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

Small Town Tumult in "Beartown", by Fredrik Backman - Book Review

If you pick up Beartown with the hopes of getting all the feels and goosebumps you got from A Man Called Ove, let me dispel you of that thought right now. What you will get is a beautifully written book that tackles a spate of complex issues.

While the thrust of the story centers around a sexual assault, author Fredrik Backman also addresses bullying, immigration, sexual orientation, the meaning of true friendship and what being honorable actually means. Seemingly about small-town living, Beartown, at its core, is about people and human survival, regardless of their locale.

Beartown: A Novel
By Fredrik Backman

Since Beartown was published, the Weinstein case and the #MeToo movement exploded into the forefront of the news and, with them, countless accusations of assaults against high powered males all across the country. Suddenly, women have felt safe coming forward and speaking about their stories of abuse. Hopefully, this global exposure will change the face of sexual harassment and abuse as we know it. 

But not in Beartown. A small, dying Swedish town where hockey is the biggest commodity, rapes simply do not occur. Especially by a star hockey player who is the only hope of leading the high school team to victory in its first-time appearance in the national championship game. Once the accusations are made by a teenage girl who was drunk at a party, the lines are drawn and drawn hard. Those who believe him, those who believe her. And those who are inclined to give the accused a pass for the 'better of the whole' because they see the outcome of the hockey game as the town’s only chance of survival.

It is infuriating yet all too similar to what is happening in our daily news. Backman writes with a deft touch about how a sexual assault can rock a community on micro and macro levels. He shows the fierce loyalty of parents who close ranks around their children and support them unwaveringly even though one of them has to be lying. He exposes how the importance of an event – in this case, a hockey championship – can be deemed vastly more important by people who should do better than a criminal investigation.

Even though the book is a couple of years old now, it is hard to imagine one more relevant in our current turbulent times. Not necessarily a feel-good read, but perhaps one that should be required.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Atria Books

Elizabeth'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   

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.

Read More

Delightful and Sophisticated: “A Gentleman in Moscow”, by Amor Towles - Book Review

Moscow of the 1920’s is haunted by years of shifting political philosophies. The Bolsheviks are in power, “liberating” wealth from the aristocrats, nationalizing property, and advocating for the working class, while it works its way to a formal communist society. It is here in Moscow where we are introduced to the young gentleman Count Alexander Rostov, whose family estate is confiscated, and the Count is sentenced to house arrest in the grand hotel Metropol. 

What a lovely man author Amor Towles creates in Count Rostov - unrepentant, light-hearted, with a child-like curiosity. Rostov is condemned to live in an attic room of the hotel and must never set foot outside its doors. The Metropol is truly a grand hotel with fine dining, a lively bar, and animated cast of guests and employees, where Rostov finds a way to thrive within its confines. His imprisonment allows him to build deep and lasting relationships with the staff and guests alike, including an actress, American diplomat, a Bolshevik officer, journalists, as well as the hotel seamstress, chef, and maitre d’, among others.

One of the most important characters is a precocious child living as a guest in the hotel, Nina. The Count becomes Nina’s de facto mentor and co-conspirator, and they help each other explore the hidden nooks and secrets of both the building and its guests.  Eventually Nina leaves for school and marriage, but years later, she returns with a daughter of her own. Nina must travel in search of her missing husband and leaves her daughter, Sofia, in Rostov’s care. What happens next is an emotional awaking and benevolence that surpasses anything he’s known before.

For decades, we follow the Count’s exploits and daily routines, and we discover how each of the people he’s encountered throughout his forced stay at the Metropol influence and affect his life and actions. We see Rostov grow wise and clever, yet never lose his humor, kindness, and aristocratic air. The novel is not a brief one, and I have to admit, the first half took a bit of perseverance. Once Sofia came on the scene, however, I couldn’t put A Gentleman in Moscow down. Here is where his friendships deepen, his wisdom develops, and the plot thickens.

Towles’ writing is above all elegant in its delivery. He writes with affable sophistication - a true gift that is such a pleasure to dive into the depths of each page. His heartfelt accounts of the alliances, community, and love that develops over the course of the story are genteelly conveyed. In the end, I loved it.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Viking

Vickie’s rating: 4.5 stars 

Who Are the Good Guys in “The Director”, by David Ignatius - Book Review

Taking a page from Sara’s post asking authors of children’s books to stop underestimating their audience…Dear writers of political suspense novels: please stop slighting women. These novels have a wider audience than the dudes they’re targeted to. Spies, politics, and suspense are subjects a lot of women love as well. And with a generation of pretty sharp young women entering the work force and reading adult fiction, you may be pushing this audience away, as well as portraying women in a subservient light with men.

The Director: A Novel
By David Ignatius

How does this relate to The Director?  We’ll get to that. In the meantime, I’ll start with how much I did enjoy this cyber-espionage thriller. I tend to gravitate to rather heavy subjects and need to remind myself to pick up some intellectual candy every once in a while. This fit the bill perfectly. David Ignatius is a well-respected, experienced journalist with the Washington Post. He’s written several political thrillers; one made into the film, Body of Lies. He’s a skilled writer and digs deep into his subjects.

The Director takes on the thorny and very prevalent subject of cybersecurity and highly proficient hackers. The story begins with a new CIA Director, Graham Weber. Weber is an anomaly in the intelligence community - an outsider from the business world and outspoken about government abiding by its laws. His idealist philosophy immediately comes into conflict with safeguarding the nation his very first day on the job. Weber struggles with maintaining his own beliefs and morals, how far to bend them for the good of the country, and staying alive. But he has a mole within the CIA, and he has to catch him red-handed. Who does he trust in the den of spies, hackers, and politicians? As the story unfolds, we’re taken to secret hideouts, shell companies, embassies, safe houses, and the White House. 

All of this equates to a well-constructed plot and a very fun read. Here’s where my issue is, which is not exclusive to Ignatius (see my post on Leaving Berlin). The leading female character, Dr. Ariel Weiss, is beautiful, sexy, and wicked smart. She’s a cyber expert with the CIA and knows how to work the system. She essentially has to play double agent, spying within her own agency, while balancing the politics and secrets amongst the hackers, the CIA Director, and Director of National Intelligence. But for all her education and training as a secret agent, she’s amazingly vulnerable. And quite frankly, some of the scenes including Weiss are wholly ridiculous. Perhaps, geared to a male audience, Ignatius believes this is what they want to read. Or perhaps he’s simply playing into the male fantasy of women who are smart and sexy, yet still cannot fully succeed without a man’s helping hand. Well, maybe it’s still true.  

Despite this annoyance, I do recommend The Director. It’s incredibly interesting to read about international cyber warfare, along with our own country’s political cover. Ignatius bases his subjects on a certain amount of fact. Which leaves the reader to wonder how much of it is reality. Regardless, engage your suspension of disbelieve, and give it a shot.

Published: 2014
Publisher: W.W. Norton

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

“Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist”, by Sunil Yapa - Book Review

The World Trade Organization negotiations in Seattle of 1999 were memorable for their controversy, protests, and stark violence that took place. Delegates from around the world tried to gather to discuss free trade agreements amongst nations, while thousands (40,000+) of protesters halted the opening day ceremonies through acts of civil disobedience. Months of planning took place by opposition groups to influence or halt the talks, culminating in violent clashes with police. It was a very dark event, that went out of control.

Author Sunil Yapa has written his debut novel from the perspective of those attending these WTO events. Part historical fiction, part  political commentary, Yapa’s retelling of the opening day deftly moves from person to person, with vivid descriptions of each attendee’s viewpoint. We hear first from a runaway teen who had no intention of getting involved in the protests, but somehow got swept up in it; from two protestors and their own fears, joys, and sense of purpose; three police officers, including the Seattle Chief of Police; and finally, a Sri Lankan delegate attending the meetings.  Each chapter moves to a different character, checking in with them throughout the day - from the peaceful and festive atmosphere of early morning, to forceful clashes between police and protestors chained together to block streets from passage; of tear gas, police brutality, and the combination of cruelty and love that can exist simultaneously in our hearts.

There is subtext for each of the characters as well, including the source of anger behind an officer’s venom, our runaway’s search for deep meaning in life in the face of his mother’s death and his father’s cynical view of the world, and the delegate’s recognition of his place as merely a cog in the world stage wheel.  Here is where you’ll find the true interest in the story, and where I imagine the title of the book is born - the heart is not a simple vessel, but one of complex emotion capable of great affection and equal devastation. 

Yapa’s book is a quick read and illuminated for me what my memory of the event had long lost. My only disappointment was the consistent and extensive flowery style - descriptions lasted paragraphs, verging on rants. Though this shouldn’t be a reason not to pick this one up.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Lee Boudreaux Books

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars

"Lethal Passage: How the Travels of a Single Handgun Expose the Roots of America’s Gun Crisis", by Erik Larson - Book Review

Lethal Passage is equally one of the most fascinating and terrifying books I have ever read. As the title indicates, author Erik Larson follows a specific gun, a Cobray M-11/9, from manufacture to its penultimate ending point, in the hands of sixteen year old Nicholas Elliot, who took it to school for a shooting spree that resulted in the death of one teacher and serious injury of another.

Throughout the gun’s journey, Larson takes a hard look into the "gun problem" that exists in this country. The most shocking part about this book is that it was written over twenty years ago and, despite the stark realities he presents, if anything, things have only gotten worse.

Read More