmm, read anything good lately? Hmmm, What Have I Read Lately?

Ask, by Sam Lipsyte. Last time I WHIRLED, I was mid-way through this novel. Well, I finished it, and I would recommend it, sort of. I'd give it say, a 7 out of 10.

Solar, by Ian McEwan. I know the critics have panned it, but I think this novel is the funniest book I have read since Portnoy's Complaint. Run. Do not walk. Run to get your hands on this book.

Another book, an award-winner, the title of which I am not revealing because it was so good, I am using it for my next season of Literary Masters book groups. Join one of my groups if you want to know which book it is. :-)

How about you? Are you ready to WHIRL? Let me know what you've been reading lately.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Playing the Enemy

I saw the movie "Invictus" a few months ago, and I absolutely loved it. I found the story riveting, and I was surprised that I had never heard about it before. Nelson Mandela, released from 27 years behind bars as a political prisoner in South Africa, is elected the first black president of that country. As civil war between whites and blacks looms, Mandela wants to draw the country together using the sport of rugby as the unifier. The problem is, rugby is seen by South Africans as a "white" sport, symbolizing the apartheid regime and all the evil that accompanied it. How Mandela manages to pull off the impossible is the stuff of fairy tales, and yet this is a true story!

I came away from this movie wanting to know more about this episode in South Africa's history, and more about the amazing person--Nelson Mandela. So I went to the library and checked out the book that the movie is based on: Playing the Enemy by John Carlin. In fact, since it was my turn to choose the book for my personal book club, my entire group read it, and we all loved it. It's a bit of a hagiography, but if you can get past that, it really is a thumping good read.

Some of my favorite lines/passages from the book follow. These probably won't mean a thing to you unless you've read the book, but while I put them down here, I'm once again savoring this delicious read.

"If Mandela had learned one thing in prison it was to take the long view. And that meant not being sidetracked by present horrors and keeping his eye firmly fixed on the distant goal."

"'Mandela,' Barnard said, 'knew how to use his power subtly. It is like comparing old money and new money. He knew how to handle power without humiliating his enemies.'"

"Paballelo was consumed by every detail of the trial. But for the white population of Upington it might have been unfolding in Borneo...Drama works on the premise of a shared humanity with the protagonists. For Upington, Paballelo was dimly lit parallel world inhabited by an alien species; best left well alone."

"Mandela, as a man of the world rather than a man of one volk, had a capacity the general lacked to penetrate the minds of people culturally different from himself. He knew when to flatter and soothe (Niel Barnard spoke of Mandela's 'almost animal instinct for tapping into people's vulnerabilities and reassuring them.'); he knew when he could go on the offensive without causing offense..."

"'There was a cause-and-effect connection between the Mandela factor and our performance in the field,' Du Plessis said..."

"The Argus then listed the five "key factors" that enabled rugby to become 'a unifying catalyst': Mandela's vociferous support for 'our boys' and his wearing of the Springbok cap; Archbishop Tutu's public support; the rugby team acting in concert with the 'One Team, One Country' slogan; the team's success on the field; the singing of the new combined anthem and the waving of the new flag."

"Mandela's weakness was his greatest strength. He succeeded because he chose to see good in people who ninety-nine people out of a hundred would have judged to have been beyond redemption...Mandela zeroed in on that hidden kernel where their better angels lurked and drew out the goodness that is inside all people...By appealing to and eliciting what was best in them...he offered them the priceless gift of making them feel like better people, in some cases transforming them into heroes."


Sunday, April 4, 2010


I wonder if Mrs. Magoo from www.mrsmagooreads.com will "whirl" today. To jog your memory, WHIRL stands for What Have I Read Lately, and this blog post is my third WHIRL. I'd love to hear from you--why don't you WHIRL too? So, What Have I Read Lately?

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Like Midnight's Children on speed. Absolutely wonderful. Not for the faint of heart. My book groups have been discussing this, so look for my "wrap up" soon.

A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. My personal book club is reading this novel this month, and I'm looking forward to the discussion. I found the book a wee bit on the slow side, but I think this was due to my mood more than anything else. I found the writing beautiful, and by the end of the book, I wanted more.

Ask by Sam Lipsyte. I am in the middle of this hilarious and rather exhausting book. I don't mean to be sexist, but I keep thinking "this is such a guy's book" as I'm reading it. Shades of Portnoy's Complaint and Catcher in the Rye and perhaps even Confederacy of Dunces and who-knows-what-all-else all rolled into one. I almost put it down but now find that I can't!

What about YOU? What Have YOU Read Lately?