South Vietnamese citizens scaling the U.S. Embassy wall the day before the Fall of Saigon.
Like most Americans, my exposure to the Vietnam War comes fr South Vietnamese citizens scaling the U.S. Embassy wall the day before the Fall of Saigon.
Like most Americans, my exposure to the Vietnam War comes from sources that are overwhelmingly American in perspective. The Sympathizer felt fresh and different by presenting the war (and more specifically, its aftermath) from a Vietnamese point of view. Our unnamed narrator is a Viet Cong mole working in Saigon just prior to the city’s fall. He is ordered to take his underground act into America as a refugee, where he struggles to balance his role as a communist sympathizer (and the risks that come with it) with his obligations to people back home and abroad. Over the course of the book, the narrator finds himself in a series of increasingly interesting (and dangerous) situations that allow him to observe American and Vietnamese culture firsthand, and his comparisons between the two are one of the highlights of the novel.
My favorite thing about this book was the author’s narrative voice, which was both engaging and unique. The narrator has a way of speaking that is both descriptive and concealing, at times matter-of-fact and at times bitingly funny (often sneakily so). This wasn’t a book with a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but the narration was consistently entertaining, even if most of the best "jokes" were as sad as they were funny. Nguyen does an outstanding job of balancing this humor with gut-punching passages of suffering and tragedy, a bit like some of Kurt Vonnegut's work (although this is far from a perfect comparison). I'm not sure if this literary cocktail will appeal to everyone, but I for one found it mesmerizing.
The structure of the novel was also very well crafted, and the plot was exciting and well-paced. The book starts with an extremely memorable and dramatic presentation of the evacuation of Saigon, and effectively builds up to a dramatic and disturbing climax (view spoiler)[ in a Vietnamese reeducation camp (hide spoiler)]. Overall this novel was a very enjoyable blend of literary theatrics and page-turning plot, with the unusual (for American fiction, anyway) choice of perspective giving it a unique character.
At times this is an angry and even cynical book (perhaps unsurprising given its subject matter), and no party is spared the lash of Nguyen's pen. Often, that anger is directed at the United States and its leaders. Some of this is unquestionably justified, but if I have a quibble with the book it would be that some of the criticisms seemed a bit unfair, and I can see this being a turn-off for some readers. However, it is not a pro-Communist book by any stretch; rather, the narrator has plenty of biting complaints to launch at all principals in a war that caused so much suffering to so many people, both Vietnamese and American.
I was very impressed with this novel, which manages the rare feat of being a gripping page-turner and an impressive piece of literary fiction at the same time. The author has expressed some interest in turning this into a trilogy; if so, I will be picking up the second volume as soon as possible. 5.0 stars, highly recommended!
Black Flags is a chilling, well written examination of the events that led to the formation of ISIS. Warrick identifies a number of factors that assisBlack Flags is a chilling, well written examination of the events that led to the formation of ISIS. Warrick identifies a number of factors that assisted ISIS’ rise, including repressive Arab regimes, conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and U.S. interventionism in the Middle East.
This was a very strong read. Despite its disturbing subject matter, the book was extremely engaging, consistently interesting, and highly informative. Warrick (a journalist by trade) has a gift for narrative nonfiction, and Black Flags was never boring at any point – at times it was hard to put down. Despite dealing with some complex subjects (Sunni/Shia conflict, Middle Eastern politics, etc.), Warrick doesn’t lose the reader. I would definitely pick up something by this author in the future.
One quibble: the structure of the book felt just a bit off. A disproportionate percentage of this book is focused on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the key figures in the escalation of Islamic extremism and, by extension, the rise of ISIS. This emphasis gives the book a character-driven feel, which has its advantages (readability, etc.). But the book ended up feeling like it was as much about Zarqawi’s life story as about the actual birth of ISIS, which is crammed into the last 20% of the text. The book actually has precious little information about conditions on the ground in ISIS controlled territory today, although as its focus was on the rise of the Islamic state this could be intentional.
That said, the positives certainly outweigh the negatives here, and this is a book well-worth reading. Readers should be warned that this book describes some brutal and inhumane acts performed by ISIS and its agents; after all, ISIS is a brutal and inhumane entity that is about as close to true evil as one can find in the world today. One important point which I am glad that Warrick stressed towards the end is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims – like the vast majority of non-Muslims – are appalled by the policies and actions of the Islamic State, which have been broadly rejected as non-Muslim. After finishing this book, it is easy to see why. 4.5 stars, highly recommended. ...more
Between the World and Me is a short (150 page) but powerful address to the author’s 14-year old son. Part memoir and partly a broader examination of rBetween the World and Me is a short (150 page) but powerful address to the author’s 14-year old son. Part memoir and partly a broader examination of race relations in the United States, despite its length I did not find this an easy book to get through. Coates’ outlook is bleak, largely rejecting the optimistic theories of thinkers like Martin Luther King, Jr. An atheist, Coates finds no hope or solace in the religious sphere, as King did, although at times Coates seems to wish that he could. Instead, Coates views a culture of loosely veiled white supremacy as something that is firmly set in place, and something that is effectively impossible for an African American minority to change.
Coates is a man who is deeply frustrated, disappointed, and angry at his country in many ways, and I did not agree with every point he took. He can paint with a very broad brush, and some of his more pessimistic observations about white Americans or America in general felt off to me. However, Coates is a strong writer with a distinct narrative voice, helping to keep the book engrossing even when I didn’t 100% agree with Coates’ position. More importantly, this book did an outstanding job of putting the reader into the shoes of Coates and his peers. Even when I did not agree with Coates’ generalizations or specific points, I could understand (and appreciate) why Coates and other African Americans may feel that way. Between the World and Me does about as good a job of this as any book I have ever read: it allows readers from different backgrounds to examine America from a new and unfamiliar perspective, complete with all of the insights and distortions this new angle can provide. In this respect, the book was enlightening.
It is this last trait that makes Between the World and Me a great book, and perhaps an important one. I’d add that I listened to the audiobook version, which is read by Coates himself, and I would definitely recommend this format to audiobook lovers as Coates’ reading really enhanced the impact of this book for me. 5 stars, highly recommended....more
“What the war did to dreamers.” - Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
St. Malo, 1944.
Anthony Doerr’s second novel, All the Light We Cannot See “What the war did to dreamers.” - Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
St. Malo, 1944.
Anthony Doerr’s second novel, All the Light We Cannot See is the story of two youths that are swept up in the chaos of World War II. Marie-Laure is a blind French girl living in Paris, where her father works at the Museum of Natural History. To help her cope with her condition, her father constructs a fabulous model of the surrounding city that Marie-Laure can study in order to memorize her surroundings. Far away, Werner Pfennig grows up an orphan in Zollverein, a mining town in Germany. Werner is fascinated by radios, and soon learns that he has a natural talent for working with them. However, both Werner and his sister, Jutta, gradually find themselves caught in the tentacles of the Third Reich. The novel follows its two principles as the tide of war pushes both parties to Saint-Malo, a port-city in Northwestern France.
The description of this novel sounded (to me at least) like the elevator pitch for a particularly Oscar-baity WWII film. There have been so many books and movies focused on the Second World War that another book on the subject can feel unnecessary or derivative. If it weren’t for the many laurels this book earned in 2014-15, I might have skipped over this one. But I’m glad I didn’t, because those honors were well-deserved. I thought this was a powerhouse of a novel: extremely well written, creatively (and effectively) structured, and perfectly paced. Both of the main characters are very strong, and Doerr supplements them with a memorable supporting cast (particularly Etienne, Jutta, and Volkheimer). A third narrative (view spoiler)[involving a rare gemstone (hide spoiler)] is woven into the main story to good effect, adding just enough spice without ever threatening to take over the book.
Doerr does many things well here, but two specifically bear mentioning. First, I was impressed by some of the decisions Doerr made on what to show the reader and what he leaves to the imagination. Some of the most powerful incidents in the book - (view spoiler)[the death of Marie’s father, the attack on Frederick, the killings that Werner helps facilitate, and (most importantly) the moment where Werner goes back to the kennel to retrieve the model house but leaves the diamond behind (hide spoiler)] - are brought to the reader’s attention in indirect but very effective ways. I thought this was very well done and it definitely added to my enjoyment of the book. Second, Doerr does an extraordinary job of describing how Marie-Laure perceives her world without the use of her eyes, which really pulls the reader into the narrative and was a unique reading experience for me.*
This was a book that really took root in me once I got invested in it. Lord knows there are a million WWII stories out there, but this one is worth your time. All the Light We Cannot See is a creative, engaging, and moving story, expertly told, and one of the best novels of the decade so far. 6 stars, highest possible recommendation.
Winner: Pulitzer Prize (2015) Nominee: National Book Award (2014) Selection: New York Times Best Books of 2014
*Shout-out to AChristensen1205 for this second observation.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This was a book that I had high expectations going into. I was ready to love it for a variety of reasons:
- A Pulitzer winner that is actually funny? CThis was a book that I had high expectations going into. I was ready to love it for a variety of reasons:
- A Pulitzer winner that is actually funny? Check.
- Set in New Orleans, one of my very favorite cities? Double check.
- A true Cinderella story surrounding its publication? Triple check and sign me up.
Author John Kennedy Toole tragically committed suicide in 1969, at the age of 32. His mother found a smeared copy of her son’s manuscript, and spent years stubbornly trying to find a publisher. The book was Toole’s first novel, and publishers were unsurprisingly reluctant. However, Mrs. Toole was persistent, and she finally succeeded in getting a small university press (Lousiana State University) to bite and publish the work. Dunces rose from a very small initial print run (true first printings have sold for up to $10,000) to Pulitzer Prize winner in the course of a year.
So I was ready to embrace this book with open arms. And there are definitely some things working in its favor – a memorable setting, some very unique characters, and pretty strong writing. But unfortunately Dunces left me a little bit cold.
The story centers around Ignatius J. Reilly, an obese know-it-all loser who lives with his frazzled, hard-drinking mother. Reilly has to get a job, but he’s basically unemployable for a variety of reasons and he bounces from chaotic situation to chaotic situation over the course of the book. A large cast of secondary characters are featured, from unhappy businessmen to criminal lowlifes and everyone in between. Toole does a nice job in bringing all of these storylines together in the final act, and the chaos inherent in his characters’ lives is ripe ground for comedy.
But I just didn’t find this book as funny as other readers have. There are certainly plenty of clever moments, and a few passages that made me laugh out loud (mostly whenever Ignatius dealt with the gay residents of the French Quarter). However, much of this book just made me depressed. I like a good antihero as much as the next reader, but Ignatius was such an unappealing main character that he made me feel pity and revulsion more than mirth. His laziness, his gluttony, his insane pomposity, and his horrible treatment of his mother – a lot of the time I wanted one of the other characters to punch him in the nose, while other times I simply felt sad. Reading about his lonely, delusional life made me sad, and reading about his harried, unappreciated mother made me sad, and it’s hard to laugh when a book is making you depressed. Other characters were rather one-dimensional, taking a good joke and beating it mercilessly into the dust. For example, one of the secondary characters is the wife of a factory owner. She is a fat, spoiled, shrew of a woman, and the only things that come out of her mouth are complaints about her husband’s behavior and threats to turn his children against him. This was sort of funny for a couple pages, but she does this every time she appears for the entire book, far beyond the point where it ceased to be humorous.
Comedy is definitely subjective, and there are many readers who have fallen head-over-heels for Dunces. There is a lot of black humor on display here, and I think darker palattes than mine may have more fun with this book than I did. Overall I appreciated some of the things that this book did well, but it just wasn’t quite for me. Of the Pulitzer winners for fiction that I’ve read so far, this was probably my least favorite. 3 stars. ...more
"Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip, and Germans no less than other peoples prepare for the last war." - Barb"Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip, and Germans no less than other peoples prepare for the last war." - Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August.
In her Pulitzer-Prize winning classic The Guns of August, the story of the first month of World War I, Barbara Tuchman argues convincingly that August 1914 was when the Gilded Age died and the modern era really began. The book opens with a famous depiction of Edward VII’s funeral in 1910, attended by all the kings and princes of the west: “the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last.” Other than a few details, this scene would not have been out of place in 1610. But by September 1914, it was clear that the world had changed in a fundamental way. And not necessarily for the better.
World War I is most famous for the years of bitter trench warfare that took place on the Western Front. But at the beginning of the war, in August 1914, the leading generals had other ideas. The Germans were determined to execute the Schlieffen Plan, a strategy where the bulk of their forces would attack France from the north, sweeping down the Atlantic coast, crushing French resistance, and taking Paris within 30 days. This necessitated an invasion of Belgium, and in all likelihood would drag England into the conflict, but this was a price the Germans were willing to pay.
For their part, the French had never really gotten over their humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, a loss they blamed on a lack of sufficient offensive spirit, or “élan.” French leaders refused to sit back and fight a defensive war. Instead, largely ignoring the German menace to their north, they charged east in a fit of medieval gallantry that would have made Charlemagne proud.
Although most of the German forces were attacking from the north, plenty remained in the east, and they were perfectly content to hunker behind their machine guns and let the enemy come to them. The French, dressed in the same bright red and blue uniforms that Napoleon’s soldiers wore a century before, suffered terrible losses and during the Battle of the Frontiers (August 14-24) were driven back to where they started. Meanwhile, French forces in the north (along with the British Expeditionary Force) fought hard to delay the Germans’ advance, but were forced to give ground before the overwhelming German assault. On the Eastern Front, the Germans had annihilated the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg, and in the west their armies were getting closer to Paris by the day. The reeling French chose to make a desperate last stand at the Marne. Every man was needed; famously, the taxi drivers of Paris were used to ferry troops from the capital to the front in order to plug a hole in the line.
The Germans had been pushing their men hard to reach Paris, and in the “Miracle at the Marne” the French and British were able to repel the exhausted Germans and win a historic victory, ending the Germans’ hopes for a quick and decisive war. Instead, the two sides spent the next four years in brutal trench warfare, the Germans were ultimately defeated, and the table was set for round two in 1939.
The Guns of August covers a lot more ground than this in its 600+ pages, from the naval buildup to reactions in America and beyond. But throughout the book, there is a sense that the world changed forever in August 1914. World War I was a dumb, senseless war in a lot of ways. There were a number of causes, but at the end of the day Germany basically wanted to fight a war for the hell of it. After all, that’s what the nations of Europe had been doing for as long as they’d existed. Some territory would change hands, some lives would be lost and some glory would be won, and everyone would be home by Christmas. But by September 1914, it was clear that advances in technology had forever changed the nature of war. In the Battle of Marne, there were approximately 500,000 casualties. To put that in perspective, there were less than 47,000 total casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. The age of élan was officially over.
The history in this book is fascinating and well researched, but the writing on display is simply superb. Tuchman was one of the best prose stylists of her generation, fiction or nonfiction, and she makes this book an absolute pleasure to read. I went into this book with very high expectations, as The Guns of August has the reputation of a nonfiction classic. I was not disappointed: this was one of the 2-3 best nonfiction books I’ve ever read and a true masterpiece. 6 stars, highest possible recommendation....more
Paul Harding’s debut novel (which brought home the Pulitzer Prize) is the story of a dying man named George. As the final eight days of his life tickPaul Harding’s debut novel (which brought home the Pulitzer Prize) is the story of a dying man named George. As the final eight days of his life tick by, George contemplates his past and his relationship with his father, Howard. Howard was a ‘Tinker’ – a kind of wandering gypsy-like figure who made his living driving a cart through the Maine backwoods and selling odds and ends. George, who loves to repair clocks, is a tinker of another sort. George’s relationship with his father was complicated by Howard’s epilepsy, the elephant in the room throughout George’s childhood. The book occasionally leaps back a generation to examine Howard’s childhood; like George, Howard grew up under a well-meaning father battling serious health problems.
At just 191 pages, this is a lean, mean little novel. It tells the stories of George and his ancestors through fleeting snapshots and vignettes rather than long narratives. The book’s strength is its prose, which is by and large very impressive. Tinkers is capable of producing real emotional impact at times (more often than not, that impact ends up being a gut punch), but Harding’s carefully constructed writing is what won this book the Pulitzer. You can flip to almost any page and find some seriously impressive wordsmithing. For example:
”And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the axe bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.”
This book isn’t necessarily a page turner, but readers interested in tight, top shelf prose will find a lot to love. I did think the writing got away from Harding every once in a while, and that he occasionally drifted over the line dividing sparkling prose from the sort of soliloquizing/belly-gazing you might expect from an MFA term paper:
”But what, scurrilous babbler? Shall your barren wind slake the flame burning within my own heart? By no means! For mine is the flame that does not consume, and the guff from your bellows shall only fan it, that it burns all the brighter, the hotter, and the more surely.”
I waffled a bit between giving this book 3.5 – 4 stars, in large part because of these sections, but the good bits outweighed the rough spots to the point that I’m comfortable giving this book a solid 4 star rating. Recommended!...more
When I compare books with other readers, on Goodreads or anywhere else, there are a handful of titles that I instantly hone in on. Not because I thinkWhen I compare books with other readers, on Goodreads or anywhere else, there are a handful of titles that I instantly hone in on. Not because I think that my rating for a book is gospel (part of the fun of this site, and reading in general, is healthy debate), but because there are some books that seem to divide readers in more interesting ways than others. The Grapes of Wrath is one of those books. It's a book that many people have read, but one that seems to be a bit controversial. Some readers think that it's a true American classic, while others find it deeply flawed.
I am firmly entrenched in the first camp. I don't think this is a perfect book - it can be heavy on the symbolism, and Steinbeck certainly wears his politics on his sleeve. But personally, I think it is an important and powerful work that is uniquely American in many ways. While I understand why other readers may not be similarly enchanted, this is a personal favorite and a book I recommend highly. 5 stars....more
Beloved elicits a wide range of opinions. On one hand, the book was a winner or finalist for almost every literary award under the sun when it came ouBeloved elicits a wide range of opinions. On one hand, the book was a winner or finalist for almost every literary award under the sun when it came out in 1987, and in 2006 the New York Times ranked it the #1 work of American fiction of the past 25 years. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who simply can’t stand this book. In between are a lot of people who like things about the book, but don’t think that it’s Morrison’s best work, let alone the best of its generation.
Beloved is set in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1873. The main character, Sethe, lives with her daughter in a house that’s haunted by some kind of spirit. Paul D., who was a slave on the same plantation as Sethe before the end of The Civil War, arrives and attempts to restore normalcy. However, the arrival of another houseguest (the enigmatic Beloved) threatens to turn the situation around and throw the house back into new levels of despair. While the setting is 1873, there are many flashbacks to Sethe’s slave days in the 1860s. Some of the book’s depictions of the horrors of slavery are very intense; Morrison has said that she wanted to display the ugliness of slavery without holding back and she does not pull any punches.
Reading through some of the more negative reviews, it seems that many people who really hate Beloved have a problem with this aspect of the book. Again, this book has some disturbing and graphic scenes relating to slavery, but attacking Morrison for writing about them seems like the ultimate case of shooting the messenger. The most famous act of violence in the book, (view spoiler)[when Sethe kills her daughter (hide spoiler)], is based on an actual incident. While some of the inhumanity on display in this book is hard to read about, I don’t think it’s gratuitous or hyperbolic given the subject Morrison chose to tackle. That said, potential readers should be aware Beloved contains some intense depictions of human suffering.
But if the above paragraph hasn’t turned you off, I would recommend this book. The writing is very good, the structure is effective, and Morrison creates some memorable characters. The most interesting aspect of the book for me was its use of magical realism. This book is not diving 100% into that genre, like One Hundred Years of Solitude or 2666, but it contains magical elements. I thought the use of those elements was a little inconsistent, but when they work they are striking and they help the book stand out.
I didn’t think this book was perfect, and it’s not my favorite book from the 1980s. However, I thought it was very good and would highly recommend it, with the caveat that readers should be ready for an unflinching and sometimes graphic look at the ugliness of slavery. 4 stars.
Winner: Pulitzer Prize (1988) Finalist: National Book Award (1987) Finalist: National Book Critics Circle Award (1987) Selection: New York Times Best Books of 1987...more
I was born in 1983. Is A Visit from the Goon Squad the most critically acclaimed book to come out in my lifetime? The book won the Pulitzer and the NaI was born in 1983. Is A Visit from the Goon Squad the most critically acclaimed book to come out in my lifetime? The book won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was selected by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2010 and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. TIME immediately dubbed it “a new classic of American fiction,” at least according to the back of my copy of Goon Squad. Pretty much every publication under the sun listed it as one of the best books of the year.
Jennifer Egan’s trophy case (approximation)
I think Beloved (1987) and The Corrections (2001) are probably the only other books to generate that kind of critical consensus since ‘83. So you can say that this book had some hype. Overall I really enjoyed Goon Squad, although the book left me a bit cold and I didn’t experience that “eureka!” moment that so many have had.
The structure of the book is unusual, and not just because of the famous PowerPoint chapter. Goon Squad is in a sort of limbo between a novel and a collection of short stories (apparently Egan herself is somewhat unclear on how precisely to define it). Another reviewer compared the structure to The Hours and I think that’s a good example, although Goon Squad leans further in the direction of short stories than Cunningham’s book. While the chapters interconnect and characters cross over, the book is really a collection of short stories with a common theme (the passage of time).
The best part of the book, at least for me, was the prose. Egan isn’t setting off verbal fireworks like Cormac McCarthy or anything, but her writing is really impressive. It’s crisp, clean and razor sharp. Egan’s able to write from a number of different first person perspectives and creates a variety of unique voices. The best word I can use to describe the writing in Goon Squad is polished, and it was a pleasure to read.
As for the stories themselves, I enjoyed them all thoroughly without falling head over heels in love with any of them. Ultimately, I found myself more impressed with the book’s technical brilliance (the prose) than I was riveted by any of the individual stories or characters, which dampened my love for the book a bit. But, even though I didn’t find Goon Squad to be an instant classic, I was impressed by this book and would recommend it to others. 4 stars.
Winner: Pulitzer Prize (2011) Winner: National Book Critics Circle Award (2010) Selection: New York Times Best Books of 2010...more