You don’t need me to tell you that the holiday season is upon us. No matter how much you try to insulate yourself against all manner of manufactured cheer, it’s nearly impossible to avoid Christmas, whether you actually celebrate it or not. So who could blame you for wanting to fast-forward through December entirely – a month that seems to exist solely to force you onto a merry-go-round of expensive gift-giving, unbearable seasonal music, and guilt-ridden family gatherings?

Who could blame you for hating December and all that goes along with it? Me, that’s who. I blame you. I’m one of those people who, through a combination of sheer stubbornness and unrepentant nostalgia, have never lost my childhood love of holidays. I’m the loser who watches “It’s A Wonderful Life” every Christmas Eve. Even now, I’m getting little waves of joy thinking about hanging my favorite ornaments on the (real, not plastic) tree. And I daresay I actually look forward to hanging out with my family on Christmas morning.

If, however, the thought of spending time with your own relatives fills your cold, two-sizes-too-small heart with trepidation, you might prefer to spend some time with the Cabral family. Their complex history is traced from the rough neighborhoods of 1980s New Jersey to the much, much rougher Dominican Republic under President Trujillo’s reign in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the debut novel by acclaimed short story writer Junot Diaz. The novel’s namesake is a depressed, obese, sci-fi-loving virgin who is painfully aware of how little he matches up to his culture’s expectations of manhood. "You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto," Diaz explains in his offhand style, which weaves intellectual swagger with streetwise wit. Sustaining this kind of snarky nonchalance over the span of three hundred pages is a formidable task, and although Diaz is certainly up to the challenge, the tricky, vibrant wordplay recedes by the end of the novel as wrapping up the story begins to take precedence.

Maybe you’re a great deal more confident and worldly than I, but I often find myself torn between my desire to read more fiction about the variety of experiences had by immigrants to America and paralyzed by my embarrassing lack of knowledge about certain cultures. Should you find yourself in the same predicament, Oscar Wao need not intimidate you. Diaz thoughtfully provides footnotes on the history of and crimes perpetrated by President Rafael Leónidas Trujillo to educate those of us who “missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history;” he does not, however, offer any explanation or translation of the Spanish slang, insults, and descriptions that crop up frequently throughout the book. Nor does he go out of his way to gloss the superheroes, fictional worlds, and comic books that make up the bulk of Oscar’s existence. If you don’t see how weirdly funny it is that Oscar hangs a copy of Sargent’s famous portrait Madame X on his dorm room wall between posters of Robotech and Akira, you’re on your own. Oscar’s nerdiness seems to be some sort of key to the book’s code, the magic word that just might be the antidote to the long-standing curse that has plagued the family.

The chapters relating Oscar’s painful high school years, his self-destructive college days, and the trip back to Santo Domingo that changes his life are interspersed with others focusing on Oscar’s rebellious older sister, Lola, and the girlhood of his formidable mother, Belicia. While Lola provides an interesting counterpoint to Oscar, offering a view of how two siblings’ lives can veer off in drastically different directions, it is Belicia’s tale that really captured my interest. A fervent believer in love, she risks all for “the Gangster;” to say she is perseverant in the face of tragedy is an understatement. While Oscar Wao explicitly offers up a moral about the redemptive power of love, the visions of love Diaz offers are so dark, complicated, and funny that you won’t look at love – or awkward, enthusiastic nerds – the same way again.

The Ocean in the Closet by Yuko Taniguchi is also a debut novel about a family digging through its past to make sense of its present, but the setting and circumstances are vastly different from Oscar Wao. Set in California and Japan of 1975, with trips back in time to the decimated Japan of the mid-1940s, the story centers on Helen, an anxious, introverted nine year old girl. Helen and her younger brother Ken are shuffled off to live with their aunt and uncle after their mother Anna begins to suffer the effects of a nervous breakdown while their Vietnam vet father becomes ever more distant. If that doesn’t already sound like a plot Oprah would love, throw in the fact that Anna is losing it because she was given up for adoption as a child by her Japanese mother, who conceived her with an American soldier while working as a comfort woman during World War II. As the adults in Helen’s life try to reassure her that her mother’s issues aren’t her fault, she becomes convinced that if only she could reconnect her mother to her Japanese roots, her family could become whole again. Across the ocean, her great-uncle Hideo is also hungry for a reunion with Anna and her children, for his own, more complex reasons. Told from the perspectives of the youngest and oldest members of the family, the novel investigates the inexplicable draw of family, even – especially – when that family is a complete mystery. Its scope is ambitious, but Ocean takes on so many Important Topics (and in fewer than two hundred pages), it seems almost tailor-made for dissection in a high school English class composition. Among the themes it spotlights: the causes and treatment of mental illness, the complications of biracial identity, the ethics of international adoption, the psychological repercussions of being a war survivor, the gravitational pull of familial obligations…I could go on, but I think you get the point. There is a lot at stake for these characters, and it takes a deft touch to write about these personal matters without delving into melodrama or oversimplification.

Which brings me to the writing itself. At its best, there is a fragile stillness to the prose, as of a delicate vase precariously balanced on the edge of a table – the fact that it will eventually shatter is indisputable, and makes it that much more pleasing. Too often, though, Taniguchi seems to fall back on that sort of elaborate simplicity that many writers use when attempting to emulate a child’s manner of speech. I might let it slide if only the chapters narrated by Helen were written in this style, but as a narrator, Hideo, too, seems to prefer to speak in a flat, perfectly moderated tone; even when describing the horrifying experience of returning home to Hiroshima after its destruction by nuclear bomb, there seems to be a thin glass wall between Hideo’s descriptions and his actual feelings. The novel strives to capture the feeling of being estranged from your roots, but never quite gets there. In spite of being almost entirely about various characters’ psychological states as they sort out what being part of a family means, I never got the impression that I hit the bottom. But maybe that’s as it should be. Reading these tales of complex families trying to make space for their secrets , I couldn’t help but call to mind my own family. I’m sure this Christmas will find us playing out the same roles we always do, each of us displaying varying degrees of enthusiasm. And yeah, you could make an argument that this clinging to tradition is pathetic or misguided or simply just not very much fun. But after reading these two novels, I’m convinced that family traditions can illuminate all those parts of a family that we would prefer go unmentioned. Traditions codify the stories we want to tell about ourselves; if you look deep enough, they can also reveal all the stories we try to suppress.
Bedside Stacks
By: Ashleigh A. Lambert