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.

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police

In Yoko Ogawa’s dark, dystopian island, objects disappeared one by one and having memory was a crime. Anyone who had any memory would be interrogated and arrested by the Memory Police and no one knew where they took them. Anything that brought memory must be destroyed. Books were burned. Calendars were vanished. Eventually anything that had form must be gone. It’s a remarkably bleak and chilling read. I often have a difficult time following a work of nonfiction, but I could read this book the whole way through without being lost thanks to Ogawa’s superb storytelling and Stephen Snyder’s outstanding translation. Like the only survival in the book, the story will remain in my memory for a long time.

Samantha Harvey: The Shapeless Unease

Harvey couldn’t sleep after the unfortunate outcome of Brexit. Every time she closed her eyes, the image of her cousin who died alone in his apartment two days before anyone knew about his death. Her insomnia continued for a year. Unfortunately, I got lost in her subconscious writing. Since it is a short book, I read all the way through, but could only pick up bits and pieces about her visits to the doctor and her sleeping pills. Perhaps, my own insomnia had distracted me from the book. I might come back to it in the future for a second read.

Lâm Vân An: Ai cũng có những ngày tồi tệ

Tập truyện ngắn dựa vào đời sống và quan sát của tác giả Lâm Vân An trên đất Mỹ. Từ cách dạy con khác biệt giữa hai văn hóa đến những phán xét khác nhau giữa cô và người bạn Mỹ, Vân An có cái nhìn nhận phóng thoáng trong cuộc sống như cô viết về chứng bệnh “dán nhãn” (labeling):

Người dán nhãn, nghi kỵ dường như đã đánh mất khả năng nhìn cuộc đời một cách tươi sáng, tích cực, cuộc sống của họ dĩ nhiên là ngày càng nhàm chán. Tôi không cho mình là người trưởng thành, hay ho gì hơn ai nhưng rõ như ban ngày là tôi vừa mắc lỗi dán nhãn, nghi kỵ kẻ khác. Cả cơ thể tôi tê liệt vì sự xấu hổ ở đâu tràn đến, nhanh chóng lan khắp người.

Vân An lớn hơn tôi một tuổi và đã sinh sống trên hai mảnh đất Việt và Mỹ nên cũng có những cái nhìn giống nhau. Chúng tôi muốn nắm lấy cả hai văn hóa chứ không muốn phải xác định về phía nào như cha mẹ chồng trong bài “Trẻ con không nói dối.” Cách viết của Vân An thong thả, giản dị, và dễ gần. Tuy hơi dài dòng một tí nhưng đọc vẫn thấy vui và thú vị.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai: The Mountains Sing

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing weaves together the family’s story of wars in Việt Nam from two personal accounts. Hương, the teenage granddaughter, recounts the conflict between North and South with the involvement of the American. Diệu Lan, the grandmother, recounts the French colonial period with the involvement of the Japanese. Although this is a historical work of fiction, the book provides a clear and balanced view of all parties involved. Ms. Nguyễn turns a blind eye to no side’s agenda, greed, or viciousness. The book is beautifully written, yet it is a heartbreaking read. Like Ms. Nguyễn, I have heard similar stories from the people around me. The cruelty, the grief, the loss, and the suffering hit too close to home.

What draws me into this novel is the way Ms. Nguyễn incorporated Vietnamese proverbs throughout the book. She uses phrases like, “Đừng ăn cháo đái bát.” (“Don’t eat porridge then piss into the bowl.”) or “Một giọt máu đào hơn ao nước lã.” (“One drop of familial blood outranks a pond of water.”) I also appreciate the use of Vietnamese diacritics in English text. If diacritics were omitted for the sake of English readers, the Vietnamese proverbs would have been so darn hard to decode.

In Vietnamese-relate books where the authors claimed that they intentionally left out Vietnamese diacritics to make non-Vietnamese readers feel less intimidated, the authors either didn’t know their Vietnamese or they tried to please their English readers. Diacritics don’t make any different to readers who do not know Vietnamese. Without diacritics, however, readers who can read Vietnamese are compromised. In her uncompromising way, Ms. Nguyễn has written this book for readers who appreciate both languages. I love her translations of the proverbs, which showed her mastery of both Vietnamese and English.

This is the first time I read the entire novel on my iPhone using the Kindle app. Although I still prefer a physical book, what made me stick with the Kindle was the Bookerly typeface, which I selected specifically for long-form reading. As I was reading this book, I discovered that Bookerly, designed by Dalton Magg, has excellent Vietnamese diacritics; therefore, I had to add it to my Vietnamese Typography recommendations.

With Ms. Nguyễn’s lyrical writing and poignant storytelling, The Mountains Sing is a page-turner. In my case, it was a screen-swiper. It is one of the most levelheaded historical accounts of the Việt Nam Wars I have read in recent years.

Hoàng My: Sài Gòn thương còn hổng hết

Tuy sinh ra ở Bạc Liêu, Hoàng My rất yêu Sài Gòn. Cô yêu thành phố không ngủ cũng như yêu những tâm hồn của Sài Gòn. Từ anh chàng bán xôi dưới chân cao ốc đến bác lái xe ôm đến dì bác báo vỉa hè, những câu chuyện của họ là những câu chuyện của Sài Gòn.

Tôi không phải là dân Sài Gòn nhưng nhận thấy được những nếp sống của người ở Sài Gòn qua những bài tản văn ngắn của Hoàng My. Tuy nhiên Sài Gòn của Hoàng My không lắng đọng lại trong tôi như Sài Gòn của nhạc sĩ Quốc Bảo.

Lúc trước tôi chỉ đọc những bài viết của Quốc Bảo trên trang blog của anh. Tiếc rằng giờ đã không còn nữa. Khi Quốc Bảo viết về Sài Gòn anh đưa tôi đến tận một góc phố và cho tôi thưởng thức một ly cà phê với anh. Hoàng My không đem lại cho tôi được những cảm giác sâu lắng đó.

Gari: Đã từng tồn tại, đã từng yêu thương

Đọc vài bài tản văn đầu không ấn tướng lắm. Cảm thấy mình quá già với những tâm trạng của tác giả trẻ. Tôi để sang một bên đọc sách khác. Thấy sách này cũng khá ngắn nên tôi trở lại lần thứ nhì. Những bài tản văn ngắn như những blog posts được viết với tâm trạng cô đơn và trống vắng. Tuy buồn nhưng không bi đát. Phần truyện ngắn với những câu chuyện tình ở tuổi 20 thì cảm xúc hơn. Gari viết nhẹ nhàng như hơi thở và thơ mộng như những giấc mơ. Tuy không phải là khán giả của Gari, tôi đọc để tìm hiểu cảm xúc giới trẻ bây giờ ra sao.