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The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
Bill Watterson
Graceling - Kristin Cashore Very annoyingly naive and silly type of feminism. The story could have been so much better. I was tempted to rate 1 star but forced myself to be more lenient.
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time - Neil Armstrong, Dava Sobel A lovely account about timekeeping. I'm easily obsessed with old machines and especially clocks and watches, so, yeah, I like it.
Beloved - Toni Morrison Beautifully written. Until part 3, and something clicked. And then it did not work that well for me anymore.

Nevertheless, yes, still one of the best proses I've ever read. I borrowed this book from the library, a first edition and it seems to have many avid previous readers. There are underlines, notes on the margins, bullet points, summaries, everywhere. At first I was annoyed. But eventually those notes assisted me in my reading. It was not an easy read, because it was super subtle. Sometimes the meaning of a whole passage is contained within just that one single adjective, and if you don't get it, you lose it. After about a half of the book, it became less so, less full of allusion, since the secret was already out. But still, I mean it, Beloved requires a careful read.

Morrison seems to write effortlessly (but of course it was not the case). Viewpoints change and switch back swiftly, between characters, between third-person the reader and first-person the actor. Past and present fuse to the point that I thought they simply could not be separated, they have even become one. The past, it is like a curse, a clinging punishment, that haunted and obsessed Sethe for almost twenty years even though she refused to talk about it. She did not deal with it, with her fear, and so she was not released from it, it did not let her go. She still lived in it. Denver, in turns, was stuck in time. She did not experience an eventful past, did not try to run away from it, but she could not have any future ever. She sticked to a few precious memories that made her her. But how could that be enough? She was trapped in time, in the very present moment, and trapped in space as well. It was only at the end of the book that there was now finally a sense of future. The present and the future are no longer wrapped up so violently by the painful past.

I could not tell exactly right now what I felt about the ending of the book that made it less appealing to me. After all, it is a happy ending, somewhat. The past could not change and it still hurts, but at least it does not eat them up and becomes scars only. I don't know, I don't know. When I know, I'll tell.
Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else - Geoff Colvin I am hesitating between two and three stars. I gave 3 in the end because I want to send a signal: Yes, Talent is Overrated. I always admire acquaintances who work hard more than who rely and brag on their intelligence and "talent". But I do feel, sadly, that sometimes hard work is not good enough. As a result, sometimes we just want to give up. What is the point? This book, and another conversation with a friend of mine, change that dismal outlook. No, we are not helpless.

The book succeeds in its ideas. Talent is Overrated. It challenges our common acceptance that talent is the deciding factor. No, Colvin tries hard to bring evidence to prove that what counts is really 99% - the hard work. That 99% would finally build the last 1%. What counts is the seemingly unbearable hard work. The thing is, do you want badly enough?

My lame theory is that for some people, the want actually starts to be built since early age. But the building process takes forever. It is not that one has a sudden urge to paint or to sing. Therefore, it is never too late to start doing something. It will be a bit later when one finally has some accomplishments, but no, it is never too late. People complain they don't have a passion. My advice is stick to something that you like adequately, and work on it. Then you may (or may not, damn) love it enough. No, my passions do not grow overnight. Sometimes they crumble, too. The point is sticking to it. After a certain limit (can't tell where the limit is), it is pretty sticky, and voila.

It is empowering to know that we can be great if we want badly enough and work hard enough. It's fine that you don't necessarily want to be great at something. But for others, like me, who do want and yet feel discouraged because they have not achieved anything at all, then this book is a must.

A complaint that I have about this book is its writing. Its writing is practical and a bit dry, though very useful. This is inevitable, considering the contemporary society which is obsessed by the business mindset, by "efficiency" and "productivity" like ours today: how to personally improve, how organizations boost performance by encouraging and letting employees grow and innovate, etc. Again, good advice, just not to my particular taste. I care deeply, more, about how we should believe in ourselves, keep on dreaming, and work.
The Elites - Natasha Ngan Aahh... nothing wrong. It just wasn't able to capture my full attention. The writing is a bit too simple to my taste.
The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter--And How to Make the Most of Them Now - Meg Jay The first time I feel a self-help book actually helps. This is the advice I have been searching for from older people, but that that no one was ever able to give.

The book is straightforward and absolutely pragmatic. The writing is not that great, but that is not the point for this kind of books anyway.
Einstein's Dreams - Alan Lightman A small book and yet it contains so many big ideas. Simple writing and yet it takes time to fully digest.

It somewhat reminds me of [b:Invisible Cities|9809|Invisible Cities|Italo Calvino|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348058607s/9809.jpg|68476], b/c of its fantastic elements. But its tone is less fascinating, though its ideas are probably more coherent.
Possession - A.S. Byatt It struck me that I do like riddles. Intelligent ones, and meaningful, too. Just like with [b:The Blind Assassin|78433|The Blind Assassin|Margaret Atwood|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1327876197s/78433.jpg|3246409], I was enchanted by Possession's world. I held my breath, waiting to see things being unfolded, though painfully slowly.

On the other hand, I could not understand how the book could be an international bestseller. The writing, though I find superb, could be really hard to get into. Byatt imitates the Victorian flowery prose really too well, and at times I just shook my head in defeat. I did have to consult a dictionary while reading Ash and Lamotte's correspondence, oh my... To add to that, I even, *whisper*, cheated a few times when it came to poetry. I just could not digest it well and fast enough, it took me forever, and yet I wanted to know everything as soon as I could. Still I made a copy of some poems, promising myself I would come back to them in deep reflection later (hah, such wishful thinking).

That did not mean I devoured the book in a hurried state. It was simply impossible. Besides many of its themes, romance, feminism, sexuality, etc., you name them; Possession is to a great extent about literary and historical research into the lives of fictional figures, and it depicts the process of that research, I think, quite truthfully. Things could go very slow indeed. You do have to peruse over tons of documents to catch a single line of hint, you do have to bear with dull details in order to have just a glimpse of the interesting. There are inevitably gaps that the future could just never grasp entirely. And then there is this academic rivalry, the competition to be the first in discovery. Or there is simply this pure obssession with the subject of research, and thus the wish to know all, to possess all, or even to keep just to oneself. It takes true patience, and perhaps true "research" enthusiasm to stay focused with the book. But it pays off, I believe.

And yet I feel somewhat sad. What if they, those figures in the past, they truly did not wish their secrets to be known, not to mention so publicly? Still here we are, stirring the past, digging up their personal lives with such alacrity. The story could be painful, and I at times did wish, leave them alone, Leave the matter be at rest.
The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood At the end, I was this close to shedding tears. It is over, I thought. Some actions were finally carried out. But it was not any better at all. Pain could never be erased. Life and lives could never be resurrected. It is over.

My friend warned me of the possible very strong feminist theme in Atwood's books. Well, I did know of [b:The Handmaid's Tale|38447|The Handmaid's Tale|Margaret Atwood|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1294702760s/38447.jpg|1119185] (though I haven't read it). But reading this book, at first I could not find any apparent motivation. It was merely a puzzle to me. There are these brief articles in newspapers about the Chase sisters, Iris and Laura, and Iris's husband family, the Griffens - Richard and Winnifred. And there are these excerpts from Laura's posthumous book "The Blind Assassin" about two unnamed lovers and their telling of another science fiction story within it. I was baffled. What is this? What is this about? What are you telling me, Atwood? What should I look for, what should I learn?

Atwood's writing is so masterful that, I could not pinpoint exactly since when I realized what the story was about, since when I already had my answer but not enough confirmation, and since when all became so blatanly there. Perhaps after 2/5 of the book, I suppose. The story slowly emerged, that world slowly flowed into me, and I was swept away. Canada appeared in front of me, sucked me in.

The tragedy in The Blind Assassin is one such that instead of overpowerring the characters at once, it consumed them bit by bit, agonizingly, excruciatingly. In the end it finished them off entirely, and they were left with nothing at all. Right, only a nothingness. If anything else remained, perhaps only memories, and with them understandbly powerlessness. Even pains seem to have gone almost all numb.

Yeah, there is this feminism, the talking about women's roles in society in the late 19th and early 20th century. But it would be so dull for me to list all the characteristics out here, since I am no good. But I can tell you, the feminist theme, though central, was presented not so aggressively, not so preachy. It was largely understanding and heartfelt sympathy towards women, and so it reached me.

Vietnam's Development Strategies

Vietnam's Development Strategies - Pietro Masina A very informative and concise guide to understanding Vietnam's economic development strategies since the 1980s. The first chapter may be a bit too abstract, but nevertheless provides a good critical framework for the whole book. The rest of it, however, is very easy to digest, with concret examples and figures, and very clear narration.

Short and brief as it is, the book is a valuable resource, though I had expected a deeper analysis.
The Photographer - Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, Fréderic Lemercier I cried, a few times. My heart wrenched violently and tears blurred my vision.

This book features a journey of a French photographer, Didier, who joined a MSF (Medicins Sans Frontiers) group into Afghanistan during the nation's violent period in the 1980s. It is a unique mix of photographs taken by Didier and graphics by Emmanuel Guibert. In essence, The Photographer was a road trip through such appalling hardship, but things learned, realized, and valued were really worth it. The story that Robert - a doctor - told Didier close to the end of Didier's stay with him in Afghanistan, was the most gripping.

It was a beautiful book, with beautiful stories, about Afghanistan and its people - religion, war, women, family, love; about MSF and its members, about Dider himself coming to terms with the country and his extraordinary trip. Through the innocent eyes and with the least political agenda possible, the book easily eases its way into readers' hearts. And of course, it was a beautiful books with beautiful and touching photos of the mountainous realm. I wish I could blow up all of them, they are so very very beautiful.

P.S: If you could, read the book in original French. I tried abit at first and the tone is so much better than the English version. But I was a tad too impatient.

Bác Sĩ Zhivago

Bác Sĩ Zhivago - Boris Pasternak,  Lê Khánh Trường “I won the Nobel Prize for literature. What was your crime?”
“I won the Nobel Prize for literature. What was your crime?”

Người nào chơi với tôi lâu hẳn sẽ biết tôi rất sợ những thứ buồn. Phim buồn, truyện buồn, nhạc buồn. Chẳng lạ nếu bạn thấy tôi hay đọc truyện thiếu nhi và cổ tích.

Trớ trêu thay, cái đẹp thường buồn.

Ngay khi đọc những dòng giới thiệu tác phẩm, tôi đã tự nhủ, Ôi thôi, lại một tấn bi kịch rồi. Làm gì có lối thoát cho một vị gốc tư sản, có học, lãng mạn, nghệ sĩ, và nhân đạo, đã có gia đình, và tình yêu của anh ta với một người phụ nữ là vợ của một nhân vật hoạt động cách mạng, trong một thời kỳ rối ren, máu lửa và tàn nhẫn? Tôi chua chát tưởng tượng ra đủ thứ đau thương, và sợ nhất là cái sự tàn khốc mà xã hội khốn nạn sẽ đặt lên số phận họ. Tôi đã thấy ngay những dòng văn đầy phẫn nộ, căm hờn, và nhất là sự bóp nghẹt không lối thoát. Tôi nghĩ tới Aimatov và lòng đã vội trùng xuống.

Nhưng Pasternak có một cách viết khác, rất khác. Nỗi buồn trong Zhivago, ngoại trừ nỗi buồn liên quan trực tiếp tới tình yêu trắc trở của anh và lara ra, có gì đó không thực sự gắn liền với mặt đất này. Có người sẽ vì vậy mà sẽ nhìn nhận tác phẩm với ít giá trị hơn. Thú thực, tôi, vốn quan tâm nhất tới số phận thực tiễn của con người, tới cái ăn cái mặc và sự tự do, ban đầu cũng đầy e dè về cuộc đời Yuri Zhivago. Suy cho cùng sự kìm kẹp mà anh gặp phải đâu có được thể hiện rõ rệt, cái thiếu thốn bần cùng trong đời sống hàng ngày cũng chỉ được nói lướt thướt qua. Dù ngắn ngủi, nhưng ít nhất anh cũng có một quãng thời gian với người mình yêu, và cái chết của anh, khi còn trẻ và thật đột ngột, cũng không phải là đầy oán trách phẫn nộ. Vẫn có những hàng dài người tới tiễn đưa, anh đã viết được sách, và đã được tưởng nhớ tới.

Thay vào đó, cái buồn trong Bác Sĩ Zhivago man mác hơn nhiều. Cái buồn đẫm vào cảnh vật của nước Nga rộng lớn, vào Siberia hoang dại, nó đẫm vào thiên nhiên, vào những cánh rừng bạch dương và taiga, vào những tiếng chim ca hát, những trận bão tuyết rơi rơi mãi, những thanh củi nhặt nhạnh mang về để sưởi. Cái buồn được thể hiện thông qua cái nhìn của một văn nhân với một mảnh hồn bơ vơ giữa thời đại, ban đầu là cảm tình với cách mạng, rồi sau đó là nhận ra những sai lầm của nó, và rồi đi trong cô đơn, bị kẹt giữa nó. Cái thứ gần như duy nhất khiến anh bớt cô đơn, con người có tâm hồn giống anh nhất, nàng Lara kia, bất hạnh thay lại không phải là vợ anh, và cả hai thì trong tình cảnh không biết lúc nào sẽ mất mạng.

Cái bất hạnh còn là trong đôi mắt nhìn một căn phòng làm việc lý tưởng đầy say mê, là đôi tay tha thiết được cầm bút và viết, nhưng ban ngày thì chai sạn sương gió và mai một. Đó còn là cái bất hạnh khi nhìn cuộc đời xung quanh thấy người ta cũng thống khổ nhưng lý tưởng hóa nó, nhưng chấp nhận nó, như hai người bạn Misa và Nika. Họ bảo Yuri, phải thay đổi tư tưởng đi, hay nói đúng hơn, theo cách khác, một cách thầm kín, là "phải tự lừa dối bản thân đi để dễ sống, để bớt dằn vặt chính mình." Cái bất hạnh là bởi anh là một trí thức-nghệ sĩ, không phải là một chiến binh, lão tướng, chẳng phải chính khách, chính trị gia. Và hơn nữa, anh là một con người thật chân thành, nhân hậu, thật hiền lành, điềm đạm, mơ mộng và đầy nghệ sĩ.

Đến cuối cùng tôi cũng không biết trách ai là nhân vật phản diện. Ai đã gây ra những đau khổ những bi ai trực tiếp cho Zhivago? Chẳng có ai hoàn toàn là ác quỷ, chỉ có những sai lầm, và những tội ác được hình thành từ chính thời đại.
Tenth of December - George Saunders Picked up simply because of the title.

Saunders has an absolutely distinct narration. While his is not my personal favorite, I can't deny that it has such stunning effects.

Linh Sơn

Linh Sơn - Gao Xingjian,  Trần Đĩnh Tôi thú thật rằng mình chả phải là người có kiến thức và giỏi cảm thụ "văn học-văn học". Tôi chỉ hay đọc "truyện" là chính. Tôi không có tí kiến thức nào về các lý thuyết văn chương, chứ đừng nói tới việc định tranh cãi xem thủ pháp nghệ thuật, hình thức tác phẩm của Cao Hành Kiện trong Linh Sơn ra làm sao. Vậy nên xin miễn cho việc bàn về sự "đột phá" (nếu có) của tác phẩm.

Ấy nhưng quái lạ làm sao, đôi khi có những tác phẩm tôi không hiểu được hết nhưng vẫn cứ say mê đọc.

Linh Sơn là một chuyến đi tìm ngọn núi hồn. Như phần giới thiệu tác phẩm có nhắc đến, cuốn sách chẳng có đầu có cuối. Nó tựa như một chuyến du hành vô tận, tìm mãi tìm mãi, thấy đủ thứ, nhưng chẳng thấy hết, và suy cho cùng ngẫm lại thì đã thấy cái gì? Núi, rừng, sông, vực, những bản làng, những câu chuyện lịch sử và thân thoại quái gở và ghê rợn, cái xã hội và con người, đàn ông và đàn bà và tình yêu và tình dục. Nửa mơ nửa tỉnh, nửa sống nửa chết. Đó là một hành trình vào sâu trong thiên nhiên và vào sâu trong vô thức của tâm hồn. Nhưng, như đã nói, cuối cùng ta thấy gì?

Tôi cũng chịu, chả biết. Nhưng cái hút hồn tôi nhất là giọng văn tả. Nó mang một thần lực khiến tôi mụ mị. Tôi mê những chuyến đi, tôi mê cái cách viết về thiên nhiên, về đời sống con người những vùng xa xôi hẻo lánh ấy, mê những thứ nghệ thuật dân gian, mê những phong tục tập quán. Ngày xưa tôi mê Nguyễn Tuân và Người lái đò sông Đà cung là vì thế, bởi đúng cái đoạn trích trong sách giáo khoa văn về dòng sông và ông lão lái đò. Thế nhưng Linh Sơn không phải là phóng sự, nó không đặt người đọc ra ngoài chiêm ngưỡng một mẫu vật. Chính vì cách viết nủa hư nửa thực nên tôi càng dễ đắm chìm vào cái thế giới mơ tưởng ấy.

Nói thế nào nhỉ, nó như là một sự chạy trốn. Mà nó chính thực là một sự chạy trốn. Dù là một sự chạy trốn bất thành. Bởi cái cuộc sống mà tác giả và nhân vật trong tác phẩm muốn chạy trốn khỏi cứ đeo bám, và xâm chiếm cái thế giới còn nhiều phần hoang dã kia.

Tôi chợt ngộ ra, à, vậy là ta cũng muốn trốn chạy. Nhưng biết trốn chạy đi đâu?
Lord of Emperors (The Sarantine Mosaic, Book II) - Guy Gavriel Kay I do not always understand why some characters ended up doing some certain things. This book, or more accurately this duology, sometimes, does not make sense to me at all. 3.5 stars, just like [b:A Song for Arbonne|104085|A Song for Arbonne|Guy Gavriel Kay|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1309212350s/104085.jpg|2498881], where I find the plots not grand and profound enough to contain all of their wonderful, multifaceted characters.

A central theme in The Sarantine Mosaic is man's desire to turn their name immortal in world history. These powerful kings, queens, emperors and empresses made great empires, sought to expand and reconquer their territory, and certainly sponsored great arts.

And so perhaps that is why some last chapters of this book touched me so much. I was hardly angered by people's evil deeds (mostly just felt extremely sad and much pity), but I was enraged by ignorant fools who destroyed beautiful creations of arts. I did tremble, which was rare. I guess Kay did get it right, some parts of artists' hearts.
Sailing to Sarantium - Guy Gavriel Kay

Sailing to Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

- William Butler Yeats