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

New York of "The Dakota Winters", by Tom Barbash is Highly Thoughtful and Readable - Book Review

Invoking so much of factual 1979 New York, I had to look twice to ensure I was reading a work of fiction. Indeed, author Tom Barbash used real events of that year as a backdrop for his novel, The Dakota Winters. We meet the Winters family through the voice of 23-year old Anton whom returns early from a Peace Corps assignment in Africa, having contracted malaria. Anton arrives in time to help his father Buddy Winters, America’s premier and loved talk show host, recover his career from walking off the set during a monologue and disappearing for months.

After much self-reflection, Buddy makes ready for his comeback and needs his son’s support to do so. With maturity and poise beyond his years, Anton traverses his father’s fragile emotions, regaining the trust of those in the business whom felt betrayed by Buddy’s walk off, his mother and siblings trepidation about his father’s readiness for return to t.v., and his own growth as an adult and professional. All of this takes place with his home as the anchor - The Dakota - a real building in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and home to New York’s wealthy, including the Winters, restaurant magnates, authors, artists, and of course, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

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Social Commentary in an Elegantly Written Novel - "Unsheltered", by Barbara Kingsolver

This is my first time reading work by Barbara Kingsolver, and I’ve clearly been missing out. Her newest, Unsheltered, is her 15th published book. It is focused on protagonist Willa Knox, her charming and handsome husband, Iano, his ailing father who lives with them, and their two children in various stages of early adulthood and discovery.  Willa and Iano are doing all the right things - working hard, saving, kind and loving; yet things are literally falling apart around them - Iano cannot get tenure at the college where he teaches; Willa’s magazine has shut down and she’s now freelancing; her father-in-law’s health is deteriorating, and insurance doesn’t cover enough of the costs; and the house they recently moved into at Sixth and Plum is crumbling around them. Oh, then there are her two children - Tig, the caring, but mostly distant daughter who lives at home; and Zeke, trying to make it in a new career with an infant.

Unsheltered: A Novel
By Barbara Kingsolver

Willa has a lot going on, and while she works to hold everything and everyone together, including herself, Kingsolver introduces us to a parallel narrative over a century earlier - of a truth seeking science teacher with troubles of his own.  Thatcher Greenwood finds himself newlywed to a privileged wife, along with her sister and social climbing mother, living in a crumbling house…on the corner of Sixth and Plum. Thatcher’s progressive, Darwinism ideas is at odds with the local establishment. He is quite confined by both his family and employer, but holds rather dangerous friendships with both a woman scientist, Mary Treat, and a local newspaper editor who is at odds with the towns’ restrictive leadership. They both encourage Thatcher to work to change the traditional notions of science and learning - a dangerous path, as he discovers. Kingsolver has researched the real Mary Treat for this novel, a nineteenth century biologist, to bring her to life for us as a somewhat eccentric, intelligent, and lovely character.

The house is not the only common thread between Willa and Thatcher. Societal and dogmatic parallels can be found in characters across the years.  In Unsheltered, while Kingsolver displays a very human side - a happy marriage beset with adversity, children finding their way in adulthood, and well-intentioned people struggling with day to day conflict. She openly shares her social and political stance through her characters, and there is a bit of self-righteousness that comes through. While Willa is a super human to manage the crises that keep coming, it’s the fluid writing and authentic dialogue that really make this book special.

Published: 2018
Publisher: Harper

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars

Coming of Age in Post WWII London in "Warlight", by Michael Ondaatje - Book Review

I’ve read all but one of Michael Ondaatje’s novels, with varying degrees of enjoyment - ranging from really good to wonderful. Each are unique in subject and in method of unraveling their stories; however, all retain Ondaatje’s style. It’s a style that is hard to describe - at once uncomplicated in prose, yet with depth of character and emotion.  I suppose he is able to say so much with so little.

Ondaatje’s latest release, Warlight, shows such restraint. From the innocence of a child whom we follow into adulthood, we hear from protagonist Nathaniel, unraveling his own life and that of his mother’s. Nathaniel is 15, his sister Rachel is 17 when their parents supposedly depart for Singapore for a year. The opening line lures the reader in with, “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”. Nathaniel takes us through his strange adventure of post-war England; of London, a city still dark with destruction from German bombs; of dim lights and persistent fog - all that form the silhouette of warlight.

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War, Crime, New York, and Great Writing in "Manhattan Beach", by Jennifer Egan - Book Review

I stayed awake nights to read this.  I couldn’t wait to reach the end, then hated when it was over. It’s that good.  I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad several years ago and liked it well enough.  Egan’s latest, Manhattan Beach, far exceeds its predecessor. 

Egan's first work of historical fiction was diligently researched over several years, and takes place in New York as World War II breaks out. It crosses time and oceans chronicling a famous gangster longing to do good; a father entwined in a gangster’s life he cannot sustain; and our imperfect heroine, whose strengths and smarts lead her from childhood to adulthood. The war itself is a character as well, propelling the lives of those left at home to support the “innocents” sent to fight, manifesting patriotism in even the most cynical, and fastening together the diversity of New York that would otherwise remain apart.

Manhattan Beach: A Novel
By Jennifer Egan

Anna is a child when the story begins, her father, Eddie, making ends meet as a bagman for a small time gangster. A loving relationship, Eddie takes Anna along for many of his drops. This ends suddenly however, when Anna turns 14, and Eddie begins employment for one of the most prominent gangsters in New York, Dexter Styles.  A dangerous path, clearly, but it allows Eddie to financially provide for his family, including Anna’s younger, disabled sister Lydia.

One day, Eddie doesn’t return home. Years pass, and after Pearl Harbor, the war effort is in full swing. Anna fills a role in the Brooklyn Naval Yard measuring ship parts; a job much too mundane, but she enjoys being part of the war effort.  Through mighty will and perseverance, she becomes the first female naval diver, making ship repairs underneath the water’s surface.  As Anna is discovering herself as a strong woman in very much a man’s world, she navigates the extreme chauvinism of the 1940’s, acceptance of her father’s disappearance, and meeting the gangster with whom her father was involved. Along with a supporting cast gleaned from interviews of people who lived and worked in Brooklyn supporting the Naval Yard, Egan weaves their real stories into a captivating plot.

Egan’s characters are beset with intersecting conflict and humanity; her writing and pace excels. She has uncanny ability to surface and convey emotions in the subtlest of ways; possibly the best feature of her writing.  Manhattan Beach is without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

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 

Murder, Corruption, and Strained Race Relations in “Darktown”, by Thomas Mullen – Book Review

Books such as Darktown make me squirmy and uncomfortable because they delve into the true nature of racism in our country’s history. Set in 1948 Atlanta, author Thomas Mullen’s story centers around Mayor Hartsfield’s appointment of the first eight black police officers in exchange for a vote his way in the upcoming elections from the influential blacks in the community. Despite the motivation, sounds like a break-through for equalizing blacks and whites, right? Not even close. The black officers did not have patrol cars, could not arrest whites, and were relegated to the basement of the YMCA as their headquarters since they weren’t allowed in the regular “white” police station.

On top of the blatant racism from the white cops and citizens, black citizens were almost equally as unsupportive to the new officers. While accustomed to harassment and abuse from white cops, the black community saw the new officers as an additional intrusion into their way of life. In a poignant conversation between one new officer and a black woman whom he was questioning about a fight, she became increasingly agitated by his repeatedly referring to her as ma’am. She finally lost her cool and yelled, “You see a ma’am here? I look like a white lady to you?”

Darktown: A Novel
By Thomas Mullen

The novel tracks a few of the fictionalized black officers as well as a couple of the white officers. As the black officers attempt to solve the murder of a young black woman whose decomposing body was found in a pile of garbage, they face substantial push back from their white superiors. But not everyone is opposed to the integration of the police department, and the black officers find some quiet support from people they wouldn’t have expected.

This is a tough book to read and the bad guys don’t get as much of a comeuppance as you’d like. But it is important story. The timing of its release seems ominously appropriate in light of the ‘if you are not like us, you are not welcome’ rhetoric of one of our current presidential nominee’s platforms. In the novel, Mullen references a billboard on a Georgia highway opposing the United Nations. It read, “Keep America safe from foreigners!” Language on a billboard almost seventy years ago that could just as easily be found on one today.

The plot is good; the historical significance and relevance is better. The complexity and ugliness of the relationship between blacks and whites, particularly in the South, continues to remain something that cannot be unpacked in neat little boxes. Mullen enlightens the reader on why the same street changes names when it leaves the white section and enters the black part; those white aristocrats could not stomach having the same return address as their negro counterparts.

Darktown is gritty, real and, despite its historical roots, is hauntingly relatable in today’s times.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth’s rating:  4 stars

Lifting Darkness from “That Bright Land”, by Terry Roberts

It took a bit of effort to engross myself into That Bright Land. I had just finished reading Amor Towles’ new, very formally written novel (review coming soon), and switching gears to this post-Civil War drama written in the voice of a Union soldier, turned government man, was stark. But once I made the transition, author Terry Roberts had me the rest of the way.

That Bright Land
By Terry Roberts

The book is based on little-known, true events. Those in the South had greatly divided loyalties during the War of the States. In North Carolina, where our story takes place, even within small communities, some families chose to fight for the Union, causing great divides within the population and families. The basis for the story is a massacre that took place at Shelton Laurel in Madison County, where soldiers were ordered to execute their neighbors, those some considered traitors. Well, you can imagine the bad blood and ongoing resentments this caused, long after the war’s end.

So Jacob Ballard, a former Union soldier, who happens to have been born in Madison County is sent for to investigate a series of recent murders of Union veterans living in the county. They are dropping one by one, and no one can identify who the murderer is.

Roberts paints a vivid picture of rural North Carolina in an age of both poverty and growth; of a grand hotel and moonshine running; and the transition from slavery to freedom. Clues to the mystery reveal themselves slowly, and our hero has no technology nor team of experts to assist him. It is pure use of smarts and ingenuity to bring the murders to an end - a very different style than so many popular books today, and a bit refreshing.

Along the way, Jacob has his own personal awakening through rediscovering his long-lost roots, finding kinship, and ridding himself of the War’s demons that haunt him so. Some of the more endearing characters could have been better developed, but it was just well enough conveyed to build a well-rounded story. That Bright Land is a solid, quick, and engaging read.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Turner Publishing

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena", by Anthony Marra - Book Review

I'll get this out of the way at the start. I was teary-eyed at the end. I always love a book where the pace seems to pick up as the end nears; you don't want to finish, but cannot stop until you've reached the conclusion, no matter how much you don't want to. There is a sense of urgency that compels you forward, until the choice is no longer yours. And you're left to contemplate the memory of the events and the emotions they've stirred in you. 

Such is the wonderful writing of Anthony Marra in his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The story covers citizens victimized by the two wars of the last 25 years in former Soviet republic, Chechnya. Every step of the way, Marra elicits profound empathy for each of his characters, all of whom are broken and deeply scarred. We have multiple protagonists, and Marra slowly unfurls the psyche of each of them - of how the wars have wounded them both physically and psychologically. He brings together Russian and Muslim Chechens whose lives intersect, conflict, and weave together in unexpected ways. 

The book begins with Havaa, an eight-year-old girl who is hiding in the woods after her father, Dokka is murdered. Long time neighbor, Akhmed finds her and takes her to safety, at risk to his own life. They find safety in a battered hospital with only one doctor, Sonja, who reluctantly takes the girl in. Over a five day period, we get to know Sonja, Akhmed, and Havaa, among others; and through them, journey through their memories of pain and love; of war and exile; and of traitors and deceit. 

Marra's telling of events seems so tangible and realistic. He spent time in in Chechnya and did extensive research to write this book, giving the reader a rare and authentic connection to a region we otherwise may hear little about. He deftly brings to us the anguish and brutality of war, along with the effects of mental and physical torture, whether self-inflicted, at the hands of Russian captors, or by human smugglers. Marra carefully brings each character alive with all their shortcomings and fears, poignantly delivering the desperation and longing in each of them. He infuses moments of lightness; whimsy as it naturally occurs, whether a defense mechanism or as irony in daily life lived in turmoil.

Some of the most beautiful moments are perhaps when narrating a letter written to Havaa about her father or other passages expressed in first person. Marra uses a poetic voice, so skillfully articulating the emotion of a father's subtly expressed, yet deep devotion to his daughter. Living under the dark cloud of war, occupation, and brutality heightens the senses, dulls sensitivities, and acutely alters human behaviors. We feel them - or as close to it as we can - through A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Published: 2013
Publisher: Hogarth

Vickie's rating: 4.5 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