The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

the sympathizer

This is yet another one of those extraordinarily-well-written, even Pulitzer-Prize-winning books that I did not enjoy reading at all.  The writing is clever, with wit and imagery and drama; but sadly, the main character, who narrates the story, is remarkably unlikeable.  He gleans a bit of sympathy as he begins his story about his violent exodus from Vietnam to the U.S. at the end of the war, and as he recounts stories from his youth, having been bullied because of his being of mixed race.  But, at least for me, that is where my sympathy for him ends.  As he continues to recount his prior experience in the U.S. as a student there and as he continues to track his workings as a double agent for North Vietnam during his experience in California in the 1970’s, it feels at least to me, like a story with a great deal of pain with little to be gained for it – for both the main character and the reader.

I was hoping to learn a little more about the backstory of Vietnam – and there was some of that here.  There was some sympathy for the idealism of the Communist North Vietnamese and the disillusionment of the South Vietnamese who felt used and then abandoned by the US.  The most powerful part of the story, for me, was when the protagonist is hired to be a guide to a director about a movie about the Vietnam war.  He is miserable, because he is unable to convince the director to give more than minimal, stereotypical, awful roles to the Vietnamese actors in the movie, when he was hoping to bring some real humanity to their roles.  This theme is recurrent throughout the story – that is, prejudice against Asians – and our main character is treated with even more disdain than most, because he is not even pure bred Asian.

Again, the writing in the book is absolutely impressive and I can understand the Pulitzer Prize.  But what is missing here is heart, and that is what I look for in a book as well.  Academically fancy without empathy does not carry me with you!

 

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear

journey to munich

In this installment of the adventures of Maisey Dobbs, psychologist and detective, we find Maisey back in London in 1938, still reeling from the loss of her husband but trying to get back into her life.  Feeling like she needs to do something to help someone else – and possibly that she has nothing to lose – she accepts an assignment to go undercover as the daughter of a British businessman held prisoner by the Germans and now being released to her only.  To complicate her mission, she is also asked to bring back from Germany the one young woman Maisie holds most responsible for her husband’s death.  How will she accomplish both of these feats, especially under the careful watch of the Nazi government?

This book series is part detective novel/part historical fiction, with lots of human sensibility to warm up the mix.  Especially in this book, the kindness and forgiveness that Maisie shows, whether toward the man she is asked to bring home or toward the young woman who she is asked to find, shines so particularly bright compared to the darkness of the Nazi regime.  It is interesting that the timing of the story is actually just prior to the German invasion of Austria – really at the beginning of everything – but still she describes the feeling of foreboding, the pall of darkness that pervades the otherwise lively city.  The hope that Maisie clings to is in stark contrast to the evil that is lurking, that has been set into motion.

This is really not a “Holocaust” book per se, and while it is set in the time and place of the Holocaust it does not take the same emotional toll as those books do.  So if you’re planning your reading based on this, don’t worry that you’ll be taken through the same emotional rigors of that.  There is suspense and sadness, but not to the same extent as you would with other books from this period.

I do recommend this book heartily!  Happy reading!

 

 

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

hillbilly elegy

This memoir from JD Vance is an eye-opening, articulate depiction of the “hillbilly” culture of the Appalachian region.  As Vance shares with the reader about his upbringing – bouncing between Kentucky and Ohio – he opens our hearts to the plight of the poor, often uneducated, white population in this region.  As we learn about his experience with his traumatized and drug-addicted mom and his angry, foul-mouthed, sometimes violent, but unendingly loving and devoted grandparents, we see how entrenched the culture is and how difficult it is to dream in this world.  Fortunately, for him, he was able to find love and support enough to find his way to success – but his journey was complicated and chaotic and he never forgot from where he came.

The honesty and self-reflection with which this story is told brings the reader right into the author’s life.  We are right there with him when his mother takes him on a death-defying car ride.  We are right there when his older sister cares for him as a devoted mother would.  The love and appreciation that he feels for his grandparents who were his constants in a very tumultuous childhood is palpable.  And we can understand when he reflects on how to improve the lot of his fellow hillbilly peers and come up short.  The poverty, the distrust, and the violence that pervades this culture are so entrenched that it feels impossible to overcome.

I think this is an important book for people who are not from the South to read.  It really provides an understanding of a whole sub-culture of people that comprise  part of the fabric of our United States.

A very, very worthwhile read!

 

THE WHITE QUEEN BY PHILIPPA GREGORY

white queen

Elizabeth, a stunning beauty, attracts the eye of the rising King Edward and sparks both romance and controversy.  For while Edward wages war for his kingdom, Elizabeth mounts her battles at home in order to keep her family together and financially stable.  Allegiances seem to collide like balls on a pool table as brothers turn on each other and cousins desert their family ties.  As distrust and jealousies rise, so does the danger, but Elizabeth perseveres and when pushed too far, she utilizes the magical powers that her ancestors have passed on to her in order to save who she can save and avenge those who she cannot.

I have loved many of Gregory’s books – they are historical fiction books about the kingdom of England and have taught me much about how hard-won each kingdom has been.  This book I found both beautiful and confusing; beautiful in the characters, who valued love and honor and loyalty to family, but confusing in that everyone had the same name!  So many Henry’s and Georges and Edwards that it was hard to keep track of who was who.  This of course not the fault of the author, but the fault of the royalty that the author was depicting – but confusing nonetheless.

It is still striking to me how unique democracy is and how we are fortunate to have routinely peaceful transition of power.  There is not a bloody war every time a new ruler comes to power.  And although I am horrified and mortified by our current administration – and I do doubt that our last election was won by honest means and not because of covert dealings and technological hacking by foreign powers – we do have to respect the power of the vote by the people of our country.

If you are a fan of Philippa Gregory – this book is for you!

The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty

hypnotists-love-story

I love Liane Moriarty’s books – they’re fun, smart, and usually tackle topics of some substance.  This book, unfortunately, is an exception…

Ellen is a hypnotherapist who prides herself in her work with people – she’s had many successful treatments, helping people in their relationships.  Unfortunately, she has not had many successful relationships of her own; that is, until she meets Patrick.  Patrick is handsome, kind, and fun – but complicated.  He is a widower with a young son, which would be fine, if it weren’t for his stalker…

I think if the characters here were just a little more likable, or the story were a little more believable, or the substance of the book was a little more solid, it would have come together and been ok.  But the characters were flat and strange, the story a bit outlandish, and the substance just too airy for my liking.

It wasn’t a book I gave up on, but it did feel just too long and I was glad to reach the end.  Not a rave review, this time.  Sorry!

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

rules-of-civility

Little did Katey know that when she and her best friend, Evey, went out to ring in the new year of 1938 that she’d  be ringing in a new relationship that would introduce her to the moneyed Upper East Side social scene of New York City.  Meeting people with names like Tinker and Bitsy, Katey gets drawn into this scene, even as she continues to work her own way up the business ladder, using her wiles and wit.  But while Katey does hold onto her scruples – or her own rules of civility , if you will – she does become tangled in a web of love triangles that both highlight and transcend social class status.

There is so much to be said about this book.  Most importantly, the writing just downright beautiful.  This prose by Towles often verges on the poetic.  The phrasing and the images that are drawn with words are so vivid that I was forced to read some passages multiple times, just to really appreciate them fully.  The author has a true gift that he is generously sharing with us here.

The characters are also so gracefully drawn.  From their subtle tics to their happy or hapless (depending on the character) wit, you cannot help feeling compassion for each and every one of them.  And each and every one of them is neither all good or all bad – much like the real world.  And Katey is the kind, vulnerable, and yet steady heroine we all aspire to being.

What I appreciate most about this book is the underlying current of friction between money and honor.   As Katey mixes more with those of the upper class, she sees some who feel they should earn the money they have and others who feel they just deserve it.  And in this era of Trump and the Republican Party’s shameful and frightening abuse of both money and power, the statement of honor and kindness triumphing over greed in this story is particularly poignant.

A lyrical and delightful book – highly recommend!

 

The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy

bakers-daugher

This is the tender story of 2 women – Reba, a journalist living in El Paso, assigned to interview a German baker for a Christmas story, and Elsie, the baker during her youth in Germany in 1944.  As Reba is battling her ghosts, trying to sort out her own difficult childhood with an alcoholic father, we learn also of Elsie’s trauma of coming of age in Hitler’s failing war and the bravery she demonstrates silently at that time.  As the two characters get to know each other, they develop a friendship that goes beyond friendship and Elsie and and her daughter Jane become Reba’s second family.

I like the unfolding of the story, as it ping pongs back and forth between the two time periods.  This technique is not uncommon, but it never fails to elevate the suspense.  The tension in the story reaches a crescendo, and then – bam! – switch to the other time period.  A sure-fire way to keep the reader turning those pages.

And as many World War II stories as I’ve read – and there have been many, even just in this blog alone! – I still learn new things.  The new and ugly detail that I had not learned of before was about the Lebensborn Program.  This program was Himmler’s attempt at genetic programming.  There were houses set up in Germany to essentially breed the idealized, blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans.  Women were kept in these houses for chosen men – married or not – to come and “mate” with them.  The attraction was that the children were given privileges others didn’t have – food, education, other benefits.  However, when babies were born to these women with undesirable characteristics, these babies were done away with, in whatever fashion was easiest.  Evidently, there were other programs tied to this, where children (often Polish) were kidnapped to be dedicated and trained to serve the Third Reich, if they had these characteristics as well.

Evidently, when you think you’ve learned about all the cruelty that could exist, there is still more to discover.

I would not count this book among the “MUST READ’S,” however.  I think that the writing in some spots is excellent and in some spots is quite ordinary.  Somehow, the parts that describe Elsie are tender, rich, and colorful – as Elsie’s character is.  The parts that describe Reba, though, feel flat.  It may be that we don’t have as deep a window into her character as we do to Elsie’s.

I do recommend this, though, as it is still an interesting read, with suspense and feeling and important historical context.