The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

How is it that I'm only now finding this book, 30 years after it was published? I've seen countless movies about the Viet Nam war, read books and stories, and watched it's ugly scenes unfold before my eyes on tv as they were happening, but somehow I missed this book, surely the best of them all.

The structure is hard to describe because it's unlike anything I've read before. It's fiction, but not a novel in the usual sense of the word, nor short stories as we know them. It's more a series of vignettes that tell a story, less as a progression of events than an array of sights, sounds, smells and emotions that come at you from everywhere.

Beyond simply telling us what happened, he takes us into the minds of the characters to share their thoughts and feelings while things are happening. He makes the experience so vivid, so immediate, that it settles into your memory as though you had actually been through it yourself, yet it's as beautiful as it is shattering. O'Brien bares the souls of his characters, and as we look into them, we find something of ourselves. It's exhilarating and terrifying and powerfully intimate. 

In and around all the war stories, he asks us to consider what qualifies as a true war story. Does adherence to the facts make it true or is conveying the right sensations the important thing? He skillfully blurs the lines between truth and fiction, leaving you to decide for yourself which stories are factual and whether or not it even matters. 

This is an amazing book, one that should be required reading for every adult on the planet.


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