On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a fictionalized account of a Vietnamese-American On Earthlife, as told by a grown-up son in a series of letters to his mother.

Little Dog is the son of Rose, a daughter born during the Vietnam War of a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier.  He and his family immigrate to Hartford, Connecticut when Little Dog is about two.  As his mother doesn’t really speak English, he learns it as a second language when he begins school.

Little Dog’s home life is erratic.  His mother, who supports the family by nail salon work and occasional factory stints, varies from supportive to physically abusive.  His grandmother Lan, who comes to live with them, is schizophrenic, but in her coherent times is a loving person who adds a creative edge to their life.

At school, other kids bully Little Dog; his teachers don’t get him.  It’s into his teens that he gets acceptance of a sort, when he works summers on a nearby tobacco farm.  Amid some good-natured jostling, the other workers generally get along with him.

Along with the job comes his first love when he meets Trevor, the slightly older grandson of the farm’s owner.  Trevor’s alcoholic father is also abusive to him; the two have complicated home lives in common.  There’s a rough tenderness to Trevor.  He is quick with drug abuse and bravado, but has a vulnerability to him.

Early on in the book, I was prepared to perceive the mother as some horrible person – and she wasn’t.  There are some graphic descriptions of physical abuse early into the book, but the author doesn’t dwell on it; rather, there is more of an empathy for the mother, considering the trauma that she and her mother lived through in Vietnam.

Lan, the grandmother, is a stabilizing person in the household; she acts as a buffer between Little Dog and his mother.  Even though Lan suffers from mental illness, she is able to see the briefest glimmerings of beauty in their world of poverty.

A much older version of the American soldier who is Little Dog’s grandfather, or who accepts responsibility for being the grandfather, appears in short passages throughout the book.  Vuong also renders him a caring figure, one who is quick to acknowledge Little Dog as his grandson.

This book is a coming-of-age account, but I wouldn’t call it typical.   The writing is beautiful and dreamlike, and there are places where flashbacks appear fairly quickly.  Vuong made his mark earlier as a poet, and the descriptive passages in the book certainly show this.  In fact, there’s a whole brief chapter which is a poem in itself.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Every True Pleasure : LGBTQ Tales of North Carolina edited by Wilton Barnhardt

every true pleasureHigh school crushes.  Transitioning husbands.  Bitter homecomings – these are but a few of the topics covered in Every True Pleasure, an anthology of short stories and essays written by LGBTQ authors either from North Carolina or associated with the state.  Writers vary from well known (David Sedaris, Allan Gurganus) to up-in-coming.

Here are a few examples of the contents – In Michael Parker’s “Pete and Daniel”, two brothers drink together as one of them plies the other for details on a potentially incriminating encounter.  In Jasmine Beach-Ferrara’s “Love The Soldier”, a policewoman has to contend with a future deployment to the Middle East as she navigates her sexuality and mourns her older brother.  In Belle Boggs’ “Jonas”, the main character uses therapy to negotiate her feelings between a transitioning husband and a religious daughter who will barely talk to her.  And in Penelope Robbins’ “Girlfriend”, a young wife chafes against her domestic life as she remembers a young love from high school and then meets her friend, decimated by disease, years later in Europe.

Our protagonists run the spectrum of the LGBTQ experience.  They are straight-laced school superintendents, supporting wives, occasionally victims of abuse.  They represent different ethnicities, different social statuses.  One story here (“Rabbit Heart”) even delves into speculative fiction.

Consider Every True Pleasure for your reading list in this last week of Pride Month.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Jodi McCarty, serving life for murdering her girlfriend Paula, has spent all of hersugar run adulthood in jail.  Now thirty-five, she gets an early release, and freedom is a nebulous concept to her.  Her only motivations are unfinished business in Georgia and a planned move back to her grandmother’s farm in West Virginia.

It’s in Georgia that Jodi first encounters Miranda, a young mother of three boys who is living in a motel room.  Miranda is a charmer whose facade hides a troubled marriage and a pill addiction.  Jodi is drawn to Miranda, and soon plans to drive Miranda and her kids up to West Virginia, along with Ricky, Paula’s abused younger brother who is now grown, but still a man-child living under his father’s thumb.

The farm remains there, overgrown and remote and no longer hers, and there’s a fracking operation going on that’s uncomfortably close by.  Still, Jodi is dead set on living there.

Life on the farm is idyllic at first but primitive – they have no electricity, running water is a hand pump in the kitchen, and the facilities are an outhouse.  The cabin there is in the process of caving in.  It’s not a utopian paradise, but Jodi envisions the farm as the best refuge for all involved.

The outside world has a way of working in its troubles.  Jodi’s two younger brothers want certain favors from her that could compromise her parole, the outside owner who bought her land at auction years ago is becoming more persistent, and Jodi has to establish a shaky alliance with a rich if eccentric woman in town in an effort to buy back the property.

Sugar Run is a gripping novel told in two overlapping time frames, the earlier working up gradually to Jodi’s killing of Paula.  The book observes some pretty hard people who are molded by poverty and drug abuse.  Jodi herself is a mess of confusion – someone without any kind of foundation trying to make a better situation for herself and others, often without thinking how the others might feel about her intentions.

With recommendations from the likes of Lauren Groff, Daniel Woodrell, and others, it appears that the author is off to a good start.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Sparsholt AffairThe Sparsholt Affair chronicles a clutch of friends and their associations with a father, and more specifically his son, through 1940 college camaraderie, future scandal, the free-wheeling 1970s, and recent times.

David Sparsholt is the namesake of the title, a gorgeous young man whose brief presence at Oxford University sparks the interests of two other students – Peter Coyle, an artist who wants to sketch David, and Evert Dax, the son of a then-renowned writer. Coyle is less inhibited and more flippant in his desire for David;  Evert is clearly infatuated with him.  It’s Freddie Green, the clear-eyed older friend of them all, who takes in their transgressions.

Flash forward to the mid-1960s, when David and his family are vacationing in Cornwall.  His teenage son Johnny is the main character in this section – he struggles with adolescent angst,  his own sexuality, and a painful crush on a French exchange student who doesn’t reciprocate.

Johnny is next in his early twenties and slowly understanding his own desirability.  As an apprentice art restorer, he meets with and befriends some of his father’s old college cohorts, including Evert and  Freddie.  It’s with a much younger lover of Evert’s that he learns the hard lessons of lust and disinterest.

Age and time catch up with them all.  There are quiet moments where Johnny and his father connect as best as they can.  David is a product of his generation – a war hero and successful businessman who doesn’t quite understand his son and how he is.  But, considering the subject of the scandal that underpins the novel, it’s possible that David understands all too well.

Although most of its characters are gay, The Sparsholt Affair is a long study of momentary emotions that could easily apply to anyone who has felt uncertainty, rejection, or the pall of the past.  I wouldn’t call the book plot-driven, although things do unravel on their own time.  Reading the book is an endeavor that requires quiet.

With that as a disclaimer, Hollinghurst writes beautifully and with occasional biting bit.  The book is very British in tone, and it helps to know the social changes that happened there during the timeline of the book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

This book took awhile to catch on for me.  I started it at least three or four times, and thea place called winter beginning didn’t grab me.  Just needed to get through the first twenty pages – and I’m now glad that I read the book.

Harry Cane is a privileged and shy Englishman who marries well, has a child – and then is forced to leave his life of leisure for the prairies of Saskatchewan after having an illicit affair with a man.

On Harry’s ship journey to Canada, he encounters a number of privileged dandies who approach their homesteading futures as a lark in the country.  He also meets the notorious Troels Munck, a deal maker and lecherous soul whose destiny becomes bound up with Harry’s.

Harry, green as he is to farm work, approaches it wisely with foresight.  He spends a year laboring on the farm of Munck’s brother-in-law, and then gets his own quarter section through some under-the-table conniving from Munck.

Through the back-breaking work of making his own home, Harry finds a type of redemption not found in the upper class circles of his previous life.  To be sure, he misses his family sorely.  But the wide open spaces of western Canada and their rhythms of life become his life, far more deeply than his previous experiences.  Harry also finds love of a sort, but the threat of war beyond his small community soon tears at anything he holds dear.

The storyline is not entirely linear, and I think this was a stumbling block for me.  The book begins with Harry in some kind of wretched asylum – apparently he has either committed some type of crime or experienced a horrific act.  He is then transferred into a gentler, albeit experimental facility.

As you keep reading, the institutional chapters, presented almost as flashbacks, are instead more present-day to the time of the book’s ending.

A Place Called Winter is a historical novel that covers many things – the social mores of Edwardian England, homesteading in Canada, World War I, racism, gay and lesbian/gender issues, etc.  I wound up enjoying it very much, and got very emotionally involved with the characters.

As I mentioned, the book began slowly, but keep with it; A Place Called Winter proved to be a rewarding read.  This situation reminds me of another book from twenty years ago that also started out slowly but turned out to be one of my favorite books – Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

(William Hicks, Information Services)