January 2020 Reading Updates

Since we’ve just reached the end of the first month of 2020, I thought I’d take some time to share with you all what I’ve been reading and also write a short review about each book (else I’ll completely forget what I read by the end of the year…) The books are listed in the order that I completed them in. Titles with an asterisk were read in Vietnamese.

1. American Gods – Neil Gaiman

Neil is perhaps my favorite storyteller ever, and he particularly excels in building strange yet captivating worlds that do a great job of making humans seem more human than ever, despite the fact nothing remotely conforming to the human-norm happens (except marriage problems–I suppose even gods and demi-gods are dumb motherfuckers when it comes to love.)

American Gods follows Shadow, a widower freshly released from jail as he tags alongside a suspiciously rich “Mr. Wednesday” (later revealed to be an undercover God), on a quest to convince the old, forgotten Gods of America to rise up and fight the new Gods (Technology, Media etc.) The book pulls up many characters from Irish, Norse, Hindu, Slavic, African and Egyptian folklore and so on, and offers a very refreshing take on religion in modern society. Although Gaiman didn’t dive deep into any specific culture, it’s a helpful start to continue learning about religion and folklore all over the world. There is a lot of information and I can only imagine how painstaking the research process must have been.  

Genre-wise, I don’t think this book fits into any at all. There’s history, fantasy, horror, maybe some thriller too. The idea of a giant war with hundreds of Gods is very ambitious, so the book does get a little messy and all-over-the-place at times. I’d call it “jigsaw-puzzling”, though, you’re given lots of information that doesn’t seem to make sense, but gradually everything comes together at the end and I absolutely love getting to the end and exclaiming “OH! So THAT’S what it was about” I find that the suspense-building in this book very well-done, too. The only criticism I have is that the ending felt a bit… lacking. You had all this build up, this gigantic feud, but everything’s resolved so simply you almost feel cheated. Or maybe I just have something against how Armageddon-type stories (where 2 sides fight to death) keep ending. Other than that, considering how hard this topic is to write about, I’m flabbergasted at how well Neil pulled it off.

Overall rating: 8/10

2. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – Mark Manson

Everyone was raving about it so I had to give it a go. For those of you who don’t know, this is a self-help book aiming to show you how to re-purpose your life, communicate effectively and live productively. Surprisingly, it only took me 2 afternoons to finish (I always find self-help books are easier to read than fiction, don’t know why). It’s written very informally and feels more like a humorous conversation with a loving but foul-mouthed friend, which makes it easy to digest whether you’re a 10th grader being peer-pressured to apply to US Colleges or a 53-year old electrician just realising you actually wanted to be a novelist. The only requirement for the the advice to be useful is that you kind of need to mess up a lot.

However, I found that there weren’t that many new things in the book. Mostly, it just reminded us of the things we already knew but consciously (or subconsciously) decide to shove under the carpet, OR put into words things we kind of already think, but don’t know how to explain. There is, no doubt, lots of helpful advice but like all self-help books, I find it too much to remember (unless you’re going to re-read it 20 times), and when I finished, out of the dozens of pieces of advice I only remembered one, “People who make changes aren’t flashy and don’t about what they’re going to do a lot. They just do it.” And from then on I shut up about my plans and just worked on them. Everyone’s going to have their own takeaways relevant to their lives, and I’d encourage you to read it just to see if you can find anything interesting. If out of 20 things, you remember 2-3 things that work for you, that’s still a win.

What I enjoyed the most was actually reading the stories/examples of real people at the beginning of each chapter before getting into the “lecture” part. 

Overall rating: 6.9/10 

3. Dracula – Bram Stoker

A classic in gothic horror. I actually started reading this last year and the first third of the book telling Jonathan’s fearful stays at Count Dracula’s castle had me hooked – it’s written in beautiful, elegant language which we hardly ever hear anymore, and does such a wonderful job conveying the characters’ fears, thoughts and emotions. But the moment Jonathan leaves the castle and the book switches to other characters’ stories, it just got so long and boring that I stopped reading for 3 months altogether and forgot which character was which because there were so many men. The “dull chapters” stretch on for at least a quarter of the book, and things only get interesting again when Dracula returns to the story and certain characters start turning into vampires. The rest of the story follows the “heroes” as they try to defeat the Count and bring peace to his victims, and although many parts are suspenseful and very clever, the ending is also so easily achieved that it’s a bit of a downer. 

The whole book is written in diary entrees, journal entrees and letters of different characters (I’ve only read single-person diaries before) which was surprisingly pleasant in that you feel like you know the characters and by the end, you grow quite fond of them. It even inspired me to start keeping a diary again. It also made me start speaking like an old Englishman for the few days after completion, because I hadn’t really shaken off the language yet. Everyone seemed to be much more caring towards each other in those days, and through the letters I picked up some romantic phrases of which my favorite has been “And so, as you love me, and he loves me, and I love you with all the moods and tenses of the verb, I send you simply his ‘love’ instead.” Lovely, isn’t it? 

Overall rating: 7/10

4. Days at Morisaki Bookstore /  Những Giấc Mơ Ở Hiệu Sách Morisaki – Satoshi Yagisawa*

I’m not sure of the popularity of this book, it seems quite lowkey but has a surprising amount of reviews on Good Reads and even has a film adaptation. I happened to find it on my bookshelf and finished it in one afternoon (it was only 150-ish pages.)

Genre-wise, I’d call it Slice of Life although I don’t know if books are even allowed to be called that, or just anime. There is generally no real plot, only character development as Takako (main character) gets dumped by her cheating boyfriend and moves into her uncle’s antique bookstore to re-charge, gradually finding herself learning to appreciate books and the people around her. It’s a very simple storyline, and there’s almost nothing very special about the main character, but maybe that’s what makes it a relaxing read – because in reality, most humans aren’t the special snowflakes and oddballs we think. Admittedly, I started off finding Takako very annoying, but as she grew through the story, I found myself empathizing with her. For me, the book is a reminder to take things slower in life, remember to recharge and learn to see the beauty in simple things around you. It had a happy ending, too. Good for lazy reads, you don’t really have to think much – just sit there with a nice cup of tea and go with the flow. 

Overall rating: 7/10

5. The Oldest Parents With The Youngest Child / Những Tháng Năm Rực Rỡ – Ae-ran Kim*

I. Loved. This. Even now it’s left me with a tumble of emotions that I don’t even know how to describe, and I can say for sure that it’s made it to my list of favorite books of all time. 

The story recounts the life of a 17-year-old boy with progeria (a disease that makes his body age 4x as fast as a regular person, meaning he has the body of an 80-year-old) and his parents, who had him when they were 17. It talks of the struggles of teen parents learning to cope with an unintended pregnancy, their financial and mental hardships raising a child whilst also battling his illness, and also of the main character’s steel-hard resilience and love for life despite his condition. It actually made me feel ashamed of myself for being perfectly healthy, but not being as curious and hungry to learn, and most of all, to have a perfectly functioning laptop and not be writing. Other than that, it also humanizes persons with disabilities, showing that they too can fall in love, get anxious when ghosted and want to sneakily drink alcohol despite being underaged – anything a typical 17 year old might do. After this book, for the first time in a long time I felt that every aspect of life was truly wonderful and that I was lucky to be here. I also made a list of 30 challenges to do these coming months, to understand and enjoy life more and will keep you updated on my progress. 

Even though the book is written from the perspective of a boy with progeria, the author herself is a perfectly healthy woman in her 40s (who did a lot of research before writing, I’m sure). Yet somehow she’s able to tell the story so vividly, convincingly and emotionally that I feel like I’m in his body, living his life and feeling his disappointment and excitement. The tone is so natural, so nonchalant it just feels like a leaf smoothly riding the breeze down the the ground. Reading this book, I’m reminded again of how powerful a tool literature is in sharing ideas, bridging humans and building empathy. I’m in awe of not just the main character for pushing through his difficulties the way he did, but also of the author for writing something so powerful it changed the way I looked at life. It makes me want to write stories like this one day, too. I just don’t know what to say about this book other than I really loved it. 

Overall rating: 9/10

And that’s it for this month! I’ve only just gotten back on track with reading and remembering how fun it is. Hopefully someone will find this helpful and maybe pick up one of these books. I’ll see you guys soon!

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