Trương Văn Tuấn: Mây trắng giăng ngang lưng đồi

Để thay đổi không khí sau khi đọc hai quyển tiếng Anh khá dày (hơn 350 trang một cuốn) liên tục, tôi chuyển qua tập truyện ngắn của Trương Văn Tuấn. Câu chuyện đầu nói lên sự đau đớn của người chồng sau khi người vợ mang thai bị chết đuối. Câu chuyên kế tiếp kể về một cô làm gái trên xe lửa. Tất cả 19 câu chuyện có những nội dung đau buồn trong cuộc sống hằng ngày. Sách ngắn (dưới 200 trang) đọc cũng tạm được.

Richard O. Prum: The Evolution of Beauty

After reading Prum’s close observations of animal sexual activities, I have a different perspective on ducks. Lady ducks, I have tremendous respect for you. Stay strong and away from the rapists. Male ducks, if I ever catch you gang-rape a female duck, I will turn you into my blood soup (tiết canh). All joking aside, this book is a compelling scientific study of the evolution of animal sexuality and how it teaches us about our own sexuality. Let’s face it. Appearance matters. Female birds and ducks choose attractive mates to give them the best offsprings. Male Bowerbirds have to create beautiful bowers in order to get the female Bowerbirds to lek. As for the Great Argus, his only job is to make love. After that, the female takes over the responsibility of giving birth and raising the children. Wouldn’t men want to be Bowerbirds? This book is so fascinating that I read almost nonstop in the past two nights. Now I can’t get the image of the duck penis out of my head. A must-read for anyone interested in the science and beauty of sex.

Some notes

On duck rapes (p.157):

Forced copulations are pervasively common in many species of ducks, which might suggest that there’s something routine and ordinary about them, but they are also violent, ugly, dangerous, and even deadly. Female ducks are conspicuous in resisting them and will attempt to fly or swim away from their attackers; if they do not manage to escape, they mount vigorous struggles to try to repel their attackers. This can be extraordinarily difficult to do, because in many duck species forced copulation is often socially organized. Groups of males travel together and attack a single female in a form of gang rape. By attacking her in concert, males increase the chance that one of them will be able to overcome her resistance, and thwart her mate’s attempts to defend her, than if they acted alone.

The cost to females of forced copulations is very high. Females are often injured, and not infrequently killed in the process.

On duck penis (p.161):

Alternatively, [Kevin] McCracken also hypothesized that the male somehow uses his superlong penis to remove the sperm of the other competing males from the female’s reproductive tract.

Amy Tan: Where the Past Begins

Tan’s beautiful, poignant memoir reveals her writing process, her love for language, her frightful experience with and appreciation for music, and her family conflicts and tragedies. Tan’s relationships with her immigrant parents, in particular, are powerful and heartbreaking. She writes about her dad: “Among fathers, he was a great father. But I also realize this painful truth: he loved God far more than he loved me.” She speaks her mind on religion:

His fear did not turn me way from God. It made me reject the notion that God must be constantly pleased and feared. If my father were alive, I would try to talk to him in his framework of Christianity. I would tell him that I can’t worship a God who is synonymous with prohibition and the threat of punishment. Fear, I think, is the worst element of religions of all kinds. It is used to justify more fear, as well as hatred, lack of compassion, intolerance, and war.

On politics, Tan speaks eloquently from an Asian-American voice:

Today, the day after the 2016 presidential election, I am disillusioned—devastated and angry. My party lost, and the unthinkable has happened. America has changed overnight. It has already shown that it will be governed under an openly racist agenda, one that sees immigrants as the cause of economic woes, crime, and terrorism. A significant percentage of the public are expressing their antipathy to anyone who does not look like he or she is white, heterosexual, and conservative.

Although the book is a bit too long, it is an engaging and thoughtful read.

Phan Việt: Nước Mỹ, nước Mỹ

Tập truyện ngắn của Phan Việt viết về đời sống người Việt trên đất Mỹ được mở đầu với câu chuyện sex táo bạo. Phan Việt diễn tả: “Tôi cứ đàng hoàng để cho các cô gái ve vuốt dương vật và làm tình với tôi. Tất. Oral Sex. Anal Sex. Tóc vàng. Tóc nâu. Tóc đen. Tất. Fucking America”. Tuy ngôn ngữ thô tục và câu chuyện chỉ là hư cấu nằm trong fantasy (khả năng tưởng tượng) của tác giả, đọc cũng phê phê. Bài “Cách mạng baby” rất hài, nhất là cảnh tả về công việc “baby making”. Tuy nhiên có phần ngôn ngữ tiếng Anh viết rất phô trương. Chẳng hạn như khi vợ dùng câu “Fuck thiên hạ” còn chồng thì nói vợ “Bullshit” và “Yes! Fuck you”. Dường như tác giả viết với cái nhìn của một người mới đến đất Mỹ và còn chưa nhập vào cuộc sống và văn hoá Mỹ. Tuy nhiên không phải bài nào cũng viết về sex.

Cory Taylor: Dying

Taylor diagnosed with melanoma at sixty. She planned her death with an euthanasia drug she bought online from China and a suicide note before her brain surgery. Taylor’s memoir, however, is not about her dying days. It’s a reflection on her life, childhood, and relationships with her parents and siblings. She writes:

A slow death, like mine, has that one advantage. You have a lot of time to talk, to tell people how you feel, to try to make sense of the whole thing, of the life that is coming to a close, both for yourself and for those who remain.

Instead of focusing on the gruesome details of dying, Taylor chooses to celebrate life. It’s a brief, beautiful read.

Trần Kỳ Trung: Giá tôi là đàn bà

Tôi thường tránh đọc những bài viết về chiến tranh Việt Nam dù cách nhìn trong hoặc ngoài nước. Nhưng khi đã lỡ đọc tập truyện ngắn của Trần Kỳ Trung thì đọc cho hết. Mặt dù tác giả viết về thời kháng chiến chống Mỹ sau năm 1975, những câu chuyện của ông nói lên những tình mẫu tử, anh em, và trai gái. Khi thoát khỏi được cái chính trị trong những bài viết, tôi thích cách viết mộc mạc và cái nhìn đời và đạo đức làm người của tác giả.

90 Books Read in 2017

2017 sets a new record for the number of books I have read in a year. Based on my reading history, I read almost twice as much as I did last year, which was 50, and 20 more than the numbers in 2014, which was 70.

In retrospect, I can see how I pulled it off. I have started a reading ritual. Each morning I wake up at 5 am and read until 7:30 am—before the kids get up. Each night, I read from 9:30 or 10 pm, depending on when the kids are fastened asleep, until midnight or one in the morning. During the day, I read whenever I have a few minutes here and there like half an hour at lunchtime or while one of my kids napping in the car on a Saturday afternoon. I always carry a book with me everywhere I go just in case I have to wait in a long line for coffee.

Over the summer, I took a trip back to Vietnam to see my dad. During the 20 plus hours of flights and connections, I read rather than slept. Even in Vietnam, I did not take any tour. I spent most of my time with my dad, my family, and my books.

Before went back to the States, I gave my iPhone 5s to one of my nieces. Back home I didn’t have a cell phone for three months. During that time, I read even more. I did not check social media as often as before. I did not follow the news vigorously like I had with a smartphone. If it were not for work, I would not have bought a new phone.

With Trump dominating the media since he has become president, I needed to find an escape route. Books came to rescue. They kept me sane and away from politics and Trump’s idiotic tweets and stupidities.

As for the type of books, I still read mostly nonfiction. In addition to English, I have read quite a bit of Vietnamese books this year. The trip back to Vietnam rejuvenated I love for Vietnamese. Having used much Vietnamese since fifth grade, I have a lot of relearning and catching up to do, but it feels great to read and write my native language again. Because accessing Vietnamese books are limited in Fairfax public libraries, I get my hands on whatever the latest books available. They have more fiction than nonfiction. Although the collection is small, I am very grateful that Fairfax public libraries have a section for Vietnamese books.

For my reading habit, I experimented with switching between English nonfiction and Vietnamese fiction. I find the alternating to be quite rewarding. I like the balance and the ability to read both of the languages I love so dearly. I will continue with this approach.

For 2018, I won’t try to break my record. Instead I want to focus on reading thicker books (between 400 to 500 pages). Reading has become my obsession and I will read as long and as much as I can. It is one of my joys in life.

Daphne Merkin: This Close to Happy

In her brave, heartbreaking, and riveting memoir, Merkin reveals candid details of her life-long struggle with depression. She grew up in an unnurturing and abusive environment. She fantasized of killing herself at a young age. Merkin’s relationship with her tough German-Jewish mother was cold, critical, controlling, and complex. She despised her mom, but had a hard time without her. In addition to depression, this is an eye-opening book on parenting. It’s a dark yet beautiful read.

Đỗ Bích Thúy: Lặng yên dưới vực sâu

Quyển tiểu thuyết ngắn của Đỗ Bích Thúy bắc đầu với câu chuyện “Cướp vợ”, nghĩa là một anh chàng con nhà giàu (muốn gì được nấy) bắt cóc một cô gái về hãm hiếp và bắt buộc làm vợ. Mỗi ngày lôi vợ lên giường làm như thú vật tuy người đàn bà không có một cảm giác gì cả. Tác giả viết về bối cảnh ấy như sau:

Một ngôi nhà to, đầy gia súc, một thằng chồng lúc nào cũng đội cái mũ nồi màu đỏ, đi một chiếc xe máy đỏ, đêm nào cũng thè lưỡi quệt khắp người, cấu véo khắp người vợ. Cả cuộc đời từ khi về làm vợ, đêm nào cũng chịu để cho thằng chồng làm như thế. Ôi, sống làm sao được chứ. Sống làm sao được cho đến lúc già, làm mẹ rồi làm bà nội, bà ngoại? Chồng nào cũng ăn vợ như thế hay sao?

Đây là một câu chuyện nói lên những cay đắng và đau đớn trong bạo lực gia đình. Đọc tuy hay nhưng thảm thương lắm.

Chip Kidd: Judge This

Graphic designer Chip Kidd is a keen observer. In Judge This, Kidd shares things that piqued his interest and rates them from clarity to mysterious. He points out, “Clarity gets to the point” and “Mysterious gives us hope.” Kidd incorporates both end of the scales in his own projects. The way he applies judgement to his design is simply brilliant. Judge This is a quick, inspiring, and informing read, particularly for designers.