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The Not That Brief, Not That Wondrous Book of Junot Díaz - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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November 23rd, 2008


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11:06 pm - The Not That Brief, Not That Wondrous Book of Junot Díaz
I waited for a month or so to get my hands on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. It's the latest Pulitzer Prize winner, and everyone's reading it. There were forty holds on it at the library when I gave it a click. I was very excited.

I loved all the geeky references, from Akira to The Stand, from Doctor Who to Dungeons and Dragons, from The Lord of the Rings to Perdido Street Station. I loved the use of section headers. I loved some sentences. I loved the sense that I was being told a story. I loved that it was a non-linear narrative told from multiple perspectives. I loved that the first epigraph and the final footnote are lines from Fantastic Four.

But that is where my love ends.

I really wanted to like this book. It took the dude over a decade to write, and it's obviously very personal, and I should be all about multiculturalism, but I just could not get into the damn thing. I studied Spanish in high school and college, so I was somewhat ahead of the curve, but a significant percentage of the words in this book are untranslated, unexplained, unitalicized Spanish/Spanglish. There were some important moments that I didn't fully grasp because I was too lazy to stick stuff into Babelfish. On the one hand, I appreciated what Díaz was doing by having his Spanish casually infiltrate his English without any clear parameters. On the other hand, shut up; Jhumpa Lahiri was able to integrate another language and culture into her writing without alienating the reader. I can't even find the Dominican Republic on a map, so I know a lot more about it now than I did beforehand, but having zero knowledge of the history and culture of the country put me at a disadvantage, even though there were many footnotes explaining who the historical figures were. Except, given the style and tone of the novel, I wasn't sure how historically accurate they were. I know it's unfair to judge the book on my ignorance, but I'm just saying: this is the reading experience. I had pretty much zero knowledge of the historical period of India depicted in Midnight's Children as well, but Rushdie was far more successful in pulling me into the story and using the historical narrative to enhance his fictional narrative and vice-versa. Díaz tries to trick you into learning history while reading his book too, but all the footnotes make you feel like you're just reading a textbook written by some guy in a college history class.

The writing style is...I don't even know, you guys. I didn't know you were allowed to write like that and win a Pulitzer. He writes like I do in my LJ posts sometimes, leaving in the "like"s and "dude"s and "for fuck's sake"s and slipping in untranslated, unexplained geeky references. The language is very freewheeling and casual, and, I don't know, I really thought I would like it, but I guess it started to grate on me. It began to feel artificial and contrived, like it was too cool for school. Look at me, I'm so hip, I can say whatever I want and people will think I'm awesome because I'm writing about a culture they don't know about, oh buuuuurn. There were moments; like I said, I loved some sentences. There's one sentence near the end of the book that goes on for almost three pages (I was halfway through the second page before I realized I hadn't hit a period yet). But he doesn't use quotation marks for dialogue. Oh my God. I'm sorry, dude, but you only get to do that if you're Faulkner. It's fucking confusing otherwise.

All of that wouldn't matter if I really cared about the characters, but I...didn't. Oscar is a pathetic, overweight nerdboy whose main goal in life appears to be to get some ass. Okay, maybe I'm being too hard on him. He's looking for love, like any boy. And he has dreams of being the Dominican Tolkien. Sure, I sympathized with him in the early part of the book, but after that, his story is told almost exclusively through other people, and I didn't really connect with him anymore. And you know what? HIS LIFE IS NOT THAT WONDROUS. I'm just saying. Yunior, our narrator, seems like kind of a twat. Hell, the character I probably cared most about was Lola, Oscar's sister. I think her sections, told in first-person, were my favorite parts of the book. They were genuinely emotional; I could really understand her and what she was feeling. I also liked the chapter about Oscar's mom.

The book starts out promisingly enough, describing the fukú, a Curse passed down through generations that is supposedly responsible for all the tragedy that befalls Oscar's family. The Curse is mentioned throughout the book to tie together the multigenerational story, but it doesn't really...do anything. It's added flavor, a little dash of magical realism to spice up the narrative. The problem is, the narrative totally needs spicing up. Notice how most of my loves up there are vague and conceptual. I liked the concepts but was not so much a fan of the execution.

(Special note, before I close: If you read the book, be aware that Junot Díaz TOTALLY SPOILS WATCHMEN. It's in the last few pages, and he's just quoting something from the last issue for effect, so you can avoid it if you just turn the page once you get the Watchmen part. But, man, I would have been so pissed if I hadn't already read it (twice). Just like I'm still bitter toward Peanuts for spoiling Citizen Kane for me.)

This is just me, of course. Obviously, many people—including magazines, newspapers, and the Pulitzer board—would disagree with me. I guess you either connect with the language and characters or you don't. In any case, the book does give me hope that one day, I can weave random references to Veronica Mars into my New York Times bestseller.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased (not with the book, ob
Current Music: Screaming Trees - All I Know

(47 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:cerulgalactus
Date:November 24th, 2008 07:44 am (UTC)
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So, basically, it's a combination of A Confederacy Of Dunces and The Ring (or whatever Japanese curse-based horror you care to mention), but written for the nerd-generation.

Sounds like another one for the skip pile.

Oh, and Cormac McCarthy can get away with not correctly punctuating dialogue as well. As for mega long sentences, seems like it's only this cat and Hitler who do that.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 07:47 am (UTC)
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So, basically, it's a combination of A Confederacy Of Dunces and The Ring (or whatever Japanese curse-based horror you care to mention), but written for the nerd-generation.
Nah, the curse isn't really that big a deal. And I haven't read A Confederacy of Dunces yet. It's more like a combination of Midnight's Children and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Except not really.

Oh, and Cormac McCarthy can get away with not correctly punctuating dialogue as well.
Can he? Shit. I've been told not to read The Road because it's like THE MOST DEPRESSING BOOK EVER, but there's another reason to avoid it.

As for mega long sentences, seems like it's only this cat and Hitler who do that.
And my man Faulkner.
[User Picture]
From:cerulgalactus
Date:November 24th, 2008 07:58 am (UTC)
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I've noot actually read The Road yet, but in No Country For Old Men, it's non-punctuated dialogue a-go-go. I think it would have annoyed me more had I read the book before I'd seen the film adaptation, but as it was, I didn't mind it.
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From:mycenae
Date:November 24th, 2008 07:52 am (UTC)
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OMG House of Leaves icon! I want to reread it, but I'm too scared... It makes me afraid of my closet.
[User Picture]
From:cerulgalactus
Date:November 24th, 2008 07:56 am (UTC)
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You don't have anything to be scared of...well, unless you notice an extra 1/2 inch in your living room that wasn't there before.

...Or if your name is Johnny Truant. And if it is, you are pretty much screwed anyway.
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From:mycenae
Date:November 24th, 2008 08:09 am (UTC)
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I am easily alarmed. Sometimes just thinking about that book makes me afraid of the dark. EXISTENTIAL DREAD LURKS IN THE DARK TO NOM NOM ON MY SOUL.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 08:16 am (UTC)
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I am picking it up on Tuesday! I AWAIT MY DOOOOOOM.
[User Picture]
From:cerulgalactus
Date:November 24th, 2008 10:27 am (UTC)
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Your doom will be soul devouring and all encompassing. And your brain will melt and you will near sink into it. Then you'll emerge from the other side, soul scored and shaking.

And then, you will want to dive straight back in.
[User Picture]
From:gymble
Date:November 24th, 2008 05:01 pm (UTC)
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Ooh, are you? I want to know what you think. I moderately despised it. And thought that it failed at what it was trying to do. But maybe you'll see something that I didn't.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 05:10 pm (UTC)
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Wuh oh. And we tend to agree on everything.
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From:gymble
Date:November 24th, 2008 08:30 pm (UTC)
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Well, not EVERYTHING. Once you've read it, I'll tell you why I didn't like House of Leaves.

I am glad to see that you share my love of Faulkner - although, I too have not read enough of him. He's one of those authors that I really enjoy and respect, but requires too much effort for me to get through on a daily basis.
[User Picture]
From:mycenae
Date:November 25th, 2008 04:04 am (UTC)
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It's basically a puzzle book. And either you get really into putting the pieces together, or you go "this is pretentious and pointless, I'm not doing this".

If you do get into the book, I'd suggest listening to Poe's album "Haunted" at the same time, since it's kind of the soundtrack to the book. (Poe being Mark Danielewski's sister.)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 25th, 2008 04:14 am (UTC)
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I just bought Haunted a few weeks ago, so, yes, I plan on doing such things.
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From:mycenae
Date:November 24th, 2008 07:50 am (UTC)
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Is it weird that this review makes me want to read it?

I agree that the concept sounds interesting, and even some of the stylistic stuff, (plus nerd references!), but it sounds like it didn't ultimately work, and now I'm curious why. A lesson in what not to do, perhaps.

Spoiling Watchmen is uncool. I only read it this year, and I'm amazed I remained unspoiled for so long. (I think it's because most Watchmen fans realize the importance of not spoiling Watchmen for potential readers... which makes doing it randomly in an unrelated book kind of a dick move, actually.)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 08:31 am (UTC)
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Is it weird that this review makes me want to read it?
Hee! Probably not? I didn't specifically say not to read it! I didn't hate it or anything.

I agree that the concept sounds interesting, and even some of the stylistic stuff, (plus nerd references!), but it sounds like it didn't ultimately work, and now I'm curious why. A lesson in what not to do, perhaps.
Problem is I can't figure out what the intangible fuck-all is that kept me from getting into it. Because the whole "write really casually like you're just shooting the shit with the reader" thing should do the opposite, you know? It should create a nice bond with the reader. But I think all the random Spanish makes the reader feel like he's not the target audience, like it's not really written for him. I mean, honestly, you get the impression that the book is specifically written for people from the Dominican Republic, that's kind of the way the narrator addresses you. As if you're one of his people. Although, no, there are several times where he assumes you're ignorant of DR stuff.

I don't regret reading it. At least now I have an opinion on it. And I can definitely learn from it because a lot of it was stuff I would like to do as a writer but was sort of disappointed and scared by the fact that it didn't totally work for me as a reader. Like you said, it was certainly an interesting lesson in what not to do. And what you can do. I think that's what I'm always continually surprised by as I read new books. You can get away with ANYTHING in this industry! There are no boundaries! People will read it! It heartens me.

I only read it this year, and I'm amazed I remained unspoiled for so long.
And it's going to be harder and harder to do so once the movie comes out because reviews will certainly mention what's changed and such.

(I think it's because most Watchmen fans realize the importance of not spoiling Watchmen for potential readers... which makes doing it randomly in an unrelated book kind of a dick move, actually.)
And it's so fucking unnecessary. All he wants to do is quote a cool Dr. Manhattan line, but to put it in context he randomly lists, like, three major spoilers about the ending. What the hell, Junot? For someone who has not read the book, those details mean nothing and do not heighten the impact of the line, which is powerful all on its own. And for someone who has read the book, those details make you look like a dick for spoiling people.
[User Picture]
From:sophiap
Date:November 24th, 2008 11:20 am (UTC)
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adds book to the "request from library" list vs. "order from Amazon" list

The book sounds interesting, but annoying. I'm happy to read experimental or non-traditional prose, but this sounds like it falls into "Whee! Look at me, I'm so clever!" territory.

In other news, your "i hate the shipping news" tag makes me snerk with malicious glee. I tried twice to get through that book and couldn't do it. The only reason I tried a second time is that it is one of my mom''s favorite books.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 04:22 pm (UTC)
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this sounds like it falls into "Whee! Look at me, I'm so clever!" territory.
It's not even clever! It's just hip and cool.

In other news, your "i hate the shipping news" tag makes me snerk with malicious glee. I tried twice to get through that book and couldn't do it. The only reason I tried a second time is that it is one of my mom''s favorite books.
Yeah, I have a similar story. A friend sent it to me for my birthday, and while I hated the book, she left little notes for me throughout the pages that made the reading experience a little more worthwhile. I did make it all the way through by sheer force of will.
[User Picture]
From:jeeperstseepers
Date:November 24th, 2008 01:38 pm (UTC)
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It began to feel artificial and contrived, like it was too cool for school. Look at me, I'm so hip, I can say whatever I want and people will think I'm awesome because I'm writing about a culture they don't know about, oh buuuuurn.

YES. Except I felt his fake cool wasn't just about writing about a culture people don't know about; I felt like he was so impressed with his ability to break the rules, man, and express himself without remaining imprisoning within the confines of the White Man's language and its petty rules. LIKE QUOTATION MARKS.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 04:26 pm (UTC)
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Heh. Goddamn that English language and its pesky rules! Damn the Man!
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 04:29 pm (UTC)
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Man, I loved A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but I'm never getting around to reading Ulysses, am I.

Thing about Joyce and Faulkner is I think their style is out there enough that a lack of quotation marks works. With Díaz's style, it doesn't make a lot of sense. As I said above, the casual style is supposed to be all reader-friendly, but a lack of quotation marks is SO not reader-friendly.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 07:08 pm (UTC)
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Hee. Logorrhea. Yeah, I can see that.

Someone on another board was saying that Díaz said in an interview or at a reading that "he did stuff on purpose so that no one who wasn't a Dominican uber-geek would get everything -- that was to make the reader have the immigrant experience of basically understanding what was going on, while at the same time knowing you were missing out on nuance." So you might be right on with the idea that it's not actually supposed to be reader-friendly. And I respect his intention and think it's kind of a neat idea except for the fact that I went in for a reading experience, not an immigrant experience.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 04:30 pm (UTC)
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Hee. Win-win!
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From:homegoddess
Date:November 24th, 2008 04:06 pm (UTC)
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My daughter is freshman at Kalamazoo College. The school sent The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao home to each student over the summer. During orientation week, Junot Díaz came to the campus and read from the book and I think he led a discussion. She didn't say much about the book or the discussion. Now I'm curious. I'll ask her about it over Thanksgiving break.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
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I've heard Junot himself is a pretty cool, nice guy, which is another reason I wanted to like the book.

That's so weird that they sent this book to everyone to read. Kalamazoo College? Are they a really tiny liberal arts school or something?
[User Picture]
From:homegoddess
Date:November 24th, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC)
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Now that I think about it, it must just be the freshman who were sent the book. So that would be about 365 students. Yes, it's a small liberal arts school. She's taking biology, Japanese, and a freshman writing seminar, where they watched Pan's Labyrinth. Most juniors spend the year abroad and she has her heart set on going to Japan. She really likes it so far. It's a good fit. Plus, she got a nice scholarship.
From:harriettheelf
Date:November 24th, 2008 04:09 pm (UTC)
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my mom and I never like the Pulitzer winners, anyway. Thanks for the head's up - I read the short story version of this when the New Yorker published it, and I wanted to like it but ... didn't. Now I know I don't need to read the longer version!

Is Faulkner really your man? We may need to reconsider our friendship.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 04:37 pm (UTC)
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I love me some Faulkner, dude. I've only read The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! but I thought they ruled. Impossible to understand without help but brain-frying in a very cool way.

I was going through Pulitzer winners the other day, and I think I like more than I don't like, if you go back and look at the whole list. I don't have as good a track record with more recent winners, though.
[User Picture]
From:electricmonk
Date:November 24th, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
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You haven't read As I Lay Dying? YOU MUST. And I must reread The Sound and the Fury, because I found it prohibitively weird the first time, but AILD took me a few tries to like, too. And then I fell madly in love with it.

As for Pulitzers, I read the 2005 winner (Gilead by Marilynne Robinson) and found it unspeakably boring. Middlesex totally deserved it, though.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 07:21 pm (UTC)
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I want to read As I Lay Dying! That's the one where there's a chapter where the woman thinks she's a fish or something?

I needed the Cliffs Notes for The Sound and the Fury in high school. I'd be interested in rereading it now without help and see if I could follow it all on my own for the most part.

I've heard great things about Middlesex. It's in my mental queueueueueue.
[User Picture]
From:electricmonk
Date:November 24th, 2008 09:22 pm (UTC)
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It's not the woman who thinks so, but yeah, that's the one.

Youououououou crack me up.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 09:29 pm (UTC)
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To be fair, the "queueueueueue" is a thing we do over at the Dragonfly. I forget who started it. I don't think it was me. But it is fun, no?

I am very pleased that "Fish" came on just as I began replying to your comment.

I am a fish, I am a fish and I need water
[User Picture]
From:glasseseater
Date:November 24th, 2008 04:38 pm (UTC)
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Hmm, this sounds like a book I should read on the plane to el salvador, what with my seminar class on central american diaspora, identity, ect. If nothing else this entry made me very curious about the book. then again, maybe I should read the things it references first, otherwise I probably will be annoyed.
I also don't know whether I should read Watchmen. Everyone raves about it so much but I don't think it's something I would like. Although I don't know why I would think I wouldn't like something with the word deconstruct in the description.
I think subconsciously you can't help but associate the book with the chinese dude on the subway, and since you can't consciously admit your deep attraction to creepy dudes on the subway it's manifesting itself in dislike of the book. I got a little carried away with that theory.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 05:16 pm (UTC)
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Hmm, this sounds like a book I should read on the plane to el salvador, what with my seminar class on central american diaspora, identity, ect. If nothing else this entry made me very curious about the book.
It does sound like appropriate plane reading for such a journey and seminar class!

Everyone raves about it so much but I don't think it's something I would like. Although I don't know why I would think I wouldn't like something with the word deconstruct in the description.
So it looks like the answer is: read it.

I think subconsciously you can't help but associate the book with the chinese dude on the subway, and since you can't consciously admit your deep attraction to creepy dudes on the subway it's manifesting itself in dislike of the book. I got a little carried away with that theory.
I love you.
[User Picture]
From:punzerel
Date:November 24th, 2008 04:59 pm (UTC)
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Hmmm. It sounds like I would have approximately the same reactions to this book, because several of the things you listed up there are definitely things that annoy me too.

I really have to get my hands on Midnight's Children. I tried Satanic Verses, and I don't know why, but I just could not. It just seemed so.. gimmicky somehow. I don't know. I'm cool with an author using a particular gimmick for one book, but if he uses them in ALL of them, then it just kind of starts to feel lazy.
[User Picture]
From:punzerel
Date:November 24th, 2008 05:00 pm (UTC)
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Also, I need a plane book, so I think I will mine your recommendation posts for ideas. You are useful!
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 05:18 pm (UTC)
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Yay!! Let me know what you decide on reading and whether you like it.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 05:18 pm (UTC)
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I think I've heard that about The Satanic Verses. I've only read Midnight's Children. But sometimes I like gimmicks! And sometimes I don't. I'm fickle like that.
[User Picture]
From:incidentist
Date:November 24th, 2008 05:33 pm (UTC)
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I can totally see how you could weave VM references into Back to the Sutre: A Novel for Teens.
[User Picture]
From:lodessa
Date:November 24th, 2008 10:53 pm (UTC)
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*disowns*
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2008 11:09 pm (UTC)
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Oh noes!! You really loved it, I presume?
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From:lodessa
Date:November 24th, 2008 11:59 pm (UTC)
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Yeah. I mean it's not PERFECT but I really enjoyed it and found it to be innovative and fresh and not poserish at all and thought it deserved all the acclaim.

Also I thought the footnotes were awesome.

(you aren't really disowned, though. that would be lame)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 25th, 2008 12:17 am (UTC)
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I am perplexed at the acclaim, but I guess acclaim for non-white dude literature is good for all non-white dudes?

I liked the footnotes on a superficial level, but I normally couldn't follow them. Some of the anecdotes were amusing, though.

I am glad I am not disowned.
[User Picture]
From:foresthouse
Date:November 25th, 2008 12:49 am (UTC)
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I didn't know you were allowed to write like that and win a Pulitzer.

HEEE. Your whole assessment of this book kind of cracked me up. I'd never heard of it before, actually, but now I know that I won't be planning on reading it anyway. Heh.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 25th, 2008 12:58 am (UTC)
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Heh. Well, I'm glad you enjoyed the review!

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