Sophie Brookover's Reviews > On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
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it was amazing
bookshelves: love-to-cry, 2019-read

Ocean Vuong gave a talk at the recent Asian American Literature Festival, which fellow author Minh Lê recapped in wonderful detail in this Twitter thread. Running through every sentence of this novel are brutality and tenderness and the profoundly optimistic insistence on claiming a space here, in the country that nearly destroyed Vuong’s own birth country. His talk captures how and why the novel is structured as it is and embraces the possibility that he may not write another book, which is a very gutsy thing for an acclaimed young writer to say aloud.

My high school offered a semester-long elective on the Vietnam War. It was so popular that the teacher had to offer two sections every semester, in a school with maybe 500 students total. She invited veterans to come talk to the class; this was about 25 years ago, but I'd estimate we heard from at least 4 speakers the year I took it. She'd dim the lights, we -- about 25 mostly affluent, mostly white suburban teens -- would sit raptly as they told us stories about their experiences. Sometimes they would remark that they'd told us things they hadn't even shared with their wives. All of them expressed varying degrees of ambivalence and regret about their tours, and our teacher didn't shy away from the complexities and injustices of the War and its effects on Vietnam (and Cambodia, and Laos), but the experiences of American servicemen were pretty much always at the center of what we learned and discussed.

As I read On Earth, I kept thinking about that class, and about the stories we did not hear from guest speakers. This book isn't meant to be a remedy for that erasure, but I sure do wish it had existed in 1992. And that I'd have thought to look for it.

My copy is littered with tiny bookmarks I made by ripping increasingly tiny slivers of the receipt I got at the bookstore when I bought it. Here are a few of the passages I marked:

p. 62: "I don't know what I'm saying. I guess what I mean is that sometimes I don't know what or who we are. Days I feel like a human being, while other days I feel more like a sound. I touch the world not as myself but as an echo of who I was. Can you hear me yet? Can you read me?"

p. 76: "Memory is a choice. You said that once, with you back to me, the way a god would say it. But if you were a god you would see them. You would look down at this grove of pines, the fresh tips flared lucent at each treetop, tender-damp in their late autumn flush. You would look past the branches, past the rusted light splintered through the brambles, the needles falling, one by one, as you lay your god eyes on them. YOu'd trace the needles as they hurled themselves past the lowest bow, toward the cooling forest floor, to land on the two boys lying side by side, the blood already dry on their cheeks."

p.136: "I sat there in the road and watched what I thought was magic: music turning an animal into a person. I looked at that dog, its ribs showing, dancing to French music and though anything could happen. Anything."

p.185: "They will want you to succeed, but never more than them. They will write their names on your leash and call you necessary, call you urgent." <--- a fair cop.


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Reading Progress

July 12, 2019 – Started Reading
July 12, 2019 – Shelved
July 12, 2019 – Shelved as: love-to-cry
July 21, 2019 – Finished Reading
July 25, 2019 –
page 150
60.98% "Sad & beautiful & catches me out with feeeeelings, exquisitely rendered, on nearly every page"
August 11, 2019 – Shelved as: 2019-read

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