Monday, March 15, 2010

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (#1 for Vietnam Reading Challenge)

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
Copyright 1990
Broadway Books - Literature/War
246 pages

No more fantasies, he told himself.

Henceforth, when he thought about Martha, it would be only to think that she belonged elsewhere. He would shut down the daydreams. This was not Mount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems or midterm exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity. Kiowa was right. Boom-down and you were dead, never partly dead.

Briefly, in the rain, Lieutenant Cross saw Martha's gray eyes gazing back at him.

He understood.

It was very sad, he thought. The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.

There were birds and butterflies, the soft rustlings of rural-anywhere. Below, in the earth, the relics of our presence were no doubt still there, the canteens and bandoliers and mess kits. This little field, I thought, had swallowed so much. My best friend. My pride. My belief in myself as a man of some small dignity and courage. Still it was hard to find any real emotion. It simply wasn't there. After that long night in the rain, I'd seemed to grow cold inside, all the illusions gone, all the old ambitions and hopes for myself sucked away into the mud. Over the years, that coldness had never entirely disappeared. There were times in my life when I couldn't feel much, not sadness or pity or passion, and somehow I blamed this place for what I had become, and I blamed it for taking away the person I had once been. For twenty years this field had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror.

Now it just was what it was. Flat and dreary and unremarkable.

The Things They Carried is, quite simply, one of the most moving, beautifully written books I've ever read. The book opens up with a literal description of the things Vietnam soldiers carried, from weapons and ammunition to Bibles, photographs, tranquilizers and memories of home.

As the book progresses, the reader gets to know the characters. Although The Things They Carried was originally written as a series of short stories, it's not jumpy or rough. It reads like a novel, in my opinion; the characters are consistent throughout. As in reality, some die and are replaced; and, the book jumps forward and backward in time. But even the dead remain in the minds of their friends and in that way often continue to make appearances.

I've had a little trouble putting my thoughts about this book into words, so I'm going to do a self-interview between I and Myself for the rest of this review.

I: What led you to read this book? And, why does the world seem to be conspiring against the writing of this review?

Myself: Primarily the Vietnam War Reading Challenge and I don't know, galdernit, but there's something weird going on. Every time I sit down to type, the phone or doorbell rings, someone sits down to talk to me or decides to read jokes aloud for an hour (Kiddo) . . . shoot, even the cat distracted me by falling out of her chair.

Anyway, I've had a copy of The Things They Carried on my shelf for many years but it probably would have sat around, eventually growing green fuzz, if not for this wonderful challenge. Many thanks to Anna and Serena for the nudge.

I: Ah, yes. Nudges are good. Poor kitty. She's got to quit hanging her head off the side of the chair like that. What did you like about The Things They Carried?

Myself: Everything. It's a literary masterpiece -- the writing is just breathtaking. The characters are three-dimensional, vivid and real enough that I still occasionally think about them, although it's been several weeks since I finished the book. The author did a fabulous job of hitting the emotional aspect of going to war, fighting a battle that he didn't understand and which was so unpopular that men often took their own lives when they returned home. There were many tears but at times I smiled. It's a deeply moving account of not only what it was like to serve in Vietnam, but also how he felt when he was drafted and considered fleeing to Canada, why he chose not to run, how he eventually became hardened while others fell apart.

I: Was there anything you disliked about the book?

Myself: I have absolutely nothing negative to say about this book. It's a hard read because of the subject matter but I don't think that's a bad thing. In fact, I think it's an important book. Several people I've talked to or who have left comments, here, have mentioned that The Things They Carried is "not for the faint of heart" and that is certainly true. It can be graphic and horrifying, but it's graphic only in a way that it must be, if that makes sense. It's a truthful book.

I: What did you think of the characters?

Myself: They were almost visible entities; it would not be surprising if they walked out of the pages of the book -- that's the caliber of writing we're talking about. Kiowa was my favorite character, a Native American who carried a Bible, had a huge heart and a great sense of humor . . . and came from my home state. I was not surprised to find that he (although fictionalized, and I can't say to what extent) was the author's best friend. He was portrayed with deep affection while others were sometimes described as callous or childish or immoral. I'm not sure if the author meant to say so, but I think in his way he made it clear that an individual's true character shows in a situation as stressful as war.

I: Rating?

Myself: Perfect. Off-the-scale, mind-boggling genious perfection.

I: That's pretty high praise.

Myself: The highest. Just tell everyone to read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.

I: Okay. Everyone!! Read the book! I guess we can go to bed, now?

Myself: Yes. The end. Finis. More reviews forthcoming in the next few days, I hope. We had a lovely weekend with son and future daughter-in-law but that blankety-blank "spring forward" business has made us a wreck. Nightie-night, all!


  1. I want to follow your blog on Twitter. But I don't know how. There is no option to subscribe to your blogs via Twitter. :(

  2. I agree that the subject matter made this a difficult book to read. I kept asking myself why we can't figure out a way to stop fighting wars as I read it.

  3. Despite claiming to have had trouble writing this review, you did a great job! :)

    I've long loved O'Brien's writing for being so honest and gritty and raw. I'll be reading this for the challenge, too.

    We'll get this posted on the challenge blog soon!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  4. I really, really loved this book when I read it in high school. I was shocked by one of the twists, too. Hopefully you know which one I mean! I want to read more by Tim O'Brien. It was so well written.

  5. Amar,

    I haven't bothered to put up a Twitter button, but you can look me up under the name "Bookfoolery" at Twitter. I'm slow to post links (usually do several at once) but I do link to my reviews. I'm a little tech-stupid, so there are a few things I haven't figured out -- one of which is how to get a little box where people can sign up to receive my posts by email. With Twitter, I've just been lazy, sorry. I'll try to work on that, today.


    I was so immersed in the events of Vietnam that the thought of war in general didn't occur to me, at the time. But, it's astounding when you sit back and think about how many times we've been at war in the last 100 years. We're never fully at peace for long, are we?


    Thank you! It was a rough review to write, but I was satisfied when I finished. I've acquired at least two more of O'Brien's books since I started reading The Things They Carried, so I hope I'll be able to read more for the challenge. "Honest and gritty and raw," is a great description of his writing.



    Yes, I do know what you mean. There were some shocks but one in particular really got me. I'm planning to read more O'Brien -- hope you do, also. When I started reading The Things They Carried, I was so blown away by his writing that I ordered at least 2 more of his books. Okay, yes, I remember now. I ordered 3. I've got plenty of great O'Brien reading ahead of me! :)

  6. If you're looking for more books for your challenge, I highly recommend When Heaven and Earth Changed Places--I read it a few years back and loved every page. It's a rough read, of course, but just beautifully written.

  7. I think the review is wonderful. Excellent review for an excellent masterpiece. This is one of my favorite books. we will get this posted on the War blog soon.

  8. Rosemary,

    I've ordered quite a little pile of Vietnam books (and I'm reading one that's fiction set in Vietnam) but, naturally, I'll have to look up When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. I happen to know you have great taste. ;)


    Thank you! I really struggled with this one and it seemed like every time I had an epiphany about how I could write the review, I'd just turned off the computer!! So, I'd sleep on it and wake up not knowing what I'd thought was so wonderful the night before. I'm kind of glad to have it over with. LOL

  9. I just picked this up and plan on reading it for the challenge as well!

  10. J.T.,

    You won't regret it. My copy of The Things They Carried is now on the good shelves in a place of honor. It's a keeper.

  11. I do want to read this one, although sometimes books about war can be too disturbing for me.

  12. Jeane,

    Most war books are disturbing on some level. I'm surprised I'm able to read them because I'm such a mush, but I read them pretty often. I can understand why they'd be a problem for you.

  13. I'm skipping the review for now as my copy still sits on the tbr pile. Will return I get a round tuit. :)

  14. Jenclair,

    I love the way you put that. We actually have a little silver coin that says, "You always said you'd read the Word of God when you got a round tuit." And, on the other side it says "TUIT". Hahaha. Very punny. ;)

  15. Excellent review, Nancy. I have to agree--this is one of the best books I've ever read. I, too, gave it a perfect rating of 10/10. Here's a tidbit from my review:

    I so very rarely ever give a book a perfect A+ rating (the most recent was The Book Thief). I always seem to find some minor flaw or quibble to keep the score down to at least an A or A-. But this book is brilliant and flawless.

    Now to read more by O'Brien, yes? Me, too. :)

  16. Les,

    Yep, I'd put it right on par with The Book Thief. "Brilliant and flawless" is exactly my opinion. I tend to rate higher than you do, but I think that's at least partially because if I finish a book, I usually consider it at least average -- I don't make it through much of anything that can be rated lower, these days. But, The Things They Carried . . . I should have put a bunch of plus marks beside the 5.

    Yes, more O'Brien! I've got Going After Cacciato and If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. I think I might have one other title, too, but I'm such an airhead. Not sure if I do or not. Anyway, plenty of fine O'Brien reading ahead! Have you got any of his other books?

  17. Nope, but I plan to get Going After Cacciato. Another that sounds good is July, July. And In the Lake of the Woods. And Tomcat in Love. Lots to choose from. :)

  18. Les,

    I'd read anything by O'Brien. If I Die in a Combat Zone is his memoir and I wanted to read the true story, so that was the first book I put on my wishlist while I was reading TTTC. I'm not sure why I chose Going After Cacciato -- maybe it was just available at Paperback Swap, so I grabbed a copy -- but I'm thrilled to have them on my shelf and hope I'll manage to squeeze both in, this year.

  19. I plan to read this one for the Vietnam War Challenge too and am really looking forward to it. I gave my husband a copy of the book years ago as a gift but never actually read it myself (he was supposed to loan it to me but never did). I am glad you liked it so much.

  20. Wendy,

    You have much to look forward to. The Things They Carried is an amazing book. That's funny about your husband's copy. I bought my husband most of the Hornblower books and told him I wanted to read them, but they were scattered everywhere, by the time I decided I was determined to read the first (and I ended up having to replace Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, so I could read it).

  21. FYI - I just read this on today's Shelf Awareness:

    Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation: Tim O'Brien talks about the 20th-anniversary editions of The Things They Carried, available in hardcover (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, 9780547391175/054739117X) and paperback (Mariner, $14.95, 9780618706419/0618706410).

  22. Les,

    What is Talk of the Nation? I read his tour schedule. He's been on a tour to promote the 20th anniversary -- or is going to be on one (can't remember) but he wasn't coming anywhere near us.

  23. It's an NPR program:


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