I'll be the first to admit that I've never been much of a reader. It's not that I don't enjoy the act of reading, I've just always had an inherent disdain for books. I'm the kid that grew up with cable, had a joystick in his hand since the age of two, and was on the internet as soon as we got a computer in the house. I'm technologically inclined and turning those physical pages with my hand is akin to the sensation one gets from nails on a chalk board. The advent of digital book stores and e-reader devices like the iPad and Kindle have sparked my desire to read through the instant gratification of purchasing books without leaving my house as well as doing away with the dirty feeling I got from handling books. Since the Kindle store opened I've read more books for fun than I have in my entire life before then (which isn't saying all that much, but still). The latest book I checked out was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.
Although the book is a fictional account of a family from the Dominican Republic, focusing on the titular character and the curse (or "fukú") that he eventually succumbs to, it gives a portrayal of Dominican and immigrant culture that I wasn't quite expecting. Despite having trace amounts of Cuban in my DNA (1/16th from my father's side), currently dating a Dominicana, and one of my favorite Aunts being Puerto Rican, I don't know a lick about Latino culture or history. I've always just considered myself a regular black guy, was raised in a regular black family in a majority black neighborhood. The schools I went to that weren't majority black were majority white, and I've never had any class anywhere that talked about Trujillo, Hatuey, Anacaona, the Parsley Massacre, or any of the many topics the book touches on.
As an outsider looking in, the book did an excellent job of mixing the history of the Dominican Republic in with the novel's fictional accounts of Oscar and his family in a way that still felt pretty familiar. Part of that is undoubtedly due to the narrator's voice being recognizably nerdy (with references to Marvel Comics, Japanese anime, and J. R. R. Tolkien) while at the same time authentically hip-hop, with the cadence of a great emcee. It even featured a liberal use of the n-word (albeit with the hard 'er' instead of the 'a' I'm used to hearing), which in and of itself was very insightful in regards to the way Dominicans view themselves and their Afro-Latino ancestry. The only real part of the language that threw me off was, well, the Spanish part. I don't speak a lick of it, and the person who recommended the book to me (being Puerto Rican and a Spanish speaker herself) didn't think about the fact that the story mixes in Spanish words and phrases heavily. I think that I got the gist of things for the most part, but there were undoubtedly some things lost in translation (or a lack thereof).
All in all, it was an excellent, eye-opening, and thoroughly entertaining book. Easily the best book I've read this year and one of the best in recent memory. I'm looking forward to reading this again a few years down the road. Hopefully I'll know Spanish by then.