#BlogTour #BookReview On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong #SUDTP20 @dylanthomprize @midaspr


Welcome to today’s stop on the mega blog tour celebrating the authors on the longlist for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2020. I’m delighted to bring you my review of one of the longlisted books – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. My thanks to Martina at Midas PR for inviting me to take part in the tour and for organising my review copy.

Look out for my review of another of the books on the longlist – The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay – on 2nd April and for the announcement of the books that have made the shortlist on 7th April. To ensure you don’t miss a thing, follow the hashtag #SUDTP20 on Twitter.

CTA-Dylan-Thomas-Image-with-Dates-for-homepage-BLACK-ENGLISHAbout the Dylan Thomas Prize

Launched in 2006, the annual Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize is one of the most prestigious awards for young writers, aimed at encouraging raw creative talent worldwide. It celebrates and nurtures international literary excellence. The £30,000 Prize is awarded to the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under.

20200214_125432-1_kindlephoto-138190928About the Book

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 epicentre 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.

Format: Hardcover (256 pages)      Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Publication date:  4th June 2019   Genre: Literary fiction

Find On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous on Goodreads

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My Review

They say nothing lasts forever and I’m writing to you in the voice of an endangered species.’

As a letter written to someone who may never read it (his illiterate mother, Rose) the whole book has a confessional quality. It’s just as much an un-burdening as an attempt at communication. Indeed, at one point, Little Dog writes, ‘the very impossibility of your reading this is all that makes my telling it possible’.

Amongst Little Dog’s memories of his childhood are happy ones such as trips to the shopping mall with his mother but also her acts of occasional cruelty towards him. Both his mother and grandmother, Lan, bear the psychological scars of their experiences during the Vietnam War. In the case of his mother, this is manifested in a desire to make her son more American. Often her attempts to achieve this are quite bizarre such as her insistence that he consume large quantities of milk to build him up physically, ‘both of us hoping the whiteness vanishing into me would make more of a yellow boy’. Unfortunately, Little Dog still experiences bullying by his schoolmates because of his ethnicity and less than perfect knowledge of English.

In fact, Little Dog finds himself caught between two worlds as far as language is concerned. His English may be rudimentary to begin with but it is better than his mother’s, which is almost non-existent, and he appoints himself the family’s interpreter. At the same time, his knowledge of Vietnamese is limited by his mother’s poor education, interrupted by war. ‘Our mother tongue, then is no mother at all – but an orphan.’ He learns, however, that in Vietnam not everything that needs to be communicated has to be spoken. Non-verbal gestures can convey just as much. ‘Care and love, for us, are pronounced clearest through service.’ The reader sees this played out through Little Dog’s tending of his grandmother.

Readers should be aware the book contains graphic descriptions of a sexual nature and one scene involving animal cruelty. However, there are also poignant moments of tenderness such as Little Dog gathering flowers for his grandmother and his mother giving a pedicure to an old lady.

As the author is a poet, it’s no surprise the book contains some striking imagery. Travelling by Greyhound bus through the night, Little Dog observes the outside ‘surge by like sideways gravity’. Lying on the ground alongside a friend, he compares the stars in the night sky to ‘a vast smudge on a hastily-wiped chalkboard’.

A sort of literary kaleidoscope, the book embraces a number of different styles. One chapter near the end resembles poetry with paragraphs containing seemingly random thoughts. At the same time, there are sections in which Little Dog talks about events as if he was a witness to them rather than a participant, referring to himself as ‘the boy’. There are sections which impart information on subjects as diverse as the migration habits of butterflies, the golfer Tiger Woods and the scourge of painkiller addiction in the US.

As an aspiring writer, Little Dog spends quite a bit of time considering the nature of writing and language. (One suspects much of this reflects the author’s own point of view.) For example, pondering what it means to be a writer he protests, ‘I never wanted to build a “body” of work, but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work’. For Little Dog, even punctuation has meaning beyond merely its grammatical purpose. Learning of the death of a friend, he observes ‘the saddest thing in the world…a comma forced to be a period’ (or as we would say in the UK, a full stop).

Storytelling is another theme and the way in which tales are passed from one person to another, often changed in the retelling. The nail salon where his mother works, for example, is ‘a place where folklore, rumours, tall tales, and jokes from the old country are told, expanded…’.

As well as the story of a family, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an exploration of identity, race, sexuality and the legacy of war. It contains some complex ideas (including references to the work of Roland Barthes which gave me flashbacks to my MA English study and my struggle to grasp the concept of intertextuality) meaning it is by no means an easy read. However, it’s a book of startling literary imagination and originality.

In three words: Reflective, complex, thought-provoking

Try something similar: The Long Take by Robin Robertson

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Ocean-VuongAbout the Author

Ocean Vuong is the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, winner of the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize. His writings have also been featured in The AtlanticHarper’sThe NationNew Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. In 2019 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he serves as an Assistant Professor of English at UMass-Amherst. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel. (Photo credit: Tom Hines/Dylan Thomas Prize website)

My Week in Books – 29th March 2020


On What Cathy Read Next last week

Blog posts

Monday – I shared my review of The Canary Keeper by Clare Carson as part of the blog tour.

TuesdayThis week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic was a freebie on the theme of genre. I chose to focus on books with a positive message, sharing some recommendations for Books To Read In Troubled Times

WednesdayWWW Wednesday is the opportunity to share what I’ve just read, what I’m currently reading and what I plan to read next…and have a good nose around to see what other bloggers are reading. I also joined the blog tour for dual time historical novel The Walls We Build by Jules Hayes.

Thursday – I directed the spotlight on some books in my TBR pile.

Friday – I shared my thoughts on So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernières.

Saturday – I shared details of the book I’m planning to read for The 1920 Club reading challenge.

As always, thanks to everyone who has liked, commented on or shared my blog posts on social media this week.

New arrivals

A bumper crop this week including books for blog tours, an audiobook and some NetGalley titles I just couldn’t resist. 

The Bell in the LakeThe Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting (e-book, courtesy of Quercus and NetGalley)

Norway, 1880. Young, inquisitive Astrid is unlike the other girls in the secluded village at the end of the valley. She dreams of a life that consists of more than marrying, having children, and eventually dying from hard work in the fields. And then the young pastor Kai Schweigaard comes into her life.

Kai Schweigaard has taken over the small parish of Butangen, with its 700-year-old stave church. The old church is one of the few remaining examples of early Christianisation, with effigies of pagan deities carved into the wooden walls. And the bells – two sister bells forged in the 16th century, in memory of the Siamese twins Halfrid and Gunhild Hekne – are said to have supernatural powers. Legend has it that they ring of their own accord when danger is imminent.

But the pastor wants to tear it down, to replace it with a more modern, larger church. He has already contacted the Kunstakademie in Dresden, which is sending its talented architecture student Gerhard Schönauer to oversee the removal of the church and its reconstruction in the German city. For Astrid this is a provocation too far.

But Astrid falls in love with Gerhard. He is so different from the young men in Butangen: modern, cosmopolitan, elegant, he even smells different. And she must make a choice: for her homeland and the pastor, or for an uncertain future in Germany. Then the bells begin to ring . . .

20200324_135536Hammer To Fall by John Lawton (hardcover, courtesy of Grove Press and Readers First)

It’s London, the swinging sixties, and by rights MI6 spy Joe Wilderness should be having as good a time as James Bond. But alas, in the wake of an embarrassing disaster for MI6, Wilderness has been posted to remote northern Finland in a cultural exchange program to promote Britain abroad.

Bored by his work, with nothing to spy on, Wilderness finds another way to make money: smuggling vodka across the border into the USSR. He strikes a deal with old KGB pal Kostya, who explains to him there is a vodka shortage in the Soviet Union – but there is something fishy about Kostya’s sudden appearance in Finland and intelligence from London points to a connection to cobalt mining in the region, a critical component in the casing of the atomic bomb. Wilderness’s posting is getting more interesting by the minute, but more dangerous too.

Moving from the no-man’s-land of Cold War Finland to the wild days of the Prague Spring, and populated by old friends (including Inspector Troy) and old enemies alike, Hammer to Fall is a gripping tale of deception and skulduggery, of art and politics, a page-turning story of the always riveting life of the British spy.

Shadowplay AudiobookShadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (audiobook)

1878. The Lyceum Theatre, London. Three extraordinary people begin their life together. Henry Irving, the Chief, is the volcanic leading man and impresario; Ellen Terry is the most lauded and desired actress of her generation; and ever following along behind them in the shadows is the unremarkable theatre manager, Bram Stoker.

Bram is wrestling with dark demons in a new city, in a new marriage, and with his own literary aspirations. As he walks the London streets at night, streets haunted by the Ripper and the gossip which swirls around his friend Oscar Wilde, he finds new inspiration. But the Chief is determined that nothing will get in the way of his manager’s devotion to the Lyceum and to himself. And both men are enchanted by the beauty and boldness of the elusive Ellen.

20200325_131512-1Patrol by Fred Majdalany (paperback, courtesy of Imperial War Museum and Random Things Tours)

1943, the North African desert. Major Tim Sheldon, an exhausted and battle-weary infantry officer, is asked to carry out a futile and unexpected patrol mission. He’d been on many patrols, but this was to be the longest and most dangerous of all. Fred Majdalany’s superb novel of the men who fought in the North African campaign puts this so-called minor mission at center stage, as over the course of the day and during the patrol itself, Sheldon looks back on his time as a soldier, considers his future, and contemplates the meaning of fear.

20200325_131506-1Warriors for the Working Day by Peter Elstob (paperback, courtesy of Imperial War Museum and Random Things Tours)

Based on Peter Elstob’s own wartime experiences, Warriors for the Working Day follows one tank crew as they proceed from the beaches of Normandy into newly liberated Western Europe, evoking the claustrophobia, heat, and intensity of tank warfare in brilliant detail. Published to great acclaim in 1960, the classic novel has been translated into several languages.

This repackaged edition includes a contextual introduction by an Imperial War Museums historian.

510+6-1hr3L._SX398_BO1,204,203,200_Youth & The Bright Medusa by Willa Cather (e-book)

Youth and the Bright Medusa is a collection of short stories by Willa Cather, published in 1920. Several were published in an earlier collection, The Troll Garden.

The collection contains the following stories: “Coming, Aphrodite!” a.k.a. “Coming, Eden Bower!”, “The Diamond Mine”, “A Gold Slipper”, “Scandal”, “Paul’s Case”, “A Wagner Matinee”, “The Sculptor’s Funeral” and “A Death in the Desert”.

Daughters of NightDaughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (eARC, courtesy of Mantle and NetGalley)

London, 1782. Desperate for her politician husband to return home from France, Caroline ‘Caro’ Corsham is already in a state of anxiety when she finds a well-dressed woman mortally wounded in the bowers of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The Bow Street constables are swift to act, until they discover that the deceased woman was a highly-paid prostitute, at which point they cease to care entirely. But Caro has motives of her own for wanting to see justice done, and so sets out to solve the crime herself. Enlisting the help of thieftaker, Peregrine Child, their inquiry delves into the hidden corners of Georgian society, a world of artifice, deception and secret lives.

But with many gentlemen refusing to speak about their dealings with the dead woman, and Caro’s own reputation under threat, finding the killer will be harder, and more treacherous than she can know . . .

On What Cathy Read Next this week

Currently reading

Planned posts

  • Blog Tour/Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
  • Blog Tour/Book Review: The Philosopher’s Daughters by Alison Booth
  • Top Ten Tuesday: Signs You’re A Book Lover
  • Buchan of the Month/Book Review: A Lodge in the Wilderness by John Buchan
  • Waiting on Wednesday
  • Blog Tour/Book Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
  • 6 Degrees of Separation
  • Blog Blitz: Song of the Nightingale by Marilyn Pemberton
  • Blog Tour/Book Review: Summer in Provence by Lucy Coleman