On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous“I am thinking of beauty again, how some things are hunted because we have deemed them beautiful…To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a haunting letter from a son to his illiterate mother written in a dark, poetic stream of consciousness focused on death and cruelty. The writer, Little Dog, is 28 years old at the time he is writing this letter. He is attempting to communicate with his mother about his thoughts on his life up to the time of writing.

Little Dog was born somewhere outside Saigon. Two years after his birth, and after the war (1990), Little Dog, his mother (Rose), his father, his grandmother (Lan) and his aunt fled to the United States. His father disappeared after being imprisoned for beating Rose and Little Dog grew up with Rose and Lan.  Rose worked in a factory and then as a manicurist. She frequently struck Little Dog during his childhood. Lan was bipolar and mischievous and generally treated Little Dog with love and kindness

When Little Dog is a high school freshman he takesa job in the tobacco fields, where he meets Trevor. He and Trevor become romantically attached and spend a great deal of time getting high and drunk. His relationship with Trevor and their conversations are a central part of the story. Little Dog’s observations about his relationship with Trevor are reflective of his deeply introspective nature. After rejecting a kindness from Trevor, Little Dog observes that “sometimes being offered tenderness feels like the very proof that you’ve been ruined.”

Little Dog’s story moves back and forth among his mother’s life in Vietnam, his grandmother’s life in Vietnam, their lives in America, stories of drug overdoses and his relationship with Trevor. At the time of the writing, he is living in New York, but recounting his childhood in Hartford and his trip to Vietnam to bury Lan.

Vuong’s writing is beautiful and evocative. He focuses on the details, the movements and colors of nature and emotion, the sensibilities of animals, the depths of sorrow. His use of words and descriptive energy elicits strong emotion. I could feel the depths of his despair, his angst over the details of life and its inevitable end; I could feel the colors of the moment. Sometimes when I read a novel filled with angst I find myself becoming resentful of the author’s blatant effort to manipulate. But this novel makes you see the detail, feel the emotions and travel through the writer’s world so that it feels less like manipulation and more like a step into another’s life. That said, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief when I was done!

This book may not be for everyone because of its overwhelming sense of despair, but if you are drawn to extraordinary writing that moves you outside yourself (and into a dark place), you will want to read this novel. It can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Where The Crawdads Sing – by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing“Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the Crawdads sing…in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”

Catherine Danielle Clark—“Kya”—the Marsh Girl—was 6 years old, when her mother walked out of the shack in the marsh, leaving her five children and abusive husband to fend for themselves. Slowly, each of the siblings walked away, leaving 6 year old Kya alone with her father. The shack had no plumbing and was crumbling around them. Papa survived on a military disability and rarely spoke to Kya.

For almost 4 years Kya and her father survive together. Periodically, Kya goes into town to buy supplies, where she is treated poorly by most in town and described as trash. Truant officers show up at the shack and send her off to school. Kya attends for one day, but the other students are cruel and she never returns.

Four years after her mother left, sometime in 1956, Kya’s father receives a letter from her which sends him into a rage. He too disappears, leaving 10 year old Kya to fend for herself. Kya befriends a black man and his wife, Jumpin’ and Mabel. Jumpin owns a gas outlet for boats and a sundries store and he and Mabel provide Kya with clothes and sundries in exchange for mussels and smoked fish. The relationship, which is unique in the 1950s south, stays strong throughout the story.

Kya meets a town boy, Tate and a friendship and ultimate romance begins. Tate teaches Kya to read and provides her with art supplies and various other gifts. But Tate leaves for college and does not stay in touch. In the meantime, the handsome Chase Andrews, known as a womanizer, establishes a romantic relationship with Kya, leads her to believe they will marry and then marries someone else. He wants to continue a relationship with Kya, however, and becomes abusive.

In 1969, two boys find a man dead in the swamp who turns out to be Chase Andrews. There are no footprints or fingerprints and it is not clear whether he has fallen from a tower or been pushed. By this time, Kya has become a successful writer about various aspects of vegetation and animals in the marsh, and despite having been out of town when the death occurs, she is arrested and tried for first degree murder.

The story goes back and forth between Kya growing up and the murder investigation and ends with the trial and the future. There is something a bit too familiar, perhaps formulaic and predictable about the story and at times portions of the descriptive prose feel forced. That said, it is an enjoyable read and highlights the problems with our tendencies to jump to discriminatory judgments about people when in fact people’s behaviors and emotions are not at all predictable. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Celestial Bodies – by Jokha Alharthi

Celestial Bodies“Celestial Bodies” takes place in Oman and  is a story of family life, love and change. The story revolves around three sisters, Mayya, Asma and Khawla, and their families past and future.

Mayya is a seamstress, quiet and secretly in love with Ali bin Khallaf, when Abdallah, the son of Merchant Sulayman asks for her hand. The family accepts on her behalf and she is married. Mayya and Abdallah  have three children together, London, Muhammed and Salim. Throughout the book we learn that Salim is a handful and that Muhammed is autistic. London becomes a doctor and has romantic issues that are painful for everyone. Abdallah loves Mayya but when he asks her if she loves him she just laughs.

Abdallah’s father, Merchant Sulayman, is a wealthy and difficult man.  Merchant Sulayman became wealthy in what many believed was the date trade, but in fact was mostly the result of  trading slaves. His wife, Abdallah’s mother, died under mysterious circumstances and Abdallah was raised by Merchant Sulayman’s slave and mistress, Zarifa.   As Abdallah tells us about his life, he reflects on the cruelty of Sulayman to him and to others. Certain of those cruelties continue to haunt Abdallah.  Years after Merchant Sulayman’s death, Abdallah is still trying to please him.

The book alternates its focus on different characters. The Abdallah chapters are written in a different typeset and are the only paragraphs written in first person. The other chapters are told by an unknown narrator.

Asma also marries a man who requests her hand and has 14 children by the age of 45. Hers is a life of happiness and learning. Her husband’s brother requests Khawla’s hand, but she refuses, waiting for the love of her life, Nasir, who is living in Canada. He returns and marries her but is unreliable. After many years, things are not quite working out the way she would like.

Mayya, Asma and Khawla’s parents, Azzan and Salima, have a fraught marriage. We learn that the marriage was forced on Salima and that Azzan has taken up with a Bedouin woman in the desert.

The book is complex, in theme, character and meaning. Portions of the book delve into the history of Oman, class related issues, traditions and their evolution and superstition. The stories themselves about each person’s life are interesting, thoughtful and believably developed. The novel is translated from Arabic, won the 2019 Booker Prize and is definitely worth a read. You can reserve Celestial Bodies at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Inland – by Tea Obreht

Inland is the alternating stories of Lurie Mattie and Nora Lark and the ultimate intersection of those stories. Nora’s story takes place in 1893 in Amargo, Arizona Territory and Lurie’s story takes place throughout his life in a variety of places in the 1800s.

Lurie has been on the run since he was six years old, initially with his father until his father’s death, at which point he is sold to a Mr. Saurelle as labor. Lurie ends up living with two other boys, Hobbs and Donovan while working for Mr. Saurelle. Hobbs has a tendency towards theft and the three together become thieves and murderers. After a particularly gruesome murder, Lurie, who speaks to and sees the dead, is on the run. Ultimately, he finds himself traveling with a military group that has a number of camels, making them a peculiarity everywhere they go.

While traveling he befriends Ali Mostafa (Jolly), who helps Lurie throughout his story. Lurie’s camel, Burke, becomes a significant part of his life and we learn Lurie’s life story through his conversations with Burke. Lurie is being hunted by Marshall John Berger and is unable to stay in any one place for long. He abandons his traveling group and takes Burke with him. Later, he reunites with Jolly and they engage in business together, with their camels.

Nora Lark is living the hard life in Amargo, which is in the midst of a terrible drought. Her husband, Emmett Lark runs the local newspaper, The Amargo Sentinel. Although Amargo is the county seat, a political movement is afoot to move the county seat to Ash River. The Amargo newspaper is ominously silent about the potential move.

When we first meet Nora, Emmitt has gone to find water and sons Rob and Dolan have disappeared with the family dogs. Nora’s youngest son, Toby, and the family’s ward, Josie, insist they have seen a beast and Nora is attempting to convince them of the absurdity of this contention. Nora’s deceased daughter, Evelyn, who died before she was a year old, talks to Nora throughout the novel.

While Emmitt is out of town seeking water, the Amargo doctor, Dr. Hector, asks to acquire The Sentinel. Later, the town Sheriff, with whom Nora has a special relationship, and the community’s evil wealthy cattle barron, Merrion Crace, also pay Nora a visit regarding The Sentinel. We learn that everyone around has ulterior motives.

The novel ends with Lurie’s and Nora’s lives intersecting and the disclosure of most of the story’s unknowns.

I had some trouble with the book, particularly the story of Lurie. It was difficult to follow the geography and the characters he encountered. Nora’s story was more interesting but ultimately the book is tragic and a challenging read. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here, and decide for yourself what you think.

The Ditch – by Herman Koch

“The Ditch” is a complex story about life, family, different cultures, love, revenge, aging, illness and the intersection of it all.

The story revolves around “Robert”, the mayor of Amsterdam and his wife “Sylvia”. Robert is the narrator and the names are aliases, because the real names “would only confuse things. People make all kinds of assumptions when it comes to names.” Robert is from Holland and Sylvia is from a different unnamed country and her physical appearance makes it clear that she is not from Holland. They have a daughter “Diana”.

During a reception, Robert observes Sylvia talking and laughing with Alderman Martens Van Hoogstraten. Robert becomes obsessed, based solely on that one event, that Sylvia and the Alderman are having a romantic relationship. If Sylvia is acting normal, that is suspicious. “…it was precisely the absence of any visible sign or signal that should confirm my worst suspicions. The completely normal way my wife was acting…could be a deliberate tactic.” “They were acting like nothing was going on which meant something was going on.” Of course, when Sylvia is acting peculiar, that is suspicious.

Robert thinks back on when he met Sylvia. He was young and traveling with his brilliant and handsome friend, Barnhard Langer. Barnhard was the most brilliant Dutch physicist and astronomer of his generation. While traveling, the most beautiful women would choose Barnhard. However, when they were traveling in Sylvia’s country, Robert met Sylvia when Barnhard was not around. Throughout the book Robert wonders whether Sylvia would have chosen Barnhard had she seen him first.

After Robert and Sylvia are married in Sylvia’s country, Robert climbs through the dry ditch to look out over the countryside. Sylvia’s brother comes with him and warns him of what will happen if Robert ever hurts Sylvia.

Barnhard shows up in various parts of the book and ponders the meaning of life and the world. These interludes are fascinating and thought provoking. Robert’s parents, in their 90s, are also an ever present part of the story. His father is a little nutty and they are pondering suicide to avoid aging. I will leave this part of the story line to you for your reading pleasure.

Sylvia’s brother shows up to visit and suddenly Sylvia and her brother disappear and the Alderman suffers an unfortunate accident. The book ends with Robert living with Sylvia in her country. I have to admit that there are parts of the book that I just don’t understand and parts that are just downright peculiar. That said, I still enjoyed the book but it is definitely different. You can reserve the book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine – by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant“I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue veil of tears is that there is always, however remote it may seem, the possibility of change.”

Now I realize that this quote may not make you want to read this book (and maybe you shouldn’t), dreary as it seems. But the novel, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, is about a person’s ability to make even the most dreadful life better—through change.

Eleanor Oliphant is a peculiar, 31 year old office worker, with a university degree in classics and what we learn was a miserable upbringing. She describes herself as a woman with “Long, straight, light brown hair that runs all the way down to my waist, pale skin, my face a scarred palimpsest of fire.” Her face, specifically, has “ridged, white contours of scar tissue that slither across my right cheek, starting at my temple and running all the way down to my chin.”

Eleanor has no friends and the people at work, a graphics design company, make fun of her behind her back. Her weekends are spent at home alone, with vodka, pizza and books. She has a weekly telephone call with her “Mummy”, who appears to be institutionalized and is extraordinarily cruel to Eleanor.

Eleanor attends a concert where she sees a musician named Johnnie Lomond and immediately falls in love. A great deal of the novel is focused on her efforts  to find a way to attract his attention. In the meantime, Raymond Gibbons, an IT expert at the graphic design company, befriends Eleanor. One day while they are out walking they encounter an older man who collapses on the sidewalk. They call for help and begin to visit the man in the hospital and get to know his family.

Through her relationship with Raymond and her obsession with Johnnie Lomond, not to mention her therapy sessions, Eleanor’s past slowly reveals itself. At the same time, Eleanor begins to make changes, such as cutting her hair, buying clothes, wearing makeup and getting manicures. Although there are many ups and downs in her story, the books does end with a note of hope, although you have to suspend reality to actually accept  Eleanor’s transformation.

The book has a lot of dry wit and a great deal of unique language which caused me to be constantly looking up the meaning of words. Some examples? Simian, dispomaniac, zetabetical, and rebarbative. I have noticed that the book seems to have gotten a bit of acclaim. However, taking into consideration the level of cruelty and resultant mental illness, Eleanor’s unlikely and rather speedy transformation, the unbelievable purity of some of the characters and the use of language that in some instances does not seem to actually exist, I would rate it as okay (and a tad irritating) but certainly not great. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Threads – by Sheryl Crow

ThreadsIt’s time for a change of pace. Let’s talk music. Some of you may not know this but during my junior and senior years in college I was part of a group that brought in and promoted concerts. We had Elton John and Jimmy Buffet and Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne, just to name a few. I miss those days!

But this blog is not about me. It’s about this amazing new album released from Sheryl Crow called Threads. This album reminds me of those days of anticipation for the new release from a favorite artist, of impatience to hear the next track to learn if it is as good as the one before. This album is everything you expect but dare not hope for from your favorite musician.

First, there is the generosity of 17 tracks and more than 70 minutes of music. Second, each song includes one or more great musicians, including Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, Joe Walsh, Neil Young, Kris Kristofferson, Sting, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and James Taylor.  Third, there is a wide diversity of sound.

There are upbeat tracks and slower tracks. There’s the political (Story of Everything—“Our do nothing congress they never made mistakes, cause they don’t show up to work except to give themselves a raise.”) and there are love songs (Lonely Alone—“There’s no reason to be lonely alone, how about a friend who looks like me.”). There’s the philosophical (Flying Blind—“No one tells you when you’re young that life is full of questions and that there aren’t many answers. But I’ve come to believe sometimes yes or no depends on circumstances.”) and plain old cheerful (Still The Good Old Days—“I like it when you turn the radio on, you still get worked up to your favorite song, even when you sing the words wrong, at the top of your lungs.”). And there is just a brilliant remake of Bob Dylan’s Everything is Broken that left me speechless. There is not a bad track and each song has its own unique identity.

This CD is uplifting and brilliant. Music can fill you with emotion, joy and empathy as much as fine literature if it is done well. This CD does all of those things and I just want to listen to it over and over again. If you like Sheryl Crow and you like the idea of a creative CD, filled with talent, passion and beauty, run out and buy Threads now!

Threads can also be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Chances Are – by Richard Russo

Chances Are“Chances Are” is a mystery, a love story and a buddy story all wrapped together. It is engaging, captivating, well written and 100% pure Richard Russo.

Lincoln Moser, Teddy Novak and Mickey Girardi are 66 year old college buddies who get together for a reunion at Lincoln’s vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. Each come from very different backgrounds and met as college students at Minerva College in Connecticut, where they were scholarship students. They worked in the kitchen at the Theta House as “hashers”, where Lincoln met Anita, who became his wife and all three were close friends with and secretly in love with Jacy Rockafellow.

The novel tells the story of Lincoln, Teddy, Mickey and Jacy, and the details of their lives that the others do not know. The reunion in Martha’s Vineyard is difficult, because it was this exact house, forty plus years earlier, where they last saw Jacy. After college graduation, the four decided to have a last get together at the home previously owned by Lincoln’s mother. Jacy snuck out early on the last day and was never heard from or seen again.

Lincoln is a commercial real estate broker who struggled through the recession. Lincoln’s father and mother also struggled financially while he was growing up. However, it turned out that his mother had inherited the house on Martha’s Vineyard from her parents and left it to Lincoln at her death, not to his know-it-all father, Wolfgang Amadeus Moser, who is still alive at the time of the reunion.

Teddy is the only child of parents who are both teachers and who had very little time for their intelligent lonely son. In high school, Teddy grew strong and played basketball, where he was undercut by a teammate while going for a basket and broke vertebrae. The combination of the parental neglect and the broken vertebrae have impacted Teddy throughout his life. Teddy appears to be bi-polar, with spells both extremely up and extremely down. Teddy is also a teacher and runs a small publishing business.

Mickey comes from a working class family full of love and positive impact. He is a musician and sound engineer living in Cape Cod. He, Teddy and Lincoln sat together during the nation’s first draft lottery. Mickey’s number was 9 out of 366 and it was clear he was going to Vietnam. Jacy hugged him close in sorrow and the others were jealous, despite Mickey’s difficult situation. Married and divorced more than once, and still playing rock and roll, he appears to be the least changed of the three, including his volatile temper.

Jacy, a member of the Theta house, was the daughter of wealthy parents (Vivian and Donald) and appeared to lead a privileged life. But all was not as it seemed. Jacy was engaged to be married to Vance, a Dartmouth graduate headed to Duke Law School and seemingly the perfect match. Yet she never visited him, never spoke of him. She seemed to spend all of her time with Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey.

As they all gather in Martha’s Vineyard, thoughts of Jacy take control of the week-end. Lincoln starts doing some community research, Teddy gets lost in his memories and Mickey has some surprises for them all. Along the way, they focus on a year round resident by the name of Mason Troyer. Mason has expressed interest in buying Lincoln’s house and they all begin to believe that he had some involvement in Jacy’s disappearance over Memorial Day week-end in 1971. Is she somehow buried in the back yard?

During the reunion week-end, they each learn something about the other that they did not know. Teddy observes that “…there’s a lot we don’t know about people, even the ones we love best.,,,But the things we keep secret tend to be at the center of who we are.” This novel, enjoyable, readable, and thought provoking, proves the point. The book was released in August and I certainly do recommend it. It can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Normal People – by Sally Rooney

Normal PeopleNormal People is the story of two very damaged people who only feel whole when together but tragically keep finding ways to be apart.

The story takes place from January of 2011 until February of 2015. In 2011, Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron are in high school. Marianne lives in a mansion with her mother and brother and Connell’s mother, Lorraine, is their housekeeper. Marianne is awkward and bookish and has no friends. Connell is popular, athletic, good looking and well liked by the girls.

Connell and Marianne get to know each other as Connell picks up his mother  from work. They develop an intimate relationship, which, although meaningful to both of them, they decide to keep a secret from their classmates. At the same time, they decide to go to Trinity College together, further strengthening their relationship. Then Connell invites someone else to the school dance and the thing falls apart.

They reconnect at Trinity and throughout the novel they are splitting up, engaging in new romances and then finding each other. Marianne grows into a beautiful woman and each of her relationships (other than Connell) involves physical abuse.

Each of them has significant family issues. Connell does not know who his father is and believes his grandmother resents him. Marianne’s father is deceased but was abusive. Her mother and brother are emotionally abusive to her as well. Throughout the story and at alternating times, Marianne and Connell spiral down into dark depressions.

Throughout the book there are allusions to political issues, such as the evils of capitalism, problems in the Middle East, and Ronald Reagan. The book also addresses the nature of love and the challenges of mental illness. But all in all, the story is just simply unpleasant.

I understand that life is sometimes difficult and that relationships can be deeply and mysteriously complex. But what I do not understand is all the critical acclaim for this book which seems to be aimed at ensuring that the reader experiences, first hand, each character’s misery, with no other apparent point. If you like to be miserable and to dwell in all of life’s big and little injustices, this is the book for you. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Flight Portfolio – by Julie Orringer

There are times in our past that are so horrific, and yet so monumental,  that the story must be told again and again. The trick, of course is to find a way to tell the story in a new and engaging way, that captures the interest and holds the attention of an audience. The Flight Portfolio is one of those stories.

In The Flight Portfolio, Julie Orringer tells us the story of Varian Fry, a Harvard educated, sexually confused, New York Protestant. In 1940 Varian Fry is in Marseilles France working to help significant writers, artists and intellectuals (most of whom are Jewish) blacklisted by the Nazis, get out of France. Fry is working for the Emergency Rescue Committee, headquartered in New York City. The mission is simply a matter of life and death.

The job involves relationships, money and bribery. Fry assembles an eccentric group of refugees, displaced do gooders and others to help with the mission. They develop relationships with the not always helpful or friendly American Consulate, French police, Nazis, gangsters and profiteers—anyone who can help or be bribed to help in getting people to safety. During a good portion of the story, much of the staff and many of the refugees are living together in a villa known as Air Bel, where food is scarce and raids are frequent.

The story begins with Fry visiting the home of Marc and Bella Chagall in a village in France. Fry is trying to persuade the Chagalls that their lives are in danger and that they need to leave. At this time, the Chagalls, like other successful Jews, believe that they are somehow immune from the Nazi cruelties. Later in the story they come to realize that no one is exempt from the reach of the Nazis.

While in Marseilles, Fry seemingly coincidentally reunites with a close college friend, Elliot Schiffman Grant, whom he calls Skiff. Grant is a professor at Columbia University and has a friend, a German Jew, who is also a professor at Columbia, Gregor Katznelson. Katnelson’s son, Tobias, is a physics genius and the Nazis are looking for him. Grant has promised to find him and get him to safety. Fry agrees to help and later in the book has to choose between Tobias and a famous Jewish artist when there is the opportunity to save only one of them. That choice haunts him throughout the story.

Fry, who is married, and whose wife Eileen is in New York wishing him home, has a complicated relationship with Grant. A great deal of the book deals with this relationship.

In the meantime, while everyone is living together in Air Bel, the artists decide to create artistic representations of what they have experienced in France and Germany and take those pieces of work to the United States with them. In that way, the refugees hope to convince the American government, which has been resistant to engagement in the War and which is subtly described as implicitly anti-Semitic, of the atrocities being committed and the need to engage. This is the flight portfolio. But like everything else, things do not quite work out as intended.

This 500 plus page novel is gripping and although I was somewhat relieved when it ended I also wanted it to keep going. Of course Fry is ejected from France and returns to New York  (this is not a spoiler—all you need to do is look him up on Wikipedia), where  his relationships with Eileen and Grant are complex. Each of the characters struggles with what they are doing, whether the struggle involves the inability to save enough people, the right people or their own lives. A constant theme is whether it is morally appropriate to determine who should live and who should die based on perceived value. This moral question extends well beyond the precise story being told.

The book is well written, fast paced and thought provoking. And it tells a story that should never be forgotten from a different perspective. You can reserve this book from the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.