Five Book Friday!

And a very happy birthday to Vietnamese poet, Tản Đà!

Nguyễn Khắc Hiếu (who used the pen name Tản Đà), was born on this day in 1889 in what is now Khe Thuong, close to Hanoi.  His father was Mandarin, Chinese, and, as a result, Tản Đà learned to speak and read Chinese, which provided him the opportunity to read a wealth of Western literature in translation (which weren’t available in Vietnamese).  His mother was a well-known singer, and it is from her that Tản Đà learned a love of the theater, and also of poetry.  Tản Đà would go on to write a number of plays, poems, and essays, and also translated a number of Chinese works into Vietnamese in order to share his love of literature with others.  His poetry, especially, is recognized today as “transitional”–that is, he blended traditional forms of poetry, images, and tropes, with Western forms of poetry, particularly from France (who controlled the area we now know as Vietnam).

Today, in honor of Tản Đà’s birthday, we wanted to share one of his poems with you (in translation).  We hope you enjoy!

The Hanoi Botanical Gardens, Courtesy of Vietnamtourism

A Stroll at the Flower Nursery

(The Hanoi Botanical Gardens)

Its distance from Hanoi’s streets is near, not far,
Could there be anything more delightful than the flower nursery?
Having a chance I stroll to cheer myself up,
Go up there at noon for some fresh air, sit and hum a tune.
Sitting, I sadly remember the stories of old:
The capitol Thang Long built long, long ago.
Were there castles, monuments, and palaces here,
Or just a few trees, patches of grass, and some flowers?
But it’s certain that since the Westerners came,
We’ve gotten an iron cage to enclose and tend the animals:
Strange beasts, beautiful birds, and shade trees,
Wide, splendid roads, and pleasant views.
During the three months of summer, many people stroll through,
Especially on cool afternoons, there are crowds of all stripes.
Monsieur, Madame, Japanese, and Chinese,
Magistrates, secretaries, old scholars, servants and nursemaids.
Cars, horses, people all come by,
Standing here, going there, talking a little with a laugh.
Butterflies take to wing, the color of fluttering shirts,
The fragrance of magnolia spreads like a perfume.
The afternoon’s late, the funlovers all have left,
At the tree’s root, sighing, I sit alone.
Of the Ly, Tran, and Le kings, all is lost,
But the sight of deer leisurely taking their stroll.

And now…on to the books!

The Fact of a Body: It took Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich years to write this “true crime memoir”, and years longer to find a publisher, but, to judge by all the popular and critical acclaim that she has received for her work, the wait was well worth it.  The child of two lawyers, a younger Marzano-Lesnevich took a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder.  She believed herself to be staunchly against the death penalty–the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes.  As soon as she hears his voice, she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.  finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky’s crime.  But another surprise awaits: She wasn’t the only one who saw her life in Ricky’s.  A story about hope and forgiveness, and whether a single narrative can ever actually access “truth”, this is a tale as complicated as human interactions, strikingly honest, and unlike anything you’ve read before.  Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a starred review, calling it “Haunting…impeccably researched…Her writing is remarkably evocative and taut with suspense, with a level of nuance that sets this effort apart from other true crime accounts.”

New Boy: Shakespeare re-tellings are all the rage, and no one is enjoying themselves more than Hogarth Books, who are publishing a whole series of re-tellings, including this work by beloved author Tracy Chevalier that re-imagines Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello in a school yard in 1970’s Washington, DC.  In Chevalier’s world, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day in another new school.  He knows he’s fortunate to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again.  Though Chevalier’s work initially seems like it’s on a smaller scale than Shakespeare’s epic, this work still carries the weight of international politics, decades of racial tension, and the true horror of bullying, making this story about so much more than childhood mistakes and inherited prejudices.  Booklist agrees, saying that in Chevalier’s hands, “the playground is as rife with poisonous intrigue as any monarch’s court… Chevalier’s brilliantly concentrated and galvanizing improvisation thoroughly exposes the malignancy and tragedy of racism, sexism, jealousy, and fear.”

How to be Human: To understand this book, you should probably know that London is full of foxes, and they are really quite friendly (I lived in terror of the one in my backyard for months before realizing it wasn’t going to savage me).  Anyways, that fact becomes very important in Guardian columnist Paula Cocozza’s debut work, where Mary lives in a London suburb beset by urban foxes. On leave from work, unsettled by the proximity of her ex, and struggling with her hostile neighbors, Mary has become increasingly captivated by a magnificent fox who is always in her garden. First she sees him wink at her, then he brings her presents, and finally she invites him into her house. As the boundaries between the domestic and the wild blur, and the neighbors set out to exterminate the fox, it is unclear if Mary will save the fox, or the fox save Mary.  Partially a picture of a mental breakdown, partially a social commentary, and wholly fascinating, this is another book that will have you questioning reality and truth and identity, but in wholly unique ways.  The Times Literary Supplement loved this book, calling in, in its review, “Enchanting… For all its suggestiveness and sensuality, Cocozza’s narrative is artfully restrained . . . In this startling debut, Cocozza seems to be saying that, no matter how lonely the city becomes, through an open window a mass of life is listening back.”

Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently: Beau Lotto is the world-renowned neuroscientist, who studies the biological, psychological, and computational methods of human perception–that is, what the brain takes in, what is does with that information, and how it processes it into a form of understanding in the context of the world in which it lives.  In his infectiously fun and infuriating first book, Lotto tackles all the problems our brains have with perception, and proves, with a whole bunch of optical illusions, illustrations, and examples, that we aren’t seeing the world “as it is” at all–we are seeing what our beautiful, amazing, not-quite-unbiased brains are telling us to see.  But realizing the mechanisms that our brain uses to process information, and to understand why it makes the errors it does, is to come to love your brain even more, especially in a book like this one, that takes such delight in its subject matter.  Kirkus Reviews loved this book too, calling it a “sprightly look into the nature of things…Lotto’s provocative investigation into the mysterious workings of the mind will make readers just that much smarter.”

Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women: When her five-year-old son was killed by a van driving down their street, Susan Burton had no access to grief counseling or other forms of professional help.  As a result, Susan self-medicated, becoming addicted first to cocaine, then crack.  As a resident of South Los Angeles, a black community heavily targeted by the “War on Drugs”, it was but a matter of time before Susan was arrested. She cycled in and out of prison for over fifteen years, and was never offered the chance of rehabilitation until she found it on her own.  Once she got clean, Susan dedicated her life to supporting women facing similar struggles.  Her organization, A New Way of Life, operates five safe homes in Los Angeles that supply a lifeline to hundreds of formerly incarcerated women and their children—setting them on the track to education and employment rather than returns to prison.  In this book, Ms. Burton not only shares her own story with journalist Cari Lynn, but also lays out her ideas and policies for helping formerly incarcerated people live a life of dignity and fulfillment.  Susan Burton has been praised by artists, CEOs, and activists alike, and this book makes it easy to see why.  Publisher’s Weekly  stated in its review that “Susan Burton is a national treasure . . . her life story is testimony to the human capacity for resilience and recovery.”

 

Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

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