Forty something days ago, I made a post stating my goals for Lent; what I intended to give up and take on. I was actually quite (cautiously) optimistic about these goals and for a while they did seem possible. Then the lockdown went into effect and everything went to hell. Yes I will blame this on the pandemic. I was going to reduce my screen-time but in fact my eye has been twitching relenting due to the unprecedented screen time (unless I am sleeping I am staring at a screen; laptop, phone, telly). I did manage to reduce my junk food intake and this is one aspect in which the lockdown has helped. I simply do not stock up on junk when I do my shopping and when I start getting cravings (quite rare to be honest) I simply go to bed. I have also managed to interact more with family and friends during this period which is truly remarkable.
One of my main resolutions, if you can call it that, was to read three books in the forty day period. I know that is a amateurish figure which makes it even more shameful that I did not achieve this. I read the first two quickly enough but then the lockdown began and my zeal fizzled out quickly. Usually I read on the commute to work and I find it almost impossible to read at home, not when there’s Netflix and YouTube. I did try to start a couple of other books but they just could not sustain my interest. I did however watch quite a few films and TV shows, some good, some utterly forgettable. But first the books!
The two books I read are:
Something to live for by Richard Roper
I first came across this book in the newspaper and was immediately drawn to it as it dealt with loneliness which is my favourite topic. I bought the book with the expectation that it would end up the third book in my loneliness trilogy, the others being The Lonely City by Olivia Lang; and Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine by Gail Honeyman. It did not live up to the hype but it was not a complete waste of time. Strange thing: I looked up reviews of this book online and apparently it also goes by How Not to Die Alone.
The book follows Andrew, a 42 year old loner who works for the Ministry of Death. He has no friends, save a few online fellow train enthusiasts, and barely any meaningful human interaction. A misunderstanding 5 years ago during his interview becomes a full blown fake life that he has to maintain and live up to which proves rather hectic. Then one day a new employee begins work and Andrew’s life slowly starts to change for the better.
His job involves clearing out the homes of elderly people who have died alone. He checks to see if they have enough money to cover the funeral costs and if they have any kin. In most cases there are no loved ones and the person is buried in a lonely ceremony with only Andrew in attendance. His job serves as a foreshadowing of what his life would very likely be like in the future.
As I said, the book was not a waste but I couldn’t connect to any of the characters and I did find it a chore sometimes. I struggled through some parts, was glad to make it to the end, and once I dropped the book I was done with it and that’s that.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
I don’t remember when I first heard of this book but I must have because I was immediately drawn to it. Apparently this won a Booker prize (or was it a Pulitzer). I picked this up in the kitchen at work; people brought in books which were anyone’s to take as long as one made a voluntary donation. 50p later the book was mine.
5 seconds in and I was regretting picking it up. I struggled through a whole speech on “Fuku” and just when I was about to give up I realised that was just the introduction and I shuffled on wearily to the real beginning. The story follows the Cabral family across three generations and two countries; detailing the tragedies that befall them which is supposedly due to the curse or Fuku which has haunted them for decades.
Needless to say, the title is a misnomer as there is barely five wondrous minutes in Oscar de Leon’s miserable life. Oscar is self proclaimed fat (and continuously expanding) virgin nerd who spends his whole life (literally) trying to get laid (hell, just a kiss even!). In the end Oscar is not even the main character of the book (in my opinion), and his story pales in comparison to that of his mother Hypatia Belicia Cabral (Belis). His mother’s story, starting with her parents, sticks more with me and that is what I remember the most. We are first introduced to Belicia through the lens of her children and she seemed to me to be an overbearing person and mother. Then the story moves on to her upbringing in the Dominican Republic and my opinion completely shifts. We get to see her as a person in her own right, not just a mother and it was hard to not be sympathetic towards her. I was lost in Belicia’s story and when the narration switched from Belicia to Oscar, I groaned internally and just trudged on until we could get back to her. Goodness gracious, the suffering she had to endure and she was not even given the courtesy of a happy ending. Spoiler: there are no happy endings in this book.
The book is confusing in parts as it switches between time periods and narrators and point of views. One minute we are reading about things from Oscar’s point of view and the next Oscar is being spoken about in third person and I have to figure out who is currently speaking. The pages also feature long footnotes (some of them almost cover the entire page) in which the author provides explanations and historical facts for a reference made in the text. The book is heavy on colloquialisms and slang (Spanglish) that may leave you lost as a non Spanish speaker or maybe even as a non Dominican. Sometimes I googled the words but other times I couldn’t be bothered and just read on. There’s also lots of Sci-Fi/Anime references that I did not even bother exploring further. There is the gratuitous use of the N word with an er which was a bit jarring at times.
The book taught me quite a bit about Dominican history, particularly the dictator Trujillo who I had never heard of before. I also learned of the Mirabal sisters who were assassinated because of their daring opposition to the regime. The parts about Trujillo got my blood hot! I detest dictatorships; it is so unsettling how one person, unremarkable in every way, can hold an entire nation to ransom. I always think that this one person is only powerful due to the system supporting him, he himself is nothing. If the police and army and really everyone could have said fuck you and stood with the people instead, he would have been gone a long time ago. But things are never that simple.
Fuku or family curse is a running theme as it is credited for all the evil that befalls the family; from Oscar’s grandparents to his mother’s unfortunate life and his own consistent bad luck resulting in his untimely demise. There is also a lot of violence, so much that I had to skip over some of the descriptions.
It is a good book, well written and it stayed with me. There is a lot of depth to the characters which is perhaps why the book is quite memorable. The book is not perfect but it was a pretty good read. When I think of the book it is Belicia that I remember, not Oscar and his jargon. My favourite parts of the book are the chapters that took us back in time to the DR and I did not care much for the New Jersey part. That’s interesting; I liked Belis as a young woman in DR but did not care for her as an adult (and mother) in New Jersey.
That’s all folks! I hope to read more books but that seems less likely everyday. There is just so much to watch on TV.
PS: I googled the book to see what others thought of it and was surprised to learn that the book is narrated by Yunior- a character which was introduced randomly (I thought). He is Oscar’s roommate at some point and his sister’s on and off boyfriend. I guess that explains the vulgarity and explicit nature of the narration.
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