Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Junot Diaz, NJ Writer, Receives 'Genius Grant'

 
It was announced yesterday that New Jersey's Junot Diaz has been awarded a MacArthur "Genius Grant." Diaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic but raised in New Jersey, is a Rutgers University graduate and a Pulitzer Prize winning author. In 2007, his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, won him the award.

The MacArthur grant is a $500,000 award.

I have read two of Diaz's books. The first, Drown, is a collection of short stories that was released in 1996. The second, Oscar Wao, was his first novel. His newest book, This is How You Lose Her, was released in September of this year and is another collection of short stories (it has so far received much critical acclaim as well as a place on The New York Times bestseller list).

In Drown one can engage with many of the same characters from his later works, including the narrator of Oscar Wao, Yunior, a character that recurs throughout Diaz's works. His style in Drown is similar to that of Oscar Wao, including a mixture of Spanish and English as well as slang, but, not surprisingly, his earliest work is not as polished or mature as Oscar Wao, which was released more than a decade after his first collection.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the life story of Oscar Wao, a nerdy, overweight Dominican boy who grows up in New Jersey and (not surprisingly) attends Rutgers University. Wao is a science fiction writer, and while in college shares a dorm room with Yunior, who is in love with Wao's sister and who has never had a hard time with women (this is exhibited throughout Oscar Wao and Drown).

What Wao wants more than anything, though, is to fall in love, and Yunior decides to help him lose weight and work on his skill at talking to girls.

Most of Diaz's stories center on some romantic or sexual theme. His work is, for the most part, an exploration of the many forms of love and the many forms of longing he sees in the world. Because of the varied nature of the subject he explores, the writing can at times be gritty, magical, epic, or humorous. Most of all, his books are simultaneously smart yet engaging and emotionally charged.

Oscar Wao includes chapters from the perspectives of Wao's mother and sister, both of whom have their own romantic and familial struggles, which are exhibited throughout the book. Wao, like many of the characters in Drown, grew up without a father in his Paterson, New Jersey household. The story takes us from male to female perspective, from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey and back, and through time from the present day to the reign of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo early in the 20th century. All of this is sewn together seamlessly through the superior storytelling skills of Diaz.

Here at the Ocean City Public Library, we currently hold copies of all three of Diaz's books. For more information, call the reference desk at (609)399-2434.

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