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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
Categories: LGBT, Literature & Fiction
4.6 out of 5 stars (64 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

An instant New York Times Best Seller! 

Longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal in Fiction, the 2019 Aspen Words Literacy Prize, and the PEN/Hemingway Debut Novel Award

Shortlisted for the 2019 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Winner of the 2019 New England Book Award for Fiction! 

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. 

Named a Best Book of the Year by: GQ, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Library Journal, Time, Esquire, The Washington Post, Apple, Good Housekeeping, The New Yorker, The New York Public Library, Elle.com, The Guardian, The A.V. Club, NPR, Lithub, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue.com, The San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, and more!

©2019 Ocean Vuong (P)2019 Penguin Audio

What the critics say

“Vuong writes about the yearning for connection that afflicts immigrants. But ‘ocean’ also describes the distinctive way Vuong writes: His words are liquid, flowing, rolling, teasing, mighty and overpowering. When Vuong’s mother gave him the oh-so-apt name of Ocean, she inadvertently called into being a writer whose language some of us readers could happily drown in.... Like so many immigrant writers before him, Vuong has taken the English he acquired with difficulty and not only made it his own - he’s made it better.” (Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air)

“In order to survive, Little Dog has to receive and reject another kind of violence, too: he must see his mother through the American eyes that scan her for weakness and incompetence and, at best, disregard her, the way that evil spirits might ignore a child named for a little dog. There is a staggering tenderness in the way that Little Dog holds all of this within himself, absorbing it and refusing to pass it on. Reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous can feel like watching an act of endurance art, or a slow, strange piece of magic in which bones become sonatas, to borrow one of Vuong’s metaphors.” (Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker)

“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)

“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 listeners say about On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Average Customer Ratings
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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.

3 people found this helpful

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Beautiful writing

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

2 people found this 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.

2 people found this helpful

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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 person found this helpful

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Beautiful book

This is one of the most incredible books that I have ever read. The writing is poetic and the story is incredible

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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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  • susan marlatt
  • 2019-12-06

Clearly a poet

As a poet, his writing is luminous. As a storyteller, he is more muddled. Individual parts are heartbreakingly beautiful but the arc of story is continuously interrupted and confusing. His narration is clear but flat almost monotone.

12 people found this helpful

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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.

46 people found this helpful

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  • Lucas Sweeney
  • 2019-11-15

Didn't Finish - Couldn't Take the Audio

Just because the author wants to narrate their own book on audio doesn't mean you should let them. I found it maudlin, faint, cloying, and ultimately book-ruining. Basically the opposite of other great author-narrated books like Florida (Lauren Groff) and Angela's Ashes (Frank McCourt). I'll read it instead.

22 people found this helpful

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  • Hope Cohn
  • 2019-09-26

Ocean Vuong Should Not Narrate His Books

The author should not narrate his books. He writes beautifully and while his voice maybe suitable for reading poetry, he speaks in such a monotone, with no variation or inflection, that I found it impossible to listen to the book. What a shame!

28 people found this 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!

28 people found this 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.

23 people found this helpful

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  • chris
  • 2019-09-17

Important, crushing and beautifully poetic book

This isn’t an easy story. If you want to feel good, you probably should look elsewhere. If the exploration of intersectionality and the often painful ways that gender, sexuality, race and nationality might impact one’s experience of life is interesting to you, this is well worth the read. Mental illness, trauma and drug abuse are all present in this story. It is difficult to read and it is a crushing and beautifully poetic book. i found the first third required patience and the narration performance wasn’t my favorite. I would probably prefer to read this than listen to it.

4 people found this helpful

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  • Joanne
  • 2019-08-18

Only Slightly Gorgeous

Thought what's wrong with me that I didn't love this novel and was relieved when it was finished. But after reading the Audible reviews see that I'm not alone. First the narration is so monotone and whispery. Definitely poetic in form and not typical fiction. Loved a previous reviewers comment that "sometimes a bloody nose is a bloody nose and a glass of milk is just a glass of milk". Also the novel keeps skipping around in time and I wasn't always quite sure where we were. Obviously this is not a feel good novel but that is not the purpose of all literature. War, prejudice, poverty, drug addiction etc., etc. are real and can and should be artfully portrayed. Real life can be heart breaking. Getting a pedicure or eating veal will never be the same.

4 people found this helpful

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  • HeyJude
  • 2019-10-15

Deeply introspective...

Poetic in style, disturbing at times, extremely graphic in a necessary way that has its own beauty, effortless prose nearly dreamlike. Definitely complicated. This is an introspective’s telling and as a highly introspective empath, I found myself getting caught up in the emotions that Little Dog expounds on throughout the telling. So dark and haunting, possessing only rarely any joyful experiences... and they’re still draped in a sort of suffering. You ache for these people. You want to rescue them, hold them, tell them to hang on. But in the end what you witness is a sort of insistent strength and resilience. Those who pick this book up will be taken on quite the ride.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Andrew
  • 2019-07-15

A strong debut novel

Ocean Vuong's history is in poetry and that certainly shows. The prose is incredibly poetic and emotional, with strong use of imagery and metaphor. Vuong's performance is based in deeply felt emotion, but is one note of generic emotional vulnerability through the entire novel, which can be repetitive and boring. The story is interesting- a long letter from a son to his mother detailing their lives of poverty, abuse, and pain. As a queer Asian American, I relate to the story on a much deeper level than most, but I don't think enjoyment of the story hinges on your sexuality and race. Basically, even if you're straight and white, this is gonna pull at your heart. It's a great first try and I'm looking forward to hearing more from him.

3 people found this helpful