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


  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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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.


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!


“Home” – short story by William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

This is a mid-term essay that I wrote in English Literature class, analyzing the short story “Home” by William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) – a British writer famous for his novels, “The Moon and Sixpence“, “Of Human Bondage“, “The Razor’s Edge“, and “The Magician“. Maugham’s short stories are famous for the hidden satire, which sometimes requires us to know the British culture and history to comprehend.

I haven’t found the online version of “Home”, but here are some outstanding books that mention Maugham’s stories.

Penguin Outstanding Short Stories

Mind the Gap – Short story study guide, grade 12

Let’s Read and Discuss, by European Humanities University

Sixty-five Stories, by W.S. Maugham (“Mr. Know All” & “The Escape” are two stories taught at my school, the University of Languages and International Studies, VNU.

And, a good Blog about W.S. Maugham


Question:  In the story “Home” by William Somerset Maugham, captain Meadows was introduced by the narrator with respect and admiration. Do you share this opinion? Use details from the story to support your ideas.




It is never easy to analyze a well-written short story, often because there is very little unfolded. This is true for William Somerset Maugham’s short stories, for his are often autobiographical and abundant of nuances. “Home” is an example of Maugham’s mastery storytelling. The main character, Captain George Meadows, appears in the second half of the story and is introduced quite favorably by the narrator. Nonetheless, the story ends with a solemn, yet satiric note, which makes us wonder whether the narrator truly respect and admire this man. Let’s go deeper into the character to find out the truth.

The story begins with a homestead lying “among the Somersetshire hills”. The family is traditional in that ever since the house was built, “from father to son they had been born and died in it.” Captain Meadows is introduced in a rather awkward situation: he had deserted home to live “an exile’s life”, and for more than fifty years, nobody ever heard of him. Now crippled with rheumatism and longing for home, he left the sea and went home to see once more the house where he was born and grew up in. Arriving home, the Captain faced the reason (or more correctly, the person) that he left for a sailor’s life: Emily Green (now Mrs. Meadows), once courted by Captain Meadows, chose to marry his elder brother.

The narrator, who was a friend visiting the family, felt that the story of Captain George Meadows was like an “old ballad”. Had we been in the narrator’s shoes, we would have felt the same. We would expect to see a rough man of profound naval experience. Both the narrator and Captain Meadows had been to China and the Oriental coasts; a heart-to-heart talk could be expected. Therefore, ours and the narrator’s first impression of Captain Meadows were that he was brave, strong-minded and had a lot of sea experience.

However, the rest of the story tells us very little about the narrator’s viewpoint. Rather, the real Captain Meadows was left to the reader’s interpretation. This is not a surprise because in Maugham’s novels as well as short stories, there is hardly anything purely good or purely bad, purely saint-like or purely evil. In order to conclude, we have to put the characters and the events in the complexity of the environment surrounding them.

We see that Uncle George Meadows (Captain Meadows) did not have an easy life. Even though he was brave and adventuresome, in the mind his family, he was not a man of high stature or stability; he was wild and indecisive; and for many years overseas he had done everything but “to make a fortune.” This made him a less desirable man to Emily Green, who sought stability and firmness, a shoulder she could rely on.

Captain Meadows came home in a rather weak condition: toothless, crippled, old and penniless. This image might have inspired sympathy from the narrator. It might have inspired admiration and respect for the glory of Captain Meadows’ life. But does this kind of admiration and respect resonate with the admiration we come across in the story’s beginning? the kind of respect for a man of adventure and thrill-seeking? It might not. By now Captain Meadows seemed like a burden to his family; his many experiences became meaningless. The strong man could now barely walk with his own two feet.

In my conclusion, the “admiration and respect” that the narrator felt for Captain Meadows changes as the story proceeds, but subtly. We cannot look at the outer layer, the glowing skin of the matter and judge somebody’s opinion. In the end, Emily Green had made the right decision to marry Tom Meadows (Captain Meadows’ brother). “Fate had been kind: death had written the full stop in the right place”. Captain Meadows died at home where his past generations had been born and died. The narrator at this point might have had another kind of “respect and admiration”: for a man who valued his family’s tradition and who made his final, and perhaps most sound decision in his adventurous life. Who can tell?

“The Selfish Giant”: Something concealed, Nature does reveal

I wrote this essay in a 60-minute test for the English Literature class (Spring 2015), studying “The Selfish giant” by Oscar Wilde. An example of story-telling mastery, its style differs much from that in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”; more similar to that of Flaubert’s Three Tales. In this essay, I only analyze the setting of the story. Before you proceed, I recommend reading Oscar Wilde’s original story here.



For people studying or interested in English literature, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is not a strange name. His exuberant personality, his eccentric and flamboyant fashion style, and perhaps his infamous arrest and imprisonment for being homosexual – all left his indelible marks on earth as a passionate artist who adored beauty. His novel, plays, and short stories usually embrace philosophical and/or theological questions. “The Selfish Giant”, a short story from “The Happy Prince and other Tales” (1888), is an excellent example. After emerging in in the dazzling nature in the story, readers are left surprised at the story’s revelation. But, is the setting of the story also significant for us to understand the protagonist, the Giant, at all?

Firstly, the “setting of a story” is the physical place, the scenes, time and space of the story. No characters can function alone without their interaction with the physical place. In return, the physical surrounding environment affects the characters physically and emotionally. “The Selfish giant” revolves around a big garden owned by a giant, the natural changes, and the human interactions within it. On the outset, the garden was quite desolate because the giant had hung on the gate a big sign saying “Trespassers will be prosecuted”, shoving away everyone. It was covered with snow, frost, hail, and wind. The trees never gave fruits. There was no delightful music.

These physical features obviously indicate that for such a selfish giant, the world he resides was not at all comfortable; or he deserved to live in that lonely, depressing castle. As we read on, we clearly see that the giant’s mood and his “selfishness” started to change when the poor little children snuck in the garden to play. Suddenly, there was warmth and joy in the garden; there was jovial music and laughter, which “melted” the giant’s heart. He realized that the Spring didn’t come to his garden because he was so selfish and cruel. The stone wall, the symbol of isolation between the two world, his and the happy outside world, was knocked down. This makes me think of the joy and ultimate freedom that people from West Germany and East Germany finally achieved when the Berlin Wall was torn down, 1989. Oscar Wilde’s story is timeless in hinting that no “walls” would bring unity and freedom. Knocking down his wall surrounding the garden, the giant made a huge leap forward, changing his attitude towards the world (and truly, who he was). He became more loving, more generous, more SELF-LESS. As a result, we the readers become more sympathetic with him.

Another striking feature was the story’s time lapses and the seasonal changes. They seem to represent human lifespan: spring represents youth, winter old age. Perhaps dying in the “winter” would be most painful. At the end of the story, Wilde let the giant die, which was a very solemn note for a children’s story. However, the giant did not die in solemn winter, but “under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.” The giant came to a more beautiful, eternal garden called “paradise”. The story’s message is that the good and loving, the self-sacrificing are rewarded generously. The giant started out no less similar to us: insecure, selfish, at times self-seeking. But he could change for the better; he stepped bravely forward and admitted his mistakes; he could sense and smell the wonders of this beautiful world. He could be better, and so do we.

“The Selfish Giant” has a rich source of Biblical fables; the setting of the garden (twelve trees, spring, flowers, etc.) somehow suggests a longing for Paradise. Put in a decaying moral world of the late Victorian era, the story still resonates Queen Victoria’s ideal of a peaceful loving world embraced by Christian values; a world where the righteous are rewarded eternal life. Keeping this note in mind, we come to another lesson that “The selfish giant” espoused: We do make mistakes in our life, but as long as you repent, there is a way to forgiveness and salvation, as was the case for the selfish giant.


Visit Penguin readers guide for the summary and exercises to better understand the story: http://www.penguinreaders.com/pdf/downloads/pyr/factsheets/9780582456099.pdf

See the animated film on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btNVUWikg7M