“On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong

Book Review by Marc Murr

onearthOstensibly, this poetic novel is written as a letter from the author to his mother.  In reality, I think the author has written a letter to himself.  Thus, in a more complicated way, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is of that literary genre that explores the theme of initiation.  That is, how we all become – grow into – the people we are.  Like Mark Twain with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ocean Vuong takes the reader on his own path of maturation, confronting along the way troubling issues of our time.  Unlike Sawyer’s presentation as easy reading narrative in the third person, Vuong has created a poetic masterpiece that is dense with literary devices and trenchant observation about who he is – and, therefore, who each of us is.  In fact, Vuong has written one chapter entirely in verse.


Tracking from his birth to a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier father, Quong’s journey through a turbulent youth in Hartford, Connecticut, detours back two generations to his grandmother’s and mother’s experiences in Viet Nam.  Through his Grandfather Paul, an American GI, Vuong touches on the poignancy of love, and marriage many times, of those seemingly brief relationships during the Viet Nam war, but also of their enduring consequences for, like Vuong, their progeny.  So, for the reader, how unusual to hear from the immigrant’s perspective that “color,” which is an extended metaphor through the novel, implies something negative in this country, when, for Quong, it had meant happiness.  “And because I was six, I remember believing color was a kind of happiness.”  But, “[w]hen we arrived in America in 1990, color was one of the first things we knew nothing about…[T]he rules of color, and with it our faces, had changed.”   Black, yellow, red, white, and brown faces all connote something, and thus Quong examines the challenges of this new social structure and its effects on the individual.


And, through irony, Quong the Poet redeems Quong the autobiographical Novelist’s negative experience with color.  Back in Saigon to return his deceased Grandmother’s ashes to her birth land, he comes upon a garish, though traditional, funeral service on a city street late at night.  Officiating the service for the dead, singers perform in sequined outfits and “primary colors sparkled so intensely it seemed they were donning the very reduction of the stars.”  Stars for Quong symbolize divinity.  These ministers were men dressed in drag:  color, beauty, divinity fuse and present in surprising ways.  So, Quong confronts everyone’s typical trials:   rejection, love, hate, sickness, addiction, prejudice, sex, war, politics, and death.  His poetic treatment of them with piercing observations redeems their threat, and shows how to grow.


Through the plot of the novel, the reader empathizes and sympathizes with the brutal life Quong and his family endure.  But, that’s not the point.  The poet’s point is that Quong, born in the “epicenter” of war, like his Grandmother Lan learned to claim beauty “and made that beauty into something worth keeping.”  Quong completes his initiation:  “[a]ll this time I told myself we were born from war – but I was wrong, Ma.  We were born from beauty.”  But, if we are beautiful or “gorgeous,” that is we properly realize that internally, why only “briefly”?  What does that mean?


Quong the Novelist presents the reader with a number of the most fundamental questions whose answers are key to being initiated into lives of meaning and harmony.  Quong the Poet offers stunning symbols and metaphors to suggest answers – far too many and too meaningful to explore in this limited space.  Oddly, and honestly, Quong remarks that his writing is a “mess,” and on another occasion “I don’t know what I am saying…I don’t know what or who we are.”  Quong is not completely correct:  this poetic novel unfolds just as life really does, and life is not always organized or clear.  Like Huck on the Mississippi, Quong confronts the river of life with all its unpredictability.  Moreover, what he gives the reader through wise examination and observation are tools to find a self that is briefly gorgeous.  In conclusion, Quong assures the reader that we have freedom to make the most of this process:  “I run thinking I will outpace it all, my will to change being stronger than my fear of living.”  Again, there is redemption, and it comes from Quong’s mother, to whom the letter is ostensibly written and who cannot read, who laughs after she tells him the secret to her – and, therefore, his – remarkable survival.


Marc Murr is co-manager of the Book Nook & Java Shop.  Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 3.  Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.


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“The Overstory” by Richard Powers


Book Review by Carol Biedrzycki

of The Overstory by Richard Powers


The Overstory is a wild ride.  It is written in rich prose.  I frequently found myself backtracking to make sure I got the point.  I’m also not ashamed to admit I learned a few new words like coeval and ursine.

The Overstory is about the environmental crisis while it examines the human condition and tries to explain why it is not at the top of our agenda every day.  The information about trees, forests and the assault of buildings, subdivisions and cities on our forests is sobering.

The Overstory tells the stories of seven individuals and one couple whose lives have a unique connection with trees.  In this section of the book I was beginning to think I was reading a collection of short stories.  The magic is in how Powers weaves all of their lives together.

Every character is somehow connected to trees and tries to reverse the course of civilization’s destruction of our forests.  All of the characters make exceptional life changes for the trees.  Their activities are diverse.  There are protests.  Two protesters live in a redwood tree.  A botanist makes startling discoveries about plant communication and starts a forest tree seed bank.  A psychologist studies the behavior of the activists.  A lawyer reasons that trees should have standing in court.  Some of the characters have federal charges hanging over their heads and have to start new lives.  A computer wizard designs games that shape behavior and attitudes toward consumerism and the environment.  The book takes the time to walk us through their trials, tribulations and successes although successes are few and far between.

The reality of the story is that our problem is not resolved and is getting worse.  As a society we can’t change our lifestyle even when faced with the toll we take on the forests, air quality and global temperatures.  Despite the sacrifices of the characters in the book, the destruction of the forests continues at an alarming rate.  The messages are simple and profound.  1)  The world doesn’t have to change.  We do.  The forests will heal themselves if we can stop cutting and let them grow.  2)  When you make something from a tree it should be at least as marvelous as what you cut down.  This is an excellent rule of thumb for conserving wood. 

The Overstory is about the environmental crisis.  I won’t remember the names of the hundreds of species of trees and plants or the specific scientific explanations of how trees live in a community and communicate.  What I will remember is this.  The world doesn’t have to change.  I do.  Anything made from wood should be at least as marvelous as the tree that was cut down to make it. 

The Overstory changed the way I think about trees and our forests.  Changing the way people think is a superpower.  I hope that those who are not yet convinced that we need to save and rebuild our forests will read this book.

Carol Biedrzycki, an avid life-long reader, is a retired Executive Director of a non-profit in Austin.  She is spending the summer in Montague working at the Book Nook.  Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 5.  Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too. 

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“My Ex-Life” by Stephen McCauley

myexlifeIn Stephen McCauley’s brilliant novel, “My Ex-Life”, David Hedges’ life has hit “a season of aggrieved discontent.” He helps San Francisco rich kids get into the colleges of their (parents’) choice – the legitimate way: essays, scoring high on entrance tests, and community service. Having to convince kids to care and parents to have realistic expectations is exasperating. His younger boyfriend has left him for a richer, better catch. And the cherished carriage house he rents at a reasonable rate in the city with the country’s highest rents is being sold, and he is getting kicked out. His only comfort these days is the Thai takeout joint that delivers 24/7.

Out of the blue, he receives a call from Julie Fiske. It’s been decades since they’ve spoken, and he’s relieved to hear she’s healed from her brief, misguided first marriage: to him! She’s on the East Coast and wants David’s help organizing college plans for her 17-year old daughter Mandy.

David flies east, and he and Julie find themselves living under the same roof. They pick up where they left off thirty years ago – still best friends who can finish each other’s sentences.

Julie has issues of her own: her second husband has recently left her for a younger woman, and she’s desperate to hold onto her home (a crumbling, ocean-view 19th century manor on Boston’s North Shore) by buying him out with money she doesn’t have. As an art teacher, she tries to make ends meet by renting rooms on Airbnb. Her daughter, Mandy, is a troubled teen who is smarter than the other kids in school, but is distant and making bad choices.

The whole situation is great fodder for McCauley’s dazzling wit and turn of phrase. The novel is packed with one-liners. About some demanding guests: “[t]hey were probably in their thirties, that awkward age when people still believe they matter and that life is going to go their way.” About wine connoisseurs: “incipient alcoholics with money.” A woman describing her rich husband: “Leonard doesn’t have friends. He has opportunities wearing socks.”

The characters are rich – even the secondary ones. To avoid the threat of scathing reviews from her guests, Julie hires an Airbnb consultant. She recommends some tricks of the trade: to save money on breakfast buffets, don’t cut up the fruit and, to discourage sex (walls are thin), add mountains of throw pillows and elaborate Victorian window treatments.

The novel is a breather from the big picture, heavy issues of the day: race, politics, immigration, etc. Its focus is on the fears and foibles of everyday domestic life: money, love, family and home.

Stephen McCauley lives in Boston and is an author of several novels, three of which have been adapted into film: one American and two French. “My Ex-Life” would translate well to the big screen.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, July 1. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, July 3 to discuss “My Ex-Life” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

gentlemaninmoscowIt is rare to find an individual who has not secretly dreamed of checking themselves into a hotel for an extended period of time with no plans whatsoever. A Gentleman in Moscow allows readers to live this fantasy. It’s June of 1922 when we first meet Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt. As a gentleman, Count spends his days dining, discussing, reading, and reflecting. Unfortunately, he has also written a poem considered by many to be a “call to action” and, as a result, is sentenced to life on house arrest in the Metropol, a luxury hotel and home to the Boyarsky, the finest restaurant in Moscow.

The author, Amor Towles, was in the investment business for twenty years before he published his first novel, Rules of Civility. He frequently traveled for work and once, while in a hotel in Geneva, recognized the other guests from his stay the previous year. It was as if they had never left and that image gave him the idea for this book. Brainstorming for the novel actually began on complementary hotel stationery, which is particularly fitting.

If you are into travel, fine dining, reading, or other erudite hobbies, the book is absolutely atmospheric. Readers follow the Russian aristocrat around the grand hotel as he furnishes his new abode, dines on a breakfast of two biscuits and a fig, and befriends hotel guests while exploring the secrets contained within the hotel’s walls. The company one keeps and the value of those who cross our path in life are interesting ideas to contemplate as readers imagine their reaction should a similar fate come about.

The Metropol is an extension of city life and we see how it’s transformed by the world around it through the over thirty years we spend within its walls. When the Bolsheviks prohibited the use of rubles, it denied 99 percent of the population access to fine dining and yet we sit with Count as he enjoys a glass of wine and an entree of chicken saltimbocca. 

“If one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them.” and so it goes that Count makes the most of his situation by securing fine linens and a suitable pillow, four bars of his favorite soap, and a mille-feuille. His priorities are clearly quite well established and while house arrest is typically not something to celebrate, the count’s jovial mannerisms and thoughts create a lovely tone, quite suitable for smart summer reading at your favorite summer getaway.

Review by Karen Evans – New to the Book Nook, Karen is a local book blogger (https://booksnooks.wordpress.com/) and professional reader and reviewer with NetGalley. Watch Book Club member Marsha Redd and book buyer Andrew Kuharewicz on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, June 3. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, June 5 to discuss A Gentleman in Moscow at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Beyond Words” by Carl Safina

Review by Andrew Kuharevicz

Beyond Words (nonfiction) is about those ideas and thought processes that take place without speech,


i.e. without words. This is the notion of “mind reading” in cognitive science, and it is applied to the animal world. We’re not talking about psychic abilities and science fiction, but rather, how we can tell how another person is feeling without talking to them. This is often called empathy, and in the science world it is called mind reading. Now, the author isn’t saying that animals have a human mind, instead arguing that we should try to understand the animal as its own being, such as the elephant mind, the wolf mind & the dolphin mind, and when we look at an animal, we should first ask the question “who are you?” If we do that, we can truly get into the mind of another creature separated from abstractions of our own human words, and after we do that, an objective scientific study can begin.

The author Carl Safina spent decades of research observing animals in the wild. In the opening pages he says the book is for those who truly listen to those we share this planet with, the animals that all too often get placed in the back of our human minds, secondary to what is important to us.

As you read you’ll discover that animals aren’t so different. Elephants for example, have been found to save humans when in danger, and on occasion even bury their own dead. Something we believe only humans are capable of doing. This book shows that what we think is so special about us, is shared with many social animals, making them not more like us, but the same as us.

Beyond Words is a beautifully written book that could be placed in an academic curriculum just as easily as it could be read by the mainstream book buyer. It’s one of those books that could prove to be eye opening to readers who don’t think of elephants as having the same type of individuality as humanity. The hope of this book (I believe) is to change our relationship with the animal world, giving more respect to the habitats we as humans brush aside in favor of our concerns and desires. This book shows that animals are the same when it comes to so many of the aspects we hold close to our hearts, and to what we believe separates us from them, another thing the author says we must realize is nothing but a socially created fabrication of truth. There is no us and them, we’re the same, and all animals, of the human and non-human variety, have evolved to love, show empathy, and without words, understand how other animals feel. The essence of consciousness goes beyond words. It’s not that humans aren’t special, we are, but animals are just as special as us. They have families, they dream and love and protect their children, and just because they don’t have armies and shopping malls doesn’t mean they don’t get afraid when they are hunted.

My only complaint is that the book is a bit too wordy, and the author seems to be saying the same thing over and over. Although sections differentiate by type of animals, such as elephants, wolves & whales, you keep reading the same conclusion, namely, that animals are conscious. But this is a science book, and science is about evidence, and that’s what Beyond Words is: it is a mountain of indisputable evidence proving that animals have a mind, something humans have, and something that goes far … beyond words.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, April 1.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, April 3 to discuss Beyond Words at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.


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“Five-Carat Soul” by James McBride


Fiction writers create worlds with words – time, setting, mood, characters, meaning – hopefully delivered with an emotional impression.   James McBride proved himself a deft creator of worlds with the National Book Award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird.  The challenge with short stories is creating multiple meaningful worlds in just a few pages each.  With Five-Carat Soul, James McBride proved he was up to the task.

Five-Carat Soul consists of seven short stories, all humorous and poignant, touching on themes of race, freedom, and soul.

In the first, “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” a Jewish toy collector, Leo

Banskoff, follows a lead on a one-of-a kind model train built by Smith & Wesson and commissioned by Robert E. Lee just before the Civil War as a gift for his son Graham. When placing a value on a toy, it’s not just the item, but the story behind it.  “The sadder the story, the more valuable the toy. That is a human element, and it’s one that no painting has. The specific history of sorrow or joy in a child’s life, when determining the price, means the sky’s the limit.”  Leo finds the train’s owners in Queens, New York, a Rev. and Mrs. Hart. They are black and of meager means.  Leo is prepared to drive a hard bargain, starting with a low-ball offer of $90,000.  He is shocked when Mrs. Hart refuses the money and wants to give the train to Leo for free, because she and her husband are devoutly religious and uninterested in material things.  He tries to explain to her that the train is worth a lot of money, but she is not interested. “In this house, we care about souls, sir,” she admonishes. When Leo asks where he can find Rev. Hart, Mrs. Hart 

provides a list of his pious undertakings, including praying with prisoners at Riker’s Island, ministering at a church in Brooklyn, and conducting prayer meetings and Bible study.

Leo works out a deal to set up a trust fund for the Hart’s son.  He is left dissatisfied, however, because the Harts are reluctant to tell Leo how the train came into their possession. He wants the train’s story. Once he has almost given up, Leo tracks Rev. Hart to a hip-hop club in Brooklyn. Inside, Leo hears Rev. Hart perform a rap about the evils of slavery and the punishment God continues to mete out upon mankind for these evils. “…[A]n innocent child paying for generations of stolen trains, stolen cars, stolen land, stolen horses, stolen history, stolen people arriving at a strange land inside a merchant

ship…and then God’s punishment for their captors, passed down for generations to their captors’ innocent children…both captor and slave, suffering God’s justice and inexplicable will….”  Leo walks away from the performance feeling redeemed.

Two of the stories (“Father Abe” and “Fish Man Angel”) take place in the civil-war era.   “Father Abe” features a Colored Infantry Regiment. For nearly two years, the Civil War was a whites-only affair until the Emancipation Proclamation permitted the enlistment of African-American men.  Although fighting side-by-side, Father Abe says history will remember whites differently than blacks: “The white folks’ll know theirs, won’t they? They’ll write songs for ’em and raise flags for ’em, and put ’em in books…ain’t nobody but God gonna give more than a handful of feed to the ones of us who died out here fighting for our freedom.”

In all of McBride’s stories, big questions are posed and boldly addressed, building worlds of amazing variety.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Mo

nday, March 4.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, February 6 to discuss Five-Carat Soul at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Against the Country” by Ben Metcalf

againstthecountryReview by Andrew H. Kuharevicz

“Here, then, is what I learned on, or because of, the American schoolbus:”

Above is an opening line to an early chapter in the “novel”, Against The Country, by Ben Metcalf (country being rural surrounded by small town). It’s a difficult, award winning book (Ten best books of the year, Vulture, Best book of the year, 2015, NPR), written by an author who’s been compared to literary legends such as David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) & William Falkner (The Sound & The Fury), and I placed the word Novel in quotations, because it stretches and almost subverts the idea of what a proper novel is. This isn’t ordinary fiction, nor is it escapism; Against The Country is literature, a book some will love and more will dislike, for its never-ending sentences and southern dialect heard throughout, a voice, that gets stuck in your head.

When I first picked up the book (randomly based on the green cover with nice large font) I hadn’t heard of Ben Metcalf. I suppose that was part of the problem, and I say that because you almost need to know who the author is, and how he was a literary editor at Harper’s Magazine, born in Illinois/raised in Virginia. Later on, Metcalf taught at Columbia University. Ben’s an author who knows what he’s doing, and what he wants to pull off with his book. So, it doesn’t hurt being versed in the styles that the author uses in telling his story, such as Falknerian (long sentences with emotional, cerebral, and Gothic elements). Against The Country is a dense work of art, a first person narrative lacking a straight forward plot, and is it good or bad? Well, like the novel itself, that’s a complicated question. It is one of those books (think any Henry Miller Novel) that when you accept you’ll never figure it out, and stop trying to classify what box it fits into, you’ll discover what a truly rich and beautiful book it is. Sure, it’s a hard undertaking to let go of our preconceptions, and of the eccentric nature of the Unknown Narrator. But you can turn to any page and find nuggets of truth, wisdom, and brilliant sociological observations, written in some of the most twang worthy and sweeping prose since Mark Twain. The book isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book.

Against The Country is about The Town, its “potato-fed bullies with guns”, and about the false claim that the rural country is the heart of The United States. It’s a coming of age narrative that stumbles as much as the unconventional plot does. Readers-be-warned: You must give it an ample amount of time to sink in. It’s one of those books you have to re-read. But once you do, you’ll discover something perhaps even better than a “plot”. You’ll find a story about America. A story told by a character who like Holden Caulfield, will be a part of you even after the last page.

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