Bedtime Stories: April 2020

  • April 23, 2020

What do book lovers have queued up on their nightstands and ready to read before lights-out? We asked one of them, and here’s what she said.


Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai:

The Vietnamese poet Phùng Quán once wrote, “Có những phút ngã lòng/ Tôi vịn câu thơ và đứng dậy” (“During the moments of despair, I hold the poetry verse to pull myself up”). During this traumatic time of the coronavirus pandemic, books — both poetry and prose — have helped pull me up, sustain me, and give me strength.

The book that helped me forget about the pandemic is the newly released novel from literary legend Julia Alvarez, Afterlife. In one of the best reading experiences I have had in a long time, I felt strongly connected to the four women in this beautiful novel: Antonia, Izzy, Tilly, and Mona.

While journeying through their experiences, I learned important lessons about surviving losses, undocumented immigration, mental illness, family bonds and sisterhood, and the need to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. While the novel can be a fast read thanks to its enthralling plot, I found myself revisiting the pages I’d just read so that I could treasure the author’s exquisite prose, such as: “Occasionally, she takes sips of sorrow, afraid the big wave might wash her away.”

What I love about Afterlife is the humor, the sharp observations of the human condition, the complex sisterhood, the compassion that glows in the most desperate circumstances, and the faith that, regardless of how dire the circumstances, we will ultimately be okay. While I finished the novel several days ago, what remains in me is the hope for humanity, for love, and for more kindness around us.

As I have been in self-quarantine, there is a strong yearning to travel, and I am thankful for the opportunity to return to India with Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. The novel’s provocative language evokes in me the smell, the taste, the colors, the chaos, and the complexity of India. Based on the author’s journalistic work, the novel highlights the struggles that exist in the slums of India, and the heartbreaking fact that many children go missing each day and society fails to help them.

The novel speaks to me personally because I grew up in poverty and have worked with many disadvantaged children, including child laborers. In today’s world, this novel is necessary, as it calls for empathy toward vulnerable groups who will be most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Though my U.S. book tour had to be canceled, I was able to travel to the U.S. and deep into its history via Wayne Karlin’s A Wolf by the Ears. This thought-provoking novel paints a vivid picture of the period of American history which should be studied and remembered: the time of slavery.

Following the footsteps of three main characters (the two slaves, Towerhill and Sarai, and their master, Jacob), I experienced the characters’ struggles for freedom, for equality, against slavery, for love, and for their own beliefs. I also learned about the War of 1812, where thousands of enslaved people rallied to the British side, fighting against an American republic that had not given them the right to freedom or democracy.

A Wolf by the Ears has been praised as “splendid,” “vivid,” and “haunting” by Edward P. Jones, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Known World. Jones also said: “Wayne Karlin shows us war in language that makes him seem not just a storyteller but a witness. His work is inspired, a gift, and a pure treasure.” I couldn’t agree more.

As we are approaching the 45th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War (April 30, 2020), I have been re-reading my favorite books about the war, one of which is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. This novel is a gem because it enables readers to view the war from different sides. It is memorable because it educates us and entertains us, but it also disturbs us and makes us uncomfortable.

There is rarely a novel so powerful that it makes me laugh out loud one moment and weep the next. I have read The Sympathizer at least seven times, and each time, I discover something new about the plot, the humor, the language. Viet Nguyen announced recently that he has finished the sequel, The Committed, and I am anxiously waiting for the moment when I can place my pre-order.

Bruce Weigl’s new poetry collection, On the Shores of Welcome Home, deals with the aftermath of the Vietnam War, too: “But I don’t know why peace/ is still too much to ask for,/ or why the landscape must/ include the inconsequential/ corpses from both sides…”

Weigl is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and his writing contributes significantly to peace. I have translated his poetry into Vietnamese, and I am tempted to translate some poems from this collection — poems that have the power to take me back to my homeland, Việt Nam, and poems about life journeys that read like meditations for peace.

Another poetry collection which has just been released and which I love is Carolyn Forché’s In the Lateness of the World. In her first new collection in 17 years, the author documents journeys, migration, exile, and loss. Forché’s writing is known for bearing witness to the experience of others, and I find myself in many of the poems here.

For example, in “The Boatman,” I am a refugee “on the gray-sick of sea/ In a cold rubber boat, rising and falling in our filth./ By morning this didn’t matter, no land was in sight,/ All were soaked to the bone, living and dead.” In the Lateness of the World offers a rare view into the author’s life by recounting her experiences of personal loss. It resonates with me at the moment.

During this time of loss and sorrow, I find it comforting to return to Ocean Vuong’s poetry, to his beautiful books Burnings and Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Vuong’s poetry is unlike the work of any other: “My grandmother kisses/ as if bombs are bursting in the backyard,/ where mint and jasmine lace their perfumes/ through the kitchen window…”

His poems tell stories of human survival with language so unique, so unexpected, that the whole world seems to sing whenever I read his work. Even when he writes about past events, his words are so immediate they demand we drop everything and pay attention.

My daughter and I spent many hours the other day talking about Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. She is so impressed with his language ability and his storytelling gift. Vuong's novel inspires my daughter to reflect more deeply about her Vietnamese heritage, young people's choices in life, and our daughter-mother relationship.

Over the years, the books she read enabled my daughter to become an open-minded, caring, and passionate individual who pursues her dreams fearlessly. I am very grateful to all the authors out there who silently help my husband and me with our parenting job.

And I continue my parenting job by re-visiting with my children Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do. We read the book before and love reading it again because it allows us to gain access to complicated Vietnamese history and discuss events which still affect many Vietnamese families.

Thi Bui’s illustrations are breathtaking, and her storytelling connects strongly with teenagers as well as adults. The Best We Could Do is a great book to read as a family right now because it highlights human strength, the importance of family, and our ability to rise above all challenges. It also evokes empathy and compassion for refugees, who need our help during this critical time.

As a writer, I feel lucky that my job includes the need to read every day. My TBR pile is getting higher and higher, as there are so many good books out there.

I just started Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina and am loving it. A National Book Award finalist, this short-story collection is fascinating and leads me into the lives of Latina women who search for peaceful lives, ancestry, heritage, family love, and a sense of home. As I enjoy this book so much, I am already looking forward to the author’s forthcoming novel, Woman of Light.

My priority next is to read and support authors whose book tours have been canceled because of the pandemic. And I will be reading many titles on this POPSUGAR list of 27 Exciting Debut Authors You Can Support During the Shutdowns.

How about you? I hope you have found books that relate to you or offer you comfort during this difficult time. Please stay safe, be well, and I hope to meet you soon in our reading adventures!

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is an award-winning Vietnamese poet and author of the highly praised novel The Mountains Sing and the poetry collection The Secret of Hoa Sen. She writes in both Vietnamese and English, and her eight books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in Vietnamese have earned her many awards, including the Poetry of the Year 2010 Award from the Hà Nội Writers Association and the Capital’s Literature & Arts Award.

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