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!


“Red”: a man’s love for Manchester United and professional football


You have never seen a harder-working group of sixteen-year-olds in your life than the class of 1992 at United. […] There’s no doubt that we had an unbelievable work ethic. At the time we thought it was normal, but there’s no doubt looking back that we were an extraordinary group in our eagerness to practise.

We loved to play and work at the game. It’s no coincidence that we’ve all played into our mid-thirties, and beyond in Giggsy’s case. We’ve wanted to squeeze every last drop out of our careers from first kick to last.

–Red: My Autobiography, Gary Neville

Are you seeking a short break from literary fiction? Interested in sports memoirs/autobiographies? Are you a fan of Manchester United football club? If so, Gary Neville’s autobiography, “Red”, is perfect for you.

Gary Neville is a former footballer of Manchester United, the world-famous English football club. After spending his 20-year career playing for only MU, Neville retired in 2011 and released his autobiography shortly afterward. The book’s title Red” refers to the MU uniform color and the nickname that fans give Neville – a “Red” at heart.

The book has 25 chapters, chartering Neville’s life with MU and the people closest to him.

The first two chapters recount Neville’s childhood and family, whose impacts on him reverberate throughout the book. Narrated in a memoir style, these chapters feel both intimate and candid. Undeniably, Neville was born in a family of sport-enthusiasts; all three children were “sports-mad kids”. Discipline and healthy competition between brothers seem to foretell young Neville’s career.

The remaining chapters discuss Gary’s football career, professional relationships (i.e. with coaches, manager assistants, teammates, rival clubs), and perspective on the contemporary football industry.

Neville joined MU as an apprentice in 1991, won a major youth cup in his first season, then emerged as part of coach Alex Ferguson’s youth team (called “Fergie’s Fledglings”).

Six members of that Youth club went on to achieve global fame: Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Philip Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt. “Class of 92”, as they were called, was part of the massive revolution in English football from 1992 to the Champions League in 1999.


Coach Eric Harrison (far left) with Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Terry Cooke, a group significant to Sir Alex Ferguson’s success and MU’s revival.

Neville openly admits that talent was not his edge, compared to his contemporaries. Instead, his magic potion has been an unfailing love for MU, and a serious work ethic. It also means an obsessive and ritual lifestyle: “If the coach said ‘run 5 miles’, we would run 6 miles”, eating the same meals, sleeping like clockwork (lights out at 9:15PM), and almost no time for romantic relationships, etc.

Professional football, in Neville’s confessions, seems to have many rituals found in the macho environment. Sometimes it includes hazing-like welcomes, excessive partying, boozing, gambling, explosive clashes among teammates and with coaches. These incidents shall be glared by the media at any moment. Another problem is each footballer’s responsibility to himself. A modern-day footballer is likely to be a robot, devoid of passion and spirit, argued Neville. Many footballers are “lazy and careless”, too dependent on their agents. Neville discusses these matters in the final three chapters, with a critical eye, but without pontificating.

About the book’s weaknesses, certain things dissatisfied me. First, some chapters are incoherent and not well-organized. For instance, when talking about transfer negotiations, the author wanders off points, ending with another Championship victory and a Christmas party. A chapter on Cristiano Ronaldo strays in the same pattern. Second, Neville refers to his team mates by using their nicknames, “Giggsy”, “Scholsey”, Butty”, “Wazza” (for Wayne Rooney), etc. causing confusion (for there are already so many names). Third, I anticipated seeing a vivid Alex Ferguson, the manager who guided MU to its golden era. Instead, his image is painted favorably and rather vague.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading this book and imagined a football fan would cherish it. Neville’s passion for football and for United drips off every page. Playing football with such passion and loyalty seems rare these days, especially when the football arena is full of million-dollar transfer stories and notorious negotiations. This book reminds me that success is an interesting journey, not a destination; that journey rewards those who keep passion and a serious work ethic.

“You cannot stay at the top in professional sport for very long without commitment and sacrifice. There is nothing worse than not making the most of your abilities. That is what the boss would remind us day after day after day. Be proud to say you work hard.”

Lastly, if you care about the Vietnamese men football which is struggling to progress, pick up this book. Not a book of instructions, but it has much that we benefit from reading.



Winning team: Neville (front right) lift the Premier League trophy in 2007

**“Gary Neville is a Red”—a chant song by the FC fan.


“Just Kids” by Patti Smith: a spectacular memoir championing Arts and Friendship

Patti Smith just kids

“I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”
                                                  _ Just kids, by Patti Smith

I read Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, in February, reread it in summer of 2015, and have mentioned this book all the time. It is so massive to me – not because the author is an iconic figure, the godmother of Punk – but for its candor, depth, and very human feelings – the things that I look for in memoirs.

Patti Smith, born in 1946, is the legendary Punk rock singer-songwriter, a poet, a visual artist and photographer. The book revolves around Patti Smith’s relationship with one of the most significant people in her life-her soul mate, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and their evolution from young aspiring people to professional artists. Their friendship began in odd situations in New York, carried through the years; they both loved and hurt each other deeply. They supported each other when the other was down. Their relationship fluctuated after Mapplethorpe admitted that he was gay; and for a while, they went in and out of friendship. Nonetheless, their love for each other in the end endured even beyond Robert’s death in 1989.

Just kids is well-written from the beginning to its end. It is so liberating and uplifting; and yet it doesn’t hide the very difficult times when Patti, before establishing her path, was still starving, roaming the streets, sleeping at doorbells, in subways or in graveyards, when “a handful of coins on the telephone could mean one less meal.” Living on the edge, she admittedly mused,

“I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos – the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?

I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.

Often I’d sit and try to write or draw, but all of the maniac activity in the streets, coupled with the Vietnam War, made my efforts seem meaningless. I could not identify with political movements. In trying to join them I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy. I wondered if anything I did mattered.”

Patti’s struggle to find a purpose in art and life is so human and relevant to me as a young person. What is the aim of a real artist? Should it be in “great zoos” (the museums) or be towards the PEOPLE? In a culture that still devalues and stifles individualism, it is not easy for me to find a means for self-expression that won’t be persecuted or bullied, except in doing small-scale paintings to convey my thoughts. But I am yet comfortable doing it for myself; I want to reach out and inspire those who are like me or less lucky than me. After reading Just kids, I believe that that mission is possible.

Many young aspiring artists who still question their paths, I think, will find inspiration in Mapplethorpe, for his absolute confidence and belief in arts. In low times, when even Patti “nearly regretted the pursuit of art”, it was Robert’s drive and focus that assured them to stay staunch and hold on to their missions.

“He wasn’t certain whether he was a good or bad person. Whether he was altruistic. Whether he was demonic. But he was certain of one thing. He was an artist. And for that he would never apologize.”

That never meant living by the will alone; there were times when Robert had to take to hustling, offering himself to strangers to make extra money; when they lived on  day-old bread, took turns to see art exhibitions to report to each other; when they were so desperate that they had to pocket drawing supplies.

Just kids also dedicates a large proportion to the 1960s counter-culture, having an intrinsic historical value. In the 1960s-1970s, New York was a scary place to live; yet, it was the nurturing place for generations of artists, i.e. Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas, Jimi Hendrix, Salvador Dalí, etc. Hotel Chelsea was a strikingly iconic place where these artists lived and frequented, the “salon d’Art” for ambitious and already esteemed artists alike. Patti and Robert were part of that artistic community, were mentored by many of those artists, and were simultaneously adding “fabrics” to that tapestry. All of these scenes are captured vividly in Patti’s classical eyes and candid narration.

If you love arts, music, and poetry, please read this book. You will find how beautiful and powerful effect that those three elements can create together, that every effort you put in arts is worthwhile.

If you love New York City, 1960s-1970s, this book is perfect for you. If you are still wavering in your career choices, read this book. You don’t need to be in the humanities to be inspired by Patti and Robert’s stories.

If you are still lonely and searching for true friendship, for ones who will understand you and love you for the weird person that you are, please read this book. It makes me laugh, smile, and weep and remain hopeful as ever.

Just kids is written with heart and soul, and I am so glad to have this book in my life. Please read the book, then listen to her recording “Paths that cross.”

In 2005, Patti Smith was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Just kids won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction and has been continually circulated among a wide range of readers. Patti Smith’s debut album Horses was a key factor and major influence on the New York Punk rock scene.

——Some useful links:

Amazon linkhttp://www.amazon.com/Just-Kids-Patti-Smith/dp/0060936223

2010 National Book Award Winner

NPR interviewhttp://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122722618

Louisiana channel interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6nIhaagnbA

Patti Smith’s advice to the young: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2EO3aXTWwg

* Some of Patti Smith’s greatest songs:


Paths that cross: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cln_1lthtC0

People have the power: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPR-HyGj2d0

Fire of unknown origin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_2KIUuShbM