Monthly Archives: August 2019

“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

theoverstory

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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