I’m hoping for another year of epic reading. I’ve read a number of things already, and I’m wondering what it means that several of them have affected profoundly. Have I already had the best read of 2020? Time will tell, but I will say I do love books that linger in my mind long after the last page has been turned.
Besides planning on carving out the time to tackle my mountainous to-be-read pile, I’m also committing to blogging more this year. I think I’ll make it a regular feature to review some of the things I’ve read, particularly as I find connections between them. Today I’m looking at three books which I found wrenchingly beautiful and heart-breaking, and made me love the world even more fiercely than usual because people like this live here.
First up, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. This is so beautifully written it was like a sacred experience for me. Vuong is a poet, and although this is a novel, much of it is based on his own experiences.
The story is told through a letter written to his mother by a young Vietnamese-American man. The book tells his story of the incredible challenges growing up as a sensitive gay child in America with all its homophobic, racist, and violent attitudes, and with the additional burdens of being poor, and living with his refugee grandmother and single mother who have limited English and even more limited opportunities. At its core this is a heart-breaking love story, but just saying that somehow diminishes it and I, in no way, wish to discourage you from reading it. It’s exquisite in its beauty and writing, and I believe our hearts are meant to hold all the grief and all the joy bearing witness to this story allows.
I think this quote from the book says it perfectly. “All this time I told myself we were born from war — but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty. Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence — but rather, that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.”
If you do choose to read this, and I hope you do, let me suggest you get it as an audiobook. Like the best poetry, this deserves to heard spoken aloud. And Vuong himself narrates, which feels like a genuine gift.
Achingly beautiful, hard, and highly recommended. In keeping with my practice of awarding a rating based on floriography, the language of flowers, giving a hint at the plot as well as my appraisal, I would offer a bouquet of Red Catchfly (youthful love), Adonis (sorrowful remembrance), and Angelica (inspiration).
Next up, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.
I’d categorize this as a coming of age story as a young Harlem girl comes into her voice and her power, as she begins navigating her teenage years. Discovering slam poetry is the doorway into finding herself. As a first-generation Dominican-American she has lots of issues to deal with. Her deeply religious mother, who wanted to be a nun, is mostly unhappy in her marriage. But the birth of X (and her twin brother) were considered “miracles” having arrived so late to parents who thought themselves childless. It’s a burden. There’s violence and sexual harassment, and X develops a tough exterior, partly as protection for herself and partly to protect her more sensitive brother, who manages to find his way out of the neighborhood school thanks to his intellectual gifts. You might guess that poetry and the deep feelings of adolescence might not be well received in such a household. And then there’s burgeoning love. Whoever thinks being a teenager is easy is crazy. No doubt there are parts of this story that are heart-breaking and hard, it’s also encouraging.
While the book isn’t autobiographical, much of it is certainly informed by the fact that author/poet Elizabeth Acevedo was born to Dominican immigrants and participated in her first poetry slam at age 14. Again, if you choose to check this one out, I strongly encourage you to get the audiobook version. Acevedo narrates it herself, and it’s a gift to be read to by someone who both knows the material intimately AND understands how poetry should be performed. I think it really adds to the richness of an already wonderful experience. I’m awarding a floriography arrangement of Oak Leaves (bravery), Nemophila (I forgive you), and Sweet Briar (poetry).
And finally, Tin Man by Sarah Winman is another exploration of hardship and love and heart-break, that ultimately offers hope. That in a nutshell is the thread that ties all these three books together in my mind. The story starts out with a brief glimpse into the life of one of the character’s parents in the 1950s, and Van Gogh’s painting Sunflowers is a prominent motif. The tale continues with the friendship of three people, and the lives they had and didn’t have. And when I finally finished the book I had that heavy feeling of being touched by something important, and the need to let it settle in. In truth I felt that about all three books, and I suspect that’s sort of the energy of 2020 itself showing up in these early days. A weightiness. Not a badness per se, but a call to honor the powerfulness and substance of life, and all the ways we carve out joy, and kindness, and love for each other, and all the ways it means to be human. My floriography rating for this one is an arrangement of Marigold (grief), Rosemary (remembrance), and Olive (peace).
I’m playing in a few reading challenges this year (2020 A-to-Z. Mount TBR, Popsugar) and all three of these books are fulfilling category prompts, so yay. Have you read them? Reading something you want to recommend? Do tell – you know I love to hear.