Oct 31, 2016

Doug and His Sympathizers

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Our meeting last Thursday was another fine example of Doug's excellent hospitality. He could have laid out an assortment of banh mi and washed it down with iced coffee and sweetened condensed milk and no one would have complained. But that would have been predictable.  So Doug eschewed tradition and went with a nicely-done London broil accompanied by...everything.  Not to be missed was his chocolate cake made with Guinness Stout and his gigantic chocolate chip cookies.  (The latter were, alas, too large to sneak into my jacket pocket for the trip home.)

Our Review and Discussion of The Sympathizer

Of the 14 titles Doug offered us last month, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer was not the shortest nor the easiest. But it was arguably the most thought-provoking.  Framed as a first-person confession, Nguyen's unnamed narrator takes the reader on a perilous journey from the fall of Saigon to the Vietnamese diaspora in Orange County and back again to the reeducation camps of the Viet Cong and the flight of the boat people.  Along the way, we're treated to a funny, satirical, and at times harshly critical study of America, its values, and their effect on the Vietnamese experience here and abroad.

Doug expected I'd like the novel, with its insights on Asian-American assimilation and identity (Doug, are you profiling?), but we both wondered if others would. The answer came quickly. Though straddling two dinner tables, the group joined together in lauding Nguyen's inventiveness and adroit use of the English language (there's that profiling again!).  Many (Mando, Paul, and Tom) enjoyed the story on historical merit alone; others (Larry and John) were impressed by the novel's cultural ambitions, including its send-up of the entire Vietnam war film genre.  We didn't spend much time comparing it to The Quiet American, although the parallels were obvious since Nguyen's narrator repeatedly alludes to Graham Greene's Saigon.

By the end of the evening, time was our undoing.  We just didn't have enough of it to do justice to Nguyen's richly layered tale of war and its aftermath.  At my insistence, we spent a moment enjoying the significance of the characters' names (e.g., French colonialism and American naivete are conflated in the CIA agent, "Claude"; the despised William Westmoreland character is "Richard Hedd"; the purest of Vietnamese characters, whose death is sadly inevitable, is appropriately named "Bon").  At Doug's instigation, we also tussled with the "meaning" of the book and its narrator's epiphany that "nothing" is the answer.

Rating The Sympathizer

When it came to rating the book, all but one of us was effusive.  Dan was the holdout. He complimented the "great" writing, but felt cheated by the filmmaking scenes and gave it a miserly 5.  Even Stan, who agreed that the scenes in the Philippines slowed the story's progression, was able to muster a 7 for what he felt was extraordinary writing. Dan's dim view didn't prevent The Sympathizer from impressing the rest of us and garnering a formidable 8.2.

Next Up:  The Sellout by Paul Beatty

For our next title, we vacillated between the Patty Hearst story in American Heiress and the summer's most talked-about novel of race relations, The Sellout.  We opted for the latter (persuaded in part by page length) and we'll soon see if the story of one man's cheeky reintroduction of slavery helps us dig deep into America's "original sin."

Oct 12, 2016

Mando Takes Us Out to Sea

The North Water by Ian McGuire
Dinner and Acknowledgments

After a break in August, we returned in September ready for two things: a delicious meal and a vigorous discussion of a truly gruesome seafaring tale.  We had both and weren't disappointed by either. As to the first, Armando grilled an outstanding yellowtail tuna (caught, incidentally, by him on his most recent trip to the Sea of Cortez) and paired it with a perfectly done beef tri tip. To eat so well when discussing the plight of 19th-century sailors trapped in Arctic ice was almost criminal. Almost. But not enough to prevent some of us from reaching for seconds. Thank you, Armando, for setting an outstanding table, as usual.

We should also acknowledge Paul Liberatore, whose lifestyle pieces in the Marin IJ are consistently interesting and enjoyable. Paul was our guest for the evening and we are grateful to him for the positive reaction that followed his recent article about our book group.  Thanks, Paul.  Your profile of us provided a perspective sorely missing in the New York Times' trend piece last May.

Our Review and Discussion of The North Water

First, a disclaimer:  a courtesy copy of The North Water was sent to us by the good folks at Henry Holt & Co. Evidently, they were hoping we'd review it and help them sell a few copies.  Unfortunately, it was several months before Ian McGuire's first novel finally made it into our rotation.  During that time the book was published, got great reviews, and sold plenty of hardcover copies.  Thank goodness, because we genuinely liked the book and wouldn't want anyone to think we'd sing for the price of a lousy hardback.  (We can be bought, just not that cheaply.)

The North Water places the reader aboard the Volunteer, an 1850's whaling ship whose sailors are wretched (to a man), whose voyage is futile, and whose prey has retreated far north of their usual breeding grounds. But if any of us thought these simple themes would combine for a pleasant bit of historical fiction, perhaps with elements of Herman Melville, Patrick O'Brian, or Richard Henry Dana, we were in for a big surprise.  The first page treats the reader to the novel's prime antagonist, Henry Drax, leaving a whorehouse and openly savoring the residue of a night of fornication.  Within a few short pages he has killed a man, sodomized a boy, and shipped out on the Volunteer

All of us found McGuire's novel rich in its language (with all of its coarseness) and peopled with unforgettable characters.  As for universal themes, we kept coming back to the obvious: good vs. evil.  Although, as Roy pointed out, since virtually every character is badly flawed, the contrast is really between Drax's malevolence and the more modest shortcomings of his shipmates.  No one, including the protagonist Sumner, gets a pass from McGuire.

Rating The North Water

While Armando critiqued one of the whaling scenes as "inauthentic," the rest of us were captivated by a story so different from anything we've read to date. According to Larry, the book had the urgency and harshness of The Revenant; Doug found it "unflinchingly violent"; Tom said it was "engrossing" (high praise from the engineer!); Paul fell hard for McGuire's many "well-turned phrases"; and the history geek in Terry was fascinated by the novel's prescient account of a dying industry.  With a rating of 7.8, The North Water landed high on our growing list of books read.

Next Up: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Doug miscalculated badly when he offered us 14 titles for our consideration.  He subsequently pared the list to four in order to force a decision.  We rejected Barbarian Days when we learned we could read a magazine-length version; Underground Airlines had some confusing it with Underground Railroad; and The Throwback Special simply didn't resonate.  Which left us with Nguyen's much-praised The Sympathizer.  Given how impressed we were with another recent Pulitzer winner (The Orphan Master's Son), we have high hopes for our next selection.