Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien (Kindle)


While I have read dozens of books on World War II, I have very little experience with those written about Vietnam. So when I heard over and over again that Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is considered the quintessential Vietnam novel, so much that the 20th anniversary of its publication was recently celebrated, I had no way to personally confirm or deny. All I knew is that it stunned me. I have never read a war novel quite like this one.

Because my husband’s family is from Poland, we are emotionally immersed in the WWII history. But Vietnam? My father was excused from the draft because my mom was pregnant with me. Nobody in my family had any connection with this war. However, my husband and I have a very close friend who did fight in Nam as a Marine, and every time we get together with him and his wife, I am reminded of this fact. He carries his Vietnam experiences with him, inside his heart, every day of his life. He guards them closely, even with his most intimate friends, but I see it all there right beneath the surface. Maybe reading this book would help me understand.

I believe this novel has served several important purposes for O’Brien, who fought in Vietnam. First and foremost, I believe this was the ultimate therapy for him – a way to tell the TRUTH about what really happened over there. He writes honestly and with candor about his emotional and physical reaction to being drafted…something he had never told anyone and which caused him great embarrassment. He writes about his most nightmarish experiences, getting them out of his dreams and down on paper, with the hope perhaps that in the daylight, it will lose some of its power over his psyche. He admits to a childish feud he had with another soldier, an act of revenge that was fueled by an anger he couldn’t control.

But beyond exorcising his personal demons, more importantly O’Brien also gives a voice to every soldier who fought in Vietnam. He explains WHY soldiers had to treat death as a joke. Why imagination was a killer. Why most war stories were 90% baloney. He reveals, via a devastating story of one of his friends, how incredibly hard it was for some to return to the US and resume a normal life. Who did they have to talk to? Who would understand?

It was not easy to read this book. I would need to set it down and walk away often, and nearly dread picking it back up again. But once I did, I was riveted. It was a strange mixture of emotions. The writing is easy, open, but insightful and introspective. His stories are vivid and often disturbing. But you do walk away with a better appreciation for the horrors of this war, from one soldier’s perspective which I am sure mirrors many. I tried to imagine what it would be like to read this book as a veteran and could never come to a conclusion. Would I be angry? Would I feel validated? Would it bring it all back to me? It would be impossible for me to say.

And what about the things they carried? What does the title of the book mean? “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.” Pocket knives, can openers, lighters, water. “What they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty.” Maps, radios, binoculars, weapons. “What they carried varied by mission.” Mosquito netting, machetes, tarps, mine detectors. “They all carried ghosts.” Pictures, Bibles, a girlfriend’s pantyhose. “The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition.” A good luck pebble, a rabbit’s foot, a shrunken thumb. “For the most part, they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity.” Not all things carried were tangible, but spiritual.

“…for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.”

5 out of 5 stars


25 comments:

Molly said...

This is definitely one of those books that I know I will read in my lifetime. However, I also know that it is quite disturbing and difficult to get through, so I will not be reading it anytime soon.

On another note, I had to read O'Brien's book, In the Lake of the Woods last year for school and thoroughly enjoyed it.

farmlanebooks said...

I've had this on the wishlist for a while. I'm sure I'll love it and am pleased to see that you gave it 5/5. I hope I love it as much as you did.

Serena said...

Sandy, what a great review. I really enjoyed your review of this book. Anna selected this for our book club this month, so we'll all be reading it, both of us and our husbands.

I agree with Molly that In the Lake of the Woods is another excellent book by O'Brien. I also really enjoyed July, July.

JoAnn said...

Excellent review! This is a book I know I should read, but keep putting off. War books are always difficult for me...

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Ack, 5/5 - I hate when you do that! ...since as you know I have to follow you around...

Kathy said...

I haven't read this one (yet?) but I have a copy of In the Lake of the Woods just waiting for me to read it. I've also read O'Brien's Tomcat in Love, which is one of his only books not about Vietnam (or maybe it's the only one?) although the main character is a Vietnam vet.

Iliana said...

Fabulous review, Sandy! I haven't read much about Vietnam and despite that it wasn't so long ago I feel like I know a lot more about WWI and WWII. This is one book I'd really like to read some day but I know I'll just have to be mentally prepared for it.

Avid Reader said...

I read and loved this book just last year. It felt so different from most war books. He's such a talented writer and I was completely swept away with his prose.

bermudaonion said...

Excellent review of an excellent book. I loved the book, but found it gut-wrenching.

Carrie K. said...

Beautifully written review. I read this the first time in high school as a way to understand my father, who served two tours in Vietnam. It remains one of my favorite books of all time.

Julie P. said...

Wow -- what a book and what a review! I have this one in my basement and really need to read it. Might make a good book club pick!

Anna said...

What a thoughtful review! I'll be reading this soon for Kim's read-a-long and book club. It's the one book I just had to read for the challenge.

My father certainly carried his Vietnam experiences with him. And if it weren't for the VFW, I don't know what he would've done. He could go there and shoot the breeze with men who truly understood what he'd been through.

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

Trisha said...

I have been wanting to read this and putting off reading this for quite some time now. It sounds beautiful, powerful, and emotional which is both good and bad.

heidenkind said...

I had to read this book in high school and it was very powerful. I still remember a few of the stories--like the one about the Green Berets. I never regarded it as factual, though-it seems too surrealistic for that to me.

Nymeth said...

A beautiful review of what sounds like an incredibly powerful book.

Beth F said...

Ditto what everyone else said!

Beth F said...

Ditto what everyone else said!

Charley said...

I haven't read this yet, but I heard a wonderful and emotional inteview with O'Brien on NPR a while back.

Jenners said...

Brilliant review. I need to read this book. We probably all need to read this book. Well done, Sandy.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

This one is on my Kindle, too....I started it, had to put it down. I'll get back to it shortly, I promise.

Melissa M said...

This sounds like a wonderful, if hard to read book. I don't think I'm in the mood for it now, but will add it to my must read list.

Darlene said...

I've been going back on forth on reading this one for the challenge. It sounds like such an emotionally powerful book. I wonder if listening would be better than reading it? Although for me it wouldn't have as much of an impact I don't think.

Literary Feline said...

I am just over half way through this one at the moment and am finding it quite powerful. It's definitely different. I can't help but wonder how much of it is true and how much fiction though. I know the author peppered the stories with his own truths. Something I'll probably research after I complete the book.

Alice Teh said...

Another fantastic review. When I read "He reveals, via a devastating story of one of his friends, how incredibly hard it was for some to return to the US and resume a normal life." I recalled something similar in the books that I have. In one written by Andy McNab but he's writing as a British SAS soldier, many of his friends never did resume normal life. In fact, they committed suicide in various ways. He is one of the ones who pulled through. It just makes me sad but at the same time, it has given me a whole new perspective about things.

Catherine said...

Thanks to your review, I finished reading this yesterday. Hope you don't mind if I link to your review. Here's the link to mine: http://mybooksread-cm.blogspot.com/2010/08/obrien-tim-things-they-carried.html