Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008)
I thought the footnotes would make it fun (like in a Steven Haywood short story); I was more focussed on the ‘wondrous’ than the warning of brevity.
In fact, Oscar’s life emerges from dictatorship and constricted choices, and you know from the beginning (as with Raziel Reid’s 2014 coming-of-age novel When Everything Feels Like the Movies) that this life story is being told after death.
What makes the story remarkable is the glimpse into multiple generations of a Dominican Republic family; what makes it interesting is the zigzaggy structure which connects past and present; what makes it shine is Oscar’s relentless pursuit of wonder. I read this with Danielle and that kept us both reading.
“It had the density of a dwarf-motherfucking-star and at times he was a hundred percent sure it would drive him mad. The only thing that came close was how he felt about his books; only the combined love he had for everything he’d read and everything he hoped to write came even close.”
Rishma Dunlop’s Reading Like a Girl (2004)
When I first read this poetry collection in 2011, I marked completely different passages.
Then, I was struck by Lector in Fabula: “I am reading in a school of dreams, / a lost girl in a night’s tale, wandering through / a jardin d’essais, underfoot, the crunch of pale / green lichen on the forest floor.”
Now, I scribble down these lines from the same poem: “Tonight, I’ll turn the pages of the book again / my hands inside the spine, reading the places / where memory doesn’t work.”
Then, I marked some verses which I read through quickly now. Now, I copy lines from “Saccade”: “Everything stories you. You take Rilke at his word. / Take it everywhere. Wonderland signs.”
And, so, I know that I can reread this one many more times, marvelling at different parts of each journey.
Kevin Irie’s Angel Blood: The Tess Poems (2004)
I first learned of Irie’s poems when Viewing Tom Thomson: A Minority Report was nominated for the 2013 Toronto Book Award.
But because I had found Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) such a memorable story, it was this early book of his poems which I yearned to read.
This shaping of self, shaping of solitude: it’s a beautiful volume and a striking homage to a powerful novel.
This story of “[a] woman gone missing / from her own life”.
Rabindranath Maharaj’s Homer in Flight (1997)
“All artists are strugglers.”
Homer has arrived in Canada, desperate for a sense of promise, absent for him in his homeland, Trinidad.
Whether his duties in the workplace, his ragtag assembly of home furnishings, his fledgling and established relationships (friendships or romances) in Toronto, the writing is exacting and detailed.
Readers ride the bus with Homer in the mornings and share his sleepless nights as well, coming to understand the peculiar kind of racism exhibited in Canada, struggling to balance that with his overwhelming desire to belong.
Marcelino Truong’s Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (2015; Translated by David Homel, 2017)
A follow-up to Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, this volume’s format is consistent although innocence fades as the children grow.
In London, they are Frogs and they look too Chinese, but their mother is more stable away from Vietnam but their Vietnamese father is uncomfortable with his political work.
But, the Beatles.
Readers glimpse the subtleties of the conflict-simmering-beneath-the-conflict back in Vietnam, with news exchanged between their father’s remaining family members and the new Londoners, the conflict always present but, strangely, far away too.
An abrupt summary in the final pages is unsatisfying (and sad); I would have rather had more volumes instead.