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What We're Reading This Month

This month, we’re excited to introduce you to Dr. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, Room to Read’s newest Author Advocate.

Quế Mai is the author of eleven books of poetry, short fiction and non-fiction in Vietnamese and English. Her writing in Vietnamese has received the 2010 Poetry of the Year Award from the Hanoi Writers Association, the Capital’s Literature & Arts Award, and First Prize in the Poetry Competition celebrating 1,000 Years of Hanoi.

Her debut novel and first book in English, “The Mountains Sing”, is an international bestseller and has won several international book prizes and awards including the 2021 International Book Awards and the 2020 Lannan Literary Award Fellowship for “a work of exceptional quality” and a “contribution to peace and reconciliation”. Her second novel in English, “Dust Child”, is set in Vietnam and forthcoming with Algonquin Books. She has been named by Forbes Vietnam as one of 20 inspiring women of 2021. Quế Mai says:

“Growing up in the rural areas of Vietnam, I have personally witnessed how books can change lives, empower people and help them become compassionate global citizens. I am thrilled to work with Room to Read to help enhance equal access of children to books and educational opportunities so that no child will be left behind as we work together to build a more inclusive and just world.”

For Room to Read Book Club members, Quế Mai would like to share a list of 12 books she recommends that are both written by Vietnamese authors and set within Vietnam, which are too rarely featured on the world stage.

 

12 Vietnamese Book Recommendations from Quế Mai

1. The Tale of Kiều by Nguyễn Du, translated by Huỳnh Sanh Thông

Considered the masterpiece of Vietnamese literature, this long narrative poem from the early nineteenth century can be read in a bilingual edition with the Vietnamese and modern English translation side by side, including explanations of Vietnamese proverbs and folk sayings.

2. The Defiant Muse: Vietnamese Feminist Poems edited by Nguyễn Thị Minh Hà, Nguyễn Thị Thanh Bình, and Lady Borton

As diverse as Vietnam itself, this poetry anthology covers topics ranging from early Buddhist spirituals to the expulsion of the Chinese by the Trung sisters to the cultivation of silk worms to the thoughts of rebellious youth in Vietnam today.

3. The Sorrow of War by Bảo Ninh, translated by Phan Thanh Hảo & Frank Palmos

Author and former soldier Bảo Ninh served with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade of the Vietcong. Of the five hundred who went to war with the brigade in 1969, he is one of the ten who survived. His now classic novel is a widely acclaimed and honest portrayal of life in the North Vietnamese army.

4. An Insignificant Family by Dạ Ngân, translated by Rosemary Nguyễn

Called "the most important Vietnamese novel you’ve never read” by Saigoneer, this novel follows a woman writer and a revolutionary, whose girlhood is spent as a guerrilla fighter, and whose post-war life becomes a search for personal liberation and individual love.

5. The Stars, the Earth, the River: Short Stories by Lê Minh Khuê, translated by Hoài Bắc Trần and Dana Sachs

In these 14 stories, a former war correspondent depicts a war-torn country and its reconstruction, examining the soul of a people whose culture has all but been destroyed, and asking the question: How can a culture honor the losses of war?

6. The General Retires and Other Stories by Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, translated by Greg Lockhart

Offering unprecedented insight into a society trying to overcome and understand years of pain and civil strife, this collection caused a sensation in Vietnam when it first appeared in 1987.

7. The Women on the Island by Hồ Anh Thái, translated by Phan Thanh Hảo, Celeste Bacchi, and Wayne Karlin

One of first novels focusing on women in post-war Vietnam shows how women who served during the war years returned to a society that they had defended, but that in many ways had no place for them.

8. Ticket to Childhood by Nguyễn Nhật Ánh, translated by William Naythons

The story of a man looking back on his life, this 2014 novel captures the texture of childhood in all its richness and explores children’s “power to imagine the world differently.”

9. Diary of a Cricket by Tô Hoài, illustrated by Tạ Huy Long, translated by Đặng Thế Bình

The most translated of all Vietnamese books (now in 40 languages), this is a story for all ages about a cricket’s travels to discover the world, written when the author was only 17 years old.

10. The First Journey by Phùng Nguyễn Quang and Huỳnh Kim Liên

This richly illustrated and award-winning picture book set in the Mekong Delta is a story of resilience and determination that follows a young boy as he sets out alone in a little wooden boat.

11. Open the Window, Eyes Closed by Nguyễn Ngọc Thuần, translated by Trương Tiếp Trương

Compared to the beloved French classic, “The Little Prince”, this is a children’s book cherished by kids and grown-ups alike that treats difficult topics with style and compassion.

12. The Women Carry River Water: Poems by Nguyễn Quang Thiều, translated by the author and Martha Collins

Bilingual in format, this work is a collection of poems by a Vietnamese writer of the post-1975 generation. The poems are rooted in a culture that honors place and respect for landscapes of the past, present and future.

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