Last week, Andrew Carnegie Medal-winners Viet Thanh Nguyen and Sally Mann accepted their awards at the ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida. This week, we present you with reading group discussion guides for each book, put together by members of the Carnegie Committee: chair Nancy Pearl, three former members of RUSA CODES Notable Books Council, and three Booklist editors or contributors, including me. Established in 2012, the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction recognize the best fiction and nonfiction books for adult readers published in the U.S. the previous year. For my interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen, click here, and for my interview with Sally Mann, click here.
2016 Fiction Winner
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s powerful novel dramatizes the double-mindedness of a sleeper agent navigating both a divided, war-torn Vietnam and a polarized America.
1. What is the significance of the title, The Sympathizer?
2. How does the protagonist’s mixed parentage, his “outsiderness,” anticipate his dual nature and divided loyalties?
3. The novel takes the form of a long confession written by the narrator in prison. How effective is this approach? What quandaries does it raise regarding truth and coercion?
4. In what way, or how accurately, do the scenes about the production of a film about the Vietnam War, a take-off on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, reflect how Vietnam was actually depicted in American media and culture?”
5. Would you describe The Sympathizer as satire? Perhaps in the vein of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22?
6. The narrator is a spy, a secret agent. Is The Sympathizer an espionage thriller? Or is Nguyen playing with the conventions of a thriller?
7. What impact did American culture have on the Vietnamese refugees as they sought to assimilate in their adopted homeland?
8. When Vietnamese refugees returned home, how do think they were viewed by those who never left?
9. Do you think that younger readers will experience a different impact from this novel than readers who grew up in the Vietnam era?
10. Has The Sympathizer altered your perception of the Vietnam War? If so, how?
2016 Nonfiction Winner
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, by Sally Mann
World-renowned photographer Sally Mann’s memoir and family history is stunningly forthright, lushly textured, and deeply provocative.
1. Were you familiar with the controversy surrounding Sally Mann’s photographs of her young children before you read Hold Still? If you were familiar with those images, how did reading her memoir alter (or not) your view of them?
2. Does Mann’s keen visual sensibility and photographer’s perspective shape her writing? If so, how?
3. What role does Mann’s sensitivity to the natural world play in her telling her life story?
4. How does her family’s living off the land in bucolic isolation fit in with her artistic pursuits?
5. Hold Still is rich in history, both personal and regional. How effective is Mann’s linking of her and her family’s experiences to the wider issues of the South?
6. How evocative it Mann’s use of the human body as a living expression of history?
7. Mann’s relationship with Gee-Gee was quintessentially southern. How does it fit with Sally Mann’s life as an artist and intellectual?
8. What questions do Mann’s photographs and memoir raise about exposing her family’s private life to the scrutiny of the public? Do the stories she tells in Hold Still about making her family portraits clarify issues of permission and collaboration versus exploitation and violation?
9. What is Mann’s most challenging photographic inquiry for the viewer? The most difficult to look at? Why?
10. Do Mann’s back stories about her photographic series deepen your perception of them? Which is more powerful, her images or her writing? Does each benefit from the other?