Poetic, Painful and Revealing, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong Has So Much to Offer.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

My Review: 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a wonderfully rich story, in the form of a letter, written by a Vietnamese son to his mother who will most likely never read it.  She is illiterate and has had a difficult life of her own, which has influenced her parenting skills and contributed to her mental health.  Overloaded with the burden of abuse, feeling like an outcast not being a white American and battling with his own sexuality, the adult son comes to terms with his vulnerability, his abusive and unreliable upbringing, his first intimate relationship and his feelings for his mother and grandmother, all while he fearlessly and unapologetically tells the story of his childhood and his search for acceptance.

In the form of a letter to his mother, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous has many tangents that accommodate the author’s trains of thought.  It is self-reflective and written poetically, infused with insight gained with age.  As the narrator looks back, he describes in detail how kids picked on him, and his mother could not help him because she didn’t speak English.  She hit him until he was 13 years old;  her violent tendencies possibly due to mental illness.  He describes in detail, play by play, his first sexual encounter with another young boy.  Expertly conveying the roughness and the tenderness, he reveals his vulnerable and insecure self with no apologies.  So much of what he shares is painful and sad, yet we witness glimmers of self-acceptance at his personal turning point when he looked in the mirror and saw something someone could love.

“To be gorgeous (like sunset), you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”

The author makes interesting structural choices in his novel.  He used Moby Dick by Herman Melville as a guide; exploring tangents surrounding the main story to give background and context.  The letter format of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous allows the writer to say whatever he chooses without having to worry about a beginning, middle and end, a character arc or a formal conclusion.

Ocean Vuong is a poet and his book is autobiographical in many ways, although we don’t know all of what is fact or fiction. In the end, it doesn’t really matter because he takes us on a unique and beautiful journey; one of a life that is not easy.  He nourishes the actual happenings with details of family, tradition, superstition and cultural history which enhance our understanding of this boy.  The writing is rich and vibrant, the subject matter excruciatingly painful at times; an unusual combination that makes this a slow, fully absorbing and fulfilling read.

Jennifer Blankfein

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Book Group

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Book Group

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My book group enjoyed On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous; some of us listened to it and enjoyed the author’s voice and emotion while others preferred to read so they could take the time to absorb the beautiful language.  We found it challenging in our discussion to keep the author and the narrator separate – drawing the line between truth and fiction was murky but in the end we all appreciated the writing and the story.  Check out Ocean Vuong’s late night conversation with Seth Meyers to get a feel for what he is like!

Ocean Vuong Interview with Seth Meyers

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Ocean Vuong is the author of the debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, out from Penguin Press (2019) and forthcoming in 15 other languages worldwide. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2016, winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, his honors include fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, and the Pushcart Prize.

Vuong’s writings have been featured in The Atlantic, Harpers, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as a 2016 100 Leading Global Thinker, alongside Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki-Moon and Justin Trudeau, Ocean was also named by BuzzFeed Books as one of “32 Essential Asian American Writers” and has been profiled on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” PBS NewsHour, Teen Vogue, VICE, The Fantastic Man, and The New Yorker.

Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he serves as an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at Umass-Amherst.

Q & A with author Mary Beth Keane about her gripping new novel, Ask Again, Yes.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

My Review:

I loved this moving story of young love, family trauma and the aftermath…mental illness, addiction, forgiveness and the power of love kept me engrossed until the very last page.

Two young policeman work together in Brooklyn in the 1970s.  To distance themselves from the job after the workday and to start families they both move to the suburbs with their wives and end up living next door.  Francis and Lena have three daughters, one named Kate, and Brian and Anne have a son, Peter.  Kate and Peter have a strong connection and become very close, yet the families don’t socialize, mostly because Anne’s behavior is a little odd.

A tragic event occurs…no spoilers here…and relationships become strained and crumble under the stress.  Can we find the way back to the people who are important to us?  A gripping new novel with deep characters and an accurate portrayal of the working class, Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane is a must read!

Mary Beth Keene, Jennifer Gans Blankfein, Lauren Blank Margolin

Mary Beth Keane, Me, and fellow book blogger friend Lauren Blank Margolin (Good Book Fairy)

Q & A with author Mary Beth Keane

Can you tell me a little about your process of writing and organizing this novel.  Did you know the path each character would take individually or did it come together as you wrote?

I started the novel seeing only two of the characters. Francis, and Peter. I knew Peter was a child and Francis was new to the NYPD, but I didn’t know what they had to do with one another for a long time. I began by writing them separately, and then placing them alongside each other, if that makes sense. Eventually it became clear how these families would have an impact on one another. I never write my books in order, from beginning to end. For example, there’s a scene where Peter slides down a telephone pole. In the final draft, it’s a memory being recollected. But that was one of the first scenes I wrote when I began this book.

Two neighbors have a childhood friendship that ultimately turns to love, and even though they are kept apart for some time, they find each other again.   What inspired you to create this relationship the reader is hoping for?

I knew that they would be childhood friends, and I knew they would find each other again as adults. I also knew they had quite different approaches to life thanks to the environments in which they were raised. I don’t outline, but I did know that much. I did NOT know what form their reconnection would take: whether they’d just meet up once and move on or what. The point of the book, if there is a point, is about the randomness of life, and how our lives touch and change other lives even when we don’t mean them to.

Anne Stanhope’s erratic behavior was due to mental illness, and her husband Brian, his brother George and her son Peter battled alcohol addiction.  Their struggles were painful and actions seemed realistic…how did you prepare to write such complicated characters?

I pull partly from life and partly from my imagination. By middle age most people know someone who has struggled with addiction, whether they know it or not. All I need is a spark from real life and then I can run with it and imagine all the possible outcomes. The thrill of fiction writing is following one possible outcome to its conclusion.

Peter is estranged from his mother – how did you research this idea of being out of touch with a parent?

My husband, who I met when we were in high school, was estranged from his parents for many years. His mother died during that estrangement. Explaining that break to our children, who never met their grandmother, was part of the reason I was driven to write this particular book. Is a parent always a parent? Does being someone’s mother or father or child always have particular meaning, or does that meaning get lost when the relationship is severed?

Guns and unnecessary shootings are in the news all the time; do you think Brian, a police officer, was careless or did he consciously make the decision to be lax?

No, he was just being careless. These were the years before Columbine, so even when that gun showed up where it shouldn’t have, people didn’t yet think immediately of a mass shooter like they would today. I talked to a lot of police officers while writing this book and that was something that came up more than once, stories of off-duty police officers losing track of their off-duty weapons, especially in the 1970s and 1980s.

Did you know how the book was going to end when you started writing it?

Ha! No. Not even remotely.

Did you change anything significant during  the revision process?

Oh yes! So much that I couldn’t possibly answer fully here. I started the book from Kate’s point of view, written in the first person. I scrapped that after about one hundred pages. I changed the structure many, many times. I spent a very long time starting with Peter and Kate as adults, and then looping back to their childhoods, but that felt impossible to pull off without bogging down the narrative with flashback. It took a long time to figure out how to best tell this particular story.

Can you share any information about Ask Again, Yes for TV and Film?

Just that I’m thrilled, and that it’s happening. Right now it seems most likely to be a limited mini-series, and I’m delighted by that. I love that a limited mini-series will provide enough room and time to really tell this story in detail.

What have you read lately that you recommend?

I just finished All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan and I’m completely gutted. It was devastating and brilliant.

Goodreads Summary

Mary Beth Keane

About the Author:

Mary Beth Keane’s first novel, The Walking People (2009) was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and her second novel, Fever (2013) was named a best book of 2013 by NPR Books, Library Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle. In 2011 she was named to the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35.” She was a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction and her new novel, Ask Again, Yes, was published in June of 2019.

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

 

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Conversation with author Rhiannon Navin:

First I would like to say I loved Only Child. Your writing pulled me in so I couldn’t put down the book until I finished; I think about the characters and how they dealt with tragedy and loss everyday, and I see the value of empathy now more than ever.  I felt hesitant when I was ready to pick up my copy – we as a country are experiencing the aftermath of a school shooting once again and emotions are difficult to keep in check when thinking about the minute by minute experience of the kids during the occurrence, so I was not sure I was ready to put myself in the position to live through such a frightening, life changing event along with your young elementary school narrator, Zach.  After I finished the last page I decided everyone in the country is ready to read this; in a way it is a guide for how to (and how not to) manage your emotions and understand each other’s feelings and take care of yourself and loved ones during difficult times.

What made you decide to write about a school shooting?  Do you have any personal ties to a similar tragedy?

About two years ago, shortly after my twins Frankie and Garrett started kindergarten, they experienced their first mandatory lockdown drill at school. That same afternoon, I found Garrett hiding from the “bad guy” underneath our dining room table. He was petrified. So I began to wonder: What would it be like for him to experience an actual shooting? And how would he navigate what came afterwards? And so I sat down and wrote the opening scene of Only Child. In this scene, Zach, my six-year old protagonist, is hiding in the closet of his first-grade classroom, together with his teacher and classmates. They are hiding from a gunman who’s at large at the school and who, during the course of his rampage, takes nineteen lives.

How did you get into the head of a first grader?  

I used my own kids as my focus group for how Zach might act or speak. In a way, the process of discovering Zach’s character and writing his story brought me closer to them because I paid more attention and watched them intently for clues: What are they thinking right now? How are they processing, expressing themselves? I call my kids by the wrong name all the time—even the cats’ and dog’s names sometimes—and because I hung out with Zach so much while they were at school, I even called them Zach once or twice. They were very confused.

Your characters all dealt with grief in different ways; Zach worked out his feelings with colors on paper, read Magic Treehouse books that in essence were “self help” for kids, and tried to be close with his parents.  His mom shut him and the rest of the family out as she turned inward to process her loss alone, and then invested her energy in anger, retaliation and connection with other victim’s families, and Zach’s father did his best to be supportive and present for his son by sitting with him in his hideout and trying to be understanding, but was distracted with his emotions regarding his adult relationships.

Do you think there is a right way to deal with grief?

No, there is no right or wrong way. Grief will manifest itself differently for each person and there’s very little you can do to control how it will affect you. In an ideal world, you would seek out help, hold your loved ones close, and try to pass through that trying time together. But as we all know, that’s not how it always plays out in real life. Writing the character of Melissa, Zach’s mom, was very difficult, not only because I often felt her pain like it was my own, but because I also often didn’t agree with her actions. I often felt disappointed in her or even angry sometimes. But—that’s grief. It can be all-consuming and overpowering.

Do you believe Charlie was to blame for his son’s actions?  

I think it’s impossible to place blame on any one person or circumstance when a young man like Charles Jr. in my story, or the many real-life examples we have seen lately, commit such a horrific act like a school shooting. What surprised me was how much empathy I felt for Charlie and his wife while writing my story. That is not something I expected at first. And now, whenever news of the latest school shooting breaks, my first thoughts are always with the victims and their families of course. But I do also think about the shooter’s family. While the victims’ families have to deal with their unspeakable losses, the perpetrator’s family is dealing with guilt and shame over their child’s actions in addition to having lost a child. A community comes together and rallies around the victims’ families, while the shooter’s family is ostracized and completely alone with their grief. As a mother, the only thing I can imagine that would be worse than having my child killed in a school shooting would be my child committing one. 

Did you intend for this book to be a catalyst for change when it comes to legislation?  How do you think it can impact discussions regarding mental illness and gun access and responsibility?  

I began writing Only Child without an agenda. I simply needed an outlet for all the fears and worries I am experiencing as a mother of three young children. I lie awake at night worrying about their safety while at school. Writing my story was a way for me to work through my fears and my grief. It was never my intention to get up on my soapbox and shout out my views on gun control. Instead, I wanted my story and my little protagonist’s experience speak for itself. I hope my readers will find themselves in a hopeful place when they reach the end of my book and maybe even feel inspired to take action to be part of the solution, to make sure their child or their neighbor’s child or the child across town doesn’t have to become the next Zach.

Why did you make Andy such a difficult child?  

It was important to me not to write a story that would be pitting “good” against “evil.” My goal was to paint a picture of an ordinary family that I can relate to and that many readers will be able to relate to. My characters are all flawed in their own way, because that makes them relatable to me. Zach’s family is an average family dealing with everyday problems. Being married is hard, even under the best of circumstances. Parenting is hard, especially when your child has behavioral challenges, like Andy. The fact that Andy was a difficult child and an unkind brother made the grieving process that much more confusing for Zach and interesting for me.

At the end of the story the family came together, possibly realizing they needed to in order to get to the next stage of grief and begin to go through the motions of living life again.  Do you think in the case of Zach’s family, loss will keep them together or break them apart in the end?

I think I left Zach, his family, and his community in a place of hope. Their story is far from over, of course, and they are only beginning to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. But they have started down a path towards healing and forgiveness, and instead of trying to walk it alone, they have come together and will lean on each other.

Only Child was so well done, a deep look into how tragic experiences can influence and shape a young person’s thoughts and actions.  Will you write from a child’s perspective again?  What are you working on now?

I think I will continue to try writing from unique perspectives. I very much enjoyed putting myself into such completely different shoes. I don’t know if it will be a child’s point of view again. I have begun working on another story. I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it too much, but like Only Child, it’s a story that deals with a family in peril, although an entirely different kind of peril.

And finally, what books have you read lately?

I’ve read a whole range of very different books lately. I just finished “Restless Souls” by Dan Sheehan (out here in the US on April 10) and absolutely loved it. Before that I read “One Goal” by Amy Bass and “The Devil’s Claw” by Lara Dearman, both crazy talented friends of time. Next up is “How to Stop Time” by Matt Haig, very excited for that one.

Thank you so much to Rhiannon Navin!  I look forward to reading her next book!

As seen on Goodreads:

A Tenderhearted debut about healing and family, narrated by an unforgettable six-year-old boy who reminds us that sometimes the littlest bodies hold the biggest hearts and the quietest voices speak the loudest.

Squeezed into a coat closet with his classmates and teacher, first grader Zach Taylor can hear gunshots ringing through the halls of his school. A gunman has entered the building, taking nineteen lives and irrevocably changing the very fabric of this close-knit community. While Zach’s mother pursues a quest for justice against the shooter’s parents, holding them responsible for their son’s actions, Zach retreats into his super-secret hideout and loses himself in a world of books and art. Armed with his newfound understanding, and with the optimism and stubbornness only a child could have, Zach sets out on a captivating journey towards healing and forgiveness, determined to help the adults in his life rediscover the universal truths of love and compassion needed to pull them through their darkest hours.

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About the Author:

RHIANNON NAVIN grew up in Bremen, Germany, in a family of book-crazy women. Her career in advertising brought her to New York City, where she worked for several large agencies before becoming a full-time mother and writer. She now lives outside of New York City with her husband, three children, and two cats.

Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

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My Review:

Author Mira T. Lee so eloquently shows us when someone has a mental illness, it affects each person in the family and impacts all relationships.  Miranda and Lucia grew up very close, as loving sisters, Chinese American and from New York.  When their mother dies, Lucia marries an unlikely match for her, a kind, Israeli man with one arm, and after a time leaves him and gets involved in a relationship with a younger hispanic man, has his child and moves with him to Ecuador to live in a tiny hut with no bathroom, adjacent to his extended family.  Her behaviors are extreme and even after she had ended up in the hospital and been given pills to keep her even tempered, her decisions seem questionable to her sister who struggles with how much she should interfere.

Miranda and both of the men in Lucia’s life offer her support and compassion in their own ways, bringing to light the fact that mental illness is only one aspect of a person and no matter how flawed one is, love and belonging is still needed and deserved.

Everything Here is Beautiful is a beautiful story of family bonds, sisterly love, devotion and responsibility in the face of mental illness and its potentially devastating and damaging consequences.  This is a messy family drama with lots of love, pain and forgiveness. A powerful must read.

 

As Seen on Goodreads: 

Two sisters: Miranda, the older, responsible one, always her younger sister’s protector; Lucia, the vibrant, headstrong, unconventional one, whose impulses are huge and, often, life changing. When their mother dies and Lucia starts to hear voices, it’s Miranda who must fight for the help her sister needs — even as Lucia refuses to be defined by any doctor’s diagnosis.

Determined, impetuous, she plows ahead, marrying a big-hearted Israeli only to leave him, suddenly, to have a baby with a young Latino immigrant. She will move with her new family to Ecuador, but the bitter constant remains: she cannot escape her own mental illness. Lucia lives life on a grand scale, until inevitably, she crashes to earth. And then Miranda must decide, again, whether or not to step in — but this time, Lucia may not want to be saved. The bonds of sisterly devotion stretch across oceans, but what does it take to break them?

Told from alternating perspectives, Everything Here Is Beautiful is, at its core, a heart-wrenching family drama about relationships and tough choices — how much we’re willing to sacrifice for the ones we love, and when it’s time to let go and save ourselves.

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About the Author:

Mira T. Lee’s debut novel, EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL, was recently named a Top 10 Debut of Winter/Spring 2018 by the American Booksellers Association. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as the Southern Review, the Gettysburg Review, the Missouri Review, Harvard Review, and TriQuarterly, and has twice received special mention for the Pushcart Prize. Mira is a graduate of Stanford University and lives in Cambridge, MA.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

 

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My Review:

Four children from a Jewish family on the lower east side of Manhattan visit a psychic in the summer of 1969 and are told the date they will die.  Does this information, this prediction, change the way they choose to live?  That question is left unanswered in The Immortalists, as we follow each of the siblings’ lives.   Author Chloe Benjamin provides us with a mesmerizing story of these rich characters, and their choices about how to live.  Simon, the youngest brother, moves to California to live his truth and gets caught up in the reckless ’80s sexual revolution.  His journey out west begins with his sister Klara, who is irresponsible in many ways and chooses to become a magician.  Daniel, the oldest brother is conflicted at work; he is a doctor in the army and must give clearance to young men, less fortunate than he. to serve in the military.  And Vanya is involved in anti-aging research, as she reduces caloric intake of primates to extend their lives.  We witness the strengthening and deterioration of relationships and we hope things will turn out ok, but do they?  Throughout the book I couldn’t help but question if the characters’ choices were made because of the knowledge they received regarding their death.

Another question to think about is:  quality or quantity…do you want to live a long time or live well during the time you have?  Would you want to know the date of your own death?

Some of what Chloe Benjamin writes about is based on her own knowledge and experiences; she grew up in California in the 80s, with a gay parent, a Jewish parent, and immigrant grandparents.  She was a ballet dancer and her mother was an actor…all of which influenced the setting and characters.  She also did massive research to learn about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military, primate research, magicians and magic.  The narrative was rich with information and I really enjoyed the format, each section written about a different character.

The Immortalists, for me, was a lesson about embracing life and trying not to worry about the unknown.  It is a balance, like science and religion, to navigate our lives by making choices based on what we know to be true and what we believe is true.  I highly recommend this book!

As seen on Goodreads:

If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

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About the Author:

Chloe Benjamin is the author of THE IMMORTALISTS, a New York Times Bestseller, #1 Indie Next Pick for January 2018, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, #1 Library Reads pick, and Amazon Best Book of the Month.

Her first novel, THE ANATOMY OF DREAMS (Atria, 2014), received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was longlisted for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.

Her novels have been translated into over twenty-three languages. A graduate of Vassar College and the M.F.A. in fiction at the University of Wisconsin, Chloe lives with her husband in Madison, WI.