Aug 29, 2015

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Devastating and incredible. Though these words don't really do this novel justice, they're the closest I can get to describe the power of Nguyen's "The Sympathizer." Set around and just after the fall of Saigon, our nameless narrator is confessing. To whom, we don't yet know. Why, is another mystery. Our narrator is a double agent, a communist working within the Republican Army's secret police. Doubling his doubled nature, he is also half white, son of a young Vietnamese village girl and a French priest. His two best friends, Man and Bon, are diametrically opposed as well: Man is a high level communist agent and Bon does the secret police's dirty work. Pulled between all these opposites, our narrator leads us along the path to his own personal fall.

The novel is immensely powerful. We get the horror of atrocities committed by Americans, Viet Cong, and those caught in the middle; we get the discombobulation of living in America as a non-white refugee, forced to perform menial work and accept government handouts to survive after having had real careers in Vietnam; and because the story is told in the first person, we get the idealistic belief of a communist who sees it as the only way out of persistent poverty and powerlessness, as well as the lure of capitalist America.

It's a damning look at human nature, not just the Vietnam conflict. America's roll as teacher of atrocities is equaled by the willingness of the Vietnamese to commit them against their own people in turn. Our narrator's crime, to which he eventually confesses, is that he did nothing in the face of evil. How many are guilty of such a crime? Too many.

Though the last 70 pages got a bit bogged down, this is an incredibly impressive novel by a masterful storyteller. Funny in parts and devastating in others, Nguyen lays bare the worst aspects of ourselves and sometimes the best. I look forward to what he writes in the future.

Aug 22, 2015

The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett

Since I read and review Terry Pratchett's books fairly often, I figured I'd mix this one up a bit and just mention two quotes that really struck me and indicate his incredibly sharp intelligence.

"'Come to gloat?' whispered Rincewind. Death shrugged.
'I HAVE COME TO SEE THE FUTURE,' he said.
'This is the future?'
'A FUTURE,' said Death.
'It's horrible,' said Rincewind.
'I'M INCLINED TO AGREE,' said Death.
'I would have thought you'd be all for it!'
'NOT LIKE THIS. THE DEATH OF THE WARRIOR OR THE OLD MAN OR THE LITTLE CHILD, THIS I UNDERSTAND, AND I TAKE AWAY THE PAIN AND END THE SUFFERING. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS DEATH-OF-THE-MIND.'"

There are two salient points in this quote: one inadvertently references Pratchett's own future; wracked by Alzheimer's, he chose his own way out and made his own death to end his suffering. Clearly this is something he felt strongly about. The second is this "DEATH-OF-THE-MIND." In this scene, our heroes come upon a crowd of people being seduced into singlemindedness by a charismatic speaker. Nevermind that he's crazy, that what he says makes no sense; people are eating it up. We see this all the time, the brainwashed masses fixing their wide eyes and simple minds on the easiest, most charismatic speakers and ideas. It's easier than thinking for oneself.

The other quote: "...space is not really big, it is simply somewhere to be big in." I love this, because it's so true and so simple and such a clever way of describing what is so difficult to describe. What a gift Sir Terry was to the world.

Aug 15, 2015

Dry, by Augusten Burroughs

I wonder why it is we are so fascinated by other people's misery. We crane our necks at car crashes, we gasp and exclaim when we hear of acquaintances' misfortunes, and we read addiction memoirs by the thousands. Is it the redemption at the end that we seek? Do we feel better about ourselves for not having fallen as mightily as they have? Is it staring the wild animal of addiction in the face and feeling the dreadful rush of excitement overindulgence brings when we ourselves are cautious and moderate? Burroughs' memoir of his initial foray into rehab and recovery from alcoholism is told well. He's a good writer, as his successful advertising career attested to, with an unabashed willingness to show us all his ugly parts. It's an engaging and interesting read, though I think that this kind of thing is rather lost on me. I don't struggle with addiction and never have, and thus have very little I can relate to Burroughs with. It's a book I enjoyed reading and will probably forget fairly quickly.

Aug 13, 2015

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

"East of Eden," my second foray into Steinbeck's oeuvre, solidifies him as one of my favorite writers. Reading Steinbeck is like falling into a deep well, swimming in words that seep slowly into your soul and leave you breathless. And how is it he manages to impart hope even amidst the most hopeless of situations? There are many good writers, and lots of very good writers. There are very few flawless writers, and Steinbeck is one of them.

Set mainly in Steinbeck's native Salinas Valley, "East of Eden" follows the various immediate members of the Trask family, centered around Adam Trask. We get pieces of his military father, his borderline psychotic brother Charles, his sociopath wife Cathy, their twin sons Cal and Aron, and his faithful Chinese-American servant Lee; all are in some way affected and shaped by Adam's inherent, overwhelming honesty. I hesitate to say goodness, though that's the word Steinbeck uses, because I believe his meaning is somewhat altered from how we use the word today. Intention is everything to Adam, who cannot see that no matter how good the intent, what really counts is how the other person perceives the action. The road to hell, and all that.

Philosophy is provided by Lee, the most archetypal character in the book and who, I think, is Steinbeck's main mouthpiece. Adam and Aron are the good, Charles and Cathy and Cal are the bad, and Lee is the grey area between them into which Cal eventually slides while coming to terms with his own nature. Notice the abundance of A and C names? That's from the Cain and Abel story, the motif upon which "East of Eden" is built. Free will is at the heart of "East of Eden," the gift and burden of mankind. It's a stunning epic, both in its wide-reaching look at human nature and America in the early 1900s, and in its stark look at individuals and the decisions and choices they make. What a writer he was.

Aug 6, 2015

Tehanu, by Ursula Le Guin

Thus ends the Earthsea Quartet, with a return to a familiar character written about twenty years after the first three books. I went back to the copyright page to check the dates when I noticed how different the tenor of "Tehanu" is from the other three. It's as though in the intervening years, le Guin found feminism. Her writing style is very similar, but when we meet Tenar of "The Tombs of Atuan" again in her middle age, she is no longer an overly proud girl who needs a man to set her free. Tenar, mother of two, homemaker and farmer, suffers no fools and argues freely that while a woman's power may be different from a man's, she is no less powerful and no less deserving of respect. I become more emotionally tethered to this story than the others; mistreatment of Tenar and the poor burned girl she had saved and was raising left my heart racing, and their ultimate triumph left me triumphant as well. While I think I'll stick to le Guin's science fiction from here on out, I'm very glad I finally read this fantasy classic. Now I just have to decide how I feel about people giving it to children to read...

Aug 1, 2015

Wonder, by R.J Palacio

After selling a boatload of these and hearing the best things about it, I had to read "Wonder" for myself. Told from six different perspectives, this is the story of August Pullman's fifth-grade year. What makes this year remarkable is that Auggie has several facial deformities and this is his first year going to school after 10 years of surgeries and homeschooling. It's a sweet story, full of trials and triumphs and redemption, with the lovely message of being kind to people no matter how different they are. Reading it as an adult, it's very predictable, but even then it has great merit. The writing is great, the different perspectives are done very well, and it's impossible to read it without crying at least once. It's wonderful that a book like this has been so popular among kids. They can be awful to each other, it's true, but it seems that their capacity for being mean is only overshadowed by their capacity for opening their hearts. I hope the children who have read and continue to read "Wonder" are taking its message into their own hearts. We need more books like this.

Jul 23, 2015

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, by Jennifer Tseng

This is a difficult book to get through, partly due to subject matter and partly due to the writing. To deal with the latter first: I don't mean to imply that the writing is bad. In fact, it's very good. But it's also incredibly dense, rich, loamy. There is little dialogue and it's written in the first person, which means we spend the entirety inside another person's head. For a rather slim volume, it took a while for me to get through it, and there were a couple times when I wondered whether I should give it up. I tend towards more plot-driven books, as might be obvious from many of my other reviews, so for a more cerebral reader it probably wouldn't be as challenging. That being said, the writing really is spectacular, driving and forceful and poetic.

Now as for the subject matter: Mayumi is a 41-year-old librarian living on an island off the East Coast of the U.S. with her 4-year-old daughter and her husband, with whom she does not share a bed, any interests, conversation, or essentially a life. One day a young man comes into the library and she quickly becomes enamored of and infatuated with him. Against all odds, they begin a torrid affair that lasts until the young man, who is 17, leaves to help clean up the Russian River in Northern California. The young man is never named. I noticed this about a third of the way through, and as soon as I did it became obvious that we would never learn his name. He is fleeting, an object of obsession that is more a possession than a person, though Mayumi loves him dearly. There is little graphic sex, though euphemism is used frequently. And Mayumi, being a librarian, thinks always in terms of books and stories, making this a sort of meta, self-referential novel aimed at other librarians/booksellers or very avid book-lovers.

Many will shy away from "Mayumi" because of its forbidden subject matter, and I won't blame them for it. It's hard not to feel as if some of Mayumi's illicit sexuality is rubbing off on you as you read. It's a beautifully written book, but not very accessible and certainly not for everyone.