The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A red cover with a yellow border features an illustration of a Vietnamese man's face. Includes award stickers for the Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Literature

by Eric L.

I may have opened another post like this, but if you’ve not read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, do yourself a favor. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, and awards aside, it’s a great book.  

The Sympathizer is an “epistolary-like” novel, as the entire thing is written as a confession of a spy from the north who has deeply infiltrated the south, and the American support apparatus. He is an aide to a general, and really has a good feel for the elite as well as those of lower social stature. 

Superficially, it is the story of the child of a Vietnamese teenager and a French priest, who does not fit in because of his parentage and is teased and taunted. In turn, this creates a protagonist of conflicted mind and spirit who artfully chronicles his experiences in Vietnam and America. He makes the profound comment that it is really the immigrants who should be the anthropologists of American society, as well as many other insightful observations throughout the book. 

He chronicles the chaotic escape from Vietnam (you’ve probably seen the footage) when the United States withdrew in 1975. When one views this sort of thing, they’re horrified by the carnage and desperation, but I’d not considered the bureaucratic tasks such as making lists of who evacuates and the intermediary steps. Spoiler alert: the Vietnamese don’t just land in their suburban American homes on a direct flight from Saigon. Sadly, these events seem apropos right now irrespective of your feelings about American wars and intervention globally. I could not even imagine trying to escape my country for fear of political reprisal. 

As someone of a certain generation, I grew up watching the fictional films about the Vietnam War and worried about the specter of the reinstatement of the draft. Perhaps, more broadly, the Vietnam War was the degradation of the cultural capital and hubris that the United States, as a country, carried until this loss. I always felt for the boys who were involuntarily ripped from their lives and sent across the world as soldiers in an ideological battle they likely only rudimentarily understood. It’s a logical reaction, since they were the protagonists of these films, if not the heroes at least sympathetic anti-heroes, and they were like me. 

A Vietnamese character comments that this cold war has always felt hot to them. That said, it’s enlightening for me to read a work of art by a Vietnamese expatriate like Nguyen (by the way, it’s set to be an HBO miniseries). The details concerning the quotidian lives that many of his compatriots lead in the US (California to be specific), and how it’s difficult for former men of power to become relatively powerless in their new country, are very well done. One portion of the book even chronicles the protagonist’s experience working as consultant for a movie about Vietnam, loosely based on Apocalypse Now (if you not seen this film, borrow it and watch it).  

The Sympathizer (also available as an eBook) is a page turner, a spy novel, a thriller, and oddly humorous; however, I would not describe it as straight satire. In my opinion, what makes this debut novel great is that it is the work of a free thinker and an excellent writer. It may seem banal to say that there is a lot going on in this novel (it may even be worth a second read), but I’m not sure how else to phrase this. Nguyen’s writing is dense, but not difficult to read, and the story just flows. I intend to read his collection of short stories, The Refugeesand eventually the sequel, The Committed, which was published in 2021. Try them, you may like them. 

Women’s Stories from World War II

The cover is mostly in shades of grey, with a woman's face seen from behind turned to the side, smelling a rose. A plane, in a downward spiral, appears across the top. Spots of red in the smoke from the plane, the rose, and circling the name Verity provide a pop of color.

by Kristen B.

One of the current hot trends in publishing involves telling the previously overlooked stories of women during World War II, from code breakers at Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall to spies who worked with the Resistance. It seems they are everywhere right now. My all-time favorite, and one of the first in this sub-genre, is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (technically YA, but I have no idea why).

Two young British women become bosom friends and compatriots in supplying occupied France with intelligence. Maddie is an amateur mechanic and pilot, who works ferrying planes around the UK to various RAF bases and sometimes across the Channel. She loves flying with an undying passion. I learned more about early aircraft than I wanted, to be honest. Men were needed as combat pilots, so women flew most of the personnel and supply shuttles. Maddie has a heart of gold and a desire to make a difference despite her lack of social standing or eduction. She’s the perfect foil to Queenie (code name Verity), a member of the upper class with a wicked ability with languages and acting, who is recruited directly into intelligence work. Not to put too fine a point on it, our girl is a perfect spy. Her nom de guerre means truth, and the entire book hinges on figuring out which parts of her story are true.

The two become unlikely friends through their brief careers, including one scene where they end up lost on their bikes in the rain because all the road signs have been removed. When Queenie ends up captured behind enemy lines, everyone fears the worst. Verity is the main narrator for the book, and to say she’s unreliable doesn’t even begin to capture the reality. The plot is a breathless dash of misadventure and raw calculation, and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. Sometimes friendship saves the day, and sometimes a book rips your heart from your chest and leaves you a wreck on the sofa. Maybe I’m saying too much … but really, just read it!

Code Name Verity is also available as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive and as an audiobook on CD.

All in shades of blue, the outline of a castle appears in the foggy background with a hedge in the foreground and a plane high overheard.

Equally fraught if less devastating, The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck gives us an unusual and moving look at German women in the immediate aftermath of the war. Three women and their children find themselves living together in a derelict castle in Bavaria, doing their utmost simply to survive. The property belongs to Marianne von Lingenfels, member of the landed aristocracy and wife of one of Hitler’s detractors. When her husband and other conspirators in the 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler are summarily executed, she tries to fulfill her promise to save as many other wives and children as possible.

She manages to find two: Benita and Ania. Benita, a classic German beauty, flees her family’s impoverished life by marrying Marianne’s best friend from childhood. Ania and her two boys escape from the far eastern regions and trudge through much of the country, dodging Russian soldiers and American GIs, before reaching the safety of the castle. The three women and their six children band together in unlikely friendship to outlast the worst depredations and devastations. In one of the most moving scenes, everyone in the castle and the connected village attends an Advent service in the local ruined church, and the power of the sacred music and a clear, cold night brings a much-needed moment of hope.

As the book progresses, we learn each woman’s history and gain some understanding of how they come to be within the castle. Benita suffers all a beautiful woman at the mercy of an enemy can expect. Marianne, used to privilege and a life filled with intellectual rigor, maintains a moral viewpoint that allows for very few shades of grey – despite being in a time and space that demands them. And Ania, my favorite character by far, lives almost entirely within those grey spaces in the most practical manner possible. Her background of supporting the Nazi agenda until she could no longer ignore the atrocities portrays the “good German” conundrum all too well.

The book catalogs the necessary sacrifices and compromises, from the reality of marauding renegade soldiers to the plight of Displaced Persons. It’s a fascinating portrayal of how people move forward, trying to make it through today, tomorrow, this week, this month, this year. It made me think about how this is not a sexy, heroic story, nor is it a tragic tale of valiant derring-do and winning through at all costs. Shattuck gives us – gifts us – three fairly ordinary German women thrown together in dire circumstances who survive … because what else was there to do?

The Women in the Castle is also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive and as an audiobook on CD.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

The cover shows a woman in 1940's-era clothing, carrying a package under her arm and walking down a deserted alley surrounded by stone walls.

Review by Julie F.

Imagine running the largest spy organization in Vichy France – setting up safe houses and networks, negotiating the tensions between de Gaulle’s Free French and the anti-Gaullist General Giraud, and helping to spirit spies and messengers from France to England in the dead of night on dangerous Lysander plane trips. Never staying in one “safe” location for too long; never knowing who has your back or who might stab you in the back.

Now imagine doing all of that as a woman, a mother of two young children and an infant, in a society where, as author Lynne Olson describes it, “Men fought, and women stayed home” (525). Marie-Madeleine Fourcade resisted both the German occupation and the gendered expectations of a military and espionage apparatus designed for and perpetuated by men. When the life of a spy in occupied France was reputed to be six months at the most, her success is a credit to her resourcefulness, daring, and people skills. The colleagues she trusted and led knew her worth. In the words of Léon Faye, her dependable lieutenant and the father of her youngest child, “A woman…But not just any woman!  She’s an indisputable and undisputed leader. Even the English have accepted her” (201).

Readers who enjoy tales of espionage will be amazed that Marie-Madeleine’s story is real and not more widely known. The scenes depicting her captures and escapes, and those of her Resistance colleagues, are riveting – sometimes by simply talking her way out of the hands of the Gestapo, or waiting until their backs were turned to climb out of a window and make a run for it. Not all went according to plan; she lost friends and companions, and their stories, and her anxiety for their safety and grief over their losses, are powerfully depicted. Her devotion to a cause greater than herself and her family is heroic – even after the war, when she advocated for remembrance ceremonies, official honors, government pensions, and medical care for Alliance agents, as well as benefits for the families of those the German executed. Read this fascinating account of her dedication and defiance of societal norms, and be riveted by her exploits and those of her spy network.

Adult nonfiction. Available in eaudio through CloudLibrary and in ebook and eaudio through Libby.

Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she facilitates two book discussion groups – Spies, Lies, and Alibis and Bas Bleu.