The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. An impressive feat, even more so for debut novel.

“We don’t succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. We succeed because we understand the way the world works and what we have to do. We fail because others understand this better than we do.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 384 pages
Read from November 27, 2017 to December 4, 2017.

It is hard to define a novel of this calibre though it can be simply described as a spy-novel laden with humour, tragedy, and poignant cultural reflections of literary quality. The story is an identity crisis within an identity crisis as the protagonist feels torn between two worlds just has his home country of Vietnam is also being torn apart by its own people in an effort to define the country for their own.

In the spring of 1975 Vietnam is in chaos. Our unnamed protagonist has been given an overwhelming task from the General of the South Vietnamese army to decide who from their ranks will be allowed to have passage on the few remaining planes to America. Retreat seems the only way escape from the turbulence that has overtaken Vietnam from the communist Viet Cong. Unknown to the General or any in his ranks, our protagonist is a communist double spy. A bastard by birth by an absent French father and peasant Vietnamese mother, our protagonist, never feels like he belongs. His ability to see the side of every situation leaves him in a constant state of sympathetic limbo. He loves his country yet he was educated in America and he can finds conflict within both counties. He is communist but has also made friends with those against the movement. He can also see the brutality befalling his own country with the spread of communism despite country finally becoming unified and under no control but their own.

This perfect dichotomy is an act that the protagonist has perfected and has played all his life, an act that many other foreign-born people who come to live in America struggle with.

“…the basis of the most powerful theme in Nguyen’s fiction: a person with two faces who has to choose which to show, depending on the surroundings. “It’s universal. Most of us have that sense of duality,” says Nguyen, adding that the feeling of having “two faces” is aggravated for immigrants and refugees. “That sense of pretending to be somebody, or to be an imposter.””- Viet Thanh Nguyen, Independent, Nov 2016.

Despite the brooding tones, the story also depicts deep friendships and love and has playful undertones. One of my favourite sections of the book is when the protagonist is describing a scene from his boyhood, in which he grew up in poverty with his mother and the guilt that he felt over masturbating with the husk of a dead squid that was meant to be dinner. Despite the humour of the scene the author still manages to make the section almost poetic as he wraps up his thoughts with the following:

“Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly nonconsensual squid? Not so much. I, for one, am a person who believes that the world would be a better place if the word “murder” made us mumble as much as the word “masturbation.””

Another further example of the author’s humour, one that I personally really appreciated due to my hatred of country music, is the subtle way he commented on the genre:

“Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment.”

The book reads like a confession and that’s because it is but the resulting torture and resolution are not what the reader expects. It is tragic but also relieving to have the protagonist finally unburden himself with his story.

The author is a rare and gifted storyteller. You don’t often see this type of depth and literary quality in a debut novel. The execution of the themes and content of this book alone are award winning but the real kicker is the author’s pervasive style that is unique to his own dichotomous persona.

While the book is not long, I do not recommend ploughing through this novel as there is much to be savoured. The story is a must-read for any historical-fiction lovers and a worthy and unique read to add to just about anyone’s TBR list.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

A biologist tries his hand at anthropology and does a pretty decent job.

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 480 pages.
Read from October 25, 2017 to November 27, 2017.

“History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

I honestly did not know that this book was published in 1997. I remember working at Chapters in 2005 and this book being very popular so I assumed that it was published at that time. Little did I know that this book created such a wave that it became a basis and main theory contender for how humans developed in countries all over the world. What is even weirder is that Diamond is not even an anthropologist, he is a biologist! After spending 30 years of his career in New Guinea he wanted to answer one of the biggest questions in anthropology: Why did some areas of the world develop more than others?

“Why you white men have so much cargo [i.e., steel tools and other products of civilization] and we New Guineans have so little?”

Diamond’s basic argument is that farming and agriculture enabled some areas to develop faster than others as the lands native and natural vegetation and species adapted and took well to domestication, like the Fertile Crescent. The abundance of easily available and mass-produced native vegetation allowed for the expansion of a population which then leads to more innovations and progressions. Some areas of the globe, like New Guinea, did not have the land, space, population or resources to introduce farming and agriculture making it an unstainable move away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  Hunter-gatherers have to put all their time and energy into attaining food, leaving little time for other innovations and developments.  Hunting and gathering is no easy feat either. It requires a lot of specific skills and knowledge and within that other types of innovations are made. Diamond goes into detailed examples of the progression of human history in a variety of areas around the globe as well as the spread of contagion, military developments and the invention and use of writing and its effects.

giphy (1)Diamond’s arguments and examples are solid and I was intrigued for the first half of the novel but sadly, towards the end, I was found the content a bit dry, regardless of the facts he was presenting and their importance. I suppose it is because I read this novel 21 years after its initial publication in which, Diamond’s ideas and arguments already seem so commonplace, but I imagine when his book was first published it would have been quite revolutionary.

I do not know how Diamond’s works hold up in the current anthropological environment but the book is still an important one to consider reading. Especially if you have ever asked yourself the same question Diamond did, which I would say is one of the most important questions of human history. Diamond’s intention was to show a scientific and anti-racist approach to some of the ‘whys’ of our human history. I believe he succeeded in that.

In short, Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography—in particular, to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.”

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

There are parts of this story that hard to believe. How much, if any, was embellished?

“I told myself, ‘All I want is a normal life’. But was that true? I wasn’t so sure.

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 315 pages.
Read from October 9, 2017 to October 12, 2017.

As a species, we have always been curious about tragedy, in that when something bad happens we can’t look away, like a terrible car wreck. This book is the terrible car wreck of Augusten’s childhood and as readers, we are utterly absorbed and shocked at the wreck and mess that follows. I know this book is supposed to be somewhat humorous as that is one way the author has found a way to deal with the failings in his upbringing but I, for one, found nothing about this to be humorous.

Actual footage of me reading this book.

Augusten’s young life started off dysfunctional but still somewhat normal. His mother was always dramatic and his father reclusive but they were a family.

“My mother began to go crazy. Not in a ‘Let’s paint the kitchen red!’ sort of way. But crazy in a ‘gas oven, toothpaste sandwich, I am God’ sort of way.”

Shortly thereafter his father abandons him and so Augusten is left with his spiralling mentally ill mother. Augusten starts off as a very neat and tidy boy with a flair for fashion and often finds his mother’s antics and resulting behaviours distressing, even at such a young age.  Deidre, Augusten’s mother, has a love for poetry, feminism and the dramatic and when it is compounded with whatever illness she is battling makes for a troubling situation for Augusten. Deidre begins to see Doctor Finch as a form of therapy for herself. While the doctor is legitimate his methods are not and Augusten soon finds himself apart of these strange therapy sessions and even begins to know the doctor and his family on a personal level. Then, a few years into the sessions, Deidre, after reclaiming her sexuality as a gay woman, decides that the best decision for the two of them is if Augusten is adopted and forced to live with the doctor and his messy and peculiar family. From this point in the story onwards, you are going to count your blessings for your own dysfunctional family.

From find the word of God within bowel movements to underage gay sex with a paedophile and having the free reign to do whatever he pleases Augusten’s time with this family is beyond quirky. There are parts of this story that hard to believe.  I mean the author’s real name is actually Chris Robison and the truth of this novel came into question after its publication and immediate popularity.  How much did Chris elaborate and how much did his memory fail in regards to his time with the Finches? There was a call to remove the non-fiction and memoir tag from the book but at the time it was already too wildly popular to change.

From depictions of his mother to the doctor and his family have been called into question with the depictions that Chris lays out in his book. His mother even wrote her own book so that she could tell her own story in response this book. The real name of the Finch family is the Turcottes and the children of the family have since sued the author for the false allegations that this book made about them.  Theresa, or Natalie as she is referred to in the book, remembers Chris’ obsession with fame when he was younger and was shocked with the “categorically false” and “wildly embellished” story that he put together. Chris has stood by his story and his memories:

“This is my story. It’s not my mother’s story and it’s not the family’s story, and they may remember things differently and they may choose to not remember certain things, but I will never forget what happened to me, ever, and I have the scars from it and I wanted to rip those scars off of me.”

I am thankful that I did not know about these allegations before reading the book as it allowed me to read the novel without prejudice. I enjoyed the quirky story, even if it isn’t true or strongly embellished but deep down a part of my hopes that it isn’t true because the events in this story are truly shocking.

I will stick with my 4-star rating on this book because I did still enjoy it despite just recently reading about the controversy surrounding it. Overall the novel is an easy read with mediocre writing but with a story that makes you unable to look away, like a car wreck, and won’t let go. I would encourage readers to approach the book with a grain of salt and just enjoy the insanity of the plot. I think that the those who enjoy memoirs and quirky and dark stories with a dash of humour will enjoy this novel.