Pulitzer 2016: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner was a surprise in more ways than one. First of all, it can’t be found on any list of predictions and forecasts, despite good reviews and several small awards. Having had low to moderate sales numbers and being overlooked by blogs and book clubs it caught everyone by surprise. Small-scale novels do get the big prize sometimes but, as with Paul Harding’s Tinkers of 2009, they usually can’t live up to the hype.
This is the second surprising fact about The Sympathizer – despite its modest fame it is absolutely phenomenal. Slightly reminiscent of two other Pulitzer Prize winners – Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1993) and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (2013) it manages to unfold an old topic – the Vietnam war, in a fresh way.
What I appreciated the most about this book is how far its narrator is from a preachy omniscient being. Nobody says that communism is bad, or that America is good, or whether there should have been a war or not. The readers will discover their own truth as they follow the deeply divided main character – Vietnamese with a French father, American immigrant, southern soldier and communist all in one. Aside from war and Vietnamese culture we get an insight into what it really is like to not be sure of your cultural and political identity, to wonder which of your faces is the real one and if you even know yourself. This book opens up topics for many political, religious, ethical, intercultural and intracultural dialogues.
Another surprise is that while having all of the above The Sympathizer has that extra something that turns it from a good book into one of the best modern Pulitzer Prize winners – remarkable style. It is unbelievable that such elegant and compelling prose is, in fact, a first novel. It is at the same time insightful and funny with gems like “A man doesn’t need balls in this country [USA], Captain. The women all have their own.” and “The airing of moral doubts was as tiresome as the airing of domestic squabbles, no one really interested except for the ones directly involved.”
A book that was suspenseful and witty while exploring some of the most pressing topics of present and past is definitely worthy of its newly found appreciation.

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5 Brilliant Women Writers

I hardly ever come back to an author, partly because I am an extremely picky reader, and partly because I am a hungry reader, always in a rush to discover new names. I like powerful, complex books. Books that require a lot of thinking. Manly books. Okay, I said it. I was somehow conditioned to think that a man would be more likely to write the sort of literature I like. Therefore, I was slightly surprised when, going through the list of books I’ve read, I noticed that the few authors I like going back to are mostly women – women who right powerful, insightful prose. They are all different in style, but equally astonishing.

 

1. Marilynne Robinson (I’ve read Gilead and Lila). 

31lx2ctgzkl-_ux250_I must say this is my favorite modern writer. Robinson accomplishes something that seems nearly impossible, especially in this increasingly modern and cynical age – she weaves the spiritual into the quotidian and becomes popular with readers of all ages. Spiritual, and not religious is the word I find fit for her prose, because it is not dogmatic, not preachy, and not condescending. The preacher John Ames, a central character in both novels, is often called the most beloved American character since Atticus Finch. You don’t need to know the Bible well to understand him, you don’t even need to believe in God to understand him, because this sort of wisdom transcends all limitations. These two books made me want to weep for the immense, undiscovered beauty of this world and the people in it. There is so much misery in them, but it is so human and so natural, that you can’t help but love every soul and all of its sufferings.

 

2. Willa Cather (I’ve read One of Ours and Death Comes for the Archbishop). 

steichenwillacatherlCather’s novels are like a wide, steady river – powerful, direct and unwavering. There is not much experimenting with style, probably because solid classics should not be tampered with. Character development, scenery descriptions and conflict buildup  are smooth and consistent, motifs are recognizable and problems are familiar.  These are not novels to be read for the sake of a vacation thrill, because they require much introspection and time for thought. The simplicity of the narrative line is deceiving, because the greatest treasures are to be read between the lines. Do not be surprised if you finish a book and remain unimpressed, only to have its characters haunting your thoughts and dreams days and months later.

 

3. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I’ve read The Thing Around Your Neck and Half of a Yellow Sun)

11291Although Adichie’s novels brought her more praise than her short stories, I would like to focus on the latter, because I believe they truly show the author’s remarkable talent and eye for detail. The Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of 12 short stories that introduce us to lives of Africans (mostly Nigerians) on both sides of the Atlantic. The ease with which this talented woman guides readers through the lives of the poor and rich, the intelectual and the brute, the Nigerian and the American is remarkable. Few authors can tie you to someone’s life in the span of a dozen pages.

 

4. Toni Morrison (I’ve read Beloved and The Bluest Eye)

3534It feels that Toni Morrison dismissed every literary canon along with everything that has been written before her to create her own kind of literature. Her novels can not be compared to anything else. They are dark, rich, and hypnotizing. The first time I read Beloved I had the feeling I was drowning in dark waters, yet I had to reach the bottom. Metaphoric? No more than Morrison’s novels are. Nothing I had read prepared me for this style, where you feel rather than understand. And she will make you feel. The concoction of misery,  blame, self-loathing and redemption will be fed to you page by page, until you cannot disentangle yourself from the lives of the characters. Talent, passion and pure magic inhabit Toni Morrison’s creation.

 

5. Jhumpa Lahiri (I’ve read The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies)

844843This is another author whose stories I enjoyed a lot more than the novel. The 2000 Pulitzer Prize jury agrees with me on this. Lahiri steps aside from the romanticized, Bollywood image of Indians and shows us real people – people who fall in love, have children, apply for scholarships, loose jobs, bury relatives both in India and in the USA. The beautiful saris and pink tandoori chicken are more than exotic props and decorations. These are essential attributes of people who alternately want to revive and efface their heritage. While reading about people from foreign countries it is easy to maintain the feeling of otherness, as if watching exotic fishes in an aquarium. Interpreter of Maladies plucks us out of our apartments and plane seats and places us in the midst of things to live, hope and despair along with Lahiri’s characters.

Four of these wonderful ladies are still writing and as much as I like discovering new authors, I can’t wait to go back to them.

5 Long Books that are More than Worth Your Time

Finishing a book is gratifying. Finishing a long book is doubly so. Yet, so often I got excited about a new novel only to keep postponing reading it due to the appalling number of pages. This may not be an issue if you don’t feel any remorse when abandoning an unsatisfying book, but if you feel it is you moral duty to make it to the last page, committing to a bulky volume might be a risky and disappointing affair.

I have read quite a few long books that made me want to weep for the lost time, and yet the gamble is still worth it to me because once in a while the long book grows to be a long and fruitful love affair that is immensely gratifying. If you have ever read a good book of at least 600 pages, you know the feeling. You build your relationship with the characters and the setting in a way that is so deep and meaningful, that it starts invading your daydreams, lunch breaks and even your sleep.

If you wonder where to start exploring long novels, here are my select choices:

1. Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (828 pages) – I had to start the list with this book because it is my favorite book of all times and a paragraph is not enough to explain why. God, free will, treachery, morality, doubt, reason, family – it’s all there and, unlike most 19th century literature, it is unexpectedly fresh and highly readable. You will not notice how fast you’re reading it, but you WILL notice the impact it has on you. A detective, a love story and a work of philosophy – this timeless novel is worth every minute of your time.

2. Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner (672 pages) – I am still reading this book, but because it inspired me to write this post and because I am enjoying it so much I felt I had to include it in the list. Reading it is like reading two novels at once – one about an old, crippled historian, and one about his talented grandmother. These two stories, set a century apart, are both so real and so artfully written, and brought me so much joy in the mere 200 pages I have read, that my literary sense tingles with anticipation of the twists that are yet to come. They have already begun to touch and dance around each other, so the inevitability of the final collision looms like a great and much-awaited event of cosmic proportions. The reverence and love with which this old man, at the end of his journey, re-discovers and documents the life of his bright, long-deceased grandmother are apt to make you look at time and death from a different perspective.

3. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry (864 pages) – I have written and talked about this book so much, that I would be afraid it can’t live up to your expectations if I wasn’t so sure it will. Oh, it will and it will surpass them too! Don’t judge it based on the first 80 pages of tales about cows and corn biscuits. Keep reading and you will see that mister McMurtry did the impossible – wrote a manly, brutal, no-nonsense western that touches on so many things that any breathing and thinking human being will find something to love in it. A beautiful marriage of contradictions, this story about cowboys is threaded with love, friendship, discovery, tragedy, humor and everything that is beautiful and important in this life. The style and quality of descriptions, the aliveness of dialogues and the sharpness of humor are awe-worthy and the Pulitzer is well deserved.

4. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren (656 pages) – One of the first American novels I have read, it shook me at the time as I had not thought I would enjoy something that is described as “a play of politics, society and personal affairs”. To me this book was about finding yourself in the modern world and learning the price of your decisions. A tale about power and what it does to us, this book is a fascinating masterpiece generously sprinkled with bits and pieces of the shattered American dream.

5. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell (833 pages) – This book polarizes public opinion like few others can. I must admit that having really disliked the movie I kept pushing this book down the list. In my mind it was a cliche love story about the stubborn belle and the manly seducer. What changed my opinion from the first dozen pages was the strong writing style and compelling characterizations. I decided that an author who writes that way cannot waste her talent on a third-rate story and I was right. Every time Mitchell threw her characters into alternately hot and cold water I half-expected her to make a mistake, to break the illusion of reality by putting the wrong words in their mouths. This is an easy mistake to make and if the characters change so much so often they can become unfamiliar and implausible. In this novel all the sharp turns are unexpected and natural at the same time. Underneath the story of the Civil War and life in the South there is a story about making decisions and facing consequences, a story about mistakes that can ruin lives and about being careful what we wish for.

Don’t be afraid to read long books because if you happen to come across a good one, it will cling to you and become as close to a friend as a book can get.

Go Set a Watchman. Harper Lee’s Ruined Novel.

Earlier this year thousands of people screamed in delight over Harper Lee’s long awaited second novel, Go Set a Watchman, published 55 years after the famous, soul-shattering To Kill a Mockingbird. The best (and the worst) thing is that the book brought back what millions of people loved the most – the characters and the setting.

This second book was expected for many reasons, most of which were unfair to the novel. You will probably be disappointed if you’re reading Go Set a Watchman because you want to know what happened to Jem and Scout, or because you liked Atticus and his unfailing wisdom, or even if you just wanted some more of Harper Lee’s good old writing. None of those are there. I believe, in fact, that the least disappointing approach is sheer curiosity, which is a hard thing to have for an author who doesn’t have a solid, consistent publishing track.

Go Set a Watchman is not the follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird, nor is it another point of view on the story. It is an entirely different book, both more and less mature than its predecessor. It is important to know that, in fact, what we are reading more than half a decade later was the original book, Harper Lee’s first novel which is strongly redolent of first-book traits. This novel, that was first rejected by the editor, is what one would naturally expect of a young talented writer overwhelmed with the joy of having discovered the gift and privilege of public voice. The book is full of everything that is important – love, racial issues, gender issues, social class, politics, puberty and history – all in no particular order and with little relevance to the story. Everything twenty-something-old Lee probably wanted to talk about is there, presented in a young, hysterically-fresh fashion brimming with self-exploration and, to be fair, raw and beautiful talent. Once something worked, it was gleefully used again and again, like in the ladies’ coffee chat scene which amounts to pages of broken pieces of dialogue. The book is in dire need of editing and re-shaping.

Kudos are sent to the editor who, having read the manuscript, saw the courage and talent in the author, and I bow even lower to the author herself, who, having poured out all she thought about the world, had the courage and humility to write everything over again into what became one of the world’s greatest books. To Kill a Mockingbird is the book everyone would like to write – solid, well-built, consistently strong and worthy of every praise there is. There is not a slip, not one page in need of editing – something marvelous for a first novel. If it only was the first.

Now that the world has seen the first effort, the self-composure and righteousness of To Kill a Mockingbird is no longer surprising. The author had already “vented” and was ready to produce more mature writing.

However, as I had said, Go Set a Watchman is also more mature than To Kill a Mockingbird because it is also more courageous. To Kill a Mockingbird is written in a sure-fire way, a way that will touch every heart and will not stir any decent, rational being to debate its morals. Go Set a Watchman, for all its stormy, slightly immature dialogues and self-absorbed monologues, treats racism, the only issue that actually was given a fair treatment, in a personal, honest way. Everything is no longer black and white (pardon for the word play), there is perspective, a battle, a disappointment and a painful process of coming to terms. All of these make it a brave, beautiful first novel, ruined only by the fact that it was not published first.

It is not that surprising that Harper Lee did not write after To Kill a Mockingbird. How do you surpass a book like that? It was rather unfair of the publisher who, I believe, decided to milk the cow and trick readers into a follow-up that was bound to disappoint them. You will not recognize the characters. You will not get what you came for, except, maybe, if you came to see what it really takes to write a book like To Kill a Mockingbird, because you will get a chance to see Harper Lee’s raw talent and soul.

The Worst Pulitzer Novels (so far)

2015 has been uneven in terms of reading, and although we are only halfway through I can already that I have discovered some of the best and some of the worst books in these six months – all of these among the Pulitzers. I understand that everybody has different tastes, but I disliked some of these so much, that I had to look up the Pulitzer Prize committee for those years just so I could see the faces of people who chose such novels.

It is always hard for me to say that a book is bad, because all of them had been worked on, approved by publishers, sold to thousands of readers, and praised by many of them. Therefore, I always try to find something good among the pages, a hidden treasure that would make the effort worth it. However, there are those “special” books that can not be saved for me, books that threaten to break friendships, books that make me weep for the time I waste on them. Here they are, my top (or maybe bottom?) worst books.

6. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by  Oscar Hijuelos

At first I was excited about this book. The Cuban mambo atmosphere was oozing from every line and the descriptions of exotic ballrooms and silk suits were like delicious candy, but this beauty only lasted for.. hmm.. 30 pages or so. The rest of the book was all about sex. No, not passion, not seduction, not sin, or longing, or anything that goes with the act. The sexual scenes (and I assure you there is one for every 2-3 pages) are full of anatomical details that make it seem like they are narrated by a vulgar autopsist and it makes you wonder why they are there at all. It gets worse as you go because the main character gets older and fatter, but doesn’t abandon his hobby. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

5. The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

This book was loved by many and turned into a supposedly good movie with Meryl Streep, but the merits of the novel are beyond me. The idea is great – intertwining the stories of three women from three different eras and with different social backgrounds. It could have been a good novel if not for the endlessly boring characters (frankly, all these women needed to do was to get jobs or volunteer at a soup kitchen), and the tedious writing. Here’s a sample:

What Laura regrets, what she can hardly bear, is the cake. It embarrasses her, but she can’t deny it. It’s only sugar, flour, and eggs—part of a cake’s charm is its inevitable imperfections. She knows that; of course she does. Still she had hoped to create something finer, something more significant, than what she’s produced, even with its smooth surface and its centered message. She wants (she admits to herself ) a dream of a cake manifested as an actual cake; a cake invested with an undeniable and profound sense of comfort, of bounty. She wants to have baked a cake that banishes sorrow, even if only for a little while. She wants to have produced something marvelous; something that would be marvelous even to those who do not love her.

4. Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, by Steven Millhauser

This book was quite a roller-coaster. At first I thought it was a plain, poorly written story of self-made success, complete with cardboard characters who never developed. The main character, Martin Dressler, made his way from selling cigars to owning several hotels. As the book progressed, some more life was beginning to come through and Martin’s story got to be interesting, intertwined with beautiful scenery of old New-York. However, just when I had my hopes up, the book became painful to read. There were pages upon pages of stupefyingly grotesque descriptions of horrendous hotels that resembled each other and seemed to come straight from a nightmare. There were hotels with jungles built in them, hotels inhabited solely by actors, hotels that were underground, you name it! It could have been a plain, yet nice story, and ended up being pure useless torture. I have no idea why I bothered to read it.

3. A Bell for Adano, by John Hersey

This is a story of an American official becoming the mayor of a small Italian town during WWII. Seems like a nice story, right? I really tried to like this one, but I couldn’t even take it seriously! At first I had the feeling that it had been written for children. Everything was so over-simplified and two-dimensional, that it was almost like a fairy-tale, except that four people died in it. After a while I realized that it wasn’t the readers who were supposed to be children. The characters seemed to have the brains of 5-year-olds. Well, the Italians did, not the Americans. The Italian characters were cardboard flat, acting like mentally challenged children regardless of their age. They kept licking the heels of the American Major who, although had good intentions, kept asking himself “Will they understand this?” “Can I make them understand that?” trying to please a bunch of simpletons who never contradicted him and adored the new leader with no exceptions. Such a typical situation, right? I even had to write down one of the “speeches” because it was so ridiculous: “Sometimes generosity is a fault with Americans, sometimes it does harm. It has brought high prices here, and it has brought you misery. But it is the best thing we Americans can bring with us to Europe. So please do not hate the Americans”. He said this to a woman whose child had been hit by an American truck which didn’t even stop. Really? The blitheness with which cultural differences, the tragedy of the war (on a larger scale) and death (on a smaller scale) were treated irritates me to no end. I don’t remember any book leaving me so frustrated.

2. Humboldt’s Gift, by Saul Bellow

While reading this book I had the feeling that it was written solely to exhibit the author’s intelligence. The story of debt-ridden poet who has an affinity for gangsters and cheap women, this is exactly what you are afraid to find reading a critically acclaimed novel – very high-brow, very philosophical and utterly boring. Rich in intertextuality, metaphysics and all sorts of references this can either make you vain about your intelligence, or ashamed of how stupid you are. With me it was the latter. If you want to spend a portion of your life reading about death, antroposophy, esoteric matters weirdly combined with gangsters and lawsuits – this is the book for you. For me the best thing about this novel is that it came to an end, finally, after having robbed me of two weeks worth of reading.

1. The Tinkers, by Paul Harding

This is what the book claims to be about:

An old man lies dying. Propped up in his living room and surrounded by his children and grandchildren, George Washington Crosby drifts in and out of consciousness, back to the wonder and pain of his impoverished childhood in Maine.

…and this is what you will be doing while reading it – drifting in and out of consciousness. I cannot even tell you what this book is about, and I cannot find even a grain of love for this book in my heart. For a novel so short it dragged forever. The style was weird, many inclusions from other books were completely irrelevant and none of the stories was compelling. I have absolutely no idea why this book would get the accolades. Yes, it revolves around an important topic, but is that enough?

Phew! That was a long post! Look at me, reluctant to bash books!

Pulitzer 2015. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Every April brings me the joyful anticipation of the new Pulitzer prize for Fiction. Unfortunately, this expectation is not always rewarded. Some of the worst books I have ever read are Pulitzer winners. Last year’s The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, although was refreshing in terms of topic, was much less than I expected and it seemed like it could (and should) have been edited a little more.

This year’s winner was also greeted with an initial sigh of disappointment, but for a completely different reason. It’s a WWII novel, and although I have nothing against them, I have probably read one too many war novels  and it’s getting increasingly harder to feign suspense. Besides, gas chambers, senseless killings and broken life stories depress me so much, that it takes all the joy out of me (me, who loves sad and tragic books!).

All the Light We Cannot See was such a surprise! The stories of a blind, French girl, Marie-Laure, and an orphan radio-genius, Werner, emerge in perfect symmetry, succeeding each other chapter after elegant chapter. Some of them are only one or two pages long and feel like brief gulps of fresh water. The discontinuity of these chapters, which seem to be in no particular chronological order, was not in the least upsetting, thanks to the beautiful, beautiful prose. An author whose words flow like sweet, heavenly lemonade is an author you can trust with picking up the loose ends and tying them into a beautiful, sad bow.

This book provides us with few of the things we would expect from a war novel – no gas chambers, no Jews, no front-line action, yet it is full of everything you didn’t expect – mystery, literature, science and hope. It’s not a typical war story, so do you think it’s a love story? Guess again! And every piece of it is beautiful! Just read this:

“His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.”

or this:

“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”

If you are looking for a book to read on a trip, at the beach, or just want a great book to enrich your mind and soul – you’ve found it! This year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction was well-deserved!

5 Novels with Great Parenting Lessons

What I love fiction for is that it makes you exercise your intelligence as opposed to feeding you mass-produced knowledge. If you know where to look, you can find valuable life lessons where you didn’t expect them. As a woman for whom becoming a great mother is both the greatest dream and the most frightening challenge, I am especially alert to books that let you learn about children before you even have them. Here is my top 5 books and what they’ve taught me.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee – What every parent deals with is not a child, not their legacy, not someone to fulfill their dreams or make them proud. Every parent is, in fact, dealing with a human being, i.e. a future voter, lover, thinker, friend, professional, etc. Therefore, the aim is not to make your children blissfully happy and to shelter them from the outside world. Instead, it is better to prepare them for this world, to make sure they know to think and decide for themselves. A child who knows of the world’s injustice is a child who has an opinion of it and who, when the time comes, will become an adult who knows how to deal with it too.

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth – You can decide many things for your children – the school they go to, the neighborhood they live in, the TV shows they watch, but you cannot control their genetic make-up (not entirely) and you cannot control the way they react to certain events, or the conclusions they make. There is a chance your children won’t be like you, won’t act like you, and won’t see the world you wanted them to. It’s okay. No matter how much you love your children, there is a time to step back and let them be who they are.

The Chosen, by Chaim Potok – bringing up children is hard and the decisions parents have to make sometime are unimaginable, yet no one else can make them for them. Your children won’t always understand why you made certain choices, and people from the outside might disagree with you, but sometimes parents have to do what they have to do. Running the risk of being misunderstood, or even hated by their children, they have to decide what’s best in the long run.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy – If there is one thing a parent can’t do without, it’s love. True love cannot be blind, possessive or fearful. The good kind of love is the one based on understanding and mutual respect. Too often parents  expect respect from their children without teaching them what respect is and without respecting their children first. How do you show respect to your children? You do it by listening to them, by talking to them, by taking your children, their doubts, fears, hopes and desires seriously. This kind of love will get a family through the hardest of times. There might be no money, no food, and no imaginable future, but if parents and children learn to show love and respect for each other, they will make it.

The Diary of Anne Frank – Sometimes parents have no idea who their children are. You may wake this little person up, feed them breakfast, tie their shoelaces, check their homework, and have not the slightest idea of the kind of tree your seed is growing up to be. Childhood is just a phase of person-hood. We don’t always have the time and desire to get to know (really know) our co-workers, neighbors or hairdressers, so we decide to do small talk and get to business instead. Why on earth would you want to avoid deep talk with your own child? They may be 12 or younger, they may be preoccupied with tasks that seem unimportant to you, but they will grow up to possess deep thoughts, brilliant ideas, kind hearts. Don’t you want to be the first one to know them? You’ll be surprised by what’s inside.

I am yet to find out how much literary theory is applicable in practice, but having “lived” through other people’s family dilemmas makes me feel a little bit more prepared for the choices I am to make.