Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to Discuss: THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer on Monday, March 20th, at 1 PM. You can find copies of The Sympathizer on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

9780802124944Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer has left me stunned. This hybrid spy-novel-cum-literary-satire won the Edgar Award in 2015 (which is how I convinced the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to read it) and the Pulitzer the same year, which should begin a long career of appreciation in highbrow and lowbrow circles alike.

At face value, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel from the Vietnamese perspective, ostensibly the perfect place for American readers to immerse themselves in the Vietnamese experience. Yet what Nguyen does best in the novel is expose hypocrisy. Rather than gently guide his readers into unknown waters, he plunges us into confrontation with our own assumptions, our own prejudices, and our own pompous behavior. While reading it, I felt more blown away by observations about the American character than any points about Vietnamese society.

Nguyen’s main character, his father a French priest and his mother a Vietnamese villager, epitomizes the hypocrisy and messiness of colonialism. Unable to find full acceptance in any one faction due to the ill combination of his birth and politics, Nguyen’s protagonist flees North Vietnam early in life, fearful that his French parentage would lead to his demise at the hands of the anti-colonial communists.

He finds South Vietnam to be an exploited puppet of the United States, and determines to aid the revolution as best he can. Despite his new community’s disdain at his bastard status, he uses his quick wits to gain employment in the South Vietnamese army for a wealthy, skilled military leader. Divided between his politics and his professionalism, as a double agent, the narrator can’t help but do a good job for both his employers, even as he cannot help but critique the gaps between each system’s promises and results.

Able to navigate many worlds, the narrator can always see both sides, and is ill at ease identifying wholly with any one philosophy. He understands the faults and the appeals of North and South Vietnam, the indulgence of capitalism and the righteousness of revolution, the flight to safe refuge and the longing to return home, the charisma of one friend and the suffering of another. He understands that with multiple interventions and endless war, the extreme corruption of South Vietnam and spartan purity of North Vietnam only intensified over time. He points out the absurdities of each system, yet reserves his most powerful critique for the most powerful player.

Nguyen’s sardonic pillorying of America’s loose attachment to its self-professed mores echoes Graham Greene’s bitter English reporter in The Quiet American, yet without Greene’s tendency to exoticize the other. Nguyen not only rejects previous portrayals of the conflict – he is in direct conversation with them. He does not indulge in writing stereotypes instead of characters, and his nameless narrator has numerous opportunities to critique representation. Nguyen sketches the lazy, two-tone figures that fill the nightmares and ambitions of soldiers, directors, politicians and academicians, and starkly illustrates the gap between Vietnam in American imaginations and Vietnam in real life.

No where does Nguyen draw this point more clearly  than with his female characters, who refuse to become mistresses ready to lay down their lives for their soldier paramours, lusty hookers prepared to take on the navy, or degendered revolutionaries inhumanly committed to the cause, yet the moment an American creates a Vietnamese character, they immediately revert to stereotype, as in the book’s meta-history of American cinematic representation of the war.

Nguyen points out in The Sympathizer that while history is usually written by the victors, the American defeat in Vietnam was eclipsed by the American dominance in the culture industries. American-produced films, shot in the Philippines, determined how the world would remember the war – with extras given few lines and representing mere foils to the drama between white characters. No need to be sensitive when you control the entire production of culture, and thus have secure control over the production of  your own image.

He also draws attention to how American stories of Vietnamese refugees – whether news or novels – treat the refugee experience in a vacuum, rather than acknowledging that those fleeing to the United States for refuge have had their lives compromised by the United States in  the first place – either by bombs or through collaboration. This struck me as the most relevant point to our current political situation – America creates refugee crises, and refuses to accept responsibility. When people flee their countries for the US, it is for the most part because those nations have been bombed to smithereens and destabilized for decades by trigger-happy war hawks from our own shores.

Like his depiction of refugees and representation,  Nguyen’s take on the truth makes a specific statement about the war and expands to a much larger point about humanity. The Sympathizer is a story of double agents, a archetypal tale of tricksters and despots, a tale of liars and hypocrites. I’d like to draw a distinction between a liar and a hypocrite.

A great liar is one who has been abused, one who has learned to manipulate the truth for their own safety, one who must look to the angry face of a changeable master and know that their next words could determine their entire futures. Lies are the performance of submission, and behind the mask the liar plots for independence. Lies are part and parcel of the asymmetrical warfare that has characterized colonial and domestic conflicts since World War II, with a longer history stretching to the dawn of inequality. They are a weapon to be used, because they are used by those with few weapons in the first place.

Hypocrites are like internet trolls. They feel no attachment to their claims, because they will never have to follow them up with action.They can make a joke about poverty because they are not economically vulnerable, and they can pretend that a prostitute loves her work and a wife loves her place in the home and a mistress loves her soldier because they refuse to accept the economic nature of their most intimate relationships. They can criticize an entire society, because they have never bothered to look at their own.  They can promise, and fail to deliver on their words, because they are too powerful to be beholden to one considered lesser. Better to be a liar, a trickster – be the person you have to be, to survive, and take strength from the ability to hold back a truth and thus, for a little while longer, control your own fate.

In case you hadn’t guessed where I was going with this, the colonizer is the hypocrite – the colonized is the liar. When you’re getting paid to be exploited, like any nanny or therapist can attest to, any intimacy created in such circumstances ends when the money stops, you get a better offer, or you find a way to reject your pittance and pigeon-holed existence in favor of what you really want. In this struggle between the casual hypocrisy of power, and the mask worn by the oppressed, the double agent wins.

The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer on Monday, March 20th, at 1 PM. You can find copies of The Sympathizer on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to Discuss: SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES by F. H. Batacan

 

– Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

9781616956639What do Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 (Soviet Union), Philip Kerr’s The Pale Criminal (Nazi Germany), and F. H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles (Philippines) have in common? They are all superb examples of serial killer narratives where political agendas worm their way into an investigation, and they all  feature serial killers allowed by state authorities to run amok. This, to me is an essential quality in any plausible crime novel about serial killers, but I wanted to provide some real world examples.

Child 44 features a based-on-real-life serial  killer allowed to get away with innumerable murders because the Soviet authorities believed there could be no such thing as a serial killer in such a revolutionary utopia. The Pale Criminal showcases how scapegoating can lead an investigation off-track, as a detective seeks a serial killer while the Nazis use a series of murders for propaganda purposes.

In Smaller and Smaller Circles, set in the late 90s, two Jesuit priests, stunned by the failure of local police to solve a series of brutal murders of young boys in their community, decide to track down the killers themselves.  Unlike Child 44 or The Pale Criminal, however, Smaller and Smaller Circles has been hailed as the first Filipino crime novel, and by extension the first to use the genre for a social critique of inequality in Manila.

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April is for Mystery Lovers: Tons of Upcoming Events!

As we all enjoy the brief Texas spring, come take shelter from the pollen counts and enjoy our full roster of mystery events coming up in April here at the store. On April 2nd, Philip Kerr started off our April events with a blast, speaking and signing his latest continuation of his Bernie Gunther series, The Other Side of SilenceIf you missed the event, signed copies of his latest, as well as many of the previous volumes in the series, are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

This past Sunday, April 10th, at 2 PM, Laurie R. King, author of the beloved Russell and Holmes series, as well as the fantastic Kate Martinelli series, joined us to speak and sign her latest installment in her Mary Russell series, The Murder of Mary Russell. While I’ve been reading the Mary Russell novels for many years, King’s newest addition to the series, delving deep into Mrs. Hudson’s backstory, might be my favorite in the series to date!

For those who missed this event, library enthusiasts will be pleased to note that in support of Austin Public Library, 5% of sales of all Laurie R. King titles sold in store on Sunday April 10th and 5 % of sales of The Murder of Mary Russell the week of April 5th (ending April 12th) will be donated to the library. Come by today or tomorrow, grab a copy of King’s latest, and support Austin Public Library. Signed copies available!

Just one day after Laurie R. King’s visit, Stuart Woods and David C. Taylor will be speaking and signing their latest novels, Family Jewels and Night Work, respectively, today, Monday, April 11th, at 7 PM. This event is a wonderful opportunity to catch up with Stuart Woods on his large oeuvre of bestselling thrillers, while getting to know David C. Taylor, an up-and-coming crime novelist who started out in the film biz.

Next up, Jessica Knoll, author of the stunning debut, Luckiest Girl Alive, comes to speak and sign this amazing novel on Saturday, April 16th, at 3 PM. Knoll has worked as senior editor at Cosmopolitan. She draws on both life and fiction for her debut, an intense look at high school trauma and its lingering effects, even for those who manage to reinvent themselves in adulthood.

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On Sunday, April 17th, Scott and Molly will reprise our panel discussion on how we compiled our MysteryPeople Top 100 Crime and Suspense Novels at the first ever Pflugerville Book Pfestival, happening Saturday the 16th and Sunday the 17th at the Pflugerville Library. The festival is sponsored by KAZI Austin, 88.7 FM, and put together by Hopeton Hay, host of Kazi Book Review with Hopeton Hay. Thanks to Hopeton and KAZI for putting this festival together and bringing the MysteryPeople Top 100 list out into world.

Then on Monday, April 18th, at 1 PM, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club will discuss The Professionalsby Owen Laukkanen, with a call-in from the author. The Hard Word Book Club, meeting Wednesday, April 27th, at 7 PM, also has a special guest calling in to the discussion – Craig Johnson, author of the Longmire series, will call in to discuss his novel As The Crow Flies

Finally, we’ll finish out the month with a visit from Melissa Ginsburg on Saturday, April 30th at 3 PM. Ginsburg’s Houston-set debut, Sunset City, follows a barista on the hunt for her best friend’s murderer. Sunset City is our April Pick of the Month, and we’re glad to celebrate a powerful new voice in Texas crime fiction.

Mysterypeople and Sisters in Crime Welcome Rhys Bowen to Austin

Rhys Bowen joins us here at BookPeople this Saturday, March 12th, at 3 PM, to speak and sign her latest Molly Murphy mystery, Time of Fog and Fire

On Sunday, March 13, Bowen will be guest speaker at the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter meeting, beginning 2:00 p.m. at the Yarborough Branch of the Austin Public Library. 

For the Rhys Bowen enthusiast, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club will discuss her novel City of Darkness and Light on Monday, March 15th, at 1 PM on BookPeople’s third floor. All of these events are free and open to the public. 


  • Guest Post from Kathy Waller of Sisters in Crime

9781250052049Thanks to a grant from Sisters in Crime, an international organization dedicated to promoting the advancement, recognition and professional development of women crime writers, New York Times best-selling author Rhys Bowen will visit Austin March 12-13. She’ll be at BookPeople on March 12th at 3 PM, and will speak at the Sisters in Crime Chapter meeting the following day at 2PM at the Yarborough Branch of the Austin Public Library.

Bowen’s highly popular mystery series—the Evan Evans mysteries, the Molly Murphy mysteries, and the Her Royal Spyness mysteries—have garnered a string of awards including the Agatha, Reviewer’s Choice, Herodotus, Lefty (Bruce Alexander Memorial), Anthony, Freddy, Macavity, Arty, Lovey, and Audie Awards, and too many nominations to mention.

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Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to Discuss: DARE ME by Megan Abbott

dare meThe Murder In The Afternoon Book Club meeting time has changed! We will now meet on the third Monday of each month at 1 pm on BookPeople’s third floor.

Join us Monday, February 15, at 1 PM on BookPeople’s third floor, for a discussion of Dare Me, by Megan Abbott, who will join us via phone call during the discussion. You can find copies of Dare Me on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

  • Review by Bookseller Molly Odintz

Megan Abbott started off studying noir fiction, and moved over to writing her own, creating several historical crime novels so true to their period, they could have been written in the forties. Next, she took a turn to the contemporary, addressing the same themes of power, competition, sexuality, and obsession showcased by her early novels, but re-contextualizing them for today’s young women. Her last three novels – Dare Me, The End of Everythingand The Fever – have all taken on the dangerous lives of teenage girls, and gone far beyond an after-school special in tackling the real and present dangers and thrills of modern womanhood.

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Rainy Day Reads: The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club takes on Tartan Noir

  • Post by Molly Odintz

Please join us Tuesday, January 19th, at 2 PM as we discuss Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin. Ian Rankin will be speaking and signing his latest Rebus novel, Even Dogs in the Wild, on Sunday, January 31st, at 3 PM. All BookPeople events are free and open to the public. Pre-order a signed copy!

9780312536923Like many novels considered noir, Ian Rankin’s first Rebus novelKnots and Crosses, falls comfortably into the descriptive category of “starts bad, gets worse.” As the novel opens, Inspector John Rebus is divorced, ambiguously religious, living in Scotland, and still traumatized by his experiences training for special forces twenty years before.

Amidst a cloud of cigarette smoke and brooding, he works to solve a series of murders, each victim the same age and description as his own 12-year-old daughter, Samantha. Meanwhile, threatening notes arrive at the inspector’s door, referencing a betrayal clouded by Rebus’ significant memory gaps. As he fights to find the serial killer, John begins to suspect the carefully conducted crimes contain a message for Rebus himself.

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Ross Macdonald Turns 100

This weekend marked the 100th birthday of Ross Macdonald. Often referred to as the third father of the private eye novel, along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, he is the lesser known of this triumvirate. There are authors that may not have read one of his books, yet borrow from him just the same.

“I love to be with him in mid-century California,” says author Ace Atkins. “He picks up when Chandler left us and continues to be the moral compass in shifting times. But beyond what we expected of a crime book, he showed us how violence, turmoil and greed can effect family. The greatest at character study.”

Of the three, he was the most prolific; Macdonald wrote over twenty novels, stretching from The Dark Tunnel, originally released in 1944 under his real name Kenneth Millar, to The Blue Hammer, Macdonald’s last novel, published in 1976. Most featured his laconic private detective, Lew Archer.

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