Sharp and Intelligent Post-War Vietnam in "The Sympathizer", by Viet Thanh Nguyen - Book Review

Author Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for this book in 2016 and a litany of other awards. It’s been in my “to be read” stack for quite some time, though I held off for a while as it seemed a weighty book.  Indeed, it was, but well worth it.  The Sympathizer successfully combines historical fiction, social commentary, and dark wit into a thoughtful narrative of post-Vietnam war.

The Sympathizer’s narrator is a double agent - a man of “two minds”. He’s half-French, half-Vietnamese, an Army Captain in the Vietnamese Army, while spying for the Communists. As an attache to a high ranking Vietnamese General, he has access to top secret information, American intelligence, and a ticket to the United States after the fall of Saigon.

Having spent his university years in the Unites States, he is able to more easily navigate the cultural differences than his fellow refugees, though racism is pervasive throughout - from his own countrymen as he, himself is mixed race, and from Americans’ distrust of the ‘yellow’ infiltration of the “Boat People”.

Nguyen deftly portrays our protagonist’s two minds - sympathetic to both the southern vietnamese culture and to the communist cause; of an American mindset and longing for his homeland; of friend, lover, and confidant in the shadow of betrayal. 

Sometime brutally harsh with descriptions of torture, at other times with sardonic humor, The Sympathizer is a well-written philosophical look at racism, brutality in both war and “peace”, and survival. 

Published: 2015
Publisher: Grove Press

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars

The Social Ladder and Sorority Life in "Rush", by Lisa Patton - Book Review

When I saw Rush in the window of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, I was anxious to read it. The cover art popped (yes, it’s important) and I was curious to see how the experience of sorority rush is portrayed in current times. Surprisingly, or maybe not, it does not seem to have changed much in the thirty years since I went through it. While this book is in large part about rush, it delves into weightier topics such as generational racism and the inequities in pay and benefits to people of color.

Set in Oxford at Ole Miss, the story is told through the eyes of three main characters: Miss Pearl, the beloved African American house keeper in the fictional Alpha Delta Omega sorority; Cali, an un-“pedigreed” freshman from a small blue color Mississippi town; and, Wilda, Alpha Delt/Ole Miss alum and mom to another incoming freshman, Ellie. No good tale can be told without a villain and Patton’s Lilith Whitmore, in her powder blue rompers and matching David Yurman jewelry, rivals Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Not far behind her in wicked intent is her aptly Southern named daughter, Annie Laurie, who rises at 6am to do her hair and makeup before 9am class.

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Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, by Beth Macy - Book Review

If you’re looking for an uplifting read, pass this one up. If you’re interested in serious anecdotal and statistical research into the opioid epidemic in this country, read it.

Macy focuses mainly on the epidemic in and around her home town of Roanoke and in some of the poorer white areas of the Appalachia’s, but the book is global in its application.

 Macy interviewed and garnered the confidence of numerous users, users’ families and even a drug dealer, serving a 23-year prison sentence for heroin distribution. Interestingly, that dealer never did ‘herr-on’ as he refers to heroin. He was wise enough to know that his using would only result in his own addiction which would eat into his profits. While he might be a large fish in the dealing pond, he is hardly responsible for the epidemic. Many of the white addicts he sold to turned into dealers themselves just so they could fund their own habits. And small time players can make addicts just as quickly as big ones.  

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Cultural Psyche at the End of the 60's in "The White Album", by Joan Didion - Book Review

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This has to be one of the great opening lines. As you continue through The White Album, you’ll find many profound lines throughout. Joan Didion’s collection of essays encompasses a ten year period of writing; a supplement to her reporting that is deeply personal and revealing, with keen insights into her own psyche and that of the time. 

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Lyrical Writing in "Sing, Unburied, Sing", by Jesmyn Ward - Book Review

Sing, Unburied, Sing is heartbreaking and intense. It is the contemporary, rural South where location and characters are inextricably intertwined. This is Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, and she is certain to become one of South’s most notable writers.

The story is of a black family in coastal Mississippi, laden with the pain of memories, disease, drugs, and obsessions.  But it’s also a story of love, survival, and deep devotion. The chapters are told from the perspective of Jojo, a sensitive, prescient thirteen-year-old and his mother, Leonie. Jojo and his three-year-old sister, Kayla are raised by Pop, their grandfather who cares for them as well as his cancer-ridden wife, Mam, and their small home and livestock.  Leonie waitresses in a bar, gets high on meth, and is consumed with her white imprisoned boyfriend, Michael, also the father of her two children.

Focusing on the struggles of each character, Ward brings racial conflict front and center - from a story of slaves kidnapped from their homes in Africa and the harrowing ship ride to America, to Pop’s time in prison as a young man trying to look after a black child who was also jailed and brutalized. And we get a glimpse into Michael’s family - enough to witness extreme prejudice, violence, and hate’s repercussions.

Tight knit, Jojo and Pop care for Kayla and Mam, and Pop tries to prepare Jojo for manhood; while Leonie works and gets high, planning for the day Michael is freed from prison. Jojo listens to Pop’s stories of growing up and of his time prison; of the boy he tried to save; and of the blood on his hands. He is haunted, and they are all plagued with ghosts in some respect. 

Ward is able to weave together the mystical - through memories and specters from the past who can’t find their way home - and a jarring reality of racism and drug addiction. This is not an easy book to read, but it is certainly worthy of the effort.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Vickie’s rating: 4 Stars

Search for the Truth and Grit Take Down a President in "All the President's Men", by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This was my first time reading All the President’s Men. For those of you who read it twenty-five years or more ago, it warrants a second read. For those who have never read it, pick it up.

Written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, journalists for the Washington Post, it chronicles their development of the Watergate story from hotel break-in to the exposure of systemic fraud, deception, and illegal recording carried on by the Nixon administration. What started off as a story about a low-level burglary resulted in the resignation of the President of the United States.

All the President's Men
By Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein

Long before email and the internet, Woodward and Bernstein were knocking on doors and making phones calls. Though initially rivals at the Post, they eventually realized that they were stronger together. Bernstein was the better writer, Woodward had grit. Woodward’s clandestine relationship with his White House informant, Deep Throat, was spy novel worthy and proved to be paramount in the unraveling of the full story.

As the story was being developed, the White House issued repeated statements accusing the writers and the Post of false, biased reporting. They remained undeterred, though, and continued investigating and reporting. Through their relentless search for the truth, in the end, they got their men.

At the time of the book’s publication, some of the President’s men had pled guilty to crimes, many had resigned, and others were singing like birds. Less than two months after its publication, President Nixon resigned.

This book is full of facts, dates, and names so extensive that you cannot possibly keep it all straight. It reads like one long newspaper article and while sometimes tedious, it is fascinating. It is also at times barely believable, both in the lengths the reporters were willing to go to uncover the truth and the level of corruption that they exposed teeming through the Nixon administration.

Whatever side of the political aisle you’re on, this book supports the notion that this country has survived, and will continue to survive, times of severe political unrest which, while in the midst of it, might seem insurmountable. It also acts as a litmus test for how important our ‘free press’ was and is.

Published: 1975
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth's rating: 5  stars   

When You're "Born a Crime", by Trevor Noah - Book Review

Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime is fierce and heartbreakingly hilarious, just like he is. The son of an unmarried South African black woman and a much older Swiss man, Noah was literally “born a crime” under South African law. His birth was not by accident; his mother purposefully conceived him knowing full well the difficulties to which it could lead. But Noah’s mother refused to be bound by rules, laws, and religious tenets that did not make sense to her. And she was the definitive architect of Noah’s upbringing and ultimate success.   

The entire book is really an homage to his mom. Even as he portrays her at her harshest, which will be hard for some to read, his reverence for her is ubiquitous. He gives all credit to her. She read to him, encouraged him to learn as many South African languages as he could (plus English, of course) and let him know that he was free to do WHATEVER he wanted in life. She also chased after him A LOT because, in his own words, he was naughty as shit. “We only moved forward and we always moved fast.”  

Trevor, by his own description was ugly and ridiculous looking, but he found a way to use that to his advantage. Being a clown can garner attention and he used that attention to develop industrious business opportunities in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the world. Despite his present polish, in his writing he occasionally reverts to slang, starting sentences with “me and him.” As annoying as this grammatical error is to me, somehow, it’s endearing from Noah. It reminds you of where he’s been and what he’s gone through to get to where he is now.

Through his own life story, Noah tells the more general story of apartheid and the plight of the truly poor in South Africa. Noah realized early on that having money gave you choices. “People don’t want to be rich. They want to be able to choose.” And, the “teach a man to fish” parable? Noah suggests that’s nice, but you need to give him a fishing rod too. He uses his own illegitimate birth to lay out the racial caste system in the country and to demonstrate how his mixed race secured him advantage in some circumstances and utter discrimination in others.   

Although his adolescence was an incredible struggle, Noah infuses humor and camaraderie into his story telling. He may have been the gawky clown, but he had friends and love and, even in the darkest of times, hope. Trevor Noah has been a force to be reckoned with since he was a boy. I expect he will continue to be for as long as he’s around.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Elizabeth's rating: 4 ½ stars

"Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging", by Sebastian Junger - Book Review

If you didn’t read Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe when it came out last summer, read it now.  It will only take a few hours, but will leave a lasting impact. Tribe articulates the meaning of the word, its the historical and modern implication, and how a sense of tribe in our personal lives makes us more resilient, better human beings.

Junger’s book covers native American Indian tribes, soldiers returning home from war, citizens living through war, and contemporary civilization; and he examines why and how humans thrive in “tribes” and suffer in modern society. Small tribal communities promote caring and egalitarian values, while today’s culture advocates wealth and technology, fostering competition and isolation. This has vast implications on our mental and societal health.

As a journalist in combat zones, Junger has seen the horrors of war with both troops and citizens native to those war zones. It’s something he poignantly touches on in describing his own experiences. Most of us don’t experience extreme hardship and cannot relate to those returning from embattled zones - whether soldiers, journalists, or peace corps. Reentry into their homes where life has continued is a shock and struggle. The sense of community and common cause while away is gone, often replaced with loneliness and isolation. Aid organizations, including the Veterans Administration, put labels on those who have experienced trauma as victims. Junger’s research has exposed that the idea of victimhood is detrimental to the recovery process, and yet another way of alienating someone from the rest of society.

Junger also explores cultural hierarchy in modern society. He questions why construction workers, for example, have a higher perceived importance than stockbrokers. Construction workers after all, provide our shelter and are far more impactful to our everyday life. Calling this out, he points to a general lack of understanding and disconnectedness to many industries and jobs outside of our immediate purview, whether it is as a soldier, construction worker, farmer, or child caregiver. “This lack of connectedness allows people to act in trivial but incredibly selfish ways,” he says.

Tribe dives to the heart of societal issues - historically tribal cultures thrive mentally and emotionally. Generally, we may live in a financially prosperous world, however it has come at a significant cost to our psychological well-being. People benefit from companionship and a strong sense of belonging; especially to recover from trauma. Modern society does not support a high level of social support that helps to build resiliency.

“American life - for all its material good fortune - has lost some essential sense of unity”

Tribe is a thoughtful piece and has me contemplating my own tribe. Do I have one? How has it evolved from ancient tribes? Have I benefited or suffered? And how do you create a meaningful tribe while maintaining a life in the midst of a competitive environment. It’s sobering, and I highly recommend it.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Twelve

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

Unforgettable Prose in "Something Rich and Strange", by Ron Rash - Book Review

Ron Rash excels in expression and economy of words. His style is unpretentious, yet evocative. Something Rich and Strange is my first encounter with Rash, and certainly time well spent. It’s a book of short stories that crosses eras, from the civil war to present day. Each story, unique in it’s characters and circumstances, share the working class of North Carolina as its backdrop.

There is humor and tragedy, and sometimes both in the 34 stories. Whether overt or not, the book has a veil of melancholy throughout, providing us with a glimpse into lives hard-lived and sometimes our own condition. Rash’s characters are in the heart of Appalachia - farmers, soldiers, teachers, radio jockeys, janitors, carpenters, meth addicts, and widowers - each with a unique story in which their being  becomes palpable and relatable. Rash almost modestly presents us with heartbreak, and just as austerely, with wit, though it is also tinged with sorrow. 

And though everything seems swathed with this gloom, I could not tear myself away from soul-baring simplicity and stillness of Rash’s stories.  The title seems to sum the quality of this work perfectly, because the book is something rich and strange

Published: 2014
Publisher: Ecco

Vickie’s rating 5 stars

Realization of an American Social Crisis in "Hillbilly Elegy", by J.D. Vance - Book Review

These are the people we really don’t talk about. We may drive through their towns on a road trip, but it’s never our destination. We may even roll up the windows as we do, and lock the doors. They live in broken down factory or mining towns, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot to hope for.

J.D. Vance is one of them - a hillbilly. He grew up in Ohio, spent time in Kentucky, but always with his people. There are vast numbers of them that stretch across Appalachia and migrated into other states, following the jobs. Vance’s autobiography and account of the mindset and perspectives of the people living in these regions is not only eye opening, but jarring. I know there are millions of poor and undereducated in the U.S., and sometimes see it on the news or come face to face with it on the street - for a fleeting moment.

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