What belongs to You by Garth Greenwell is a novel about the intimacy and friendship of an English teacher and a male prostitute, Mitko, in Bulgaria. It follows their encounter in a public bathroom, and then continued encounters in other cities, other homes, until they become more than simply strangers. However, during their encounter in a different city, they fight after Mitko brushes off sex multiple times in a hotel room. The narrator believes he’s owed something after paying for the trip while Mitko grows angry because he feels he’s seen only as an object. Mitko soon promises to never see the narrator again. For a time they go their separate ways, until one day as the narrator is teaching English, he gets a note telling him his father is about to die. This thread pulls out the narrator’s past, describing his fathers disdain for him sexuality. When he was still a child, the narrator befriended and then kissed another boy, K. Though, after the kiss, K pulls away from the narrator, starts dating a girl, and, in the final glimpse of the memory, he watches as K and the girl kiss and then is given a blowjob as a way to tell the narrator that he isn’t gay. He becomes estranged from his father, from K, and what he feels is the rest of the US. The narrator, after the memories resurface decides against seeing his father before he dies by throwing away the note. The narrative returns a few years later, where the narrator has a loose relationship with a Columbian guy, but it all comes into question when Mitko shows up at the narrator’s door. Mitko tells him he has syphilis, shows him his penis for proof, and asks for money for treatment. This later encounter shows Mitko at a much lower point, where for a few months he had to be hospitalized. The narrator decides to get tested, of which he’s told it’s positive and he soon gets pills to take. Then his mother visits him in Bulgaria and they take a train where he watches and talks to a boy who reminds him of Mitko, possibly a version of Mitko before things went wrong. Finally, one night Mitko comes knocking on the narrator's door again but this time he’s high and drunk. He confesses he’s going to die, so they lay down for a few minutes, holding each other, before the narrator soon cuts Mitko off and tells him to leave. In the last moments he watches Mitko as he walks into the night.
The novel is structured in three parts, meeting Mitko the first few times and the small fall out, the walk and memories of his father and his childhood, and finally the illness and decline of Mitko. This structure evokes the idea that the narrator sees Mitko as a strong and loud figure (re: the scene in the hotel) in the beginning, but soon sees a man who has become weak and childlike (even explicitly paralleling the child on the train to Mitko). In his mind, the narrator also sees two versions of Mitko, the charismatics and simple natured friend, and the hustler simply looking for money to say alive. These two versions pop up throughout and battle, at times hating Mitko and believing he is just taking advantage of the narrator, and other times really loving him. I loved the interiority of the novel, how easily the narrative flows, and the complexity of the narrator's feelings. Overall it was a heart wrenching and deeply emotional novel that I will certainly be returning to.
Final Rating: 5/5
Review of Bestiary by K-Ming Chang
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang is about a girl who grows a tiger tail, and has magical things occur in and around her: rabbits birthing from her Agong, a girl she likes with a caged bird shadow, an aunt with snakes in her stomach, her brother flying like a kite, and holes that spit up letters from her ama. The voice, imagery, and metaphor are powerful and distinct. The poeticism of the novel works so well in creating a language of the family, their shared legends, and their relationships. There are exquisite lines in the novel, such as, “In wartime, land is measure by the bones it can bury.”
It is an expertly, and a heartbreakingly raw story about a daughter in understanding herself, her queerness, her family, and where she fits in it all. Themes of water (oceans, rivers, blood) act as causeways and tributaries into larger ideas, threading and relating each moment. The writing, while its own distinct being, is reminiscent of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous in how language is mulled over with meaning imbued into every seam of every sentence. There are striking and powerful moments with Old Guang and Ah Zheng as pirates, and her brother on the ledge of a building about to jump off. I was thoroughly impressed with Chang’s mastery of language and hope to read her other stuff in the future.
Final Rating: 5/5
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a novel that focuses on the harrowing, painful, and bittersweet moments of four friends in New York. Though, of course, the novel is so much more than the relationships of the friends because it is about their experiences, their pasts that will not leave them, and their desires to build something after they have dealt with a tremendous amount of turmoil. And while, the novel’s other characters, Willem, JB, and Malcolm inhibit and direct the narrative, at its core, the novel is about Jude. Jude’s childhood is devastating, and he has been taken advantage of at every turn of his life by Brother Luke, Dr. Traylor, the counselors, and a countless amount of other men. So devastating, that Jude cuts himself, tries to kill himself, and shuts down around the people he loves.
It is truly a difficult (due to the subject matter) and terribly sad novel to read. Though, it felt that the approach that Yanagihara took with rape, suicide, and violence was well thought out and powerful. It describes the limitless nature of love, the horrors of the world, and what it means to be imperfect. And while it is a larger piece of fiction, the passages were written so smoothly that I found some days I read over a hundred pages, but only felt like I read twenty. Yanagihara expertly crafts language, moments, feelings, prose, and time to create something undeniably life changing. It made me cry, and heart-warmed when Jude finally tells his boyfriend, Willem, about his past in the closet. They sit there, they exist, and they know that there will only be love between them in that moment. This is one of the best novels I’ve read, and I don’t think I can recommend it enough.
Final Rating: 5/5
Time Is A Mother by Ocean Vuong is a poetry collection which delves into the aftermath of the speaker’s mother, his queerness, and what it means to exist in America as Asian. The sophomore poetry collection is heavy in its use of themes, lyricality, and overall metaphor, that I was astounded with Vuong’s handle of language. The poetry bleeds, and it’s hard to put into words the length the collection works to show the wounds and contemplation that Vuong has imbued in each poem.
More particularly, I was drawn to ‘Dear Rose’, which is one of the last poems in the collection and begins in the same way that ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ does using the line, “Let me begin again now”. In this way, it both contributes/continues the narrative from ‘Gorgeous’, as if this loss has been eating away at the speaker the whole entire time. The poem itself has lines such as “are you reading this dear/reader are you my mom yet” that ache with the want of his mother, something us, the reader, will never be able to give. The speaker knows this, but still he asks because it is the only thing he can do. Vuong delves into masculinity and the way we use language to mimic that of war in ‘Old Glory’ and ‘American Legend’. I recall reading ‘Künstlerroman’ in Freeman’s: Change and still I gravitate to the piece, and its line “The cake on the table, air returning to the boy’s pursed lips and the seven candles, one by one, begin to light, and the wish returns to his head where it’s truer for never being touched by language.” This desire and hope and sadness are all of what the speaker has left once their mother has left them. The collection ends with the line “& I was free.” which is the one final grief-filled note that, in many ways feels like there is something after all of the pain that the speaker has endured.
It is a beautiful, powerful, and tactful collection of poems that will stay with me for a long time.
Final Rating: 5/5
The Immortals of Tehran by Ali Araghi is a novel that encompasses the breadth of an Iranian family and the conflicts they become involved in. It’s a novel about family, magic, relationships, politics, war, and is written in the same vein and voice that a weaving family history would be told in. The story mainly focuses on Ahmad, a son who can’t speak after he is forced to shoot his father, where he learns what it means to exist within conflict. Araghi is able to create a sweeping narrative that captures magic found within the family’s curse of living forever, the burning ability of Ahmad’s poetry, and the flowers created after a musician plays songs. The magic adds curiosity, suspension, and all felt wonderful within the world that Araghi builds.
I was especially impressed with how Araghi navigates the death of one of the immortal characters, Agha. Reading the portions where Agha observes himself to be dead and a celebration/funeral is thrown in his honor is surreal. And I felt the finality of setting Agha back in his tree, where he will reside in forever, was a fitting and bittersweet moment with both Ahmad and his grandfather, Khan. I also found the tie in with the story about the cats in the beginning added an air of legend to an already mythical story. Finally, in the last few pages of the novel, the narrator, in a way, identifies themselves which, not only adds to its parallelism with the cat story, but becomes a story about a story. This feels like a story that a grandpa tells their grandson, something passed so delicately from one mouth to another about how the family came to be. And for that, I loved it.
Final Rating: 5/5
Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar is a collection of poems that questions, asserts, and plays with the speaker’s place in religion, family, and America. Akbar works to create a narrative that, in a sense, is fearful of God, but soon traces his fear, not to God, but to the Americans he is surrounded by. Akbar writes about how he immigrated to America from Iran, being Muslim, and is continuously questioned and berated by people who despise him for no reason. The starkest of this is in the repeated lines, “At his elementary school in an American suburb,/a boy’s shirt says: “We Did It to Hiroshima, We Can Do It to Tehran!””. I loved the way Akbar is able to draw upon what we believe children, and the innocence that is associated with childhood, to be and defile that thinking with complete hatred given to the boy by his parents. It speaks to a much greater and sadder reality of the positive feedback loop of xenophobia in America.
Though, I found the poem that struck a deep chord in me was in ‘How Prayers Work’ where Akbar and his brother attempt to pray but his brother trips over a doorstop and they laugh uncontrollably. The final stanza was what blew me away. “It’s not that we forgot God or the martyrs or the Prophet’s holy word—quite the opposite, in fact, we were boys built to love what was right in front of our faces: my brother and I draped across each other, laughing tears into our prayer rugs.” This, I felt was the turning point in his understanding of Islam, and thus worked to show him that religion was much more than what he was taught. I found the repeated used of the different ‘Pilgrim Bell’ poems worked to keep a rhythm, both inside the stanzas with shorter, choppier phrases, and also in the collection as a whole being interspersed periodically. I also loved the poems ‘Reza’s Restaurant, Chicago, 1997’, ‘In the Language of Mammon’, ‘There is No Such Thing as an Accident of the Spirit’, and ‘Seven Years Sober’. This collection was powerful, heartfelt, and worked to create a sense of longing for family, religion, and peace within the self.
Final Rating: 5/5
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong is a collection of poetry detailing the life of a gay Vietnamese immigrant. In it, he grapples with encounters he’s had with other men and what they mean, the origin of him and his family, and works all those moments into understanding religion and the self. Not only is Vuong highly skilled at creating a satisfying and beautiful narrative arc, but he is also tidy and imaginative with his mastery of prose. In ‘Because It’s Summer’ Vuong writes, “you want/to tell him it’s okay that the night is also a grave/we climb out of but he’s already fixing his collar the cornfield a cruelty steaming/with manure you smear your neck with”. His words are so exact in this collection, and the imagery refracts back on itself in new and imaginative ways. I was also astounded when reading ‘Aubade with Burning City’ where Vuong so powerfully juxtaposes the song of ‘White Christmas’ that played to signify the evacuation of Vietnam with the stark chaos and pain and sadness the Americans caused. It ends so heavily with the words, “In the square below: a nun, on fire,/runs silently toward her god—/Open, he says./She opens.” Other amazing highlights include ‘Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952’, ‘Notebook Fragments’, and ‘Prayer for the Newly Damned’. This collection is deftly honest, powerful, raw, and above all, beautiful.
Final Rating: 5/5
Review of When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen is a collection of poems centering around what it means to be Chinese American, gay, and grappling with parents that do not accept him. At times it is humorous, and other times his deeply serious about his desires.
In its penultimate poem, and, I think, the heart of the collection, ‘Poem in Noisy Mouthfuls’ works to dismantle and push back against the narrative that, “All you write about is/being gay or Chinese.” by refuting, “Wish I had thought to say to him, All you write about is/being white/or an asshole. Wish I had said, No, I already write about/everything—“. This discussion of writing exclusively about being Asian has cropped up before, and I feel that Chen Chen defies that in a powerful way.
Other poems I was deeply moved by were ‘Race to the Tree’, ‘Talented Human Being’, ‘Second Thoughts on a Winter Afternoon’, ‘Didier Et Zizou’, and ‘Chapter VIII’. Chen Chen has a unique, at times abrasive, but always authentic, voice. The collection works initially to show the wound that is created by Chen Chen’s family and the Chinese society around him. Though, throughout the collection he grows to understand himself and his sexuality through the lines, “The parents wait for the child to become a western bird,/but the child/keeps leaking into a northern lake.” The collection works to challenge white heteronormative narritives, parental expectations, Chinese traditions, death, sexuality, and the power structures each contain. I absolutely admired this collection.
Final Rating: 5/5
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is structured as a letter from a Vietnamese American son to his mother about their relationship and his understanding of his sexuality. And through this letter, the speaker, Little Dog, grapples with what it means to be Asian and how families seemingly pass on their trauma onto their children. Though, Vuong allows for the story to burst from its spine, in that it goes far beyond its written word.
Vuong began as a poet, and his use of prose seem so natural and poignant that it only amplifies the novel’s meaning. There are, in fact, chapters that both read and are formed as poems. He is able to twist vast metaphors and weave in beautifully intricate images that the moments feel vivid and real. There are moments that are revisited and remixed into a kaleidoscope of urgent moments that made me nearly cry while reading at a laundromat. The earnestness of Little Dog forces the reader to feel like you are the mother meant to read the letter, which intrinsically creates an ‘in’ for the reader.
Not only does Vuong create such vivid images, he is also able to anchor the narrative in real world events and moments. This is the case in his use of Tiger Woods, the buffalo in nature documentaries, and the opioid crisis.
I am sure in only reading the novel once, I have missed out on layers of nuanced meaning. One thing that I had nearly missed was that Little Dog, when he talked about his mother abusing him, he switched to a third-person point of view. Things like that show both Little Dog wanted to separate himself from the story, and also protect his mother from fully comprehending what she did to her son.
There are so many things to say about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, but I think that would pale in comparison to the novel itself. If there is only ever one book you need to read, then I believe this is the one.
Final Rating: 5/5
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a story about a double agent working for his communist comrades in the United States after the fall of Saigon. The novel details the inner workings of a man with a shallow attachment to the United States, and a hidden one to the communist party. From first leaving Viet Nam, to then hiding out in Southern California, the protagonist secretly communicates with a childhood friend, Man, with all the intel he can recover from the American veterans after they left.
To try and not be discovered by his American counterparts, the protagonist has to go to great lengths of concealing who he actually is. These acts range from subtle things to more devastating event, like killing a mis-identified communist. While in America, the protagonist notes that many of the veterans come home without a purpose; they have become janitors, and shopkeepers and nothing what they believe themselves to be.
Then, to try and represent the Vietnamese people as best as possible, the protagonist agrees to help with the filming of a movie that occurs in the Philippines. Soon, the protagonist is caught up in both trying to portray his countrymen accurately and realizes the brutality of the film itself. Though, because of the duality of his identity, many of these contradictions are tossed away, as he believes that he is solely of communist blood.
The final act of the novel brings both the American veterans and the protagonist back to Viet Nam for one final and intense stand. The mentality of the veterans going felt that their dignity had been stripped of them and would much rather die on enemy soil than half-exist in America. However, this does not bode well for them as after a mine explosion, presumed to be set by the Americans years before, and a fire fight, the protagonist is captured.
After revealing his communist status to the prison camp, he is placed in isolation and forced to write a confession. The protagonist is utterly willing to give them as much as they want, but it is not enough for the commandant. Eventually, he is brought to the final stages of his torture, sleep deprivation, to elicit the true confession the prison camp leaders are looking for. It is also revealed that it is Man, his childhood friend, that is the protagonist’s torturer. And while at face value it seems like a betrayal, Man explains he is saving the protagonist. The torture, after an unexplainable amount of time, soon uncovers what the protagonist is unable to remember: a rape he witnessed. The protagonist, in his madman state soon understands the contradictory phrase: “while nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom!” Upon his reeducation, the protagonist leaves the prison camp with one of the other survivors, Bon.
The novel is packed so heavily with imagery and metaphor that it is no surprise how intricate and meaningful each passage feels. Instances such as when the woman is being raped, her name is “Viet Nam”, which acts as metaphor for the Americans coming into Viet Nam and destroying and raping the land and people. Or the imagery of the protagonist tied to a mattress during his torture, plays right into the parallel of the image of his birth from his mother—essentially signifying his rebirth. The amount of complexities and issues the story manages to explain and intuit is both astonishing and commendable.
Death is a huge factor in The Sympathizer as well as the effects of war. The novel shows that first, no man can play both sides of a war and come out unscathed. The second is the question if someone is fighting another for independence and freedom, then certainly someone’s freedom is removed, in which case, that contradicts itself. And maybe, Nguyen was trying to hint at the unabashed contradictions of the fighting Americans. In doing so, Nguyen has brought a critical eye to the actions and events of the Americans during the Viet Nam war.
Final Rating: 5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.