Sunday, November 27, 2011

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

Memoirs make up a tricky genre; one that is very much hit-or-miss, as the writer must tell their personal stories while making it accessible to an audience of strangers. Nick Flynn may have succeeded as a poet, with collections such as Some Ether and Blind Huber, but poetic language doesn’t cut it in the memoir department. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is vividly written yet unmemorable; a story of triumph over tragedy that does not triumph as a creative work of nonfiction.

Part of the memoir chronicles Flynn’s life from his upbringing by a single mother to his drug-addled teenage years to his adulthood as a social worker, working at the homeless shelter where he met his wayward alcoholic father, long homeless due to mental illness. The other plotline chronicles the story of his father as a creative yet aimless young man entering a marriage of convenience, abandoning his family and succumbing to illness and addiction. These plotlines intersect while alternating between past and present in a depiction of Flynn’s conflicting feelings towards his father, his own struggles with addiction, and the dispelling of his personal demons.

The memoir contains an episodic and meandering narrative, partly made up of small chapters that are merely meditations on Flynn’s life. These serve little to no purpose in the story and read more as journal entries than as part of a story. Since much of the book is made up of description and not dialogue, Flynn adds a creative touch to the few scenes that contain dialogue by writing those chapters as play scripts; a method which, while interesting in theory, falls flat in its attempt to be innovative.

One can easily discern from his writing that Flynn is more a poet than a novelist, in that his strengths lie more in providing imagery than in telling a coherent story. While the story in itself is ultimately forgettable, the vivid, gritty descriptions of the streets of Boston and its homeless population are more likely to make a lasting impression on readers. Flynn certainly wields the poet’s ability to take a snapshot of a moment in life and put it in writing; however, this does little to further plot development.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City contains an intriguing premise that turns up short, lost in episodic vignettes that don’t contribute to the plotlines at hand. I recommend picking up one of Flynn’s poetry books rather than this one; there’s little to be had beyond the fun title.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Knowing little to nothing about the Dominican Republic—its culture, its politics—does not hinder one’s enjoyment of Junot Díaz’s masterfully tragicomic account of the far-reaching influences of Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship. Narrated in a streetwise, slang-infused, Spanglish-laced voice, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a beauty of a book; an ambitious, high-achieving novel, grand in scope and humanistic in its depiction of an immigrant family.

The novel is several stories in one, chronicling the cursed family history of the de Léons from the Dominican Republic to the slums of New Jersey and back again. The family’s legacy has been cursed with fúku (which translates to “bad luck”), which condemns them to political persecution, torture, personal tragedy and ill-fated love affairs. Oscar de Léon is a shy, overweight sci-fi geek and aspiring novelist who dreams of becoming the next J.R.R. Tolkien, and whose naïve quest for romance and personal fulfillment leads him down a self-destructive path. His closest friend is his sister, Lola, who endeavors to travel to escape the squalor of their hometown, as well as the dysfunction within the family. Their fierce, temperamental mother, Belicia, is a weathered survivor of Trujillo’s regime, and of wildly turbulent teen years involving a dangerous gangster boyfriend. Belicia’s deeply religious mother, La Inca, strives to be a pillar among chaos and is pushed to the limits by her family’s struggles.

Díaz makes extensive use of footnotes to detail the history of the Dominican Republic—primarily the sprawling era of Trujillo’s reign—and at times just for some humorous commentary. Though these footnotes are not essential in understanding the story at hand, they do add background and educational value to the culture and the characters the novel delves into; virtually a history lesson made fun with the help of the de Léons.

Díaz also intertwines a touch of the supernatural within the narrative, at times in allegorical form, such as the comparison of the fall of Trujillo to the fall of Mordor from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In addition to the de Leon fúku, there are instances of divine intervention spanning generations, and possible salvation at the novel’s end. Whether the family overcomes the fúku and moves on to a brighter future is ultimately up to readers’ interpretations.

Absorbing, tragic and darkly funny, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a masterwork of storytelling and an enlightening look into the far-reaching psychological effects of many forms of oppression. I would definitely recommend it to fantasy and sci-fi geeks who would have an easier time understanding all the pop culture references than I did.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali and Delphine Minoui

Those who are familiar with Nujood Ali’s story from the news would be drawn to this book, though they must be warned of the raw, gut-wrenching power of this precocious little girl’s voice. This is a not a book one can breeze through; it is the astonishing, tragic yet ultimately triumphant story of a child bride, her lost innocence, and her courage and determination to stand up for her rights. I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced is one of the most emotionally intense literary experiences of my life.

Nujood is a carefree girl living with her large family in a remote Yemeni village until, for reasons unbeknownst to her, the family suddenly relocates to a destitute town where they must beg on the streets for their next meal. For a time Nujood remains unaware of the hardships suffered by her older sisters—one in an arranged marriage, another jailed for adultery—until the day she’s married off to a man in his thirties when she’s just 10 years old, and the realities of life for women in Yemen become real to her. She endures beatings and marital rape until the day she runs away to the courthouse and demands a divorce—thereby becoming the world’s youngest divorcee and an advocate for women across the Middle East.

In the midst of the nightmare within her husband’s home, coming to Nujood’s rescue is her father’s second wife, Dowla, who instructs her to go to the courthouse; the only adult in her family who heeds her cries for help. Upon Nujood’s arrival at the courthouse, among those who come to her aid is Shada Nasser, a human rights lawyer who becomes devoted to her cause; the Wahed family, who takes her in for a time before court proceedings; and a slew of lawyers and journalists who take Nujood under their wing and inspire her to become a lawyer herself.

Also moving are the devastating trials of Nujood’s older sister Mona: her own arranged marriage to her rapist, her public shame, her husband’s imprisonment and the loss of her child. In a culture that sweeps scandal under the rug for the sake of honor, Nujood doesn’t know of Mona’s plight until after the trial, and the reveal of her sufferings serves to highlight the extent to which the patriarchal mindset of Yemen is ingrained, and the maintenance of public esteem at the cost of women’s dignity.

These ordeals depicted are devastating, the injustice appalling, as the primitive nature of archaic, discriminatory customs offends a mainstream reader’s sense of morality. Before picking up this book, brace yourself for horror, outrage, grief and indignation, and bear in mind that Nujood does win in the end, and is granted her divorce and her right to an education. Though not an easy read by any means, I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced is among the most socially relevant and rewarding books in print today.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Legend of the Bluebonnet by Tomie dePaola

Today I partook in a literature reading for Native American Heritage Month. Since Native American literature is not a genre I am familiar with, I had to do some research and browsing through my local library for something to read.

I was thinking of reading an excerpt from The Falcon by John Tanner, an autobiographical book I had read for class years ago, written by a man who was kidnapped at the age of nine by the Shawnee tribe in 1789. The Falcon is a thrilling and historically relevant tale of survival and a fascinating account of Native American culture through the eyes of an enculturated white man.

I also considered reading something by Louise Erdrich, the widely acclaimed author who has often given readings at my university. Though I haven’t read many works by her, I know she’s considered one of the most significant authors of the Native American Renaissance, an era during the late 60s and early 70s when Native writers emerged in mainstream literature.

Instead I ended up rediscovering a book I had loved back in 4th grade; a children’s book entitled The Legend of the Bluebonnet, written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola.

This is the Native legend of the origin of the state flower of Texas, the bluebonnet, and what it represents for the Comanche people. In a time of drought and famine, the tribal elder declares that a sacrifice to the Great Spirits will bring rain and revitalize their crops. Within the tribe is an orphaned girl named She-Who-is-Alone, who takes it upon herself to make a sacrifice that will save her people and sow the seeds of the bluebonnet.

Far more than a Native legend made accessible for children, The Legend of the Bluebonnet is an inspirational fable of community, the importance of humility, and making sacrifices for the greater good. I highly recommend it to readers of all ages, as I was moved by this story both as a child and an adult.

I advise my fellow book-lovers to partake in Native American Heritage Month. Seize the chance to become accustomed to a genre you are perhaps not familiar with. Tomie DePaola has also written The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush, which I have not read, but plan to in the future. Besides Louise Erdrich, notable authors of the Native American Renaissance include N. Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo and Nila NorthSun.