Time Is a Mother by Ocean Vuong

I will begin this review with a disclaimer that will hopefully fend off Vuong devotees: I do not read a lot of poetry. In fact, one could say that in my 25 years on this earth I’ve barely read any poetry. The last collection I read was by Sylvia Plath back in 2014 (very angsty of me, i know). All of this to say that I don’t feel particularly qualified to review poetry. If you are interested in reading Time is a Mother I recommend you check out either more positive reviews or reviews from readers who actually know something about poetry.

Bearing this in mind, here goes my inexpert review. Having read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Vuong I was quite looking forward to dabbling in his poetry. Time is a Mother however proved to be hard to get into. Most of the poems in this collection made absolutely no sense to me, even if I read them twice. While there was the occasional striking line I found the imagery and language of these poems to be simultaneously too confusing and rather laboured. Many of the poems try too hard to be gritty, so we have lines about blood, pain, and other ‘edgy’ things. We then have a lot of lines that just struck me as tumblr poetry material. In all honesty, I just struggled to understand or make sense of these poems. Vuong’s style was (to my eyes of course) overwrought. Bar the occasional effective line, these poems did not resonate with me. His language was affected and ultimately lacking in actual depth and emotion.
I will say that my mounting frustration at my inability to understand or enjoy them did inspire me to read more poetry in general so that hopefully one day I will re-visit this collection and find a newfound appreciation for it.

my rating: ★★ ½

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.”

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a collection of short stories centring on the experiences of Vietnamese refugees & immigrants as well as Vietnamese-Americans. With one or two exceptions most of the stories in this collection take place in America, some soon after the Vietnam War. Through different voices, the author presents us with a nuanced depiction of the realities and difficulties faced by those who are either forced to or choose to leave their home country. In America they are confronted with prejudice and racism, treated as objects of fascination or pity, at times they are separated from their loved ones or find themselves growing apart from their families as well as the language and values of their early childhoods. I appreciated the author’s frank style, the humor that permeated much of his narratives, and his nonmoral approach to his characters, their struggles, fears, and desires. The stories that resonated the most with me happened to be the very first two in the collection: ‘Black-Eyed Women’, which is about a haunted ghostwriter, and ‘The Other Man’, which is set in San Francisco and follows Liem, a young refugee who staying with a gay couple. Many of these stories emphasize the linguistic and cultural barriers experienced by immigrants. Most of these stories, such as ‘I’d Love You To Want Me’, a story about an ageing couple, make for rather bittersweet reads.

Like many collections of short stories, The Refugees was a bit of a mixed bag. None of the stories was bad but a few stood out. Something that dampened my reading experience was the weird way the author would write about breasts: we have “doleful areolas”, breasts that “sway like anemones under shallow water”, and breasts that “undulate” like “the heads of eels”. Like, what gives Nguyen? Why be so weird about breasts? I guess they were meant to be humorous but I happen not to have the sense of humor of an 8-year-old boy so, they didn’t quite do it for me. Also, it would be fairer than to have weird metaphors about other body parts.
All in all, this was a fairly solid collection and I look forward to finally giving Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel a go.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

“Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.”

Ocean Vuong’s strikingly lyrical debut novel is a work of transient beauty. Within On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous there are many arresting passages that are, quite frankly, beautiful. At times this beauty derives from Vuong’s subject matter, at times it is wholly due to his language. And, at first, when I came across these passages, well, I was in awe. The more I read, however, the more I found that however beautiful Vuong’s prose could be, many of these insights and descriptions failed to leave a long-lasting impression on me. I would forge onwards and find myself confronted with more beautiful words, often very reminiscent of his earlier ones. And once I became aware of this I found myself scrutinising Vuong’s poetical storytelling more closely, and, alas, I found it wanting. His writing occasionally seems affected, as if desperately striving to be beautiful. There were also many passages and phrases that seemed to veer into purple prose territory so that we have swollen metaphors and contrived adages that end up devaluing Vuong’s earlier unmannered yet exquisite uses of the English language.

The first half seems to promise a mother-son narrative, in which Vuong explores the way in which grief, generational differences, inherited trauma, cultural and language barriers, shape and affect the relationship between his narrator, nicknamed Little Dog, and his mother. The narrator often wonders about his mother’s own fraught identity (born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and an unknown white American father) and their shared experiences due to this. While some of the childhood episodes he recounts feature his mother being abusive towards him—hitting him repeatedly, being verbally abusive, at times even kicking him out of the house—he doesn’t reduce her to the role of abuser. By revealing her own traumatic history he contextualises many of her angry outbursts towards him. This first half was probably my favourite. Little Dog is writing to his mother, even if he knows that she will not be able to read his words. His style has this almost intimate and confessional quality to it, one that seems to blur the lines between fiction and autobiography (autofiction perhaps?). Vuong’s exacting portrayal of Little Dog’s childhood is certainly poignant. He’s an exceptional observer who can convey poetically the depth and different shades of Little Dog’s loneliness, yearning, sorrow, and otherness.
The second half brought to mind Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me, as the narrative seems to switch gears so that no longer we are reading about a mother-son relationship but a Little Dog’s young & ‘doomed’ first love who he meets during the summer when he works in a tobacco field. Here the story seemed less focused, and we get quite a few sections that seem to have little relevance to Little Dog’s story. Here the language struck me as less effective, more hackneyed, especially when it came to love and sex. Vuong’s depiction of addiction seemed to me somewhat cinematic.

Ultimately, it seemed to me that much of the beauty to be found within these pages is, like the title itself suggests, ‘brief’. While Vuong’s prose could be incisive, emotionally resonant, and, quite frankly, dazzling, it could also be repetitive, sacrificing meaning to showy displays of language that try hard to impress their gorgeousness on us, and yet, more often than not, these beautiful and lyrical turn of phrases are of little substance.
The shifts in tone and subject matter were almost jarring and made me feel less engaged by Little Dog’s story. There are some forced comparisons, such as many unnecessary pages spent on Tiger Woods’ ‘complicated’ ancestry. But, despite the issues, I had with this novel I can’t deny that at its best, it truly is a work of beauty. Given this novel’s success, it is also safe to say that you should not let my mixed impression of it deter you from giving this a shot (if anything else, it’s very short). I will definitely read whatever Vuong writes next as he’s certainly talented.

my rating: ★★★¼

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Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

As per usual I was swayed by a pretty cover. I mean, just look at it!

Anyway, as much as I wanted to like Build Your House Around My Body, it left me feeling rather underwhelmed. The narrative seems very much intent—hellbent even—on nauseating its readers, at times adopting a playful tone to do so. Ultimately, the story’s relentless efforts to be as abject as possible succeeded only in making me feel nothing for the characters.

The novel’s first few chapters were intriguing in a Neil Gaiman kind of way but with each chapter this reminded me more and more of Mariana Enríquez (not my cup of tea).
Build Your House Around My Body takes place in Vietnam, shifting between a cast of interconnected characters, and moving from the 1940s to the early 2010s. In 2011 a Vietnamese American woman named Winnie living in Saigon goes missing, less than a year after arriving in Vietnam. Over the course of the novel, we learn of what led her to Saigon and of her stint as an English teacher. A section of the narrative follows the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co. who are called to investigate some ‘spooky’ ongoings at a Vietnamese farm, another introduces us to a Vietnamese French boy sent to a boarding school during colonial rule, and then there are chapters focusing on three childhood friends, Binh, a supposedly feisty young girl and two brothers, Tan and Long, who share the same kind of bland personality.
The setting is vividly rendered, that’s for sure. We feel the oppressive heat and humidity experienced by the characters and the author has a knack for bringing to life the environments in which her characters are (be it a cemetery, a forest, or a dingy bathroom). The various storylines however don’t really flow that well together. The author wastes too much time poking fun at secondary characters that she loses sight of her novel’s central figures. Take Winnie. She remains a half-formed character, and while some of her vagueness may be intentional she could have still been fleshed out more. But her chapters often detail the silly routines of her colleagues or try really hard to gross you out through unpleasant descriptions of bodily fluids. Each storyline seems punctuated by slime, sweat, and shit. Which…yeah. The supposed revenge storyline doesn’t really come into play until the very end of the novel and by the end, it was glaringly obvious what had taken place in the past. The only section that made me feel somewhat amused was the one featuring the Fortune Teller’s First Assistant, but she was at beat a minor character (more of a cameo appearance really).
I had the distinct impression that this it the type of novel that is confusing for the sake of being confusing and I never much cared for these types of stories. Not only did the characters feel flat but I felt at a remove from them. The narrative spends so much time ridiculing them or comparing their facial features or appendages to foods/animals that I never saw them as ‘real’.
To be perfectly honest I don’t think I entirely understood what this book was going for. As I said already the novel’s raison d’être seems to be that of repulsing the readers. The issues the narrative attempts to touch upon—female agency? maybe? I don’t really have a clue—are lost in a murky melange of disparate storylines that don’t really come together that well nor do they succeed in bringing the characters or their struggles to life. While the setting was rendered in startlingly detail. the characters—their experiences and their relationships to one another—remain painfully vague.

my rating: ★★½

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The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

Once upon a time…
The Magic Fish is quite possibly one of the most beautiful, poignant, and awe-inspiring graphic novels I have ever read. The story takes places in 90s America and we follow Tiến, a young boy, who loves reading fairy tales with his parents. Tiến’s parents are refugees from Vietnam and cannot speak English as fluidly as he does. This language barrier makes it hard for Tiến to confide in them that he is queer.
The mother/son relationship in The Magic Fish is complex and moving. The bond between mother and son is rendered with empathy and sensitivity. The three fairy tales Tiến reads in the course of the narrative allow him to connect with his parents, in particular his mother.
Although each story is inspired by an existing fairy tale, Trung Le Nguyen presents us with three unique takes which perfectly complement Tiến and his mother’s stories. The first two tales are based on variants of ‘Cinderella’ (the German ‘Allerleirauh’ and the Vietnamese ‘Tấm Cám’) while the last one is a reworking of ‘The Little Mermaid’. I loved the different aesthetics of these tales: the first one has a Europeanesque setting, the second one seems to take place in 1950s Vietnam, and the last, this according to the author, juxtaposes the mermaid’s realm, which has elements from Hong Kong wuxia films, with the human one, 1980s San Francisco.
Trung Le Nguyen’s illustrations are stunning (they reminded me of Moto Hagio and Daisuke Igarashi). I loved the way in which each narrative had a distinctive colour palette.
Trung Le Nguyen set out to tell a specific story and he definitely succeeded in doing so. The Magic Fish is simply stunning and I will definitely pick up whatever Trung Le Nguyen writes/draws next.


my rating: ★★★★★

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