Ocean Vuong, who emigrated from Ho Chi Min City to Hartford, Connecticut as a child, sprang into mainstream literary consciousness in 2016 with Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a remarkable collection of poems on immigration, intergenerational trauma, and queerness. The work is one of the highest regarded contemporary collections on the market; Vuong’s honors include a Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize.
His first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, also speaks of multi-generational PTSD, charting the fate of a Vietnamese-American family struggling to settle into working class life in 1990’s New England. Vuong frames his novel as a letter from Little Dog, a young gay writer in his late twenties, to his illiterate mother Rose. Vuong published a version of the first chapter of the book in the New Yorker in 2017 for Mother’s Day.
Little Dog writes of his love for his mother and his grandmother, both of whom are reeling from the traumas of war, immigration, loss of language, and Alzheimers. And he recalls how the violence of the Vietnam War transmutes itself into the frequent physical attacks rained down on Little Dog by his mother. "I didn't know," Little Dog writes to her, "that the war was still inside you ... [and] that once it enters you it never leaves - but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son."
Those readers familiar with Vuong’s poetry will recognize the same calibrated orality; he turns beautiful phrases which lend his pronouncements the timeless quality of deeply-earned wisdom. “Freedom is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.” And his writing contains the line-by-line density of poetry: the rush of a joint makes Little Dog, feel ‘skull-less;’ a heart ripples in an emaciated body ‘like a trapped fish;’ a piano ‘drips its little notes, like rain dreaming itself whole.’ Given that a novel in verse ended up on last year’s Booker shortlist, to redress the balance I’d be happy to see this up for the T S Eliot Prize.
There is a new avant-garde afoot, and Vuong claims his own form, making the kind of grand gestures few writers would dare. Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes pretentious, sometimes both at once. And as compelled as a reader might be by the gorgeous language, or the political force and wisdom of Vuong’s insights, the novel lacks a compelling structure and sometimes loses its voltage through repetition, with many of the better observations dulled by the presence of so many similar ones throughout. This is a work worthy of attention for its exploration of class, race, sexuality and generational trauma. The committed reader will find much of value, but others may give up before they reach the end.
For me, this novel comes at a time when I am examining my own past. It comes at a time when Eugene Lee Yang releases an artistic articulation of a similar journey. To read books like these in a turbulent and confusing time can be a miraculous way to see one’s place in the universe as intentional. On earth we are not always gorgeous; and neither are the events in this novel. But there is a certain awe that comes in the wake of our worst moments, right alongside the best ones.
~ Ann Scott
Published Jun. 28, 2019 in Aspen Daily News
After last summer in the Roaring Fork Valley, the last way one would want a story to begin is, “They had been smelling smoke for two days.” However, it is still a powerful opening, makes for a fantastic, slow-burn of an adventure story and immediately sets the ominous mood in Peter Heller’s latest novel, “The River.”
“The River” is set in the deep north woods of Canada on the fictional river running into the Hudson Bay. Two friends, Jack and Wynn, are on a paddling expedition and escaping their collegiate rigors at Dartmouth by getting out to the wilderness — one of their shared loves that solidified their friendship. The two feel like they came out of a western novel: Jack, the tough-spirited ranch kid from Colorado who runs on intuition and instinct, is almost a perfect opposite of Wynn, the taller gentler one with “all freckles and unruly curls and earnestness … (and) looked like a kid who had never had a mean thought in his life.”
They also feel like a portrayal of a younger Heller. The boys are drawn together by a mutual respect — “guys who seemed to be able to more than handle himself in the woods” — and a literary way of looking at the world. During their first meeting, they talk books and share an affinity for Louis L’Amour, Henry David Thoreau, poetry and the classics. You can imagine the author connecting with people through those two litmus tests: Wilderness and literature.
You can also sense Heller’s personal love of wild places; he writes about them in perfect lyrical descriptions of nature: “The cold, clean scent” of moving water and “earth smells of falling leaves slick with rain.” Paddling a river, “They loved how the darkness amplified the sounds – the gulp of the dipping paddles, the knock of the wood shaft against the gunwale. The long desolate cry of a loon. The loons especially. How they hollowed out the night with longing.”
Despite this tranquil setting, the novel builds an uneasy atmosphere early on, not only with the sighting of a large wildfire someplace far in the distance, but also a run-in with some seemingly unsavory characters, Jack’s recalling of a tale by Edgar Allen Poe and his general sense that something doesn’t feel right. The two also have a rifle with them, which is normal for a canoe trip in northern Canada, though its appearance makes you think of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s advice to writers: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”
Early on, the boys come across a couple arguing at a fog-shrouded campsite on the river bank, and through Wynn’s moral judgement, return to try to warn them about the fire, but they have disappeared. When they later come across the man paddling alone down river, the suspense is fully set, and the pace of the story builds momentum, as though the tumultuous river were pulling you without a choice. Through the boys’ viewpoint, the reader is left wondering whose perception to trust, as the fire roars beyond the horizon with “low hisses, a ticking and chirping, a simmering crackle like a million crickets, hellfire crickets, singing of apocalypse and char.”
Peter Heller sums it up perfectly in his thoughts of writing: “Narrative can be like a river. You follow it around a corner, and you never know what’s going to be there. Before you know it, the story comes into something I’d been really concerned about for a long time.”
~ Nathan Child
Published Jun. 7, 2019 in Aspen Daily News
Many of us know the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which tells of how the people came to be scattered to the ends of the earth and given unique languages, after attempting to build a tower to reach heaven. Imagine, though, if when God scattered the Babylonians across the globe, he also scattered pieces of the tower, making those regions more bountiful and giving a number of their citizens the ability to manipulate the elements. And imagine that powerful families, known as The Order of Babel, were entrusted with safeguarding the locations of these fragments.
The year is 1889. France is coming off the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. It’s been 100 years since they stormed the Bastille, and Paris is hosting the world’s fair, the Exposition Universelle, to showcase how far humanity has come and the potential of the future. This is the backdrop for Roshani Chokshi’s new book “The Gilded Wolves,” and no one is more aware of overcoming circumstances and having greatness just within reach than the main character, wealthy hotelier Séverin Montagnet-Alarie.
Montagnet-Alarie was raised believing he, too, would one day be inducted into The Order. But on the day of his induction ceremony, he’s told he isn’t the true heir of his house, and the only life he’s ever known is ripped out from under him. It is well known throughout The Order, though, that he is denied his inheritance due to his mixed race. In order to win back what is rightfully his and restore his family’s name, he agrees to help another member of The Order track down an ancient artifact that will reveal the locations of the Babel fragments. He assembles a team of his most trusted associates: a Filipino historian of mixed heritage with something to prove, a Jewish girl from Poland with the ability to manipulate fire, a brother in arms with the ability to manipulate the earth and a dancer from India with her own dark secret. They all stand to gain something if they succeed, but will restoring his reputation be worth risking the lives of those Séverin holds most dear?
Chokshi fantastically blends historical and biblical fiction with action, adventure and a little bit of romance in her new Gilded Wolves trilogy. It highlights the difficulties of overcoming racism, even when one is highly educated or born into wealth, and warns against striving for power for the sake of power alone. I can’t wait to see where the next chapter in Séverin’s story takes us.
~ Jay Austin
Published Apr. 26, 2019 in Aspen Daily News
"The trick is to let the pot boil slowly. ... Let them think you're just average or ‘good for a girl’ and then slowly, slowly, slowly begin to let your true self shine. That's the only way to avoid feeling the jealous, embarrassed rage of a dude who's been beat."
“The Falconer” presents a refreshingly worthy protagonist: Lucy Adler, a champion 17-year-old Jewish-Italian basketball player coming of age in New York in the mid ’90s and secretly in love with a boy who’s been her best friend since preschool.
Lucy is street-smart, vulnerable, cynical, thoughtful – a multi-layered outcast who is destined to get her heart broken. “Mostly I like talking to him. Because the world rains arrows and honey whenever he’s near me. Painful and sweet.” Lucy’s pain is palpable but not overdone. Bad things happen, but some good things happen too. And Lucy takes it all in stride. She’s a girl to love.
Percy, the object of her crush, remains oblivious to the feelings of young women, outwardly resistant to the entitlements of his wealthy family but destined to lead a life of convention. Lucy, on the other hand, grapples with what kind of young woman she wants to be. Luckily she is surrounded by some compelling examples in her mother, her friends and her cousin Violet. Violet, a struggling painter, lives in a loft with an avant-garde feminist artist and supplies Lucy with books that seem to come with perfect timing, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s “Second Sex.”
Lucy yearns more than anything to play ball and to be free like the boy falconer in the city statue she admires. But she can’t escape wanting to also be the kind of girl that attracts Percy, a more obvious beauty or even “the kind that infiltrates the mind and heart gradually ... the kind of beauty that doesn’t register at first, but then you find it lingering in your senses.”
She moves past the hurt of his inevitable rejection, receiving good advice from her friend Alexis, another square peg, “You’ve got añoranza, Loose. Now that the reality of who he is has been revealed to you, from now on, when you miss him, you’ll only be missing the dream of him. I don’t know a word for that in any language.”
Czapnik’s background as a sports journalist serves her well in this debut novel. She not only captures an era and a city with beautiful, vivid detail, her descriptions of bodies and movement on and off court are true art.
Published April 5, 2019 in Aspen Daily News
Aana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, named a “5 Under 35” honoree by the National Book Foundation, has debuted with a fierce collection of 12 unnerving and unpredictable short stories, tackling racism, hyper-consumerism and the glorification of violence.
“Friday Black” opens with “The Finkelstein 5,” a tale of five black children who are decapitated with a chainsaw outside a public library. Emmanuel, a young black man who has learned to “dial down his blackness,” prepares for a job interview against the backdrop of the controversial acquittal of the child slayer and the protests it sparks as black people commit violent acts against whites in revenge for the killings. This fire and brimstone reckoning reveals the brutal prejudices still at work within our justice system and our culture.
The parallels to recent events, particularly the 2012 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who was also acquitted, are unmistakable. One tale depicts a theme park, “Zimmer Land,” in which white people play out simulations of violent racist fantasies where young black men clad in protective armor appear to die from the high-velocity impact of faux bullets.
Adjei-Brenyah’s grim stories are like small nightmares that draw on real-life events. “Lark Street” is about a man haunted by the aborted fetuses of his girlfriend, as they snuggle up on his pillow, competing for his affection and pleading for their lives. And in the Orwellian love story of “The Era,” some children require injections of “Good.” Another tale realizes a purgatory afterlife occupied by the spirits of a school shooter and one of his victims. And a nuclear-apocalypse Groundhog Day recurs in "Through the Flash."
A trio of stories,“Friday Black,” “In Retail” and “How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing,” unfold within a mall, which is filled with a predictable daily monotony, save the regularly occurring Black Fridays. These are the days when shopper deaths are expected as the inevitable consequence of bargain hunters stabbing competitors with stiletto heels.
Friday Black may be the publishing world’s addition to the vibrant pop-culture trend of new black surrealism. Films such as “Get Out” and “Sorry to Bother You,” or Donald Glover projects like “Atlanta” and “This Is America,” gain impact from a kind of absurdist framing, which this book shares.
The surrealism “allows us to address the absurdity head-on,” Ytasha Womack writes in her book, “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.” “Sometimes you have to be irreverent. Sometimes the situation is so absurd that the only way to address it is to be absurd.” This at once searing and witty social critique is worth the read.
Published Feb. 22, 2019, Aspen Daily News
"Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly at first almost no one noticed – fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker – gone!”
In “The Lost Words,” Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris have created a wondrous book that evokes the wildness and beauty of our natural world. It also inspires us to get out and explore and counters our distracted state of nature deficiency.
The book came about when it was discovered that the most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had displaced a number of words in favor of more contemporary ones. Many of the dropped words were those concerning nature: fern, heron, starling, willow and wren, and in their place were words that came with our high-tech lives: blog, broadband, cut-and-paste. Sure, there are larger dictionaries, but this was a worrying example of our growing disconnect with nature, being replaced by a virtual world and its vocabulary.
In his introduction, Macfarlane describes “The Lost Words” as a spellbook, that “by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud … will summon the lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.” Each lost word is captured poetically in an acrostic verse, and reading them, you can feel the substance of the words roll in your mouth and off your tongue with alliterative ease. A dandelion is a “little sun of the grass, a tiny time-machine (tick-tock, sun clock, thistle & dock),” a kingfisher, “the colour-giver, fire-bringer, flame-flicker, river’s quiver.”
The illustrations done by Jackie Morris are perfectly matched to the richness of the words. She observes with the eye of a naturalist, capturing the down of a feather or the organic feel of bramble or heather. Her paintings feel old-worldly, like an ancient fresco, or like a gilded Japanese byobu screen, bringing birds, water, landscapes and a natural aesthetic into the room.
In other places, she imagines the absence of the creature or plant, their outline disappearing into negative space and their word lost on the page in a scattering of letters as though a typographer discarded their letter blocks on the ground.
We are lucky in this valley to have the exposure and an appreciation to nature – it is a tribute to all those who reintroduce us to this world, to our naturalists at ACES and the Roaring Fork Conservancy and many others, to our educators and parents who encourage us to explore. This book is also a great inspiration to get out and learn the words of the natural world around us. It is best read aloud, and shared with others, or given to a young person to learn ivy, lark, fern ...
~ Nathan Child
Published Feb. 1, 2019 in Aspen Daily News
In Iceland, the tradition of gifting books as presents is so deeply rooted that there is a word for the season: Jolabokaflod, the “Christmas Book Flood” If there was one holiday tradition I would love to import, this would be it. Finding the perfect book for everyone is such a joyful task, a challenge worth the effort when you get it right. Though it is highly personal and each book should really be hand-picked (see your local librarians and booksellers…) here is a brief guide to some of the best books for gifting, sharing, or just curling up and reading this season.
- Nathan Child
A version of this review originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News on December 21, 2018
“The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog.” ~ Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Wildlife Scientist Delia Owens grew up as an adventurous outdoorsy child in 1950s rural Georgia, where she learned to contentedly play and explore nature on her own. Now a bestselling Nature Writer, Owens understands solitude, having spent decades conducting research in remote areas of the United States and studying elephants and lions in Africa.
When this Winner of the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing sat down ten years ago to write Where the Crawdads Sing, her intent was to create a novel that “explore[d] how isolation affects a person.” Her story is about Kya Clark, a child also growing up in the fifties, coming of age in the mysterious marshland of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Owens gets the setting right. Her description of rural southeastern coast and its natural inhabitants instantly took me back to marsh country. I could smell the sweetgrass and see the fireflies. And like Owens, some of Kya’s best friends are part of nature. Yet unlike Owens who pursued a solitary lifestyle, young Kya falls victim to an unlikely series of events that instead force her to fend for herself.
Kya’s mother flees an abusive alcoholic husband. Then one by one, Kya’s older siblings depart, until she is finally and completely abandoned by her father. By age ten Kya must learn to survive and so becomes the wild “Marsh Girl,” not fit for school nor society, rather “bonded to her planet and its life in a way few people are.” Kya relies on the marsh; “whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her…the marsh became her mother.”
Befriended by a shrimper’s son, Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, Kya is ultimately encouraged to cultivate her gift for archiving marsh specimens. Tate also leaves. And though Kya is skilled in solitude, she yearns to be close to someone and begins a secretive relationship with a self-serving Romeo, Chase Andrews. When in 1969, this former lover (and attacker) is discovered dead, Kya is suspected. Small town drama ensues, and Kya endures a long theatrical trial, her cherished freedom hanging in the balance.
The plot alternates between the trial and earlier time frames. Owens described the writing process as “like a giant 150,000-word puzzle.” As a reader, I sensed it wasn’t effortless. She portrays her timeline afterthoughts as an editing “nightmare.” For this reader, the shifts seemed counterintuitive and curbed any suspense I may have felt for the fate of the main character.
And Kya’s plaintive tale is all too much pathos, lacking the compelling and authentic complexity of real human experience. I wished to connect, but Kya felt so contrived a vehicle, designed to teach the reader how solitude shapes and distorts. Owens’s nature writing depicts the natural world in such vivid accurate detail. Fiction arguably requires as much truth from so skillful a writer.
Originally published November 29, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
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