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. 

Veterans Day and Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five arches in a tombstone shape above the subtitle, Or the Children's Crusade, and the author's name.

By Eric L.

We celebrate Veterans Day today, November 11, and it’s not just an extra day off each year. As a young person, I didn’t realize the significance of the date and why it doesn’t float like similar holidays. Veterans Day was not explained to me in school; in fact, the significance of the First World War wasn’t very clear until I took a college-level class. However, I won’t blame my teachers; there is a high probability that I was not paying attention.

I have always liked history because it seems like a big story, and I love those. I still, fortuitously, fill the gaps of my historical knowledge through books, very often through fictional stories as a gateway to the actual events. So please read them, you can borrow them for free

Kurt Vonnegut is arguably one of my favorite writers for his indefatigable humanism and wit. Sadly, I’m a huge fan of what people call gallows humor. He served in combat for the U.S. Army during the Second World War. In short, he was captured, detained as a prisoner of war, survived the fire-bombing of Dresden as a POW, and experienced horrifying things. His work Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade: a Duty-Dance with Death addresses this experience. The title refers to the former slaughterhouse where he and other POWS were held, and the fact that they were really children when they fought the war. Many of his works are about war and post-traumatic stress it causes. Strangely, Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922, what would become Veterans Day.

In my opinion, the prefaces of his books, as well as his memoir Man Without a Country (also in audio) are nearly as good as the novels. I find them hilarious. In the preface to Breakfast of Champions (available in ebook, eAudio, or this collection), he describes how Armistice Day marked the end of the First World War. The cease-fire was declared on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Vonnegut poetically said,  

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me
in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we
still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke
clearly to mankind (504-5, Novels and Stories 1962-1973).

I can only imagine that, to a battlefield veteran, the silence of a cease-fire must indeed have sounded like providence. Vonnegut said that Armistice Day was “sacred,” I assume because it meant an end to fighting in the War to End All Wars. I’m fairly confident he supported veterans of all types, but I too hope the idea of a cease-fire is still “sacred.”  

I very much appreciate the veterans of the military. I admire their courage, and I especially admire my late Grandmother who served as a combat nurse during the Second World War. 

Check out HCLS’s list of titles to remember and celebrate our nation’s military heroes this Veterans Day.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Read While Isolated

The cover depicts an open pocket watch against a black cloth background with small, glowing astrological symbols.

by Piyali C.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I found it difficult to focus on books. It seemed like Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian novel, Station Eleven was playing out right in front of me. However, when physical distancing became a part of our daily routine, I took to reading so I could escape to other worlds created by authors. The books below are some of the ones that I truly enjoyed as I read them during isolation, borrowed from Howard County Library System.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook): A fascinating story of nurse Julia Powers, who works in the maternity ward of a hospital in war- and flu-ravaged Dublin in 1918. She takes care of expectant mothers fallen ill with the raging Spanish flu. With the help of a rebel woman doctor and a young orphaned woman, Nurse Powers tends to the needs of the quarantined pregnant women in her care to the best of her ability under the circumstances.

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate: (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook) Told in the alternating voices of Hannie, a recently freed slave in 1875, and Benedetta Silva, a young new teacher in a tiny town in Louisiana in 1987, this story takes us through the Reconstruction era in America with Hannie, as she travels to Texas with two unwilling companions, Miss Lavinia and Juneau June, in the hope of finding her family members who were sold as slaves in different cities and towns. Benny Silva, while trying to engage her unwilling students in their own history, comes across the story of Hannie’s journey in the library of a run-down plantation house. The discovery of this quest brings forth a fascinating story of freed slaves trying desperately to reconnect with family members lost to slavery in 1870’s America.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai (available in print, eaudiobook): Drawn from the author’s own experiences of growing up in postwar Vietnam and from interviewing countless people who lived through the horrors of the Vietnam war, Ngyuen Phan Que Mai writes this amazing story of a family torn apart, not only by the war, but also by the subsequent division between north and south Vietnam. While the story talks about the unbelievable horror that wars inflict on human life, it also sings an ode to indomitable human resilience and a desperate mother’s inexplicable courage and determination to keep her children safe.

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook): Valerie is a 48-year-old Black woman, a single mom to Xavier, and an ecology professor who nurtures a deep love for plants and trees. Brad Whitman is an entrepreneur who has risen up in wealth and power from humble beginnings. Brad builds a gorgeous house next to Valerie’s and moves in with his wife Julia, step daughter Juniper and daughter Lily. As a relationship starts to build between Valerie and Julia, an incident regarding Valerie’s favorite tree causes a rift between the two families, resulting in a law suit. But Xavier, Valerie’s 18-year-old son, and Juniper, Julia’s 17-year-old daughter, are also building a beautiful relationship. How much acceptance will an interracial relationship receive, not only from society but also from Brad Whitman? Told from the perspective of the neighbors of both Valerie and Brad, this story explores complicated race relations between Black and White, loss of innocence, coming of age, struggles of women, and much more. 

What did you read during isolation? Tell us in the comments.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.