In 2010, the focus shifts to the Vietnam War and in honor of that shift, A Reader's Respite picked up a copy Tim O'Brien's award-winning book, The Things They Carried.
First published in 1990, it turns out that this book is a pretty big deal (how did we not know about this?). Not only was it a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, but it won the French Prix du Meilluer Livre Etranger (big, BIG award over there) and is taught in literature classes worldwide. Evidently, A Reader's Respite's professors were somewhat provincial, since we're pretty sure they never mentioned this book in any of our lit classes.
The Things They Carried is a collection of stories all revolving around O'Brien's experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. As a foot soldier, young and confused, he did what thousands of American boys did: he muddled his way through. Fortunate to survive the war, he couldn't escape the memories. Writing became a way to synthesize trauma of a war with no apparent purpose.
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. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.
O'Brien's stories, all of them so intricately connected that it seems like a seamless novel at times, convey the soldier's dichotomy of innocence and brutality: "For all my education, all my fine liberal values, I now felt a deep coldness inside me, something dark and beyond reason. It's a hard thing to admit, even to myself, but I was capable of evil."
All facets of the war are examined within these pages: the brutal death of a close friend, the suicides that came later, the political insanity, the day-to-day drudgery. The elegant combination of these facets don't provide any answers or larger moral story. There is, however, the distinct impression that a catharsis may have been reached for O'Brien and that, in and of itself, makes the book worth your time.
What did we learn from this book? Perhaps the most enduring passage - that is to say, the part that we'll remember even ten or twenty years from now - involved O'Brien's distinction between truths:
I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.
Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.
Here is the story truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.
What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.
A Reader's Respite has been reading a lot of blog posts recently that talk about purposeful reading in 2010. If that is your goal, this book is a worthy objective.
FTC Disclosure: This book came from a bookstore. A used bookstore, as a matter of fact. It was recommended to us by Amanda from A Bookshelf Monstrosity, who said we wouldn't regret reading this book and she was absolutely correct.