Thursday, November 11, 2010

Memoir #5: The Things They Carried

Author:  Tim O'Brien
Publisher/Format: Mariner Books (2009), Paperback, 256 pages
Subject: memories from the Vietnam War
Genre: short stories/memoir
Source: My own shelves
Challenge: Read from my shelves; War Through the Generations

What a way to honor our Veterans today!   This is a book I read for the Vietnam Reading Challenge sponsored by War Through the Generations.  The author, Tim O'Brien, is featured over there this week as he compares the Vietnam War to today's conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His thoughts are a good addition to what is featured here.

It seems strange to read a book written about death, mire, dismemberment, fear, and squalor and then call it beautiful.  But it is just that.  O'Brien is truly one of today's most gifted writers, giving us the ugliness of war in beautiful eloquent prose.  As he tells the stories of "A" company and his fellow soldiers humping their way through the killing fields of Vietnam, slogging through marshes, creeping blindly through jungles at night, and hiding in pits, we see them as individuals, we feel their fear, their bravado, their anguish and their emotions.  We also see the author's torment as he tries to tell the stories.  Does he give us bare truth?  What is truth?  Should he embellish?  He says:
The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque.  But in truth, war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can't help but gape at the awful majesty of combat....It's not pretty exactly, it's astonishing. It fills the eye.  It commands you.  You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not.  Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference--a powerful implacable beauty--and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly. (pg. 77).
 Each story is a stand-alone, but together they form an aggregate of emotions that help us feel.  We may never have had to endure what they did, but we at least know what they felt as they went through the experience, because the very first story lets us understand that among the things they carried, the heaviest were the fear, the hope, the love, the nostalgia, the loneliness that each young man took with him as he went to war.

If you never read another book about war......any should read this one.  It is jaw-dropping in its beauty, and that is what is so special: that a subject so ugly can be described in such splendor.


  1. I keep swearing off memoirs and then you write about this one and get me all

  2. Caite...I'm laughing, because I have about 4 or 5 more memoirs to give you. Sooner or later, you're gonna hafta break down and read one. As the kid in the cereal commercial used to say "Try it, you'll like it."

  3. Every time I read about this book, I think "I really have to read it." And I just thought it again. Time to put it on the official TBR list.

  4. I'm definitely reading this for the challenge, just have to make time for it. I love O'Brien's writing, so I'm not surprised to see you call it the one war novel you must read.

    We've posted this on War Through the Generations.


Welcome, thanks for stopping by. Now that you've heard our two cents, perhaps you have a few pennies to throw into the discussion. Due to a bunch more anonymous spam getting through, I've had to disallow anonymous comments. I try to respond to all comments posing a question, but may not always get to you right away.