book review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong | BookBrowse

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ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong
★★★★★
Penguin Press, June 4, 2019

 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the bold and bracing debut novel by acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong, centers on Little Dog, the son of a Vietnamese immigrant mother and an absent father. Raised in present-day Hartford in a predominantly white community, Little Dog struggles from an early age to both assimilate with his peers and to honor his Vietnamese heritage, but here Vuong deviates from the standard immigration story blueprint in favor of something more darkly sensual and internal. As the story unfolds, the reader comes to understand that the novel is an elaborate letter written from Little Dog to his mother, though she will never read it, as she is illiterate: the story he tells her is consequently private and unsparing. “The impossibility of you reading this makes my telling it possible,” Little Dog confesses.

Read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and if you’d like a little more context on this book, you can read my piece on Vietnamese Amerasians HERE.


You can pick up a copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous here on Book Depository.

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book review: Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

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HUMAN CHAIN by Seamus Heaney
★★★★★
FSG, 2010

 

A sparse, supple collection of poems that each capture something singular and striking about human connections. The standouts to me were Human Chain, Route 110, “Had I not been awake,” and “The door was open and the house was dark,” the latter of which I’ll copy here because I think it captures what’s so elegant and perceptive about Heaney’s style:

The door was open and the house was dark
in memory of David Hammond

The door was open and the house was dark
Wherefore I called his name, although I knew
The answer this time would be silence

That kept me standing listening while it grew
Backwards and down and out into the street
Where as I’d entered (I remember now)

The streetlamps too were out
I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger,
Intruder almost, wanting to take flight

Yet well aware that here there was no danger,
Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming
Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar

Or an overgrown airfield in high summer.


You can pick up a copy of Human Chain here on Book Depository.

book review: The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

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THE FIRE STARTERS by Jan Carson
★★★★★
Doubleday, April 2019 (UK)

 

For whatever reason I never tire of reading about the Troubles, but The Fire Starters is not your average ‘Troubles book.’ Set in modern-day East Belfast, Jan Carson imagines a series of fires that break out throughout the city, initiated by an enigmatic figure referred to as the Fire Starter, who revels in the blood lust that his havoc causes. Amidst this violence we have two fathers, Sammy Agnew, an old man and former paramilitary, and Jonathan Murray, a socially awkward new father, both of whom fear their own children, as Sammy begins to suspect that his son is the cause of the Tall Fires, and Jonathan begins to suspect that his newborn daughter is a Siren.

This is a singular, inventive, tragic, and wildly funny book about the legacy of violence and the lasting scars it leaves on a community. The novel’s central conceit is reminiscent of Milkman, and of other quintessential Northern Irish lit – that terror begins at home, that trust cannot automatically be extended to one’s own family – but Jan Carson’s interpretation of this theme is far more abstract than any I’ve seen before.

I’ll be honest, I’m so relieved that I didn’t know there was going to be a magical realism element to this book before picking it up, because as I’m sure you all know by now, magical realism almost never works for me – but fortunately, Carson shows us how it’s done. This book quite literally mythologizes the Troubles as the threat of Sophie the maybe-Siren looms large over Jonathan, but her narrative role is more ambiguous; is Jonathan merely appropriating the grandiosity of the cultural narrative he was raised into, or is Sophie actually a danger to society? As Jonathan fears for the future, Sammy reminisces on the past and the violent role he played in the conflict in the 1970s; he fears that he can never wash his hands clean, and that his actions have irrevocably damaged his son.

As I’m sure you can tell, I loved this. Jan Carson’s writing is sharp and funny and piercing; the fusion of perspectives works magnificently; the examination of Belfast’s history of violence and the ever-present threat of its resurgence is timely and unapologetic. And this is, frankly, one of the most original things I’ve read in a very long time.


You can pick up a copy of The Fire Starters here on Book Depository.

book review: Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants by Mathias Énard

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TELL THEM OF BATTLES, KINGS & ELEPHANTS by Mathias Énard
translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
★★★★★
New Directions, 2018
originally published in 2010

 

Michelangelo never traveled to Constantinople, but author and scholar Mathias Énard imagines that he did in the richly detailed novella Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants. Énard draws on the historically verified premise that Michelangelo was invited in 1506 to Constantinople by the Sultan Bayezid II, who wished to commission the design for a bridge over the Golden Horn, having already rejected a design proposed by Leonardo da Vinci. Wishing to surpass his elder and seduced by promises of eternal glory, Énard’s Michelangelo makes the excursion, fleeing from Pope Julius II and an unfinished commission in Rome.

What this slim book lacks in word count it makes up for in atmosphere: lush and evocative, Énard’s writing propels the reader into the past with a tonal confidence and authority that blurs the line between fact and fiction – and even after reading Énard’s note at the end, you would be forgiven for still not knowing which is which. Even the physicality of the pages makes you feel like you’re reading a historical document; with sparse, short chapters, occasional sketches, and an abundance of blank space, Énard easily earns his reader’s trust and convincingly brings the past to life.

While I imagine that Énard is a tremendously gifted writer in French, Charlotte Mandell’s translation is stunning and sensual. The novella opens with the following paragraph:

“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn. And its people along with it—the drinkers, the poets, the lovers. We are a people of the banished, of the condemned. I do not know you. I know your Turkish friend; he is one of ours. Little by little he is vanishing from the world, swallowed up by the shadows and their mirages; we are brothers. I don’t know what pain or what pleasure propelled him to us, to stardust, maybe opium, maybe wine, maybe love; maybe some obscure wound of the soul deep-hidden in the folds of memory.”

These words are narrated by an Andalusian singer that Michelangelo spends the night with, whose perspective occasionally resurfaces throughout the book. These chapters were consistently my favorites, but the chapters which focused on Michelangelo’s time in Constantinople and his fraught relationship with the gay poet Mesihi I found almost equally as thrilling.

‘Thrilling’ almost feels like an inappropriate word to use while trying to sell a relatively plotless book, but it feels like an accurate way to describe the constant emotional and intellectual engagement I felt with this story. In only 144 pages, Énard tells a propulsive tale of art, ambition, and a clashing of two cultures that don’t actually meet in a significant artistic way in 1506 – this book instead hinges on the glorious ‘what if?’ It’s also a bracing portrayal of one of history’s greatest artists – genius though he is, Énard’s Michelangelo fears the carnal as much as he reveres the aesthetic of it, and this contradiction is navigated here with grace and tragedy.

Make no mistake: this is very much my kind of book. I’m sure a lot of readers will find it serviceable or even dull, but everything came together for me for the perfectly enchanting and emotionally satisfying read. I can’t recommend it highly enough… but only if the premise intrigues you. This is the kind of book that I wanted to reread immediately upon finishing it, and I can confidently say I will be returning to it in the not too distant future.


You can pick up a copy of Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants here on Book Depository.

book review: Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister

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GOOD AND MAD: THE REVOLUTIONARY POWER OF WOMEN’S ANGER by Rebecca Traister
★★★★★
Simon & Schuster, 2018

 

“The fact that lots of people could extend such sympathy for [Charlie] Rose […] affirmed a bunch of things. First, that the world is stacked in favor of men, yes, in a way that is so widely understood as to be boring, invisible, just life.

But more deeply, it was a reminder of how easily we can see in men — even in the bad ones — talent. Brilliance. Complexity. Humanity. We manage to look past their flaws and sexual violations to what value they bring to the world. It is the direct opposite, in many ways, of how we view women, whose successes can still be blithely attributed to the fact that the boss wanted to fuck them.”

Good and Mad is probably the best contemporary feminist text I’ve read. Smart, biting, and unapologetic, Traister meditates on the post-2016 election state of affairs in America – Trump, Weinstein, #MeToo, school shootings, police brutality – and contextualizes all of this into a coherent narrative, the root of which is (not so surprisingly) white supremacy and patriarchal infrastructures. As an American who’s been sad and disheartened and yes, angry, every day since the election, who’s overwhelmed daily by the constant stream of depressing state of world affairs on Twitter, it was nice to read a refreshingly intersectional analysis of the times we’re living in that doesn’t write off the potential of the numerous female-led protests and movements that have arisen in recent years.

Traister’s central thesis is that female anger is good, healthy, constructive; she cites numerous examples of women, often women of color, who have refused to be silenced by the sociopolitical structures that have endeavored to dismiss their anger as irrational. This was at times frustrating to read because sometimes it feels like the sexism and racism in US politics is an unassailable force, but Traister herself has no interest in that kind of cynicism, ending this book on a note that succeeds in inspiring. I couldn’t recommend this highly enough.


You can pick up a copy of Good and Mad here on Book Depository.

book review: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

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NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS by Ocean Vuong
★★★★★
Copper Canyon Press, 2016

 

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is an invigorating, razor-sharp poetry collection that meditates with both candor and artistry on themes of war, nationality, sexuality, and violence. Vuong, born in Vietnam and raised in the US, threads details of his own family history into his broader narrative verse that centers on Vietnamese identity. It’s a fierce, provocative, political, and sensual collection that I found both challenging and moving, and I’m looking forwarding to reading Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous even more, now.

The type of review that just quotes a bunch of passages tends to be my least favorite to both read and write, but I’ll break my own rule here because my own words feel rather inadequate next to these:

“How a horse will run until it breaks
into weather — into wind. How like
the wind, they will see
him. They will see him
clearest
when the city burns.”

– from Trojan

“Snow scraping against the window. Snow shredded
with gunfire. Red sky.
Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.
A helicopter lifting the living just out of reach.

The city so white it is ready for ink.”

– from Aubade with Burning City

“He laughs despite knowing he has ruined every beautiful thing just to prove beauty cannot change him.”

– from Immigrant Haibun

“To love another
man — is to leave
no one behind
to forgive me.
I want to leave
no one behind.
To keep
& be kept.
The way a field turns its secrets
into peonies.
The way light
keeps its shadow
by swallowing it.”

– from Into the Breach

“Don’t laugh. Just tell me the story / again, / of the sparrows who flew from falling Rome, / their blazed wings. / How ruin nested inside each thimbled throat / & made it sing”

– from Seventh Circle of Earth


You can pick up a copy of Night Sky with Exit Wounds here on Book Depository.

book review: Maus by Art Spiegelman

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MAUS Volumes #1-2 by Art Spiegelman
★★★★★
Pantheon, 1996
originally published in 1986

I feel like anything I could say about this book is going to sound woefully inadequate, but I guess I’ll give it a shot anyway. Maus had obviously been on my radar for ages as a critical piece of Holocaust literature as well as being the only graphic novel to ever win the Pulitzer Prize, so I was certainly expecting it to be good, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how utterly harrowing of a read this ended up being. And again, yes, I did know that its subject matter was the Holocaust, but I also knew that Spiegelman made the famous stylistic decision to depict Jews as mice and Nazis as cats in this book, so I guess I was expecting something altogether more abstract? Instead it’s a rather literal depiction of Spiegelman’s father’s experiences throughout WWII, culminating in his release from Auschwitz in 1945.

There’s also an added dimension where Spiegelman chooses to depict the scenes in which he interviewed his father and came to hear these stories. In this present-day timeline we learn about Spiegelman’s complex relationship with his father, and all the tension and resentment that’s built up between them through the years, often due to the fact that his father’s life was shaped so significantly by this atrocious thing that Spiegelman struggles to make sense of, as he was born after the end of the war. Spiegelman also lost his mother to suicide decades earlier, a tragic event from which his father had never fully recovered, though he did go on to remarry. In one particularly devastating panel, Spiegelman laments to his wife that he wishes he could have been in Auschwitz with his parents so he could understand what they had to go through, so he could bridge that gap between generations. That’s this book in a nutshell: raw, unfiltered, uncompromising. It takes a strong stomach to get through this, and I think I spent the better part of it in tears, but if you’re able to read this, I cannot recommend it highly enough. This is the best graphic novel I’ve read, the best piece of Holocaust literature that I’ve read, and strangely enough, the best love story that I’ve read. The final panel shattered me.


You can pick up a copy of Maus here on Book Depository.
(Volume 1 | Volume 2)