Literature and War Readalong September 30 2011: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried  by Tim O’Brien has become a classic of American literature and the genre of “war writing”. O’Brien served in Vietnam which gives his writing a poignancy not every writer can achieve.

I’ve been looking forward to reading this since months as I am also highly interested in its form. The Things They Carried should work as a collection of short stories and as a novel.

O’Brien has written other books that are highly acclaimed like If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato. I chose to read The Things They Carried because I have read excerpts of the book in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer that made me very curious.

Numerous novels have been written on the Vietnam war. So far I have only read Machine Dreams by Jane Anne Phillips. I got Matterhorn and the October readalong title by Tatjana Soli The Lotus Eaters on my TBR pile. Another book that impressed me, although not a novel, was Dear America – Letters Home from Vietnam.

Do you have any other suggestions?

41 thoughts on “Literature and War Readalong September 30 2011: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

  1. For war stories, I like Peace by Richard Bausch very much and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. I’m a fan of short story and these novellas are excellent.

    • Thanks a lot for the comment. I love short stories a great deal. I got a short story collection by Denis Johnson but not the one you mention. I will also have to look for Peace. Thanks.

  2. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American takes place in Vietnam shortly before America ramps up its involvement in the war. So this novel doesn’t have a lot of specific war details, but focuses on the uneasy time just before. If you enjoy Greene in general, as I do, this novel is great on many levels.

    • I have not read all that many Graham Greene novels but all I read so far was really good. I keep on forgetting The Quiet American, thanks for reminding me. I think, I need to read it.

  3. I mistaken mentioned Train Dreams by Denis Johnson which I am currently reading and it is not a war story! Sorry about that. His Tree of Smoke is about Vietnam war. I have just finished Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine (novella) and it is told from the point of view of characters in a Japanese family taken to internment camps in US. A different kind of war story I suppose and the writing is quite good — short story like.

    • No worries. I got the Tree of Smoke. I heard a lot of good things about it. Would have been nice to have a war novella from Johnson to include next year. The readalong works better when the books are shorter.
      Bausch is decidedly a good option. I’ll have a look at that novella from Otsuka too, tanks.

  4. I’ve not really read any novels about the Vietnam war, but Tim O’Brien always comes to mind when I think of doing so. It is a book that is taught on the campus where I work–as a matter of fact the library copy is now overdue so I broke down and ordered a copy and am looking forward to reading it as well.

    • All the excerpts I read were absolutely great. I don’t know whether it will be gruesome. Possibly, as he was there. But it is short… Not like History, thank God. 🙂

      • I think if I managed to get through both Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (and sorry I’ve not written about it–may still try and do so) and Endo’s The Sea and Poison nothing surely can be more gruesome? If I can get through History before the end of the year I will be happy! 🙂

        • Yes, maybe. There are different kinds of gruesome though. I had a hard time with the facial wounds in The Winter of the World but found both the Endo and Levi very depressing. I can’t even say which one affected me more.

    • Thanks Stu. I envy your courage to read Nadas. I think he is fantastic writer but the books are mostly soo long. I’d love to read him and am curious what you will think.

  5. There are so many great books. This war was incredibly fertile for literature. here are some of my favorites:

    Fields of Fire (James Webb) – combat novel following a small unit in the jungle

    Dispatches (Michael Herr) – similar to Things; stream of consciousness, visceral

    Fallen Angels (William Dean Myers) – young adult fiction, but a great book; one of my all time favorites; follows a heterogeneous small unit; main characters are two blacks

    Everything We Had (Al Santoli) – the best oral history

    The Thirteenth Valley (John Del Vecchio) – similar to Matterhorn

    The Short Timers (Gustav Hasford) – the basis for “Full Metal Jacket”; find out what happened after the end of the movie; available for free on the Internet; better than the movie

    A Rumor of War (Philip Caputo) – the first great book; a true story, but reads like a novel

    We Were Soldiers… (Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway) nonfiction, but very good; the movie without the religion or the women

    They Marched Into Sunlight (David Marannis) – one of the best books I have read in the last five years; nonfiction pairing a battle with a college protest; awesome book!

    The Vietnam Reader (Stewart O’Nan) – the best collection of excerpts from every type of Vietnam literature

    • Thank you so much for this list. I think I will have to put some on the wish list right away. I think I have A Rumor of War somewhere, but that is the only one. I’m particularly interested in 2-4. I want to include a YA novel next year.
      I’m looking forward to get started on The Things They Carried now.

    • It is good, isn’t it? I read one that I found among my grandmother’s books with letters from German soldiers from Stalingrad. Outstanding. But the letters from Vietanm opened my eyes about so many things. I saw that comment recmmending Matterhorn but would not have thought you’d give in. I should read it but it is long. I might read the Johnson first, I think he is the better writer.

    • It’s a famous war, indeed. Next year I might include a Vietnamese book on the war.
      The civil war will be the last we will be reading about this year. Not exactly chronological but that doesn’t matter.
      What happened, your comment was spammed?

      • WP did that sometimes, fortunately not often. Now I understand why I didn’t see my comment when I first wrote it.

        Would you consider Asia Pasific war for next year? the book I have just finished could be perfect for your project. Will write my review as soon as I can. It covers the war in Dutch colonialism, Japan Imperialism and back to Dutch again.

        The book has both good and bad sides…I was wondering if others will think the same too.

        • I would definitely consider it, yes, and am very interested in reading your review. The year has only 12 months though and at present I have a list of 22 books already. I might let people help decide. I think I will start a project on the side and I could include it there.

  6. Wonderful post, Caroline! This read-along is a wonderful idea! Are you hosting it?

    Tim O’Brien’s book looks wonderful!

    Some of my favourite war books and books that I want to read are :

    (1) Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
    (2) For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
    (3) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
    (4) Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (Blunden’s memoir of his time as a soldier in the first world war – Blunden’s prose is beautiful)

    Do civil wars count for this read-along?

    • Thanks, Vishy, I’m glad you like the idea. Yes, I’m the host. There is still plenty of time should you want to read along. There is a page on the upper right side of my blog where you can see this year’s “program”. The last two books we will read are from the Civil War. Killer Angels and Cold Mountain.
      I’m a huge Hemingway fan and love both novels but I’m an even bigger fan of Remarque. All Quiet on the Wesetern front is, together with Sebastian Faulks Bidsong and Pat barker’s Regeneration Trilogy the best I’ve read so far about war. I also like Remarque’s Arch of Triumph
      I do not know Bulnden and am glad you mentioned him. I’m very interested. Thanks.

      • Thanks Caroline. It looks like I have missed nearly a whole year of literature-and-war readalongs 🙂 I will try to participate in one of the readalongs which are still on for the year. Thanks for hosting these wonderful readalongs!

        • That’s great news, Vishy. You are very welcome.
          Usually I post my review on the last Friday of the month. Some only partcicpate in the discussion, others post as well and I link to their posts.
          Any way you choose is fine.

  7. I have yet to read “Matterhorn” but have it on my list. May I suggest “Fire in the Lake” by Frances FitzGerald? It is not fiction but a
    book I think everyone who has interest in this tragic war should read.

    I read “The Disappeared” in July, not about Vietnam but about Cambodia. I found it a great read.

    • Thanks for the suggestions, Gavin. I’m glad for good non-fiction suggestions. I really want to mix more next year and I want to turn the whole readaong into a proper project.
      I bought The Disappeard right after I read your great review. It’s high on the TBR pile. I think i will not be able to wait until next year for that one.

  8. I’ve always meant to read this book. I’m excited to hear your review. I wish I could read it this month, but I can’t fit it in. I really hope you enjoy it.

    • It would have been nice to have you read along but this will be a busy month for you. Once you are settled… And don’t forget… There is always next year. The joys of planning. 🙂
      I have mixed feeling, in general when I look forward too much to reading a book..

      • I will do my best to join a few next year. These read alongs are perfect for me since I studied wars in college and grad school. WWII is my specialty, but I’m fascinated with most history. And I still need to watch some of the movies you’ve suggested. I just ran out of time in Boston. But I’m pretty sure I can track them down in my new town. Have a great weekend!

  9. I don’t know any Vietnam books to recommend, but it’s very interesting reading your thoughs about Tim O’Brien and all the suggestions your readers have offered here. I tend to like books more about those left behind than about those involved in the frontline of war. The only books that broke that rule were French ones: Le livre des nuits by Sylvie Germain and Voyage au bout de la nuit by Celine. But I was a lot younger when I read them, so that may account for the huge impression they made.

    • Voyage au bout de la nuit was my favourite book when I read it. Céline was my favourite author. But I was 16 and didn’t know about his life… I’m sad it spoilt a great writer for me.
      I never read Sylvie Germain. My father read it and he went through a series of sleepless nights full of screaming and nightmares. He said there were scenes describing what he had seen when he was there.
      It upset me. I also rarely watch movies on the war in Algeria.
      Thanks for reminding me of Sylvie Germain.

      • I just realized that it was Nuit d’Ambre in which she wrote about Algeria. My father read all of her books but Nuit d’Amre upset him. It’s the sequel to Le livre des nuits, I think.

  10. I was tempted and it took me some time to decide if I’ll join you or not.
    I have so many unread books that I’m going to be reasonable and follow your review and the discussion.

    • It’s quite a short book, you got still time but I understand very well, I’m like you, even though I’m tempted sometimes, I need to say no or I put myself too much under pressure.

  11. Matterhorn was awesome! I hope you get a chance to read it soon. I know it’s long, but I was so involved in the story and the characters, I honestly forgot about its length and actually felt like it could have been longer. 😉

    I read The Things They Carried last year, so I definitely will join in the discussion!

  12. Dispatches is excellent. Not always strictly truthful apparently, but excellent.

    A Farewell to Arms is tremendous.

    On a slightly different note, Joe Haldeman’s SF novel The Forever War is actually about his experiences in Vietnam. Originally he couldn’t get it published because publishers thought it too obviously about the war and too angry.

    If you do read it, whatever you do don’t read the sequels. The original is a classic. The sequels, well, misguided is probably the kindest word.

    The other biggies are of course Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-5.

    • I will really need to read Dispatches. I agree on A Farewell to Arms.
      I got Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-5. Bost must reads I think. Thanks, I might consider Vonnegut for next year.
      Another one that I need to re-read or finish rather is Gravity’s Rainbow.
      And thanks a lot for the comment on Haldeman. That sounds very interesting. After discovering Dune this year I’m still in the mood to read other SF classics (despite the fact that I didn’t appreciate Herbert’s style).

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