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Book Club: Viet Thanh Nguyen shares his new spy story

Viet Thanh Nguyen stands on a brick path surrounded by plants.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, “The Sympathizer,” introduced us to the “man of two faces and two minds,” a double agent living in Los Angeles after the fall of Saigon.

Nguyen’s anonymous spy returns this week in “The Committed,” with a new life and adventures set in Paris. Gangsters, drug dealing, turf wars and shootouts propel hairpin plot twists in this sequel published Tuesday. But beneath the thriller lies an ambitious novel about history, politics and revolution.

“I wasn’t done with his story,” Nguyen told writer Agatha French. “I’m very cognizant of the fact that people read ‘The Sympathizer’ as a Vietnam War novel and me as a Vietnamese American writing about the Vietnam War.”

The sequel, he says, allowed him “to expand upon what I’ve always felt, which is that ‘The Sympathizer’ is not only a Vietnam War novel but a novel about race and colonialism.”

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Nguyen, a USC professor and Pulitzer Prize winner, joins the Los Angeles Times Book Club on March 10 for a conversation with Times culture columnist Carolina A. Miranda. (If you don’t already get it, sign up for her Essential Arts newsletter.)

The book talk starts at 7 p.m. Pacific and will be livestreaming on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Sign up on Eventbrite.

Although “The Committed” is a sequel, French notes, it doesn’t read like one. “I never had the sense that something was being ‘recapped’ in a heavy-handed way, but everything you really need to enjoy the story is on the page,” she says. “I obviously think everyone should read the first book first — it’s so good, why wouldn’t you? — but ‘The Committed’ really holds its own, and not just as a sequel.” Here’s an excerpt.

Tell us: What would you like to ask Viet Thanh Nguyen? Please send your questions in advance of Wednesday’s meetup to bookclub@latimes.com.

The covers of the books "The Sympathizer" and its sequel, "The Committed."
(Grove Press)

Last flight

Thank you to all our readers who joined February’s book club night with Australian author and screenwriter Charlotte McConaghy and Times environmental reporter Roxanna Xia.

McConaghy signed on from her home in Sydney for a fascinating deep dive into climate change, ocean tides, the last flock of Arctic terns and the complicated world of character Franny Stone. McConaghy talked about how she learned so much about deep sea fishing (her dad was an Alaska fisherman) and the Iceland trip that inspired her debut eco-novel, “Migrations.”

A highlight: Book club night kicked off with a return visit from novelist Emily St. John Mandel, author of the pandemic classic “Station Eleven.” Mandel’s a “Migrations” fan and joined us from New York to share her favorite passage. Watch her reading.

ICYMI, you can watch the entire discussion here.

Charlotte McConaghy  with environmental reporter Rosanna Xia
Australian Charlotte McConaghy and reporter Rosanna Xia at the L.A. Times Book Club.
(Los Angeles Times)

Revisiting Dr. Seuss

This week Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to stop publishing six of the author’s children’s books — including “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” and “If I Ran the Zoo” — because of racist and insensitive imagery. Books by Dr. Seuss, who was born Theodor Seuss Geisel and lived in La Jolla, have been translated into dozens of languages and are sold in more than 100 countries. He died in 1991.

His estate’s announcement came on Read Across America Day, sparking debates about “cancel culture” and sending sales of classic Seuss titles soaring. (Washington Post book critic Ron Charles spotted a used copy of “Mulberry Street” selling for $9,000.)

In Los Angeles, many teachers have been moving toward more diverse reading lists for years. “There are plenty of other books out there that can give us rhyming words or creative creatures and worlds, as he did,” says Torrance kindergarten teacher Letitia Avalos.

A copy of "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," by Dr. Seuss
(Steven Senne / Associated Press )

Keep reading

Book prizes: The finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes were announced this week, with Isabel Wilkerson, Jacob Soboroff, Akwaeke Emezi, Ivy Pochoda and December book club author Karla Cornejo Villavicencio among the nominees for the annual literary awards. Browse the complete rundown here. Winners will be announced April 16, the day before the 2021 virtual Festival of Books kicks off.

From William Styron to “American Dirt”: When is it appropriate to culturally appropriate? Former Times books editor Carolyn Kellogg explores the culture wars with Paisley Rekdal, the poet laureate of Utah and author of the new book “Appropriate.”

Poets don’t need papers to be heard. For decades, poets without legal status were excluded from prizes, contests and fellowships. Now Undocupoets, cofounded by author Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, has changed that. Reporter Dorany Pineda explains.

So be it! See to it! NASA delivered an out-of-this world tribute this week to Pasadena writer Octavia E. Butler. The space agency tweeted: “When @NasaPersevere landed on Mars, we not only made history, we lived out the dreams of artists who inspired our journey into space. In fitting tribute, @NASAJPL scientists have named the rover’s landing site after @OctaviaEButler, the groundbreaking science fiction author.”

Courage: At age 64, Los Angeles swimmer Diana Nyad became the first person to complete the 110-mile trek from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Fla., a journey she recounts in the memoir “Find a Way.” Nyad shares her latest news on Facebook: Actress Annette Bening will re-create her swim through shark- and jellyfish-infested waters in an upcoming biopic. “For me it was literally a lifelong dream,” Nyad says. “And it was a dream that inspired me to train like no open-water swimmer has ever trained.” She adds, “Ms. Bening is now the exact age I was when I made the historic crossing.”

John Steinbeck’s “little fishing place”: The California author’s New York house is on the market for $17.9 million. The Sag Harbor cottage served as Steinbeck’s summer home for 13 years.

More house news: Author Susan Orlean is selling her New York retreat too.

One final note about this month’s author: Viet Thanh Nguyen took a break from spies, intrigue and politics to write his first children’s book this past year. He teamed up with his 7-year-old son, Ellison, for a tale of chickens and pirates called “Chicken of the Sea.” This week, at Vulture, he shares his 10 favorite children’s books.

Viet Thanh Nguyen and his son, Ellison, at home.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)


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