I was so stunned by this book, I've had a hard time formulating what to say. O'Brien starts the book by telling us, in detail, the material things that soldiers carried in the Vietnam War. Quickly he moves into telling us about the profound things that soldiers carried during and after the war. Things = Stories. The stories men tell to each other, the stories men tell to themselves and the stories they carry with them for the rest of their lives. They are constantly telling stories, and there seems to be an obsession about sorting out what's true and what's an embellishment or a downright lie. War heightens all senses, and I imagine it is almost impossible to stay clear on what's real and what isn't in the stories they tell over and over and as the actual experience of it recedes into the past. Their stories and the telling of them are both a balm and a curse.
As I read The Things They Carried, I kept questioning if this was a fictional account of O'Brien's experiences before, during and after the war or if it was a series of related non-fiction essays. That question was answered when after the book ended, there was an hour left which was devoted to O'Brien reading an essay he did for the NY Times about his return to Vietnam in 1994. It was clear then that the book was fiction.
I thought O'Brien's writing was outstanding. Equally outstanding was how Bryan Cranston brought his writing to life. I listened to most of this on a long car trip and felt transported by his storytelling to another dimension. While most of the book takes place in Vietnam, he also tells of his life before and after the war, which creates context and understanding. I often complain that authors don't know how to end their book - not so here. The ending was exquisite and poignant.
I'm not sure this book is for everyone. Parts were hard to listen to and brought tears to my eyes. This was especially true when listening to the author read his essay of his return to Vietnam. But I thank you, Tim O'Brien, for telling your story.
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