Rebecca Elliot: Painless Grammar (Reread)

I like to revisit grammar books once in a while to remind myself of the rules and the idiosyncrasies in the English language. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the fifth edition of Rebecca Elliot’s Painless Grammar as much as the first time I read it. The content is still helpful. I just got bored of reading about grammar. Let’s get back to more exciting fiction books.

Thái Cường: Người chết thuê

Đọc tiểu thuyết của một tác giả trẻ mới biết mình già. Tôi không theo nổi cách viết văn của Thái Cường qua Người chết thuê. Tôi chỉ nắm được sơ sơ câu chuyện người thanh niên bị chứng bệnh ngủ rũ. Anh ngủ bất kể nơi nào và giờ nào. Vì thế anh làm nghề chết thuê. Người ta mướn anh chết giả để lừa gạt tiền phúng điếu. Còn những nhân vật khác trong truyện, càng đọc tôi càng không biết mình đang đọc gì. Có lẽ đầu óc không được tập trung khi đọc. Đành phải chịu thua thôi.

Phúc Trần: Sigh, Gone

When my life-long mentor asked me to take her back to my middle- and high-school journey, I was curious to know if my Vietnamese-American friends had faced the same challenges I had. Then I read Phúc Trần’s memoir and found many similarities in our experiences.

We settled in Pennsylvania. He was in Carlisle and I was in Lancaster. We faced bullying in school. We fought kids who called us “gook” and other racist remarks on the school playgrounds. We both turned to music to fit in. He got into punk rock and I got into hip-hop. Of course, we fantasized about American girls. I went as far as kissing her and he went as far as eating her out.

Although we were both raised by immigrant parents, I didn’t face the beatings from my father like he did from his. My dad was not around, whereas his father played a big role in his life. Phúc writes:

My father had started using a metal rod that he brought home from the tire factory. He couldn’t hit me as hard with his hand anymore (the manual spankings had stopped hurting me), and even a wooden spoon did not inflict enough pain: hence, the metal rod, dark gray and about the length of a yardstick, pitted with bits of ruddy corrosion. The rod was a piece of machinery that had been thrown away, and my father, eyeing it in the scrap heap, immediately saw its domestic potential. The rod was more efficient because it hurt more. And as a result, it required less effort while achieving maximum results. American efficiency, meet Vietnamese ingenuity. With the metal rod, two or three cracks across our buttocks or the back of our thighs sufficed. Message received, loud and clear.

In that particular incident, however, I was beaten with the rod across the rear end and legs with a dozen or so blows. I remember crying into the floral velour pattern of our brown couch and hearing my father counting off the blows. (He counted upward from one, so I never knew when he would stop.) Một. Hai. Ba. Bốn. Năm. Sáu. Bảy. Tám. Chín. Mười. Ten. I lost count after mười.

The scene is disturbing to read, but is nothing out of the ordinary for a Vietnamese father to discipline his son. Another major difference between us was that Phúc was a voracious reader as a kid whereas I hated books back then. His reading has served him well. This memoir is articulate, engaging, funny, and real. I loved every page, and more for all the Vietnamese words are written with diacritics.

Thích Nhất Hạnh: Tình người

Mẹ vợ để quyển sách “Tình người” của thuyền sư Thích Nhất Hạnh trên bàn làm việc cho tôi đọc. Lúc trước tôi có đọc một số sách của thầy Nhất Hạnh bằng tiếng Anh. Thầy viết rất giản dị và dễ hiểu. Tập truyện tiếng Việt này viết về những câu chuyện của thầy lúc còn làm chú điệu cũng rất nhẹ nhàng và đơn sơ. Chẳng hạn như “Những hạt cơm của Phật” kể về chú thằn lằn đến ăn cơm mỗi khi thầy cúng Phật. Truyện chủ đề “Tình người,” nói về cơ duyên của thầy và một người lính Pháp, vẫn còn ấn tượng trong tôi. Tập truyện rất ngắn (chỉ 121 trang), thầy Nhất Hạnh giúp chúng ta nhận thức được những bài học trong Phật pháp được áp dụng trong đời sống. Nếu bạn muốn đọc, hãy vào trang nhà Làng Mai đọc trên mạng.

Kristin Bair: Agatha Arch Is Afraid of Everything

When Agatha caught her husband screwing GDOG (Grande Dame of Grapefruits) in their shed, she chopped it into pieces with a hatchet. After the incident, Agatha’s life turned upside down. She started therapy, spied on her cheating husband and his young lover with grapefruit-shaped hips, and tried to bonk the mailman and the UPS guy. Agatha was also a member of the Moms Facebook group.

Kristin Bair’s third novel, Agatha Arch Is Afraid of Everything, is heartbreaking yet hilarious. Bair incorporates the language of social media into her story. It took me half of the book to get into the flow of emojis, acronyms, and tweets. Once I got past the interruptions, however, I found Bair’s style, the combination of long and short forms, to be playful. Like music to my ear, I can still hear the rhythm of the woodpecker’s tap tap tippity-tap after I finished the novel. And damn, she can write about sex. A delicious, delightful read.

Full disclosure: I designed Kristin Bair’s website to promote her latest novel.

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. Agatha Arch Is Afraid of Everything, by Kristin Bair, is heartbreaking yet hilarious.
  2. The Art of Floating, by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, is poignant, witty and unconventional.
  3. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris, takes us into the eccentric stories of his family.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. The Sympathizer, by Việt Thanh Nguyễn, is a well-written novel and a well-deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
  7. Thirsty, by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, is a dramatic novel that taps into human emotion, brutalization, and compassion.
  8. Who Do You Love, by Jean Thompson, featured fifteen skillfully-crafted fictions ranging from shocking to reminiscing to disturbing to shattering to enlightening experiences.
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