Book Review: Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

There had never been a time when I was unable to read a novel before bed. Enter Vuong’s novel. I could not read this one before sleep. I tended to lie awake with the raw, emotional quality of his writing, unable to turn off my mind and rest. Yes. It is that good. Like Tommy Orange, I dog-eared so many of these pages and made so many notes (most to the effect of “!!!”) that the book looks worn, though I bought it new. It will remain on my shelf forever, until an act of god removes it from such shelf. While many of my other novels I give away to future readers, this one I cannot bear to part with.

With an experimental and thoroughly poetic manner, the story is told through one-line, jaw-dropping snippets or longer, few-page vignettes that stun the reader and lay bare the elements of what it is to be human, different, and misunderstood. Dealing with subjects ranging from immigration and the Vietnamese war to class and drug use, this novel will redefine what you consider a good novel.

“Barn trypto” by It’s my F8 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Book Review: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland

I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I began reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, not just because this was the first novel or story by this author that I had read, but also because the tone of the novel at the beginning, and the content, was unlike many modern novels these days—and I wasn’t sure I liked it. At first. Written in the third person omniscient, Lahiri’s novel has a quiet, reserved energy that doesn’t immediately hook you, but rather pulls you in, slowly, and keeps you there through the rest.

            It’s rare that we see (or maybe, that I read) newer novels written with this kind of narrator, but Lahiri is a master of the technique, using it to great effect without making her writing seem archaic. Although we care deeply about her characters—the brothers Subhash and Udayan, and their wife, Gauri—Lahiri keeps her distance from them, allowing the reader to experience their lives, troubles, secrets, and inner turmoil from a remote perspective which at times seems pitiless and scathing, though never judgmental. Even so, her tone is always truthful, with a sincerity that I feel reckons back to Tolstoy or Chekhov. Her distance allows us to delve deep into her characters’ psyches and struggles without being burdened by whether or not we “like them,” as so many readers are wont to do. In Lahiri’s world, liking has nothing to do with it: her characters make their own paths with the same blind groping we all do. None of us can see the future, much less the characters folded in the pages of this novel.

            At first glance, The Lowland is a love story, the tale of a tragic love between Gauri and Udayan and the choices that bind Gauri forever to Subhash. Yet Lahiri’s novel is so much more than that. It is a family saga, one that spans generations into the past and future, examining the choices, beliefs, and convictions that bring all characters to their present moments and some to their deaths. It is an examination of post-colonialism and its aftermaths, of revolution and politics. It is a story of immigration and of belonging in two worlds, India and America, with both shaping, working, and molding the characters in ways both subtle and overt.

            The Lowland, for me, is a gateway novel. I will be unable to not read the rest of Lahiri’s novels, now that I know her immense capabilities.

Footnote. After reading other reviews of this novel, one of the larger themes seems to be that it is a depressing novel of (quote from the NPR review) “the rashness of youth, as well as the hesitation and regret that can make a long life not worth living.”

I disagree with this sentiment, which seems to pervade nearly every review I read. At the end of the novel, I actually recommended it to a friend who was looking for happy books, because while the novel isn’t always upbeat, there is a sense of overcoming trial. While Lahiri’s characters certainly struggle, both privately and together, their issues aren’t unsurmountable. I’d even go so far as to say that several of their problems are similar to what many families experience: the complex dynamics of mixed families, uninvolved parents, disillusionment with motherhood, unhappiness in marriage, estranged parents and nasty in laws. Although their troubles stem from much greater issues that link back to immigration, murder, and involvement in a controversial political movement, the roots and struggles are common to many, and they do overcome them. At the end of the novel, the characters have all moved toward finding their own peace— in a way that works for them. Although it’s not necessarily the gift-store wrapped packaging that we’d like, it’s how life is and should be written.  

“ホテイアオイ(Water Hyacinth)”by kanonn is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Book Review: Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run

Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run is the kind of novel that grabs you by the neck and hauls you down into the darker depths of the South, where degradation of the environment and of the self become so fused it’s hard to tell one from the other.

The two main characters, Jodi and Miranda, are imperfect and make rather self-destructive choices, even as they’re seeking to do the right thing. Examples include hiding drugs in the shed when Jodi is just out of jail on parole, or Miranda kidnapping her children and then getting a bartending job at the only bar in town, knowing her husband is arriving soon to perform on stage. The characters in Sugar Run drink too much, take too many pills, and are generally ruining their lives in an inescapable cycle of poverty and loss.

Maren’s writing brings these characters and their world to vivid and painful life. Jodi and Miranda’s world rules its residents’ lives in a way that limits the trajectory of their emotional, economic, and social welfare. It is a society that keeps its people in poverty by removing their means of agency. It is a society that does not accept them—whether it is because they are poor, or because of their sexuality, or because they have just been released from jail. In this world, these characters, and the real-life people living in environments such as this, can be fiercely loyal to family and ideals. In Jodi’s case, she is loyal to her expired dream of saving a young boy she once knew and making a life for herself on her dead grandmother’s land—which no longer belongs to her family. Everything else is a moving target, and, as Maren’s novel reads on, perhaps even Jodi’s most concrete dreams are made of smoke.

Maren’s novel is a bleak and hard look at the lives of two young women, yet there’s hope and redemption in there, too.

One caveat. Sugar Run becomes intense, so fair warning to future readers. But while the drug use, sex, and southern drug-lord violence in the novel became a little too much for me at times, it would undeniably be a different novel if it wasn’t there. What does this say about the tone, content, and messaging of Maren’s world and our ability to understand how it functions, moves, and makes sense? What does this say about the larger picture, which is our ability to comprehend and empathize with the lives of people living in environments like Jodi and Miranda? These are important concepts to consider, and Maren’s novel gives them color and forces us to look—whether we like it, or not.

Book Review: Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

The impossible task wasn’t to read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, it is rather to write this review of it and express the complex layers and emotions this novel is capable of producing in a reader. To be clear: I have nothing but praise for Rushdie’s accomplishment, and only regret that I had not read this sooner. Reading at the beginning of the book saw me attentive and doggedly folding the corners of pages I’d marked with notes and underlines, but after the first fifty pages or so that endeavor was abandoned in favor of awe-struck rhapsody. Rushdie’s writing is multi-faceted and light-hearted, dense yet easy-to-read, and filled with symbolism that ties into the dual-fates of the narrator, Saleem, and India as a developing independent country. My usual practice of leaving notes in the margins wasn’t cutting it here. My notes yearned to be pages and paragraphs; to complete them, I would have been marking up most of the page.

This novel is not a light read. It required me on innumerable occasions to research dates or events or ideas that I’d never encountered before or perhaps interacted with meaningfully. And yet with Rushdie’s work I was constantly researching and learning and found that at times my mind simply couldn’t wrap around any more information. When I reached points of maximum retention I put the dictionary and my computer away but continued reading. The surprising part was that even when I didn’t understand all of the word plays, puns, and history-steeped references, the story was still enjoyable. More than enjoyable: it was a put everything down, stay up far too late reading, compare-the-size-of-your-turds good read (an actual scene in the novel has Saleem comparing his meager seven inch turd “on a good day” to the fifteen inch one of a squatting defector outside his window).

While Rushdie’s humor flexes effortlessly from bathroom banter to satire, he also has some serious chops for, well, the serious stuff. He describes scenes of the India-Pakistan war through the eyes of a disconnected yet not dispassionate Saleem, who wanders the desolation viewing scenes of murder, rape, and pillaging. These parts of the novel are anything but humorous, and Rushdie crafts them with equal skill and art.

When I reached the end of the novel, my thoughts turned toward writing this review. What to say? How to say it? Which themes to discuss? Rushdie’s novel, because of its complexity and depth, is a difficult one to review in a few hundred words. With countless themes and plots, sub-plots and characters—all are linked together in a tightly-woven fabric—a review that conveyed specifics would seem unending. And yet a review that focused only on one theme wouldn’t do the book justice. Rushdie’s weaving is so masterful, in fact, that I never stopped to question his skill/taste/judgement when the narrator called himself out first for not being honest and then for what he considers omissions and mistakes (but cannot bring himself to correct because he is near his death).  

In an effort to be fair, I’ve written this short review and only scratched the surface in a hope to provide some glimmers of the novel’s meaning and appeal. Saleem’s narrative jumps both subject and timeline in back-and-forth acrobatics that can make even the most grounded and knowledgeable reader’s head spin, yet this decidedly unchronological and broken order of telling only adds to the magic of Rushdie’s novel. The result is a sprawling, magical-realism tale filled with details, character, and unique voice. This will forever be a classic; there is no doubt in my mind why this novel won Best of the Man Booker.

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Humanity is destroying the world. We’re burning forests, killing the animals and other wildlife that live here, and filling everything with garbage. Each of these is preventable and changeable, but humanity suffers from the effects defined in the “helping experiment” by Richard Nisbett. If we see something happening that can cause serious harm, our likeliness to step in to prevent or stop the problem from happening correlates to the number of people we believe available to step in instead.

Basically, what this means is that many of us don’t work to recycle or reduce the waste we produce (or insert any other problem) because we think others are doing a good enough job at it or will do a better job than us. Rather than recycle our milk bottles and cans, we throw them in the garbage, because what is one more can going to hurt when a zillion other angelic households recycle for us?

Our world is drowning in plastic. Although some people have rallied to the cry and begun to clean and try to recycle what plastic they encounter, it’s still not enough. We need to do more, but there’s a problem with this too: the items we throw in the recycle bin aren’t guaranteed to stay out of our landfills.

Enter Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Set smack in the middle of the war against plastic and other poignant issues such as poverty, political warfare and corruption, and terrorism, Boo’s novel (which is not actually fiction but a socio-economic study reported from a journalistic point) strikes a nerve that even those in the most upper-class society can understand.

Young Abdul and his family are trash pickers. They gather the discarded trash from around their slum and the city of Mumbai and sell what is salvageable to recycling plants to make their living. Their slum hut is small and in order to eat, Abdul must be a competitive garbage sorter. Fortunately, he is good at his work, understanding as he is that in a few years, his young spine will be bent low from the labor. He may be sixteen, or perhaps eighteen. No one knows for sure, although forged documents attest to his youth when needed. This is only the beginning f a complex web Boo has captured in her account.

Boo’s work is a striking and original portrait of the poverty-stricken slums of India and all the corruption inherent in keeping the political and social system working. Her prose is vivid and accurate, sharp and unflinching. As the novel follows several slum-dwelling families, Boo takes a hard look at what it means to be poor in India, all set against a backdrop of the world’s environmental and political struggles.

Ready for a teaser? One of the smaller scenes has stayed with me. Abdul and his friend, Kalu, are preparing to gather a nice piece of iron they will sell for profit, but to do so, they cannot be caught. They go under cover of nightfall to the slum’s sewage-lake, and prepare to swim across it. The devastation and neglect, suffering and filth is captured in these few incredible lines:

“Now they were standing at the edge of a wide gully that took runoff from the Mithi River. Sunil came here from time to time to catch mangoor fish to sell back at the slum. When he was young, the water had been blue—‘like swimming pool water,’ he said. It had since turned black and reeking, but the fish still tasted sweet.”

To clarify: Sunil and Abdul eat fish that live in a sewage and trash lake and believe they taste sweet. Let that sink in. It’s representative of the filth and nastiness in which the slumdwellers live, and how everything nice they are able to obtain is eventually tarnished. And this doesn’t even touch the corruption of the government and the accepted norms that keep the canyon between poor and rich wide and unpassable.

When you read this, let all of Boo’s words sink in. She’s done an incredible job of showing the deprivation, bribery, and yet also the faint glimmer of hope for humanity in these stories. Boo does a brilliant job of juxtaposing the “haves” against the “have-nots” of India. A fine example of this is at the beginning of chapter eight, when the rich view the monsoon as “romantic” while the Annawadians view it as the reason the sewage lake will begin to creep and invade their living space. This flooding causes the inevitable illness and disease that would come with creeping sewage.

My final word. Read this if you want to break free from the image of India (and your country’s connections to it) as portrayed in the news and Bollywood films. Boo has lived and researched the reality she’s presented in her work, and it’s a fine, accurate, and heart-wrenching account that reads like a novel.

Book Review: Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

“Never judge a book by its cover” is an old, clichéd statement that we should all heed, but I’ll take it one step further and say that we should also never judge a book by the summary on the inside cover. Unfortunately, I did both these things before reading Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, and I wasn’t convinced the novel would be for me.


For those with curious minds, I’ve posted a picture of the novel here so no googling is necessary. That’s right—the cover is done with beautifully rendered images of plants and, well, bugs. The inside cover praises this novel as a tale of two families struggling in precarious times. This message, though accurate, doesn’t do the novel justice for the level or kind of precariousness it covers.

Based on the summary and the cover, I was dreading the historical fiction parts, and I’ll honestly say I wasn’t very excited to read it. It is a rare historical novel that interests me, and I was afraid that this one wouldn’t do Kingsolver’s work justice (I’ve read many of her other novels and loved them).

The bottom line is this: I shouldn’t have judged. The novel is very good. It functions less as a historical fiction than a scathing indictment of the current political times, whether or not this was Kingsolver’s intent. It also functions in many ways like two separate novels, yet the stories are closely related not just in physical location but because of the tumultuous and changing time period.

Willa—the protagonist in the contemporary story—clings to her idea of achieving the American Dream even as it fails her and her family. Yet I found Willa’s personal narrative to be less interesting than her daughter, Tig’s, story. For much of the novel Tig has a representatively small part, though her story is arguably the most fascinating. She disappears for years in Cuba, living with a family she adopts as her own, only to show back up on Willa’s doorstep with no explanation. She knits, grows herown veggies, and fixes cars. She might be a Freegan, if given the opportunity. It is not until the last few chapters or so that Tig’s narrative and story becomes more clear, and I was riveted by her.

In the historical sections of the novel, Thatcher makes heroic efforts to support the education of his pupils and promote true, scientific thinking, even as those in power seek to underscore his reputation and knowledge. His is an exciting underdog tale, and Mary Treat—his neighbor and friend—is an accomplished female scientist who is endlessly vibrant fascinating. She harbors spiders in her living room. Transplants ferns. Writes letters to Asa Gray and Darwin as comrades. For a woman limited by society and upbringing, Mary Treat doesn’t disappoint. From the first glimpse of her face down in her yard to the very final pages, Treat is the highlight of the historical sections.

If I say more, I’ll be dropping spoilers, so I’ll stop there. If you’re not into historical novels, give this one a go—it’s so much more than that. Afraid of the scientific parts? Never fear. This is a political underdog story that is highly relevant for our present time.

My final words: while initially I thought the political points might be better served in essay form, at the conclusion of the novel it makes sense to include them in story form as their pointedness will reach a broader audience.

Book Review: The Woman Who Walked Into Doors

Most of my book reviews are written within a day or two after I’m done reading. As I turn the pages, I take notes in the margins (what else are margins for, anyway?), dog-ear pages that are especially relevant to the message I’ll speak to in the review, and jot down ideas as I go along. By doing this, the reviews often come together easily, which can be a small blessing.

But honesty is needed in this case. I finished reading The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle a few weeks ago, almost three weeks to be exact, and I am just now sitting down to write my review. After reading other reviews, I felt I needed to say more to get the white-hot center of it, as Claire Keegan would say in her incredible courses.

Reading through other reviews on Goodreads, even those who haven’t read the novel can be clear that it tackles some weighty issues—alcoholism, domestic abuse, broken families, poverty—and I won’t labor those points. The novel is more than just that, which is where the difficulty comes in; there’s a lot more than abuse going on in Doyle’s novel that makes it a fantastic read.

Putting aside the sometimes overwhelming and graphic violence, Doyle’s novel is a heart wrenching social study. Paula Spencer, our protagonist, is heroic in her imperfect way, and her strength is admirable. She works, she takes care of her kids, and wants things in life only for them (as a maid, she’s jealous of only one home, that being the one in which the kids have everything). She drinks, too, but the rules she’s set for herself are telling of her dedication and effort to do the right thing. Only after Jack, her youngest, goes to bed, and only after she finds the key, which she tosses into the grass every day, will she open the shed where she stores her drink. These rules help Spencer keep sane as she navigates a life that threatens to destroy her.

Some chapters, chapter 18, for example, just sing in their simplicity and depth. Spencer is conversationally, almost monotonously, relating the facts of her day. Of her life. She is annotating to herself what she does and why she does it, all so that she can prevent her mind from wandering to those aspects of her life which are more terrible. Her matter-of-fact way of relating the details of her life are a defense mechanism to prevent her from feeling the strong emotions that threaten her. She thinks about many topics, such as porridge, milk, and her eldest son, John Paul, who has run away to become a drug addict.  Here’s a fantastic example of Spencer’s thought process in action:

“I could never get any of them [her children] to eat porridge. My father believed in porridge. He believed it could do good things for you.
—Culchie food, said John Paul.
I wonder what he has for his breakfast these days.
Leanne has tea. Jack has milk. I only got him to stop using the bottle last year. He’d started school; it was embarrassing. It took him ages to admit that it tastes just as nice out of a Wine the Pooh mug. I did tests with him; it was like an ad. Now try brand X.”

In this passage, Paula mentally stops herself, telling herself to get back to the facts, which allows her to avoid having a breakdown. Readers are in the white-hot center of Spencer’s pain. Although we’re often rooted solidly in Paula’s head, it works. By providing us with such strong access to Spencer’s interior life,  Doyle has exposed Spencer’s fragility, her threatening situation, and her unbelievable ability to keep on in spite of it all.

Toward the end, Doyle’s description of the abuse Spencer survives is sometimes heavy-handed (it goes on for pages, and can be graphic). Yet in spite of this, he’s set us up so that we care deeply about Spencer and her wellbeing. Imperfect as she is, a reader is on her side and not entirely disconnected with the novel when Doyle begins his violent litany.

Yet I must emphasize, perhaps controversially, that Doyle’s more powerful moments aren’t when Spencer’s husband is tearing out her hair; they are the more subtle ones. For me, one of the more saddening scenes in the novel is when the Spencers are first married—chapter 21. The wedding is artificial. The couple is happy, but there’s an air of “putting-on” that makes even their happiness seem fake. This sentence is a great example: “Our house was only a hundred yards from the church but the chauffeur brought us twice around the estate to make a journey of it.” And it wasn’t just the one isolated incident. The photographer missed important moments in the wedding, and the party had to repeat certain actions to capture them appropriately. For example, there are photographs of the Spencers pretending to cut the cake—but not actually cutting it. In essence, the real actions were lost, had gone unnoticed, but the recreated and acted ones are the record of their marriage.

It is, in my opinion, these scenes that make Doyle’s novel so powerful. He tells the complete story of Paula Spencer’s life—a life of not having anything, of wanting more, and of learning to pretend when what’s wanted (and often needed) will never be available to her.

My final word: be prepared for the graphic scenes, and this novel will be a gripping tale that you won’t be able to put down.

Book Review: Sailing for Home: A Voyage from Antigua to Ireland

I got married this past weekend at a yacht club on an island in Maine. The ceremony was beautiful—we were married on a pier overlooking the water, with white lights trellised up the dock and around the railings. Our photographer snapped photos of us on the float, in a rowboat, and on my husband’s father’s boat.

Yep, he has a boat. And does charters too, by the way, and is just fantastic at them. Check him out at My husband’s uncle also does charters and lobster tours—I was lucky enough to go on one once—where he takes people on his boat and tells them about the lobster industry. My father-in-law tells his clients about the history of the bay, including where Edna St. Vincent Millay lived on Ragged Island, and my uncle-in-law tells his clients about the water chemistry and the lobstering industry, how it works and operates.

What I mean to say is that I married into a family of sailors and boaters, a family with a mutant blood composition that’s made of red blood cells and ocean water instead of plasma. For some reason, these ocean-people decided to like me and welcome me into their family, for which I will be forever grateful.

But what they don’t know is that I’ve got some ocean water in my blood, too. I have no idea how it got there—if anything, it should be regular blood and plasma, or perhaps rain water, if it’s special at all. But the salt water is in there, pumping through my veins, and it always has been.

When I was little, I loved being on the ocean. Not just going to the ocean to play in the sand and waves, but to be there. Any ocean-lover will understand what I’m saying. It’s not the sand, or the waves, or the water. Well, not all of it, not exactly. It’s the smell, too, and how the salt in the air curls your hair at the edges, and lightens the load you’re carrying. A lot of things can be made easier to bear by looking out at the ocean. It reminds you of how small you are, and for some reason, that feeling is comforting. And as if by magic, whatever you’re carrying on your shoulders seems to lift up a bit. Salt makes things float, after all, and the ocean air is full of it.

Yet there are some out there who do not understand this feeling. My father, for example, is one of them.

Enter Theo Dorgan’s travel memoir Sailing For Home: A Voyage from Antigua to Ireland. The front cover says it well—a quote from Doris Lessing reads, “A book for everyone.” And a book for everyone it is, especially if you aren’t sure why people go so batty over the coast. Dorgan, in poetic, exacting prose, describes it well from a sailing vantage point:

“Most people never venture on the sea. Many venture into it, at the coastal margins, but never travel on it or through it; millions never lay eyes on the sea in the course of their lives. Yet the sea is the birthplace of our weather, the reservoir for our water and hence, by the magic of convection and rain, our food. It is our dumping ground, our highway to the growth of empires, our place of dreaming and nightmare, our most reached-for metaphor. It is the place whose seeming emptiness we have always regarded as a repository meaning: ‘They that go down the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.’”

While you won’t find swashbuckling action in Dorgan’s memoir, there’s a lyrical flow to the words that hooks the reader and makes them keep along for the story. Though Dorgan’s boat, Spirit, never breaks down, and the crew does not encounter large storms, and though everyone is quite safe during the trip—readers are compelled to keep turning the pages.

This is, in part, because of Dorgan’s deeply personal reflections about the ocean, sailing, and trip from Antigua to Ireland. During his voyage, Dorgan contemplates life, death, writing… and more. It is through his eyes that readers are taken on a journey that seems to touch their very souls—even if they’ve never had an experience like Dorgan. He explains how sailors come to think of their boat as part of them, an extension of humanity, and this mentality is realized throughout his work.

Also compelling is Dorgan’s rebellious, “stick-it-to-the-man” mindset when it comes to sailing (and some other things). His underdog point of view makes his story compelling and relatable for a wide audience. Reading his memoir, gone is the notion that sailing is only for those with money, or that it is pretentious in any way. For example, in just one of many passages in this book, the crew of a large, luxurious ship (the Velsheda) commits a faux pas by deciding to wash the ship’s dust off with previous water. As the dust is not harmful to the ship, and with water as a scarce resource, the crew is being wasteful and arrogant. Dorgan and his sailing mates pause to watch and are disgusted at the vanity they see. They respond to a passerby’s question regarding the majesty of the ship, which Dorgan chronicles with scathing and humorous accuracy:

“Somebody passing by stops, says she’s [Velsheda’s] a beautiful boat, isn’t she? Zaf, with magnificent casualness, deliberately misunderstands him: ‘Yes,’ he says, and—gesturing to Velsheda—I like her dinghy.’ I manage to keep a straight face, but only just.”

It is this kind of self-assured, underdog humor that endears Dorgan and his crew to the reader, and the memoir is full of similar scenes. From evading the judgment of Northern Irish well-to-dos with “the look of lawyers and medical professionals about them,” to painting their boat in Horta, Sailing For Home is a miraculously good read that will bring the pleasure and peace of the ocean right to its readers, which should be everyone—regardless of whether your blood includes plasma or salt water.

See my review on Goodreads!

Quotes from: Dorgan, Theo. Sailing for Home: A Voyage from Antigua to Ireland. Dedalus Press, 2010.