Editor's Choice

How to Make Friends with the DarkClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Kathleen Glasgow

Summary

Here is what happens when your mother dies.

It's the brightest day of summer and it's dark outside. It's dark in your house, dark in your room, and dark in your heart. You feel like the darkness is going to split you apart.

That's how it feels for Tiger. It's always been Tiger and her mother against the world. Then, on a day like any other, Tiger's mother dies. And now it's Tiger, alone.

Here is how you learn to make friends with the dark.

BookBrowse Review

Don't go to bed angry; make up after fights; always say I love you – you don't know when what you say to someone might be the last thing you ever say to that person. We all grow up hearing some version of these pieces of wisdom, but what happens when it is wisdom left unfollowed? 16-year-old Tiger has a unique relationship with her mother – they might not have much and things might not be perfect, but they are a "well-oiled, good-looking, and good-smelling machine." But sometimes, Tiger just wants a little space to be a normal teenager, and not have her mother checking in on her all the time. She wants to go to a dance, pick out her own clothes and spend time with the boy she likes. But Tiger's world is shattered when her mom dies suddenly, and she is thrust into the unknown. With no one else to legally take her in, she enters the foster system, bouncing around between strangers while trying to cope with her suffocating grief and figure out what she is meant to do next.

It is not enough to simply say that grief is the overwhelming emotion driving this narrative. Told from Tiger's first-person limited perspective, we are enmeshed in her consciousness as she counts the minutes from the moment she's told her mother has died. We are in her mind as she moves through anger, hopelessness, regret, loss and always, back to an unfathomable grief. We cry with her; we share every unbearable moment of both numbness and the bereavement that becomes physically painful. No loss is easy, but Kathleen Glasgow depicts vividly how traumatizing the loss of a parent can be, and how destabilizing it is when you have no one else to turn to.

The author also opens a doorway into something that most people might rather not consider - who takes the children who have no one else? What is life like when you become the responsibility of the state? Grief becomes multi-fold in How to Make Friends with the Dark; it is not only her mother Tiger loses – it is her sense of security and comfort, her sense of how the world works. Furthermore, she discovers that in the foster care system, many people do not care about children or teenagers, and often times hurt them while claiming to help. In some ways, this experience shatters her reality as much as the loss of her mother, and as her eyes become open to a much crueler world, so to do those of the reader.

There are many books on the market for young adult and teen audiences that deal with gut-punchingly real issues, that expose the darkness in life that, unfortunately, most of us will reckon with eventually. But Glasgow uses Tiger's gaze to look not only inward at her own grief, but through a wider lens to account for other kinds of grief, loss and pain too. The result is powerful, and a must-read for anyone who needs language with which to discuss loss, and in particular anyone who works with children or teenagers. Through Tiger we feel deeply, we learn to change and adapt, to approach grief without diminishing what is happening to the person experiencing it. We learn to accept the "Big Suck" of loss, and gain language for how to embrace that darkness and move forward.

Book reviewed by Michelle Anya Anjirbag

Beyond the Book:
What happens when a minor loses an only parent and has no one left?

Statistics about the number of children in foster care In Kathryn Glasgow's How to Make Friends with the Dark, 16-year-old Tiger learns that her mother is dead, and almost equally upsetting, she can't even go somewhere familiar to stay while she figures out how to adjust to being an orphan; with no known father or other relatives, she is relegated to the legal responsibility of the state of Arizona and uprooted from the life and the people she knew. Though she is given a grace period of one night in her home, she is then taken to a series of foster homes. I think most readers will find the immediate removal of any agency from the teenager just as jarring as Tiger herself does. She is thrust out of the push and pull of normal adolescent rebellion with her mother into a situation that requires great maturity to navigate, while simultaneously losing the ability to make decisions or advocate for herself.

In the U.S., generally speaking, if a minor loses both parents (or their only known parent as in the case of Tiger) the first thing that happens is that the state looks to see if any provisions have been made in terms of a designated legal guardian. If there is no will or other document with such information, the state looks for living relatives. As Thaddeus, another of the foster children who Tiger meets, says, "blood goes to blood" – even if there is not necessarily a relationship there. If there are no obvious, reachable relatives, the child is remanded to the care of the state and is placed in a foster home – or sometimes several – as the logistics of their future are worked out. This is the process even if there are friends or neighbors who are willing to take the child; if they have not been named legal guardians in the case of the parents' deaths, they cannot be given guardianship, even temporarily.

Foster homes vary greatly; while the state is meant to require training and certification, and perform checks on a regular basis, as Tiger finds out, there are many, many kinds of people and homes are managed in different ways. Foster parents have the right to set times and amounts for sleeping and eating, can lock food away, and may also decide how much or how little space the children have within their house. Both the case workers and the foster parents also have the right to search belongings. Tiger experiences both sides of the scale, and in the process sees the difficulties other children and teenagers have had to face in their lives. Should rules be broken, or the foster children get in any legal trouble or use drugs or alcohol, they can find themselves bound for juvenile detention. Based on data released in Oct 2017, according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), there were 437,465 children in foster care in fiscal year 2016 in the United States, with a mean age of 8.5.

In addition to exploring Tiger's grief, How to Make Friends with the Dark makes clear how overtaxed the systems that are meant to protect children are. Like the loss of her mother, her time in the foster system forces Tiger to grow up faster and grapple with previously unconsidered realities, and thus, so too must the reader.

Foster care statistics, courtesy of American SPCC

Red BirdsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Mohammed Hanif

Summary

An American pilot crash lands in the desert and takes refuge in the very camp he was supposed to bomb. Hallucinating palm trees and worrying about dehydrating to death isn't what Major Ellie expected from this mission. Still, it's an improvement on the constant squabbles with his wife back home. In the camp, teenager Momo's money-making schemes are failing. His brother left for his first day at work and never returned, his parents are at each other's throats, his dog is having a very bad day, and an aid worker has shown up wanting to research him for her book on the Teenage Muslim Mind. Written with his trademark wit, keen eye for absurdity and telling important truths about the world today, Red Birds reveals master storyteller Mohammed Hanif at the height of his powers.

Paperback original.

BookBrowse Review

Mohmmed Hanif's Red Birds is part Catch-22, part Slaughterhouse-Five, part Kafka's The Castle, and all Hanif's darkly satirical wit and wildly creative imagination. Set against the backdrop of a slice of unnamed desert that could be located in any number of regions, including the northern reaches of the author's native country of Pakistan, it has all the ingredients of a war story, an unflinching exposure of the dire human consequences, and even a sprinkling of magical realism. It's the story of what happens when the war machine collides with innocent civilians.

The book begins with an American fighter pilot, Major Ellie, crashing in the desert after a failed attempt to bomb a refugee camp, "at the end of the world, [a] hideout for some of the worst human scum." The pilot has an undistinguished military career, and this mission was meant to give him the recognition he needed to advance, but the crash puts an end to that. After wandering for eight days in the desert with no food or water, he finds half of his plane: "So this is what I have; the front half of an F15 Strike Eagle with two 500-pound laser-guided bombs, one marked YES, the other marked OH YESS in grey stenciled letters." Major Ellie is rescued by Momo, a young boy from the camp he was supposed to bomb, and there begins a convoluted chess game between the camp inhabitants and the American.

The camp to which Momo takes Major Ellie, referred to simply as "the Camp," is a desolate structure attached to a deserted U.S. airbase. It lies behind a large gate attached to nothing on either side. On the top of the gate is written "USAID FUGEE CAMP," the "RE" having disappeared. Ellie describes it as, "a sea of corrugated blue plastic roofs, stretching like a low, filthy sky, broken by piles of grey plastic poles and overflowing blue plastic garbage cans." And yet, people live here, people who, as Ellie says, "had not left their little hamlets for centuries, goatherds who believed in nothing but grassy fields and folk music, women who had never walked beyond the village well, now they could all go and live in UN tents, eat exotic food donated by USAID and burp after drinking soda."

For the first two parts of this three-part novel, there are three narrators: Major Ellie, Momo, and a dog named Mutt. Momo is a 15-year-old boy who considers himself an entrepreneur. "The sky itself could fall," he says, "and I'm gonna stay right here; I would figure out a way to turn it into part of my business portfolio." He gets his education from Fortune 500 and drives a Jeep Cherokee for which he needs a cushion to see out of the windshield. A child who for most of his life has known only war, he is not a character to be pitied; he has learned to take advantage of his situation and wrest from it every possible scrap of control. "You can't be a child in this place for long," he says. "Blame it on the heat, or buffalo milk, or camp food but you are expected to grow up fast."

Momo's beloved brother, Bro Ali, has disappeared. One day, he went to work in the mysterious "Hangar" and never returned. The Hangar is part of the U.S. base adjacent to the Camp and is reminiscent of Kafka's Castle as a seat of shrouded and nefarious power. When he finds Major Ellie, Momo believes he is the key to locating his brother.

The only reliable narrator in Red Birds is Mutt, a dog whose brains were "fried" in an unfortunate encounter with a poorly installed electrical pole. Mutt is a philosopher and a keen observer of human nature, keeping a close eye on the Camp inhabitants and their goings on. With his canine sense of smell, Mutt relates to the world through his nose. White people smell like boiled cabbage; "Indifference smells like the bleached bones of your fellow dog;" "Regret smells like burnt bread."

Initially, Hanif resisted including a canine narrator, but in the end, he decided to let the dog speak. "He started to connect lots of things, which I hadn't been able to connect before," Hanif told Qantara.de's Claudia Kramatschek. It is Mutt who first sees and explains the red birds. "When someone dies in a raid or a shooting or when someone's throat is slit, their last drop of blood transforms into a tiny red bird and flies away. And then reappears when we are trying hard to forget them, when we think we have forgotten them..."

Hanif began Red Birds after a series of personal losses; the epigraph is a quote from his close friend Sabeen Mahmud, a Pakistani human rights activist who was assassinated in 2015 following a reading she staged of Hanif's politically sensitive work. Perhaps Mutt's voice is the bridge between the novel and Hanif's own feelings of grief. "I don't think I or any of my colleagues have recovered from that shot," he told The Guardian.

Although Red Birds clearly addresses the consequences of wars waged by Western powers largely ignorant of the mores of the people they target, it is also a story of home and loss. "I … wanted to describe the inner dynamics of a family that has been forgotten by the world – and in which one of the two sons disappears without a trace," Hanif told Qantra.de. Much of that grief is expressed through the character of Mother Dear, Momo and Ali's mother. "First they bomb our house," she tells a USAID consultant she nicknames Lady FlowerBody because of the strong floral perfume she wears, "then they take away my son and now you are here to make us feel alright." Like so many caught in war's crosshairs, she must simultaneously mourn a son, seek closure and keep her hope alive against all odds.

As the story progresses, it becomes increasing surreal and unsettling. The reader is never quite sure where she stands, like someone blindfolded groping their way along a strangely shaped passage. It gives the very slightest taste, one imagines, of the uncertainty of a war zone, and that taste is what Hanif wanted to accomplish. "Sometimes I feel these are not words," he told The Hindu, "these are tears of blood. I am not joking."

Book reviewed by Naomi Benaron

Beyond the Book:
The Human Cost of War in Post-9/11 Conflicts

The attacks of September 11, 2001 and the United States' subsequent military response fundamentally changed the political landscape of the Middle East/Central-South Asia. This landscape is the setting of Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif, who declared one of the goals of this project to "take the readers by the hand to lead them out of the comfort of their living rooms and into another space," the space of the human cost of the wars in this region. In 2011, The Cost of War Project,"a team of 35 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners, and physicians" came together at the Watson Institute of International & Public Affairs at Brown University in an attempt to independently quantify the human and economic costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They estimate that, during the 17 year period from 9/11 to October 2018, 480,000 lives were lost to "direct war violence" in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, they estimate more than half a million deaths from the war in Syria, raging since 2011. (See The Cost of War Project's table for a full list of facts and figures.)

The war in Afghanistan began with U.S. missile strikes 26 days after the attacks on 9/11 and remains ongoing in 2019 despite recent peace talks. The total number of dead, including American, allied and oppositional forces and civilians is roughly 147,000. The Iraq conflict began in 2003, when President George W. Bush launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, and most U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, although the Iraqi government continued to fight IS into 2017 with help from American forces in a "training and defense" capacity. This effort culminated in a battle in Mosul that killed 9,000-11,000. The total death toll in Iraq is over 270,000; and a further 65,000 have died in Pakistan. IS first captured territory in Syria in 2013, declaring a "caliphate" in 2014, causing President Obama to launch airstrikes in response. The first American ground troops entered in 2015. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, this conflict has resulted in over 500,000 casualties as of 2019.

Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees
Figures from the 2018 United Nations High Commission on Refugees put the current number of internally displaced people in Iraq at 450,000 in formal camps and "more than 120,000 in informal settlements and collective centres throughout the country." This is down from peak displacements (2003-2017) of 3 million, but there is a struggle to supply the remaining camps with basic humanitarian needs such as food, medical care and education for the children, and issues of damaged or destroyed housing and security concerns are roadblocks to return. In Afghanistan, there were 72,065 IDPs counted in 2018, with 116,581 new IDPs in 2019. Just 2,275 refugees have returned to Afghanistan, mostly from camps in Iran and Turkey.

The Kurdish Project estimates that, "over sixteen million people have been displaced from Syria and Iraq," of which more than 2 million have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. Parts of Mosul remain completely destroyed, and many residents returned to camps in Kurdistan after finding their homes unlivable, basic infrastructure completely destroyed and no source of income. Residents worry that with the slow pace of rebuilding—estimates are that $88 billion is needed—terrorists will find a fertile ground to start afresh.

Over 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country, and 6.2 million are internally displaced. Hospitals and health centers are favorite targets of Syrian government airstrikes, and much of the country's infrastructure is now nonexistent. Although IS has been declared defeated, violence continues, exacerbating the difficulties of delivering humanitarian aid to the population, particularly in remote areas that would be difficult to reach in the best of situations. Syrians continue to die from the fighting, as well as from malnutrition, lack of medical care and disease.

The Yazidi
A small, isolated minority in northern Iraq, the Yazidi, were persecuted by IS for their religious beliefs and subjected to systematic rape, torture and murder. The New York Times states that 6,470 Yazidis were abducted in 2014. As of July 2017, 3,410 "remain in captivity or are unaccounted for." Victims of the broader IS ideological culture of rape and sexual slavery that extends to young girls, the women who have returned suffer from extreme physical and psychological trauma. Most Yazidi men were murdered; boys were trained to be child soldiers and forced by IS to kill their own people.

Veteran Suicides and US Military Deaths and Injuries
Figures from The Cost of War Project put the number of American soldiers that have served in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 at 2.7 million. Over 6,900 service members and 7,800 contractors have died. The number of soldiers wounded in Afghanistan is 20,431; in Iraq, the total is 33,328. Through 2015, 1,645 soldiers came home as amputees as a result of post-9/11 conflict, and more than 300,000 suffered traumatic brain injuries.

Suicide is another alarming issue. Between 2008 and 2016, there have been more than 6,000 suicides by veterans each year, "a rate that is 1.5 times greater than that of the non-veteran population." Victims of PTSD that often goes untreated, many veterans suffer from alcohol and substance abuse problems and become homeless.

Government Torture and Killings
The Cost of War Project states that "in Iraq, over 100,000 prisoners passed through the American-run detention system, most with no effective way to challenge their imprisonment. In the first years of the war, many detainees were processed through the notorious Abu Ghraib prison facility, which housed over 8,000 prisoners at its peak in 2004."

Torture in Iraqi and Afghan detention centers run by local government officials apparently continues today. Human Rights Watch reported allegations of torture by the Iraqi Interior Ministry in Mosul that include nine deaths and reports of detainees being hung by their bound wrists and beaten with metal cables. According to a 2019 report by the United Nations, roughly 1/3 of detainees held in government facilities in Afghanistan provided "credible and reliable" reports of abuse, including, "beatings, suffocation and electric shock."

A joint undertaking between The Cost of War Project and the Smithsonian concluded that the United States is involved in "fighting terrorism" in 80 countries (essentially 40% of the world's total number of countries). According to an official White House report, we are "at war" with 7 countries: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Niger and Yemen. It is impossible to calculate the true human cost of war. The fiscal costs have human consequences as well, in the form of domestic safety nets and international aid programs that have been cut for lack of funds. "The vast reach evident here," the Smithsonian states, "may prompt Americans to ask whether the war on terror has met its goals, and whether they are worth the human and financial costs."

EndeavourClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Peter Moore

Summary

The Enlightenment was an age of endeavors, with Britain consumed by the impulse for grand projects undertaken at speed. Endeavour was also the name given to a collier bought by the Royal Navy in 1768. It was a commonplace coal-carrying vessel that no one could have guessed would go on to become the most significant ship in the chronicle of British exploration.

The first history of its kind, Peter Moore's Endeavour: The Ship That Changed the World is a revealing and comprehensive account of the storied ship's role in shaping the Western world. Endeavour famously carried James Cook on his first major voyage, charting for the first time New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia. Yet it was a ship with many lives: During the battles for control of New York in 1776, she witnessed the bloody birth of the republic. As well as carrying botanists, a Polynesian priest, and the remains of the first kangaroo to arrive in Britain, she transported Newcastle coal and Hessian soldiers. NASA ultimately named a space shuttle in her honor. But to others she would be a toxic symbol of imperialism.

Through careful research, Moore tells the story of one of history's most important sailing ships, and in turn shines new light on the ambition and consequences of the Age of Enlightenment.

BookBrowse Review

Miriam-Webster defines a biography as "a usually written history of a person's life." One might argue, therefore, that biographies can't be written about inanimate objects, and perhaps that's true. However, Peter Moore's latest work, Endeavour, defies that notion, describing "the most significant ship in the history of British exploration" in such a way that it feels like a living, breathing entity.

The HMS Endeavour (aka the HM Bark Endeavour) is best known as the Royal Navy vessel that Lieutenant James Cook commanded during his first voyage of discovery (1768-1771), during which she became the first European ship to reach the east coast of Australia. But Moore points out that the ship actually had three distinct "lives" – three different purposes, three different names. She was manufactured at the shipyards in Whitby and was launched in 1764 as a collier (a ship for transporting coal) under the name Earl of Pembroke ̵—a rather unglamorous beginning.

Round and sturdy rather than sleek and graceful she had no dashing figurehead on her bows and no gingerbread work – those ornamental carvings that brought life to the sides of men-of-war. Under sail, she made a maximum seven or eight knots with an even wind abaft her beam, about half the rate of a frigate at full tilt. She behaved well at single anchor in the shallows, but otherwise she had no noteworthy sailing qualities.

Her rise to stardom, so to speak, came as the result of a rare astronomical event that Britain's Royal Society wanted to study but which was best observed from the Southern Hemisphere (See Beyond The Book), necessitating sending a select group of scientists abroad. The project ultimately became "a joint venture between the Royal Society and the navy. The Royal Society would take responsibility for the observations while the navy would supply the vessel and the nautical expertise." Time was short, and those looking for an appropriate ship could find only three that could be refitted for the task quickly. Of these, the Earl of Pembroke was deemed the better option based on "availability, utility and condition," according to the author. She was purchased and set sail in 1768 under her new name, Endeavour.

Endeavor's third "life" came after her retirement from the navy. Privately purchased, her new owner, James Mather, rented her back to the Royal Navy to transport troops and supplies across the Atlantic during the Revolutionary War. Rechristened Lord Sandwich 2, the ship left Portsmouth in 1776; unfortunately, she became one of several the British scuttled in Newport Bay on August 4, 1778, to block the French navy from helping the American colonists.

Moore describes each of the ship's adventures in great detail, concentrating not only on the voyages, but on the times that shaped how she was used. He focuses particularly on the politics of the day, citing historical events such as the Wilkes Riots in London in 1768 and disputes over the Falkland Islands during the 1770s as influences on British policy and ultimately on Endeavour. He also vividly depicts the sights, sounds and smells in areas that the ship would have visited, such as Whitby, London and Tahiti. Finally, he brings to life the men who held Endeavour's fate in their hands, such as master ship-builder Thomas Fishburn, explorer James Cook and botanist Joseph Banks. The first voyage to Australia makes up the lion's share of the narrative, but all sections are equally fascinating.

Moore's prose occasionally bogs down the narrative, as does his tendency to elaborate on minor details. The first chapter of the book, for example, is a treatise on how acorns produce oak trees and the oak's place in British imagination; the lengthy analysis of the type of wood the ship's made of comes across as unnecessary. Many other dense sections that seem only tangentially related to the ship are scattered throughout the book, slowing down the pace. Endeavour is obviously a labor of love, however, extensively researched and engaging, and well worth plowing through the less relevant sections. Most who enjoy historical non-fiction (particularly those who revel in detail) will find it an interesting read.

Book reviewed by Kim Kovacs

Beyond the Book:
Transit of Venus

Replica of the HM Bark Endeavour The HMS Endeavour, the eponymous subject of Peter Moore's book, was purchased by the British Navy in 1768. One of its missions was to transport a group of scientists to Tahiti where they could make astronomical measurements during a rare event called the Transit of Venus.

Venus is the third brightest object in the night sky, after the Sun and the Moon. Named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, it is the second planet from the sun.

In astronomical terms, a transit is when a planet can be observed crossing the face of the star it orbits. From our position on the third planet from the sun, there are only two transits we can directly watch: Mercury and Venus. Due to differences in how Mercury and Venus orbit the Sun, a transit of Mercury occurs 13 or 14 times a century, while a transit of Venus happens much less frequently, occurring in pairs eight years apart and then not again for about 120 years. The last transit of Venus occurred in 2012; the next one's not due until 2117.

A transit is similar to a solar eclipse by the Moon, where that body crosses between the Earth and the Sun. Although the Moon is a fraction of the size of Venus, it is much closer to us, so an eclipse can completely block out the Sun; whereas a transit of Venus simply appears as a small black dot moving across the face of the Sun. It can be seen with the naked eye (with proper protection) and takes six to seven hours.

The 1769 Transit of Venus was deemed particularly important, as the intent was to use calculations of Venus's movement to determine the size of our solar system. German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) had determined the relative distances of the planets to the Sun, a measurement now referred to as an astronomical unit (AU). For example, the Earth is one AU from the Sun, while Venus and Mars are .72 AU and 1.5 AU respectively. But no one knew the value of AU. Edmond Halley (1656-1742) proposed that one could find this value by taking measurements of Venus during its transit (the math can be found here for those interested). Halley died before his theory could be tested, but Britain's Royal Society vindicated his ideas in 1769. With the measurements of the scientists who accompanied Cook on his expedition, the Royal Society was able to determine the distance to the Sun to be 95 million miles (not far off from our 20th-century radar-determined measurement of just under 93 million miles). They also observed a fuzzy halo around Venus and speculated that meant the planet had an atmosphere (since confirmed).

Today, transits are used primarily to find planets outside our solar system, known as extrasolar planets or exoplanets. For example, NASA's Kepler space telescope (launched in 2009) was set to view a fixed spot in the Cygnus constellation from which it was able to continuously monitor 100,000 stars for planets. During its nine years in service (it ran out of fuel in 2018) it detected 2,662 exoplanets by observing transits across the stars, and identified more than 2,900 candidate planets waiting verification.

For those who are curious, the 2012 Transit of Venus can be viewed here.

Replica of the HM Bark Endeavour, launched in 1993. Photo by Colin F.M. Smith.

On Earth We're Briefly GorgeousClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Ocean Vuong

Summary

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family's history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one's own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.

BookBrowse Review

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, the bold and bracing debut novel by acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong, centers on Little Dog, the son of a Vietnamese immigrant mother and an absent father. Raised in present-day Hartford in a predominantly white community, Little Dog struggles from an early age to both assimilate with his peers and to honor his Vietnamese heritage, but here Vuong deviates from the standard immigration story blueprint in favor of something more darkly sensual and internal. As the story unfolds, the reader comes to understand that the novel is an elaborate letter written from Little Dog to his mother, though she will never read it, as she is illiterate: the story he tells her is consequently private and unsparing. "The impossibility of you reading this makes my telling it possible," Little Dog confesses.

Vuong first demonstrated his linguistic prowess in his lyrical poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, and now he's extended this talent effortlessly to prose. The writing itself is the first thing that will strike most readers about this book: crafted in a way that feels authentic and raw rather than labored, Vuong's poetic style is a marvel.

"The music in his hands dripping milk, he opens the front door. It is summer. The strays beyond the railroad are barking, which means something, a rabbit or possum, has just slipped out of its life and into the world. The piano notes seep through the boy's chest as he makes his way to the backyard. Because something in him knew she'd be there. That she was waiting. Because that's what mothers do. They wait. They stand still until their children belong to someone else."

The relationship between mother and son is the novel's central conceit, but from there Little Dog's story spirals outward, as Vuong deftly navigates themes of national identity, sexuality, shame, masculinity, violence and social class. In the novel's second act, the focus shifts from Little Dog's family to his first love, a local farm boy named Trevor who slowly becomes incapacitated by an opioid addiction. The relationship between Little Dog and Trevor is fraught, fragile; Little Dog understands that he is gay but Trevor rejects this label, which ultimately forms a chasm between them.

The novel's structure, though it's roughly linear (part 1 is childhood; part 2 is adolescence; part 3 is adulthood), weaves elements of Little Dog's family history into the narrative, including some jarring but necessary passages where Little Dog imagines scenes from the Vietnam War from his grandmother's perspective, which he's pieced together from the stories she's told him. The family's collective PTSD from the war and the anxieties of a queer American teenager all exist within the same space and tell a story that's complex and remarkable in its singularity.

Both an examination of the cultural scars that span generations, and an exacting distillation of the tension between the stories inside us and our inability to share them, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an accomplished and unforgettable debut. This novel is such a convincing and intimate snapshot that it's at times difficult to remember that what you're reading is fiction and not memoir, though it's of course possible that Vuong's own life as a gay Vietnamese American immigrant informed details of Little Dog's. But even without knowing where exactly Vuong decided to draw the line between fact and fiction, the tender relationships between Little Dog and his mother, grandmother, and Trevor, are all so complex, so recognizable, that the story's verisimilitude is undeniable, as is the author's linguistic mastery.

Book reviewed by Rachel Hullett

Beyond the Book:
Vietnamese Amerasians

Amerasians Without Borders logoWhen U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the 1.3 million lives lost would prove to be only the beginning of the war's lasting impact on both countries, especially for many of the children born in Vietnam amid the bloodshed.

Initially coined by Pearl S. Buck and later legitimized by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the term Amerasian refers to any child born in Asia to an Asian mother and an American father. Aside from Vietnam, other countries with significant Amerasian populations are Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia and South Korea. According to the organization Amerasians Without Borders, an estimated 25,000-30,000 Vietnamese Amerasians were born between 1965 and 1975.

In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, neither the U.S. nor the Vietnamese government would take responsibility for these individuals who faced significant challenges in their home country. Struggling against racial and social discrimination, Amerasian children were often refused jobs and education, and frequently ended up in juvenile street gangs and prison. Many of them were even abandoned by their mothers and, in 1975, the Communist government closed many orphanages, sending orphans to reeducation camps. These were effectively prison camps in which anyone known to have supported the American-backed government of South Vietnam was imprisoned and forced to perform grueling manual labor. Because the authorities would also destroy the homes of these individuals, many Vietnamese women with Amerasian children severed all connections to the U.S. by burning letters and photographs.

This later proved problematic for Amerasian children attempting to immigrate to the U.S. In 1987 the Amerasian Homecoming Act was signed by President Ronald Reagan, which granted immigration rights, rather than refugee status to Amerasians and their families who wished to relocate to the U.S. Though the Amerasian Homecoming Act was initially lax in its procedures – mixed-race status was often verified through appearance alone – regulations eventually became much stricter, with Amerasians needing to be able to prove their fathers' identity and military details for a visa to be granted. Because of the mass destruction of records by frightened Vietnamese women in the 1970s, these accounts were often impossible to obtain, with many children not even knowing their fathers' names.

For those who did succeed in immigrating to the U.S. (In 2013, the New York Times estimated that over 21,000 Amerasians, accompanied by more than 55,000 relatives, had emigrated to America since the enactment of the Amerasian Homecoming Act), their new life was not necessarily an improvement on the one they left behind. Although the U.S. government had aided their immigration, very little support was provided to help them assimilate to their new culture, or to reconnect with their American fathers. Having spent their childhoods rejected by their government and society for not being wholly Vietnamese, they found themselves meeting the same challenge in the U.S., rejected by their peers for not being wholly American. According to a 1991-1992 survey reported by the Smithsonian, only 33% of Amerasians living in the U.S. knew their father's names. One researcher who specialized in dealing with refugees noted that Vietnamese Amerasians had some of the worst deep-rooted depression of any refugee group he had encountered, with 14% having attempted suicide in the past. (While the individuals in the study were technically immigrants and not refugees, the distinction is relatively arbitrary given the circumstances from which they fled.)

In 2015, Vietnamese American Jimmy Miller founded Amerasians Without Borders, the nonprofit organization that uses DNA testing to locate American fathers, and supports Vietnamese Amerasians once they have relocated to the U.S. According to Miller, Amerasians Without Borders has identified 400 Amerasians still living in Vietnam today.

Ocean Vuong's debut novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous explores the lasting trauma of the Vietnam War on the protagonist's immigrant family, dwelling less on the details of the war and more on the deep psychological scarring that it caused to those who were born amid its violence.

Amerasians Without Borders logo, courtesy of AWB

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