2 great books, 1 not-so-great

Published 3:10 pm Saturday, September 5, 2009


Call me Pollyanna if you wish, but I have loved every Pulitzer Prize-winning fictional work I have ever read. The past two years, the books selected to be recipients of this prestigious honor were exceptional: “Olive Kitteredge” by Elizabeth Strout (2009) and “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz (2008).

Both of these novels intertwine the stories of others to give us a better picture of their protagonists. A shared theme emerges: Our pasts, our cultures and our communities ingrain themselves into our character.

Email newsletter signup

“Olive Kitteredge” weaves together the lives of several people living in a small town in Maine. Olive, the main character, is somehow involved with each of the other characters. It is not a traditional book; it feels more like a collection of connected short stories. Strout examines the condition of being human. In Olive’s world, humanity can at times be cruel, but ultimately, it is kind. Oh, and watch out for Olive’s biting humor. She may leave you wondering whether you should even be laughing.

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” travels back and forth in history to unravel the roots of Oscar’s family’s dysfunction. Being Dominican, Oscar contends his family suffers from bad fuku. In their culture, the curse of bad fuku follows families for generations. Oscar lives in New Jersey with his sister and mother. His mother immigrated to the United States to escape death at the hands of the Trujillos, the ruling family of the Dominican Republic. Oscar grows into an overweight science fiction fanatic who longs to, um, lose his flower. The vibrant cast of characters created by Diaz illuminates what might be the real problem, not fuku, but instead loss of culture and resulting depression.

Feeling a personal connection with fictional characters is rare. They are there, after all, to be blunt and obvious statements on society. These characters, Olive and Oscar, are more subtle than that. They are real, meticulously created people who could easily be living down the street from you right now. Strout and Diaz succeed in forcing their readers to examine the world around them and the people in it. And that might be why both authors can now be called “Pulitzer Prize winners.”

“Olive Kitteredge” by Elizabeth Strout

ISBN-13: 9780812971835

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz

ISBN-13: 978159448329

“Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do” by Doctors Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson.

ISBN-13: 9780743299510


I ordered this book online after hearing about it from Penn and Teller. I wish I loved this book as much as I love their show on Showtime. But that’s an unfair comparison because I don’t love anything as much as I love Penn and Teller. I’m kidding. I love Jon Stewart equally as much.

“Grand Theft Childhood” was a slow start, and there was way too much math. They provided me with the knowledge I was looking for (Will video games affect my child’s growth emotionally and mentally?). but they bored me to death. The book read like a paper in a medical review journal. Half way through I was desperately wishing Malcolm Gladwell would slap some life into it.

Angie Barker and Amanda Lester reside in Albert Lea.