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Editorial Reviews

Editors Select, October - Bryan Cranston is turning in one of the great television performances as Walter White on the Emmy Award-winning Breaking Bad, so needless to say, I was thrilled to hear that he'd be narrating Tim O'Brien's classic The Things They Carried. I first experienced the book in high school, and to revisit it now with such a gifted performer is an absolute treat. Cranston fully inhabits O'Brien's collection of semi-autobiographical stories about the Vietnam War and brings to it a sense of experience and remembrance as though he were actually there. I've only heard a sample so far, but I'd already consider this one of the top audiobook performances of the year. —Chris, Audible Editor

Publisher's Summary

This modern classic and New York Times best seller was a finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award and has become a staple of American classrooms. Hailed by The New York Times as "a marvel of storytelling", The Things They Carried’s portrayal of the boots-on-the-ground experience of soldiers in the Vietnam War is a landmark in war writing. Now, three-time Emmy Award winner Bryan Cranston, star of the hit TV series Breaking Bad, delivers an electrifying performance that walks the book’s hallucinatory line between reality and fiction and highlights the emotional power of the spoken word.

The soldiers in this collection of stories carried M-16 rifles, M-60 machine guns, and M-79 grenade launchers. They carried plastic explosives, hand grenades, flak jackets, and landmines. But they also carried letters from home, illustrated Bibles, and pictures of their loved ones. Some of them carried extra food or comic books or drugs. Every man carried what he needed to survive, and those who did carried their shattering stories away from the jungle and back to a nation that would never understand.

This audiobook also includes an exclusive recording “The Vietnam in Me,” a recount of the author’s trip back to Vietnam in 1994, revisiting his experience there as a soldier 25 years before, read by Tim O’Brien himself.

The Things They Carried was produced by Audible Studios in partnership with Playtone, the celebrated film and television production company founded by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, and producer of the award-winning series Band of Brothers, John Adams, and The Pacific, as well as the HBO movie Game Change.

For more from Audible and Playtone, click here.

©1990 Tim O'Brien (P)2013 Audible, Inc.

Critic Reviews

"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.... [I]f you were a binge-watcher of Breaking Bad it will be no big deal to spend six hours in his company here." (The New York Times Book Review)
"Structurally the novel gestures to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, while Ryan's sensitive observations on Irish life seem responsive to the work of his compatriot Patrick McCabe. That Ryan does not look out of place in such literary company is a measure of his achievement." (The Financial Times)
"The best of these stories--and none is written with less than the sharp edge of honed vision--are memory and prophecy. These tell us not where we were but where we are, and perhaps where we will be. . . . It is an ultimate, indelible image of war in our time, and in time to come." (Los Angeles Times)
"O'Brien's haunting collection of connected stories about the Vietnam War is more alive than ever in this narration. Bryan Cranston's resonant, sometimes formal, performance often leaves the listener reeling. Cranston's voice is deep and patient, laying back to let the characters' collective pain take the fore. Memorable scenes include a man's receipt of his draft notice in "On the Rainy River," battle scenes in "The Man I Killed," and aspects of the war's aftermath in "Speaking of Courage." In all the works, Cranston offers a measured, compassionate voice. O'Brien's stories emphasize the importance of telling the truth of war stories, and Cranston's respect for his intent is clear and comforting. At times, his sonorous tone is hypnotic, but this is more an asset than a liability. All the better to make the listener feel." (AudioFile)

What members say

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Heavy Load

Like voices from the grave, devastatingly profound, and haunting. A review would be inappropriate, but my experience with this book was probably similar to other readers that were very young teens during the height of the Viet Nam war. Though I wore one of those MIA bracelets, sent neighbors and friend's older brothers off, went to Country Joe and the Fish concerts and yelled out the FISH cheer, I was young, distant, and naïve, and could only marginally intellectualize the atrocities and the nightly tally of deaths. Listening to Cranston narrate these stories gives faces to the words; the soldiers become flesh and blood -- not just characters and chapters. Their candid stories and Cranston's seriously brilliant interpretations were so achingly real that I could not listen long without pausing, or just stopping my device for a breather. (It took me 2 weeks to get through this.) This would be a much easier read, but hardly better; Cranston is able to convey the emotion, every chuckle, every hope, every pain, every horror. It's not always the obvious that is difficult to hear; the slaughter of the water buffalo wasn't half as savage as the fundamental experience that nurtured the attack... it's listening to the innocence and promise in these young soldiers as it ebbs away. It's looking back through the all-seeing eyes of retrospection and time, and probably also adding *mother* to the list of sister, daughter, girlfriend, neighbor. A vivid reminder of the fragility of life and the true cost of war. Like others have mentioned, there are several books concerning wars that give you that *boots-on-the-ground* feel, but this one, especially as it is performed here, is the emotional experience--to the degree that it can be shared.

125 of 137 people found this review helpful

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"Vietnam Was Partly Love"

The Things They Carried (1990) is a powerful audiobook, perfectly read by Bryan Cranston, and written with searing and sensitive honesty by Tim O'Brien. The book contains twenty-two Vietnam war stories based on O'Brien's experiences and those of his fellow soldiers during his one-year tour of duty in 1969. The pieces combine to vividly evoke what it was like before, during, and after the Vietnam War. And it's not only a Vietnam War book; it also explores universal questions of memory, imagination, language, reality, story, war, and love. For O'Brien, Vietnam becomes at times a metaphor for the world, and a state of mind as much as a physical place.

The title story introduces the war and the American men who fought in it by listing and explaining what they carried: war gear (helmets, boots, bandages, weaponry, etc.), practical things (canteens, c-rations, toilet paper, bug repellent, etc.), personal things (comic books, condoms, dope, photos, letters, basketballs, etc.), unpleasant things (infections, diseases, lice, molds, etc.), intangible things (fear, guilt, longing, grief, memories, etc.), and Vietnam itself (soil, sky, monsoons, etc.). They carried it all without any "sense of strategy or mission" or hope, moving by inertia. Through the lists O'Brien weaves the desperate fantasy love of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross for Martha, an unresponsive girl he dated once in college.

"Love" depicts Jimmy Cross' visit to O'Brien some years after the war, when the subject of his love, Martha, came up in conversation.

The third story, "Spin," concerns how memory makes the war now, while story makes it forever.

"The Rainy River" examines what to O'Brien was a colossal failure of conscience and nerve, his choice not to flee to Canada to avoid Vietnam: "I was a coward. I went to the war."

"Enemies" shows how the enemy is not always the guy fighting for the other country.

"Friends" ironically develops the situation between two enemies in the previous story.

"How to Tell a True War Story" anatomizes war, memory, fiction, and reality. "If you feel uplifted in the end [of a war story], if there is any rectitude, you've been made a victim of a years old and terrible lie."

"The Dentist" is a vignette about a bully's fear of dentists.

"Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" depicts the seductive call of nighttime jungle patrols to the soul of a 17-year-old girl visiting her boyfriend soldier: "I feel close to my own body. I'm glowing in the dark. I know exactly who I am. I couldn't feel that anywhere else."

"Stockings" proves the talismanic protective power of pantyhose.

"Church" is a quiet story in which the platoon occupies a pagoda, monks cleaning machine guns and soldiers talking about religion.

In "The Man I Killed" O'Brien describes a young VC soldier he killed, delicate body and smooth complexion, black pajama pants, blown out of his rubber sandals, one eye staring open, the other a star-shaped wound, his jaw knocked into his throat, his hopes and fears and goals and wife.

In "Ambush" O'Brien tells how he killed the man, and when his daughter asks him, "Have you have killed a man?" he says "No," but is still seeing "the young man step out of the fog."

In "Style" O'Brien depicts a callous soldier mocking the graceful dance of a Vietnamese girl before her burnt house and killed family.

After the war in "Speaking of Courage," Norman Bowker is at a loss at home, driving round and round his small town's prairie lake, houses, and 4th of July park, imagining telling the story of how he failed to get the silver medal for uncommon bravery.

"Notes" explains the "true" story behind "Speaking of Courage," revealing in a "slip" that it was O'Brien who failed to win that medal by failing to prevent his buddy from sinking into a field of excrement and mud during an appalling mortar barrage.

In "In the Field," the platoon searches that muck for the corpse of their fellow-soldier as O'Brien (?) tries to come to terms with his role in his friend's death.

In "Good Form" O'Brien says that apart from his having done a tour of duty in Vietnam, everything is invented. He didn't kill that young man but, having been present, he might as well have killed him. Story vs. truth. Or the truth of story.

20 years later in "Field Trip," visiting that same muck field with his 10-year-old daughter, he goes for a cleansing swim in it.

In "Ghost Soldiers" O'Brien deals with his second wounding injury and his vengeful hatred for the rookie medic who nearly killed him by mistreating him.

In "Night Life" a fellow soldier bugs out from the stress of high alert nights.

In the last story, "The Lives of the Dead," O'Brien interweaves his sad memories of Linda, a girl he loved as a boy ("Why do you think I'm dead?") with his memories of death during his tour of duty.

After The Things They Carried, an hour-long "bonus featurette" written and read by O'Brien, "The Vietnam in Me," (1994), closes the audiobook. This non-fiction piece depicts his return in 1994 to Vietnam with his lover, Kate, revisiting places of terrible carnage from his tour of duty and speaking with local people and trying to deal with his nightmarish memories, vivid nightmares, and love for Kate. I found this non-fiction piece more moving than The Things They Carried. I had felt that occasionally in his stories he is at times too consciously telling stories, both in his comments about the nature of memory, story, and truth, and in his talent for crafting perfect tales. That coupled with Bryan Cranston's stellar professional reading made for a moving and harrowing experience that at times felt crafted, acted, and story-like. By contrast, O'Brien's craggy, tenor voice is the voice of a plain, sensitive, and damaged person reading his failures, survivals, and losses, along with the self-delusional nature of America's mythology of righteous innocence. The burning truth of "The Vietnam in Me" as read by O'Brien scorches the stories.

Finally, O'Brien, who may feel like a coward to have gone to war, exercises intense bravery in his honest fictional autobiographies.

50 of 54 people found this review helpful

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  • Darwin8u
  • Mesa, AZ, United States
  • 10-16-13

Grief, terror, love, longing

These are just the intangibles that O'Brien packs into 'The Things They Carried'. There is something about Tim O'Brien's second (after 'Going After Cacciato') war masterpiece that just gets me. It is one of my favorite [I know, I know favorite isn't the right word and if I had more time, I'd figure out a better term] war novels ever. I love how O'Briend both masters and subverts the form. I love how he bends the reader through time and space. How O'Brien messes with the idea of what a true war story really is. This novel, along with 'Dispatches' by Kerr and 'Matterhorn' by Marlantes, infuses the Vietnam War with its own mass, a specific gravity and real tangible gravity. These fictional stories seem almost to be as true as any nonfiction books written about the War.

While I haven't been to war, both my brothers and a brother-in-law that have come back from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and the burdens they all returned with seem to reflect in this novel.

Finally, I'm not sure how they hooked Bryan Cranston for this narration, but it might just be my favorite narration EVER. Sir Anthony Hopkins nailed it when he wrote a note to Cranston about 'Breaking Bad':


That kind of work/artistry is rare, and when, once in a while, it occurs, as in this epic work, it restores confidence.

You and all the cast are the best actors I’ve ever seen.

That may sound like a good lung full of smoke blowing. But it is not. It’s almost midnight out here in Malibu, and I felt compelled to write this email.

Congratulations and my deepest respect. You are truly a great, great actor

Let me just add to and mimic the great Sir Anthony Hopkins. You Bryan are the best narrator I've ever HEARD.

75 of 85 people found this review helpful

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Terrible, Wonderful Voluptuous Realism

I first read this book long ago. When the audio version was released, I decided to revisit it. My initial reading made me feel this was an extraordinary collection of stories written with a kind of driven brilliance, an awful, playful bitter precision. Tim O'Brien is a master of descriptive writing. A reader would have to have serious cognitive deficits not to get pulled in and inundated in the stories. It wasn't until I listened to the audio version, narrated flawlessly by Bryan Cranston, that I noticed the voluptuous poetry of his language.

The book is an anthology of stories about the Vietnam War. Bound together by the theme of what is carried, it opens with the very literal list of what the men in his platoon carried and broadens out into the emotional scars, the guilt, the sense of loss, fear, unrequited love, of brotherhood and of the deadly numbness that is carried on the soul.

I was immensely grateful to encounter this book again.

50 of 57 people found this review helpful

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Just as powerful as the first time

I read this book when it came out, and it blew me away. This audio version retains all of the power and increases in intensity with Bryan Cranston's excellent narration. The Vietnam War was the backdrop to my childhood and early adolescence. It was always there. It seemed a miracle when it finally ended. Tim O'Brien gives a straight-ahead, unsentimental and humane account of his experiences in the war. I don't think I've read anything that left me with such a clear sense of what it was like for the soldiers. The book is beautifully written, the narration is superb, and the audio version includes a fascinating hour-long epilogue, read by Tim O'Brien, which is mostly about his visit to Vietnam in 1994.

This audio version is a great way to re-read the book or experience it for the first time. Highly recommended.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • B.J.
  • Minneapolis, MN, United States
  • 10-21-13

Raw and brilliant ... perfectly narrated

Before I can say anything about this book, I have to comment on the narration. It is so perfect that it becomes one with the book. It was startling at the end to actually hear the real Tim O'Brien. Cranston became him in the book.

O'Brien's writing can be raw. It's apparent how deeply personal the Viet Nam war was for him - and I'm sure many others. Though perhaps not physically wounded, the emotional wounds are deep. I can't imagine how painful it's been for O'Brien to write about this time again and again. I admire his ability to be so honest about the emotional damage, the fear, and the heartbreak.

It's probably because of that approach that I can even listen to this. When other books approach war from the events and atrocities, it's just too much. The way O'Brien writes, the horrid things that happen are described in a way that it helps me understand the emotional toll paid by a generation of young men.

This is, without a question, one of the most important books about the Viet Nam war and its personal impact. Don't miss it.

36 of 46 people found this review helpful

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  • Ron
  • Basehor, KS, United States
  • 10-17-13

More then a War Story.

Tim O'Brien does more then tell a story here. He is able to give you the feeling of being there in both the descriptive nature of his words and the emotions it conjurers within. I got the sense of how heavy and traumatic some of situations were. I do have to warn you, if you are looking for a romanticized version of war this is not the book for you. All of the questionable/disturbing actions of some of the soldiers to acts of heroism are on full display. At times the graphic nature can be disturbing. O'Brien begins this journey when he receives his draft notice, continues on thru the war and concludes his story a few decades after the war.

Bryan Cranston brings these characters to life. He truly does justice to Tim O'Brien's work with his ability to fully emerge you into this world. You will feel all the burdens, decisions, losses, and triumphs. Cranston’s performance is everything you would expect from an actor of his caliber.

19 of 24 people found this review helpful

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  • Michelle
  • Middletown, WI, United States
  • 11-12-13

Stark and poignant!

In many ways, The Things They Carried is a cathartic exercise in exorcising the demons created by Mr. O’Brien’s experiences in Vietnam. He lays the ghosts of his fellow soldiers to rest by sharing their stories; he knits together the wounds made by their losses and his inexplicable participation in a war to which he was opposed. The stories are powerful, made more so by the simple fact that so many people forget about the battles fought and the death toll inflicted on both sides during the conflict. Mr. O’Brien does not attempt to soften the images or extrapolate his experiences to the greater conflict. They are his own personal stories, and he holds no one accountable for them but himself.

What makes The Things They Carried different from other Vietnam War memoirs is the dream-like quality with which Mr. O’Brien infuses all of his stories. They happened, and they remain painful memories. They are not pleasant stories to hear – gruesome in their details and the callousness they show. Yet, they have a hallucinogenic quality to them that makes it easy to see why no one talks about the Vietnam War in the same way World War II still gets mentioned. Mr. O’Brien, with his political and philosophical opposition to the war, represents all of the soldiers fighting at that point in time. He is not proud to be fighting for his country; he does not understand the political aim of the fighting. It is as if his lack of convictions towards the political machinations of the conflict prevents him from seeing his past as little more than vivid, trauma-inducing dreams.

There is a bitterness to his stories that is difficult for readers to overcome. His feelings of futility while trekking throughout the Vietnam countryside, the senseless deaths of his friends and comrades, the guilt at surviving as well as the guilt for wanting to go back out into the bush combine with his feelings of disgust with the government for putting kids in harms’ way like that and allowing them to commit murder in the name of democracy to create a poisonous stew that is difficult to swallow. It is particularly prevalent in Mr. O’Brien’s self-narrated essay “The Vietnam in Me”, although the same tone persists throughout The Things They Carried as well.

Bryan Cranston proves himself to be just as good a narrator as an actor as he lends his voice to Mr. O’Brien’s heartfelt and gut-wrenching words. Mr. Cranston’s voice is the perfect blend of gruffness and earnestness, and it is easy to get lost in his performance. The pictures Mr. O’Brien paints of his war experiences are at times tough to experience, but Mr. Cranston’s performance is soothing and yet extremely effective in showcasing the frustration, confusion, impotence, anger, loneliness, loss, macabre humor, and fright every soldier experienced in and after the Vietnam War.

The Things They Carried is a collection of vignettes of the Vietnam War as experienced by a grunt and told as a method of seeking atonement for being one of the lucky few to walk away from the experience with a few physical scars and much-deeper psychological ones. It is not flashy; it does not seek to justify one’s actions. It is a humble story in that the author seeks not glory but closure. His desire to lay down his burdens shouldered during and after the war as a survivor is palpable, making a bleak collection of stories that much more powerful and poignant. The Things They Carried is a profound indictment against the futility of the war and a tremendous testament to those who disagreed with the reasons for fighting but went ahead and fought anyway.

18 of 23 people found this review helpful

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Powerful, brutal and beautiful

A perfect match of writer and narrator. Even if you are not interested in war/combat/Vietnam, this is worth listening to. Beautiful prose, brutal and powerful, perfect narration by Bryan Cranston.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Debbie
  • Toney, Alabama
  • 12-04-14

Raw, Haunting, Ruthlessly Open Account

Vietnam described in ways you never expect . . . my husband (a retired SGM) and I listened to this on a road trip recently . . . at times we laughed, totally familiar with the military terms, at other times we were totally silent . . . no words . . . absolutely NO words to describe what we were feeling . . . this is not the patriotic, hero stories of comrades at war . . . it's the down in the crap (literally), sinking into despair, wondering what the hell you are there for, tale of soldiers trying to make it one day at a time in a war that nobody wanted to fight . . . it's truthful and hard to swallow . . . it's honest beyond anything I've ever heard on Vietnam . . . no matter what your politics, you need to hear it . . .

11 of 14 people found this review helpful

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  • John
  • 12-24-14

What is a true war story?

What is a true war story? Can there be such a thing? Tim O'Brien ponders this and explains that there is not, at least not really. These tales and memories and anecdotes of his time in Vietnam all coalesce into a book with great gravity and poetry. War is awful and beautiful, boring and terrifying, and so intense that it overrules all else for the dead and the living alike. There a is an authentic and truthful power in the rumours and stories told, that was so strong it can't be described by me. And Bryan Cranston's reading is wonderful.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Huskyaddict
  • 04-30-17


I think this has been the most moving war story I have ever read. Beautiful and terrible. Performances are perfect. Just listened to the last chapter...stunned. A book that Will stay with you always

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 02-22-17

Thoroughly Good.

Possibly the best book listened to for a long while. True fear, love, loss, heartache. Definitely recommend.

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  • Chris
  • 02-20-17

Bryan Cranston was a pleasure to listen too

if not for Cranston this story would have been lost. the author seems to be in a lot of pain. I admire the author for writing about Nam and his personal struggle and Cranston for giving it a voice.

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