Wednesday, August 10, 2016

What did the book club think of "The Sympathizer"?

When the in-store lit group tackles a book like Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, it's a little harder to write about whether the book is good or not. It's already received what is said to be the most important literary prize in the United States, the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. If you don't know this award, this is the adult equivalent of the Caldecott and Newbery, awarded to adult works. It is only a bit more confusing because there is also a British Carnegie Medal for children's books from the British Library Association.

The story? The unnamed narrator, whom you can refer to as Captain, or do as I do, and call every unnamed narrator in books that I read "N", is in South Vietnam before the country is to fall to the North. His two closest friends are Man and Bo. Man plans to stay behind, but Bo is leaving with his wife and child. The United States has done very little to prepare the country, and instead is planning to airlift out Americans and a some South Vietnamese allies. The problem? Most of the South Vietnamese are not going to make it. And let's just say the airlift doesn't go well.

The Vietnamese are resettled in the United States, and from there the novel becomes an immigrant story, of restaurants and liquor stores, and failed expectations of what life would be like in the States. With the General, the Captain is continuing the fight of the South, defending the immigrant community against traitors and with vague plans to go back and fight. But there's a twist - the Captain is a also Viet Cong spy sending information back to Vietnam.

The Captain himself works at a university, having lived in the United States previously. He is more educated, and thus more aware of the slights against Asians he witnesses. He particularly notes this when he gets a gig being the Vietnamese consultant for a film being shot called The Hamlet by The Auteur, who has effectively rewritten the war narrative to make America the victor. To me, this subplot of the book seemed like a major digression, but I get why it's there - it's got some of the best satire in the book.

After that interlude, life for the Captain gets more complicate when he's sent back on mission by the General. And I'm not giving anything away by saying that the story is told as a confession. Many reviewers have noted that very few works speak to the Vietnamese participation and experience in the Vietnam War but Nguyen (as an aside, here's a discussion on the name's pronunciation) has said that what he meant to do was talk about the Vietnamese war and aftermath to a fellow Vietnamese person.

So what did the book club think? Everyone agreed it was an important a book, with a few folks really loving it, and others finding it difficult, but still saying they were glad they read it. Or in many cases, still reading it. I probably should have flipped our July and August selections around. Because we delayed our July meeting by a week, due to the July 4th holiday, we had five weeks to read A Spool of Blue Thread and only three to read The Sympathizer (UK version at right). A number of attendees mentioned they felt like they were reading nonfiction rather than a novel, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it slowed them down. All in all, it turned out to be a very good discussion and I would highly recommend that book clubs include The Sympathizer in their schedule. And hey, even mystery book clubs can read this - The Sympathizer won the Edgar award for best first novel.

One suggestion I would make to book clubs taking this on is a little contrary to my usual advice, which is read the book, and then do the research. If you are a club that generally does adventurous and challenging reads, by all means go into The Sympathizer blind. And in fact, if you do adventurous, challenging reads, you probably have a lot of the background you need to tackle the book. But if your club tends towards the tame, if you read for plot, or if your club often doesn't finish, I highly recommend reading the background material first, such as this profile in The New York Times with David Streitfeld, or perhaps his Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross.

Reading The Sympathizer also made me want to read the author's nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Doing a casual search, it seems like the book didn't get as much review attention as I would have expected, but it had this nice write up in The New Yorker: "In thematically arranged chapters—on remembrance, forgetting, and spectacle—he produces close readings of the novels, films, monuments, and prisons that form 'the identity of war' in Vietnam, 'a face with carefully drawn features, familiar at a glance to the nation’s people.'"

If you continue to be interested in the Vietnam War legacy, as we are, you might want to pick up Quan Barry's She Weeps Each Time You're Born. We'll be discussing that on Tuesday, September 6, 7 pm, a day late due to the Labor Day holiday. And you also might want to read Robert Olen Butler's Perfume River, just out from Atlantic Monthly Press. Butler won the Pulitzer in 1993 for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. His new novel is from Viet Thanh Nguyen's editor at Grove Atlantic, Peter Blackstock. Butler will be at Boswell on Tuesday, October 4, 7 pm, in conversation with Cardinal Stritch's David Riordan.

Two other books I have read that might be of interest are The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong, and Catfish and Mandala, by Andrew X. Pham.

Our October book club selection is Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, which we are carrying in both Penguin Classic and Signet Classic editons. On Monday, October 3, 7 pm, we'll be meeting along with some of the Florentine crew, which is world-premiering a new Sister Carrie Opera on October 7 and 9.

No comments: