Vĩnh Quyền: Trong vô tận

Quyển tiểu thuyết ngắn với những câu chuyện khó hiểu. Mở đầu người kể chuyện là một thanh niên ở nước ngoài về Việt Nam thăm người cha đang bệnh nặng. Qua chương hai, người kể chuyện đổi sang người cha. Ông tường thuật lại quá khứ và những mối tình của mình. Chương ba trở lại người con rồi chuyển sang chuyện truyện cổ tích Lạc Long Quân và Âu Cơ rồi chuyển sang lịch sử chữ Nôm. Tôi theo không kịp nên đã bị tẩu hỏa nhập ma từ đó nhưng vẫn cố gắng đọc cho xong. Tôi không rõ cách dẫn truyện của tác giả và càng không hiểu ông muốn đạt mục đích gì. Xin đầu hàng. Chắc văn chương của tôi vẫn quá kém nên không hấp thụ hết.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

I picked up a used paperback copy of Anne Frank’s diary at a library book sale last year. I was not planning on reading it until the coronavirus shut down everything, including our public libraries. I didn’t get a chance to check out new books before the libraries closed out; therefore, I have to read what I have at home. The timing is sadly perfect. What’s a better book to read during a lockdown than The Diary of a Young Girl written by someone who was hiding on the second floor and the attic of a house with seven other people for two years?

Of course, I have heard of this book as far back as when I first migrated to America only for a few years and attended middle school. For some reason, I had the impression that the diary would be too depressing; therefore, I didn’t want to read it. I was wrong. Anne’s writing was lively, engaging, and unequivocal. From heart to soul, sorrow to joy, love to hate, sarcasm to enthusiasm, she bared everything on the page and her writing got better as she progressed.

Reading her diary at a time of a global pandemic helps put me into perspective. On September 28, 1942, Anne wrote: “Not being able to go outside upsets me more than I can say, and I am terrified our hiding place will be discovered and that we’ll be shot. That, of course, is fairly dismal prospect.” I am safe as long as I stay home and I can still go outside to get some fresh air without worrying about being captured or killed. I am avoiding the spread of coronavirus and not hiding from the people who wanted to take my life. If you have never read Anne Frank’s diary, now’s the time.

Huỳnh Trọng Khang: Những vọng âm nằm ngủ

Truyện được kể qua bà Sylvia Milosz, một cựu phóng viên người Mỹ sang Việt Nam làm việc vào thời chiến tranh. Bà yêu điên cuồng một chàng trai trẻ tên K. Bà kể lại những cảnh tình dục nóng bỏng, những cảnh hung bạo tàn sát, và những hậu quả về sau. Đây là lần đầu tiên tôi đọc truyện chiến tranh Việt Nam do một tác giả trong nước viết. Huỳnh Trọng Khang là một nhà văn rất trẻ (em sinh năm 1994) nên có những cái nhìn khác với những người đã sống trong bạo tàn của thời chinh chiến. Tuy nhiên đây là chuyện hư cấu và tác giả có những tưởng tượng quá xa vời gần như ảo giác. Viết rất khá. Tuy không mấy thích đọc sách tiểu thuyết nhưng tôi vẫn thưởng thức sách này. Hình như đây là sách thứ hai trong bộ ba tác phẩm vì tác giả cho biết còn tiếp và cuốn đầu, Mộ phần tuổi trẻ, tôi chưa đọc.

Bùi Văn Doanh: Quê ở đáy lòng

Bộ sưu tập đoản văn ngắn. Mỗi bài trung bình hai trang viết về những kỷ niệm nhỏ nhoi ở quê như cỏ, cá kho, hoặc hoa cau. Ông viết về nghỉ hè:

Tôi ngả mình trên nội cỏ. Bầu trời bỗng vụt cao lồng lộng và tôi bỗng cảm thấy bé nhỏ nhưng thanh thản như một đứa trẻ với kỳ nghỉ hè của chính mình.

Những bài viết nhẹ nhàng và đơn giản nhưng vì quá ngắn nên khi đọc bị gián đoạn, rời rạc, và không đủ thu hút.

Saeed Jones: How We Fight For Our Lives

What a weird coincidence that I was reading a book titled How We Fight For Our Lives in the midst of a pandemic. Although Jones’s memoir has nothing to do with the danger of the Coronavirus, it has everything to do with the danger of being a gay black boy growing up in Texas. Jones writes:

Being black can get you killed.
Being gay can get you killed.
Being a black gay boy is a death wish.

With his lyrical prose and unflinching honesty, Jones opened up about his body and sexuality. His raw, explicit, violent writing is tough to read, and yet even tougher to stop reading. He confessed:

At times, I was proud of my sluttiness. I liked to think that it was radical, as if the act of fucking another man and then bragging to my friends about it was a form of protest against the shame I’d grown up with, and against the shame I felt silently radiating from the new people in my life.

In addition to his wild sexual lifestyle, Jones writes candidly about his relationship with his mother who raised him herself. She refused to talk about his sexual identity, but she accepted it and supported him. With just 190 pages, Jones managed to write a memoir that is so ferocious, so beautiful, and so damn heartbreaking.

Nguyễn Ngọc Ký: Những tâm hồn dấu yêu

Lúc lên bốn, Nguyễn Ngọc Ký bị liệt cả hai tay sau một cơn sốt nặng. Dù khó khăn trong cuộc sống hằng ngày, ông phấn đấu không ngừng và đã trở thành Nhà giáo Ưu tú và Nhà văn đầu tiên ở Việt Nam viết bằng ngón chân. Đây là tập truyện ký ghi ấn lại công ơn cha mẹ, thầy cô, và những người thân thương đã giúp đỡ và động lực ông trong suốt cuộc đời của ông. Nội dung của những bài viết rất cảm động nhưng lối diễn văn của ông hơi khô khan nên đọc hơi bị chán.

Anna Wiener: Uncanny Valley

In her spellbinding memoir, Anna Wiener takes readers into the mysterious world of Silicon Valley. As a nontechnical employee in technological startups, she witnessed and experienced sexism in the relentless industry dominated by young white men. A woman who had her offer for an engineering position revoked after she negotiated for higher pay. A woman who had been demoted after her maternity leave. A woman who had been fired after reporting she had been raped. Misogyny in the tech bubble isn’t new, but reading it from a keen observer and exhilarating storyteller is heartbreaking. Of course, the book delves into other aspects as well. As a contributing writer to The New Yorker, Wiener’s prose is just a pleasure to read and to learn from. Here’s one of my favorite sentences on designers: “The cofounders had prioritized aesthetics and hired two graphic designers off the bat: men with signature hairstyles and large followings on a social network for people who referred to themselves as creatives and got excited about things like font sizing and hero images.” She is dead-on and I could not stop laughing when I read it. Her experience on programming is even more hilarious that I have to quote in in full passages. Wiener shares:

Engineers I knew talked about how the world had opened up to them the first time they wrote a functional line of code. The system belonged to them; the computer would do their bidding. They were in control. They could build everything they’d ever imagined. They talked about achieving flow, a sustained state of mental absorption and joyful focus, like a runner’s high obtained without having to exercise. I loved that they used this terminology. It sounded so menstrual.

Working in tech without technical background felt like moving to a foreign country without knowing the language. I didn’t mind trying. Programming was tedious, but it wasn’t hard. I found some enjoyment in its clarity: it was like math, or copy editing. There was order, a clear distinction between right and wrong. When I had edited or vetted manuscripts at the literary agency, I moved primarily on instinct and feeling, with the constant terror that I would ruin someone else’s creative work. Code, by contrast, was responsive and uncaring. Like nothing else in my life, when I made a mistake, it let me know immediately.

I love this book and highly recommend it to designers and developers as well.

Ted Chiang: Exhalation

Ted Chiang’s stories are thoughtful and imaginative. In “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” the characters go between the past and the future—an intriguing time-travel experience. As a parent, I find the history of child-rearing through “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” hits close to home. In the modern day, most of our kids are being raised by Steve Jobs’s digital device. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” the longest and most fascinating story in this collection, examines the affection between humans and digients—robotic kids. I wish it was a full, fleshed-out novel. As much as I appreciate Chiang’s prose and inventiveness, I don’t have much imagination for science fiction to soak up everything he has written. Some stories just didn’t sink in. I need to revisit this book in the future at a much slower pace and in full focus.

Walter Bernard & Milton Glaser: Mag Men

In 50 years, Bernard and Glaser have designed, redesigned, or consulted over 100 magazines. They worked together for the first time in 1968 as art director and design director for New York magazine, which showcased at length in the book. From revising the word mark to designing the covers to creating editorial experiences, the prolific duo collaborated on the magazine until Ropert Murdoch took over. After 9 years, Bernard and Glaser moved on to work on their own for various publications. Then they reunited when Bernard landed a gig with The Washington Post and Glazer landed Lire. They created their agency called WBMG and continued to put out excellent works. They have tremendous influence on editorial designs and the book is a proof. Definitely worth reading and flipping through for inspiration.

John Carreyrou: Bad Blood

Expanded on his devastating investigative reports for the Wall Street Journal on Theranos, John Carreyrou reveals the relentless drives and the bottomless lies from its chief executive Elizabeth Holmes. Dropped out of Stanford after only eight months to start her company in Silicon Valley, Holmes set out to change the healthcare industry with her innovative device that could test blood quickly and accurately with just a few drops. Unfortunately, the revolutionary concept was easy to sell, but impossible to execute. Together with her partner-in-crime Sunny Balwani, Holmes cut corners when they couldn’t deliver and cut into people’s lives when the tests showed inaccurate results. They became ruthless to anyone, particularly their employees, who questioned their fraud and immorality.

Right from the first chapter of the book, Carreyrou profiles Holmes’s childhood life with some red flags. Like most parents, her father instilled in her the notion of living a purposeful life. They encouraged her to be all that she can be; therefore, she had become competitive. When she played Monopoly with her younger brother and cousin, she always wanted to win. When she occasionally lost, she ran through the screen door in a rage. I had seen kids with this type of competitive edge. I wondered if that type of behavior is good or bad. I always taught my kids that it was OK to lose. They didn’t have to win everything and every time. Then I began to doubt myself. If I don’t drill the competitiveness in them, will they not try hard? Competitiveness had built confidence in Holmes, but focusing on just winning made her lose sight of everything else including consequence, ethnic, and compassion. If she could balance out her consciences and competitiveness, she might be able to come up with a groundbreaking product.

Drawing from 150 people (including 60 former employees), Carreyrou has written a riveting non-fiction book that reads like fiction. Although the book is 300 pages, it moves swiftly. His prose is so hard to put down. I highly recommend it.