Lawrence Wright: The Plague Year

As I finished reading this book, the pandemic is far from over. Even though the Biden administration has a much better handling of Covid, it was only last year that America had experienced the failure of the previous administration that cost us over half a million of human lives, including my mother’s. Through thorough research, vigorous stories, and compelling histories, Lawrence Wright illustrated how our government at the time botched the response from Covid, even with the simplest method of wearing a mask. If we had a competent leadership, we would have come out much better and this book proved it. It is a riveting revisit of America under Covid.

The follow account, in particular, brought back the experience that I had gone through with my own mother (p. 247-248):

On November 14, Selene got a call advising that her mother’s blood pressure was plummeting. “Based on how she’s declining, how long do we have?” Selene asked, thinking that she would pick up her father so that he could say goodbye. “A couple hours,” the doctor said. Ten minutes later, a nurse called and said, “Get here now.”

“They put me in a helmet,” Selene recalled. “There was a plastic flap that closed around my neck. Inside the helmet there was a fan at the top that blew air down, so that any air that got in would be flushed away.

And they put a gown on me, and double gloves, and they let me go in and say goodbye to her. That was the biggest shock, to see her, and to see how she looked. She was twice her size, because she was swollen from steroids. Her tongue was hanging out the side of her mouth because she was on the ventilator—she’d been intubated. They had to brace her head to keep it straight on the pillow, and they had tape around her mouth to keep the tube in. I’ll never forget it. But I think the thing that will haunt me is the smell. It’s like the smell of decay, like she had already started to die.

“The thing that made it so hard to see that was to juxtapose it against President Trump out there, saying he felt like he was twenty-eight years old again and he never felt better. So how could the same thing that did this to her, how could someone ever take it for granted that this was nothing, you have nothing to be afraid of?”

Selene gathered her mother in her arms as the machines went silent.

Anne Lamott: Dusk, Night, Dawn

In her latest collection of essays, Lamott opens up about her recent marriage, her past drinking problem, as well as her faith. From accidentally taking her dog medications to falling off the cliffs, Lamott revealed hilarious and serious stories from her life. Lamott is one of those writers that I would read anything she had written. This one is uplifting and optimistic.

Lý Trần: House of Sticks

I am glad to see more Vietnamese-American voices in the literary world. The latest is from Lý Trần whose debut memoir is captivating, devastating, and moving. Ms. Trần writes with candid and vigor about her experience of growing up in America as a child of Vietnamese-Chinese immigrant parents, working in the nail salon, worshipping the Buddhas, and struggling with depression. From her complex relationship with her parents to her academic failures to her romantic relationship, Ms. Trần opened up about her incredible journey as she made the transition from an immigrant to an Asian American. Her prose is engaging and unflinching. The book is almost 400 pages, but it’s a fast read. Each chapter is a short story with a clear purpose of what she wanted to convey. Trần is a gifted writer. I hope more Vietnamese Americans will pick up this book. You will find it relatable.

Here’s a scene from the nail salon (p. 136):

I wanted so badly for my mother and me to disappear, to start over. It had started out as a new adventure but I didn’t want to be in a nail salon anymore. Seeing my mother, now in her fifties, hunching over the pedicure bowl, hands trembling, unable to understand, unable to communicate, was almost more than I could bear. I prayed silently for a return of the cummerbunds. Even that was better than this. At least we were all together and we had fun. Where were my brothers now? Where was my father?

“Lý!” my mother called again. “What are you doing? Daydreaming? Didn’t I just ask you to come here? I need help. I don’t understand what this woman is saying.”

I got up from my seat and walked over, reluctantly introducing myself to the client.

“I’m very sorry. My mother doesn’t speak much English, but I can translate for you.” As I apologized, I felt a burning sensation in my chest. This woman would never know who we were and where we came from. We were just a couple of clumsy immigrants working on her toes, not worthy of respect. I hated her. I hated her for sitting above us on that leather chair. I hated her for thinking that it gave her power over us. I hated that it did give her power over us. That money was power in this world and we would never be powerful.

Still, I translated.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Notes on Grief

Adichie’s Notes on Grief is a beautiful, lyrical tribute to her father who passed away caused by a kidney failure. His sudden death during the global COVID-19 pandemic devastated her. She lived in the U.S. and he died in Nigeria; therefore, she could not be with him. My father passed away in Vietnam during the lockdown as well; therefore, I felt her pain and sorrow. The book is 67 pages and I read it in one sitting.

Xù Coke & Six Feet Under: Nhật ký của những kẻ chán đời

Những bài viết ngắn tựa như những blog posts chia sẻ tâm sự cá nhân của hai tác giả. Nội dung rời rạc. Chuyện không đủ thu hút. Cách viết không đủ quyến rũ. Tác giả viết trong tâm trạng chán đời nên cũng chẳng có gì sôi nổi. Đọc không thấy chán đời, chỉ thấy chán nản.

Isabel Allende: The Soul of a Woman

Beautiful, soulful, and powerful, Allende’s memoir takes on feminism, family, and falling in love in her 70s. Ms. is a fierce, funny and fearless writer. Her stories are memorable and mesmerizing. The book is 170 pages and no word is wasted. I appreciate her perspective on women rights and honesty in sharing her personal stories. I took quite a few notes from my reading (thanks to the Google Photos app) so I can refer back to them in the future.

On being a wife and mother, page 29:

Miguel and I had two children, Paula and Nicolás. I made a great effort to fulfill my role as a wife and mother. I didn’t want to admit that I was dying of boredom; my brain was turning into noodle soup. I imposed on myself a thousand tasks and I was running around like a poisoned mouse trying to avoid confronting my fate. I loved my husband and I remember the first years with my young kids as a very happy time, although inside I carried a burning restlessness.

On being a woman, page 33:

The poet and activist Sylvia Plath said that her greatest tragedy was to have been born a woman. In my case that has been a blessing. I had the chance to participate in the women’s revolution, which is changing civilization as it consolidates, albeit at a crab’s slow pace. The more I live, the happier I am with my gender, particularly because it enabled me to give birth to Paula and Nicolás. That transcendent experience, which men still can’t have, defined my existence. The most joyful moments of my life were holding my newborn babies to my breast. And the most painful moment was holding my dying daughter in my arms.

On the freedom of writing, page 67:

I was always disciplined in my work because I internalized my grandfather’s admonition that leisure time was dead time. I followed that rule for decades, but I have learned that leisure can be fertile soil where creativity grows. I am no longer tormented by an excess of discipline, as I was before. Now I write for the pleasure of telling a story word by word, step by step, enjoying the process without thinking of the result. I don’t tie myself to a chair eight or ten hours a day, writing with the concentration of a notary. I can relax because I have the rare privilege of having loyal readers and good publishers who don’t try to influence my work.

I write about what I care for, in my own rhythm. In those leisure hours that my grandfather considered wasted, the ghosts of imagination become well-defined characters. They are unique, they have their own voices, and they are willing to tell me their stories if I give them enough time. I feel them around me with such certitude that I wonder why nobody else perceives them.

The ability to overcome obsessive discipline didn’t happen in one day; it took me years. In therapy and in my minimal spiritual practice I learned to tell my superego to back off and leave me alone; I want to enjoy my freedom. Superego is not the same as consciousness; the former punishes us and the latter guides us. I stopped listening to the overseer inside me who demands compliance and performance with the voice of my grandfather. The race uphill is over; now I stroll calmly in the land of intuition, which has turned out to be the best environment for writing.

On living longer, page 86:

Now that we live longer, we have a couple of decades ahead of us to redefine our goals and find meaning in the years to come.Jampolsky recommends letting go of grievances and negativity. More energy is needed to sustain ill feelings than to forgive. The key to contentment is forgiveness of others and of ourselves. Our last years can be the best if we opt for love instead of fear, he says. Love doesn’t grow like a wild plant, it needs a lot of care.

On being compassionate, page 95:

While my body deteriorates, my soul rejuvenates. I suppose my defects and virtues are also more visible. I spend and waste too much and am more distracted than before, but I also have become less angry; my character has softened a little. My passion for the causes I have always embraced and for those few people I love has increased. I do not fear my vulnerability because I no longer confuse it with weakness. I can live with my arms, doors, and heart open. This is another good reason to celebrate my age and my gender: I don’t have to prove my masculinity, as Gloria Steinem said. That is, I don’t have to cultivate the image of fortitude instilled by my grandfather, which was very useful earlier in my life but not anymore; now I can ask for help and be sentimental.

On aging, page 166:

My old age is a precious gift. My brain still works. I like my brain. I feel lighter. I am free of self-doubt, irrational desires, useless complexes, and other deadly sins that are not worth the trouble. I am letting go… letting go. I should have started earlier.

People come and go, and even the closest members of the family eventually disperse. It’s useless to cling to anybody or anything because everything in the universe tends toward separation, chaos, and entropy, not cohesion. I have chosen a simpler life, with fewer material things and more leisure, fewer worries and more fun, fewer social commitments and more true friendship, less fuss and more silence.

Eric Nguyễn: Things We Lost to the Water

Hương fled Việt Nam with her husband and two sons (one by her side and another inside her). As they got on the boat, however, she lost contact with her husband. He stayed behind. She went on, gave birth to her second son, and settled in New Orleans. As a single mother, she worked in the nail salon to raise her two boys. One joined a Vietnamese gang and one was gay.

Eric Nguyễn’s debut novel is a touching story of the Vietnamese immigrants. His writing is decent. I am also glad that he incorporated the Vietnamese writing throughout the book, but he should have had an editor who could edit his Vietnamese, which is riddled with errors. For example: “Gần tới rới” (should be “rồi”), “Trời ổi” (should be “ơi”), Lực Lượng Miển Nam (should be “Miền”), and “Nguròi sận xủất” (I cannot figure out what word that is). Some of his Vietnamese-English dialogues sounded odd. For instance, “Be vâng lời for Bà Giang, okay?” We don’t talk like that.

It is such an unfortunate to see these errors ruined such a beautiful novel. It could have been avoided if he let someone who knows Vietnamese to look over them.

Peter Ho Davies: A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself

If you want to have children, don’t read this book. The constant worries of conceiving a baby and raising a human being are being told throughout the novel. Having a kid also had a profound impact on a marriage. From sex to masturbation, birth complications to developmental issues, abortion to school shooting, Peter Ho Davies has written a hilarious, heartfelt work of autofiction on modern marriage and American parenting. I loved this book because I can relate to the narrator. Been there, done that.

On sex, page 20:

It’s the best sex of his life, her desire so sharp, so zealous, even if it’s not for him. Perhaps because it’s not for him. He can lose himself, abandon himself. The best sex of his life, yet he’s relieved when she conceives again, and it’s over.

On masturbation, page 100:

He’d taken to masturbating during her pregnancy (retaken, naturally, it was like riding a bicycle), and kept it up, so to speak, ever since. Masturbation had come a long way since he was a boy, he found. All thanks to the internet, of course, but what struck him most was not the sheer volume and variety of images available—though they were astounding; less stimulating than boggling—but the realization of how many people out there were looking at this stuff. Masturbation had always seemed so lonely to him as a teenager, part of its shame being how aberrant it was. (Dimly he senses this is somehow the point of the internet: to spread shame, but so broadly, so thinly, like a light coat of varnish, that we hardly notice it anymore, until we all just glow faintly with it.) Now, judging from what he could see on his computer, the masturbators far outnumbered the couples, and were probably getting more action. Frankly, it has gotten to the point that he’s come to prefer it-quicker, more efficient, less cumbersome than intercourse something for which he feels only an obscure sense of infidelity. Less risky, too.

Three, four, five times a week, like some horny high schooler. His self-stimming. Sometimes he fears he’s addicted, not to the porn, not even to the act itself, but to the shame it provokes. As if it’s shame he’s coaxing from himself, his body.

Still, every so often he weighs a real affair, albeit idly. The problem, more practical than moral, is that he can’t quite imagine sex with another woman. Marriage has rendered the act so mundanely intimate. It’s the slurp and slap of bodies coming together and apart. It’s the furtive postcoital stroke to disguise the rubbing off of bodily fluids on one another. It’s his wife’s fingers discreetly rolling the linty pills of toilet paper out of his ass hair, or the shivery quake when her cunt farts. (“Trumps,” they call these.) It’s her yelp of pain when he pins her hair under his elbows, or the little ouf (less of passion than pressure) she releases when he lowers his weight onto her. These are the things that have undermined their sex life, but they’re also what keep him bound to her. Who else would put up with such indignities, who else could he share them with? Ass lint has no place in an affair!

Marriage, he notes ruefully, is a terrible preparation for infidelity.

But if intimacy is filled with shame; shame—shared and secret—is also intimacy. Shared shame seems to him as close as most of us ever come to forgiveness.

On school shooting, page 184:

And then there’s another school shooting. They’re numbingly frequent, but this is the first since the boy started school. And the father feels powerless. What if you can’t die, or kill, to protect your child? What if you’re not that lucky?

The school principal emails tips for how to talk to a child about bad news. They sit the boy down. They’re nervous, but he’s calm. They have lockdown drills at school, he explains patiently, he knows what to do. They didn’t know about the drills (they don’t read all the principal’s emails). They’re relieved, and appalled. But the boy is calm, matter-of-fact. He is reassuring them. As if it were all perfectly normal, mundane as a fire drill, sensible as looking both ways before you cross or not talking to strangers.

The father is not calm. He rages at the politicians sending their thoughts and prayers. (Here’s a thought: Did your prayers get answered last time?) Rages at the NRA flacks talking about the Constitution (Rights! What about wrongs? Let’s talk about wrongs for once.)

It’s the shamelessness that incenses him.

He fantasizes about protesting a gun store. Standing outside with his own bloody placard showing gunshot fatalities, the number of gun deaths. Shouting “Baby killers” at customers, coming and going. Demanding a waiting period for gun purchases as long as for abortions. Demanding that gun buyers look at photos of gunshot wounds before purchase. Flinging spray pat terns of fake blood on the walls of the store.

Barbara Demick: Eat the Buddha

Barbara Demick’s new book is a powerful and challenging read on the ruthless colonization of the Tibetans by the Communist Chinese. Tibetans, particularly in Ngaba town, do not get the fundamental rights like most Chinese citizens. They have no right to study their own language nor the right to practice their religion. As a result, Tibetans turned to self-immolations. Demick’s reporting on auto-cremation is soul crushing. It gives me a chill just to imagine drinking and soaking yourself in gasoline then lighting yourself on fire. With Demick’s meticulous, brave investigative reporting and articulate storytelling, this book is hard to read, yet harder to put down. I am grateful for her work and this book will stay with me for a long time. The human rights crisis in Tibet makes me realize how fortunate we are living in a democratic country. We need to defend and protect our democracy.

Jeff Bezos: Invent & Wander

With a curious mind, a sense of wonder, and a passion for narrative and storytelling, Jeff Bezos has become a true innovator. By connecting humanities, technology, and business, he has transformed the way we shop online.

Through his shareholder letters, which he wrote from 1997 to 2019, we get to see how Amazon had grown and dominated the online retails. He set out to build “the world’s most customer-centric company” on day one; therefore, the technologies (AWS) that they had developed, the Marketplace they had launched, and the Prime membership they had created were based on that core mission.

Instead of giving PowerPoint presentations, Bezos prefers narrative writing. This book collects his own words on his personal life as well as his professional work. With a wonderful introduction from Walter Isaacson, this book gives readers a glimpse into Bezos’ mind, passion, and curiosity. I enjoyed it.