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‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong ****

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was a highly anticipated novel for me. I very much enjoyed his lyrical and fraught debut poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, upon reading it back in 2018, and Vuong has been on my author radar ever since. This, his first novel, has been declared a ‘marvel’ by Marlon James, and Celeste Ng calls it ‘luminous, shattering, urgent, necessary.’

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous takes the form of a letter, written to an illiterate mother by her son. Its speaker, known throughout as Little Dog, is in his late twenties; the letter which he pours his heart and soul into ‘unearths a family’s history that began before he was born.’ The novel ‘serves as a doorway’ into elements of his life which he has never revealed to his mother, including his sexuality and bewilderment at life.

Little Dog’s letter begins: ‘I am writing to reach you – even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.’ He goes on to explain something of himself: ‘I am twenty-eight years old, 5ft 4in tall, 112 lbs. I am handsome at exactly three angles and deadly from everywhere else. I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.’ Later, he reveals the following: ‘… the very impossibility of you reading this is all that makes my telling it possible.’

As in Vuong’s poetry, central themes here are the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and the difficulties which can come with resettling in a new and different culture – Hartford in the US state of Connecticut, in this case. Much social commentary upon the present day is offered, intertwined with memories of when Little Dog was small, and dependent. He reveals what he learnt about the struggles which his mother had as a young woman in Vietnam, and the terror which she had to live with for years. He reconciles the way in which he was shielded from most of this, but how the decision also profoundly affected him.

Little Dog writes, very early on, about a time when he was five or six years old, and leapt out at his mother during a game, shouting ‘Boom!’. The reaction which his mother gave is strong, and vivid: ‘You screamed, face raked and twisted, then burst into sobs, clutched your chest as you leaned against the door, gasping. I stood bewildered, my toy army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves – but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son.’

There is so much pain here, and an incredible amount of rawness. The trauma is often difficult to read, and certain scenes were almost too graphic for this sensitive reader. There is a great deal of violence within On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and much of this takes place within domestic settings. Little Dog writes, for instance, ‘The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch.’

Vuong writes this novel as a poet; his prose is melodic, even when describing times of trauma, and not a single word is wasted. Vuong’s language is rich, creative, sensual, and unusual. The structure which has been chosen – the main form of a letter, comprised of many vignettes which denote a particular place, time, or situation – works wonderfully. It allows Vuong to explore Little Dog coming to terms with his identity, and his place in America, and away from Vietnam. The letter itself, written to a mother who will not be able to access it, is something of a cathartic exercise, revealing Little Dog and all of his vulnerabilities, but also offering him a shade of protection from the person whom he is most afraid of showing himself to.

Vuong’s prose is both beautiful and searching. When describing a poignant moment in which Little Dog looks in the mirror, hoping to discover something of himself, he writes the following: ‘Who was he? I touched the face, its sallow cheeks. I felt my back, the braid of muscles sloped to collarbones that jutted into stark ridges. The scraped-out ribs sunken as the skin tried to fill its irregular gaps, the sad little heart rippling underneath like a trapped fish. The eyes that wouldn’t match, one too open, the other closed, slightly lidded, cautious of whatever light was given it. It was everything I hid from, everything that made me want to be a sun, the only thing I knew that had no shadow. And yet, I stayed. I let the mirror hold those flaws – because for once, drying, they were not wrong to me but something that was wanted, that was sought and found among a landscape as enormous as the one I had been lost in all this time.’

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is tender and heartfelt. There is so much emotion suffused within its pages; it is a triumph. Vuong’s narrative holds a great deal of wisdom, and many of his carefully crafted sentences make one stop and think. The novel is a memorable one; I am sure that I will be thinking about it for months to come.

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Books for Pride

I am a little late in creating this post, but thought it would be a nice way to mark Pride, which is occurring worldwide during the month of June.  I have put together a list of ten books with LGBTQIA protagonists or themes, some of which I have read, and some of which are on my to-read list.

317062591. Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd
In Queer City Peter Ackroyd looks at London in a whole new way – through the history and experiences of its gay population.  In Roman Londinium the city was dotted with lupanaria (‘wolf dens’ or public pleasure houses), fornices (brothels) and thermiae (hot baths). Then came the Emperor Constantine, with his bishops, monks and missionaries. And so began an endless loop of alternating permissiveness and censure.  Ackroyd takes us right into the hidden history of the city; from the notorious Normans to the frenzy of executions for sodomy in the early nineteenth century. He journeys through the coffee bars of sixties Soho to Gay Liberation, disco music and the horror of AIDS.  Today, we live in an era of openness and tolerance and Queer London has become part of the new norm. Ackroyd tells us the hidden story of how it got there, celebrating its diversity, thrills and energy on the one hand; but reminding us of its very real terrors, dangers and risks on the other.
2. Transgender History by Susan Stryker
‘Covering American transgender history from the mid-twentieth century to today, Transgender History takes a chronological approach to the subject of transgender history, with each chapter covering major movements, writings, and events. Chapters cover the transsexual and transvestite communities in the years following World War II; trans radicalism and social change, which spanned from 1966 with the publication of The Transsexual Phenomenon, and lasted through the early 1970s; the mid-’70s to 1990-the era of identity politics and the changes witnessed in trans circles through these years; and the gender issues witnessed through the ’90s and ’00s.  Transgender History includes informative sidebars highlighting quotes from major texts and speeches in transgender history and brief biographies of key players, plus excerpts from transgender memoirs and discussion of treatments of transgenderism in popular culture.
3. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood 16059558
When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. George, the protagonist, is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, determined to persist in the routines of his daily life. An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. Wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad, this novel catches the texture of life itself.
4. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
Call Me by Your Name is the story of a sudden and powerful romance that blossoms between an adolescent boy and a summer guest at his parents’ cliff-side mansion on the Italian Riviera. Unprepared for the consequences of their attraction, at first each feigns indifference. But during the restless summer weeks that follow, unrelenting buried currents of obsession and fear, fascination and desire, intensify their passion as they test the charged ground between them. What grows from the depths of their spirits is a romance of scarcely six weeks’ duration and an experience that marks them for a lifetime. For what the two discover on the Riviera and during a sultry evening in Rome is the one thing both already fear they may never truly find again: total intimacy.  The psychological maneuvers that accompany attraction have seldom been more shrewdly captured than in André Aciman’s frank, unsentimental, heartrending elegy to human passion. Call Me by Your Name is clear-eyed, bare-knuckled, and ultimately unforgettable.
325612375. Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? by Heath Fogg Davis
Beyond Trans pushes the conversation on gender identity to its limits: questioning the need for gender categories in the first place. Whether on birth certificates or college admissions applications or on bathroom doors, why do we need to mark people and places with sex categories? Do they serve a real purpose or are these places and forms just mechanisms of exclusion? Heath Fogg Davis offers an impassioned call to rethink the usefulness of dividing the world into not just Male and Female categories but even additional categories of Transgender and gender fluid. Davis, himself a transgender man, explores the underlying gender-enforcing policies and customs in American life that have led to transgender bathroom bills, college admissions controversies, and more, arguing that it is necessary for our society to take real steps to challenge the assumption that gender matters.  He examines four areas where we need to re-think our sex-classification systems: sex-marked identity documents such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses and passports; sex-segregated public restrooms; single-sex colleges; and sex-segregated sports. Speaking from his own experience and drawing upon major cases of sex discrimination in the news and in the courts, Davis presents a persuasive case for challenging how individuals are classified according to sex and offers concrete recommendations for alleviating sex identity discrimination and sex-based disadvantage.  For anyone in search of pragmatic ways to make our world more inclusive, Davis’ recommendations provide much-needed practical guidance about how to work through this complex issue. A provocative call to action, Beyond Trans pushes us to think how we can work to make America truly inclusive of all people.
6. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.  But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.  Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship — one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to ‘fix’ her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self — even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.  The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.
7. Unbecoming by Jenny Downham 25582543
Three women – three secrets – one heart-stopping story. Katie, seventeen, in love with someone whose identity she can’t reveal. Her mother Caroline, uptight, worn out and about to find the past catching up with her. Katie’s grandmother, Mary, back with the family after years of mysterious absence and ‘capable of anything’, despite suffering from Alzheimers. As Katie cares for an elderly woman who brings daily chaos to her life, she finds herself drawn to her. Rules get broken as allegiances shift. Is Mary contagious? Is ‘badness’ genetic? In confronting the past, Katie is forced to seize the present. As Mary slowly unravels and family secrets are revealed, Katie learns to live and finally dares to love. Funny, sad, honest and wise, Unbecoming is a celebration of life, and learning to honour your own stories.
8. Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong’s first full-length collection aims straight for the perennial “big”—and very human—subjects of romance, family, memory, grief, war, and melancholia. None of these he allows to overwhelm his spirit or his poems, which demonstrate, through breath and cadence and unrepentant enthrallment, that a gentle palm on a chest can calm the fiercest hungers.
63446649. Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
Heartbreakingly funny, moving and vibrantly drawn, Skim is an extraordinary book–a smart and sensitive graphic novel of the highest literary and artistic quality, by and about young women.  “Skim” is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a not-slim, would-be Wiccan goth who goes to a private girls’ school. When Skim’s classmate Katie Matthews is dumped by her boyfriend, who then kills himself, the entire school goes into mourning overdrive. As concerned guidance counselors provide lectures on the “cycle of grief,” and the popular clique starts a new club (Girls Celebrate Life!) to bolster school spirit, Skim sinks into an ever-deepening depression.   And falling in love only makes things worse…  Suicide, depression, love, being gay or not, crushes, cliques, and finding a way to be your own fully human self–are all explored in this brilliant collaboration by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. An edgy, keenly observed and poignant glimpse into the heartache of being young.
10. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourites with LGBTQIA themes or characters?  Have you read anything specifically to celebrate Pride this month?

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Really Underrated Books (Part One)

Welcome to another week where I showcase fifty more Really Underrated Books. These is an enjoyable post for me to put together; it makes a nice break from researching, and still feels constructive, but also brings some books I’ve never heard of to my attention.  What could be better?

1. Totempole by Sanford Friedman 9781590177617
Totempole is Sanford Friedman’s radical coming-of-age novel, featuring Stephen Wolfe, a young Jewish boy growing up in New York City and its environs during the Depression and war years. In eight discrete chapters, which trace Stephen’s evolution from a two-year-old boy to a twenty-two-year-old man, Friedman describes with psychological acuity and great empathy Stephen’s intellectual, moral, and sexual maturation. Taught to abhor his body for the sake of his soul, Stephen finds salvation in the eventual unification of the two, the recognition that body and soul should not be partitioned but treated as one being, one complete man.

 

2. Mascara by Ariel Dorfman
Mascara delves into the dark terrain of identity and disguise when the lives of three people collide. A nameless man with a face no one remembers has the devastating ability to see and capture on film the brutal truths lurking inside each person he encounters. Oriana, a beautiful woman with the memory of an innocent child, is relentlessly pursued by mysterious figures from her past. Doctor Mavirelli is a brilliant and power-hungry plastic surgeon who controls society’s most prominent figures by shaping their faces. The twining of these three fates plays out in a climactic unmasking.

 

97805780705993. Burnings by Ocean Vuong
“I was born because someone was starving…” ends one of Ocean Vuong’s poems, and in that poem, as in every other of his poems, Ocean manages to imbue the desperation of his being alive, with a savage beauty. It is not just that Ocean can render pain as a kind of loveliness, but that his poetic line will not let you forget the hurt or the garish brilliance of your triumph; will not let you look away. These poems shatter us detail by detail because Ocean leaves nothing unturned, because every lived thing in his poems demands to be fed by you; to nourish you in turn. You will not leave these poems dissatisfied. They will fill you utterly.

 

4. The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers, edited by Mary Morris
In this newly illustrated edition, 300 years of wanderlust are captured as women travel the world for pleasure and peril. Among the extraordinary women whose writing is included here are Gertrude Bell, Rose Macaulay, Mary McCarthy, Vita Sackville-West, Freya Stark, Edith Wharton, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure, or escape from personal tragedy, all these women are united in approaching their journeys with wit, intelligence, and compassion for those encountered along the way.

 

5. A Voice from the South by Anna Julia Cooper 9780195063233
At the close of the 19th century, a black woman of the South presents womanhood as a vital element in the regeneration and progress of her race.

 

6. Red Juice: Poems by Hoa Nguyen
Red Juice represents a decade of poems written roughly between 1998 and 2008, previously only available in small-run handmade chapbooks, journals, and out-of-print books. This collection of early poems by Vietnamese American poet Hoa Nguyen showcases her feminist ecopoetics and unique style, all lyrical in the post-modern tradition.

 

91226537. Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris
‘n the 1930s and 1940s, while the battles for modern art and modern society were being fought in Paris and Spain, it seemed to some a betrayal that John Betjeman and John Piper were in love with a provincial world of old churches and tea shops.  Alexandra Harris tells a different story: eclectically, passionately,wittily, urgently, English artists were exploring what it meant to be alive at that moment and in England. They showed that “the modern”
need not be at war with the past: constructivists and conservatives could work together, and even the Bauhaus émigré László Moholy-Nagy was beguiled into taking photos for Betjeman’s nostalgic An Oxford University Chest.  A rich network of personal and cultural encounters was the backdrop for a modern English renaissance. This great imaginative project was shared by writers, painters, gardeners, architects, critics, and composers. Piper abandoned purist abstracts to make collages on the blustery coast; Virginia Woolf wrote in her last novel about a village pageant on a showery summer day. Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, and the Sitwells are also part of the story, along with Bill Brandt and Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and Cecil Beaton.’

 

8. Of Africa by Wole Soyinka
A member of the unique generation of African writers and intellectuals who came of age in the last days of colonialism, Wole Soyinka has witnessed the promise of independence and lived through postcolonial failure. He deeply comprehends the pressing problems of Africa, and, an irrepressible essayist and a staunch critic of the oppressive boot, he unhesitatingly speaks out.  In this magnificent new work, Soyinka offers a wide-ranging inquiry into Africa’s culture, religion, history, imagination, and identity. He seeks to understand how the continent’s history is entwined with the histories of others, while exploring Africa’s truest assets: “its humanity, the quality and valuation of its own existence, and modes of managing its environment—both physical and intangible (which includes the spiritual).

 

9. The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, edited by Colm Toibin 1980450
This extraordinary volume presents the entire canon of Irish fiction in English from Jonathan Swift, born in 1667, to Emma Donoghue, born in 1969. In between are selections from almost 100 renowned writers including Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Iris Murdoch, William Trevor, and Roddy Doyle. Colm Tóibín-one of Ireland’s most accomplished writers-has carefully chosen the selections and gives fascinating background information in a provocative introduction. His commentary combines with the inspired selections from Ireland’s greatest writers to provide an authoritative and enlightening exploration of Irish fiction.

 

10. The Embroidered Shoes by Can Xue
Written by the true heir to Kafka, Borges, and Angela Carter, The Embroidered Shoes is a magical collection of hallucinatory tales set in a world where anything can happen, and everything does. Constructed like a set of graduated Chinese boxes, these postmodern ghost stories build into philosophical and psychological conundrums that leave the reader pondering long past the last page.

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