At first glance, it was a light month. Two books?!?! What the hell? Ahhh, but the truth is more complex. One book took nearly three weeks to read. And in spare moments I was also reading books about photography. So, fear not. I knocked out my obligatory five books in May. I just won’t bore you with the details of the photography guides.

The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Man, what a book. I read this just after reading Perfect Spy at the end of April. Which was good timing, as the main character in The Sympathizer may be a bit loosely based on Pham Xuan An, the focus of Perfect Spy. But this isn’t just some fictionalized version of An’s life.

In this case, our story is the written confession of an unnamed Vietnamese man being held in a “reeducation” camp in the late 1970s. During the war, he served on the staff of an important general in the Army of South Vietnam, spying for the North the entire time. When the war ends, he flees to America with his general while sending reports of the activities of the refugee movement back to Hanoi. He gets jobs, has adventures, finds himself working as a consultant on a movie about the war, has more adventures, nearly dies a couple times, and has to be party to two murders. Eventually he returns to Vietnam and is imprisoned despite his espionage efforts and forced to write, and re-write, the narrative of his years away in an effort to confess to all his wrong doings and short comings.

Nguyen’s writing is simply amazing. It is laugh-out-loud funny, incredibly sensitive and insightful, and goes in all kinds of interesting and unexpected directions. This book reminds me so much of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, one of my all-time favorite books. Another book that is a bit of a slog early on, but eventually sucks you in. Another book that can’t be raced through in a couple days but takes some serious time to work through.

I know this isn’t a very good summation of the book. That’s because I’m not sure I’m capable of writing something that can describe how good it is. This is the best book I’ve read this year, and it will be one of my favorites of the year as well.

The Bridge of Sighs – Olen Steinhauer
This is book one in Steinhauer’s Yalta Boulevard series, all of which take place in fictional Eastern European country during the Cold War. In the first volume, it is 1948 and the country is still trying to put itself back together after being occupied first by the Germans and then by the Soviets. Emil Brod is a new member of the country’s homicide unit and is greeted with mysterious coldness and contempt by his new partners. One even lands a punch in Brod’s groin at the end of his first day in the office.
Begging for work, Brod is assigned a murder case involving the country’s most famous song writer. Soon there is a second murder, a beautiful widow, connections to the highest levels of government, and even an appearance by the Nazis. Oh, and at least three attempts on Brod’s life. In time he earns the respect of his colleagues and manages to wrap the case up nicely.

Now the cool thing about this series is book two does not just pick up with Brod’s next case. Rather, it jumps ahead to the 1950s and the main character is a different member of the homicide unit. Then the third book takes place in the 1960s with a new protagonist. And so on. A nice little trick by Steainhauer to mix things up.