The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

vietnam life

I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2016 Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Sympathizer the same week PBS’ The Vietnam War aired. My husband, a military man, was fascinated by the documentary but I found myself flinching and turning away from the television night after night, grateful not to have been of age during that conflict to have it register so damningly on my mind.

Instead of watching the images on television, I turned to the pages of my book and found the war portrayed just as compellingly, albeit from the other side.

Nguyen’s Sympathizer is a narrator who sees both sides of nearly everything. He is a native Vietnamese who speaks flawless, unaccented English. His father, a French priest, who denies him; his mother, an impoverished Vietnamese woman who loves him. The Sympathizer is a solder, an aide, a secret Communist in South Vietnam, a spy.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds, . . . able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent,” he continues, but “I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you — that is a hazard.

The_Sympathizer_-_book_coverThis book is deep, important, dense with information, plot lines, characters. Honestly, as someone who was not cognizant of the politics at the time of the war, it was often confusing. Perhaps that is intentional: Nguyen’s narrator while externally representing the South Vietnamese position is internally aligned with the North Vietnamese Viet Cong. And yet, despite his internal beliefs and external work, the reader is not always sure where the narrator’s true sympathies lie. He supports communism, hates America, yet moves to live in America and profits from it.

“My chances of returning to America were small, and I thought with regret about all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air-conditioning; a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which, if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.”

The Sympathizer begins during the evacuation of Vietnam, continues into the immigrant experience in America then takes a surreal turn onto a movie set, very closely resembling Apocalypse Now. Although it seemed a strange turn for this “serious” novel, the movie set was my favorite part of the read. The American directors, producers, writers, and actors — for all their good intentions or not — can’t help but step in it nearly every time they open their mouth.

“His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.”

NguyenThis is an important book and one that I raced through in order to finish it in time for my book club. It turned out only two of us got through the whole things, it is, as I said, dense. But each page contains a nugget of joy, humor, wisdom. It’s a book I’d like to return to and delve deeper into and take more time to read.

MENU

There was a great deal of beer drinking and an ode to fish sauce.  My best idea would be to buy some good quality spring rolls, serve them with rice and fish sauce and also offer American burgers. The duality of the novel calls for the same in the menu.

MUSIC
Spotify offers a playlist of the songs that appear in The Sympathizer in the order in which they appear! How about that. https://open.spotify.com/user/128916364/playlist/7ogZqRZVXiMvlGyceT3dvv

MOVIE CASTING

I’m not even going to try. Way too many characters and my capacity for stepping in it is greater than the great DIRECTOR and AUTEUR imagined by Nguyen.

Happy Reading!

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Carter & Lovecraft, by Jonathan L. Howard

books sign

Science fiction does not generally find its way onto my reading list. But Carter & Lovecraft, described as the start of Jonathan L. Howard’s thrilling supernatural series that brings the myths of H.P. Lovecraft into the 21st Century, somehow found its way onto my audible list. I’m actually not even sure I remember downloading it, but there it was, below Casino Islandhttps://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/camino-island-by-john-grisham/, and above The Jane Austen Project. I pressed play and found myself first at a strange murder scene in NYC, then much more happily, at a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island.

 

H._P._Lovecraft,_June_1934I’m pretty happy with any novel that includes a whip-smart librarian with a shotgun whoruns a bookstore. Emily Lovecraft is a descendant of sci-fi horror fiction author H.P. Lovecraft: a real guy — I wasn’t sure as I read Carter & Lovecraft if H.P. Lovecraft was a clever variation of an author’s name that sounded vaguely familiar or a real guy. It’s the latter.

I also really enjoyed Dan Carter’s take on nearly everything. He’s smart, pragmatic, funny, and prepared — for almost anything. “In his experience, motives were simple. There was greed, there was jealousy, he’d seen plenty of revenge played out in gang-related crimes, there was even sadism, and sometimes there was flat-out stupidity, which was a pretty powerful motivator in itself.”

A bit of background: H.P. Lovecraft died in 1937 without achieving any financial success during his lifetime. By his own account, his themes were complex and spooky:

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

— H. P. Lovecraft, in note to the editor of Weird Tales, on resubmission of “The Call of Cthulhu

On to Carter & Lovecraft. Dan Carter is a NYC detective who is in on a catch that goes incredibly wrong when his partner dies at the scene. Soon after, Carter retires from the force and hangs his shingle as a P.I. Life is pretty dull until Carter is informed by a stranger-than-normal attorney that he has inherited property in Providence, Rhode Island from a person he doesn’t know. Intrepid Carter seeks out the property and discovers it’s a book store staffed by the beautiful Emily Lovecraft, she of the high cheekbones and shotgun. “Lovecraft angled her head back until she was looking at Harrelson down her nose. ‘I trained as a librarian, and I run a bookstore. Fucking right I can use a gun.'”

Before you can say Cthulhu Mythos, a professor has drowned in a dry car, an Atlantic City pit boss has literally exploded after eating a plate of ribs, and Dan Carter keeps finding himself on an eerie and inhospitable spit of land called Waits Bill where the women are much more than women and the men are even stranger.

monsters

Having no foundation in Lovecraft, I was a bit at a loss at times, but the plot — or enjoyment — of a ripping good read in Carter & Lovecraft is not dependent on that knowledge.

Should your book club read it? Truthfully, you know your book buddies better than I do. Were I to bring Carter & Lovecraft to my own home club, I think my friends would turn on me faster than a Wait woman turns on a strange man. But just in case you do, I’ve got a few food and music suggestions:

MENU

BBQ Ribs. Truly, this is your only choice. And some bourbon. Recipes below.

In Atlantic City, Bernie Hayesman looked at the plate of ribs, and he was not happy. He had asked for an omelet, a simple omelet to be sent up to his office, and they had sent ribs. He couldn’t understand it. He’d spoken to the chef personally. They’d discussed eggs, if briefly. There was no earthly way “omelet” could have been misconstrued as “ribs”. He looked at the plate of ribs, and the ribs looked back. Neither he nor they were overjoyed at the situation.

Rhode Island Clam Dip

  • 2 slices bacon, chopped
  • 1/3 cup chopped sweet onion
  • 1 package Gravy Mix
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 cup shredded white Cheddar cheese, divided
  • 1 (6.5 ounce) can chopped clams, drained
  • 2 teaspoons  Parsley Flakes
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cook bacon in large skillet on medium-high heat until crisp. Remove bacon, reserving drippings in pan. Add onion; cook and stir 2 to 3 minutes or until translucent. Stir in Gravy Mix, milk and 1/2 cup of the shredded cheese. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes or until gravy starts to thicken. Remove from heat. Stir in clams.
  2. Pour into 9-inch glass pie plate. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese.
  3. Bake 15 minutes or until cheese is melted. Sprinkle with bacon and parsley. Serve with toasted baguette slices or crackers.

New Jersey’s Award-Winning Rib recipe from Big Joe’s Cookbook can be found here: http://nj1015.com/big-joes-award-winning-ribs-recipe/

Larcery Bourbon has an impressive selection of bourbon recipes on its website, but the Pressing Charges looks like a great combination for a rib dinner:

PRESSING CHARGES Pressing-Charges
  • 2 oz. Larceny Bourbon
  • 2 oz. Ginger Ale
  • 2 oz. Soda Water
  • 2 Dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

In an Old Fashioned glass, combine Larceny, ginger ale and soda water. Float bitters on top.

MUSIC

My playlist would include:

Evil Woman, ELO

Dark Lady, Cher

Witchy Woman, The Eagles

Monster, Lady Gaga

Sweet Rhode Island Red, Ike & Tina Turner

Rhode Island is Famous for You, Michael Feinstein

The Last Resort, The Eagles

MOVIE CASTING

According to Kirkus Reviews, the book has been optioned by Warner Bros. and is headed to tv land. Here are my casting suggestions:

Dan Carter                     Aaron Eckhart

Emily Lovecraft            Gabrielle Union

William Colt                  Thomas Decker

carter &So . . . there you go. If you dare.

Happy Reading!