Book Review: ‘The Sympathizer’

After hearing Viet Thanh Nguyen speak at a conference last Spring, I decided I needed to bump his Pulitzer Prize The Sympathizer to the top of my TBR pile. Best decision I’ve made in a long time. And yet…

This isn’t a book I would recommend outright to many readers, because you don’t have to be a ‘sensitive’ reader in order to be devastated by this novel. As you might expect in a book about war and exile, there are so many scenes that are incredibly violent, graphic, crude, and/or disturbing. Nothing in this book is going to give a reader sweet dreams.

But with that disclaimer complete, I’ll say that this book is irresistible. Nguyen’s voice is captivating and sharp, so that even uneventful scenes or extensive monologues will put the reader on edge. I’m not typically one to read war novels or books that are heavy on political theory or philosophizing, but it was that voice that made both tolerable here. Even while reading brief passages about Communist ideology or American policy in Vietnam, I felt as though I was constantly bracing myself for something bad to happen to the characters in the book, which is the ultimate sign of a good thriller. Nguyen’s ability to balance history, philosophy, and politics with character and plot development is incredible. So that no matter what you’re looking for, you get it – almost without realizing it.

Finally, this book is so timely right now, given the United States’ recent decision to pull out of Afghanistan and the events that have unfolded in Kabul since. Some of the scenes I read in Nguyen’s book have uncanny parallels to those I’m seeing in the news, and the implications of American guilt are heavy in both. Nguyen recently wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times discussing these parallels, which I’d highly recommend.

The sequel to The Sympathizer is called The Committed, and I just can’t wait to get my hands on that one.

Book Review: The Overstory

It’s been a while since my last post, and that’s partially because The Overstory by Richard Powers is a long and dense – though also beautiful – novel, much like the trees that inspire it’s plot and characters (and partially the result of Spring’s arrival, pulling me away from books, into my garden).

As someone who spends a lot of time in nature, I would have told you (before reading this novel), that I had a deep appreciation for trees and a really progressive view regarding conservationism. But now I know my appreciation for trees is a sapling compared to the Giant Sequoia that Richard Powers has presented to us with this novel (albeit a sapling that has grown immensely due to reading this book).

The Overstory follows nine primary characters across several decades, as their stories come together as a result of their relationship to trees and forests. In a Between the Covers podcast featuring Richard Powers, he articulated how the narrative reflects the structural components of a tree: various roots coming together for a common cause, only to diverge later on and drop seeds that may or may not lead to future stories. The nerd in me can’t get over that, though in hindsight it seems obvious (I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, I guess).

But I will also say, that while this story is worth the time and effort required to get through it, it’s definitely a long commitment and, at times, slower than the rave reviews led me to believe. However, despite those slower parts, I found myself understanding trees and conservation so differently as a result of this story. And, for me, any story that can fundamentally change the way I look at the world is invaluable.

Ready to read this one? Get the book from an independent bookstore HERE.

Historical Fiction You Need to Read: The Nickel Boys

Recently, I had a conversation with someone a generation older than me about a non-fiction book they were reading (I forget which one… It doesn’t matter for my point here, except that I want to read it), and at least three times the person said, “They just never taught us that side of history when I was in school.”

That conversation was on my mind the entire time I was reading The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead.

Since my 11th grade AP History course (shout out to Ms. Bailey!), when I first read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I’ve been continuously discovering the ways in which history has been told “by the conquerors”, as people say. Oppressors might be a more appropriate word, but the point remains the same: some histories are routinely, institutionally ignored.

But for me, no offense to AP History, it’s really been my love for fiction (especially historical fiction) that has illuminated the realities of who’s history gets told. And that brings me, at last, to the book at hand.

The Nickel Boys is a book based on true, horrifying events they don’t tell you about in grade school; a kind of historical fiction that simultaneously captivates and enrages. It follows one boy’s experience in a segregated school for boys’ reform, and for me, it provided yet another example of how some history is intentionally perpetuated while others are swept under the rug.

And yet, despite how infuriating this untold history is, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enthralled cover to cover. I could hardly put this story down, as much as I wanted it (or anything like it) to have never happened. That is, The Nickel Boys is incredibly powerful not only for the historical truths that it reveals, but also for Whitehead’s capacity for storytelling. He invigorates this story with relatable characters and moving friendships, with beautiful and skillful prose.

It’s on ever best-seller list for a reason. It won a Pullitzer Prize for a reason. It’s incredible – quite simply, a must read.

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