On earth we're briefly gorgeous : a novel

by Ocean Vuong

Hardcover, 2019




New York : Penguin Press, 2019.


Fiction. Literature. LGBTQIA+ (Fiction.) HTML:An instant New York Times Bestseller!  Longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal in Fiction, the 2019 Aspen Words Literacy Prize, and the PEN/Hemingway Debut Novel Award Shortlisted for the 2019 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize  Winner of the 2019 New England Book Award for Fiction!  Named one of the most anticipated books of 2019 by Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Oprah.com, Huffington Post, The A.V. Club, Nylon, The Week, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, and more. ??A lyrical work of self-discovery that??s shockingly intimate and insistently universal?Not so much briefly gorgeous as permanently stunning.? ??Ron Charles, The Washington Post Poet Ocean Vuong??s debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling On Earth We??re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family??s history that began before he was born ?? a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam ?? and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We??re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one??s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard. With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years. Named a Best Book of the Year by:  GQ, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Library Journal, TIME, Esquire, The Washington Post, Apple, Good Housekeeping, The New Yorker, The New York Public Library, Elle.com, The Guardian, The A.V. Club, NPR, Lithub, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue.com, The San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal Mag… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Cariola
This book has gotten a lot of positive buzz. Vuong is a poet, and this, his first novel, is written in very poetic prose. That's a plus and really helps to develop atmosphere; it also bumped up my rating from 2 star to 2.5. The novel takes the form of a young man writing a letter to his mother, a
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refugee from Vietnam. The war obviously left her a victim of PTSD, and her son is often a victim of it too, in the form of his mother's physical abuse. Much of the "letter" is an attempt to understand her and to make sense of their relationship. It's also, in some ways, a meditation on growing up "different" in America as Little Dog is both mixed race and gay. The saving grace of the family is his grandmother, Lan, who is both a practical woman and a wonderful storyteller.

So why didn't I like this book more? 1) Graphic scenes of abuse, both of people and animals. Near the beginning, there's a horrific scene of Vietnamese men sitting around a table with a hole cut in the center, out of which rises a monkey's head; they proceed to spoon out his brains and eat them, the monkey screaming as long as he is able. That just about did me in, but I pushed on . . . 2) Very graphic scenes of gay sex. I'm just not big on graphic sex scenes of any kind--straight, gay, with animals, whatever. 3) Heavy focus on drug abuse and the behavior of addicts when high. I know it's a problem in our society, and I hope something can be done about it, but I just don't want to read the depressing down and dirty about drug addiction. I would rather read about people trying to do something positive with their lives rather than about people destroying themselves. Obviously, for whatever reason, other people don't mind reading about these things, since the book has gotten such high ratings. So if you are still interested in it despite my own misgivings, be my guest. You might love and/or admire the book. I will say that Vuong's poetic background has given him mastery over the senses--you will vividly see, hear, smell, taste, and touch whatever he is describing--and his skill at creating atmosphere will work on your emotions as well.
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LibraryThing member EBT1002
This was one of the hardest books to rate. I loved aspects of it. Vuong's prose is lovely and many scenes are so evocative as to be painful. There is one scene of animal torture which I regret that I will never be able to un-see. At the same time, Vuong's unflinching honesty about love, family,
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coming-of-age, in-belonging, and our human capacity for cruelty to one another and other species is part of what makes this a compelling and worthwhile read. Taking the form of a letter to his mother, the narration is boldly intimate, bordering at times on experimental. That Vuong is a poet shines through regularly.

I realize that I'm not writing anything about the "plot" here. It's not that kind of novel. There is a storyline and there is forward progress, but this is less story than it is journey.
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LibraryThing member dawnlovesbooks
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. This novel reads like poetry and it might be the most beautiful prose I have ever read. The narrator of this book writes a letter to his mother. “You’re a mother, Ma. You’re also a monster, But so am I- which is why I can’t turn away from
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you.” As he writes, we learn about the traumatic and brutal pasts that his mother and grandmother endured. This book examines addiction, race, class, violence, family and love in a raw and remarkable way. The narrator explains in heart-breaking and eye-opening words the pain one faces to be Vietnamese, poor and gay growing up in America. Voung’s writing is moving, brilliant, and simply stunning.
A few quotes:
“Isn’t that the saddest thing in the world, Ma? A common forced to be a period?”
“What if my sadness is actually my most brutal teacher?”
“We can survive our lives, but not our skin.”
“It was beauty, I learned, that we risked ourselves for.”
“Fathers were phantoms, dipping in and out of their children’s lives.”
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
Over this period of containment, my saving grace has been the reading of many great novels. Recently, after writing a response on my library's survey request, I managed to convince someone to start to look at literary award winners for a source of what ebooks to make available for the Overdrive
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system. So now I am fortunate to be able to read several current important works of art and this has made "sheltering" all the better. Ocean Vuong's first novel is truly one of the most poetic books I've ever read. Of course this makes sense being written by an award winning poet. Like Kevin Powers' Yellow Bird, these novels written by poets demonstrate a precision of language refreshing to read in an art form normally reliant on plot.
Vuong tells his story in the form of a letter written to his mother, a letter he doubts she will ever read since at the end of the day after working at the nail salon for too many hours, she will be too tired,(not to mention she is illiterate).As readers we hear about his grandmother Lan, how she survived the last days of Saigon by using her beauty, how a Virginian jazz lover turned GI married her and relocated her to America.( "Paul played music to get away—and when his old man tore up his application for music school, Paul got even further, all the way to the enlistment office, and found himself, at nineteen, in South East Asia".)
This is his family: Lan, her daughter Rose, and this boy named Little Dog,( so that the evil spirits might look past him in their quest to do harm). "To love something, then, is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched—and alive. A name, thin as air, can also be a shield." The customs of Vietnam infiltrate this boy's life as he grows up in Hartford, Connecticut, bullied by his peers and confused over his attraction to another boy named Trevor. The novel dedicates time to each of their stories, mostly in remembrances being written in the letter. Vuong's haunting images of GIs eating monkey brains, and buffaloes plunging blindly off cliffs just add to the details of this compelling story of a family and one boy's struggle with a doomed relationship. His narratives about trailer park life in a world where OxyContin has taken over any kind of American Dream are vivid, upsetting, but important to understand. The novel is also about language. For Little Dog, he is his family's translator, giving him power in the family, but not enough to escape the abusiveness of mother, who suffers from mental illness. "The time with the kitchen knife—the one you picked up, then put down, shaking, saying quietly, “Get out. Get out.” And I ran out the door, down the black summer streets. I ran until I forgot I was ten, until my heartbeat was all I could hear of myself."
Though I will admit to some passages of uncomfortable detail regarding Little Dog's and Trevor's relationship, this is an important work by a voice worth hearing.

Some lines
I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.

Despite being your mother, she is nothing like you; her skin three shades darker, the color of dirt after a rainstorm, spread over a skeletal face whose eyes shone like chipped glass.

How, as a young woman living in a wartime city for the first time with no family, it was her body, her purple dress, that kept her alive.

“Drink,” you said, your lips pouted with pride. “This is American milk so you’re gonna grow a lot. No doubt about it.” I drank so much of that cold milk it grew tasteless on my numbed tongue.

As a girl, you watched, from a banana grove, your schoolhouse collapse after an American napalm raid. At five, you never stepped into a classroom again. Our mother tongue, then, is no mother at all—but an orphan. Our Vietnamese a time capsule, a mark of where your education ended, ashed. Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.

The shots are held by arms that belong to men who will soon cut open the macaque’s skull with a scalpel, open it like a lid on a jar. The men will take turns consuming the brain, dipped in alcohol or swallowed with cloves of garlic from a porcelain plate, all while the monkey kicks beneath them.

I remember walking with you to the grocery store, my father’s wages in your hands. How, by then, he had beaten you only twice—which meant there was still hope it would be the last.
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LibraryThing member lethalmauve
Hmm my personal ambivalence, almost indifference, towards Vuong's debut novel might be due to my high expectations. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous often feels disjointed, at times convoluted, in its recollection of one memory to another. These memories wash over its pages like an endless sleepless
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night, landscapes and people projected across the ceiling, along the walls, with the mind restless and reeling. As it sharply wades through an immigrant's childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, it doesn't only look back on its own past but also rigorously digests its personal history—maybe to know and contemplate itself and make itself be known and contemplated.

It'd be precise to say this novel is ambitious; its themes touch on racial discrimination, the Vietnam war, queerness, and trauma but whilst this is admirable it tends to go off on tangents. It becomes its downfall as well. As the novel claims to be a letter to his mother, there are times when it implodes onto itself without acknowledging the receiver until 'Ma' is again called upon, written, or encountered. How it's further written in a prose sometimes awkward (examples would be using the colour of Elmo to describe blood, "It's not fair that the word laughter is trapped inside slaughter", and "The living room was miserable with laughter") yet definitely has its moments of emotional percipience ("They say nothing lasts forever but they're just scared it will last longer than they can love it.") is a little off-putting. Whilst these aren't completely terrible, the nonlinear structure of the book can also create a disconnect and may push back its otherwise intimate sincerity and occasional tenderness. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is devastatingly raw and honest; there are glimpses of beauty in its ruins; a need to be loved spills from its crevices. But unfortunately a sleepless night is exhaustive. Sometimes you only want to remember through dreams. At least, it's the case for me.
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LibraryThing member viviennestrauss
This book isn't a long one but one which I read very slowly. Beautiful prose but one of the saddest books I think I've ever read.
LibraryThing member sriddell
A young Vietnamese American man writes (or tries to write) a letter to his Mother. Since she doesn't read English, he knows from the start she'll never read the letter.

Moving backward and forward in time - much like our memories often do - the narrator "Little Dog" brings forward family memories
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from before he was born, from before his own Mother was born. And also replays parts of his life his Mother never knew.

The book is very emotionally powerful and so well written.
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LibraryThing member eas7788
Beautiful beautiful prose. Imagery and rhythm. A needed voice and story. Full of emotion, centered on relationships, innovative structure. But I felt old reading this -- the urgencies and emotions are so youthful. May be a case of me not being its audience. Ultimately I did not think the epistolary
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structure worked well enough -- did not always seem like it was written to a specific person -- and I craved more plot. It was tough for me to get through because there is so much misery and suffering in it. But again, beautiful prose.
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LibraryThing member brianinbuffalo
This is a stunningly beautiful work on every level. If Vuong's captivating prose doesn't "connect" with you on some level, check for a pulse. The saga of Little Dog, as told through a letter he writes to his mom, is a compelling page-turner. True, I got a bit lost for several pages when a Tiger
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Woods anecdote that was described by NPR as "an extended riff" was woven into the narrative. But I can say this without hesitation: "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" is one of the five best books I've read in the past few years.
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LibraryThing member nancyjean19
What a beautiful book. I loved the way Vuong placed delicate descriptions of light, plants, and insects in among descriptions of poverty, domestic violence, and addiction. Beauty itself is a theme that he explores throughout the novel, and I like the way he celebrates his own beauty and that of
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those close to him, all of whom live on the often-overlooked margins of society. The narrator's love for his home, despite what he experienced there, comes through in the writing, too, which surprised me in a way. Whether he's telling his mother's story, his story, or that of his friends, he's etching something in permanently, the way he wants to tell it.
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LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
The writing in this book is briefly gorgeous as well. Some of it it truly beautiful, and the book is well crafted. Still, I almost quit reading. This book is too painful, too brutal, too hopeless. For Little Dog and his Vietnamese family, everything comes hard. It's hard to be forsaken by your
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family, to not speak the language of the country in which you live, to spend your life toiling in a nail salon, to be gay in a homophobic country.

And it's hard, really, really hard, to be an animal. There was such animal cruelty in this book that I can't get it out of my mind. I really wish I could. I don't understand the mindset of the people who did, and continue to, treat animals with extreme barbarism.

The sex was more explicit than I am comfortable reading. That's were the writing let me down, where it seemed like gratuitous semi-porn.

I listened to the Audible edition of this book, and the author narrated her own work. For me, her voice was too breathy, too self-aware. But the narration was minor. The brutality was not.

I've vacillated between 2 and 3 stars, even though I recognize that this is a well regarded book, so I'll settle on 2 ½.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
I felt like I was listening to an epic poem. Written as a letter from a son to his late mother, this is a complex, layered novel, written in dark, lyrical prose. A mother and son, immigrants to Connecticut from Vietnam, struggle to survive. The son's letter shares painful memories, enduring love
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for his mother, his own sexual awakening, and the terrible loneliness. The audio version is almost hypnotic, as read by the author. Unique & lovely!
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LibraryThing member technodiabla
It is very clear that Vuong is a poet primarily. The writing in this novel is beautiful, lyrical, atmospheric. I did find that it made for a fairly challenging read with so much non-standard sentence structure--some stream of conscious. But it was worth the effort. Each character had such sad
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circumstances, but those who lived overcame them, moved on, and survived. The beautiful writing really served to underscore some of the more horrific and gut-wrenching scenes. I don't think this book is for everyone but I really enjoyed it.
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LibraryThing member elenchus
The narrator, Little Dog, doesn't shy away from the uncomfortable parts of life: his, his friend's, his mother's. He also doesn't shy away from the beautiful parts of those same lives: it goes together, the beautiful and the uncomfortable.

The novel is imagist more than event-centred, a portrait of
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Little Dog's place in community and family. While there is a story, the pieces are told separately and lovingly gathered together, some not quite fitting with the others, hovering around the edges like a jigsaw puzzle partway assembled. In the end the picture comes clear, how each piece fits in with the others, and also separates from them, the corners and curves not quite matching. Maybe they matched better, at one time, and maybe some never did fit comfortably with the others. So a story, but more character driven than plot driven, with our understanding unfolding more than events being revealed or leading to an end.

It is tempting to read it as autobiographical. It's unclear how much is Vuong's intention, this invitation to map specifics from his novel to details of his life story, and how much that broad suggestion is lazy marketing. I tried to remind myself regularly, Vuong never says he is Little Dog. Though listening to some interviews (On Being pod, others), the parallels are clear between certain features of his life and Little Dog's life. Still, an author writing from personal experience is not the same as writing an autobiography. I hesitate to draw any conclusions about the meaning of the book as biography, or to make assumptions about Vuong's life based on the book.
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LibraryThing member DonnaEverhart
Realizing this book was still going to stay at three stars made me hesitate commenting on it. While this means "I liked it," (by the standards out here) the almost mass hysteria and adulation, the noteworthy lists it landed on, well, that practically made it a must read because who doesn't want to
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join in the throng to discuss a really great book?

Out of anything I've ever read and offered up an opinion, I understood where those books fit in my literary world. Not this one. Some sentences were captivating enough to be read more than once. Some sentences made no sense. I know. We could call this poetic license. And this brilliant writer exercising creativity, taking and bending his work into a novel, truly, such an effort ought to leave a reader breathless and in awe. Instead, I was sort of puzzled. Not confused. Puzzled.

Here's why.

As I read along - and believe me, there were some scenes in this book that blew my mind - and I did LOVE them, but what failed (for me) was this whole format of a letter to his mother, the letter which we all know she may never read. I thought of him, "Little Dog," sitting on his couch, looking at a photograph book - and the pictures - like in many photograph books, are out of sequence. And with each one he comes to, it was as if he began the narration about that particular scene, what was happening, how he felt, what it meant to him, and so forth.

And the ending? Well, it was so free form, so stream of consciousness that I skimmed it.

I didn't hate the book, but I didn't love the book. It sort of makes me sad because I wanted to love it, you know?
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LibraryThing member MinaIsham
-- Vuong's novel was on a 2019 top 10 list. I like the title & author's name. It wasn't what this reader expected. If homosexuality & drug use are universal themes I'm an alien. ON EARTH WE'RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS is good but not great. It contains speed bumps. Chapter that begins on pg. 153 reminds me
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of LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders, & each of its eight pgs. contains more empty space than usual. Does the first line on pg. 214 intentionally contain a typo to get readers' attention/feedback or did an editor miss it? --
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LibraryThing member jphamilton
I've been bad, I haven't been entering my book like a good webmaster, but I just finished this great book and I wanted to post this. Previously the author had published poetry, and with his first novel he continued to choose his words so very beautifully. The structure of the book is creative at
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times, but it's the stellar writing style that captured me entirely. The book is basically a very-loosely structure letter to a mother who traveled from Vietnam and could learn a great deal about her son from this "letter" ... if she can read. The novel covers a great deal about drug use and abuse, first gay sexual experiences, a full range of family relations, and even some about tobacco farming in Connecticut -- who knew? The depth of the feelings expressed in the book are intense and there is such a beauty to the language.
I use Post-Its while I read a book, to mark plot points, but mostly to mark well-written and moving passages. I later remove the Post-Its and write what was marked into one of my book journals. This book now resembles a bushy Post-Its porcupine because of the huge numbers of stunning phrases and passages marked. This is an amazing book.
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LibraryThing member pdebolt
I know that I am in the minority on this book. The prose is unfailingly beautiful, even poetic in places with a pristine placement of words. The anguish of the immigration experience is palpable, as are the familial relationships. Somehow I failed to connect with this novel; perhaps it just wasn't
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for me.
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LibraryThing member janismack
This book was really well written, beautiful prose but I just couldn’t relate to the characters. Story follows a Vietnamese boy who immigrated to the U.S with his mother. I didn’t finish it, perhaps I’ll pick it up again.
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
I am twenty-eight years old, 5ft 4in tall, 112lbs. I am handsome at exactly three angles and deadly from everywhere else. I am writing you from the inside of a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.

This book is written as a letter from a son to his mother, who will
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never read it. That conceit comes and goes throughout this book, which ranges back in time to his grandmother's life during the Vietnam War, telling a story of an immigrant family, grandmother, mother and son, struggling to get by in Hartford, Connecticut. Raised by a mother who has PTSD, Little Dog is shy, abused and desperate for affection, but the bonds between the members of this small family are strong, even as he struggles with his sexuality and drug addiction as he comes of age working jobs alongside migrant workers and boys whose home lives are equally flawed.

This novel is bleak, and is made bleaker by Ocean Vuong's writing, which forces the reader into witnessing each vivid scene. There's no plot, and questions about events often are answered long after they've been raised. Vuong's writing is, well, gorgeous and not without hope. Still, although I think the book is brilliant and noteworthy, I don't think I want to reread it any time soon. It left me drained and not entirely sure that the images Vuong put into my head are images I want to retain.

You steer the Toyota home, me silent beside you. It seems the rain will return this evening and all night the town will be rinsed, the trees lining the freeways dripping in the metallic dark. Over dinner, I'll pull in my chair and, taking off my hood, a sprig of hay caught there from the barn weeks before will stick out from my black hair. You will reach over, brush it off, and shake your head as you take in the son you decided to keep.
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LibraryThing member bobbieharv
One of the most beautiful moving books I've ever read.
LibraryThing member froxgirl
When you're late to a critically acclaimed novel, you may have a bit of a struggle reviewing it if your thoughts don't match popular opinion. This book is obviously written by a poet and the language is brilliant. The plot, featuring the young Vietnamese immigrant Little Dog (how he got his name is
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a true treat to read), his family, and a lover from his teenage years, is filled with poverty, racism, violence and death. There's some tenderness too but it gets swallowed up in the barely mitigated pain. If you can't look forward to opening the book on your nightstand, it's probably best to move on, appreciating the language but being impatient for it all to be over.

Quotes: "They say nothing lasts forever but they're just scared it will last longer than they can love it."

"The truth is one nation, under drugs, under drones."

"The two a.m. gunshots, the two p.m. gunshots, the wives and girlfriends with black eyes and cut lips, who return your gaze with lifted chins, as if to say, Mind your business."

"All freedom is relative and sometimes it's no freedom at all, but simply the cage widening far away from you."

"Remember, don't draw attention to yourself. You're already Vietnamese."
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LibraryThing member kayanelson
2020 TOB--A novel written by a poet has some beautiful prose. This book is divided into 3 parts and I absolutely loved part 1. The book is structured as a letter to a mother who can't read. The first part is about childhood and it was absolutely enthralling. Part 2 was about the protagonist's
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(author's) homosexuality and it was slightly less enthralling than part 1. Part 3 dealt with death and I struggled to get through it.

I was wondering if this might be autofiction and it seems like it may be. It's wonderful writing but for some reason I struggled.
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LibraryThing member alexrichman
The announcement of a great talent - for those of us who don't already know him for his poetry...! Lots of similarities with Ben Lerner, so it's no surprise to see him praised in the acknowledgements. The writing is exquisite - right down to the title, surely one of the best ever. Can't wait for
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Vuong's next novel.
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LibraryThing member CarrieWuj
4.5 Amazing prose - Vuong's poetry is evident throughout. Though a novel, it is autobiographical and evokes Justin Torres' We the Animals in both the intense love and violence of his upbringing and also the revelation of his sexual identity and the constraints of culture. The narrator (or letter
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writer) is only identified as "Little Dog" a term of endearment from his Vietnamese childhood to trick away the evil spirits from wanting and claiming him. He is writing his mother, who cannot read English, a letter that recounts his memories of childhood and his coming out in his teens. This was not an easy life - his single mother worked to exhaustion to support him and his grandmother after arriving in Hartford, CT from Vietnam. The influence of these two women is touching, though complicated as they both demanded much from him as a boy and essentially negated his childhood. Even his relationship with Trevor which brings him joy is equally fraught with heartache. The fear of being identified as gay, Trevor's drug dependency, the family and social constraints they face all darken the bright spots in his young life. But it is detailed with such eloquence and poignancy, that it becomes something beautiful in its pain. "Inside a single-use life, there are no second chances. That's a lie, but we live it. We live anyway." (125). This is the "anyway." Another stunner: "In a world myriad as our, the gaze is a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly." This fictional letter in book form has Little Dog shining his gaze on moments of his 20 some-years life and we are invited to witness the illumination. It's not always easy to look, but to look away is to miss out.
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