“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz, 2007

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This best seller is considered by critics in a BBC poll to be the best novel of the 21st century so far, in addition it’s won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008 and many other awards.  It tells the story of Oscar de Leon, aka Oscar Wao (a nickname and corrupted version of “Wilde”), who migrates from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey and eventually returns to the D.R. and is the latest in his family to deal with the curse of fuku.  Oscar is an anti-hero as an overweight nerd who is picked on by bullies at school and avoided by all the girls in spite of his relentless attempts to befriend them.  He funnels his energy into writing science fiction, which shows he has writing chops,  but fails to gain the interest of publishers.  His life seems headed nowhere until he returns to the Dominican Republic where his “brief wondrous life” eventually begins.  Much of the novel flashes back to the previous struggles of his family members with the fuku curse in sections about his grandfather, Dr. Abelard Cabral, from the 1920’s to 1960 and his mother, Belicia Cabral, from c. 1946 to c. 2000.  Alongside the personal stories of Oscar and his family is the story of the Dominican Republic from the time Christopher Columbus first landed on the island of Hispaniola, the island of The Dominican Republic and Haiti, up through and focusing on the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo 1930-1961, and the subsequent suppressive rule of Joaquin Balaguer. The brutal conditions, comparable to Stalin’s USSR, during the Trujillo dictatorship help perpetuate the curse of fuku which, in the story, is said to originate with Columbus and slavery.  Recurring symbols pop up during the scenes in which the curse is playing out, such as a man without a face seen by several characters, a mongoose who aids the victims of the curse,  and books with pages left blank which the characters were unable to fill in with their answers to mysteries before dying. Counterbalancing the dark tragedy of most of the story is a fair amount of humor in the narrative voice of Yunior.  His slang with a mixture of Spanish, and English along with interjections to the reader, such as; “Negro, please!”, lends a light conversational mood to the narration and draws you into the setting. There are also extensive footnotes relating factual history, often done with a tongue-in-cheek tone.

This book relates to last month’s selection, “Americanah”.  Both deal with the diaspora of people of color in America and the countries they come from, Nigeria being the case in “Americanah”.  Themes of race and class dominate both books.  There are also a couple of references to the author, Mario Vargas Llosa, whose “The Green House” we read back in February.

When I first saw the title of this book I immediately thought of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Hemingway, with its nearly identical syntax,  but the similarities don’t end there.  In both works the title character makes a transformation near the end by resolving a central problem in the story only to have their lives abruptly and violently cut short.

Many videos of the author appear on YouTube.  Here is one in which he discusses “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

“Galileo’s Middle Finger, Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science” by Alice Dreger, 2015

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This non-fictional work revolves around the theme of scientists reporting facts and being persecuted for it by religious authorities, other scientists, activists, and organizations who feel threatened by the truth or who have a vested interest in the perpetuation of non-truth.  The book starts off with Galileo and his cohorts, such as Versalius, Copernicus, and Bruno (burned at the stake for heresy) who challenged the dogma of the Catholic church with ideas born of keen observation and logical reasoning thus making new discoveries and ushering in the beginning of the scientific revolution.  Galileo’s middle finger, which he once pointed up at the heavens, is now mummified and on display in the Uffizi museum in Florence, Italy. Flashing forward to modern times, Alice Dreger picks up the narrative with several examples of contemporary push-back against scientific facts which ruined careers of researchers, obfuscated the truth, and in some cases, perpetuated harmful medical practices. Each of the these instances is told in thorough detail beginning with the author’s involvement in reporting on the medical establishment’s surgical modification of babies who are born with sexually ambiguous anatomies.  This long- standing practice to make intersex babies conform to traditional male or female anatomies frequently bears a psychological cost to the patient and is often done without their parents’ consent or knowledge. The author and her colleagues had considerable opposition to their research.  The next story is related and concerns research and theories by a psychologist, Michael Bailey about transexuals.  His book, “The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transexualism” painted a more complicated picture of the topic than the transgender activists felt would be helpful to them in their pursuit of acceptance in society.  As a result, Bailey became a target of the activists and a campaign was mounted to slander him and his family and put him out of business.  Ironically, Bailey was an advocate for transgender people and his research was scientifically valid.  Another story involves anthropologist, Nap Changnon, who lived with and studied the Yanomano tribe in Venezuela.  Due to his coarse personality and some politically unpopular, albeit factual findings his study revealed about the Yanomano, he became a target for criticism and defamation.  Another anthropologist wrote a takedown book about him which was later proved to be all fabrication.  The American Anthropological Association failed to clear up the issue due to politics and Bailey was ruined.  The last story involves a pediatric endocrinologist who became entrenched in a harmful and scientifically unfounded practise of giving pregnant women who are genetic carriers of an intersex condition called CAH (congenital adrenal hyperplasia) the synthetic steroid, dexamethasone.  In spite of no proven benefits and considerable risks to the patients this doctor is unfortunately continuing this practice while misleading the mothers and others as to the risks. The doctor, Maria New, has managed to outmaneuver her critics who are trying to bring the facts out, and she continues to get grant money from the NIH to administer this disproven, deleterious drug therapy.

Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and has written a previous book on the related topic of hermaphrodites.  Her book left me with several ideas to keep in mind, such as: truth tellers and whistleblowers in science are not necessarily going to win with valid facts if they challenge the interests of politically dominant people and organizations.   Another being, as Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard, puts it; “in activism as in war, truth is the first casualty”.  For this reason, narratives of movements, organizations, or individuals, even from causes that we feel aligned to, need to be examined on a point-by-point basis for accuracy, and that no amount of credentials or prestige makes institutions and individuals invulnerable to intellectual corruption.