Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen


The Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

Grove Press, 2015

371 pages

The Sympathizer begins during the fall of Saigon. The narrator, called The Captain, is a spy for the North Vietnamese, embedded in the South Vietnamese army. He is working for a Vietnamese General and flees Saigon with the General and a childhood friend, Bon. The opening pages are moving and memorable. Nguyen deftly captures the chaos in Saigon as the North Vietnamese invaded, and after some initial setbacks, the Captain, the General and Bon, and others, make it out and to Southern California. The Captain, who went to college in LA and speaks English well, gets a job working for a former professor and eventually meets up with a film director who, much like Francis Ford Coppola, is shooting a film about the Vietnam War. The Captain travels to the Philippines to work on the film, as a handler for the Vietnamese extras, all refugees living in the Philippines.

This book is a spy story, a love story and a war story, but it is also a critique of the stories about the Vietnam War that have come before it. Told with a first person narrator, the book explores how Americans have appropriated the Vietnam War in books and films, and how our stories are about our experiences and for the most part render the Vietnamese experience to cliché characters whose screams we don’t even know how to accurately capture on film.

Nguyen’s prose is intense and beautiful, reminding me of Roberto Bolano’s in 2666. The Sympathizer is a dense read, but an amusing and entertaining story, while also being political. The ending though took me by surprise. There are some scenes in the final pages that were rather gruesome, and are not for the faint at heart, but overall I found this to be an immensely satisfying book and one that made me rethink how I thought about the Vietnam War and what happened to the Vietnamese soldiers who fought on both sides after the war. I could see this being a good book for a book club, as I wished I had people to talk about it with when I was done reading it.

Nguyen is a professor at the University of Southern California. He was born in Vietnam and grew up in the United States.

A received an e-book version of this book from the publisher via Net Galley.

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Book Prizes in the UK and Australia

I see that new followers have signed up for Proto Libro in the last week. Welcome! I appreciate your interest in my blog and hope that you discover debut authors and books here that you want to explore.

Last month, I wrote about debut book prizes in the US. Today I will look at two overseas. The Desmond Elliott Prize goes to British and Irish debut authors. Their shortlist was recently announced with a winner to be announced July 1st. The three finalists all sound like intriguing reads:

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey – A mystery about a women with Alzheimer’s who searches for an old friend who she believes is missing.

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray — A story about a Mormon family that faces a tragedy and how the tragedy tests their faith.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller – After a family tragedy, a survivalist father takes his daughter from London to live in a forest.

And in Australia, the Stella Prize celebrates women writers. The prize is open to writers at any stage of their careers, but this year’s winner was Emily Bitto for her debut novel, The Strays, which is a historical novel set in 1930s Melbourne, about a young girl, Lily, who befriends Eva, a classmate brought up by avant garde artists. This book does not look like it has been published in the US yet, but is available on the Kindle, and after winning this award I hope Bitto finds a US publisher.

Have any of you read any of these books? I’d be curious to know what you thought of them.

Keep cool … and happy summer reading….

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The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander


The Light of the World

By Elizabeth Alexander

Grand Central Press, 2015

209 pages

The Light of the World tells the story of Alexander’s husband’s death, at the age of fifty, and how she and her sons coped with the loss. Alexander’s use of language is singular, and her narrative style is unique. Her poetry background shines through as she narrates the circumstance of her husband’s death, how they fell in love, how they created a home for their sons together and then how she and her teenaged sons made a life for themselves on their own. I devoured this book in a few sittings.

Ficre Ghebreyesus was a worldly and passionate man who cooked, loved music and literature, and created beautiful paintings. He was from Eritrea and was working as a restaurant owner and painter in New Haven when they met. Their love was instant. Alexander has a deep appreciation for the small ways that people connect and love – watching her husband smoke, cooking together – and the big things that happen over the course of fifteen years together: two kids, two successful careers, multiple homes. She also weaves in culture references from literature, music, and African culture making her story both personal and universal.

This book is a page-turner; or at least it was for my husband and me. My husband, who reads mainly historical non-fiction, recommended the book to me after he got so engrossed in the story that he missed a subway stop on the way home from work and ended up in the wrong part of Brooklyn—many stops from our home. And as I wrote last week, this book made me cry. The story is so moving.

Alexander is a poet, playwright and professor at Yale. She wrote and delivered a poem at Obama’s 2008 inauguration and was the third black woman to get tenure at Yale University.


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Books that Made Me Cry

I’ll never forget the experience of reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. The book made me cry while flying on a transatlantic flight from New York to London. I’m not someone who cries easily in public, it probably helped that most of the people around me were asleep and could not see the tears quietly streaming down my face, but this book is such a powerful story of love, loss and grief that I cried through most of it.

When I finished The Year of Magical Thinking, and for many years after, I never thought I would read another book that addressed the same topics with such grace, but I have now read two other memoirs about love and loss that rival Didion’s classic. And they are both debuts.

Last year, I read and wrote about Elizabeth Scarboro’s My Foreign Cities. Some of you might remember this review. The book tells the story of her love for a man who had cystic fibrosis. Liz met Stephen in high school, where the book begins, but they do not commit to each other until after college when she moves to San Francisco to be with him.

So in her early 20s, Scarboro chooses to love, and live with, a man who will likely not live past 35. That set up is enough make my heart flutter for her bravery. But add to it that Scarboro’s writing is so open, and honest, by the end of the book I felt like I was her friend, as if she was telling the story just to me. I cried when Stephen went to the hospital and I cried when she knew she was going to lose him. But through the tears, I felt hope. Scarboro told a tragic story that was also a testament human resilience, to our ability to keep going when times are tough and to do everything we can to keep those we love alive.

And now there is Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, a memoir about the loss of her husband. I will provide a full review next week, but if you have not heard of this book yet, it is another beautiful portrait of love and loss. Alexander explores what happens when we deeply connect with someone and what happens when that person dies, suddenly, at the age of 50.

Love and loss are tearjerkers, but each of these authors has an openness to write about their emotions that I find inspiring. I aspire to have as much courage as they do to put their experiences out in the world so openly and vividly. How about you? What books have made you cry?


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