On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

The coming of the age, almost autobiographical, story of Vietnamese migrant Little Dog’s journey from war torn Vietnam to Hartford in USA, is a long poem in the guise of a novel. And thank god that this is done by Vuong and not by others. Not many would have produced something as endearing as this novel. Not every author is Ocean Vuong. This might be his debut novel but he is already a celebrated poet and a recipient of numerous awards including MacArthur Genius grant for his poetry/writing.

Little Dog might sound as a strange name but once I read the story behind his name, there was a tender familiarity that seeped through. Little Dog was named so to save him from bad things happening to him; making him undesirable so that death which prefers to take away the precious things ignores him. This is the practice which even I saw in many parts of our hinterland. Parents named their kid, after losing a few kids untimely, with names such as Fekan, Bechan, Lallu.. the most coveted kids had the most unwanted names.

The novel is in the form of a long letter written by Little Dog to his manicurist mother, who could not read. Little Dog and his mother both fought for dignity and self-esteem in an ‘English’ world with very little English in their kitty. But Little Dog grew up and he had a bellyful of English. And, this novel surely suggests the bellyful of English was also the beautiful English.

“In this nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologies but insists, reminds: I am here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that client fells right, superior and charitable. In the nail salon, one’s definition of sorry is deranged into a new word entirely, one that’s charged and reused as both power and defacement at once. Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-deprecating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat.” – From On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Little Dog’s fitful account of his life, memories, his sexuality and his rumination on his relationship with his mother and grand-mother is visceral. It is gorgeous not briefly but perennially. Ocean Vuong has poured his yearnings into a book that will be remembered for its sheer power to evoke unique and indescribable mix of emotions.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hours Bookstore – A nostalgic read

Some places might not be very exotic, scenic or on people’s list of must see-must visit but often they offer something that many places do not: nostalgia and comfort arising out of familiarity. The neighbourhood park where one spent many of the childhood evenings playing with friends is one such place. If we take this analogy to stories, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hours Bookstore is one such story. This is a story of 24 hour bookstore which employs a recession-hit, out-of-the-job website designer Clay Jannon.

A simple story which takes you through some of the familiar world of books and technology. There is an undercurrent debate on traditional books/bookstore vs the modern technology; and a fistful of elements taken from mystery and suspense thrillers thrown in there. The story forces one to move from one page to another, but for me reading the book was akin to visiting the neighbourhood park of my young days. There were a lot of things to make me feel nostalgic or relate to the story. Clay was a web-designer, loves technology (is a MacBook/iPhone/Kindle guy) and loves book

Mr. Penumbra’s quaint bookstore is not a normal bookstore, it has mainly arcane and cryptic books for a devoted clientele. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore has a higher purpose and Clay Jannon, the bookstore clerk, is not supposed to know that. But the curiosity gets better of him. With the help of his friend ( a lady who works at Google ) and Google’s tech-tools, Jannon tries to figure out the true story behind this unusual bookstore full of books containing gibberish.

Robin Sloan provides interesting glimpses of a modern metropolitan life, and pervasiveness and potential of technology. However, the story takes a formulaic path in the end and is only salvaged by the characterisation and the narrative.