Jen reads... The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

As I may have mentioned on here before, although I have always considered myself a book person, I had several years where I barely read anything. When I was a student I (for some reason!!) decided to ignore the public library, and decided that I couldn't afford to buy books unless they were by authors I already knew really well, so didn't read for pleasure that much. Then, after 6 months of reading a lot at my parent's house (which is full of books!! Yayy!) and working right next door to a library (yayy library!), I moved to Japan. Where I had no money and no easy access to English books. I could probably count on one hand the number of English books I read in the 3 years that I lived in Fukuoka. This means that I pretty much had NO idea what books were out and said to be good for quite a few years.

This year I have gone from not really knowing what to read and begging my friends for recommendations on facebook, to listening to several book podcasts, reading a ton of book blogs, and having a TBR list which, at my current rate, would already take me over a year to plough through.

What does this have to do with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Well, Junot Diaz is someone who I heard and read a lot about, and also someone whose books are relatively easy to find in Japanese bookshops. Seeing as I am just trying to nudge my way back into the loop, I figured that it would be a good idea to try reading one of his books. I have a bit of a complicated relationship with short stories, so I didn't want to start off with a short story collection, so The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao it was! Plus, that title is pretty irresistable, no?

The book is obviously about Oscar, the main character, but it's also about his family and their history, and about the Dominican Republic, a country which I am ashamed to say I knew next to nothing about (although I do know that Carla from Scrubs is Dominican! Haha). Oscar is a huge geek, and the story... is kind of hard to explain so I won't, but lets say that one of the things it focuses on is Oscar's quest to find love. That kind of makes it sound like a horrible romantic comedy.. it isn't, trust me!

Although it took a while to get used to, I came to enjoy the way that the book was written. It has a LOT of Spanish in it, which was hard at first as I know no Spanish at all, but like when I read A Clockwork Orange, I found myself gradually coming to understand words which came up a lot, and, I won't lie, google translate helped me to figure out some of the rest. Luckily I LOVE languages, so I really enjoyed trying to figure out what was being said. I also felt like it was probably a realistic voice for the narrator to be using, as if you can speak 2 languages, you soon realise that there are some things which just cannot be expressed properly in both languages. Whenever I talk to English people living in Japan, we always end up littering our conversations with Japanese, not to show off that we know it, but because there are just some things which are easier to express in Japanese. So I found the voice pretty authentic.

It also has a lot of sci-fi and fantasy references in it... I think. The only ones that I got, to be honest, were the Lord of the Rings ones, but I'm pretty sure that there were other ones in there as well! I felt a little bit like the Lord of the Rings references were overdone, but that may be because I understood them so they stood out to me. If I was also as into sci-fi and stuff, maybe I would have got everything!

I found all of the things about the history of the Dominican Republic really fascinating, and it has made me want to go and read up on that. I honestly know next to nothing about South America, and reading this has made me eager to find out more.

I'm pretty sure that this book is not for everybody. I actually spent the first third of the novel not really liking it, and if I were to tell you the plot without being afraid of spoiling the book, I'm not sure that it would sound particularly interesting. But once I got into it, I really enjoyed it, and am looking forward to reading more of Junot Diaz's work.

One final thing... I've heard some people question whether Junot Diaz is sexist or not. The way in which the narrator and other people in the novel treat and talk about women definitely leaves something to be desired, but I don't think that that makes the writer sexist. The female characters are the most interesting part of the book (although I may be biased. Girl power! Etc.), and I don't think that their portrayal was particularly sexist. They weren't particularly treated equally to men throughout the novel, but that is more of a reflection of the society that the novel is set in rather than the author's sexism. And, let's be honest, the world is still a pretty damn sexist place. So I'm holding my judgement for the time being. I don't really know anything about Junot Diaz, and I'm happy to leave it that way, unless he's actually the nicest person in the world! I find the more I know about authors, the more chance there is that they'll disappoint me and their books will be ruined for me (unless they're J K Rowling or Margaret Atwood), so I'd rather just not know anything.


Jen reads... The Fault in Our Stars

Okay, so I have a confession to make first. When I was about 10 or 11, I was really obsessed with a series of books in my local library called Sweet Goodbyes. Basically, from what I can remember, the premise was that in each book, the main character probably had some kind of terminal disease, and made a friend/had a boyfriend/had a childhood friend who then died of either the same, or another terminal disease.Yup. I was a pretty morbid 11 year old. But for whatever reason, these kinds of stories appeal to me. I can't be the only one, otherwise that series of books wouldn't have existed, right? Right?!

So.. I kind of figured this would be like those, but well written. So I ignored the fact that a lot of blogs that I read were quite critical of the book, and had already decided to read it at some point, when I realised that one of the podcasts that I listen to (literary disco) were going to have an episode about it (yes, I realise that episode was months ago, but I'm in the middle of catching up!), so decided to read it last Tuesday morning. And by Wednesday morning I had finished it. And in spite its myriad problems, I enjoyed it! As much as you can enjoy a book about cancer, that is.

I'm sure everybody knows the main story by now, but just in case... the main character, Hazel, has terminal cancer, and she meets a dreamy boy, Augustus, at her cancer support group, and they fall in love. You can probably guess the rest of the story. There are going to be spoilers below so be warned!

The book has lots of things that could potentially be really annoying about it:

The cigarette thing (stupid. but I might have been like WOW THAT'S SO DEEP! if I had read it when I was 15)
Meeting the author that both Hazel and Augustus admire, who didn't come off as realistic in any way to me. And then him coming to the funeral? That's just stupid.
Hazel thinks that she's not much to look at, but is obviously beautiful (her and Gus are so beautiful, in fact, that random passersby tell them that they are beautiful when they are in Amsterday. Because that's a thing that happens in real life. Also people applauding them when they kiss for the first time, in the Anne Frank house. Because that is appropriate and realistic.)
General pretentiousness.

But I enjoyed it anyway!

I think part of it is that it's such a quick, easy read, and part of it is that I'm a sucker for that kind of thing. I also know that I probably would have LOVED this if I were 15 or 16, so the nostalgic part of my brain kicked in. I also like having a good cry, and this book definitely provided that. I don't really understand why so many adults are raving about it though. It is definitely a YA book.

...I'm going to ramble incoherently a bit now about Japanese dramas, this is probably only interesting to me, heh.

Reading this reminded me of one of my favourite Japanese dramas (because in my mind, terminal disease = enjoyment? I think there's something wrong with me..), which is called 1 litre of tears. It's about a girl called Aya who gets a disease which basically slowly shuts her body down over the course of 10 years. It's based on the diaries of a real girl who actually had the disease, so at the end of each episode they have an actual quote from the diary.. which is also really heartbreaking. Despite the fact that I haven't watched it for about 7 years, I can still vaguely remember the one at the end of the episode where she has to leave her school, where she says

My classmates are folding 1000 cranes for me. I want to burn this image onto the back of my eyelids so I can remember, even when we're parted. But... what I really wanted was for them to say "Aya-chan, don't go".


Ahem, anyway, if you like that kind of thing, 1 litre of tears is really really good. I'm not sure there's an official English version, but... *cough* fansubs *cough* Plus, it has good old footface Nishikido Ryo in. Yay! Footface!


Jen reads... several books about which she has almost nothing to say

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

This book follows Clay, a young web designer who ends up working at a bookshop (I'm sorry, I can't bring myself to say bookstore, it just feels wrong). The bookshop is open 24 hours a day, which is a bit unusual to begin with, and it also has a huge section of weird books which a strange assortment of people come in and borrow. The books follows Clay and his attempts to figure out what is going on.

I really enjoyed reading this and zoomed through it, but I think that I wanted the explanation for everything to be a little bit more.. interesting? I don't know. Also the WOW TECHNOLOGY IS AMAZING theme annoyed me a bit. Enjoyable though! It is a first novel though, so I'm looking forward to reading the next one!

Shadow and Bone

This is the first book in what will be.. a trilogy, I expect, seeing as it's YA. The book is set in a place obviously heavily inspired by imperial Russia, and follows a girl called Alina. She is an orphan, who grew up with a boy called Mal, who she is love with (obviously) but who doesn't notice her (obviously). Ravka, the country they live in, has a whole group of people called Grisha, who have special magical powers. It is discovered that Alina has one of these powers (obviously) so she gets taken away to learn how to use it.Ravka is also disconnected from the rest of the world by the Shadow Fold, a dangerous area full of darkness and monsters, and it may just be that Alina's power can get rid of the shadow fold forever (obviously).

...As the above synopsis suggests, this follows a LOT of YA tropes, but it's well done, and I was ridiculously grateful that it managed to avoid some of the most annoying ones, and that the main character was likeable! I bought the second book immediately after finishing this one, so that shows how much I enjoyed it.

A word of warning - if you know anything about Russia the setting may annoy you (I've read several really annoyed reviews talking about how the names etc were wrong), but I don't really so it didn't bother me. But I can understand, as anything based on Japan or Britain that got loads of stuff wrong would annoy me too. If you're the kind of person who doesn't get annoyed by that kind of thing who also likes YA, I fully recommend it!

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

This book is basically a series of essays written by Mindy Kaling. They were entertaining, and I enjoyed it, but that's about all I have to say. I'm not a particularly girly girl, whereas Mindy Kaling is, so quite a lot of the time I found myself understanding her point of view, but not feeling that it really related to me that much. Not that that's a bad thing, particularly! It did make me want to just hang out with her for a while (although I'm not sure what we would have in common...)

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

I really REALLY enjoyed this, but all I would want to say about it has been said elsewhere, so go read that instead!

A few more posts and I might actually catch up! 


Jen rambles... about Harry Potter and other stuff

It's another real life post! Yayyy!

Today is the last day of a 3 day weekend in Japan, yay! Although, boo, last day! I normally don't like to leave my house at the weekends, because I'm antisocial, but I've been surprisingly social for me recently. Last weekend I went to see an English version of Avenue Q in Tokyo, which was funny, although I would have appreciated it if the person sat behind us hadn't been making comments all the way through it... you're not at home in front of your TV, shhh!

On Thursday I went to a gathering for alumni of my university (I honestly have no idea what it was for, heh), which was also surprisingly fun! I don't normally go out on weekday nights, mainly because I get really tired the next day, but I think sometimes I should. It's good to break up the routine a bit.

Then on Saturday I went to a home party thrown by one of my friends from work, which was also fun! And I persuaded my husband (who is just as antisocial and averse to meeting new people as I am) to go, and he had fun too! Yayyy! Also, yum, food.

My husband is currently working his way through Harry Potter, and is currently on the Prisoner of Azkaban. He hasn't read them before or seen the films, but he's got really into them, in spite of the fact that he's made fun of me since we met for liking the books. Hehe. He was trying to tell me his theory on where the book is going, but couldn't remember Peter Pettigrew's name so called him Spaghetti instead. And then kept on going "Damn you spaghetti!!!" hehe.

Okay, that wasn't very interesting, so have a random Japan picture!

Onsen (hot springs) monkey! Yay! 

 This was taken at an onsen in Nagano prefecture, where monkeys come in the winter. Understandably, as Nagano when I went (last year in November) is FREEZING!

Aww, monkey.

Jen reads... The Talented Mr. Ripley

Seeing as I haven't been doing very well with updating, I have a huge backlog of things to post about.. so I'm going to not ramble as much as I normally do, yay!

I read this sitting on a beach in Okinawa in.. July? So forgive me if this isn't particularly detailed.
The story is about a person called Tom Ripley, who is asked to go to Italy to try to persaude his friend, Dickie, to come back to America by that friend's father. Ripley is a bit of a schemer, and has been running some scams in New York, and he slowly reveals that he's a bit of a psychopath.

This book made for good holiday reading, but it annoyed me on several levels.. First of all, Ripley complains about money and how he doesn't have much, but he still manages to get an all expenses paid trip to Italy. Pfft. Okay, so basically I was jealous of the idea that you could just go and live in another country and wouldn't have to worry about money or anything. Ahh, I wish I could do that! (Although given that I was reading this in the most sunny and beautiful place I've ever been to kind of negates a lot of my complaints, I guess!)

Reading this reminded me that I don't really like the style of writing. It's too.. emotionless? I don't know. I'm not entirely sure what it is, but I didn't really find anybody that believable.. maybe because I didn't really get their motivations for doing anything? One of my friends whose opinion about books I respect a lot loves Patricia Highsmith though, so it's probably just me.

The book is part of a series, and if I can get someone to lend me the later ones, or find a library with them (um, not terribly likely in Japan) I would be interested to read them, but I didn't enjoy this one enough to actually make an effort to get the other ones. So, all in all... meh.

(Has anyone seen the film of this? I can remember reading about it in teen magazines when it came out, but I think I was too young to actually see it (or too disinterested, hehe.))