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On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

A Novel
Written by: Ocean Vuong
Narrated by: Ocean Vuong
Length: 7 hrs and 19 mins
5 out of 5 stars (28 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction! 

An instant New York Times Best Seller! 

Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal! 

Named one of the most anticipated books of 2019 by Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Oprah.com, Huffington Post, The A.V. Club, Nylon, The Week, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, and more.

“A lyrical work of self-discovery that’s shockingly intimate and insistently universal…Not so much briefly gorgeous as permanently stunning.” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

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 20s, 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. 

“An epistolary ­masterpiece.... Fearless, revelatory, extraordinary.” (Library Journal, starred review) 

“Casting a truly literary spell, Vuong's tale of language and origin, beauty and the power of story, is an enrapturing first novel.” (Booklist, starred review)

©2019 Ocean Vuong (P)2019 Penguin Audio

What the critics say

“[Vuong’s] first foray into fiction is poetic in the deepest sense - not merely on the level of language, but in its structure and its intelligence.... The result is an uncategorizable hybrid of what reads like memoir, bildungsroman, and book-length poem. More important than labels, though, is the novel's earnest and open-hearted belief in the necessity of stories and language for our survival. A raw and incandescently written foray into fiction by one of our most gifted poets.” (Kirkus, starred review)

“A bruised, breathtaking love letter never meant to be sent. A powerful testimony to magic and loss. A marvel.” (Marlon James, author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous will be described - rightly - as luminous, shattering, urgent, necessary. But the word I keep circling back to is raw: that's how powerful the emotions here are, and how you'll feel after reading it - scoured down to bone. With a poet's precision, Ocean Vuong examines whether putting words to one's experience can bridge wounds that span generations, and whether it's ever possible to be truly heard by those we love most.” (Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere)  

“This book - gorgeous is right there in the title - finds incredible, aching beauty in the deep observation of love in many forms. Ocean Vuong's debut novel contains all the power of his poetry, and I finished the book knowing that we are seeing only the very beginning of his truly magnificent talent.” (Emma Straub, author of Modern Lovers and The Vacationers)  

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Enigmatic and perplexing, in a good way!

Reading On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous is akin to admiring a piece of art, acknowledging the genius of certain aspects, failing to understand other ambiguous components, but ultimately concluding that it was, at the end of the day, indeed something special.

I confess that there are aspects of this book that I did not connect with, or moved through too fast to fully grasp what Vuong was trying to say. As well, Gorgeous has an enigmatic and perplexing structure that is representative of the mind of a poet, where nothing is linear, everything is circular, everything is connected, and the most unexpected emotions and memories flare up at any given time.

Regardless, this is definitely a book I will return to in time - I was confused, I was frustrated, I was overwhelmed, I was moved, I was awed by the author’s literary talent.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Beautiful writing

Very descriptive. I wish it was broken into shorter sections because you need to savour every word.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Truly beautiful !

Vuong’s prose is a work of art. This is a sweeping saga that expands and contracts like a beating heart, told with Vuong’s seemingly innate sense of rhythm and metaphor. A genuine soul-baring account of a boyhood adrift in contradiction.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars

I felt like a real human being listening to this

I am listening to the person as much as to the story.  I had to buy this after I heard the sample of Ocean Vuong's voice writing a letter to mother. I was crushed. I had to hear more. I had to take it slow, in small pieces and in private because hearing the words I couldn't walk. I had to kneel weeping. At first. I couldn't bear it but this grieving son had to have his sadness. At least it's real and I felt close to my mother hearing Ocean. Every son loves his mother. Maybe because of this book I was able to the second time release the last of my  mother's crushed bones in the river.

By 'performance' I mean narration: 5/5. I thought the author-narrator was a woman until the story progressed. It didn't matter. Ocean's voice is perfect for the subjects.

By 'overall'  I mean the writing: 5/5. Poetic. Believable. I am there. Even if it isn't a true story it has to be true. Co-incidentally, I lost my mum to the anguish, frustration and fear of dementia. Then the raw slow grip of death. I will never know what part her doctors' prescriptions for anti-psychotics and many years of oxycodone played.

By 'story' I mean content: 4/5 This book is not gay literature and I hope the author refuses to accept any such writing awards of that label. It is about a man's coming to terms with who he is, about his relationship with his lover, and his respect for his gramma and his mum (who has a character fault - so did mine, whose doesn't and who doesn't?)

The only reason I took off one point is because the graphic descriptions of sex and sexual attraction. Even if affectionate more often than raw (there is only  one truly  'get down and dirty' episode, a small minority of the book), well... how to put thus honestly and respectfully...  as one psychiatrist from Montreal points out, sexuality isn't about 'preferences' so much as it's about the clear line, the disgust factor. For me, it's any cocks in the story other than my own or a sympathetic protaganist doing the fucking with a female (get used to Anglo-Saxon vulgarities mixed with Latinate high-brow in the book too).

But more that than I couldn't see the appeal of macho Trevor, even for Ocean. But, mostly just the details of Trevor's body and sex I could do without. Yet, that wouldn't be fair. The author is the author and this is his genuine experience. It has been a few hundred (thousand?) years of men who aren't the slightest bit interested in breeder couple love-making scenes in movies. They too must have been squirming or like myself ignoring it all ir trying hard to appreciate it on some level. They haven't been throwing up all over the place. So, lesson learned. 

The good news is that sex is not the overwhelming part of the book, but it *is* a significant part so I had to as if change my mental gears to neutral and focus on the emotions which could be anyone's, including my own. Ultimately, with all the sex, it's still a love story, of desire, seduction, play, pleasure and loss. And from a male perspective - so I can certainly relate to it better than a formulaic female romance novel.

And although on the level of feeling the following didn't bother me, intellectually/ politically it did: the boys are 14 and 16 at the beginning of the story (something like that). I am happy for them. But not completely. I am in fact envious. Why?


Where is the fiction or literature with erotic elements written from the POV of a young girl and her lust and love for her slightly older barely of-majority male (or for that matter, female) lover? Whenever a few works appear there is outrage from the academy and censorship from sponsors. Effectively, statistically, such a genre doesn't exist!   Now, obviously I  don't blame the author for social standards (and double standards in law) but it still bugs me - that this erotic aesthetic that skirts the edges of propriety is accepted in the homosexual world (and by heterosexuals of the homosexual world) but not by heterosexuals in the heterosexual world. There is a double standard in life as in art. I am guessing that there is also tolerance for these kinds of stories among lesbians. Maybe it is something as prosaic as straight men don't read. But I think there is more to it. And more sinister.

Conclusion: get over it and congratulate the author.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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interesting book

very well written book about coming of age as a gay immigrant kid. Quite impressive for a first novel.

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  • David
  • 2019-06-13

I never write reviews

I never (and I mean never) write reviews, but Vuong's new memoir is so remarkable that I couldn't help myself. This book is as moving and profound as his earlier collections, yet he's managed to blend poetic form and traditional narrative in a way so original and beautiful that you can't help but be held so still by his words.

30 of 32 people found this review helpful

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  • StJohn
  • 2019-07-07

Hmmmm.....

Can a book be too poetic ? So many beautiful sentences that it all runs together and nothing stands out? I’m conflicted. Part of me loves it and part of me thinks it was all just too much.

15 of 16 people found this review helpful

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  • LJ
  • 2019-06-23

Transforming Shrapnel into Art

Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese-American writer, has made “art out of the shrapnel” of the Vietnam War.

Originally, the author spoke little English in the American city of Hartford. A “yellow” little boy, he tells us, he pieces together a humble life reflecting on how his different appearance matches a different sexual desire. This wanting and longing informs a large portion of the middle section of the book.

His writing has a fragile tenacity: the slightest observation is rendered palpable and visceral by his poetic skill which comes at you from so many angles that it is like a gentle assault. An assault that slaps your senses into the power of language to create beauty and reflect on the essential nature of our brief lives.

This epistolary novel, a letter to his mother, reflects on his early insecurities, inchoate understanding of his wanting another, the loss of his protective but schizophrenic maternal grandmother, and his mother’s PTSD whose main symptom is her violence against him.

There are so many metaphors that provoke reverie, but one moment of the novel revolves around the words, “I’m sorry, “ and I almost wept for the powerless among us. Those who are sold prescription pain killers which are addictive only to be blamed for this or those who work too many hours for too little pay. But when one considers death, then powerlessness would include us all. The glorious resolution of this sorrow is to be seen for one brief moment (a life). This gorgeous prose from a brilliant writer affirms dignity in the power of language to transform shrapnel into art. Bravo!

13 of 14 people found this review helpful

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  • Lauren
  • 2019-06-09

beautiful

will read again and again. language like a tide, cradles and crashes against you. great perspective for writers as well.

18 of 21 people found this review helpful

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  • NB
  • 2019-06-10

Beautifully written, but painful.

Beautifully written, but so depressing. Warning: a description of terrible animal torture that makes the whole book worth skipping. Traumatizing. Not recommended.

74 of 95 people found this review helpful

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  • C. B.
  • 2019-06-05

Beautifully written

Really beautiful writing. The flow is like poetry. The author does a great job with narration.

17 of 23 people found this review helpful

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  • Justin
  • 2019-10-16

Absolutely Gorgeous

This book will leave you feeling all kinds of emotions. It’ll be hard to tell whether you’re sad, happy, and you’ll likely be crying all the same. It’s absolutely beautiful.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • BP
  • 2019-07-11

Listen to this one.

Poetry, and yet, its prose. Such excellent visual presentation by a gifted poet! Not an easily listened to work, but an eye opener! I doubt anyone other than the author could have read this book.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Claudia
  • 2019-06-14

The last 1/2 of this book was so depressing!

I enjoyed the first two segments. I enjoyed hearing about the work he got during the summer, but then was lost in the blur of his homosexual firsts. After that it was sad, horrific and depressing. Nothing learned and no hope for the future.

14 of 21 people found this review helpful

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  • Dianne
  • 2019-07-20

Fractured Story

I really wanted to like this story as I was eager to hear about a real Viatamese family growing up before and after the war and their struggles in America. However, the authors style of intertwining many different stories and timelines made it hard to follow. Also, the character development of Travis was shallow. The long descriptions and analogies went on and on and were hard to follow. I was tempted to not finish the book after the graphic description of the sex act with Travis which added little to the story for me . The descriptions of the sites were often flowery and poetic but very long and didn't fit in with the culture . Overall, the story line was fractured and left me not knowing what kind of a person Little Dog or Travis were, although Lan and Rose's characters were pretty well developed. Also, I was left with little hope for Little Dog and a deep sadness.

4 of 6 people found this review helpful