The Sympathizer

nguyen-sympathizer-jacket-artViet Thanh Nguyen’s first novel The Sympathizer was one of the most surprising books I read last year. It’s told from the perspective of a Vietnamese communist sympathizer—a spy who has infiltrated the South Vietnamese army. The story begins with what should have been an ending: the fall of Saigon. The nameless spy follows his general to Los Angeles, all the while reporting back to the Viet Cong and struggling with his own feelings of guilt, loss, and loneliness.

Everything we see, we see through his eyes and his alone. Everything we know is only what he tells us. And there’s a thought rests at the back of your mind: how can we trust anything from the mouth of a double agent? This is his confession, but who is he confessing to and how can we know if he’s telling them the truth?

Reading The Sympathizer was a true roller coaster ride. From the start, I found the style of writing, and thus the narrator’s voice, somewhat cold. Distancing. I was enraptured with the descriptions of the last days of Saigon, then as the dust settled and I heard more from the narrator, I found myself frustrated with him. I found him unlikeable and irritating.

At times selfish and even sexist, I couldn’t help but pull away from him. His Communist leanings I could understand, his spying I could understand, instead it was his oftentimes shitty behavior that grated on me. But just when I thought I knew what I was in for, I would suddenly find myself sympathizing with him, rooting for him and against some other oppressive force.

For 367 pages, I teetered back and forth on this emotional seesaw. I wish I could say the ride was a joy, but it was so often frustrating for me. It was so difficult to be engrossed, and even harder to want to pick it up again every time I set it down. I was thankful with every page turned because I knew I was one step closer to the end.

I wanted off this ride.

The thing carrying me through as I read this book was the sense that I was getting something out of it. I was learning something, and not just anything, but something I needed to know. The Vietnam War is another area in our history where my knowledge is woefully lacking. (I’m pretty sure watching the first half of Full Metal Jacket doesn’t exactly count as an in-depth study.) It’s fiction to be sure, but there was something that felt sort of . . . important about reeducated myself through the perspective of the Vietnamese.

I might have hated the way it felt to have my emotions yanked back and forth, but there was never a doubt in my mind that it was being done with purpose. Nguyen hammers it home just how hard it is to understand where you loyalty truly lies as he toys with your own.

I think it was only in learning about the war this way that I could have stumbled upon the single, obvious truth that was so perfect, I was shocked at not having encountered it sooner.

Simply, that history is written by the victor . . . except when it comes to Vietnam.

Vietnam’s history was written by the losers.
It was written by us.

It’s in contemplating Hollywood that our narrator realizes,

“I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of the world’s audiences. The ancillary benefit was strip-mining history, leaving the real history in the tunnels along with the dead, doling out tiny sparkling diamonds for audiences to gasp over.”

This was of course, one of those moments where I was on the uptick of my teeter-totter. Disgusted with Hollywood and even with myself for letting Hollywood educate me on this war, I was rooting for our narrator. “Fuck Hollywood,” I heard myself say—turning on one of my own passions without even realizing it.

I of course came crashing down again with his next repulsive move.

Finally—thankfully—I reached the conclusion, the culmination of all my emotional work, and I could hardly believe what I found. It was almost like a different book entirely.

The last few chapters were such a whirlwind of emotion for me. I was compelled and repulsed and overwhelmed all at once.

My god. The ending of this book pushed it from three stars to four. It made the nightmarish roller coaster and all the dragging of my feet to finish this thing worth it. In The Sympathizer, Nguyen proves he’s one of those voices truly worth hearing—just don’t expect him to do the work for you.

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2015: Year in Review

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My last post detailed the success of my project, but I wanted to give an overview of the works themselves. It’s hard to admit that I once again failed in my attempt to post reviews of everything. I know I was wavering in my commitment to this blog sometimes. It was never that I wanted to abandon it, but more that I had a difficult time getting myself to sit down and write.

But I was always happy to be reading.

Here’s the full breakdown (comics included) of everything I read in 2015:

  1. The Terror by Dan Simmons
  2. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  3. Ultimates 2: Volume 2 Grand Theft America by Mark Millar
  4. Sula by Toni Morrison
  5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  6. Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado
  7. Secret Avengers Volume 1: Let’s Have a Problem by Ales Kot
  8. Secret Avengers Volume 2: The Labyrinth by Ales Kot
  9. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  10. The Wicked + the Divine Volume 1: Faust Act by Kieron Gillan
  11. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
  12. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  13. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  14. Secret Avengers Volume 3: God Level by Ales Kot
  15. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  16. The Round House by Louise Erdich
  17. The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
  18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  19. The First Bad Man by Miranda July
  20. Landline by Rainbow Rowell
  21. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  22. Native Son by Richard Wright
  23. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  24. Sexcastle by Kyle Starks
  25. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (spillover into 2016)

Most thought-provoking: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Most disappointing: The Intuitionist
Funniest: The First Bad Man
Most surprising favorite: Native Son
Least favorite: The Wandering Falcon
Most over hyped: Station Eleven

All-Time #1 Favorite: Everything I Never Told You

Overall, it was a very good year for me. Though there were a handful of titles I didn’t especially enjoy and only one that I actively disliked, there weren’t any that I found truly, objectively awful—a marked improvement considering I had to contend with both The Good Girl and Hell House last year.

As for next year? I plan to continue making a serious effort to read more POC, though with less stringent rules. (No more hardcore tracking of percentages!)IMG_4111 (2)

The book I’m looking forward to the most is certainly Mark Danielewski’s 
The Familiar
. It’s currently sitting next to me at the moment, just waiting begging me to finish The Sympathizer or cast it aside and start reading it immediately.

There are a handful of book clubs I have my eye on (including a tiny one of my own), a host of new titles that I missed in 2015, and—thanks to Christmas—some fantastic comics with my name on them.

I’m feeling reinvigorated. I feel more ready to tackle this blog with the dedication it deserves, and I’m looking forward to it all.

I hope you’ll stick with me.

Happy reading!

-S

2015: The Experiment

2015 books collage

I began 2015 with a singular goal in mind: I wanted 75% of the books I read to be written by people of color. When I realized that the only book I read in 2014 written by someone who wasn’t white was The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, I saw that something was terribly amiss. One out of 19 books—that’s a measly 5%. I went out of my way this year to do better. A lot better.

So, you might be wondering, where do I stand now?

[Drumroll, please!]

With 14 out the 19 books I read this year written by people of color, I am achingly close to my goal, but no dice. I fell just shy of the mark at 74%.

74%! I can’t believe how close I came. I probably wouldn’t be so frustrated if I didn’t know for a fact that it would have been 79% if I hadn’t been seduced by the lure of a book club that I didn’t even end up attending. Instead of reading the next diverse title on my list, I skipped it to read Station Eleven (which I hated, by the way) under the impression that I could do so and still reach my goal. Gah. So irritating! But oh well. I still came damn close.

I should also add that I’ve continued my practice of not including graphic novels or comics in my final count. I didn’t count them last year as part of the total number of books I read, and continued that this year. Mostly because I can read one in about an hour so it feels like cheating somehow?

I admit that’s an arbitrary distinction. I think I’ll have to look into changing that for 2016, but for now, I haven’t been counting them in my tally.

Numbers aside, the real question at the heart of this experiment is… did it work? Did I notice a difference in reading mostly people of color for an entire year? Do I feel different for having done so?

In this I am happy to report only complete, unabashed success. It changed everything. Americanah opened my eyes in ways no book ever had. Everything I Never Told You literally strengthened a friendship. The Sympathizer and The Wandering Falcon highlighted my own ignorance about two completely different parts of the world.

Never has reading left me feeling so incredibly, incredibly alive.

And I don’t mean to say that as a way to disparage any of the amazing books I’ve read in the past. Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, and Cormac McCarthy will always hold a special place in my heart. They’re brilliant. There’s no questioning that for me. It’s just that it’s impossible to see the ways in which your picture of the world is incomplete until you start hearing the voices that had been silent to you.

This little project has completely changed the way I intend to read for the rest of my life. I realized that I just can’t afford not to consciously seek those voices out. I can’t afford not to think about it.

I really encourage you to attempt this project in your own life. If 75% seems daunting (maybe you only read five books year), then try seeking out just one or two. When you add a book to your to-read pile, take the extra second to see if the author is white. If they are? Then go out of your way to add a book by someone who’s not.

And if you ask me why? Then I answer, to add new sounds to the symphony of your literary canon. To hear the full orchestra of the world.

And because it’s worth it.

Trust me.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Hi Readers!

I’ve been less active the last couple of weeks than I meant to be, but I promise that it was for a good reason and that it definitely doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. After six weeks of weddings, I was rewarded with my long-awaited two-week trip to Iceland where I ended up getting engaged myself!

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Okay, Iceland is even MORE beautiful than everyone says…

Now that the excitement is settling down and I’m finding my writing routine again, I thought I’d check in to let you know I’m still here, I’m still reading, and I’m still looking to share all of it with you. Here are the upcoming reviews you have to look forward to:

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  • The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
  • The Round House by Louise Erdich
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The First Bad Man by Miranda July
  • Landline by Rainbow Rowell
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Clearly, I’m going to have to step on it if I want to ensure everything I’ve read has been reviewed by the end of the year!

Wish me luck and I’ll see you here with a fresh review soon.

-S

The Shining Girls

After a string of books that left me feeling exhausted both mentally and emotionally, it was time for a break. I wanted some literary equivalent of pop rocks: bright, snappy, and done in a flash. Enter, The Shining Girls.

Lauren Beukes’s 2013 novel was the poppy, page-turning summer read I was looking for. Set in Chicago, we meet time-traveling serial killer Harper Curtis and spunky victim-cum-survivor, Kirby Mazrachi. Harper’s power to flit in and out of time makes him seemingly impossible to catch, and the book leads us to wonder not just if Harper can be stopped, but how Kirby will ever figure out who attacked her and why she survived.

It was the conceit that completely drew me in. A man out of time who instead of learning about the worlds he finds himself in, learns everything he can about his next victims, his “shining girls.” Their habits. Their tics. Their likes and dislikes. Their daily routines. Everything he can until it’s time to strike, promising as always to come back for them on another day, in another time.

Beukes uses this idea to play with perspective. Alternating chapters between Harper and Kirby are expected and effective, but what I appreciated most was her decision to give each victim a chapter of her own, from her point of view, as well.

When you’re writing a book about murdered women, I think this step is crucial. Without it, the bodies stack up and mean nothing. They’re just gore and shock and horror and the death of a woman is used as set dressing and quite frankly, we live in a world that just doesn’t need any more reinforcement of the idea that the destruction of women’s bodies is “just for fun.”

Beukes humanizes these victims. Her writing is just strong enough to let the deaths pack a punch. When these victims die, it’s not horrific because it’s graphic (though it typically is graphic). It’s horrific because for just a moment, we learned something about their hopes and dreams—their innermost lives—before seeing them snuffed out forever. And because we’re floating through time, we see all manner of women throughout Chicago’s history, from the Great Depression to punk.

This is not to say that Beukes’s writing is without its missteps. In fact, many of the book’s most awkward moments come from the time-travel aspect. In an attempt to highlight what era we’re in, Beukes latches onto key historical moments, which works well with WWII. But when we get to a literal mention of Roe v. Wade, it starts feeling over the top. I don’t need to know the most pressing issues of the day to know what year it is. Thankfully, these moments are spread out.

My only other issue came with some of Beukes’s decisions regarding how several relationships were played out. Things essentially fell apart for me toward the end, leaving me scoffing or rolling my eyes during parts of the climax instead of cheering.

But I’d still put The Shining Girls ahead of Gone Girl, which I think was written about as well, but frustrated me far more. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s scary. In short? It’s everything a summer beach read should be.

The House on Mango Street

Even if you hadn’t already read it in freshman english. Even if you didn’t already know Sandra Cisneros’s poetry. Even if it hadn’t already been the pick for One Book, One Chicago. You’d know with a minute of picking up The House on Mango Street that it was pure poetry.

Another title where I’m not sure how it slipped by my literary education—I knew nothing about it until I picked it up for the first time this year.

It almost seems unfair to review it as a novel, considering how short it is (a mere 110 pages), but then that’s a limiting way to judge a book. Written in 1984 and set in my hometown, The House on Mango Street is a series of vignettes told from the perspective of a young latina named Esperanza Cordero. In each chapter, she provides commentary on her neighborhood, her friends, her family, and the desire for a better life.

As short as each vignette is (some just a handful of sentences), together they create a rich picture of a specific time and place in Chicago’s history. Cisneros’s words breathe life into Esperanza’s world in a way that feels like you could almost reach out and touch it.

Mango Street fell short of a home run for me, though it’s hard to pinpoint why. I think it just didn’t fall within the realm of what I typically love (a meatier text, richer prose), but it was still easy to see how it made it into the canon.

Cisneros’s writing is absolutely beautiful and every now and then, one of the vignettes would drop this beautiful little jewel of truth that really hit home for me, as in the chapter, “A Smart Cookie:”

“Then out of nowhere:
Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Beacuase I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.
Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then.”

In the book, so many of Esperanza’s experiences with womanhood were the ones that resonated with me. Cisneros has a knack for distilling the experience of growing up as girl into these truly brilliant moments that transcend race and class (though the way she illuminates those nuances is equally brilliant). In those moments, I felt like we really understood each other.

Even though I can’t say this was a favorite or that I loved it, The House on Mango Street is such a rewarding, quick read that I have to recommend it as something everyone should pick up. When even the slowest reader could finish it in an afternoon, there’s really nothing standing in your way.

Companion Piece: Cartel Land

I’m currently in the middle of what I guess you could call my Latin American unit. I just read The House on Mango Street, I started The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is next on my list.

And if any of you were reading the news this weekend, then you know that El Chapo has escaped prison once again.

What perfect timing, then, for Cartel Land—the Sundance documentary winner—to hit my local theater.

Midnight in Mexico was my introduction to the Cartel Wars, but it left me wanting—Cartel Land fills in some of those gaps.

It purports to tell the stories of two vigilantes fighting against the Mexican cartels: Tim Foley and his militia in America and Dr. José Mireles and the Autodefensas in Mexico. But the Autodefensas are the real focus. The doc paints the picture of a country completely wrecked by violence while giving a face not just to the victims, but the meth cookers and drug runners as well. It ends up being a world where no one is wholly innocent or even wholly evil, no matter how much that seems to be the case.

Though the doc takes place in Michoacán, far south of the border and west of Mexico City, it still helped paint a fuller picture of the problems Corchado discussed in his book. In the doc, I found that human connection I was desperate for and it further complicated the world Midnight in Mexico introduced me to.

That doesn’t mean it was free from the problems many documentaries fall pray to, though. The editing needed to be tighter, the thesis clearer, but all the same, if you pick up Midnight in Mexico then I highly recommend making Cartel Land your next move.

It’s in theaters now.

Happy Birthday, Reviews for No One!

Almost a full week late, but I still wanted to take a minute to celebrate this blog’s first birthday.

I can’t believe I’ve kept this thing going for a whole year already. I even kept to my schedule (not that it was ever a rigorous one, but still). I feel like I read more than ever and that reading came back into being part of who I am in a way it hadn’t been for a long time.

I was a born book lover. Some of my earliest memories? I remember being annoyed with other kids by age 6 for not reading well enough. And hiding encyclopedias under my pillow because I thought I’d get smarter that way. And the day I was taken aside by the librarian and shown where the chapter books were ahead of everyone else in my class.

But I lost some of that on the way through school. By college, I stopped reading for fun almost completely. It wasn’t until I was commuting to work by train that I fell back into a rhythm, and it wasn’t until this blog that I felt like my books were part of me again.

Reviews for No One is a real achievement for me.

It’s the first time I ever tried to take my blogging even a little bit seriously. I’m still finding my voice, and I’m still working on making enough time to write and revise, but I’m really proud of what I’ve done here so far. Even if all I’ve done is find part of me.

As always, I’ll keep reading and I’ll keep trying to make things interesting for you. And hopefully I’ll keep getting better at both.

Happy reading!

-S

2015: The Year Ahead

Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ruth Ozeki, Colson Whitehead

Now that we’ve taken a look at the past, let’s look to the future!

I’ve set a few goals for myself in the upcoming months. Obviously, I want to make this blog the best it can be. I want to reach people, and I want to have something to say.

In reviewing the books I read this year, I thought I’d check my diversity. How many books had I read that were written by women?

If you set comic books aside and look solely at novels (because let’s face it–if you want to read classic comics, you’re going to have a really tough time finding one penned by a woman), I had a perfect 50/50 split.

10 books by men. 10 books by women.

Considering how easy it still is to read nothing but men without even trying (ahem literary canon, I’m lookin’ at you), I’m pretty happy with myself. But there was another problem…

Out of 26 reads, only one was by a person of color. That’s only about 4% and that is embarrassing to me. We live in a vibrant, diverse world and there is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t strive to make what I read reflect that.

And so, I have another goal in mind for my reading this year: make sure that at least 75% of the books I read are written by people of color.

I started curating a list and honestly? I’m incredibly excited about everything on it. I’m still picking titles that appeal to me, some of which have been on my list for some time, so it’s really not much work to take the extra step. And really, if it’s so easy what reason is there not to do it? Who wouldn’t want to hear other voices? I think it’ll make my reading experience a lot more interesting, and I think I’ll be better for it.

I originally thought about aiming for 100%, but I got sucked in by Dan Simmons’s The Terror right after Christmas so 75% seemed like the next best thing. Achievable, but still lofty enough not to be completely devoid of effort on my part and definitely a massive improvement over last year.

I’m probably looking forward to Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist the most, followed closely by Alfredo Corchado’s Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah. Hopefully you are, too. With any luck, I’ll be able to recommend something magical that I wouldn’t have otherwise found this year.

So here’s to a more diverse (and a more interesting) 2015!

Happy reading!

2014: Year in Review

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This was a busy year for me and my books. I read more and wrote more and shared a bit of both here with you. I’d been meaning to get more purposeful with my blogging for years, and this is the first time I’ve ever actually been able to commit to that goal long enough to do it.

I learned a lot–I’m still learning. I’m not sure how to personalize this site they way I want. I’m not sure how to best expand my repertoire of posts. I’m not sure if my reviews strike the right tone. I mean, if you think about it, it’s pretty daunting to try and review something 10, 30, or even 100 years old. What can I say that hasn’t been said?

But I’m doing my best to try and keep things interesting. Though I’m not sure how many of you I’m reaching, either. Another goal for 2015, I think.

Originally, I made it my goal with this site to review everything I read as I read it, and I’m sorry to say I failed there. Sometimes a book took me too long and sometimes I wasn’t sure what to say about it. Sometimes I forgot or I wanted to rewrite an older review instead. And sometimes I was just too excited about the newest book to have enough interest to go back.

Thus what you saw on the blog in 2014 is an incomplete list.

Here’s the full review of everything I read (and in some ways, a preview of what’s to come) from January to December:

  1. The Likeness by Tana French
  2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  3. Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander
  4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  5. I Feel Bad About My Neck (and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman) by Nora Ephron
  6. Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish a novel by David Rakoff
  7. Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
  8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer 1 & 2 by Joss Whedon and Brian K. Vaughn
  11. The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
  12. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  13. Locke & Key: Vol. 1 & 2 by Joe Hill
  14. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Vol. 1 by Alan Moore
  15. Boss by Mike Royko
  16. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (My only re-read of the year.)
  17. Hell House by Richard Matheson
  18. Ultimates 1 by Mark Millar
  19. Faithful Place by Tana French
  20. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
  21. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  22. House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
  23. Kingdom Come by Mark Waid
  24. Ultimates 2: Vol. 1 by Mark Millar
  25. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  26. Captain America: Man Out of Time by Mark Waid

Not too shabby. Well, not for me, anyway.

The comics are a recent interest and it seems I really took off with it this year. I’m still really struggling with how to review them. The art is every bit as essential as the text and sometimes I feel like I lack the vocabulary to explain how I feel about a work. I’ve been reading more, but maybe it’s time to seek out reviews, too, huh?

The point is, thanks for taking this ride with me. I’m hoping to work harder, read more, and write better in 2015. I hope you’ll stick with me.

Happy (Belated) New Year, readers!