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.

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.

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.