A Bookworm in 2020: My Top 5 Reads of the Year

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Let’s make it clear that 2020 is not a harsh year at all for an extra-introverted bookworm living in privileged conditions (having food, a shelter, and a job) in one of the safest countries in the world from Covid (if you don’t know, please Google the Covid situation in Vietnam by yourself as I’m not going to discuss this abundant topic anymore).

This year I have managed to read some of the greatest and most iconic books of their genres in both fiction and non-fiction. Being an eclectic reader, I read a wide range of topics spanning science, dystopia, history, mythology, fantasy, mystery, warfare, crime, thriller, education, philosophy, psychology, drama, sociology, spiritual and religious subjects in both fiction and non-fiction. Throughout the year I have read in full a total of 29 30 books, besides the required academic reads for study and research purposes, plus no less than a dozen manga series (let me be honest, I’m a total manga & anime freak). For a hard-core bookworm, everything thinner than 300 pages deems too light, and I constantly find myself reading books from 500 pages up. On average I probably read between 50-100 pages every day this year. Some friends tell me they can’t read because they don’t have time. Well, who does? I just cut down on sleep time, and also allocate none for nonsense gossiping and useless socialising. Easy. 

Below are my 5 best reads of 2020, which are also 5 of my most recommended books for anyone to read in their lifetime. There are several ‘honorable mentions’ at the end that you may find interesting (off-topic alert: ‘honorable mentions’?! Sounds just like DumbMojo! Oh wait I don’t call them DumbMojo, I stole the title off one of my favourite YouTube channels called TwoSetViolin – just follow them already – everyone deserves some good comedy and classical music!)

5. Nỗi buồn chiến tranh (The Sorrow of War):

The Sorrow of War - Bao Ninh

The Sorrow of War (published 1987) is arguably the best known fiction work by a Vietnamese author on the international level. It is about the Vietnam war, but more than that, it is about all the wars. Narrated from scattered memories of a surviving soldier, the storyline does not focus on any triumphant or heroic acts, but instead recounts the post-war feelings of the veteran when he recalls all the deaths, loss and horrors on the front line.

Bao Ninh, a veteran soldier and writer, received an award from the Vietnamese writer association for the novel (his only novel thus far). However, soon after its publication the novel was condemned inappropriate by the Party because it was different from all war-related literature. It was too sorrowful, purely sorrowful; it showed no glory in victory, even when it meant the country’s freedom and independence. In the novel, war only meant deaths, ghosts and hollow; and there was no glory in any of those.

Reading “The Sorrow of War” makes me realize one thing: The soldiers who came back from the wars are probably not even alive any more. They look alive but they are actually not. They are just the pale ghosts of their former battles, and sometimes it might have been better if they hadn’t come back at all. Just sometimes, or at least I think so.

I knew a family with a war veteran father. Their family life was an endless story of domestic violence, disappointment and chaos. Just like others, I blamed the father for their broken family. But it’s probably just that none of us saw what he had seen, nor did what he had done. He probably just never came back from the war. It was probably just not him who came back.

Please read “The Sorrow of War” if you haven’t already. It’s not only to understand the Vietnamese veterans, but all war veterans. The original Vietnamese is the best, but the English translation is an excellent one as well, even though the title is a bit misleading (“A novel of North Vietnam”?! Oh please..!). Ratings on Goodreads by December 2020 is 4.05.

4. Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Pedagogy of the OppressedPedagogy of the Oppressed (published 1970) came up to me as a recommended read for my research topic, but it quickly became one of my favourite stumble-upon of the year. This is an utter leftist’s book, using quite some ideology and quotes from socialism/communism thinkers & leaders like Marx, Lenin, Mao, Castro, Guevara, and a little too academic as well. I can only catch the main ideas as a first-time reader, and will need to read more from the author, but I understand why it is considered an iconic book among educators.

In the book, Freire pointed out an important concept of “banking” education, and proposed the “problem-posing” education. When I talked to some friends about the book, they were much too focused on this problem-posing vs banking concept that they forgot the “backdrop”, the context that the book was set on. It’s about the education concept “of the oppressed”, a means to drive the oppressed out of the situation of oppression. Thus, it poses a much deeper level of meaning than just a modern student-centered approach. Also, we have to consider that the book was not just written for the sake of discussing academic matters, but it was written from lived experience of the author as a child of a struggling middle-class family in Brazil who knew true hunger and oppression. Personally, I only trust what people talk and teach if they really represent what they talk, or else it will be just nonsense preaching.

Freire also highly emphasized the essential role of dialogue & communication in the problem-posing concept of education. After dialogue, he also highlighted “praxis” as action & reflection. He explained that words only was “verbalism”, actions only was “activism”, while praxis was a lot more, it was actions (activism) from true words (verbalism), which had to be based on constant reflection.

A highly recommended read for educators, reformers, revolutionary-wannabes(!), and all the leftists, of course! As of December 2020, the book’s Goodreads rating is 4.28.

3. The Brothers Karamazov:

The Brothers KaraamazovThe Brothers Karamazov (published 1880) is widely considered one of the greatest literary works ever written by one individual; and its author Dostoevsky is also regarded as one of the most important and influential writers of modern literature. 

As for me, this is definitely the best work of fiction I have ever read. I am so overwhelmed by it that I don’t think I can write anything related to the book without feeling sacrilegious. For those who have read and loved “Crime and Punishment”, “The Brothers Karamazov” is the next level, with a complication of story flow, a continuous battle of philosophical ideologies on religious beliefs, morality, family bond, and self realization. This is a book of absolute lasting values that over a century later it’s still considered one of the best books ever written by many.

One of my favourite parts in the novel is the chapter about Father Zosima’s teachings on love, faith and forgiveness. Father Zosima’s words of wisdom: “Love is such a priceless treasure that you can redeem the whole world by it, and expiate not only your own sins but the sins of others”. Love is the most powerful weapon of all; an unconditional unselfish and humble love can save the whole world – that is what Father Zosima wanted to tell the believers, and I am but one of them. 

I haven’t read the English version, but the Vietnamese translation by Phạm Mạnh Hùng is a top-notch version. With our previous socialist bond, Vietnamese writers of former generations are also some of the best translators of Russian literature. As of December 2020, Goodreads’ readers rate the book at 4.32.

2. Autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi: The Story of My Experiments with Truth:

The autobiography of Mohandas GandhiThe Autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi (published 1927) is a very difficult, lengthy and exhausting read to be honest. Even for a fast and persistent reader like myself it took me over a month. The book was originally written in Gujarati language and was translated into English by Mahadev Desai. I’m not sure what the original Guajarati version is like, but the English translation is rather complicated and a little uptight, which creates certain distance with international readers. However, the message is clear, eye-opening, and amazing: the story of how an ordinary man became the most extraordinary being. 

The life of the Mahatma is an incredible story of simplicity, benevolence, and humility, with a selfless dedication to the poor and underprivileged, and an unshakable devotion to Truth and only Truth. Leading a lifestyle of absolute non-violence, non-possession, celibacy and vegetarianism, Mahatma Gandhi was an ideal figure of humanitarianism, so ideal that people who don’t read about him often think that the Mahatma is surreal, a made-up human.

However, with this autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi painted the most honest and truthful picture. He made it clear that he was no born-Saint, but a normal boy who made mistakes and evolved from his own mistakes. His road to the title of “the Father of the Nation (India)” was not a holy surreal path, but was paved on continuous evolvements throughout countless life experiments – the experiments that only persistent, disciplined and utterly unselfish people can succeed. Of course the average humanity on Earth are too self-centered to ever realize that we can perform such lifestyle too if we try to be less selfish. However, the majority of us won’t even bother, because it’s too inconvenient, and considering Gandhi’s lifestyle “surreal” is an easier solution.

Nevertheless, to me, Mahatma Gandhi is THE figure of humankind; one that is human, making ordinary human mistakes, but evolves from those to become a more-than-human being by love, benevolence and humility. An autobiography that everyone needs to read once, and keep the thinking on-going. If more people could live like the Mahatma, this Earth would come closer to a heaven of peace and harmony. Goodreads rating by December 2020 for the book: 4.07.

1. Autobiography of a Yogi:

Autobiography of a YogiAutobiography of a Yogi (published 1946) is a book of transcendence, a book that describes another world, different from the materialistic one that we are all submerged in (Yes, another book and another life that people prefer calling “surreal”). Considered one of the best written works on the spiritual topic of the 20th century, “Autobiography of a Yogi” is a highly influential narrative which has inspired numerous people to take on another path of existence.

The first time I stumbled upon this book was a few years ago at a book fair, with this advert on the cover: “A book that Steve Jobs had read once every year”. I picked it up, not because of Steve Jobs, but because the topic looked curious, and then left it collecting dust on the shelf for a while. Honestly, I was never interested in the spiritual topic in my younger years and never laid hands on any religious books stacked on my mother’s bookshelf. I used to be one of those who considered this topic “surreal”, obscure and pointless. The only life that mattered to me, like others, used to be this materialistic life where I breathed, worked, indulged in all the physical amenities, with all its love affairs, joy, hatred, fear, and selfish pains. I used to refuse the thought that there might be another world, a higher world that was beyond ordinary reach, and only open to those who had faith. And only upon a serious breakdown that altered my total acknowledgement of life and death that I realized people were nothing but a piece of dust passing through the void, and how unreal this life actually was. And there I started to look into spiritual matters with an interest and a curiosity as if a new window of knowledge were opened to a child. 

This autobiography is of utter marvel, it’s like a voice from another world. I only recommend this book to those who have faith, or at least are actively seeking it. For those who are content with your convenient physical lifestyle (with a stable job, a house, a car, a wife/husband/partner, kids, etc.), or are too familiar with this life and afraid to look further, or don’t give a dime about others’ sufferings, please ignore this recommendation. The story is not for you. Not yet. Perhaps one day you will also receive a wake-up call, you’ll see, one day. December 2020 Goodreads rating: 4.20.

And now, some honorable mentions among the books I read this year. They are actually also great books, only because the 5 above are my favourite:

– Quo Vadis (4.2 Goodreads, published 1896): A historical novel by Polish Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, “Quo Vadis” narrates the time of Roman tyrant emperor Nero, at the dawn of Christianity. The book is a great read indeed. Eventful, thrilling, humourous and moving, it explains Christianity on the early days with its purest philosophy of unconditional love, forgiveness, honesty, self-sacrifice, and an absolute belief in after-life eternity, a much different picture from the Catholic Church in later centuries. 

– A Brief History of Time (4.2 Goodreads, published 1988): An iconic science book by Stephen Hawkings, “A Brief History of Time” tells the story of the cosmos, from the Big Bang to the Black Holes, Black Matter, Worm Holes, Time Travel, Multiverse and many other curious scientific theories. I think it’s quite a hard-core astrophysic read (can’t understand why it seems so popular to the public); nevertheless, it’s still an intriguing one. 

– The Sympathizer (4.0 Goodreads, published 2015): Quite a tiring but also excellent read indeed! A little too much rambling and wordy, but the plot, the jokes and the final punch line are precious. Beginning with a war scene followed by a tight escape of the losing sides (the US troop and the VN Republic), the novel then went on to narrate the life of a 2-mind half-blooded self-illusioned communist spy in the US. The author was so successful in tearing off the hypocritical mask worn by every revolution, every political viewpoint, and every national value whether it’s American, Republic or Communist. The novel is said to be compared with Graham Greene’s, Denis Johnson’s and George Orwell’s by critics. 

– The Grapes of Wrath (4.0 Goodreads, published 1939): A depressing view of the world in crisis, the historical novel followed an impoverished farmer family leaving their hometown for California seeking work as cotton and fruit pickers during the Great Depression. “The Grapes of Wrath” won a number of prizes and was mentioned highly when Steinbeck won his Literature Nobel Prize. This is the second work by Steinbeck that I read after “Of Mice and Men” and I have an utter admiration for the author’s deep understanding and sympathy for the poorest working class of the US at the time. 

– Tuổi thơ dữ dội (translated: Fierce Childhood, 4.7 Goodreads, published 1988, the book is unfortunately not translated into English yet): A classic Vietnamese literary work, the novel told the harsh but heroic life of a group of child scouting soldiers during the Vietnamese-French war. Reading this makes me realize one thing: We, Vietnamese people, can’t look at the Holocaust the same way that Westerners do. Our ancestors went through much worse during our endless centuries of wars and invasion. The fact that local people’s sufferings all over Asia, Africa, Australia and America during centuries of colonialism is overlooked today on the media and literature is painful. If German youth nowadays are still ashamed of World War II, then how about the British, the French, the Spanish, or the American? Do they ever recall what their ancestors did to the colonies? History just doesn’t show equality. Anyway, for Vietnamese readers, just read “Tuổi thơ dữ dội” already!

*All photos are from the internet.

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