The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

the-brief-wondrous-life-of-oscar-waoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the highly acclaimed multiple-award winner, is incredibly intricate under the surface of its seemingly playful tone. By exploring the immigration of Oscar’s family, Diaz interweaves the themes of racial identity, Dominican male stereotypes, the pride as well as price of being oneself, fate and curses, the nasty legacy that Trujillo left in Dominican Republic, love, home, freedom, and ultimately what it means to be American.

I was particularly interested in the use of language in this book. Boy, Diaz does not shy away from obscenities. Other than the change of narrators in each chapter, there’s also a fairly intimidating amount of Spanish throughout. Diaz is witty and humorous. I had some good laughs. Beyond his writing style lie some serious questions that people often seek answers to. It’s a book that makes you chuckle, tear up, and ponder at the same time. It’s so close to real life that it’s comical and tragic at the same time. It’s one of my favorite recent reads!

“There was the initial euphoria of finding himself alone at college, free of everything, completely on his fucking own, and with it an optimism that here among these thousands of young people he would find someone like him. That, alas, didn’t happen. The white kids looked at his black skin and his afro and treated him with inhuman cheeriness. The kids of color, upon hearing him speak and seeing him move his body, shook their heads. You’re not Dominican.”

Oscar’s life was a continual struggle of fitting in, seeking love, finding and losing himself. As an overweight and extremely nerdy Dominican male, Oscar never met others’ expectations and was made fun of his entire life. He fell in love again and again but only to be slapped awake every time. He couldn’t find anyone to understand him, not that he really understood himself either. Doesn’t he sound astoundingly unlucky?

The white kids judged him by his skin color, and the Dominican males saw his nerdiness and blocked him from their clan. What’s Oscar’s identity? He was a little bit of everything but not entirely anything. His final letter brought tears to my eyes. He was a boy who had high hopes for life but never found a place where he belonged and could call home. Continue reading

East of Eden

east-of-edenThe only other John Steinbeck’s book I’ve read is The Grapes of Wrath, which was a required reading in high school. It would’ve been impossible for my 16-year-old to imagine reading another one of his books voluntarily. But hey who would’ve thought? A few years later I not only have read one but also written a blog post about it!

Two characteristics of East of Eden that stood out to me were its timeline and amount of details. The novel, set between the beginning of the 20th century and WWI, spans across several generations, resulting in an intertwining and complex story. Steinbeck describes the characters with such great details that you feel like you know them as real people around you by the end of the book.

Through the history of the Trask and Hamilton family in Salinas Valley, East of Eden explores themes of freedom, love, acceptance, and the limit of lies and evilness. My favorite character is Samuel Hamilton, the old wise Irish man. He’s intelligent and calm, able to see the bottom of many things but hardly speaks his mind. As Lee, the similarly wise Chinese servant, describes him, he is “one of the rare people who can separate [his] observation from [his] preconception.” While most people see what they expect, Samuel sees what it really is.

Cathy, on the other hand, is an extreme character in my opinion. Even though Steinbeck began the introduction of Cathy by saying that some people were born monsters, I still find her actions beyond horrid. It’s fate’s cruel joke to make Adam fall for her. He’s so kind but too naïve. He creates a perfect image for the woman he loves. He never sees her, only his creation. Continue reading

Looking for Alaska

looking-for-alaskssaPudge is a teenager with a not-so-interesting life prior to attending this boarding school in Alabama. Soon he was surrounded by teenagers who take on life passionately, recklessly, and fearlessly. Pudge made friends, whom he went on adventures and pulled ridiculous pranks with. And there was this girl, Alaska. She was mysterious and energetic, like a hurricane. Unexpectedly, Pudge found much of his life at his new school evolving around Alaska—her hilarious ideas, moodiness, and sometimes wild behaviors.

Through the twists and turns of Pudge and his friends’ time together, Looking for Alaska takes the readers on a somewhat confusing roller coaster ride. I found myself thinking “What’s going on??” a few times during the book. It’s a page-turner that you cannot put down until the mystery is solved at the end with the climax.

“You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.”

Alaska’s goal was to find a way out of the labyrinth of life. Sounds a bit ambitious for a teenager, doesn’t it? But she’s got a point here. Too many people are living for the future. Teenagers dream the day they are away from home in college; college students can’t wait to be done with school work for good; and working people live for the weekends. Everybody knows to enjoy the present, but it’s also so easy to begin thinking about how great an alternative situation would be when you get there one day. But the future, not to sound morbid, might never come for all you know. Have dreams, but don’t let them become merely hiding places from the present you are in now.

“That is the fear: I have lost something important, and I cannot find it, and I need it. It is fear like if someone lost his glasses and went to the glasses store and they told him that the world had run out of glasses and he would just have to do without.”

An ordinary teenager coming from a regular family, Pudge never thought that one day he would be robbed of something so precious to him and left struggling to piece his life back together. It’s such a frightening thought: something extremely important to you is irrevocably lost. And the worst part is, you never thought you would one day lose it. But life throws you curve balls sometimes. This might be the moment when Pudge grew up: realizing that, unlike glasses, there are things in life that he will lose and have to live without. Continue reading

And the Mountains Echoed

MountainsAt first glance, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini may seem like a collection of individual short stories. From Kabul to San Francisco, Greece to Afghan, people leading completely different lives fight their own daily battles. But as the plot expands, the stories become complex and intertwined. Pari’s journey of finding her lost brother, Mr. Wahdati’s forbidden love for Nabi, Idris and Timur’s return to Afghan to reconnect with their childhood, Adel’s discovery of his father’s true nature, Markos’s friendship with Thalia…One thing leads to another, the fate of each character dates back to long before they were even born.

In reality, families not only love, protect, and honor each other, but also, in one way or the other, hurt and betray each other. And the Mountain Echoed recognizes this as it explores the many ways in which families interact and the surprising actions taken by the closed ones.

Many stories in this book do not have your typical perfect or even satisfactory ending. Abdullah never gets to enjoy the joy of reuniting with his little sister; Parwana never tells her sister the truth of her injury. But that’s just how it is. Some questions will remain forever unanswered. There will also be regrets. It’s all a part of life.

“In her smile, Idris sees how little of the world he has known, even at thirty-five years of age, its savageness, its cruelty, the boundless brutality.”

When Idris sees Roshi, the little girl who’s the only survivor of the murder of her whole family, he feels powerless. Things like this are out of his life and completely unimaginable. Idris promises to find a doctor for Roshi’s, but…life gets in the way. As he goes back to the US, he finds the distance between him and Roshi “infinite, insurmountable,” his promise to her “misguided, a reckless mistake, a terrible misreading of the measures of his own powers and will and character.” The initial indignation and ambition are soon replaced by the numbness and comfort at home. Continue reading

The Goldfinch

the-goldfinchThe Goldfinch has been on my reading list ever since it won this year’s Pulitzer Prize. It tells an intriguing story of a young boy, Theo, whose life was turned upside down by a tragic accident and, as a result, taken a sharp turn into the criminal underworld. The storyline is elaborate and engaging. You think you know what to expect but will most certainly be surprised as the plot unfolds. I especially enjoyed the first half of the book. It paints a vivid picture of a young boy, forced to grow up with little guidance and love, squandering away his time recklessly yet taking on life fearlessly. It’s a complicated story about love and hate, challenging and bowing down to fate, reality and dreams.

All the characters have distinct personalities. Theo, his dad, Xandra, Boris, Pippa, Hobie—they are people that would never meet had fate not crossed and intertwined their paths. I think the interaction between Boris and Theo is the most brilliant bit of the book. Theo was a good but sometimes mopey boy. Boris was ridiculous yet full of possibilities. These two got along incredibly well despite disagreeing on everything. Their encounter, separation and reunion make up the backbone of the book. Maybe my expectations were too high, but the Goldfinch didn’t’ impress me greatly. Although overall it was a good read that I would recommend!

“You could study the connections for years and never work it out—it was all about things coming together, things falling apart, time warp, my mother standing out in front of the museum when time flickered and the light went funny, uncertainties hovering on the edge of a vast brightness. The stray chance that might, or might not, change everything.”

Theo’s whole life has been thrown left and right unexpectedly by chances. Looking back, Theo sees his life connected by random dots that he never would’ve thought. Had the meeting with his teachers not been scheduled on a different day, or Pippa not happened to be in the same exhibit hall with him, or his dad got the funds to pay Mr. Silver in Vegas…Theo’s life would’ve been completely different. Like everyone else, Theo tries to cope with life with his own tactics etc. But it’s the stray chances that lead his life to drastic directions.

People like to think that the future can be planned. But it’s things, often those out of our control, coming together that paint the whole picture. No one can go down a single path in life not affected by anything else. All paths are crossed and you never know where life will take you next. On the bright side, this uncertainty is also the beauty of life. Continue reading

Never Let Me Go

Never_Let_Me_GoThe beginning of Never Let Me Go is so serene that you get the feeling of suddenly coming down a huge roller coaster slope when you find out what’s really going on. I remember putting down the book after finishing it and just sitting in silence, thinking about the parallel world in Hailsman.

Dreams and Hopes 

“We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through, or feel we’ve had enough time.”

The kids in Hailsham live through their short lives in a trance—never understood their meanings or had any control over them. I’m not sure if this is what the author wants us to take away, but this quote really speaks to me about living it up. Kathy and her crew are not allowed to have dreams or hopes, their lives are too short to do so and their purposes were predetermined. In reality, we have the freedom to choose our passion. But our time is still limited. So if you want to do something, or take a risk, just go for it.

Identity

“We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.”

This quote sends chills down my spine. We often struggle with our own identities. Everyone tells you to be yourself, but, especially as a young adult, it’s not that easy to know who you really are. Kathy and her crew are not just in search of “who” they are but “what” they are. Continue reading

The Book Thief

the-book-thiefThe Book Thief is one of my favorite books. It tells a story that takes place in Nazi Germany, a period that’s really not that far from us yet seems that way. The book starts with Liesel’s seemingly peaceful new life, and gradually builds up as the plot twists and turns, and finally ends in a poignant and saddening climax.

Liesel is a brave girl despite her timidity at times. She steals book from the most dangerous place and runs into a Jews parade to look for Max. Liesel is an epitome of so many other lives ruined by the unfortunate time. Despite all the pain in her young life, she never gave up her love for learning. One thing I’m disappointed about her is the way she treated Rudy. I wish she could’ve kissed him at least once before he died, or show some affection instead of being the stubborn girl.

Rudy, “the boy whose hair remained the color of lemons forever,” is the most innocent victim in the novel and also my favorite character. He’s a boy that would paint his face black because he wants to be like Jessie Owens, and stand in freezing water for minutes just to get a kiss from the girl he loves. Rudy’s relationship with Liesel is such typical young love—they fight, argue, yet deeply care about each other. All Rudy wanted is a kiss, but he never pushed too hard. Maybe he thought he would have more time than he actually did. I believe Liesel did love him. But in a time like this, there’s so much fear in the air and so little place for love. Continue reading

The Great Gatsby

the-great-gatsbyI have very mixed emotions about the Great Gatsby. Gatsby, in my opinion, is a tragic hero. His dream was set up for failures. People and things change as time goes by, whether you like it or not. Like C.S. Lewis once said, “isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different?” I don’t think Gatsby would’ve agreed with this quote. Remember when he cried, “Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!”?
As for Daisy, she didn’t intentionally want to hurt anyone, She’s a girl who didn’t know what she wanted and chose to live a safe and conventional life. Maybe she’s what she hoped her daughter would be, “a beautiful little fool”, but is it really “the best thing a girl can be in this world”?

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

Having spent the last four years at Berkeley and soon working in the Financial District, it’s sometimes easy to forget how privileged I am. But when I take a step back and look at my life from outside of my daily bubble, I can’t help but think, yes the world isn’t fair, but I have no right to complain anyway cause I’ve pretty much lucked out!

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I’m totally on board with the idea that life is too short to live in the past. But sometimes it’s inevitable to fall back into memories. Human beings continually change as every passing moment gets integrated into their lives and becomes a part of who they are. In a sense every moment is a defining moment. The deal with Gatsby is that he stopped moving forward while the world around him is. Continue reading