Monday, December 28, 2015

Don't read these books if you suffer from insomnia. They'll keep you awake.

Pretty much since December 24th I've been going to bed at a decent time only to discover that when I turn off my reading light, I'm actually wider awake than I was just a minute before.  Life's good so I'm not stressing, so it must be latent zombie genes or something keeping me up.  I've been up until around 4:30  a.m. pretty much for the last four or five nights.  If I lay there and think "I have to sleep" I'm even more awake so I just say screw this and pick up a book.   It's amazing how much a person can read when it's dead quiet and there are no interruptions.

My insomniac reading list for the last four days:

Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell -- bad book to read when you want to sleep.  It's so bloody bleak that the predicament of this young girl and her two little brothers would keep you awake at any normal time, so reading it during a bout of insomnia was just folly.  Good book, though.

The Blood of the Vampire, by Florence Marryat -- older, first published in 1897, but so well written that it was unputdownable. That's bad news when you feel your eyes frying from lack of rest. I couldn't  help but feel sorry for the titular vampire whose only crime was to be an independent woman of means but of questionable birth at the turn of the century, and I had to read read read to find out what happened to her.  Oy. 

The Restraint of Beasts, by Magnus Mills -- it was 12:45  a.m. when I started this one, thinking that "hey, a comedy might be a good brain relaxer," but little did I know that the ending of this book was going to result in staying awake all night trying to figure out what the author was saying here. Sheesh! Awesome novel, but definitely one not to read if you're hoping to sleep. 


I've decided that if I'm still awake tonight, I'm going to pull out an old science text that bored me to tears as a student. If that doesn't do it, well, nothing will. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

my last novel of 2015, and it's just effing jaw dropping: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Grove Press, 2015
371 pp


"The majority of Americans regarded us with ambivalence if not outright distaste, we being living reminders of their stinging defeat. We threatened the sanctity and symmetry of a white and black America whose yin and yang racial politics left no room for any other color, particularly that of pathetic little yellow-skinned people pickpocketing the American purse."

Just briefly as to plot (and very much oversimplified):   "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces," are the words that open this novel, which for the most part, is a confession to someone known only as "the Commandant." The story is related by a nameless narrator who is a spy for the North Vietnamese communists and has managed to infiltrate the South Vietnamese Army as an aide to "the General" and a member of intelligence under the tutelage of a CIA agent.   The novel begins with the evacuation of South Vietnam and the last flights out, on one of which our narrator finds himself along with his boss, his best friend/blood brother, and a number of other people fleeing as the North Vietnamese Army is crashing the gates of Saigon.  His job, once they reach America, is to watch and to report to a comrade back in Vietnam, which he does in coded letters to his "aunt," his other best friend and blood brother who did not follow him in his escape. Our narrator  keeps a careful eye on the General and his cohorts while the refugees are busily reinventing themselves in order to adjust to life in an unglamorous Hollywood neighborhood.  As the narrator's handler thought would happen, the General has decided to organize several of his former army cohorts in an effort to retake Vietnam from the Communists, and in order to maintain his facade, the narrator must follow along with the general's plan. 

The narrator, the titular "sympathizer," is definitely a "man of two faces," and faces a number of contradictions. In fact, this thought-provoking novel is so filled with contradictions that this "two faces" idea runs throughout the book.  In the narrator's case, he is a man of mixed parentage, a fact that has helped to define his identity throughout his life, since in Vietnam, he grew up being reminded that he is a bastard, with a French father and Vietnamese mother. Metaphorically speaking then, he already understands what is implied in belonging in two different places, but the truth is that he is also not in a position to claim either as his own. This idea is repeated again and again throughout the novel, and is one of the main thematic issues explored here, as is the reinvention of the self under less-than-perfect circumstances, capturing  what I would consider the immigrant experience in any country.   This is not our hero's first visit to America; he had first come in the 1960s as an exchange student, when he first started his fondness for things American, but now he finds himself faced with a very different take on the American dream, with different and often-conflicting loyalties, and above all, haunted by ghosts.  It is truly a masterpiece of a novel that also examines not only American perceptions of the Vietnam War, but America's perception of its own role in the war and those of the Vietnamese people as well.

I read a reader response of The Sympathizer that said it should be required reading for every US politician, a sentiment I heartily endorse, especially considering what's going on in the world regarding refugees right now.  But there's so much more here, and as I noted earlier, it's a novel just filled with contradictions, which make for a great satirical look at the promises of the American dream, at America's place on the world stage, etc.; however, it also points out among other things that unlike most historical accounts, the history of the Vietnam war has been the provenance of the losers rather than the victors. It also examines the realities behind revolutions and the effects of the postwar diaspora (aka the "boat people")  from the point of view of the people who were given promises that were never intended to be kept. 

A couple of things: first, when I finished it, I sat in my chair absolutely stunned for probably about half an hour.   I noted somewhere that even after it was over my jaw was still pinned to the floor; it took me a day or two to get over that feeling. Second, I want to throttle the dustjacket blurber who says this is a "gripping spy novel" -- people who decide to read this book based on that phrase are bound to be somewhat disappointed since this book goes well beyond the boundaries of a mere spy novel. Third, The Sympathizer is one of the most original books I've read this year, well deserving of any award its author receives.    I have been very frustrated lately and at the point of despairing over  "same old, same old" in recent novels. There are exceptions, of course, including but not necessarily limited to three of my favorite books this year -- A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Buried Giant, and a book published by Pushkin by Peter Froberg Idling called Song For An Approaching Storm about Pol Pot in his pre-genocide days --  but The Sympathizer offers hope that the mental wells of writers haven't yet run dry.

Very highly recommended, one of my few favorite novels of the year. Read it slowly. Take your time with it. Savor it. It's that kind of book.


links to professional reviewers who say things in a way I never could:

from Bookforum, by Lisa Locascio (beware of spoilers)
from The New York Times, by Philip Caputo
from The Washington Post, by Ron Charles

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty, by Vendela Vida

Ecco/HarperCollins, 2015
213 pp


I'll be very frank here. The first time through this novel all I could think of was just how preposterous this story is -- the main character makes a series of choices that no sane person would ever find herself making given the circumstances.  So thinking I must have missed something here,  I went through it again,  and came out with an entirely different perspective on things. The second time through, I started to realize just how clever a book this actually is, to the point where I'm going to add it to my real-world book group's reading list next fall.  Had I read it when I received it from Indiespensable,  it would have gone on this year's lineup, but later is better than never, I suppose.

The first clue that this is not your average novel is that the entire book is written in the second person ("you").  The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty  begins on an airplane going from Miami to Morocco, and right at the outset, the reader is presented with a puzzle.  What exactly does the narrator mean when she refers to "the horror of the last two months?" And why is she trying to avoid being recognized by a fellow passenger, whom she remembers from the last time they met? And on arriving in Morocco, why is tipping the taxi driver twenty dollars her "initial mistake?"  As the novel progresses, you, the reader, come to discover that these questions are just the foundation for what's to come.

Very briefly (I'll post professional reviews that give more away than I will when I'm done here), my take on this  novel is that what follows is  a major examination into the questions of identity, role-playing, and reinvention of self. And it all begins with the theft of the narrator's passport.  She reports the theft to the police, making a huge error when asked what she does for a living.  When she says that she is a reporter for The New York Times (which she isn't), writing a travel story, and hopes she doesn't have to "include this" in her report, it isn't too long afterwards that she learns her backpack complete with contents has been found. The police chief hands her a bag that she knows is not hers, saying that she can now write "How good the police are here in Casablanca." It's a sort of unspoken game they play here, as well as a critical moment in the book, leading to the narrator becoming a sort of "stand-in" for the woman whose identity she now holds, playing a role, so to speak, as that person.  And while I won't explain why, the narrator is offered a job as a stand-in for an actress, to be used during scene blocking during the filming of a movie there.  This role of "stand-in" brings up yet another idea in this book, that of performing/performance, and  will repeat itself throughout the novel in various ways, until the initial questions the author presents are finally answered and the reader "you" comes to understand a) how identity and performance mesh here  and b) just what is at stake for the narrator in terms of reinventing herself.  There are other things here as well -- the intrusion of American culture just one more thing to watch for.   The novel's title comes from a poem by Rumi of the same name, which is reproduced within the book; the use of the second person here, as I sort of impatiently reminded the naysayers on Goodreads, reflects the style used in the poem.

As I noted earlier, I liked this book much more after the second time through, but one thing I didn't particularly care for either time was just how much the ending of this book (as I see it) depended on a huge coincidence -- and while I understand why, I'm someone who doesn't particularly like when things hinge on coincidence.   I can also understand reader reservations about this novel -- chances are that  the "you" who is reading this book would not make the same preposterous choices as the narrator did  at any juncture in this novel.  However, you are not in "your" head at any given time, but inside that of the narrator's; once you give over to that fact, it's a far less-stressful way to get through the novel.

A few professional reviews of this book are at