"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a book club discussion guide

This month I was hostess for book club. Hosting means preparing a treat for club members to eat and conducting the discussion on the month's book. Our book selection was The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. We try to make our book selections month in advance so that those of us who prefer to not buy the book will have plenty of time to get it from the public library. I put in my library hold early and got the print edition of the book in June, just in time for vacation. But when we got to Whistler I didn't feel like reading a dense and serious book. I wanted the equivalent of beach reading even though we were in the mountains, so I shoved The Sympathizer off to the side and returned it by its due date to the library when I got home. Little did I realize that another turn at the bookwas not forthcoming due to it's popularity. I couldn't get it by the club deadline.  Audible.com was the only available source of the audible version of the book.  This ended up being a good decision. Out of eight women who regularly attend club, only two of us finished the book. We both enjoyed the book very much but Margaret said it was a difficult book to read because of the way it is formatted without proper punctuation. I didn't have any such issues with the audio version.

In a nutshell The Sympathizer is about a nameless captain in the South Vietnam army who is really a double agent and sympathizer of the North. The book begins during the Fall of Saigon, moves to refuge camps, to the USA, and eventually back to Vietnam. The captain, our narrator, is writing the book as a confession.

As I was preparing for the club discussion on the book I went looking discussion for questions and was surprised that all the sources I looked at only had the same four questions. They are good ones, however, and I decided to use them if I needed them. Next I went searching for a good review of the book. My favorite was written by Philip Caputo for the New York Times. I highly recommend you read his review if you also are charged with the job of leading a discussion on this book. I took notes as I read and from those notes I had my talking points and was able to formulate some questions of my own.

Here are some of the ideas I got from Caputo's article:
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen (pronounced 'win') was born in Vietnam and came to the US in 1975 as a child. He is a professor at the University of Southern California. The book, written from the Vietnamese point of view, is actually ground-breaking.
  • Literature coming out of powerful countries, like the US, usually feature storylines focused on characters from that country. So there are lots of stories about Vietnam, but most deal with what is was like to be an American soldier in the war, etc. 
  • The book won just about every book prize out there, including the Pulitzer prize. We talked about several of these prizes and what it means to win them.
  • It has several universal themes worth exploring.
  • The opening line, "I am a man of two minds" and the nameless narrator's duality provided a lot to talk about.
  • We chewed on the names that characters were given and then used, even overused, including why the narrator went unnamed. 
  • Overwriting examples
  • "The blood of friendship is thicker than the water of ideology."
  • Black humor or satire? Examples.
  • We talked a lot about the conclusion and how our feelings/thoughts about Vietnam have changed because of the book.
  • Discuss the quote "Vietnam was the first war where the losers would write the history instead of the victors."
The Sympathizer "fills a void in literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light" (Caputo).

The Pulitzer committee lauded The Sympathizer as "a layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a 'man of two minds' -- and two countries, Vietnam and the United States."

The trick for any book club wanting to tackle this excellent book is getting the members to actually read it. I recommend the audio version, expertly read by Francois Chau. It solves the problems my group members had with the dense text. Whatever you decide, it is worth the effort.


  1. I m always looking for books from different points of view. This sounds like a great book for that.

  2. Hi Anne: I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I thought it was good & important too. I think it took up all of my August to make it thru it. Your questions are good ones for a discussion. My group ended up having a pretty extensive discussion about the book which surprised me a bit since it is quite dense a read. But it does foster a lot of interesting issues! Nice work.

  3. Although the book (at times) was a struggle, it was, I feel, one of the most important books I've read because of how much it opened my eyes to different points of view. Our discussion was fantastic and gave me even a greater appreciation for the book.


I look forward to your comments and interactions! Join in the conversation.