Friday, February 19, 2016

The Sympathizer (by Viet Thanh Nguyen)

Holy shit this book is good.

I read it because it is in the Tournament of Books and also ticks off one of the boxes in the Read Harder Challenge (Viet Thanh Nguyen is an author from Southeast Asia). Two for the price of one! I wasn't sure what to expect except that I knew it was about a Vietnamese-American spy and set during the Vietnam War.

This is so erudite, so well-written, so funny and tragic and entertaining and transporting. The observations of Vietnam and America will absolutely change the way you see the country and the war. You will also never watch Apocalypse Now the same way again. I highlighted dozens of quotes as I was reading and I immediately recommended it emphatically to half the people I know.

I haven't read all the Tournament of Books shortlist (by a long shot) but this is absolutely my sleeper pick to win it all. A Little Life will be hard to beat but The Sympathizer, to me, is even better. It's as good as The Orphan Master's Son, if not better.  Highest recommendation.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Story of My Teeth (by Valeria Luiselli)

This book is... weird.

It's a good weird! The first four or so parts are the autobiography of auctioneer Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez, told in a charming and surreal narrative style. (He talks about events and concludes them with statements like "End of anecdote.") The title comes from the fact that he has false teeth (which used to be Marilyn Monroe's... maybe) and auctions off other famous false teeth, and then loses his teeth under mysterious circumstances. You're never quite on firm ground during Gustavo's story.  (The next few paragraphs are all spoilers, so proceed at your own risk. You should be safe with the final two paragraphs.)

The next part is the account of a character Gustavo has met, whom he commissions to write his "dental autobiography" -- thus casting a light on the previous parts, which we now know were written by this ghostwriter. Next is a timeline of events (both fictional and non-) by the actual translator of the book from Spanish to English. Then the epilogue by Valeria Luiselli herself, which explains that it was a novel commissioned by an art gallery, sponsored by a juice factory, written to be read aloud to the juice factory employees as a serial novel. (She got recordings of the juice factory employees discussing each installment.)

She concludes by saying, "This book began as a collaboration, and I like to think of it as an ongoing one, where every new layer modifies the entire content completely." As you can see, she succeeds there.

It is postmodernist in flavor, and feels more like a deliberate art-gallery-style piece of art than any novel I've ever read before. It is a meditation on the nature of art, reality, labels, and so much more that I can't even articulate. I cannot wait to hear what they make of it in the Tournament of Books.

(Note that it seems like a lot was lost here in the translation from physical book to ebook. I would give this a try in its physical form, not electronically.)

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Double Down: Game Change 2012 (by by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin)

I really enjoyed listening to the audiobook of Game Change, Heilemann and Halperin's book about the 2008 election, so I was excited to get this on audiobook too. I don't commute by car regularly anymore (most of the time I work from home), and this was a long book, so it took me a while to get through all sixteen CDs of material.

I am a very specific kind of political news junkie -- as long as things are going well for my party and my candidate, I am riveted.  (Right now I'm glued to the Republican primary race.) I don't think I'd be able to read a book like Double Down if the outcome of the election had been President Romney. But knowing that this one has a happy ending (at least for me) it was entertaining to read all the behind-the-scenes machinations of the campaigns.

The most interesting part to me was, again, the Republican primary fight. Many of the same names cropping up (Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee) and many oh-I-forgot-about-that (Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich).  Probably the most interesting one was Donald Trump, who is shown debating a run and then deciding to stick with The Apprentice. But in Trump and Christie both opting not to run, and Christie in particular exhibiting a lot of political acumen in the process, the seeds of 2016 are sown.

I have no idea how Heilemann and Halperin did it, by the way, since they seem to have knowledge of every campaign's strategy, internal conversations, memos, even thoughts that certain candidates and staffers are having. You can't ask for a closer behind-the-scenes look at the campaign process. Being in the thick of it right now makes it an excellent time to read Double Down. 

My only criticism is that the writing gets a little "I swallowed a thesaurus" at times. I would have highlighted some examples or written some down but I was always listening while driving! I remember George Romney being referred to as "Romney pere" at one point, and "tip of the hat" in one sentence becoming "doff the chapeau" in the next. This is definitely a writing pattern of theirs. But the book is terrific and the narrator (Robert Fass) does an amazing job.

I also learned like 10 words I am apparently pronouncing wrong. Sadly, I couldn't write those down either, so I'll continue butchering them in perpetuity.

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