The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A debut novel winning the Pulitzer which won many other prestigious awards (see * below) just calls my name –  because yes,  it’s true,  I’m a sucker for the reading awards.  Besides,  two (2!) of my reading groups selected it so …   I had to read it.

The end result?   This is probably the most beautifully written book I’ve read in years although it also might be one of the most violent books I’ve read in awhile.  But it’s kind of on the order of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy in that the quality of the writing takes the edge off the horror.    Unlike McCarthy’s novel, though,  Nguyen doesn’t shy away from humor – it too serves to mitigate the ugliness of what’s happening.

The Sympathizer
by Viet Thanh Nguyen
2015 / 348 pages
rating:    9.5 / A –   literary crime 

The story concerns the tragedy of the US war in Vietnam -especially the aftermath.   I avoided that subject for for many years as it was too personally painful.  I finally tried Frances FitzGerald’s prize-winning nonfiction book,  Fire in the Lake (1972) and then went on to The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990).    But I didn’t get around to those until 2010 or so – 35-40 years after the war.  They’re both excellent books.

Back to The Sympathizer – the bulk of the narrative is structured in the form of a letter to a Commandant written as a confession,  or a pseudo-confession, by a prisoner.  The nameless 1st person protagonist, the writer of the confession who was a spy for the North,  was the head assistant to General in the South Vietnamese Army – but the US is leaving.   He is the “sympathizer” of the title.  His father was a French Catholic priest while his mother was the priest’s maid.   The prisoner/sympathizer had spent a good part of his youth at university in the US but his mother and his best friends were of the North.  This duality is expanded and forms much of the thematic thrust of the book.

As we are transported back through the story we find the prisoner and his General,  along with the General’s  family,  managing to leave Vietnam at the very end of the fall of Saigon. They  came to the US and proceeded to … well … that’s what he tells us.  We also know from  outset that our letter/confession-writer  was/is a  “sympathizer,” –    “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” … “a man of two minds” – not wholly convinced of either side.

Nguyen writes beautifully – really, really beautifully!  He’s a stylist of first order with unusual metaphors and just ways of putting things.  His characters are brilliantly constructed and we get to know them in many ways.  The plot is tension filled – the reader  kind of knows what’s going to happen but … how?  why? when? –   (The book also received an Edgar Award for best debut novel –  that’s the crime genre.)

The inspiration came from “Apocalypse Now”  and Nguyen did an enormous amount of research on the making of that movie – (see the Acknowledgements). Also, there is a fictional book which has a huge part in the plot and it’s based on the very real ideas of William Westmoreland as witnessed by his documentary, “Hearts and Minds.”    There is also obviously some good research done on the details of the fall of Saigon which,  for what it’s worth,  I remember watching on the TV news.

Overall this is an incredible book – well deserving of the awards its received.

* The Awards:

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel
Winner of the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
Winner of the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Winner of the 2015-2016 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (Adult Fiction)
Winner of the 2016 California Book Award for First Fiction
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
Finalist for the 2016 Medici Book Club Prize
Finalist for the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Mystery/Thriller)
Finalist for the 2016 ABA Indies Choice/E.B. White Read-Aloud Award (Book of the Year, Adult Fiction)
Named a Best Book of the Year on more than twenty lists, including the New York Times Book ReviewWall Street Journal, and Washington Post
** from Amazon

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The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

I’m not a huge science book fan – except sometimes physics or astronomy – but  biology?  Not!   So had the All-nonfiction reading group not selected this title for it’s September discussion I would likely never have even glanced at it.   In fact,  I was really tempted to give it a pass anyway.   Fortunately,  I tried the sample and found myself a bit intrigued.  This is more a history of genetics and the story of how the scientists came to the understandings they have today as well as the ramifications for tomorrow.  So history is a super-favorite genre –  I’m in.

The Gene: An Intimate History
by Siddhartha Mukherjee
2016/ 608 pages
rating: 9    /  history/science

The  ideas and the history of the science of genetics are far more fascinating than I had anticipated – from the thoughts of  ancient Pythagoras about male sperm and Aristotle’s ideas of human shape and form , to Darwin and Mendel and Nazism all the way to 2016 and the ideas of recombinant DNA.  The future? –  Well … that seems to be all about how to make choices?

Mukherjee has his own stake in this story and he’s quite frank about it. (Maybe in the way that Atul Gawande did in Being Mortal)   Mukherjee’s  family is afflicted with a form of hereditary schizophrenia and he takes the reader on a bit of a memoir concerning a brother and uncles and even his father.   This is interwoven at appropriate times throughout the book and really humanizes the subject.  It’s a subject which absolutely needs to be humanized – personalized – made real.

Following a very nicely written survey of the history of the sciences of  genetics and evolution which comprises the bulk of the book,  Mukherjee ponders the idea of “disease” and  what is “normal,”  what is “best” as well as what is “race”  and what is “intelligence,”  “creative,”  and other aspects of the human being.    Are genes actual determiners of our destiny?  What about environment?   Free choice?

The photographs are nice but I  kind of wish there had been one clear diagram of what a gene looks like with a bunch of its parts labeled.   Also,  I wasn’t too sure about the technical side – what kind of microscopes were the scientists using at what times?

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The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

I guess I’ve just had my fill of books about India and immigration and so on and this seemed to be a rehash of 3 or 4 different stories.  I know it was short-listed for the Man Booker Award but imo (and I read all the long-listed books in 2015 except one) it’s not up to standard in terms of originality.


The Year of the Runaways
by Sunjeev Sahota
2015 / 485 pages (Kindle) 
rating 7.5 /  contemp India

Three young men from different situations in India feel they need to immigrate to England.  It’s all about the money though.  Randeep comes to help his family after his father has a stroke.  Once there, thanks to loans,  he gets a “visa marriage”  and looks for work.  Avtar sells a kidney to get the money for passage and comes to make more money so he can marry his girlfriend.  He goes to college in order to obtain a temporary visa and he looks for work.    And Tochi, from the caste of “untouchables,”  immigrates because he has nowhere else to go – no family – horrendous background – and he looks for work.

Avtar and Randeep are neighbors from the same neighborhood in India and they end up as roommates in basic, minimum slum-lord type of migrant worker housing in Sheffield,  but there is still food to buy and loans to repay and finally money to send home – maybe. Tochi arrives and there are others in the house so the situation basically turns into a contest of survival of the fittest where suspicion is everywhere and thievery and violence is not out of the question.  Always – where to find work,  where to get money.

Another character is Narindar, a British Sikh woman whose father has recently passed away.  Her brother and mother expect her to marry the young man who was picked out for her.  But she is very devout wants a year to do the kind deed of marrying Randeep for a couple years so he can get his “marriage visa.”   They are hounded by an investigator who suspects something fishy.

Sahota weaves the stories of the characters and settings throughout the book and as they take place over the course of a year plus back-stories.  I was never confused between the times in India or the times in England.  Life was very difficult, almost unsurvivable, in both places although it did seem as though England might have,  possibly,  a glimmer of more hope.

A rather important theme is how the basic cultural traditions, caste, food, religion, and women’s place,  of India follow the immigrants to their new land.  They never really assimilate at all but they really never have the opportunity.   Rather they use what they need to use to survive at the fringes of society.

If I weren’t so tired of books about India I’m sure I would have given this a higher rating – the writing is nice and the structure is interesting.  The character development is well balanced (I did enjoy the book a lot more after Narindar was featured.)

Reviews –
NPR by Nishant Dahiya
The Atlantic by Julie Calagiovanni 

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The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

I very much enjoy translated works from all over the world in part because it feels like I’m getting a bird’s eye view into various aspects of another culture.   Also,  I enjoy a good work of science fiction from time to time.   Well – I struck gold on both counts with The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin which won the Hugo Award in 2014,  was nominated for the Nebula in 2015 a-and (ta-da!) also won the Galaxy Award which is the heavy-duty  Chinese science fiction prize a few years ago (when it was first published there).

I usually listen to sci-fi and I’ll bet this would have been a great listen,  but up here in Dakota-land I have precious little listening time.  Furthermore,  it was selected by a group and I can’t just postpone listening until I get home.    I will be listening to the next two books in the series though – you betcha!  (at home)

The Three-Body Problem
by Liu Cixin
2008 / 399 pages (Kindle)
rating:  A+   / sci-fi 
translated by Ken Liu
Book 1 of “Remembrance of Earth Past” 

The narrative starts in China during the 1960s when the Cultural Revolution was at its height and academia was in peril.  Ye Wenjei,  the daughter of a family of doomed physicists,  is left at the mercy of the Red Guard and she is sent to a camp in the northern mountains.  There she wonders about a certain “Radar Peak” which she sees often and a friend gives her a copy of the book  Silent Spring (Rachel Carson – 1962).  She is found guilty of even having the book, is arrested and sent to a top-security military base which is focused on contacting extra-terrestrial life.  She becomes involved.

Next thing we know the setting is current era and Wang Miaow,  a nanomaterials researcher, is visited by the police and two scientists.  Other scientists are dying – perhaps committing suicide for some reason.   One suicide note says,  “There is no physics.”   Then Wang starts to see numbers on film negatives,  in front of his eyes, elsewhere.   It’s apparently a countdown with about 50 days to go.    Wang’s own projects have been interfered with and  the security agency  want his help with a spy project.  His own project is put on hold which seems to stop the countdown.   Wang then visits the home of his friend who explains the “three-body problem”  of physics and perhaps related to what’s happening in the world at the moment.

Wang is introduced to a computer game called Three-Body and wearing appropriate head gear and body suit is transported into a full immersion world in ancient China.  Wang plays this game through several chapters and it demonstrates the history of the earth or somewhere as well as a number of science and technology problems.  Very imaginative and with sound research backing it up.

The narrative alternates between the current day with Wang’s “history and science games” plus a couple more deaths and  the 1970s with Ye Wenjei at the military base.  Eventually the plot breaks free and we find that extraterrestrial life has been contacted and there are two factions of humans,  those who want them to come and save the earth and those who are totally opposed to the alien forces coming.  These two factions are essentially at war with each other in their mutual desire to save the earth.

This is great stuff -Liu Cixin has definitely created a believable world including  technology,  physics, quite a lot of history with excellent suspense and a wee bit of  interpersonal relations.  I’m sure folks who are more knowledgeable about the scientific aspects will get more out of it than I did,  but I found myself smiling and really enjoying the science and technology as well as the way it was all woven into a very  imaginative plot.

Review from NPR:

more info:

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6 Degrees of Separation – continues

Lisa,  over at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog continued a thread contributing to Six Degrees of Separation as inspired by Jenny (The Secret Son) Ackland and Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best.  That prompted me for some reason to continue –

I’ll start with …

1. Voices from Chernobyl by the 2015 Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich.  It’s  linked to Secondhand Time  (the last on Lisa’s list) by author and the subject of the last days of the USSR.  Voices from Chernobyl is an expose on the disaster and its effects on the population and entire country. I can easily go from there to Moscow and Amor Towles’ for my next “degree”:

2.  A Gentleman in Moscow –by Amor Towles which is great stuff about a wonderful man under house arrest in a splendid Moscow hotel  for a couple decades while the Revolution undergoes its changes.  Then we go to –

3 I Hotel by Karen Yamashita (one of my best-of-year reads in 2011, prior to Webpage blog) which concerns a variety of characters all of whom live, or lived in, a hotel in San Francisco, a very real historical hotel. The fictional characters tend to be from the lower classes but politically involved in such things as the Black Power movement at UCSF, the Communist revolution (they fly to Moscow for a little bit), the Farm Workers Union, etc.   And this book connects to … ta-da  …

4 The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka in which immigrant Japanese women arrive in San Francisco in the early 20th century and are married to men already in the US who are waiting for them. These women often work in the fields until they are taken to internment camps of WWII. One interesting thing about this novel is that it is written in second person plural – “we” – from the point of view of the women as a group. And that brings me to

5 Agaat by Marlene van Neikerk which is about a dying woman in apartheid South Africa who owns a farm with many laborers (connection 1) Her maid/nurse has been with her for over 40 years and as Milla dies she remembers her past as well as Agaat’s . This is due in large part due to her old diaries. The point of view is usually or often singular second person – “you.” (connection 2). And the huge connection there is

6 Between the World and Me by Te-Nahisi Coates – non-fiction, a letter to black men (literary device is his son) – about the anger and fear felt by Coates due to US racism which allows “people who think they are white” to violate black bodies with impunity.


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Agaat by Marlene van Nierkerk

This book was on my  wish list since its US publication in 2010,  but then I waited until it was available in Kindle format –  very, very much worth the wait,  although it would have been excellent at any time!   There are ways in which it outdid my expectations and Faulkner came to mind more than once.  Van Niekerk is a master of imagery and story-telling and the translator,  Michiel Heyns,  also did an excellent job –  it must have been quite a challenge.

by Marlene van Nierkerk 
2010 / 581 pages
rating 9 / contemp fiction – South Africa
(translated from Afrikaners by  Michiel Heyns) 

At the outset of this complex and multilayered novel, Milla de Wet,  the Afrikaner  heir to a largish farming operation in South Africa,  is  totally disabled except for her eyes with A.L.S.  It’s 1996 in South Africa (apartheid ended in 1994).  Her long-term devoted maid-servant, Agaat Lourier, attends to Milla’s every need from room decor and reading to personal hygiene and minor medical issues.  The dark-skinned Agaat has been with Milla since she took her in at age of 6.   When they began Milla was definitely  in charge, teaching Agaat about all sorts of things from embroidery to calf-birthing and from reading to the culinary arts.  But when the frame story takes place at Agaat’s death bed,  all of that has been upended and it’s Agaat who is the force with which to reckon.

The non-linear narrative then goes back to slowly revealing the story of  Milla’s life with Agaat and with her husband Jak (Jakob) as well as with their child Jakkie, and a few other minor characters.

The chapters start out in first person  present tense of Milla’s “voice”  while Agaat tends to her every dying need.   Then the narrative switches to a second person point of view as Agaat reads to her from the old diaries Milla kept all those years although Milla also remembers some things on her own.  The very last bit of each chapter consists of a kind of rambling from Milla’s confused and dying  mind.

Her story?  Milla married Jak de Wet in 1947 only to find out he was an abuser, not much good at anything to do with the farm and hopelessly arrogant.  He is completely  opposed to Milla taking Agaat under her wings and probably with good reason.  Milla’s mother concurs.  And then a few years later Milla gets pregnant and Agaat is needed even more although she has to sort out her own strange relationship with the whole family as well as the other workers on the farm.  We never do get a real glimpse into Agaat’s head  via point of view – only her actions, some incredibly loyal, some apparently rebellious,  some incomprehensible.

Milla and Agaat are both very strong characters and they are not really at peace with each other in all ways.  All through the story from the time they meet until the very end, Milla pushes and Agaat resists then Agaat pushes but Milla resists.  The bottom line is that Agaat has Jakkie as her ultimate weapon – but even he has to grow up.

On one level Agaat can be read as a very good story about a woman and her black maid,  of loyalty, marriage and motherhood with apartheid taking only a very subtle role.  But on another level it can be read as political allegory because come to find out Agaat was born in the year apartheid became law and it ends with  Milla, her farm and the whole country dying – or leaving.

Tremendous book – so glad I finally read it.   Yes,  definitely recommended.


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Free Men by Katy Simpson Smith

In 1788, in what is known today as Alabama, a French anthropologist is following a group of three men,  a Creek Native, a fugitive slave and a white man.  The small group or one of them may have killed someone,  many people, or none – that will be revealed.  The Frenchman may kill the three – or not – (but there seems to be that foreshadowing).   But for all that the author seems to have let various literary qualities take over and the the tension fails.

free men

Free Men
by Katy Simpson Smith
2016/ 373 pages
rating : 7  / historical fiction

The narrative unfolds in a structure presenting the overall story in 1788 from one or another character and then an in-depth 1st person tale  as each of the four main characters tells his own background. Then the main story continues with one or the other narrators.  At one point a wife and maybe one other person tell a portion.

There is lots and lots and lots of backstory to wade through.  I’m sure it’s to get to the heart of the theme of all men, no matter the skin tone or heritage,  are quite a lot alike but …

The first character presented in depth is Bob, a runaway-slave with a wife and children back home in Florida who dreams of a piece of land out west.  Out on the trail he first meets Cat, a rather pathetic white man who seems lost in some non-physical ways.  After a few days travel those two come across a Muskogee Native named Istillicha who is on the trail to get his own money returned and create a tribe of his own,  maybe his old one back.  Finally, the background tale of Le Clerc, the tracker- anthropologist and French ex-patriot, is told.

This could have been a powerful book with page-turning tension in a quest theme OR  literary exploration of a fascinating theme-driven work complete with theologically based symbolism without redemption.  Unfortunately  it wasn’t quite able to be both very well and I think that’s what Smith tried for.

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