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

A Memoir of Heartache and Torment in “Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story”, by David Payne - Book Review

This book is not for everyone. For me though, it was beautiful. Beautiful in its gutted heart and soul, its raw emotion, its incredibly precise writing, and its palpable heart ache. And its truth, according to David Payne in his recent memoir, Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story. It’s Payne’s story and his brother’s of growing up with an angry, alcoholic father, of playing favorites, and not being able to speak the truth.  It’s of Payne’s brother, George A., with mental illness, his tragic death, and Payne’s own manic struggle to leave behind, then reconcile his family ties.

The book is dark. This is Payne’s therapeutic release from the guilt he has around his brother - not just his death, but in his life, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and having had several psychotic breakdowns. George A., as Payne describes wins by losing. That is, he gains the affection and attention of his divorced parents; attention Payne feels cheated of. Yet George A. earns this by breaking down. We see the brothers converge at family events and holidays, yet fade from each other’s lives in their separation, becoming two very different individuals - financial broker versus writer; conservative versus liberal; encircled by family versus trying to escape the family he was born into.

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Young Skins, by Colin Barrett - Book Review

I hear a lot of people say they don’t care for short stories.  I never quite understood this. Short stories can be as beautifully written as a novel, with the added benefit of feeling accomplished - getting through a story in a short period of time. It’s perfect for those with short attention spans or who read multiple things at once. But that’s just me.

Young Skins is a collection of short stories and one novella. It’s the debut book from Irish writer Colin Barrett, and it’s completely absorbing. Barrett combines edgy and prosaic prose with lyrical descriptions of the stories’ backdrop, placing the reader in clear view. The title, Young Skins, refers to the 20- and 30-something year old lads as the protagonist of each tale. Most of these young men live in the small Irish town of Glanbeigh, rarely hold traditional jobs, and find themselves in and out of conflict - with the law, business dealings, friends, relationships and alcohol. They are gas station attendants, bouncers, fathers and criminals. There is a melancholy tone, and you can feel the gray clouds of Ireland hovering just overhead. Barrett ends each of his stories rather anticlimactically; and none with a fairly tale ending. 

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