Wednesday, August 16, 2017

THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

We meet our first-person unnamed narrator, half French and half Vietnamese, educated in the U.S., as he and the South Vietnamese general he works for are preparing to exit Saigon at the last possible moment after the war.  Their hair-raising escape is the first of several tragic adventures in this novel.  Our narrator is a double-agent, providing information to his communist contact in the North.  We follow the narrator to southern California, where a number of Vietnamese refugees settle into low-paying jobs.  He then travels to the Philippines as a consultant for a movie about the war, which has some similarities to Apocalypse Now.  I found this to be the least compelling section of the book, not to mention a little unnecessary, except to reinforce how clueless we Americans were about the people we were supposedly fighting for.  When other reviewers have found this book “darkly comic,” perhaps they are referring to this section, but nothing about his book struck me as funny in the least.  Finally, the narrator becomes part of a group who is training for a return to Vietnam to resume the fight against the Communist regime, while he is still an undercover agent.  I did not love this book, but I did admire it.  The perspective is fresh, but the plot is very, very dark, in some ways like the novel Unbroken.  The narrator is a blend of nationalities and divided loyalties where the divided country that is Vietnam is concerned.  As a child he swore allegiance to two friends who happen to be on opposite sides of the conflict.  Some of the things that the narrator has to do to maintain his cover in the USA are horrifying and made me think of the TV show “The Americans.”  These acts haunt the narrator, but they have the desired effect in that he ultimately gets what he wants in return.  The price, though, is staggering.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan

The bulk of this novel is actually the text of a prison inmate’s writing assignment.  The novel within a novel is the story of Danny, a ne’er-do-well who travels to Europe to work for his cousin Howie.  The trip has redemptive purposes on several levels.  When Danny and Howie were kids, Danny and another boy abandoned Howie in a cave.  Howie, now Howard as an adult, has purchased a medieval castle that he plans to renovate into a sort of Zen hotel.  Danny, ever on edge for fear that Howie will seek some kind of payback, explores the castle grounds, including “the keep,” which is home to an elderly baroness.  He gets into a few scrapes but gains favor with Howie when he frequently turns up with useful intel.  Danny’s story is creepy and maybe a borderline fantasy, but it’s certainly no worse than our prisoner’s cellmate’s radio for contacting the dead.  The prisoner, author of Danny’s story, is Ray, who has a crush on the writing teacher, Holly.   Honestly, this book didn’t hold my attention very well, until Ray’s connection to his writing assignment is revealed.  We also finally get Holly’s backstory as well, and the plot steamrolls to a very satisfying ending.  This book is not something I would generally recommend, because it’s a bit weird, but Jennifer Egan’s work is often a little strange, and yet it feels very current.  This book came out in 2006, but one of Danny’s hangups is that being without his cellphone is highly unpleasant and launches him into a panic.  Eleven years later his technology addiction doesn’t sound weird at all.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


In 1978 Phoebe is 18, has just graduated from high school, and lives with her mother.  She has been accepted to Berkeley, but when she blurts out to an old acquaintance of her sister Faith’s that she’s going to Europe instead, she decides to do just that.  Phoebe is still reeling from Faith’s apparent suicide in Italy and embarks on a quest to retrace Faith’s travels, in an effort to, well, we’re not sure what.  Connect with Faith’s spirit?  Confirm that her death was a suicide?  Phoebe’s impulsiveness puts her in some dangerous situations along the way, but a fortuitous encounter in Munich enables her to get answers to a lot of her questions.  One problem with the book is that Phoebe is not a likable character, and Faith, a 60s revolutionary wannabe, whom we get to know entirely through flashbacks, is even worse. Faith was always her father’s favorite, performing daredevil stunts to impress him and posing for endless portraits.  Unfortunately, the girls’ father died of leukemia at a fairly young age, enduring an unfulfilling career as an engineer at IBM.  Neither girl seems to have any sense of responsibility to their poor mother who loses a husband, then a daughter, before the second daughter abruptly takes off.  Phoebe’s sudden departure seems to be partly in response to the revelation that her mother is now sleeping with her sleazy boss, but that’s a poor excuse for childish behavior.  Despite the myriad flaws of the characters, I found the book to be a somewhat captivating adventure story, as I followed Phoebe on her solitary journey, hoping that she would get her act together sooner or later.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


This novel was published in 2002, but it’s about a Supreme Court nominee named Garland who is not confirmed.  How weird is that?  In this case, Judge Garland has just died of an apparent heart attack but has left a trail of loose ends for his daughter and two sons to tie up.  The youngest son and narrator is Talcott, a law professor at a fictional Ivy League university, whose wife Kimmer is up for seat on the federal Court of Appeals.  This novel may be approaching 700 pages, but not one of them is dull.  The Garland family happens to be black, or, in the author’s words, members of the darker nation, as opposed to the paler nation.  There is enough intrigue, politics, and corruption to fill several Grisham novels, but the real mystery revolves around a chess puzzle.  You don’t have to be a chess player to follow the plot, but you do have to keep up with quite a few characters, including Talcott’s law school colleagues and students, his extended family and friends, and several shady characters, some of whom may also be colleagues, students, family, or friends.  From the day of the Judge’s burial forward, people have been asking Talcott about his father’s “arrangements,” and they obviously don’t mean funeral or financial arrangements.  Thus begins Talcott’s quest to find these arrangements, apparently documents, before he loses his job or his wife or both or worse.  I thoroughly enjoyed rummaging around in the closet of skeletons of the Garland family.  This novel is suspenseful and well-written with just the right amount of social commentary.  I didn’t even object to the sprinkling of religion, especially when the author claims that Satan is clever but not intelligent.  I could apply that assessment to one or two powerful humans as well. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


Addie is a 70-year-old widow who decides to pay a visit to her neighbor, Louis, whose wife is deceased.  Addie proposes that Louis consider spending the night at her house, not for sex, but for company and conversation.   Thus begins a deep friendship that enhances both of their lives, but it is not without complications.  Some of their family and neighbors frown on their relationship for reasons that I cannot fathom.  Addie’s grandson comes to live with her temporarily after his parents separate, and Louis steps in to perform duties neglected by the boy’s father, such as teaching him to play ball and getting him a dog for a companion.  Neither Addie nor Louis had ideal marriages, and both made some serious mistakes.  Their budding relationship feels like a chance to do things right and enjoy their twilight years.  The dialog is pitch perfect, and Addie and Louis are so authentic in their awkwardness and grace.  The first three quarters of this very short novel are just delightful, but as is often the case in real life, those who are not happy want everyone else to share in their misery.  In this situation I’m not sure if we have just a case of misery loves company or if the motive is really some sort of belated retaliation.  Regardless of what the author intended, I hated the ending, which totally overshadowed all the beauty of the previous pages.  I don’t like feeling angry after reading a book, but this book just made my blood boil.  Call me crazy, but I found the outcome to be a little like the movie La La Land, in which the characters have to make difficult choices between two seemingly incompatible options.  Maybe I just want to have my cake and eat it, too, but sometimes I think we give up too easily on managing to do both. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf

This is one of those novels about a small town, in the vein of Jan Karon or Adriana Trigiani, but oh so much better.  We have a pregnant teenager whose mother has tossed her out of the house, a high school bully, two teachers trying to do the right thing, and two sets of brothers who don’t talk much.  One set of brothers is a pair of aging bachelors who raise cattle and take in the pregnant girl, at the request of teacher Maggie Jones, whose elderly father is too demented to be in the same house as the teenager.  The other brothers, age 9 and 10, are the sons of another teacher, Tom Guthrie, whose wife is depressed and soon moves out.  So we have two basically motherless boys, and two kindly men who have now gained sort of a daughter.  Both sets of brothers are na├»ve in their own ways, especially in matters related to women, sometimes resulting in some very funny interactions.  The adage that it takes a village to raise a child is very evident here, and sometimes makeshift families of thrown together strangers work out exceedingly well.  The book is not sugary sweet, as all of the characters make their fair share of mistakes, and there are a couple of nasty villains.  To say that this is a satisfying read is an understatement.  The only downside is the lack of complete closure at the end, but there are two sequels.  Sign me up!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

LAROSE by Louise Erdrich

When Landreaux Iron accidentally shoots and kills a neighbor’s 5-year-old son, he gives his own son, LaRose, to the bereaved family.  This action may seem extreme, but from the Native American perspective of the Iron family, it’s the right thing to do.  Now both families are grieving the loss of a son, and LaRose himself is devastated as the innocent pawn in these tragic circumstances.  At first I felt that nothing good could come of his arrangement.  However, Nola Ravich, the dead boy’s mother, eventually embraces LaRose as her own, often at the expense of her difficult daughter, Maggie.  LaRose is the hinge that joins the two families together and comes to serve as almost a guardian angel.  This role is a pretty tall order for such a young boy, but he is obviously far from ordinary.  The book also has a couple of side stories, including sparse snippets from about four generations ago that really did not hold my attention very well.  More compelling is the story of Romeo, who attended boarding school with Landreaux as a child and whose son Hollis is now being raised as a member of Landreaux’s family—another boy whose father has given him away, if you will.  The beginning of this novel is intense, and the last quarter of the book is very satisfying.  However, the middle part drags, as the struggles of the Iron and Ravich families intensify, until two big events occur—one involving Romeo and his plan for revenge and one involving parents misbehaving at a high school volleyball match.  The book also has some occasional elements of magical realism, accentuating the Native American beliefs, but somehow seeming a little superfluous rather than applicable to the plot or the character development.