Archives for posts with tag: Pulitzer Prize

The+SwerveThe Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, written by Shakespeare and Renaissance expert Stephen Greenblatt, is an account of how ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius’ ancient philosophical (funnily enough) epic poem On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura) was rediscovered in the early 1400s by a Florentine man named Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio was an apostolic secretary, collector of ancient manuscripts, and great friends with wealthy and renowned collector of antiquities and manuscripts Niccolò Niccoli. On the Nature of Things contains many ideas that fuelled the Renaissance, inspiring artists and scientists alike.

Greenblatt weaves the tale of Lucretius’ poem’s journey from ancient times, to falling into Poggio’s hands, to its spread throughout Italy giving strength to the Renaissance. The Swerve is also a portrait of Italy on the cusp of the Renaissance – the political dealings, papal scandals and social climbing. Poggio, being an apostolic secretary and moving among the Florentine elite, was well placed as an observer of the times, the perfect starting point from which to map the course of the Renaissance.

Greenblatt includes a handy chapter that breaks down the basic ideas featured in Lucretius’ poem –

  • Everything is made of invisible particles
  • The universe has no creator or designer
  • The universe was not created for or about humans
  • Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival
  • The soul dies
  • There is no afterlife
  • All organised religions are superstitious delusions
  • Religions are invariably cruel
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion

The ideas of Epicurus (Lucretius’ poem introduced Epicurean philosophy to Roman readers) and Lucretius aren’t revolutionary to most people anymore but to think of ancient Romans and Greeks thinking about them seemed amazing to me. To have figured out so many truths only to have them be lost is mind-boggling. And even today their ideas on religion are furiously contested, ‘often by those who gladly avail themselves of the scientific advances [those ideas] helped to spawn’, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it.

I loved how Greenblatt paints pictures of what life was like, creates context and tells stories. He tells us what Poggio would likely have felt (though Poggio did write things down as well) among other details that, given the passage of time, are unknowable, but Greenblatt’s vastly educated conjecture is very welcome. He does the same with his recreation of ancient times. Greenblatt’s setting is the Herculaneum villa known as the Villa of the Papyri where during an archaeological excavation a copy of De rerum natura was discovered. Greenblatt uses these clues to show us the lives and social circles of the people that would have originally read Lucretius and Epicurus. Historical sleuthing, as it were.

I was hugely impressed by The Swerve. To a Renaissance history or philosophy buff perhaps there won’t be much that’s new. Maybe it won’t be a revelation that people in ancient societies hypothesised that the world is made of atoms. But Greenblatt still has a singular ability to demonstrate the awe and wonder and danger of scientific endeavour. It’s a rather intimate slice of history – the life of one man, the impact of one manuscript, but it shows the wide-reaching nature of intellectual exploration and the possibility of changing the course of history with a single discovery. Greenblatt writes with great clarity. The Swerve is ambitious in its vision to tell us ‘How the Renaissance Began’ yet remains crystalline in its real, more modest purpose – to tell the story of Poggio Bracciolini and the inspiring De rerum natura.


Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoJunot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel looks back on the life of nerdy, overweight, Dominican Oscar de Leon. He failed spectacularly at sport, was socially inept, and obsessed with speculative fiction in all its forms (‘Could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic.’). Despite these obvious setbacks Oscar had an all-consuming desire to find love. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is mainly about Oscar. It’s also about his mother, Belí, her parents and her past, it’s about Oscar’s sister, Lola, and it’s kind of about its narrator, swaggering embodiment of Dominican maleness Yunior. But above all Oscar Wao is about the Dominican Republic, its history, people and culture.

Spanish is littered throughout Oscar Wao. I wanted to stop constantly to check cultural references, translate Spanish, and look up historical and political references, but I never did. I was too invested in the story. I just wanted to find out what happened next. Once I thought I’d try to translate something: ‘ojas de mamón’ (as in ‘La Inca made her put ojas de mamón in her shoes so he wouldn’t ask too many questions’). But a simple translation couldn’t be had. It could be something like ‘leaves of castor’ or papaya leaves but that’s if it’s hojas instead of ojas, and even then the significance of putting ‘leaves of castor’ in your shoes was lost on me. Or mamón can be a rude word, like idiot or asshole. There’s layer upon layer of detail. You could spend forever lost in the Spanish, let alone the science fictional references.

Given Oscar’s love of all things science fiction it should come as no surprise that Oscar Wao is replete with nerdy references – anime, Watchmen, Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons. Díaz’s use of SF references isn’t simply name dropping or list making. He’s really clever about it; the story of Oscar becomes enmeshed with the SF world. Díaz takes Lord of the Rings terminology and applies it to Latin American politics, equating fictional, legendarily evil figures with their real life counterparts, which I thought was very cool: ‘Johnny Abbes García was one of Trujillo’s beloved Morgul Lords’.

I also loved how Díaz combines sultry, vivid poetry with the immediacy of vibrant slang (in English and Spanish), his writing transforming from the stark beauty of ‘all those pale eyes gnawing at her duskiness like locusts’ to ‘danced like a goat with a rock stuck in its ass’ and back again.

Time goes back and forth, switching between Oscar’s life in New Jersey, Belí’s youth, Belí’s parents before she was born (in the 1940s, in the Dominican Republic Belí’s father, Abelard Cabral, was a famous doctor who got on the bad side of Dominican dictator Trujillo – something that wasn’t hard to do), and back again to the present day. The Cabral family history has ramifications that echo through time, right up to Oscar’s lifetime (the family fukú or curse). And it’s an unconventional and really exciting way to present Dominican history (there are even explanatory footnotes for those unfamiliar). Parts are told by different narrators, with different narrative points of view, and out of sequence, always knowing what the story is building up to – the end of Oscar’s life. Yunior (being a family friend) would know a lot of the details but it’s clear that he’s using some creative licence to weave his tale, to make it whole. You get the impression you’re reading about something true and yet mythological at the same time. Díaz’s writing style is experimental but it’s still lively and honest.

Oscar Wao reminded me of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (exploration of the immigrant experience, the story of one member of the recent generation becoming the impetus for telling the story of past generations). Or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (Oscar Wao’s pervading sense of the mystic, their belief in superstitions and fukús reminded me of magical realism, then there’s the story of generations of one family telling the history of a place – Dominican history as told through Oscar’s family).

Junot Díaz has been criticised on occasion for his characters’ misogyny and sexism but underneath there’s tenderness and fragility. Díaz’s writing makes me love a character like Yunior, someone who admits to constant infidelity, who I wouldn’t be able to stand in reality. Yunior tries to help Oscar, even though they had absolutely nothing in common. He’s full of bravado, talking up how weird Oscar is, how much he doesn’t want to help him, but he does help him and there’s a connection between them. I’m not saying Yunior’s perfect, sometimes I was infuriated by him, and even by Oscar, for not trying hard enough to change, but I only got mad because I cared.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a gutsy, heady and exuberant portrayal of Dominican history, diaspora culture, and the strange life of one nerd. It’s sweeping, yet personal and intricate. I could almost have read it again straight away; it’s just brimming with greatness.

With The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay Michael Chabon has given us an epic tale of World War II and the history of American comic books as seen from the perspective of two Jewish cousins, Sammy Clay and Joseph Kavalier. Together they create the famous comic strip The Escapist, which chronicles the adventures of the eponymous Nazi-fighting master of elusion. Joe Kavalier has arrived in New York after escaping from Prague, having been forced to leave the rest of his family behind, unprotected from the Nazi regime. Sammy dreams of making it big in the world of comics, while Joe thinks of nothing but liberating his parents, grandfather and younger brother. Sammy and Joe’s newfound success finds them at the epicentre of the new popular culture, mingling with the avant garde and bohemian New Yorkers of the 1930s and ’40s, until war changes everything. It’s the friendship between Joe and Sammy that is the soul of Kavalier & Clay. They may not always be together but their love for each other is what keeps the novel alive.

Kavalier & Clay has a grandeur that suits it ambitious depiction of World War II, the birth of comic books and the pursuit of the American dream. It’s written in a style as if it’s a biography of Sammy and Joe, or a history of American comic books. Chabon includes footnotes that add historical detail, and blends fiction with fact, using stories involving Superman, Will Eisner, Stan Lee, and Salvador Dalí, and interlocking them with the ‘history’ of The Escapist. Chabon is clearly a keen researcher. His novel is strewn with references to people, places and events that greatly enrich but, at times, threaten to overwhelm. But ultimately Kavalier & Clay’s historical style doesn’t add distance; it’s far more intimate than any straight history ever could be.

Kavalier & Clay has elements of a comic book adventure but grown up, fleshed out and made real. Over the past few decades comic books have earned the right to be considered a serious art form capable of expressing complex stories. In 1992 Art Spiegelman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Award for Maus, a graphic novel biography of the author’s father, Holocaust survivor Vladek Spiegelman. Joe Kavalier foresees the future of the comic book. He sees its beauty and ability to capture truth through modern folklore. Kavalier & Clay owes more than just its subject matter to comic books; it’s a magical, enthralling, larger-than-life adventure. That being said it felt heartbreakingly genuine. I honestly had to remind myself not to get so involved but it was like I was inhabiting the world Chabon had created.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is lyrical and playful, and so beautifully written that I almost didn’t care what happened next, I was engrossed in the journey. It is, by turns, funny, hauntingly sad, erudite and yet unpretentious. The novel has everything to do with the events of World War II, its spectre looms over the characters’ lives but the horrors of warfare are never really described. Instead the pain of war is told from the perspective of those, like Joe, that are isolated from it.

Since its publication Kavalier & Clay has been heaped with praise (including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001), and rightly so, it’s one of my new favourite books. Sammy and Joe both possess a combination of innocence, determination, and melancholy that I found endearing and the story is captivating. I love a book that manages to blend the beauty and sadness of life, a sense of fun and a brilliant plot, and this is most definitely it.