Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly GorgeousSYNOPSIS:

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.


RATING: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Dear Ma,” within the narrator’s head—or it might have been his heart—the name begins tolling, very much like a bell, “I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.Continue reading “Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong”

Review: The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

34851317SYNOPSIS:

Late one spring night, as Driss Guerraoui is walking across a darkened intersection in California, he’s killed by a speeding car. The repercussions of his death bring together a diverse cast of characters: Guerraoui’s daughter Nora, a jazz composer who returns to the small town in the Mojave she thought she’d left for good; his widow, Maryam, who still pines after her life in the old country; Efraín, an undocumented witness whose fear of deportation prevents him from coming forward; Jeremy, an old friend of Nora’s and an Iraqi War veteran; Coleman, a detective who is slowly discovering her son’s secrets; Anderson, a neighbor trying to reconnect with his family; and the murdered man himself.

As the characters–deeply divided by race, religion, and class–tell their stories, connections among them emerge, even as Driss’s family confronts its secrets, a town faces its hypocrisies, and love–messy and unpredictable–is born.


RATING: 🌟🌟🌟

Growing up in this town, I had long ago learned that the savagery of a man named Mohammed was rarely questioned, but his humanity always had to be proven.

The hit-and-run killing of Driss Guerraoui echoed through his daughter’s mind with the vitality of a heartbeat. Continue reading “Review: The Other Americans by Laila Lalami”

Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

42201996SYNOPSIS:

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are two NYPD rookies assigned to the same Bronx precinct in 1973. They aren’t close friends on the job, but end up living next door to each other outside the city. What goes on behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the stunning events to come.

Ask Again, Yes by award-winning author Mary Beth Keane, is a beautifully moving exploration of the friendship and love that blossoms between Francis’s youngest daughter, Kate, and Brian’s son, Peter, who are born six months apart. In the spring of Kate and Peter’s eighth grade year a violent event divides the neighbors, the Stanhopes are forced to move away, and the children are forbidden to have any further contact.

But Kate and Peter find a way back to each other, and their relationship is tested by the echoes from their past. Ask Again, Yes reveals how the events of childhood look different when reexamined from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace, and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.


RATING: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Lying in my bed at night, after finishing this book, I found myself unwilling audience to a seethe of clashing thoughts about the story, like watching a flickering home movie projected into a makeshift screen. My mind refused to release me to oblivion, and, although the ending does bring to one’s mind the setting of one’s soul at ease and the wheeling of stars into alignment, I turned the last page feeling heavier with what I knew. I still do.

So, what’s this book about?

Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson are friends, but perhaps “friends” is an inaccurate word to use. They moved into neighboring homes in the small town of Gillam with their respective new brides, Anne and Lena, but mainly were thrown together by the fact that they were both rookie cops in a tough Bronx precinct—a situation which, at the time, did not seem necessarily unpropitious. Francis’s youngest daughter, Kate, and Brian’s only son, Peter, sought true friendship in the golden harbor of each other’s arms, but tragedy found them first. Violence and towering rage were like a leak that stole all the air from their homes, and soon, a final invisible mooring line snapped, and Kate and Peter were both cast adrift.

Years later, Kate and Peter are still rummaging the dark, and each other, for happiness, spitting the past out behind them and throwing themselves into the future. But once unearthed, there was no containing the memories, and they are soon being hunted by all the sorrows they had collected over the years—their whole arsenal, turned against them. Kate and Peter will soon find out that tragedies do not immunize you against further tragedies, misfortune doesn’t get scattered around in fair proportions, and the past could become a stone that quickly drags you to the depths when “you repeat what you do not repair.”


The plot of Ask Again, Yes, for a while, has some trouble catching flight, but as the families’ tragedy is dragged to the fore, the depth of the author’s storytelling prowess unveils itself. There’s a vicious grace and a soul-baring emotional honesty to the novel, and Keane has deftly crafted a masterly wrought diorama full of realistically rendered relationships and tensions, observations about family, the ties that bind mothers and sons even through years of separation, and the ways love ferments in the airless conditions of unaddressed trauma. The author invites us into the low-lit corners of every household at those tremulous moments in which the whole human condition is suddenly within reach, if heartbreakingly so, and the story she tells, as strange in its specificity as it is, remains universal in its familiarity.

One of the novel’s most poignant successes is the way Keane challenges her readers—and characters—by offering a myriad of angles on the events, and infusing each with enough complexity to make them lodge themselves in the reader’s mind. The tragedy that has befallen the Gleeson and Stanhope families is disinterred throughout the novel, reexamined and re-discussed. Loose threads are picked out of every version and efforts are made to knit it all together in order to make a single, comprehensible tale.

Keane lets every character speak for themselves, and lets the reader decide which character should capture their allegiance. She never ignores their faults, their achingly human proneness to self-justification, but she also captures their longing to be kind, and despite myself, I often suffered a deep pang of sympathy for them. That’s what good storytelling does, I think—it transforms a character from a tangential sketch into a human being, links “us” to “them.”

Ask Again, Yes is irreversibly sanguine; but it isn’t the easiest read. It’s a dark, disturbing book; and as you read the novel, it is impossible to dislodge a sense of foreboding from your mind—the feeling like seeing a shark’s fin vanishing beneath the waves. We do not so much wonder what might happen as worry about what will happen. That haunted atmosphere permeates every page, and I could feel the dread stirring in me like ash as Kate and Peter stubbornly carry the hopelessness none of them would utter before them, hoping for the other to filch it away.

But Ask Again, Yes is more than just another story about a family with little to offer but a sad history. There’s plenty of nuance, dimension and empathy to Keane’s novel. Ask Again, Yes provides a potently visceral portrait of what it’s like to live with mental illness, while delicately probing the long-lasting repercussions of its non-treatment. The layered narrative across the decades does a good job of showing how attitudes towards mental illness are changing for the better—but we still have a long way to go.

At the novel’s heart also lurks the certainty that the things one is made to endure in childhood could not be undone and would steer their fates for many years to come, that the pain suffered in youth is bound to leave a rotten place, like a bruise on fruit, somewhere on one’s soul. “The beginning of one’s life matters the most,” writes Keane, “life is top-heavy that way.” Even so, Ask Again, Yes, wades through the darkness with heart. Hope makes an appearance (or, if anything, the last stage before hope becomes attainable). Hope that no matter how far you travel away from your loved ones, it’ll come a day when you will make out each other’s silhouettes again. That you may have given each other wounds, but they are not always mortal.

“Things are better now, they feel like they’re getting better—don’t they? But there might be more coming. This might be the least of it. Have you thought about that? We knew nothing about what it meant to grow up, to be partners, parents, all of it. Nothing. And maybe we still don’t. Would you have said yes back then if you’d known?”
“But I know now. So ask me.”
But he couldn’t find the right words. “I’ll give you a hint,” she said, squeezing his hands until he looked up to meet her eyes. “Then and now, I say yes.”

Ask Again, Yes is a hugely sensitive and deeply humanizing story about the never-ending ache of love and loss. Not to be missed!

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

34066798SYNOPSIS:

He can’t leave his hotel. You won’t want to.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility–a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel.

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.


RATING: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

It’s always a shock, after you finish a particularly good book, to look up and see the world go about its business with perfect indifference. I struggle for language to adequately express the feeling that came over me then; one which emitted, it seemed, its own gravity, holding me in place. The trance of being so immersed in my reading wrapped me in its cold, tingling embrace, so that when I turned the last page, I was almost astonished and stepped forth with a sense of unreality. Like I couldn’t remember being there, the way one feels when they’re driving home and they suddenly find themself in their garage, unable to remember the actual drive.

I’ve no doubt that this book will reside, for many years, in the low-lit boudoir of my memories. I am already looking forward to reading it again.

So, what’s this book about?

The glory that had shone upon Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov—a member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt—vanishes when he is accused of writing a poem deemed counterrevolutionary and unceremoniously sentenced to life confinement in Moscow’s Metropol hotel.

But for all that it was a prison, it was a luxurious one. The year is 1922, and behind it all, looms the haunting specter of a country that is at the fragile end of a brutal history; an ill-timed glance or a foot set in an unfortunate spot could bring down death and woe upon a person, in the form of a bullet to the head or an exile to Siberia.

But Alexander Ilyich Rostov finds a fire, a ferocious brightness in this new existence, set aflame by the keenness of how the world appears to a man at such circumstances. The Hotel Metropol is a world unto itself, and within its walls, “the world had come and gone”. Men and women were drawn to it from every far-flung crag of every country, spilling their stories while the count carefully gathers them up. Over the years, the count also forges a link between him and several residents of the hotel—the chefs, the doormen, the bartenders, the seamstresses—and creates a door that he can knock at and count on being opened at any time.

But soon the years begin to press into a moment more akin to a photo than a film, and the count begins to feel, for the first time, the true weight of his sentence. The fear that he wouldn’t ever leave the hotel, that he would stay and grow old and bent and be put in the ground there, became a monster that dogged his heel, and he walked on through his days steadfastly refusing to look its way in case it pounced—until it became impossible to ignore it.

The hotel is the count’s prison, and it is his sanctuary, but for how much longer can it be either?

To what end, he wondered, had the Divine created the stars in heaven to fill a man with feelings of inspiration one day and insignificance the next?

It’s not an easy task to make a story of imprisonment within an unvarying setting feel so hugely mesmerizing. Fortunately, Towles sets off all the fireworks he can with it, and as a result, the novel—like the count—thrives in captivity.

There’s a lot to swim in here—to fall into the drowning waves is inevitable. Towles spins his tale with the decisiveness of an explorer and the grace of a poet. I was pulled deeper into the current of his language, the words rippling past me like lyre notes, and my own heart seemed to be clipping along in staccato pleasure. Many times, I had to marshal my tired eyes in order to see the pages, driving myself past exhaustion to a surreal and pertinacious wakefulness.

Towles has certainly woven a sophisticated and powerful literary achievement. But what makes this novel so winning is not the generous prose, or the impeccable pace, or the characterization or even the gorgeously realized setting—as eruditely rendered as they are. It’s the author’s voice. The arched eyebrow, the conspiratorial wink, the sly, confiding tone. The piercing irony and the craftiness with which he always seems to know the right nerve to touch, at exactly the right moment, to wound or to outrage most.

Despite the seemingly unpropitious circumstances, this is not a dour book, by any stretch, and that’s one of the greatest joys of its intelligence—that it is pure, unfettered fun. The balance that the novel deftly strikes between academic playfulness and exquisite storytelling is absolutely masterful. A Gentleman in Moscow is both relentlessly intellectual and a page-turner in the true sense, and I genuinely felt rejuvenated by its presence while all the time trying not to think about how painful it would be when it all inevitably ends.

A Gentleman in Moscow is also as poignant as it is perplexing and profound. The book takes time to ruminate meaningfully on selfhood, friendship, parenthood and the devastating unattainability of modest hopes. It’s also boldly driven by the urge to make observations about other people while also offering them succor and guidance. People, after all, “deserve not only our consideration,” writes Towles, “but our reconsideration.” Furthermore, the novel is intricately carved with footnotes–the asides are not only effective in explaining unfamiliar references, but they also succeed in creating a poised and elegant punctuation throughout the book, reminding the reader of the author’s editorial presence even at their most enthralled.

It is undeniable that A Gentleman in Moscow lives and dies on its characters—so richly drawn and so idiosyncratically compelling are they—and the novel thrives with the people it focuses on, who, together, make something like the word family.

The details of the count’s life at the Hotel Metropol are vividly painted, and it’s a treat to simply spend time with him. There is a roaring vitality to his presence that cannot be contained, as though he breathed all the world’s air and only left enough for others by sheer benevolence. He is capable and steady and thoughtful, every movement considered, and although serving a lifelong sentence, the more favorable vestiges of the count’s aristocratic upbringing remained: Alexander Ilyich Rostov hasn’t lost any of his upright dignity, that earthbound grace, and that steady gaze with deep set humor. He took joy in savoring the simple pleasures of life—good wine, good company, and a good book—and that had the flavor of rebellion. He was a man ferociously committed to the business of “mastering his circumstances,” so he dropped his anchor, declared a truth, and found a harbor. And when he could no longer be important, he turned his clever mind to the task of becoming charming.

The count is utterly captivating in his interactions with other characters, though they all steal almost every scene they’re in: Nina, the precocious 9-year-old who holds a master key which allows her into every room; Emile, the grouchy cook with his caustic whit and cavernous gloom; and Andrey, the French maître d’ with a preternatural knowledge of the hotel’s inner workings and preternaturally agile hands. Their presence was like a warm stone the count cupped in his hands, and I relished the feeling that their solitudes had joined together. There is tragedy at the heart of this story, after all, but there is also unimaginable tenderness—and it’s what follows you off the page.

“These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

It comes as no surprise to me that this novel was a stokingly popular hit, and I’m so glad I read it. If you’re worried this may not be your thing—like I was—trust me: A Gentleman in Moscow is your thing, and you’re doubtless going to enjoy your time here.

Review: A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

41458663In a chamber overlooking the nighttime waterways of a maritime city, a man looks back on his youth and the people who shaped his life. Danio Cerra’s intelligence won him entry to a renowned school even though he was only the son of a tailor. He took service at the court of a ruling count–and soon learned why that man was known  as the Beast.

Danio’s fate changed the moment he saw and recognized Adria Ripoli as she entered the count’s chambers one autumn night–intending to kill. Born to power, Adria had chosen, instead of a life of comfort, one of danger–and freedom. Which is how she encounters Danio in a perilous time and place.

Vivid figures share the unfolding story. Among them: a healer determined to defy her expected lot; a charming, frivolous son of immense wealth; a powerful religious leader more decadent than devout; and, affecting all these lives and many more,  two larger-than-life mercenary commanders, lifelong adversaries, whose rivalry puts a world in the balance.

A Brightness Long Ago offers both compelling drama and deeply moving reflections on the nature of memory, the choices we make in life, and the role played by the turning of Fortune’s wheel.


RATING: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

It felt unsettlingly disorienting to turn the last page of this book and be back in the noisy, bustling world. I struggled from the webbing of the story, and a deep melancholy that would not lift for many days begun to settle around me. Each word I tried to put down was one word further from what I meant to say. There was, in me, such a simmer of emotions; and I was tempted to read the book again, to go back and relive those moments, open them up and stretch them out full length to see what it was that had left this story so indelible upon my psyche. Continue reading “Review: A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay”

Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

41880604SYNOPSIS:

One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern tip of Russia, two girls – sisters, ages eight and eleven – go missing. The police investigation that follows turns up nothing. In the girls’ tightly-woven community, everyone must grapple with the loss. But the fear and danger of their disappearance is felt most profoundly among the women of this isolated place.

Taking us one chapter per month across a year on Kamchatka, this powerful novel connects the lives of characters changed by the sisters’ abduction: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. Theirs is an ethnically diverse population in which racial tensions simmer, and so-called “natives” are often suspected of the worst. As the story radiates from the peninsula’s capital city to its rural north, we are brought to places of astonishing beauty: densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and glassy seas.


RATING: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The correct response to the ending of this book is a violently whispered, “fuck.” Continue reading “Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips”

Review: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

41473872SYNOPSIS:

When Ben De Backer comes out to their parents as nonbinary, they’re thrown out of their house and forced to move in with their estranged older sister, Hannah, and her husband, Thomas, whom Ben has never even met. Struggling with an anxiety disorder compounded by their parents’ rejection, they come out only to Hannah, Thomas, and their therapist and try to keep a low profile in a new school.

But Ben’s attempts to survive the last half of senior year unnoticed are thwarted when Nathan Allan, a funny and charismatic student, decides to take Ben under his wing. As Ben and Nathan’s friendship grows, their feelings for each other begin to change, and what started as a disastrous turn of events looks like it might just be a chance to start a happier new life.

At turns heartbreaking and joyous, I Wish You All the Best is both a celebration of life, friendship, and love, and a shining example of hope in the face of adversity.


RATING: 🌟🌟🌟

The beginning of I Wish You All the Best jarred me. It kicked up a riot of emotions; each word a lash, wrenching out your breath and dealing blows to your insides. Continue reading “Review: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver”