Apocalypse is safe in the glass

October 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of a revolution that shook the modern world. Hanoi in October and November, it seems brimming with “red” delight, a striking contrast between young people’s apathy toward the event and older generation’s dallying with nostalgia.

The entrance of National Library of Vietnam, Hanoi. Defying Hanoi’s bleak winter chill, bright scarlet posters were seen popular and stirring heat in people’s mind.

Stalin caught my eye when I was walking through the hall of the National Library in Hanoi. His name and portraits were placed among those of Lenin and other soviet revolutionaries in a month-long commemorating the Russian Revolution of 1917 (or better known here as the October Revolution). So I picked up an anthology of his writings and speeches, published in 1953, the year he died. Stalin and his legacy will always be controversial: the ruthless dictator under whom 40 millions people perished, or a great leader who spearheaded a country’s transformation? Regardless, his writing and speeches are self-evident of a megalomaniac.

Stalin and Lenin’s revolutionary speeches and various writings were on display. I was lucky to have picked up some to read before the library’s staff sealed off the shelves with glass panes.

I browsed through some of his national assembly addresses. A sense of self-assuredness cloaked in a camaraderie tone, whereas the early pages give away his fear and suspicion. Ironically, the very war-worn rural population that Lenin had promised “Peace, Land, and Bread” was wailing and falling deeper in crises; poverty was rampant while much done by the Party was relentlessly recruiting new “loyal” members and tightening the soviet control, militarily and ideologically.

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I could never overcome asking why intellectuals, artists, religious people had to die so that the “blue-collars” and “peasantry” will rule the country. Glorifying communism was a significant part of my early life’ education, until I learned English and was able to read for myself.

In Stalin’s words, grim consequences were to follow “unless we made the soviets act more forcefully and vigilantly, …”. Such were the expressions as frequent as the soviet paranoia about winning and controlling their rural population – the very birthplace of the soviet revolution. Nowadays perhaps few even care to ask ‘Why’.

One reason seems to stand out: Stalinists were busy persecuting the non-soviets. In one of his 1927 speeches, Stalin made it clear that Democratic Socialism is no friend to the soviets. In fact it was as evil as capitalism and therefore should be defeated. He called the anti-Bolshevik peasantry uprising in Georgia in 1924 as “thổ phỉ” (bandits uprising), supported by the opposition Mensheviks and capitalists – the evil must be terminated. My favorite essayist, George Orwell, did enjoy much more freedom of speech in his post-war England. Fast forward to 2016, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders obviously enjoyed much fanfare and popularity advocating for Democratic Socialism. It would not have been fantastic for them had they been in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s reign of terror. No one was entirely safe from his gaze.

The entrance TV screen displayed the two Russian revolutionaries whose names are inscribed in history. Time made heroes or losers; were they great leaders who launched the country into international stage, or ruthless masterminds who terrorized and murdered their own people?

In the same bookshelf, I found another book titled “The International Significance of the October Revolution”, published in 1952. In it Stalin made comparisons between the Bolsheviks and the French Jacobins – as both shook and shocked the world. According to Stalin, the Jacobins in reality did not do much to the social revolution but instead only perpetuated the class system – by replacing one exploiting class with another. In this sense, the bloody French Revolution couldn’t be called “triệt để”(exhaustive/absolute). In the dream to realize a classless society, Stalin took Lenin’s vision into a whole new level.

Few figures in the human history could have exerted such a terrifying combination of fear and idolatry as Stalin and, to a less apparent sense, Lenin. The Russian revolution of 1917 was indeed a landmark in humankind, but it was also bloody and senseless. It seems far-fetched for the VCP to return this historical event to its right place in history. I’m glad that the works of Stalin and Lenin are still there for discerning eyes to see just before the “glass panes” sealed them. Books are meant for reading, not for just displaying. Through their enticing yet intimidating lessons, we realize how close we were to apocalypse.

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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!