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Posts Tagged ‘Recommended Reading’


Wow, Wao

01/31/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Having been sufficiently wowed by Junot Díaz’ appearances at the second session of this year’s Seminar, I plunged in to his new novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I am well-rewarded. Its fecund language is so shot through with Spanish-language slangs and arcane sci-fi references, that the experience of reading it resembles nothing so much as living in the strange real world, catching but what can be caught, and letting go what can’t. One could pause to translate each phrase and unearth each reference, but that’s hardly the point (as Díaz himself suggests in this podcast). Wao is a work about omission, and its power rests on the gaps in understanding central to the fukú which is the book’s subject. Díaz’ language takes as its primary target the person and reputation of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the notorious dictator of the Dominican Republic. It’s not just the nicknames of “Fuckface” and “Failed Cattle Thief” which Díaz makes synonymous with Trujillo from the very beginning, but also the ways in which his actual name is tweaked that give the reader to understand that, no matter the horrors he perpetrated, Trujillo and the nation he bent to his singular will are no more. Referring to him as “T to the R to the U to the J to the illo” is not only a funny nod toward hip-hopper and cheerleader basics, toward the sort of free society that Trujillo feared, it also signifies that language is a realm eventually untouchable by even the most effective dictator. And that, even if “T–illo” succeeds in eradicating a character so completely as to leave behind not a single example of his handwriting, we know that he has by now failed in his fundamental quest to control the population and his own reputation. It’s too late, alas, for too many of this novel’s characters, and their omissions, in the end, are their heartbreaks: “Before all hope died I used to have this stupid dream that shit could be saved, … and I’d finally try to say the words that could have saved us.” But those words aren’t there; the text reads “—— —— ——.” Grasping, hoping, failing, our narrator is unable to find the words marking the path of escape from fukú, but Díaz, footnoting beyond him, and Oscar Wao too, in the otherworld he inhabits, have indeed transcended.

Tangential Required Reading: Meghan O’Rourke on John Ashbery

01/16/2008  by kwlsguest  Comment on this Post

One of the ancillary pleasures of the Literary Seminar is learning which writers “our” writers are reading. Whether inspired by the topic or our locale, or whether it is simply coincidental, trends inevitably emerge to offer a sort of tangential required reading list. Most pleasing to my mind, last week, were the references to poet John Ashbery, a 2003 alum of the Seminar, made separately by Ann Beattie, Maggie Nelson, and Edmund White. As an unabashed fan and former student of Ashbery’s, I always enjoy a discussion of his work, and lament the reputation of “difficulty” which is often attached to it. One more reason, then, to be excited about this weekend’s session, is Meghan O’Rourke, whose “How to read John Ashbery”, from Slate in 2005, peels away this reputation in one of the most refreshing, graceful, and charming discussions of Ashbery’s work in recent times. You can catch O’Rourke in discussion with Billy Collins and Kevin Young on Saturday, and on Sunday afternoon (free and open to the public) with Daniel Menaker, Nell Freudenberger, Silas House, and Tayari Jones. –Arlo Haskell (Sand Paper Press), KWLS stage manager

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