Nguyễn Bính: Thơ và Đời

Vài tháng trước trong lúc ngắm nghía bộ sách của mẹ vợ chợt thấy quyển Nguyễn Bính: Thơ và Đời. Mở ra trang đầu độc vài chữ viết tay. Thì ra quyển sách này được tặng cho ông anh vợ. Thôi thì mượn đọc theo lời người có lòng mến tặng đã dặn dò: “Đừng quên Việt Nam anh nhé!”

Dĩ nhiên cái tên Nguyễn Bính thì không xa lạ gì trong văn thơ và nghệ thuật Việt Nam. Tôi chỉ biết đến thơ của ông khi đã trở thành lời nhạc như “Thời trước,” “Người hàng xóm,” và nhất là “Ghen.”

Bây giờ được đọc nhiều tác phẩm của ông hơn nên cảm nhận được nét chân thật và giản dị trong lời thơ. Ông thấy gì viết nấy và nghĩ sao viết vậy. Ông viết thật với lòng mình nên thơ ông dễ đi vào lòng người. Thỉnh thoảng sẽ đọc lại những dòng thơ của ông để không quên quê hương Việt Nam.

Barack Obama: A Promised Land

I voted in general elections, but I was not passionate about politics until Barack Obama ran for president. He was an inspiring candidate and an outstanding president. He made significant accomplishments, including healthcare, marriage equality, and Dodd-Frank, in his two terms in the White House.

In the first volume of his presidential memoir, A Promised Land, he reflected on difficult decisions he had to make from domestic to foreign policies. He was thoughtful, analytical, and decisive. As a gifted writer and a natural storyteller, Obama delved into the details of his strategies. His decision to take out Osama Bin Laden, in particular, was bold, precise, and tactical. If the mission failed, it could have caused him his re-election, but he took the risk. If Obama was still in charge when COVID-19 broke, I strongly believed we would be in a much safer situation than we are today. Remember N1H1? He took care of it. He even put together a pandemic team in place to deal with this kind of catastrophe.

Although the book was an excellent read, I was already fed up with politics by the time Joe Biden won his 2020 presidential election. I was no longer interested in politics. I love the first 200 pages where he talked about his grandmother, mother, mother-in-law, wife, and two daughters. The rest 500 pages dealt mostly with policies. The book ended on his vivid account on hunting and killing Bin Laden. I am not sure if I will read the second volume. I probably will, but won’t be my top to-read priority. If you are into policies, however, give this book a read.

57 Books Read in 2020

Given the lockdown this year, I thought I read much more, but I read 15 books less than last year. I am about 200 pages into Barack Obama’s A Promised Land and I won’t be able to finish it by the end of this year.

This year I read more books in Vietnamese than any previous years. I also read much more fiction than any previous years. I have come to appreciate the good writing in novels. I used to have a hard time wrapping my head around the plots and the characters when I read works of fiction, but I am starting to understand them better. I’ll definitely read more novels in coming years.

I don’t have a goal for next year, but I will definitely continue to read. I might get into more medical materials.

Reven Leilani: Luster

Reven Leilani’s Luster is a bizarre yet breathtaking debut novel. Edie, a young Black struggling artist, had an affair with Eric, an older white man who had an open marriage. When Edie showed up at his house, his wife Rebecca not only didn’t get jealous, but she also took her in. The story revolves around racism, psychology, a bit of typography, and a whole lot of sadomasochistic sex. Leilani’s writing is also wild. Here’s her sentence:

Slowly, he eases me down onto his grand, slightly left-leaning cock, and for a moment I do rethink my atheism, for a moment I consider the possibility of God as a chaotic, amorphous evil who made autoimmune disease but gave us miraculous genitals to cope, and so I fuck him desperately with the force of this epiphany and Eric is talkative and filthy but there is some derangement about his face, this pink contortion that introduces the whites of his eyes in a way that makes me afraid he might say something we cannot recover from just yet, so I cover his mouth and say shut up, shut the fuck up, which is more aggressive than I would normally be at this point but it gets the job done and in general if you need a pick-me-up I welcome you to make a white man your bitch though I feel panicked all of a sudden to have not used a condom and I’m looking around the room and there is a bathroom attached, and in the bathroom are what look to be extra towels and that makes me so emotional that he and in one instant a concerned host rises out of his violent sexual mania, slowing the proceedings into the dangerous territory of eye contact and lips and tongue where mistakes get made and you forget that everything eventually dies, so it is not my fault that during this juncture I call him daddy and it is definitely not my fault that this gets him off so swiftly that he says he loves me and we are collapsing back in satiation and horror, not speaking until he gets me a car home and says take care of yourself like, please go, and as the car is pulling away he is standing there on the porch in a floral silk robe that is clearly his wife’s, looking like he has not so much had an orgasm as experienced an arduous exorcism, and a cat is sitting at his feet, utterly bemused by the white clapboard and verdant lawn, which makes me hate this cat as the city rises around me in a bouquet of dust, industrial soot, and overripe squash, insisting upon its own enormity like some big-dick postmodernist fiction and still beautiful despite its knowledge of itself, even as the last merciless days of July leave large swaths of the city wilted and blank.

Book Collection: Fiction

  1. The Art of Floating, by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, is poignant, witty and unconventional.
  2. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris, takes us into the eccentric stories of his family.
  3. The Mountains Sing, by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, is one of the most levelheaded historical accounts of the Việt Nam Wars I have read in recent years.
  4. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vương, is a beautiful, painful, and lustful read. Even as a straight man, I find the gay sex scenes to be damn erotic.
  5. The Sympathizer, by Việt Thanh Nguyễn, is a well-written novel and a well-deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
  6. Thirsty, by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, is a dramatic novel that taps into human emotion, brutalization, and compassion.
  7. Who Do You Love, by Jean Thompson, featured fifteen skillfully-crafted fictions ranging from shocking to reminiscing to disturbing to shattering to enlightening experiences.

Natasha Trethewey: Memorial Drive

Short, stirring, and soul-shattering, Natasha Trethewey’s memoir recounts the unbearable tragedy of domestic violence. Growing up as a biracial child, Tretheway bonded with her black mother despite her parents’ divorce. Their mother-daughter relationship was great until her mother remarried to an abusive, possessive man.

Poetic, poignant, and piercing, Trethewey’s storytelling has multiple layers. She changed from first-person to second-person narrative. She included her mother’s own writing. She also transcribed the chilling phone conversation between her mother and her stepfather. Their exchange gives us a sense of how it was impossible for a woman to leave her abusive husband.

It’s a powerful book that can be read in one gulp, but the story will stay with you for a long time.

Note

When Trethewey discovered that her stepfather had read her diary, she writes (p.108):

No longer was I content to describe my days, to begin my entries “Dear Diary,” to write as if to an intimate friend, a second self. Instead, I turned the page on any notion of privacy, certain that he would read whatever I wrote, and began again.

“You stupid motherfucker!” I wrote. “Do you think I don’t know what you’re doing? You wouldn’t know I thought of you like this if you weren’t reading my diary.” Each entry thereafter was a litany of indictments, my accounting of all the things he had done. Not only had I stopped expecting that my words could be private, but also I had begun to think of them as a near-public act of communication, with a particular goal, and that there could be power in articulating what I needed to say. Even more, there was something powerful in writing it. In my first act of resistance, I had inadvertently made him my first audience. Everything I’d needed to articulate came out in those pages, raw and unfiltered, and I felt for the first time in this new voice I inhabited a profound sense of selfhood. I could push back by not holding inside what might otherwise have continued to divide and erode me.

Mariah Carey: The Meaning of Mariah Carey

In her riveting memoir, Mariah Carey opens up about her family, marriages, and music. As a child, she experienced abuse at home and racism at school. As a wife of a powerful man in the music industry, she lived under constant surveillance and imprisoned in her own extravagant house.

While her life was suffocating, her music was taking off. She writes, “Though I was recording Daydream, parts of my life were still quite a nightmare. I was writing and singing upbeat songs like “Always Be My Baby,” and sweeping ballads like “One Sweet Day”.” She also shares insights and inspirations for the songs she had written, sung, and recorded with top producers including Jermaine Dupri. Her success included 19 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Music saved her life.

With the help of Michaela Angela Davis, who makes her prose stronger, Ms. Carey has written a beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful memoir. I loved it.

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.