The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #4 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
You can read this review (along with other thoughts on what makes a book teachable on my regular blog here)
The great thing about teaching English is the multiplicity it offers–I can teach through almost anything. It’s hard to do Geometry without triangles, or History without dates, but you can teach English through classical drama or modern poetry, gripping holocaust memoirs or front page news stories, with Hemingway, McEwan, Achebe or Woolf.
So why not a new author like Junot Diaz? Why not a new, award winning, critically acclaimed, best-selling novel like: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? I was given the book to answer precisely those questions and while I’ve shared my thoughts with other staff members, I couldn’t help but put them down here as well along with all the other notes I make about what makes a book worth teaching.
For me to want to teach a book it must have artistic merit. To be sure, Oscar Wao has that. With a Pulitzer Prize stamped on its front cover and the pages filled with the kind of fluid, florid prose that can’t help but remind you of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez it is certainly a fine piece of writing. (Though at times it reads like a pseudo-Marquez tribute more than a unique piece.)
For me to want to teach a book it must address themes or subjects that will benefit my students. With an alienated and aloof teenager at its core Oscar Wao can certainly do that (unless a particularly aloof teenager huffs over reading about “some dweeb”). Family pressures, peer pressures, social, cultural, community and historical pressures–all combine into one epic saga of a single awkward life. If the students give it a chance, each and every one of them can get something great out of it.
For me to want to teach a book I must be convinced that it will engage and challenge all students. Here’s where I have a problem with Oscar Wao (and why I included the “if” at the end of that last paragraph). Because the language is so specialized for an Hispanic (and in particular, Dominican) audience; I’m not sure that other students will be able to sift through the argot, track the footnotes and still care about the characters. With engagement in doubt you run the risk of creating too daunting a challenge, and even though the narrators speak in blunt, often profane, prose that anyone could understand that’s not quite the challenge I’d set for teenagers, especially when there are over 3 million other words in the English language that they could/should learn to use.
While I personally love Oscar Wao, I would be extremely careful in choosing when and where to deploy it for students. In the right room, with the right attitude it could be an off the charts success. But, between the hyper-localized language stunting engagement and the uneven challenges presented in the prose, I’d want to build it up with other classes–creating a buzz so that other students seek it out rather than dispassionately flip pages when it plops down on their desk.