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

“Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire”, by Peter Stark - Book Review

What happened after Lewis and Clark headed west? It was years before the Pacific Northwest became part of America. The region was sought after by the Brits, Canadians, and enterprising Americans, including Thomas Jefferson and John Jacob Astor. Jefferson had his sights on colonizing it, thus securing the far borders of the still-fledgling country in 1810. Astor was determined to expand his international trade and create a critical outpost for his enterprise.

Author and journalist Peter Stark delivers this fascinating true adventure to us in Astoria, a journey put into motion by Jefferson and Astor. It’s the story of ambition, ego, bravery, madness, and humanity; of humans pushed to their limits both physically and emotionally, and of their survival.

Beginning with fur trading, Astor’s humble yet ambitious initiation into international trade began with New York, Canada, and Europe. With Jefferson’s political backing, Astor funds an endeavor to settle along the Columbia River leading to the Pacific Ocean to promote trade with Russia and China, ultimately creating an international route, exporting goods around the world. Astor embarks on two campaigns to reach the Northwest from New York - an overland expedition to closely follow the path of Lewis and Clark, and another by sea on the Tonquin, which rounded Cape Horn. These advance parties were to establish a settlement and pave the way for others to follow.

Over the course of three years, this incredible journey is filled with violence and hardships. The overland party encounters hostile indian tribes, harsh terrain and weather, and frequent sidetracks. The expedition by sea barely survives storms, attacks, and a tyrannical captain. Stark delves into the personalities of key players within each expedition, as well as the race to the Columbia River not only by the American expeditions, but by competing traders in Canada, and a hostile British fleet.

Astoria is an amazing view into our history and man’s determination to conquer and succeed. Stark is adept in conveying this tale, making it both fully engrossing and in building the reader’s anticipation, even though we already know the ultimate outcome. Not only is it a thrilling tale, it’s a great read.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Ecco/Harper Collins

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars 

Intensely Intimate With “Thirteen Ways of Looking”, by Colum McCann - Book Review

Colum McCann is truly a master of his craft. This is my first read of McCann’s library of work, but his evocative nature begs further discovery. In the midst of writing Thirteen Ways of Looking, McCann himself was attacked while trying to help a woman who had been assaulted, after which he suffered a broken cheekbone and teeth. He writes in the book’s Author’s Note, “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only look back. In the end, though, every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical”. When you read the book, you’ll understand how poignant this statement is.

Thirteen Ways of Looking includes a novella and three short stories. The title is based upon the poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, by Wallace Stevens, of which McCann includes a stanza of the poem at the beginning of each section of the novella. The stories are quite different from one another, but the unifying theme is a strong sense of yearning and loneliness, vividly told.

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"In a Dark, Dark Wood", by Ruth Ware - Book Review

This is a modern day whodunit that reads much like an Agatha Christie mystery except with current technologies like cell reception and texting capability. Five women and one man gather for a ‘hen’ party, the British equivalent of an American bachelorette party, to celebrate the nuptials of Clare. Surprised by the invite since she hasn’t spoken to Clare (her ex-best friend) in years, curiosity gets the best of main character Lenora (also known as Lee, Leo or Nora), who decides to tag along to the fete with Nina (her current best friend). At final count, there is Nora, Clare, Nina, Melanie (who experiences an acute case of separation anxiety from her new born), Flo (the overly eager new best friend of Clare) and Tom (the gratuitous gay male friend).

In a Dark, Dark Wood
By Ruth Ware

The setting is the perfect thriller locale: a house deep in a ‘dark, dark wood’ belonging to Flo’s aunt who is elsewhere. The house is big and austere and almost becomes a character in the story. With huge windows facing out, the occupants can only see a short distance into the woods but seem utterly exposed to anything or anyone outside that glass. The entire time the group is in the house, as a reader, you feel on edge about exactly what IS out there.  

The story is peppered with the right amount of red herrings, plot twists, and eerie occurrences. Author, Ruth Ware adeptly works her mystery writer magic that keeps you repeatedly changing your mind about which characters are villains and which are just unlucky bystanders roped into something wicked.

No thriller would be complete without a death, and this book has one. Interestingly though, the actual death is anti-climactic compared to the journey to it and the aftermath. Ware creates tension in the story from start to finish.

While I did figure out the final plot twist just a bit before it was revealed, that discovery took nothing away from the build up of the mystery. “In a Dark, Dark Wood” will have you double-checking that your doors are locked if you’re reading it at night. It is a solid mystery with the right amount of chill.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

Having Fun with "Troublemaker", by Leah Remini - Book Review

Fully understanding the wrath that Scientology brings down on those who speak out against the “church”, Leah Remini comes out swinging in her new book, TroubleMaker, which chronicles her life in the church as well as her departure.

She admits right up front to being a liar, a cheater and a home wrecker. She even airs her family’s dirty laundry in an effort to cut the Church of Scientology off at the pass. In her words, she did it “to save them some money” by not having to undertake a smear campaign to discredit her.

Where Going Clear by Lawrence Wright should be the assigned text for anyone who wants a true look inside the history of L. Ron Hubbard and his “religion”, TroubleMaker is the salacious gossip side of the story. Remini does a fabulous job of describing in detailing the tenets of Scientology, how it works, and what happens when you step out of line in the eyes of the leadership.

She also dishes on what we want to hear about most: Tom Cruise, the most famous Scientologist, his star studded wedding, and, to a lesser degree, other A-listers who are members.

Remini writes like she acts. She’s noisy, a bit crass, and somewhat defensive and insecure. But she is more prophetic in print that I’ve ever considered her to be on screen. While she has very specific personal reasons for striking out at the church, the book isn’t just a rag session.  It digs pretty deep into the soul of Scientology and how it casts a net over its members that can be virtually impossible to escape. The sheer fact that she didn’t leave sooner evidences the vice-like grip the church exercises on its members.

TroubleMaker is a survivor’s story sprinkled with humor and the type of glimpses inside the life of a show biz star that we all relish reading. It is a page-turner if not a work of literary genius. She is brave for telling her story and while I used to actively not like her (probably in large part due to her Scientology beliefs), I came away from the book not only liking her but rooting for her.   

Published: 2015
Publisher:  Ballantine Books

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars

Wave Your Creative Flag with "Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear", by Elizabeth Gilbert - Book Review

Elizabeth Gilbert’s foray into the world of self-help was an easy transition. She did, after all, write one of the most successful ‘sabbatical’ books of all time in Eat, Pray, Love.

While clichéd at times (what self help book isn’t), Big Magic is really just solid encouragement to any person with creative notions to pursue them in spite of everything. Time constraints? Fear of failure or rejection? Worried it won’t be good enough? All of those be damned. Just do it, she says.

But do it for the right reasons. For you. Do not assume your creativity is going to pay your bills. If it winds up doing so, wonderful. Even though it is more likely it won’t, that shouldn’t stop you.

What most people don’t realize is that Gilbert had three published novels that were well received before she broke the bank with Eat, Pray, Love. It was only after the success of that book that she actually quit her day job.

Instead of being a tortured artist, Gilbert wants you to pursue your creativity to completion as you would a love affair. Finishing your creative project is the key, and all it needs to be is good enough. Since there is no “arts emergency” and you won’t be stoned to death for your creativity, what is the worst that can happen? It doesn’t become a colossal commercial success? So what? Your creativity should be pursued for YOU, not for others, and you shouldn’t even have others in mind when you’re doing it.  

She weaves great anecdotal stories from her own experiences and those of other artists in between her advice. She uses catchy phrases like “rejecting the cult of artistic martyrdom” and “the song of the disciplined half ass” to bring her points home.  She’s both storyteller and teacher.

This is a quick, easy read and a good kick in the pants for anyone who just can’t quite figure out how to channel their own artistic ideas. So, with Gilbert’s blessing, go out and be creative! Quit making excuses and don’t set expectations. Do it because you want to and because it makes you feel good.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Riverhead Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

Running Down a Dream with “Petty”, by Warren Zanes - Book Review

I grew up with Tom Petty - from the moment I discovered I loved rock-and-roll, he was there, feeding my need for music with lyrics I could relate to, and a band that delivered the tunes that had me swaying along with them. He’s from Gainesville, Florida, where I went to school; I’ve seen him live in concert; have listened to him almost my entire life.  Yet, I picked up Warren Zanes’ biography, Petty, and learned I didn’t know much about him at all.

Zanes spent countless hours talking with Petty, interviewing past and present members of the Heartbreakers and Petty’s earlier band, Mudcrutch, and pouring over thousands of recordings to write this homage. Somewhat reclusive, Petty works to stay out of the public eye when not on stage. But Zanes is able to dig into Petty’s knotty emotional history - from his abusive relationship with his father, to his 22-year first marriage, drug use, and the heavy responsibilities of being a father and band leader.  

We follow Tom Petty along his life and musical journey, which are really a single, intertwined quest for perfection. This quest often let him down (family, addiction, and depression), and sometimes lifted him up (musical success and respect); and along the way, we have a front row view into the arguments, disappointments, achievements, tours, and collaborations that make up his long career.

Petty: The Biography
By Warren Zanes

Zanes includes Petty’s father’s rocky upbringing, leading to their tumultuous relationship; of the music scene in Gainesville in a time of R&B, blues, and pop; and of hanging out as a teenager at the local guitar store, picking up band mates and gigs. We follow Petty to Los Angeles, and learn about record deals, his rocky marriage, band conflicts, and of being a master storyteller.  We hear of Petty’s highs and lows, by his own account, friends (including Stevie Nicks), and the Heartbreakers themselves. Zanes brings to us the good and the bad - disgruntled former band members, Petty’s battle with depression and addiction, and finding solace in the music. We all know of Petty’s great collaborations - Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Jimmy Iovine, Rick Rubin, etc. - but along with that we learn how that music was made and where he and the Heartbreakers were in their evolution and mindset.

Petty, now in his mid-sixties, is considered an elder statesman of rock-and-roll. He is still making records and touring - both with the Heartbreakers and Mudcrutch. I admire Petty’s dedication to his craft, his innate talent, and his musical instinct. This is an engaging biography that has given me a deeper connection to Petty’s work and for that alone, it was worth the read.

Published:  2015
Publisher:  Henry Holt and Co.

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

Olympian and High-End Escort Speaks Out in "Fast Girl", by Suzy Favor Hamilton - Book Review

Fast Girl is a riveting story that I consumed in less than 24 hours. Suzy Favor Hamilton tells of how her obsessive personality and undiagnosed bipolar disorder led her from chasing medals in three different Olympics to becoming a high-end escort in Vegas making thousands of dollars a day. She carried on her escorting all the while being married with a small child – and with her husband’s begrudging consent.

Suzy tells of how her competitive nature and desire to win came young and how running became her outlet. On scholarship at Wisconsin, she ran for the Badgers through her college years and met her cute baseball playing husband, Mark. She continued running competitively after college, making a decent living between her sport and accompanying endorsement deals. But eventually her running career waned and she turned to real estate with her husband.

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Ain’t No Haints in the “The Turner House”, by Angela Flournoy - Book Review

“Ain’t no haints in Detroit” is a Turner family mantra that originated on the night Cha-Cha, the oldest of thirteen Turner children, wrestled a ghost in his room on Yarrow Street. While many of the other Turners were convinced of Cha-Cha’s vision, his father, Francis, was not, and coined the phrase. By the time the last Turner child, Lelah, was old enough for it’s usage, the saying was used to end a discussion. If another Turner didn’t buy whatever it was you were trying to sell, they’d stop you in your tracks with a flippant, “c’mon man, ain’t no haints in Detroit.”

The Turner House, by author Angela Flournoy, is about a large African American family and their goings on in Detroit. While most of the book is set in 2008, there are flashbacks to the Turner family beginnings in 1944 when Francis and Viola were newly married. With Cha-Cha on the way, Francis left Viola in Arkansas and went to Detroit to find work. These flashbacks let us know just how close the last twelve Turner children were to never being born.  

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Offbeat and Fun with “Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits”, by David Wong - Book Review

This has to be the strangest and one of the most fun books I’ve read. And I would never had picked it up had it not been for a youngin’ at work. He was describing the morbidly funny t.v. shows and books he’s into. None sound appealing, but he was pretty passionate about David Wong. I think I probably wanted to be in with the cool kids. Just a little. I bought it, then it sat around for a long time. Okay, finally picked it up. And am so glad I did. 

“Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits” takes place, as the title gives away, sometime in the future. There are references to today’s political landscape that help shape it. There are self driving cars (manual is illegal), video screens everywhere, and bizarre superpowers.  We still have stores like Lane Bryant (I didn’t even think they were around today) and television like National Geographic. Our tale takes place primarily in Tabula Ra$a. Yep, that’s a dollar sign instead of the “s”, which is a clear indication of the city’s decadence. 

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