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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
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.
127 of 139 people found this review helpful
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
This is a work of genius that must be read to understand the brutality and futility of war as well as the inescapable sadness of those that participated.
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.