176: Ocean Vuong's ON EARTH WE'RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS - May 2021 Book Club
In this Unabridged episode, we discuss our May book club pick, Ocean Vuong's novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. We discuss the powerful, heartbreaking, lyrical novel, and then we share our pairings, including Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, and Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful.
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Ashley said, "I have started like 10 books. So here we are again. Anyway, I started one late last night. And I'm excited to read it: it's Beth O'Leary's The Flatshare. I have shared before on here about O'Leary's The Switch, which I absolutely loved. I talked about it on our favorite tropes episode because I loved the trope of the switching lives, so I was excited to get back to her work. I just really loved the way she developed the characters. I talked before with The Switch about how I particularly enjoyed the relationship with the grandmother and the granddaughter. So you know, a 20-something person and then like a 70s-, or 80s-something person, and what those two lives looks like. So, I'll be interested to read something else by her because that was the part that really worked for me. I'm interested to see, you know, if the characters are different, how that will affect my experience. But I've heard great things about The Flatshare, and I just wanted to get started.
"So one of the things I love about her work is that it grabs you right away—it's really easy to access her stories. Like I said—last night, it was late and I had already done a lot of other things—a lot of other things on my to do list, yet that was a great one to start because I felt immediately attached to the story. So you have Tiffy, who lives in London. An it opens with her and two friends of hers looking at a flat, and she's trying to find a place to live. Cost of living, of course, in London is astronomically high. She's trying to find something, and the place is horrific. There's mold everywhere. There's like mushrooms growing inside—it's just disgusting, and her friends are like you can not do this. She is thinking—maybe I can because, as she says in the very beginning, desperation causes lots of things to look more desirable than you would think. Yet she's trying to find other solutions because this doesn't look particularly safe, and it is really all she can afford. You find out that she had been dating a very wealthy guy for a long time, and she's still living in his flat, but he's hardly ever there. So she has kind of just stayed on while he travels and does things, and that's not great for a lot of reasons, but her friends are kind of wondering why she's suddenly feeling that she's got to leave. It comes to light that he had come home to the place with his new girlfriend, his current girlfriend, and then Tiffy kind of says, 'We need some ground rules,' and he's like, 'This is my place--you are here for free. So no, there aren't going to be any ground rules laid by you, and maybe you need to back pay for the last several months you have been living here, and you will be paying, you know, X amount in the future.' So that is what put the fire in her to get out of that apartment. We come to find that that's what's going on. Well, there is a flatshare opportunity that's been posted by someone, and the basic thing is that this person is a nurse and works the night shift. So the idea is that there could be somebody there, you know, at night, and then they could share the apartment and the bed. But one would be there at night and won't be there during the day, and it's only like 350 pounds. So this is affordable for her. But her friends are like, this is not a great idea for obvious reasons. It's also unclear whether the person is male or female because they just posted the initial L.
"So, we get our next chapter, and it's Leon, who is a night nurse. He is kind of rationalizing why he's willing to come up with this crazy arrangement, and he does have a girlfriend who he has not told that he is going to have this setup. So he is justifying it to himself why it's okay to do this and how he's never even going to see the person and he's going to magically have 350 more pounds every month, so this is going to be a great plan. That's kind of where I am, and I love the premise. Again, I just think her work is so inviting and fun and interesting, and also looks at a lot of things about the way life works and city living and that kind of thing. So again, that's Beth O'Leary's The Flatshare. I just started, but I will report back at another time. So far, so good."
Sara stated, "I am reading—I'm almost done with—Laekan Zea Kemp's Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet. This is a brand new YA book, and it is told in alternating perspectives between Pen, who is an aspiring baker—her father, brother and she run this family restaurant, and something happens, and her dad fires her from the restaurant. So then this is kind of about her finding her way apart from her family. The other perspective is Zander. Zander is an undocumented teenager. He works at the restaurant—he gets hired at the restaurant, and what you come to find out is that Pen's dad has a soft spot for people who are struggling or need work. He kind of takes in everybody in the community, and he is like this beacon of hope in their small community. The book is just about Pen kind of finding her way apart from her dad and about Zander. Of course, there's a little bit of a love story. It's a YA novel and it's just really—it's very accessible, but it's also talks about some really complex issues like what it means to be undocumented in America, what it means to have brown skin in America and have to, you know, deal with cop stops and different things and just being treated unfairly. I think especially for YA readers, it is really accessible—the story moves really quickly, but it really sheds a light on a lot of things that happen in communities that some kids may not even realize happen. Another thing it addresses is people being taken advantage of when they are having hard times—being taken advantage of by people who do not have their best interests at heart and how it's so hard to get out from under that. Also, it is really, really well written. The characters you just grow to love throughout the book. Then if you listen to the podcast, you know I love books that have anything that centers around food. So Pen is this amazing cook and Baker—she tweaks the menu items at her dad's restaurant, but she also has this aspiration to be this baker. So, there's all these really lovely descriptions of food, and I just think it is excellent. It's one of the best YA books I have read in a while because I think it's very well rounded. The story is just so compelling, and the characters are just—you just love them so much. So, I highly recommended it. I only have a few more chapters left, and I have just enjoyed it so much. The audio is absolutely fantastic. The narrators—it's two narrators. So, there's a female and a male narrator, which I like that and they're just really great. So, that is Laekan Zea Kemp's, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet."
Jen shared, "So I am reading Glendy Vanderah's The Light through the Leaves. I am doing this—it's kind of a side buddy read with @readwithtoni on Instagram. We read Vanderah's previous book Where the Forest Meets the Stars and really loved it. This actually popped up as one of the Amazon First Reads that are free each month. I immediately downloaded it, and Toni got on our previous chat and said she wanted to read this one, and let me tell you, this book is another one I started, and I could not put it down. Let me just describe the first chapter, and then I will tell you one thing.
"So this book is about Ellis Abbey, who is a new mom. She has a baby daughter named Viola. She also has three-year-old twins, Jasper and River. When the book opens, she has gone into the woods because that is a place that she finds a lot of comfort. She's taking her kids there because she just was out and about at lunchtime and saw her husband kissing another woman, and she is trying to find some comfort to clear her head. She takes her kids to the woods, and she tells the boys that they're going to get tadpoles at the river. She's just trying to keep them busy while she processes what she just saw, so she takes the kids back to their van. One of the boys dumps his tadpoles all over the van, so she sets Viola down for a second to help him get the tadpoles back up. The boys are just having total and complete meltdowns. So, she's ready to get them home and to confront her husband, and she gets in the van and is a minute down the road when she realizes that she didn't put her daughter back in the van. I will also say this is the second book I read in a row where someone is kidnapped. So, yeah, I was reading a chapter and thinking. I do not know if I can read this book because when she goes back to get Viola, Viola is gone. There's just no sight of her. It's like she was never there at all.
"Fortunately, it's weird to say, but the book moves on very quickly. It is very much about recovery from what is happening. Ellis is married to a very wealthy man who is the son of a senator, and they want this situation to be managed. They start to give Ellis pills to basically keep her sedated, and she very much blames herself and has a lot of guilt. So, she starts drinking on top of the pills, and eventually her husband says that—this is all very early, so I know it sounds very spoilery but it happens right up front—eventually her husband says, 'I can't be with you anymore. We need to get a divorce.' And she's like, 'No kidding.' Then she finally tells him what she saw that day and says it's partly your fault that all of this happened because this is what I saw. She just leaves. She leaves her kids and leaves her husband because she says that she cannot continue to be their mom because she realizes that she has this addiction. She grew up as the child of an addicted mother and was very, very traumatized and feels that her staying would actually be worse than if she leaves. So, it is just this heartbreaking premise. I really want to share one other thing, but I feel like anything after this would be very, very spoilery. So, I will just say it is an amazing book. It is an empathetic book, and it deals with some people who are going through some very difficult things in the most empathetic way possible. It is heart wrenching as a mom. Yeah, that first chapter, I had to put the book down for a minute. But then of course, I wanted to know what happened next. So, I cannot recommend it enough. I cannot wait to talk about this book for this buddy read, because there are some things that happen that are gigantic twists and turns. So that is Glendy Vanderah's The Light Through the Leaves. I know it sounds like it would be hard to pick up, but trust me when I say that it is it is worth the read. I cannot wait to see how it ends. "
Main Discussion - Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
After Jen read a summary of the book, each of shared our overall impressions.
Sara said, "I will say this one was a hard one for me, because it is clear that Ocean Vuong is a poet, and his writing is beautiful, but I did think that the narrative had a lot of poetic structure to it, which made it hard for me at times to follow because the timeline wildly fluctuate. As a reader, I can recognize that this is beautiful writing, and I mean, the heart of the story is just tragic and so heart wrenching, but it was a little bit hard for me to get through. I did recognize that this is beautiful writing and that Ocean Vuong is clearly a really talented artist. I thought a lot of the metaphors were just beautiful and very gut wrenching. Every time I think about this book, I just think it's gut wrenching because there's just a lot of tragedy and a lot of really difficult situations, and I thought that the impact of the book after I was finished was significant, but it was a hard book for me to get through and it was a hard book for me to follow. I read a lot, but the time line would kind of knock me off pace at times. But again, Ocean Vuong is very talented, and the writing is beautiful. It just was a little bit more difficult than some of the other book club picks we've had lately."
Ashley said, "I was so moved by the passages within the book. In the beginning, I felt like I was highlighting every paragraph. I mean, I think the writing is stunning. I absolutely loved that part, but I agree with the challenge of connecting to what was happening at times. Also, there were some parts that I felt that there was such a beautiful metaphor being made, but sometimes I didn't always connect to what the metaphor was. It was like for me as the reader, there were times that I knew I wasn't grasping everything that that was being said, and I think that's okay. I think this is a book that would definitely hold up for reread, and that I could dig deeper with a reread of it. But there were times that I was a little bit lost. So for me, the beginning was really hard, and that was a lot because of the way that the violence, every single memory that the narrator has in the beginning is punctuated by violence, and it's violence from his mother. That is heart wrenching, and so that part was really hard for me. I mean, I think that was purposeful, and yet I found it so painful, but when he connected with Trevor and began to find, albeit a very complicated relationship, he began to find a relationship where he had some equal ground and did connect in a meaningful way. From that point on, everything moved a lot better for me, and I felt a lot more connected. So I think this was a good example of a book that, for me, was challenging to access in the beginning, but I was really glad I stayed the course, because I think it's really beautiful."
Jen said, "I really loved this one. I initially read it in print back in 2019, and I reread it for this episode. This time, I listened to the audio, which for me always makes a huge difference in the way I just processed a book. So that was really interesting. Vuong actually reads the audio himself, and I feel as if he really emphasized those poetic parts of it. When I remember back, the part that stood out to me most was his relationship with Trevor, and I remember that the writing was beautiful, but I was really focused on their relationship. So then to listen and say, here, of course, I recognize that the writing was beautiful, but to hear it emphasized that for me even more, it also really emphasized for me the fact that this book is so much about memory and the way we remember things and how we remember things, which I think contributes to that kind of fragmented nature of the timeline because I think that it's almost free association that this happened. Then this happened. And because they were similar experiences, he's going to tell them back to back, even though they were years apart. So I thought that was emphasized as well by the audio. So I really love this book. I do think it's weird to say that I loved it because parts of it, so much of it is so tragic and so heartbreaking, and I just feel that each of those relationships has some bright spots, but also is kind of framed by tragedy. So it feels strange to say I loved it, but I also think he has such an ability to think about what was beautiful in each of those relationships also, and to have empathy for people who really hurt him, sometimes through carelessness, and sometimes in an intentional way. He was able to say that each of these relationships was meaningful. So I, yeah, I'm still processing, clearly, which is strange to say about a book that I've read twice. But in some ways, I feel like I'm processing more this time than I was the first time."
Ashley chose Kiese Laymon's Heavy. She said, "So I shared before about how I had to keep reminding myself that this is not a memoir. I did pair it with a memoir. . . . I talked about this one when we shared our memoirs last summer that we have enjoyed and would recommend. I found this to be such a powerful read. He does so many things in it, but the things that were that really connected to this are that he is writing to his mom. It is using the 'you' form in addressing his mother. He also has a very complex relationship with his mom: there is abuse that comes from generational trauma that results in suffering for him. So there's just so many connections as far as the way that violence has shaped his life and also the exploration of being in America and what that means for him. He talks about being Black, being homosexual, what that means in America, looking at the toxic culture that surrounds him, and the ways that he is seen by the larger American culture. So I just think there's a lot of similarities as far as the family connections. So for Little Dog, he's Vietnamese American; Kiese Laymon is talking about being Black in America. But there are certainly some connections as far as dominant white culture and the ways that that negatively impacts him. I said in the episode that I just absolutely loved it. It's not very long, and yet there is so much in it. So I stand by that. I think it's a phenomenal book, and I also think it connects well in so many ways to this one. So again, that's Kiese Laymon's Heavy."
Sara chose Mira T. Lee's Everything Here Is Beautiful. She said, "This story is about two Chinese-American sisters. One is named Miranda, and one is named Lucia, and the story is about their relationship. They have this really close, but complicated relationship. Lucia struggles with mental health issues, and we didn't really talk a ton about it in our discussion of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. But there is some indication that Little Dog's mother struggles with some mental health issues, undiagnosed, and nothing really is done to help her with them, which is similar in Everything Here Is Beautiful. This story about Miranda and Lucia struggles with mental health issues. She is on medication and off medication, and it's really a story about how her struggles impact her sister and the people that love her. I just thought, when I read Ocean Vuong's book, I really was thinking back to this book because it is a story about relationships. In On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, it's mother and son, and in Everything Here Is Beautiful, it's sisters, but it's similar in that they're very close. It's so complicated, and I just thought it was a really good pairing. This book is longer, and it is not as lyrical, but it is very well written, and it is a really, really compelling, beautiful story about the love between family and how when you struggle, there are people there that love you. But sometimes the love of someone is not enough to kind of climb above and it's just a really, really great book. And I love it, and I think it pairs well with On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. So that is Mira T. Lee's Everything Here Is Beautiful."
Jen said, "So I chose a book that I think the mother son relationship, again is at its center. This is Lisa Ko's The Leavers. This is about an immigrant from China. Her name is Polly, and she moves to America on her own and then eventually brings over her son Deming. Then they have lived there for a little while —they are really struggling, she is really struggling to make enough money to support them effectively. I will say that's another element of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous we didn't talk about a lot. You see the work that his mother is trying to do to is really harming her physically, that she has a lot of impact from that, and that is portrayed really well in The Leavers as well. But one day, she just disappears, and Deming has absolutely no idea where she has gone. They lived with Polly's boyfriend and his son, and for a while Deming thinks he'll just be able to stay there, but then eventually, they give him up for adoption. He's adopted by a white family. And it does alternate between perspectives. But what I thought about what made me think about the leavers most so I think there are a lot of parallels you could look at, but it is another book where we see that this is a relationship that has so so much love at its center. It also has people making decisions that are really hurtful to the other person over and over again., and I think we see that in On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, in every single one of Little Dog's relationships. Yeah, there were some moments with Trevor that I just thought were so hurtful. They just made me cringe and want to stop listening, stop reading for a moment. And that happens in Lisa Ko's The Leavers, too. Yet, there's always this returned to this great love between a mother and her son, so I think that is a worthwhile pairing that in many ways would emphasize certain elements of this book that I think are important."
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