Reading when looking for a challenge

BOOKS: How long have you had this?

NGUYEN: Probably for a few years. I think it started with reading Bohumil Hrabal, who wrote in the 50s and 60s. His work fascinated me in a way that I had never seen before and that led me to Milan Kundera and Ivan Klima. I fell in love with the energy of these books and the politics they explore so well. I came across one book and then another. This is how reading works.

BOOKS: What was your last best read?

NGUYEN: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It’s a different take on the Vietnam War. Other authors have focused on the immigrant aspect of the consequences of the war. “The Sympathizer” went head on in the politics of it.

BOOKS: What books about the Vietnam War have influenced you?

NGUYEN: One is “Monkey Bridge” by Lan Cao. His story is very different from that of the post-1975 refugees, and that gave me a better understanding of the fall of Saigon. Another book that was influential was Bich Minh Nguyen’s Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a memoir about coming from Vietnam and settling in Michigan.

BOOKS: When did you first read Vietnamese American authors?

NGUYEN: Growing up, I didn’t read any. As a freshman in college, I took an Asian American studies class where we were assigned “Monkey Bridge.” From then on, I was always on the lookout for books by Vietnamese American authors. There were only three or four books from major publishers that you could get your hands on. Over the past two years, we have seen a boom in Vietnamese American authors from major publishing houses. It’s a good time for Vietnamese American literature.

BOOKS: What classics did you read in college that made an impression on you?

NGUYEN: I studied sociology, so in graduate school I felt like I was catching up. The works that particularly spoke to me are “Madame Bovary” by Flaubert and the short stories by Chekhov because of their psychological penetration of the characters. There’s less of that in Chekhov’s stories but he really goes to his characters and does it in such a small space.

BOOKS: How would you describe your tastes for fiction currently?

NGUYEN: I feel like as a reader one should be open minded to the kinds of books one has never read before. I seek a challenge in fiction.

BOOKS: Do you prefer long novels then?

NGUYEN: I don’t care because I feel like smaller books can have the same challenges as a longer book. I’m thinking of “Dictation” by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. This book is ripe for a re-read because there is so much that I might miss reading it the first time. The same goes for John Barth’s “The Sot-Weed Factor”, a very long book, which deals with American mythology, colonialism and meta-fiction. I may not get everything the first time. It’s not the size. It’s the content.

BOOKS: What was your last difficult reading?

NGUYEN: “Fantasy” by Kim-Anh Schreiber, a mix of film review, drama, memoir and fiction. She uses a mixture of forms to explore her Vietnamese and German origins. It was difficult, but for me it was rewarding to see what the author did. I read it twice. But it’s not a book I would recommend to everyone.

BOOKS: Have you ever met your partner in a book?

NGUYEN: I do not think so. I push through and I get out. I feel like in the end I will understand the book better or understand myself better as a reader, what I like and what I don’t like. It is wise to read widely.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Saving Penny Jane” and can be reached at [email protected].

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