This month we discussed a collection of short stories by Pulitzer-prize winning author Junot Diaz. Members’ reactions were mixed and passionate! At least three members had been unable to read much of the book, put off by the vulgarity of the language and sexual references. One member read the book twice, wondering why I would choose a book like this for a group with older members. Many asked – where is the warmth, the humor, the glossary? Is this really what the author wanted us to learn about Dominican men, Dominican women?
Like the author, one member was brought to the U.S by his parents at the age of seven, and the familiarity of the immigrant experience and the use of Spanish-language throughout, appealed to him. The book’s setting, the serial infidelity, the machismo, are foreign to the majority of us; but is this generational, geographical, or simply experiential? One member pointed out that the change in Las Vegas in the last 30 years is startling – from the formality of dress that used to be seen attending shows to the increased nakedness of many young women going “clubbing.” Previous book club selections, like Winter’s Bone, In One Person, The Buddha in the Attic, Wench, also depicted raw, unfamiliar realities. What makes one appealing and another not?
The collection is framed by two stories of great love lost. The first story is particularly coarse and jarring at the start, and I imagine it has turned away many readers. Without a plot or mystery to solve, gentler stories, like “Otravida, Otravez,” told from the viewpoint of a woman, and “Invierno,” the main character’s retelling of his first experiences in the U.S., can be lost. I know that the author’s choice of order for the stories is important, but had I read the collection before selecting it, I would have recommended that members read those two first – not because they are the best stories, but because they could help provide an understanding to enable the reader to sympathize with the main characters.
One member asked those of us who liked the book to explain why, specifically; so I read a few quotes I had quickly written down. The extracted statements don’t carry quite the same weight, because their power is often in the beauty of simplicity juxtaposed with the coarseness of reality – “When Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost anything.” (p.3) Or for “Nilda,” who was his brother’s girl, “She couldn’t see me or she would have known that I thought she was beautiful.” (p.38) Describing “Alma” with “arms that are so skinny they belong on an after school special.” (p.46) And the female narrator in “Otravida, Otravez,” “I never see the sick; they visit me through the stains and marks they leave on the sheets, the alphabet of the sick and dying.” (p.55) Or, “He is excited but he is also scared. This is something I know, a place I’ve been.” (p.69)
I chose This is How You Lose Her in recognition of Hispanic-American Heritage Month. Our group spoke a bit about how often we lump all Spanish speakers together, as if they are all from Mexico; about often unrecognized black Latin America. Opening our eyes to a different experience, even if only through literature, extends our understanding and tolerance. Like another member mentioned, however, I am not sure if I could recommend this book, without the discussion, even though it is one of my favorites so far.
Next month, in recognition of Native-American Heritage Month, we will be discussing a young-adult novel by Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Alert: This book has some vulgar language, references to masturbation, alcoholism, death and violence. It also has illustrations and humor. Give it a chance and join our discussion.
- Other works mentioned:
- *Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
- *Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
- *Netherland by Joseph O’Neil
- *The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
- *In One Person by John Irving
- A Better Life (DVD) 2011
- Under the Same Moon (DVD) 2008 Spanish Language Film
- Black in Latin America (DVD) 2011
*All previous Whitney Book Bistro selections