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The things they carried [DAPL book club kit]
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New York Times Review
"OFTEN IN A true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn't hit you until 20 years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you've forgotten the point again." This passage, from a chapter called "How to Tell a True War Story," gives succinct voice to some of the themes that preoccupy Tim O'Brien in "The Things They Carried." Described simply as "a work of fiction," the book is self-evidently autobiographical, a record of the memories of a writer in his 40s named Tim O'Brien, who two decades earlier was a soldier in Vietnam. His account of what happened - amid the hamlets and forests of the Batangan Peninsula and in other areas of operation - to him and the other members of his platoon is punctuated by rueful, sometimes anguished reflections on the elusiveness of meaning and the fraught relationship between truth and invention. War - perhaps especially a war that, on the American side, began in deception and continued in confusion - has a way of blurring such distinctions. What happens in combat can be grotesque, absurd, senseless and transcendent, sometimes all at once. Capturing this in prose that upholds the post-Hemingway, Raymond Carver-era values of plainness and specificity is a challenge. "In any war story, but especially a true one," O'Brien writes, "it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen." As a result, the standard of truth is not epistemological, but visceral: "It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe." "The Things They Carried" has lived in the bellies of American readers for more than two decades. O'Brien's third book about Vietnam (following "If I Die in a Combat Zone" and "Going After Cacciato"), it sits on the narrow shelf of indispensable works by witnesses to and participants in the fighting, alongside Michael Herr's "Dispatches," Tobias Wolff's "In Pharaoh's Army" and James Webb's "Fields of Fire." While he conveys the details of grunt-level life and death - the weight of boots and weapons, the smell of mud and vegetation, the split-second swerves from tedium to terror - with startling immediacy, O'Brien is also haunted by the way experience is altered by the passage of time, by the gap that opens up between his young and middle-aged selves. Some of the most wrenching moments in the book find him back home, at 43, with a career and a family and a restless itch to make sense of his earlier transformation from a Minnesota college student with mildly antiwar politics to a member of the squad whose stories he will eventually borrow. In 1990, when Houghton Mifflin published the book, Vietnam was still recent history, its individual and collective wounds far from healed. Just as the years between combat and publication affected O'Brien's perception of events, so has an almost exactly equal span changed the character of the writing. "The Things They Carried" is now, like the war it depicts, an object of classroom study, kept relevant more by its craft than by the urgency of its subject matter. The raw, restless, anguished reckoning inscribed in its pages - the "gut hate" and comradely love that motivated the soldiers - has come to reflect conventional historical wisdom. Over time, America's wars are written in shorthand: World War II is noble sacrifice; the Civil War, tragic fratricide; Vietnam, black humor and moral ambiguity. Which is partly what makes Bryan Cranston a more than suitable choice to narrate the new audiobook edition of "The Things They Carried." Thanks to his role on "Breaking Bad," Cranston may be the most charismatic embodiment of moral ambiguity we currently possess. There was always something comforting as well as menacing in Walter White's voice, and Cranston attacks O'Brien's sober, sinewy prose with slightly scary authority. In print, "The Things They Carried" is a fast read, less because of narrative momentum - it is a compendium of vignettes and digressions, not a traditional novel - than because of the intimate urgency of the voice. There is an Ancient Mariner quality to the narrator; he needs you to listen to his tale, even if he remains uncertain of its import. You need to know the names of his comrades (Rat Kiley, Kiowa, Norman Bowker and Ted Lavender) and to hear the gruesome and comical facts of their lives and deaths. It is impossible, it feels insensitive, to turn away before the recitation is finished. Cranston's reading has a similar quality, and in any case, if you were a binge-watcher of "Breaking Bad" it will be no big deal to spend six hours in his company here. His calm, gravelly diction, unmarked by any noticeable regional accent, carries a faint echo of Walter Cronkite, who delivered the news from 'Nam with a matter-of-factness inflected with moral concern. But Cranston is also a capable mimic, and he does the Army in different voices. Characters who on the page are names, fates and identifying attributes grow into a chorus of American regional and ethnic types - Native American, African-American, Midwestern, Southern. Sometimes the impressions feel a little too on the nose, as if we are watching a corny World War II platoon picture, and the voices of Vietnamese and female characters edge close to caricature. But for the most part the individuality of long-dead, sparely sketched people is honored and restored. The novel's two best sections - the account of an aimless drive around an Iowa lake interspersed with flashbacks to a horrible night in a Vietnamese bog, and the chronicle of an abortive flight to Canada on O'Brien's part - take on new and gripping power. This audiobook is one of the first fruits of a collaboration between Amazon's Audible and Playtone, Tom Hanks's production company, that aims to bring important works of American literature and history into the format. "The Things They Carried" certainly qualifies, and so, in its modest way, does "The Vietnam in Me," an essay by O'Brien included as a bonus, read by the author himself. Originally published in The New York Times in 1994, it juxtaposes scenes from a visit to Vietnam O'Brien took in the company of a younger girlfriend with his bitter reflections, a few months later, on the end of their relationship. "The Vietnam in Me" is a rougher piece of writing than "The Things They Carried," and hearing them together makes you realize that the book, for all its anguish and unsettlement, is a highly disciplined and polished literary performance. Hearing O'Brien read the essay aloud is also startling. He has a writer's voice, not an actor's, sometimes short of breath and usually rising at the end of a sentence in the default cadence of spoken-word performance. You detect Minnesota in the flatness of his vowels and also, perhaps, Vietnam in his scratchy, weary, nervous vocalization. What you also hear is some of the grief and anger that were always part of the invisible baggage of "The Things They Carried," and that turn out, 20 years later, to have been the point of the story all along. A.O. SCOTT is a chief film critic for The Times.
Library Journal Review
Winner of a National Book Award in 1979 for Going After Cacciato ( LJ 12/15/77), O'Brien again shows his literary stuff with this brilliant collection of short stories, many of which have won literary recognition (several appeared in O. Henry Awards' collections and Best American Short Stories ). Each of the 22 tales relates the exploits and personalities of a fictional platoon of American soldiers in Vietnam. An acutely painful reading experience, this collection should be read as a book and not a mere selection of stories reprinted from magazines. Not since Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse - Five ( LJ 3/1/69) has the American soldier been portrayed with such poignance and sincerity. Literary Guild featured alternate. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/89.-- Mark Annichiarico, ``Library Journal'' (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
O'Brien's collection of short stories, which he describes as fiction, is one of the most seminal works about the Vietnam War. It follows grunts trudging through hostile country and describes, as one might surmise from the title, the things they carried. These artifacts-comics, possible love letters, Bibles, photographs, and compasses, as well as the necessary array of military items-reflect the character of each man and the world in which he exists as a soldier. Narrator Cranston provides a fine performance in this audio edition. He has a gravelly, rich voice that's perfect for the material. As he embodies different soldiers, Cranston's voice alternates between melancholic, wistful, disaffected, and resigned. He's less successful, however, when voicing female characters. However, these instances are rare, as O'Brien's text largely focuses on the interior workings of the soldiers on the ground. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal Review
YA-- A series of stories about the Vietnam experience, based on the author's recollections. O'Brien begins by sharing the talismans and treasures his select small band of young soldiers carry into battle. The tales, ranging from a paragraph to 20 or so pages, reveal one truth after another. Sometimes the author tells the same story from different points of view, revealing the lingering, sometimes consuming, effect war leaves on the soul. In the end, readers are left with a mental and emotional sphere of mirrors, each reflecting a speck of truth about the things men carry into and out of war. In addition to leisure reading, this collection offers potential for history classes studying war, for English classes doing units on short stories, and perhaps for sociology or psychology assignments.-- Barbara Hawkins, West Potomac High, Fairfax County, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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