Sunday, February 26, 2012

Book Review: The Things They Carried

"Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are now. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, with there is nothing to remember except the story."
When I was in college, I took an intense class on the Vietnam War. It was taught by a history professor and a psychology professor, who served two tours in Vietnam. I loved this class with every fiber of my being. I cannot even begin to list all the books we read and all the ones I read later about Vietnam.

"They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. The carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils, The Stars and Stripes, fingernail clippers, Psy Ops leaflets, bush hats, bolos and much more."

But that was all before Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. It was published just a few years after I graduated from college, but somehow I just wasn't ready to read any more Vietnam War novels for a long time after being immersed in that class. And now my oldest is in college and had to read something by Tim O'Brien for a class. He loved it and picked up a bunch of O'Brien's books at a used book store, including The Things They Carried, which he then declared about the best book he has ever read. (And, like his parents, he is a prolific reader, and, like his mother, an English major.)

"They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity."

And so I finally read it. I was hooked from the very first line, and I was reluctant to put it down each night to sleep. I carried it with me during the day when I wasn't reading it. I carried the language of Tim O'Brien—the absolutely beautiful poetry, the lyrical longing, the heartbreak.

"They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces."

The Things They Carried is a novel—a work of fiction. It's also a memoir—a work of creative nonfiction. And it is for sure a work of poetry. Blended together, the line between truth and fiction (what really happened to Tim O'Brien, the author, and Tim, the soldier) is blurry. The stories he tells may or may not have happened exactly like he tells them, at least to him. But in the collective face of war, they are true to the core.

What words can I use to describe the book? Haunting. Terrifying. Heartbreaking. Beautiful. Brilliant. It's a war story, a love story, a study of lives stopped and started again but never the same. Please, please read it.

"And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen."


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

Wow, this sounds powerful. I have added it to my wishlist.

I took a class at uni that sounds similar to yours, only it was on Israel/Palestine. Seven years later, I'm still reading all the books I can on it...

Serena said...

This is among my favorite Vietnam War novels. Thanks for the review. I've added your link over at War Through the Generations on the Vietnam War Reviews page

Amy said...

This has been on my shelves for a long time, but I have yet to read it. Thanks for the review; I remember now why I bought it and why I want to read it!