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2015 – the year of magical Reading & Healing

Reading is a lonesome business, but for me it’s never lonely. Another stormy year has passed, but with books it left fertile ground for my friendships to grow most deeply. Thank you my friends, wherever you are, I am thinking of our walk-talks, our laughter, our time contemplating together.

2015 was a humble year for reading. I intended to read at least 30 books cover-to-cover, but eventually left several books unfinished. I tried hard to have difficult conversations with some authors who passed away decades ago. Following are some books that I have read, minus the “periodically re-read”, such as Emerson, Jonathan Edwards, and the Bible.

2015 goals
A few books that I read in 2015

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  1. Just Kids_ by Patti Smith

The single most important book in my 2015. Detailed review here.

  1. The Elements of Style_ William Strunk, Jr. and E.B White:

Timeless, classic must-read for anyone who wants to advance writing, or communicate most effectively. Just don’t forget to practice after reading.

+ Print out the eBook 

+ Check out a Podcast about English Grammar

  1. Giovanni’s room_ by James Baldwin

[American fiction/ Europe/ Gay/ Gender equality/ Law & Conscience]

Banned, explicit about Homosexuality, by a black writer, so what? I had never thought that Gay relationship could be so complex until I read Giovanni’s Room. Reading something so honest, so introspective, so contrast to my pre-conceived notions, was like a punch in the gut. James Baldwin is eloquent and passionate, perhaps in the league of Tennessee Williams. More importantly, the book is not political; it’s about human beings contemplating, treating one another, receiving consequences for their own actions. A classic.

  1. The Fire Next Time_ James Baldwin

If you are a Christian, this book will provoke you. But it will make you think very deeply about the Church’s conduct, about yours as well. Be prepared.

  1. Sons and Lovers_by D.H. Lawerence

[Parental love/ Coming-of-age/ Family dysfunction/ Freudian psychology/ English Modernism/ Pre-WWI England]

My introduction to D.H. Lawrence couldn’t be more complex. Not so much a love story than a story about love. I see myself in Paul, in William, in Walter Morel, in Mrs. Morel, in Miriam, in Clara. Like Gustave Flaubert, Lawrence constructs his literary world like a mirror of ours; but unlike Flaubert, Lawrence doesn’t use satire, but delves deeply into his psychological characterization. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, his later work set Lawrence on the world stage, but to me, “Sons and Lovers” is his masterpiece.

I wanted to write a review for this book, but it is so massive to me that I never feel competent enough to write. There even is a literary branch studying D.H. Lawrence at Oxford. This book ranks 9th on Modern Library’s Top 100 best novels in English of the 20th century.

Check out Free Oxford podcast studying D.H.Lawrence

  1. Lady Chatterley’s Lover_ by D.H. Lawrence

[CLASS (ARISTOCRACY)/ PSYCHOLOGICAL FICTION/ ENGLISH MODERNISM]

Most notorious of the banned books. Pornographic or sexually explicit – up to you to decide. But truly, it is a superb work of art, a serious reflection on humanity in a turbulent time of English history, but also very applicable to today’s world.

  1. L’Étranger (The Stranger)/ 8. La Chute (The Fall)_ by Albert Camus

These two philosophical novels are among the most difficult (and absurd) novels that I have ever read. Camus talks about Paris, Amsterdam, French Algeria, about emotional isolation, depression, friendship, and so much more. These two novels are haunting and leaving me little to say about.  I must reread them before claiming anything.

  1. Trois contes (Three Tales)_ by Gustave Flaubert [FRENCH LITERATURE]

Short, readable classic text. This book made my prerequisite read before a seminar on the subject.

  1. Fahrenheit 451_ Ray Bradbury [AMERICAN LITERATURE]

This Book brought back my painful childhood memory, where I was a proud Guy Montag. Nothing particular in style, but its discussion on books is powerful. Books are so central to human meaning and existence; you are so lucky to be able to read and given a chance to read. Don’t blow it.

  1. Night_ by Elie Wiesel

[Holocaust Memoir/Life and Death/Theological Questions]

I cried – reading this Holocaust memoir. One of the most moving and emotional reading experiences in 2015.  I think that EVERYONE should read this book, especially if you haven’t known what the Holocaust is.

–> The eBook is available here.

  1. Tortured for Christ_ by Pastor Richard Wurmbrand

[MEMOIR/ HISTORY/ UNDERGROUND CHURCH/ COMMUNIST PRISON]

Pastor Richard Wurmbrand takes a clear, head-to-head stance against the communists who imprisoned him 14 years for his faith. Disgusting torture and brainwashing are some hideous examples of life in the communist prison.

Interestingly, Wurmbrand openly denounces hypocrisy in today’s western churches. He added that underground churches in restricted countries are relentlessly performing the wish of Christ, in the face of adversity and repression. I used to think Church and State are antagonistic rivals – not completely so in the Soviet Russia and contemporary socialist nations.

  1. Between Shades of Gray_ by Ruta Sepetys

[SOVIET LABOR CAMP/ HISTORICAL FICTION/FRIENDSHIP/ LOVE/ARTS]

This book is comparable to the classics of Holocaust literature, except it is about a larger-scale genocide under the Soviet Union. In the worst conditions of the Soviet Labor camps, love and hope still shined. I doubt if this book will be translated into Vietnamese or be circulated here in Vietnam.

  1. Shades of Gray_ by Carolyn Reeder

[American Civil War/ the American South/ Coming-of-age/ Courage]. See my book review here.

  1. O’Henry Short Stories Collection.

This book is required in my American Literature class. O’Henry, a talented story-teller, brings to his short stories the aspects of his own life (travel, disgrace, obscurity, fame, honor, and then neglect). My favorite stories are “The Last Leaf”, “The Gift of the Magi”, “One Thousand Dollars”, “Conscience in Art.”

O’Henry’s stories are historically significant since they talk about common people in New York City in late 19th-early 20th-century years, though they are criticized for being sentimental. I find his very honest and humane, in contrary. Three example stories are here.

  1. Red: My autobiography_ by Gary Neville

[AUTOBIOGRAPHY/ PROFESSIONAL SOCCER]

A soccer superstar offering his refreshing “career look-back”. Read my book review here.

  1. The Mekong: Turbulent past, uncertain future_ by Milton Osborne

[SOUTHEAST ASIAN HISTORY/ INDOCHINA]

A very good introduction to Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) studies. Milton Osborn is a historian, a Southeast Asia expert with significant experience in his field. Not only do you read about the river’s history, you will also know about the civilizations along its shore, the religions, ethnicities, the fish harvest crises, the current dams controversy, the China-ASEAN relation regarding the exploitation of the Mekong river.

  1. Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers rise to global dominance and why they fall_ by Amy Chua (Yale Law School)

This book couldn’t be more relevant for the current immigration issue in America. The United States is globally dominant; but how long can it maintain its position when other superpowers, i.e. China, India, the EU, are rising? Professor Chua argues that, for all the stains in American history, the United States has been relatively tolerant of ethnic divisions and assimilation. However, its growing multicultural society is inherently volatile. Could it repeat the mistakes by the Ottoman Empire, the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire? What are the implications for the U.S. immigration laws? This is a good book to read before the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.

  1. The Defining Decade _ by Meg Jay, Ph.D

If you are seeking life purposes, this study-motivational book will provide you the know-hows. The author has expertise in her psychology field, coining the term “Identity Capital” – the intangible, personal assets that you accumulate over time. I highly support her point that young people in their twenties should work and learn as much as they can to secure this “identity capital”. The rest of the book is not ground-breaking to me.

–> Check out her TED talk, Why 30 is not the new 20.

  1. Hà Nội trong mắt tôi (Hanoi in my eyes: A collection of short stories)_ by Nguyễn Khải

[AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SHORT STORIES/ FAMILY & TRADITIONAL VALUES]

Don’t be confused by the title. The book is mainly about the humans of Hanoi in the 1970s, late 1980s and early 1990s. Some stories moved me deeply, i.e. those about the mothers, the wives, the disintegrated families in the face of a changing society and market economy.

(This book is currently only in Vietnamese. I am going to translate some of the stories into English.)

21+. “The History of Russian literature” and “European Romanticism and Literary Realism”, two college textbooks written by Vietnamese scholars in the 1980s.

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I did not finish “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “Demian” by Hermann Hesse, and “Arrowsmith” by Sinclair Lewis. These are all great books which I will finsh and review in 2016.

What did you read in 2015? Please share with me. I will be back with a “2016 to-be-read” list. Cheers!

“Shades of Gray” by Carolyn Reeder: Courage wears many faces

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This book is available at the American Center in Hanoi. The plot is following.

Will Page lived with his well-off family in Winchester, Virginia (a southern state) before the Civil War wiped out his loved ones. Now homeless, grieving and angry with the Union Army, Will has to live with his poor relatives in Piedmont, Virginia. Will’s father fought bravely in the Confederate Army, but Will’s guardian, uncle Jed, refused to take sides in the war. Thus, Will considers uncle Jed a coward and a traitor, a feeling shared by most of Jed’s neighbors.

At his uncle’s farmstead, Will is in the middle of his inner conflicts. Will’s family used to have slaves and didn’t have to do any real physical work. Now he has to share the labor work with his uncle’s family. Working alongside his uncle, Will gradually (and begrudgingly) comes to admire his skill and wisdom. He realizes that his uncle’s family actually have paid a high price for not joining the war. Embraced by his uncle’s family, Will begins to understand how others view the war. He decides to stay with his uncle’s family, despite an offer to live in a better place.

——The American Civil War (1861-1865) and the New South (southern U.S. states after 1865) are popular themes for historical fiction. However, the story tells adolescents’ thoughts and the American character in a vẻy natural and compelling way. Like any education novels, it focuses on many character-building themes.

First, it talks about courage. Will’s journey to find the true meaning of courage is both daunting and relentless. Initially, he thought that fighting valiantly for one side meant courage. However, living with his uncle’s family, Will realizes that courage also means standing up for one’s belief, even if it is radically different from others’. Courage also means treating the neighbors with respect and kindness, despite being misunderstood and criticized by them.

Second, bullying can be overcome with tolerance and grace. As a newcomer, Will has to defend himself and his cousin from the local children’s teasing and bullying. Sometimes it means playing cool and self-deprecating jokes. Sometimes it means sharing fishing skills, laughing off the grudge with a handshake. To any of us who has experienced bullying in childhood, this book is both a flashback and reflection on our own.

Third, it is about empathy and appreciation for hard work. Before, Will family had everything done for them, and especially they had plenty of books. Here in the countryside, everyone is struggling and working hard; Will does not let his ego voice any discomfort. In fact, with eagerness and joy, he grasps the skills of hunting, fishing, fixing the fences. He becomes best friend with his illiterate cousin and teaches her to read.

The novel’s pivotal moment is when Uncle Jed decided to nurse an injured former Union soldier (a Yankee), to Will’s indignation. After defying his uncle strongly, Will learns that not every Yankee was bad; that, during the war, many Yankees secretly defied their burning-barn orders, sparing some portion of the Confederacy crops and barns. Again, not everything is black and white, but has many shades of gray.

Anyone who loves the U.S. southern culture as much as I do will appreciate the cultural attributes in this book. For example, you will see familiar Southern food like beets, beans, and gravy; people will call “dinner” for “lunch”, and so on. The new South countryside is simply idyllic.

Having less than 160 pages and told in the 3rd person omniscient point of view, this coming-of-age novel is approachable to 6-7th graders and young adults alike. I recommend it to anyone with intermediate English proficiency and with an interest in American history and southern culture.