Sally Rooney: Normal People

Sally Rooney’s coming-of-age novel explores the complexities of love, sex, heartbreak, class, and abuse. Marianne and Connell went to the same high school. They hardly spoke to each other in public. In private, however, they had unspoken intimacy. Marianne was confident in her own skin. Connell was popular, but had his insecurities. Despite their differences, they appreciated each other’s company. Their relationship went through different stages as they navigated life. Rooney’s writing is simple, poignant, and seductive. Even without the use of quotation marks around dialogues, the flow is never interrupted. It’s a damn guilty-pleasure read.

Isabel Wilkerson: Caste

With her meticulous research and articulate storytelling, Isabel Wilkerson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, unearths the unspoken caste system in America. Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is a four-hundred-year-old social system that separates people according to their ranks. The higher caste has more privilege, power, and entitlement over the lower caste.

Before reading this book, I wondered why caste and not race or class. After reading it, I understand why caste makes complete sense to break down the complexity of the injustice system in America. For example, policemen of color, including a Japanese-American officer in Oklahoma, a Chinese-American officer in New York City, and a Muslim-American officer in Minneapolis, were charged of brutality whereas cases from upper-caste officers were dismissed.

From London to India, from the rise of Obama to the phenomenal of Trump, from historical documents to personal accounts, Wilkerson has skillfully pieced together all the details to create a coherent picture of the caste system. It is an important, eye-opening book that helps explain the injustice of the past as well as the presence. I highly recommend it.

Jean Kyoung Frazier: Pizza Girl

This is a gripping debut novel about a pregnant, half-Korean-half-White eighteen years old dealing with grief, alcohol, and relationships. Instead of applying to colleges, she delivers pizza. She is funny and curses like a sailor. Her story started out carefree and witty but progressed into a much darker territory. Frazier’s compelling storytelling combined with street literature make her writing so damn refreshing. From profanity to humanity to sensuality, it’s a moving read. I loved every sentence.

Lily King: Writers & Lovers

Casey is a thirty-one-year-old aspiring writer. She works as a waitress and spends six years writing her novel. Lily King writes beautifully about love and loss, dating and writing, and passion and determination. I loved the pace, the writing, and the moving narration. The story lingers on after the book has closed. It’s a page-turning, soul-soothing read.

Lately, I have been hooked on reading fiction thanks to Elisabeth Egan. I just picked up whatever she recommended for her “Group Text” column in the New York Times and so far her I have loved every novel she had chosen. I wish New York Times has a section for “Group Text” so it would be easy for readers to follow. The only way to get to Ms. Egan’s column is to Google it.

Việt Thanh Nguyễn: The Sympathizer (Reread)

I first read this book three years ago, but I struggled to grab the story. Not just this book alone but I had a hard time following any work of fiction. My reading interests were mostly none-fiction until the pandemic hit. Being locked down, I wanted to read books I could escape; therefore, I turned to fiction. The more I read fiction, the more my imagination seemed to open up. As a result, I decided to reread this book and I am glad I did.

I read it at a slower pace. If I got lost few paragraphs in, I would reread the paragraphs to make sure I understood what went on. At times, the dialogs can be confusing because Nguyễn omitted quotation marks. It took me a while to get used to who was doing the talking. I also had a cantankerous quibble with the omission of diacritics in Vietnamese words. For example, du me lacks the expressiveness of đụ mẹ (fuck you). The underdots add tremendous weight to the foul language. In addition, I could not figure out the two characters’ name. Without diacritics, Man and Bon don’t sound like Vietnamese names to me. They might as well be M and B.

Nevertheless, Việt Thanh Nguyễn’s The Sympathizer is a well-written novel and a well-deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a lot unpack, but they story about the squid stuck in my mind. I am not sure if I can ever see a squid without seeing what it had described in the book. In any rate, it is definitely worth a reread if you couldn’t get into it the first time. I am definitely looking forward to reading the sequel, The Committed, which will release in March 2021.

Sofie Beier: Type Tricks

Sofie Beier’s Type Tricks is a pocket guide that examines the ins-and-outs details of the letterforms. With over 200 tips, including some (but not all) Vietnamese diacritics, Beier covers the basic rules any new type designer must master. Concise explanations and clear illustrations make this book not only an essential guide for type designers, but also a useful reference for typographers who want to make better typographic choices.

Patrik Svensson: The Book of Eels

Part research, part memoir, Patrik Svensson’s The Book of Eels is a wondrous, poignant read. Svensson delves into the laborious study of one of the most mysterious creatures on the planet. One of its standout characteristics is patience—something we could learn from them. Svensson’s personal connection with eels started when his father took him to eel fishing when he was a kid. They bonded over eels and his father loved to eat eels, which were mostly deep fried or steamed.

Speaking of eel dishes, Svensson needs to pay Vietnam a visit. We have over 20 eel dishes that will change his perspective on eels. My personal favorites include eel hotpot (lẩu lươn), stir-fried eel (lươn xào lăn), braised eel with lemongrass (lươn kho sả ớt), and sweet and sour eel soup (canh lươn nấu bạc hà). Then again, the extinction of eels is worrisome. Maybe we shouldn’t be eating eels anymore. The book has more details on this issue.

If you are into natural history and curious about eels, this is the book to read.

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police

In Yoko Ogawa’s dark, dystopian island, objects disappeared one by one and having memory was a crime. Anyone who had any memory would be interrogated and arrested by the Memory Police and no one knew where they took them. Anything that brought memory must be destroyed. Books were burned. Calendars were vanished. Eventually anything that had form must be gone. It’s a remarkably bleak and chilling read. I often have a difficult time following a work of nonfiction, but I could read this book the whole way through without being lost thanks to Ogawa’s superb storytelling and Stephen Snyder’s outstanding translation. Like the only survival in the book, the story will remain in my memory for a long time.

Samantha Harvey: The Shapeless Unease

Harvey couldn’t sleep after the unfortunate outcome of Brexit. Every time she closed her eyes, the image of her cousin who died alone in his apartment two days before anyone knew about his death. Her insomnia continued for a year. Unfortunately, I got lost in her subconscious writing. Since it is a short book, I read all the way through, but could only pick up bits and pieces about her visits to the doctor and her sleeping pills. Perhaps, my own insomnia had distracted me from the book. I might come back to it in the future for a second read.

Lâm Vân An: Ai cũng có những ngày tồi tệ

Tập truyện ngắn dựa vào đời sống và quan sát của tác giả Lâm Vân An trên đất Mỹ. Từ cách dạy con khác biệt giữa hai văn hóa đến những phán xét khác nhau giữa cô và người bạn Mỹ, Vân An có cái nhìn nhận phóng thoáng trong cuộc sống như cô viết về chứng bệnh “dán nhãn” (labeling):

Người dán nhãn, nghi kỵ dường như đã đánh mất khả năng nhìn cuộc đời một cách tươi sáng, tích cực, cuộc sống của họ dĩ nhiên là ngày càng nhàm chán. Tôi không cho mình là người trưởng thành, hay ho gì hơn ai nhưng rõ như ban ngày là tôi vừa mắc lỗi dán nhãn, nghi kỵ kẻ khác. Cả cơ thể tôi tê liệt vì sự xấu hổ ở đâu tràn đến, nhanh chóng lan khắp người.

Vân An lớn hơn tôi một tuổi và đã sinh sống trên hai mảnh đất Việt và Mỹ nên cũng có những cái nhìn giống nhau. Chúng tôi muốn nắm lấy cả hai văn hóa chứ không muốn phải xác định về phía nào như cha mẹ chồng trong bài “Trẻ con không nói dối.” Cách viết của Vân An thong thả, giản dị, và dễ gần. Tuy hơi dài dòng một tí nhưng đọc vẫn thấy vui và thú vị.