Nov 11, 2016

Review: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

TitleThe Things They Carried
Authors: Tim O'Brien
Publisher: Mariner Books
Publishing Date: March 1, 1990
Pages/Format: 233, Paperback
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They carried malaria tablets, love letters, 28-pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated bibles, each other. And if they made it home alive, they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb. Since its first publication, The Things They Carried has become an unparalleled Vietnam testament, a classic work of American literature, and a profound study of men at war that illuminates the capacity, and the limits, of the human heart and soul.

The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three.

Book in One Word: Carrying

The Things They Carried isn't what I typically review on my blog. Though Beauty and the Bookshelf is, at its core, a YA blog, I'll still post about Middle Grade, New Adult, and Adult on occasion (and I'd say you can expect to see more of the latter, based on my mood reading as of late). But sometimes I'll read a book and I won't really consider reviewing it because, well, I don't need to review everything I read, do I? Do I bother with books I read for school? The Things They Carried, however, is a special case. It's required reading for school that doesn't feel like it was. It's a good book--a very, very good book--that deserves more love and recognition and readers. And since today's Veteran's Day, it's the perfect time to tell you about this little gem of a book.

When I think of war books and movies, I imagine stories packed with death and emotion and blazing guns and endless battles and a particular kind of grit. The Things They Carried has all of that, and yet it doesn't. As far as war stories go, it's simple with underlying sophistication, it's subtle. It's not the war film you go to see because you want to see action-filled combat--it's the war story you read to see the internal combat that's not always visible on the screen, that you read because you'd rather feel emotion through a soldier's letter than see it through the blood-specked scope of his gun.

The interesting thing about The Things They Carried is that it's a bit of a conundrum, a hodge podge of fact and fiction, truth and lies mixed together to the point where it's utterly believable. I've never been sure if this book is a book--as in, it's fiction--or if it's a novel, meaning it's nonfiction (or, quite possibly, creative nonfiction). It's Tim O'Brien's actual experience in the Vietnam war--but it also isn't. But it's not done or put forth in a way that's ridiculous or meant to be some sort of puzzle you're supposed to solve by the novel's end. The Things They Carried is a number of things, and one of those things is real.

The prose is rather simple and straightforward and just tells it like it is, but O'Brien still shows the story over telling it and ultimately making the read less powerful and impactful. He is, after all, recounting this story that may or may not be wholly real and that he may or may not have actually been privy to. And when you take everything, every single aspect of this book or novel or whatever you want to call it, it all works. The prose isn't flowery or filled with metaphors, and yet everything is a metaphor. The Things They Carried is a title and term that's both literal and metaphorical. It's literal in the sense that we know everything the men of the company carry, from weapons and ammo and medical supplies to photographs and letters and marijuana. But those four words strung together are really and truly a hardcore metaphor. We get to know these men intimately through the true, real things they carry: the guilt, the fear, the nothingness, the camaraderie, the desire to live, the question of how they can exist after all this. For the greatest things soldiers carry can't be seen, are deeper than the scars on their skin. And that--that right there--is exactly what this book is about and what it so excellently--and subtly--describes and brings to light.

You don't have to be the kind of person who likes watching war movies to like this book. I'm not that kind of person, and I have a particular sort of fondness for this book. I want to hold it close to me, wrap it in my arms and treasure it. The Things They Carried isn't this great big boom, this explosion of emotions and images sent to sweep you off your feet. No, The Things They Carried is meant to walk up to you, quietly startle you, take your hand, and gently walk you away. Where it will take you isn't happy, but it isn't exactly sad, either. But it's a novel worth reading--and a weight worth carrying.

Did I like it? Yes!
Did I love it? Yes.
Would I reread it? Already planning on doing so and filling it with annotations.
Would I purchase it? I now have two copies, thank you very much.
Who would I recommend it to? Everyone, plain and simple.

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