It’s an interesting month of reading. Some of the books are not my usual fare, but I enjoyed them all, so here goes:
A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr:
It seems my specialty this year is short, simple novels about the human condition and non-fiction books about nature. Since I just read a non-fiction book about the English countryside (“Wilding”), I thought I’d read a fiction book about the English countryside next. Revolving around a shell-shocked WWI veteran hired to restore a medieval mural in a Yorkshire church, this book definitely falls into that Ruskin Bond camp of “profoundly simple and simply profound”. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to be about much – the main character interacts with the locals, commiserates with a fellow veteran/archeologist, falls in love with the wife of the local vicar, and muses about the anonymous artist behind the mural, all in a very restrained, understated manner. But the whole book is filled with a powerful sense of nostalgia, for things that were and things that could have been, that will leave you both heartbroken and deeply touched. 4/5
Wintering Out by Seamus Heaney:
I’m still slowly working my way through Heaney’s works, and it seems natural to move from “A Month in the Country” to this. I’m still struggling with poetry as a whole (maybe because English is my second language, so some of its nuance is lost on me?) and this collection, which is the most abstract of Heaney’s that I’ve read so far, doesn’t make things easier. My favorite poems in this (“The Wool Trade”, “Veteran’s Dream”, “First Calf”, and “Mother of the Groom”) are about very simple and even prosaic things, but they reveal deeper meanings upon reflection, whereas some others I don’t even know what they’re about, so I just let the lyricism and musicality of the language wash over me. Sometimes that may be the best way to enjoy poetry. 3/5
The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges:
I took a break from my usual non-fictions with this combination of my two favorite genres – non-fiction and fantasy. This encyclopedia lists 120 mythical creatures from religion, folklore, and fantasy writings from around the world, ranging from the well-known (Banshee, dragon, elf) to the more obscure (axehandle hound, chon-chon, squonk). It’s a good reference book, though I was hoping for a more scientific, consistent approach. You know, like an actual encyclopedia – an entry may consist of descriptions of the creature, its origin and history, etc. Here, they are a bit all over the place. Most do describe the creature and its origin, but others are only excerpts from whatever book or piece of writing that mentions the creature. It may be irrational to demand a scientific approach, considering that this is a book about fantasy creatures, but I think it would make it much more interesting to read. 3/5
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot:
From imaginary beings to very real animals, my next read is this classic memoir (actually, I’d call it a work of autobiographical fiction, since the stories are only loosely based on the author’s experiences.) It’s a series of anecdotes that tells the story of a country vet in 1930s Yorkshire (again). The anecdotes, which are about the animals as much as the colorful people and landscape of the Yorkshire Dales, are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-wrenching, but always moving and full of human interest. The TV series (at least the 2020 version, I haven’t watched the 1978 version yet) is very enjoyable as well. 5/5
Devotions by Mary Oliver:
After Seamus Heaney, I wanted to branch out to other poets. I thought about reading some “classics” like Robert Frost and e.e. cummings, but then I came across Mary Oliver’s name and found her a little more accessible, so I read her first. One of the reasons I never quite “get” poetry is because I tend to skim while I read, while poetry requires slower, more meditative reading, and Mary Oliver’s simple language is easier to absorb. Her poems all deal with nature, which is another reason I’m drawn to them, and while they’re a lot more introspective (compared to Heaney, which is more narrative), they’re also beautiful in their simplicity. 4.5/5
My reading this month is as usual – two short works of fiction and two longer works of non-fiction. I don’t really read much fiction anymore, unless the premise is really, really interesting, or the story promises to be cozy/relaxing, or I’ve read that author before. As for non-fiction, I’m reading a lot of books on nature this year, as you can see:
My Sweet Orange Tree by Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos:
This book revolves around a young boy growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, who finds comfort with an orange tree in his backyard and later develops an unlikely friendship with an old man in the neighborhood. It reminds me of Ruskin Bond in its profound simplicity (perhaps that’s why I picked it up), and also reminds me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, as both deal with childhood hardship and… both have a “tree” in their titles? It can be quite depressing, though, as the boy is treated quite harshly by his family and it ends with (spoiler) a tragedy, with little to lift up the story. I like it, but it’s just too sad. 3/5
Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison:
I’m a big sci-fi fan, but I’m terrible about reading classic sci-fi authors – I’ve never read Asimov, Heinlein, or Vonnegut; I’ve read but don’t really enjoy Ursula K. LeGuin or Philip K. Dick; in fact, I think the only classic sci-fi authors I regularly read and enjoy is Ray Bradbury. However, this is mentioned in the afterword of American Gods, and it’s a short story collection, so I decided to check it out. I can definitely see the influence on American Gods – most of the stories deal with gods and beliefs in one way or another, some subtle, some explicit. However, it can be exhausting at times, because it’s so… intense. It doesn’t have the dreamy quality like Bradbury or the whimsical touches like Gaiman to lift it up. So, though I quite enjoy it, I’m not tempted to check out Ellison’s other works (well, the fact that he was a bit of a dick doesn’t help either.) 4/5
Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson:
I’m sure that for many of us, insects are at best a nuisance and at worst, disease-infested creepy-crawlies, but this book, which explains how insects are essential to life on Earth, may change your mind. I, for one, have always found insects fascinating (except for mosquitoes and flies), so the information in this book may not be as surprising, but I still found it quite fun and enjoyable to read, and by the end of it, I had to grudgingly accept that even the pesky mosquitoes and flies have their roles in the ecosystem. 4/5
Wilding by Isabella Tree:
This book came up in the “Recommendation” section of Goodreads because I’d just finished Extraordinary Insects, and when I found out it’s about a couple’s attempt to return their British farm to the wilderness, I immediately picked it up. It turns out to be less romantic than I thought – it’s about conservation of a huge estate (https://knepp.co.uk/home), involving careful science and planning, not just letting a little backyard garden run wild – but it’s no less riveting. It certainly gives me a different perspective about nature and our place in it. I only wish it had something about how this “rewild” effort can be applied on a smaller scale. 5/5
Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire:
This is the second book in the Wayward Children series, but it’s actually a prequel to the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, which I read back in 2019. It tells the story of twins Jack and Jill and what leads to the events in EHAD. It is very quick read (I finished it in 2 sittings), but not as subversive as Seanan McGuire’s other books and I find the characters a little flat, though it certainly does a good job of exploring the complex dynamic between twins. 3.5/5
I’ve been complaining that my wandering feet are getting itchy. Due to the pandemic, I haven’t traveled anywhere outside of Hanoi (let alone outside the country) since last year, and barely left my house during the Lunar New Year break. Luckily, after the break, the number of cases in our country started to go down again, so one weekend, my sister and I decided to take a quick day trip to Duong Lam, an ancient village (or, rather, a collection of 9 hamlets) just outside of Hanoi. My sister and I share a love for historical houses, so this village, with its 300-year-old houses (still inhabited!), quiet alleyways, and somber temples under the branches of ancient trees, is right up our alley.
We had a great time just wandering down the alleys, dropping into old houses that caught our attention (most of them are open to visitors and the owners are more than happy to tell you about their history; you just have to pay a general entrance fee at the village gate.) We brought my niece, nephew, and their cousins along as well, and although there isn’t much for kids in the village, they, too, had fun running around the fields and being in the countryside.
All in all, it was a good trip and helped to quench my wanderlust a little bit. With vaccination underway, hopefully there will be more and longer trips to come this year!
The first two months’ reading has been interesting. I read 9 books, and as usual, they’re an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction. There are some Vietnamese books too. Let’s get to them:
A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey:
I wanted something easy and cozy to start the year, and although this book (YA chick lit) is not my usual fare, it has two things that spark my interest: it’s set in England and revolves around food (baking, to be precise). The main character is Lila, a Cuban-American girl sent to stay with her aunt in England to recover after a series of heartbreaks – her beloved grandmother passed away suddenly, her boyfriend broke up with her, and her best friend changed their plan for the future without telling her. Then, of course, she meets an English boy and all is well. The story is cute, too cute in fact – there isn’t a lot of drama here, despite what the book keeps telling us. And perhaps because I’m an Anglophile, but I find Lila rather whiny – imagine having to spend three months in England with free room and board, the horror! This seems to be a recent common complaint of mine with YA books – the main characters all come off as whiny, spoiled brats. Maybe I’m getting too old for this shit. 2.5/5
Chữ số và Thế giới (Numbers and the World) by Đỗ Minh Triết:
This book about the history of numbers, written by a Vietnamese mathematician, was a Teacher’s Day present from my students, who said they didn’t know what kind of fiction I like, so they picked a non-fiction book to be safe (very sensible of them.) I’ve read a lot of books on the history of languages and other social sciences, but never on numbers before – it hadn’t even occurred to me that numbers could have such a long and diverse history – so this is fascinating to read. Some technical bits (such as how people used to do math when they had no zero and even no concept of zero) are a little difficult to follow, but overall, it’s well-researched and quite engaging. 4/5
I discovered Ruskin Bond last year from a short story collection, so this year, I decided to read two of his novels – “The Room on the Roof” (written when Bond was only 17!!!) and its sequel. They are autobiographical, telling the coming-of-age story of an Anglo-Indian boy who runs away from his abusive guardian, makes friend with the local youths, and experiences love as well as heartbreak. Like Ruskin Bond’s other writings, both books are simple, quick reads, but they’re about profound things like growing up, first love, friendship and solitude, and finding your identity and your place in the world. They can be too prosaic at times, but after you finish, the characters will surely stay with you. 3.5/5
Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence by Stefano Mancuso, translated by Alessandra Viola:
I picked this up because the premise (proving that plants are just as intelligent and animated as animals or even humans) sounds interesting, but as I read it, I realized I was the wrong audience for it. This book is for someone who knows nothing about plants and thinks of them as inanimate things, because the evidence cited by the author to prove the existence of plants’ intelligence is very basic and well-known. I was hoping for more explanations as to how plants know how to do these things (for example, how did the Venus fly trap evolve into a carnivorous plant?), but there is very little of it. 2/5
Gánh Hàng Hoa (The Flower Seller) by Khái Hưng & Nhất Linh:
This novella is a classic of Vietnam’s Romanticism movement (1930-1945), so I’m well acquainted with the story; I just never read the actual book until now. It’s about a struggling student who, after an accident renders him partly blind, gains unexpected fame as a writer, but it also causes him to betray his loyal wife, a flower seller. Written at a time when Vietnamese literature was hugely influenced by French romance novels, this can be very maudlin and melodramatic, but there is something charming in its naïveté, and the description of life in the olden days is always a plus for me. 3/5
Đi Trốn (Going Hiding) by Bình Ca:
This is another Vietnamese book, which tells the story of a group of teenagers who run away from their evacuation camp during the Vietnam War (which, in Vietnam, is called the American War) and go on an adventure in the wilderness of Northwest Vietnam. I picked it up because I enjoy this kind of adventure stories, but this one turns out to be a disappointment. The writing is rather dry, and the story takes itself so seriously that the fun and innocence of the kids’ adventure are lost. There are some interesting bits that describe life in an evacuation camp, but that’s about it. 2/5
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicolas Carr:
For the last couple of years, I noticed that my ability to concentrate has gone down considerably – before, I used to be able to read two or even three screenplays a day, but now I’m lucky if I can read one a day. I blame burn-out (if the script is well-written, I can finish it much more quickly), but there appears to be more than that, and this book confirms I’m not the only one suffering from this form of ADD. It takes a look at the concept of neuroplasticity and explores how intellectual technologies, starting from maps and the printing press, all the way to the Internet, have affected the human brain. It’s not anti-Internet or anti-technology, but it certainly makes you think harder about how you can use technologies without losing yourself to it. I only wish it was a bit more entertaining to read – it can be a bit dry at times. 3/5
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina
This book focuses on three animals – the elephant, the wolf, and the killer whale – and the science of animal behaviors and answer the questions: Do animals feel? Do they think? Do they communicate (both with each other and with us)? It goes to show that we humans are a lot more similar to animals (we are, after all, animals too) than we think. It can be heartbreaking to read at times, especially the parts on how callously we treat these animals and consider ourselves superior to them simply because we can think and feel and talk. However, it’s also powerful, beautiful, and moving. 5/5
Usually, around this time of the year, I would be preparing for my annual trip, but obviously, it’s not happening this year. In fact, I don’t know when I’m going to be able to travel again – even traveling inside Vietnam has become riskier and riskier. So, to quench my wanderlust, I’m looking back at my past travels and seeing what I miss most about traveling. I’m not talking about the obvious such as discovering new sights and new cultures, and meeting new people, though I do miss those too. Rather, I’m thinking things that you experience with every trip but rarely think about… until you can’t travel anymore. Things like…
– Before the trip: The excitement (and even the stress) of planning for the trip – researching the destination, coming up with an itinerary, booking tickets and accommodations, and packing. I’m very much a planner, so I love all of it. And of course, there is the feeling of anticipation as you sit at the airport (or the train station), waiting for the adventure to begin.
– During the trip: Getting to know a new place with all of its everyday details. Where is the nearest grocery store/supermarket/cafe? Where is the nearest bus/train station? Even the novelty of your hotel room/AirBnB never wears off either, no matter how long you’ve been traveling. I’m terrible with directions, so I especially love it when I can remember the way back to the hotel/AirBnB without having to rely on maps.me. It feels like I’m finally coming “home”.
And despite my love for planning, I always leave room for some flexibility during the trip. No matter how well you plan, something always goes wrong, but sometimes, these unplanned moments can result in the best memories!
– After the trip: The sadness that the trip is over, mixed with the relief that you’ll get to sleep in your own bed again. And the fun of sorting through all your photos and reliving the trip all over.
So yes, I miss traveling. But at the same time, I feel incredibly lucky that I got to travel to so many amazing places over the last few years – Iceland, Cuba, Iran, and Russia are definitely the highlights. Fingers crossed that I’ll get to travel again soon!