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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Things They Carried

written by Tim O'Brien
audiobook: 7.25 hours
narrated by Tom Stechschulte

*** About the Book *** 

The Things They CarriedThis book is part novel, part memoir, part short story collection in which the narrator (or is it the author?) shares about his experiences in Vietnam.

*** Why I Listened To It ***

This book is on so many “must read” lists yet I’d never even heard of it until recently. I’m reading it for the War Through the Generations: Vietnam challenge, the 1% Well Read challenge, and it will also count for the Audiobook challenge.

In addition, Sophisticated Dorkiness is hosting a read-a-long of the book this month and I’m participating in that as well.

*** My Thoughts ***

Hmm … well … what ARE my thoughts on this book? I can’t seem to pin them down. In a way I hated it. In another way I really appreciated what the author was doing. At times I wanted to cover my ears and not hear the rest of the story. At other times I wanted to smack a character for his stupidity or carelessness or whatever. Parts of it seemed very true while other parts didn’t fit my idea of reality.

The book begins with descriptions of the items the soldiers carried – weapons, food, supplies, etc. – and the actual weight of each item. Then the narrator added the intangibles – guilt, fear, memories – to the list. This was a powerful chapter and really brought me into the story.

And then … well, is it strange that the stories of dead comrades and enemy soldiers did very little to me (even though they were very sad) yet the story of out-and-out cruelty to an animal broke my heart? I guess I assume that there will be death in a war and I resign myself to that necessity but I can’t resign myself to the need for cruelty, even though it helped the soldiers become calloused enough to take a human life.

One issue I had came after I finished the book. When I was perusing the read-a-long discussion questions I noticed this one: “The narrator of The Things They Carried goes by the same name as the author, but the title page notes that this is a “work of fiction.” How did this launch your reading of the book?” Say WHAT?! The audio version of the book did NOT include this information. While I was listening I assumed it was a somewhat embellished version of the author’s own experiences. To find out that I was wrong has really soured me on this book.

At the same time, there is one chapter that deals with the idea of truth in a story. The narrator makes the point that sometimes the real truth of a situation isn’t in the factual details but rather in the story that you create about it. This chapter (it’s the one where he repeatedly describes the body of the VietCong soldier he just killed) really resonated with me. I found the repetition very powerful. And yet, despite agreeing with his thoughts about truth, I find myself angry that I can’t tell which parts of the book are “fact” and which are “stories of truth” …

Part of the issue for me with books like this is that I hope to find something of my dad’s Vietnam experience in there but I always come away disappointed. My dad enlisted in the Army by choice – he wasn’t drafted. He was proud to serve, just as his father had. He didn’t come out of the war with PTSD (at least, not from anything he or my mom ever said) or having nightmares or harboring lots of regrets (although I’m sure he has some). He was a Green Beret* and he spent most of his time living in the villages with the local people and a few other soldiers. My husband once asked him about what he’d done in Vietnam. His response was along these lines: Yes, I killed some people. But I don’t have any trouble sleeping at night. If I told them not to move and they moved, then I felt no guilt about it. So far I have yet to come across a book that reflects my dad’s experience in any way, and that is disappointing to me.

*Reading the part of the book about the “Greenies” was almost creepy for me, knowing that my dad was one of them …

*** Your Thoughts ***

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? What are your thoughts on “facts” versus “truth”? 

Also, can you recommend a Vietnam-era book that might reflect my dad’s experiences?


Anna said...

Wow, this sounds like a heavy book, as I expected it to be. I haven't read it yet, but I plan to soon.

I prefer to know what is fact and what is fiction myself, I think I'm just curious and want to get a better picture of the real story. But not knowing doesn't keep me up at night. However, I'd be a little disappointed to have listened to the audio not realizing that it was fiction.

I'm dealing with the same thing in Paco's story, finding the story of the massacre sad but being more upset about a violent event that didn't have to happen as part of the war.

We'll get your review on War Through the Generations soon.

Jenn's Bookshelves said...

I read this book as part of a history class in college. It was one of my favorite classes, it also introduced me to MAUS.

I really appreciated THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. Yes, it does indicate the book was a work of fiction but it was based on the author's own experiences. He thought this was the best way to portray the facts about the war. He believed that simply stating facts would produce no emotion in the reader. To quote O'Brien, he created "a story that is technically false yet truthfully protrays war."

I do think this book did a phenomenal job of portraying the Vietnam war. It really hit me hard...this book definitely affected me.

April (BooksandWine) said...

I remember reading this in high school for AP English. We all enjoyed it because it was different from the fare of dead people and books written in the previous century, plus kids like learning about war. So odd.

I remember really enjoying Things They Carried, because it was an emotional read, also because I never had to struggle to puzzle out what O'Brien was saying.

Also, animals break my heart more than people. For serious, I cannot handle it when authors just kill off dogs in books.

Linda said...

Heather, I don't know if this book will reflect your dad's experiences, but a very interesting and powerful book is What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam by Bill McCloud. The author, a social studies teacher, compiled this book of actual responses to this question from many people: veterans, politicians, doves, and hawks. The background concerning the creation of the book is incredible.

Heather J. said...

Anna – “I'd be a little disappointed to have listened to the audio not realizing that it was fiction.” That is really my big complaint – the audio book didn’t make it clear up front. And with an author and a narrator having the same name, my confusion is easy to understand. Still, I’m a very fact-oriented person and I like to be able to draw clear lines between my facts and my truths.

Jenn’s Bookshelves – I think this would have been a wonderful book to discuss as part of a class – I’m sure there are things I’m not seeing that would become clear through discussion. As it is now, I can say that I appreciate parts of it but not all of it.

April – Too funny - I was the type of teen who enjoyed the old dead people books! :) You’re right, this is a book that brings out an emotional response. And as far as the animal thing goes, it isn’t the death of an animal that gets to me but rather the senseless cruelty, the “why” of the thing, that bothers me so much. I can’t read books about intentional cruelty (to animals or to people) – they are simply too heartbreaking.

Linda – Great suggestion! I think I got a pitch for that book a while ago and I turned it down, but maybe I should look for it now. It sounds like a fascinating book.

bermudaonion said...

I liked this book a lot, and just kind of assumed it was the author's own experience embellished somewhat even though ti said it was a work of fiction. Sorry it didn't strike a chord with you.

Andi said...

I've heard of this book, but in truth I haven't actually known much about it. Parts of your review fired me up to read it, and others made me think I just couldn't take it. Animal cruelty is one sure fire way to send me screaming!

Trisha said...

I just got this through SwapTree last Friday; now if I can make some time to read I'll plow through the freaking stacks and stack of books I have to read and finally get around to it!

Trish said...

I had a lot of the same feelings as you did when I read this one a few years ago. I was bothered by not knowing what was true and what wasn't true and then I decided maybe it didn't matter. In a way it's all true--just like how the fiction book we read might not be about true events but it is about true emotion? If that makes sense.

I'm not sure I could listen to this one...

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

The part with the water buffalo breaks my heart too. I think I cried the first time I read it, but not of any of the other deaths.

In the print there wasn't a big note about it being fiction, just a note on the front that it's "A Novel," sort of how books do it today. But I can see why not even thinking about it at all would make the book upsetting. I know I was frustrated with it the first time I read it for those reasons.

I don't know that I've read a good book with a Vietnam experience like your Dads. In some ways, I think that's harder to write about since there were so many bad feelings about soldiers and the war when they came home. I'm not sure though.

Anyway, I'm glad you were able to listen to the book and thanks for doing the read-a-long with me!

Heather J. said...

Bermudaonion – I assume the same thing, but it still gives me issues – I want facts! :)

Andi – You might just want to skip the baby water buffalo chapter, but I’d say that the book is definitely worth reading.

Trisha – It goes quickly so hopefully you’ll be able to finish it – I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Trish – It totally makes sense. However, for me, I’m looking for facts and details that will help me understand my dad’s experiences, so the lack of clarity here was a real issue for me. It doesn’t bother me in most other types of books though.

Kim – Thanks for hosting and for the discussion questions. It is always more enjoyable to me to read along with other people and discuss the book afterward. Not only is it fun to have this kind of bookish interaction but for me it also helps clarify my thoughts on the book. As for my Dad’s experience, I think you’re right – people want to write and read about the truth as they see it, which is that being in Vietnam was a horrible, life-altering experience, and a waste of young men’s lives. My Dad doesn’t fit that stereotype though, and I have yet to read a book that reflects his experiences.

Scrappy Cat said...

I recently read this book too. The uncertainty over what was true and what wasn't didn't bother me, although I can understand why you wanted to know. You might be interested in reading this review:

I also reviewed this book on my own blog here:

Dreamybee said...

it's been a long time since I read this book, so I don't really remember any of the details about it, but I remember being kind of disappointed by it as well. I totally understand your frustration about not knowing this was a work of fiction when you listened to it. I think you invest yourself in different ways from the very beginning, depending on your understanding of what a story IS.

Heather J. said...

Scrappy Cat – Thanks so much – I’ll be checking out both reviews later today!

Dreamybee – Glad to know I wasn’t the only one who didn’t absolutely love this book. And you are SO right – I do invest myself differently based on my understanding of what the story is. Great point.

Alison's Book Marks said...

I loved your review!

This is a book I have wanted to read for a while, but was never in the right frame of mind to do so. I'm not sure I ever will be.

For some reason, I love to read books about WWII, but books about Vietnam are too heavy for me. Not sure why this is.

Many thanks to your father, and his father before him, for serving our country so bravely.

Clover said...

I've only read the first story, the one about the things they carried. It was very moving, but I couldn't carry on past that. Someday, I think I'll be ready. But not yet.

Heather J. said...

Alison - I agree RE: WWII vs Vietnam books ... maybe it has to do with the controversy surrounding the later war? And thank you for your kind comments - they are much appreciated, and I'll be sure to pass them along to my dad.

Clover - Yes, the first story WAS amazing, wasn't it?

Anonymous said...

I just read this book, and as a woman who might have been drafted back then and had to decide to go to V.N. or Canada (!)--I feel it really conveys a feeling of being in war. I have come to terms with the story/reality issue...the feelings come through. The water buffalo part made me sick I really DID feel it "in my stomach"!)and I couldn't read every word...hearing/seeing animals suffer gets to me too -- I think it's because they are so "innocent" compared with people... and caught up in the world of people's actions against their will...Mary Ann

Heather J. said...

Mary Ann - Thanks so much for coming by my blog and sharing your thoughts. I'm not sure if I made my point clearly enough in my post, but for me the story/reality thing was skewed because I was under the impression that it was a memoir - finding out that it was not (after I'd finished the book) was quite a shock to me. And I agree with you on the innocence of animals - not that people cannot be innocent as well, but it is a whole different thing in my mind.

Ms. Smartypants said...

As a history nerd, I read a lot of nonfiction about warfare, and I get really annoyed when fictional elements get mixed up in the facts. But when it is the other way around, I'm a lot more appreciative.

I just finished this book, and I absolutely loved it. He was able to bring out understandings and emotions that I just don't get from straight nonfiction narratives. The idea that what's true doesn't always bring out what's truth is an interesting one. It will definitely stay in my mind and affect how I read in the future.

Heather J. said...

Ms. Smartypants - I'm glad that you were able to appreciate this one more than I was. I do agree though that his explanation of truth being conveyed by not-exactly-true stories is one that will stick with me. Thanks for coming by to share your thoughts!

Care said...

Heather, I knew about the whole fiction vs. memoir issue going in to this and it still bothered me! But I think this was a brilliant book.
I also might suggest you look for The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell. It was very good.

Heather J. said...

Care - I'm glad I wasn't alone in my feelings about this one. And I'll definitely look into that other book you mentioned as well!

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