On earth we're briefly gorgeous : a novel

by Ocean Vuong

Hardcover, 2019


Checked out
Due Jul 6, 2020


New York : Penguin Press, 2019.


"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."--

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 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 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 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 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, 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 angiestahl
I had a hard time rating this book. It is decidedly not average, but nor does it (in my opinion) deserve the tremendous praise it's gotten in literary world. It is...evocative, which I guess makes sense as the author is apparently a poet and this his first novel.

It reads more like an intimate memoir than a novel, but one in which the memories recounted of and by his mother/grandmother is uncertain, or at least not fully trustworthy. It is interspersed with stories of others with connection to Vietnam, notably Earl Woods (father of Tiger). These read as if they could be true.

Little Dog, the protagonist, is Vietnamese. The brutality of war generally, Vietnam specifically, is part of Little Dog's past and inescapable in the two most important formative relationships in his life - his grandmother and his mother. Much of the story involves Little Dog feeling like he doesn't really belong anywhere and sorting where he fits:

he's neither fully Vietnamese, nor fully American
his mother is abusive to him, yet he lives with and cares for her because it's expected of him
he's tender and gay, but works a physically rough, traditionally masculine job
he has freedom and liberty his mother/grandmother never had, but becomes a prisoner of drug use and suffers casualties of that

As others have said, there is a very grotesque depiction of animal torture, and several graphic depictions of gay sex, and drug use.

The writer is very talented with words. This book is fraught with emotion and feels intimate and personal in a way that most novels fail to come close to. I'm not sorry that I read it, but it's not one I would recommend on its own. For the right reader, this book could be very meaningful...I'm just not sure who that person is.
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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 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.… (more)
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 for his mother, his own sexual awakening, and the terrible loneliness. The audio version is almost hypnotic, as read by the author. Unique & lovely!… (more)
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 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 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 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 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member bobbieharv
One of the most beautiful moving books I've ever read.
LibraryThing member Perednia
Beautiful novel about identity, family and finding one's being. Lovely imagery from a poet. Even the parts that are hard to read.
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 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 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 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 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 for me.
LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
Vuong shares his story in his own voice and words in this amazing fictional novel that reads like poetry, like a memoir. The emotions he is able to share through his writing is astonishing. His story is unlike anything I've read before. I could have done without the graphic sex scenes, but they do tell his tale more thoroughly.
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 (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 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 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 devilish2
A really interesting look at the long term effects of war, and what it means to be bilingual (and learning another language). Beautifully written in places, in others it feels more like cobbled together writing 'projects' or experiments that don't necessarily fit with the flow of the book.
LibraryThing member Narshkite
I, quite literally, have no words. This is a rare event!

What can I say? A heartbreaking, moving, honest examination of identity. The book is graphic; sex and violence and violent sex are in the background of every page, and in the foreground of many. I listened to this, Vuong reads it himself, and I am happy with that decision. That said, I borrowed the hardback from a friend so I could spend some time reviewing certain passages. I expect I will read the book in print in full before long. I am haunted by so many passages and I want to go back and spend some more time with Vuongs words.… (more)
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 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? --… (more)
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, author and narrator
Often, when an author reads his/her own book, the reading lacks something which a professional brings to the narration. This author reads too softly and emotively for my taste, and it tends to make the reader lose track of where each sentence begins and ends without complete concentration. In addition, the voice sounds very feminine, husky, and even sexy or perhaps enticing, which seemed inappropriate, at first. Then, as I listened on, I realized it might have been intentional since the main character, “Little Dog”, had issues with sexual identification.
Little Dog’s origin begins in Vietnam and the culture of the country plays a role in the narrative. The American intervention in the civil war there was presented fairly negatively as the American soldiers and their families are exposed as racists who are rather cruel to the inhabitants, taking advantage of the women, abusing them and their children.
The main character’s birth had heralded him as somewhat of a prodigal son. In the book, he is writing to his mother, although she is illiterate, perhaps to mend fences that have eroded between them. He has not turned out to be what his family had hoped he would be. He is not the masculine savior they imagined. The unrest and wars have prevented him from achieving the status they had hoped for and have exposed his “softness”. Through his imagined conversations with his mother, we learn of his life and his trials, abroad and in America. We learn of his identity issues, which he confesses, and we learn about the difficult problems he has faced.
After struggling to listen for hours, I felt that, indeed, the author’s voice and interpretation in the reading, was probably deliberate in order to reveal Little Dog’s sexual orientation. I felt a bit deceived, since nowhere in my initial reading about the book did I discover that it was about someone who had sexual identification issues. In this era of political correctness with the publishing industry’s strong predilection for progressive policies, there seem to be too many books being published to promote those policies. At the very least, a reader should be informed, in the immediate description of a novel, about the issues being promoted in the book, especially regarding sexual identity and even racism. I often feel, lately, that I am being kidnapped by the industry in order to force me to read something I have no desire to read, in order to promote the progressive political agenda and brainwash me. It is for that reason I have chosen to stop reading the book.
The prose is beautiful; it is lyrical, and it will attract a certain audience, I am just not in that audience. I have assigned it three stars, although I did not complete the book, because of the quality of the writing, and because I realize that although the content does not interest me, it will interest many others. For me, there are just too many other books out there that are written just as well about themes I would prefer to read.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
Ocean Veong's debut novel takes the form of a long letter written to the narrator's illiterate mother, a Vietnamese immigrant who works long hours in a manicure shop. Because she will never actually read it, Little Dog feels free to hold nothing back, including graphic depictions of his sexual relationship with his "red-neck" boyfriend Trevor.

This coming of age story pushes the reader's buttons with its poetic yet harsh descriptions of the immigrant experience, child and animal abuse, and dire conditions in postwar Vietnam. What it is lacking in plot it makes up for with vivid language and images. Recommended if you are in the mood for an unselfconsciously arty book.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
I listened to this audiobook which was narrated by the author. Ocean Vuong was born in Vietnam but left as a young child after his mother was threatened because she was half white. Eventually his family made it to the USA where his mother got a job as a manicurist. Ocean was a well-known poet before he published this novel. At least it is called a novel but it seems very autobiographical to me.

The novel takes the form of a long letter by a son, nicknamed Little Dog, to his mother. Little Dog, his mother Rose and his grandmother Lan lived in Hartford, Connecticut after fleeing Vietnam. Rose worked long hours and didn't earn much; she was often tired when she returned home to the small apartment they all shared. In addition to the stress of being a single parent Rose suffered mental health problems as did her mother probably as a result of living through the Vietnam War. Rose often lashed out at her son and physically hurt him but she also seemed to love him. When Little Dog was a teenager he went to work on a nearby tobacco farm in the summer to earn extra money for the family. There he met the farmer's son, Trevor, and the two began a romantic relationship. The book has many graphic descriptions of gay sex which may offend some people but it seemed necessary to me. Trevor became addicted to opiods as the result of being prescribed them for an injury and he also abused other drugs. Eventually, while Little Dog was away at college in New York City Trevor overdosed on heroin. And Trevor was not the only one of their friends who died of overdoses. I suspect that is also drawn from Vuong's actual life experience.

In writing this long letter Little Dog seems to come to terms with how his mother treated him. I have to wonder if it was also a catharsis for the author.
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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 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.… (more)
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 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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