Archive for the ‘vietnam war’ Category

going after cacciato

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

“The point is that war is war no matter how it is perceived.  War has its own reality.  War kills and maims and rips up the land and makes orphans and widows.  These are the things of war.  Any war.”

(from Going After Cacciato, page 197)

Quick summary: Going After Cacciato, winner of the 1979 National Book Award, is one of the most unique war novels I’ve ever read. Tim O’Brien tells the story of a soldier during the Vietnam War who simply decides to leave the war and walk from the jungle all the way to Paris. The novel is told through the point of view of Paul Berlin, one of the soldiers who sets off on the mission to find Cacciato. O’Brien plays with the novel’s timeline, so readers alternate between following Paul Berlin on the journey to fetch Cacciato, going back in time to when Paul Berlin first joined the war and witnessing the horrifying things he saw during those months before Cacciato left the war, and moving forward in time to an observation post on the sea as Paul Berlin spends the long night contemplating what happened with Cacciato.

Why I wanted to read it: I’m a huge fan of Tim O’Brien. His writing is fantastic and thought-provoking. The Things They Carried is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’d let Going After Cacciato sit unread on my shelf for too long.

What I liked: I thought the shifts back and forth in time were clever, allowing the layers of detail about the various soldiers and the mission from Quang Ngai to Paris to be pulled back one by one. I also enjoyed the element of fantasy in this novel and how O’Brien kept me guessing about the events of the story until the very end. His writing always packs a punch, with vivid imagery that makes you feel like you are wading through the paddies or sweating through the jungles or marching the dusty trails alongside the characters. He manages to balance weighty discussions about war and its purpose with the reality of what the soldiers endured on a daily basis.

What I disliked: At first, the time shifts were jarring, but after a few chapters, I understood the structure of the novel and was immersed in the story. This definitely is a novel where readers just have to go with the flow and hang on for the ride without knowing what to expect.

Final thoughts: While I didn’t love Going After Cacciato as much as The Things They Carried, I am able to appreciate it as a brilliant war novel. O’Brien explores the blurred boundaries between true and fictional war stories in The Things They Carried, and in Going After Cacciato, he focuses on the line between reality and fantasy. Reading about what these soldiers endured makes it easy to believe that they would want to simply walk away from it all. Going After Cacciato focuses on the evolution of a soldier, the lessons he learns over time, the fear he fights to control, and the coping mechanisms that become necessary to simply survive another day.

war challenge with a twist

Book 30 for the War Challenge With a Twist (Vietnam)

historical fiction challenge

Book 28 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: Going After Cacciato is from my personal library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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going after cacciatoFor the December readalong for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist at War Through the Generations, Serena and I are turning our attention to Vietnam.  Tim O’Brien always comes to mind when I think about books about the Vietnam War, and I can’t wait to finally read the copy of Going After Cacciato that has been sitting on my shelf for too long.

“To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby-Dick a novel about whales.”

So wrote the New York Times of Tim O’Brien’s now classic novel of Vietnam.  Winner of the 1979 National Book Award, Going After Cacciato captures the peculiar mixture of horror and hallucination that marked this strangest of wars.  In a blend of reality and fantasy, this novel tells the story of a young soldier who one day lays down his rifle and sets off on a quixotic journey from the jungles of Indochina to the streets of Paris.  In its memorable evocation of men both fleeing from and meeting the demands of battle, Going After Cacciato stands as much more than just a great war novel.  Ultimately it’s about the forces of fear and heroism that do battle in the hearts of us all.  (publisher’s summary)

Here’s the schedule for the discussions, which will be held on War Through the Generations:

Friday, Dec. 12: Chapters 1-24

Friday, Dec. 19: Chapters 24-the end

We hope you will read along with us, and even if you’ve already read the book, please feel free to join the discussion!

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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no surrender soldier

Source: Review copy from Merit Press
Rating: ★★★★☆

That steamy, bloody day in 1944 when the Americans stormed the island of Guam, the moment had come.  Seto’s moment of decision.  Should he charge back over the mountain and face the US Marines with his rifle and bayonet?  Or should he be done with it?  He would disembowel himself like a true samurai.

If he did neither, Seto knew he would shame his family name, bring shame to the emperor and Japan.  His head throbbed at this moment of decision.  Bile rose in his throat.

(from No Surrender Soldier, pages 8-9)

No Surrender Soldier is a young adult novel set in Guam in 1972 during the Vietnam War.  Fifteen-year-old Kiko is worried about his older brother, Sammy, who is off fighting, and his grandfather, Tatan, who is becoming harder to handle due to dementia.  He would rather be hanging out with his friends and the girl he likes, but instead, he is forced to either work in his parents’ store or babysit Tatan.  When Tatan loses himself in memories of the Japanese occupation of the island during World War II and attacks a Japanese man, Kiko learns that his mother was raped by a Japanese soldier during the war.  He doesn’t know how to handle this knowledge or his concern about his brother and grandfather, and he is filled with murderous rage when he comes face to face with a Japanese man hiding in the jungle behind his home.

Interspersed with Kiko’s first-person narrative is the story of Isamu Seto, a Japanese soldier who never surrendered when the Americans took over the island in 1944.  Christine Kohler, who based Seto on the true story of Shoichi Yokoi (which she explains in an Author’s Note at the end of the book), describes how one man can survive for 28 years in hiding, living off the land.  Seto lives in his memories of his childhood in Japan and fights to keep from losing his mind when the ghosts of his fallen comrades haunt him at night.  And when Seto sees a boy, an old man, and a dog prowling through the jungle, his fear of being caught after all these years takes over.

No Surrender Soldier is an emotional tale of the effects of war years after peace has been declared, both on the survivors of the atrocities and the children born long after the fact.  Kiko is a typical teenager, focused on himself, embarrassed by his grandfather’s behavior, and shy around the girl he likes.  He has always dismissed the war stories told by the old timers, until it gets personal.  Kiko can’t help but be angry, but it soon spirals out of control.  It’s not hard for readers to feel for Kiko, with all he is dealing with at home, and Kohler does a great job developing and evolving this character.

While billed as a novel for young adults, No Surrender Solider deals with some heavy issues, like rape and dementia.  There is an intense war scene and a pretty graphic scene involving the slaughter of an animal for food.  No Surrender Soldier is not only a story about war but also a story about relationships, namely Kiko’s ties to his grandfather, his parents, and his best friend and how his anger and inner turmoil threaten and also strengthen these bonds.  Kohler brings the jungles of Guam to life in this novel and shows how war leaves deep scars on a country and its people for decades to come.

war challenge with a twist

Book 2 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII/Vietnam)

historical fiction challenge

Book 2 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received No Surrender Solider from Merit Press for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Review copy from Julia Drake PR
Rating: ★★★★★

This country was blessed with so much abundance, even in this bleak and barren city.  But I did not care about these things.  All I wanted was to be home, our true home, living in our quiet village.  Working in our fields.  It puzzled me that the American officials had flown simple farmers from the highlands of Laos across oceans and continents to live in a city like this.  It made no sense.  Nothing in this new life made any sense.

(from Across the Mekong River, page 99)

Across the Mekong River is a beautifully complex story of the immigrant experience, one that surprised me with its wonderfully flawed characters and intense emotion.  I know many readers shun self-published novels, but in this case, you’d be doing yourself a great disservice because Elaine Russell’s story of a family fleeing the communist government in Laos is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Russell begins the story in 1990, 12 years after Ly Nou, then age five, her parents, and two older brothers fled Laos, making a frenzied escape with several other family members across the Mekong River into Thailand.  Now known as Laura Lee, she is in a courtroom in California, pitted against the father she loves so much for reasons that will become clear to readers as her story unfolds.  She details the terror of those moments on the run from the communist Pathet Laos, which was allied with the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.  Nou’s family are Hmong, an ethnic tribe that lived and farmed on the hillsides of Laos and was treated brutally by the communist government for siding with the Americans during the Vietnam War.

Across the Mekong River is told in alternating viewpoints by Nou/Laura, her father, Pao, and her mother, Yer, beginning at the end of the civil war in Laos in 1973.  When the war ended, Pao leaves the military and returns to his village to farm and live peacefully with his family, only to become a prisoner when the communists take over the government in 1975.  Yer details the fear that permeated the village during the war and after, how the communists would arrive unannounced and the women would have to run for their lives.  As much as they love their land and despite its connections to the ancestors and spirits whom they worship, they have no choice but to run for their lives.

But the refugee camp in Thailand to which they flee in 1978 is no picnic.  The stench, the filth, and the hunger are unbearable, and Pao and his daughter can do nothing but watch Yer withdraw as grief overwhelms her.  Even after reuniting with relatives in another refugee camp, the family realizes it cannot sit in limbo in such horrid conditions forever, as returning to their homeland is not likely.  Russell follows the family as they relocate to the United States, first in Minneapolis and then in Sacramento.  In great detail, she describes the Hmong culture, how they adjusted or failed to adjust to life in America, the discrimination they faced due to plain ignorance as well as anger about the Vietnam War, and how they struggled to make ends meet in a city plagued by gang violence.  Being able to see the experience from the eyes of each character made the book more powerful than it would have been otherwise.

Readers see Pao transition from a smart, successful student and content farmer in Laos, a man whose culture gives him authority over his family, to a struggling immigrant trying to grasp the English language, take care of his expanding family, and grasp the fact that his authority goes only so far in America.  He understands that adjustments need to be made to succeed in America and supports Nou’s education, but like Yer — who longs for her homeland and resists the changes forced upon her — he expects Nou to honor the family, retain the Hmong customs, and marry a Hmong man when her parents say it’s time.  Nou is torn between two worlds, wanting to please her family by honoring her Hmong heritage but also wanting to fit in and become a normal American teenager, even though she knows the latter is impossible.

Russell brilliantly portrays this culture clash and the parent-child struggle common among immigrants.  She describes Laos so wonderfully I could almost picture the beautiful landscape in my mind, and I could appreciate how despite all the horrible things that happened there after the war, these people would long to return to their villages.  These characters and their experiences felt so real to me.  I ached when they were in pain, and because I could see exactly where each of them was coming from, the line between who was right and who was wrong blurred.

Across the Mekong River is a tale of war and escape, familial love and betrayal, and the difficulties immigrants face when the cultural of their new country is so drastically different from what they’ve known all their lives.  The characters are amazingly authentic, and they take what was already an interesting story and turn it into something great.  It’s not an easy novel to read because Russell’s writing really emphasizes the brutality, the misunderstandings, and the pain, but it’s an important one and honestly one of the best novels I’ve ever read about the immigrant experience.

Book 30 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received Across the Mekong River from Julia Drake PR for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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It feels like my whole life’s about to change.  Moving into junior high is like stepping out of childhood, whether you want to or not.  And I keep worrying about how much longer my brother will be around, and maybe my father, too, and wondering why they can’t see eye to eye about anything this summer. 

(from War & Watermelon, pages 28-29)

Rich Wallace remembers what it’s like to be young and straddling the line between childhood and adolescence.  In War & Watermelon, Wallace tells the story of Brody Winslow, a 12-year-old boy getting ready to start 7th grade in a new school.  Besides the usual worries about fitting in with the school crowd, Brody is preoccupied with making the football team and trying to figure out girls.  But it’s the summer of 1969, and Brody has other, more important things on his mind, namely the prospect of his brother, Ryan, being sent to Vietnam.

War & Watermelon is intended for middle grade readers ages 10 and up, so I read this book with my 10-year-old daughter.  She and I discussed the book together a lot over the past week or so, but she is too busy with her art and summer reading to write a review.  She told me I could let you all know her thoughts, and since we pretty much felt the same way about this book, it should be fairly easy.

Wallace’s writing is solid.  His use of the first person viewpoint is perfect for this story because readers get to know Brody’s fear and anxiety about all the changes going on in his life.  The book starts off with a bang; Ryan convinces his parents to allow him to drive from their home in New Jersey to upstate New York for a major concert.  Readers get to see Woodstock through Brody’s eyes, which proved to be a bit much for The Girl.  While there isn’t anything graphic, parents should be aware that there are some swears, drug use (not by Brody), and topless women in this book.  These made The Girl a bit uncomfortable, and not just because she was reading with her mother; she doesn’t like to read that kind of stuff on her own either and thinks words like “idiot” and “jerk” are inappropriate.  Even so, the Woodstock scenes were exciting, but they comprised just a chapter or two of the book.  They also give parents and children something to discuss while reading.

From there, Brody’s days are spent thinking about and playing football, listening to his brother and father argue, going to the swim club with his friend, Tony, watching the Mets as they begin to actually win games, and trying to figure out whether Janet and Patty like Tony and him.  Wallace’s target audience is young boys, especially with all the talk about girls and detailed descriptions of football plays, and even though The Girl and I were able to appreciate these things despite not being able to relate, each chapter started feeling like the one before, making for some slow reading.

However, where War & Watermelon really shines is in its focus on the Vietnam War.  Brody’s brother, Ryan, is soon to be 18, and he’s in limbo.  He doesn’t know what to do with his life and doesn’t want to be forced into making a decision.  His father doesn’t want to lose his son, so he wants Ryan to apply for college and avoid the draft.  Ryan wants to go to college on his own terms, yet at the same time, he doesn’t want to fight what he believes is an immoral war.  The Girl wanted me to include her favorite passage from the book, which highlights the tensions in the Winslow home.

I can hear them glaring at each other.  “You don’t get it,” Ryan says for about the hundredth time this summer.

“Listen,” Dad says.  “What I get is that it’s very easy to think big when you’re seventeen and you imagine that your future is unlimited.  But you’re in total denial, Ryan.  September ninth is four days away.  The government has a nice birthday present waiting for you.  It’s called a draft card.”

“You think I don’t know that?”

“There’s been no evidence that you do.”

“I’m not buying into their fascist system, Dad.”  (page 140)

Wallace does a great job showing the tough decisions young men had to make about their future during the war and how these decisions affected their families.  There’s a tenderness in the scenes with Brody and Ryan, with Brody saying more than once that Ryan has been there for him, and now it’s time for him to be there for Ryan.  Brody has a good head on his shoulders, and he felt real to us as he agonized over his fumbles on the football field, the life-or-death decision his brother had to make, and his inability to understand girls.

War & Watermelon is a good book to introduce young readers to the Vietnam War and the protest movement from the eyes of someone their own age, someone who is going through the same awkwardness and confusion in transitioning to junior high.  The Girl thinks it would make a good summer reading selection, especially for readers who like football.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to participate in the blog tour for War & Watermelon. To follow the tour, click here.

Courtesy of the publisher, I have a copy of War & Watermelon to offer my readers.  To enter, leave a comment with your e-mail address and let me know what makes you want to read this book.  Because the publisher is shipping the book, this giveaway is open to readers with addresses in the U.S. and Canada only.  You have until 11:59 pm EST on Sunday, July 10, 2011, to enter.

**Please note that this giveaway has ended**

Disclosure: I received a copy of War & Watermelon from Viking for review purposes. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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The rest of the day Mellas raged inwardly against the colonel.  This gave him energy to keep moving, keep checking on the platoon, keep the kids moving.  But just below the grim tranquility he had learned to display, he cursed with boiling intensity the ambitious men who used him and his troops to further their careers.  He cursed the air wing for not trying to get any choppers in through the clouds.  He cursed the diplomats arguing about round and square tables.  He cursed the South Vietnamese making money off the black market.  He cursed the people back home gorging themselves in front of their televisions.  Then he cursed God.  Then there was no one else to blame and he cursed himself for thinking God would give a shit.

(from Matterhorn, page 212)

If you only read one book in the new year, it should be Matterhorn.  It’s fitting that I spent the last morning of 2010 finishing what is, hands down, the best book I’ve read this year.  It took Karl Marlantes, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran and a Marine, 30 years to complete this book, and his attention to detail and perseverance have certainly paid off.  His first-hand knowledge of Vietnam and the Marines shines through.

Matterhorn is set in 1969 and centers on Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas as he learns the ropes as a platoon leader in Bravo Company.  Mellas has an Ivy League education and is very ambitious.  He overthinks every decision, wanting both to impress his superiors and earn the respect of his men.  He makes it quite obvious that he wouldn’t mind being company commander at some point.  When the book opens, Bravo Company is on the fictional hill Matterhorn building a fire-support base.  An operation in Cam Lo that serves mainly as a public relations stunt in which the U.S. troops team up with the South Vietnamese army forces the evacuation of Matterhorn, and Mellas gets his first taste of war.

Marlantes does a great job introducing numerous characters from the different platoons and squads of Bravo Company.  Some we love, some we hate, but we grieve with and for them as the days go on and they move their way through the jungle.  At times, the men face more danger from the climate, the leeches, the jungle rot, the immersion foot, and the lack of food and water than the North Vietnamese.  Many times the weather keeps the helicopters from dropping off food and other supplies, removing the wounded and dead, or taking the men back to base camp.

Life in the bush is hell, and Marlantes engages readers’ senses to drive the point home.  We can smell the unwashed bodies and the rotting uniforms.  We can see the oozing sores all over their bodies.  We feel the fear and the tension as they hump through the jungle not sure whether the enemy is waiting for them up ahead.  We feel their anger when the high-ranking officers withhold supplies when they fail to reach a checkpoint on time because they haven’t eaten or drank in days.  We hear the sounds of the bullets and grenades, and we feel their sorrow when they lose one of their own.  Marlantes’ writing is that good, so brilliant, in fact, that I wished the nearly 600 page book was longer.

But Matterhorn is about more than the battles and the hardships of war.  Marlantes uses the novel to highlight racial tensions among the soldiers and the politics of the war.  One alcoholic colonel makes one bad decision after another as he seeks to become a general, and Bravo Company pays the price.  The number of confirmed kills is inflated, and when the number of dead U.S. soldiers exceeds that of the enemy, the loss is downplayed.  As Mellas sees, hears, and experiences all this, his outlook of the war and the Marines is changed.

Matterhorn drives home the point that many of the soldiers were teenagers, and the lieutenants tasked with making life-or-death decisions were not much older.  This is emphasized through their poor decisions — signing up for another tour to have 30 days R&R with a bar girl, for instance — and how they walk through the jungle with Kool-Aid stains on their lips.  Many times throughout the course of the book, the men question why they are there and what they are being forced to do.

Marlantes’ writing flows so easily, and even though there is an extensive glossary at the back of the book, he defines certain military terms in the narrative without bogging the story down.  Obviously, Matterhorn isn’t a happy book, and most of the time it is devoid of hope, but there’s also humor here and there.  There’s harsh language and graphic violence, but that’s to be expected.  It’s not a book for those with weak stomachs.  At times it was almost too hard to continue reading, and even though I expected that some of the characters I’d grown to love would die, I wasn’t prepared.  At one point my heart literally hurt, that’s how involved I was in this book.

Matterhorn is a book that comes alive, that feels authentic, that takes readers on an intense journey.  After I turned the last page, I wanted to bawl like a baby, and then I wanted to start reading it all over again.  This is the best novel of the Vietnam War that I’ve read so far, and it’s definitely earned a special place on my shelf and my list of all-time favorites.

**Serena and I hosted a read-a-long for Matterhorn to coincide with the challenge.  We held a discussion every Friday during the month of December.  If you’re interested, check out week 1, week 2, week 3, and week 4.**

Disclosure: I received a copy of Matterhorn as a gift from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Finally I made myself slip the first negative into the enlarger.  What emerged on the paper was a picture of a GI in a wheelchair, his right leg amputated at the knee and wrapped in a white bandage.  He looked so much like TJ, I gasped and took a step backward.  I had to force myself to look again and see for sure that it wasn’t my brother in the wheelchair, that it was someone I’d never seen before in my life.

I decided to print the rest of the pictures later.

(from Shooting the Moon, page 99)

Frances O’Roark Dowell’s Shooting the Moon is a Vietnam War novel with a focus on the homefront.  The daughter of an Army colonel, 12-year-old Jamie Dexter is enthusiastic and even excited about the war.  She and her older brother, TJ, played soldiers as little kids and moved around a lot for their father’s military career.  When TJ turns 18 and decides to become an Army medic instead of going to college, Jamie supports his decision and even insists she would go to Vietnam herself if she could.  And she just doesn’t understand why the colonel doesn’t want him to go.

TJ sends “boring” letters to his parents, but he sends Jamie undeveloped rolls of film with instructions for her to develop the film and send him the contact sheets.  The Dexters are stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and Jamie’s job in the rec center gives her access to a dark room.  With the help of Sgt. Byrd, a Vietnam vet, Jamie develops TJ’s film and learns that she is good at making his pictures come to life.

TJ has long had an interest in taking pictures of the moon, and he continues this in Vietnam.  But he also takes pictures of wounded soldiers, and it’s these pictures that cause Jamie to think differently about the war.  When her good friend and gin rummy partner, Private Hollister, tells her that he may be shipped off to fight, Jamie feels helpless.

Shooting the Moon is a short, middle-grade novel that focuses on Jamie’s evolution from a little girl with lofty ideas about war, having been taught all her life that serving in the military is a duty and an honor, to a girl whose eyes have been opened.  To Jamie, war initially seemed like an adventure.

“You should go, TJ.”  I leaned over and grabbed his wrist, like I’d pull him all the way over there myself if I had to.  “I’d go to Vietnam in a minute if they let me.  Besides, you don’t know when we’ll get another war.”

“Oh, honey,” my mother said.  “You don’t know anything about war.  You’re just a little girl.”

“I’m starting eighth grade in September, which is hardly a little girl, and I read Time magazine,” I argued.  “I know plenty about war.”

“That’s enough, Jamie,” the Colonel said.  But I thought deep down he had to be proud of me, and of TJ, too.  He’d raised us, after all.  He’d raised us to believe in the Army way.  And as far as I was concerned, he’d raised us right.”  (page 21)

Through TJ’s pictures, Jamie learns that war isn’t glamorous or fun.  The wounded and suffering men in TJ’s photos were someone’s son, brother, husband, or father, and they may or may not be coming home.  It wasn’t a game.  Dowell softens the blow by teaching this lesson through Jamie and photos that are far removed from the action, but even though the story lacks the immediacy you’d expect in a story about war, it still packs a punch.

I started reading Shooting the Moon with The Girl (age 10), but she grew bored after a few chapters and decided she wanted to read something else.  The Girl knew from the publisher’s summary that Jamie would receive important rolls of film from her brother, and she felt it took too long to get to the point of the story.  She was more interested in what was in the photos than in Jamie learning how to develop them.

However, given that our country remains at war, Shooting the Moon has an important message for young readers whose ideas and beliefs about war often are very different from the reality.  The characters are not as well developed and the ending not as fleshed out as they would be in a longer novel, but Shooting the Moon provides much food for thought, especially with regard to Jamie’s relationship with the colonel.  Dowell’s novel is about more than war; it’s about love, family, and growing up.  And the message remains relevant today.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Shooting the Moon as a gift from a friend. (Thanks, Kerry!) I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die.  Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.  They carried shameful memories.  They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.

(from The Things They Carried, page 20)

I just couldn’t let the War Through the Generations Vietnam War Reading Challenge end without reading something by Tim O’Brien, and since Serena bought me a signed copy when she attended an author event earlier this year (thanks so much, dear friend!), I decided to read The Things They Carried.  This book blew me away, and I can see why many people consider it THE novel about the Vietnam War.

The Things They Carried reads like both connected short stories and a memoir and focuses on a group of soldiers who fought together in Vietnam.  The stories are not presented in a linear fashion, as O’Brien skips around from before, during, and after the war.  It takes some time to really get to know the characters, but the story unfolds and the characters are developed bit by bit.

The narrator is named Tim O’Brien, but the book is subtitled “A Work of Fiction,” and in a few of the stories, O’Brien discusses the idea of truth and war stories.

A true war story is never moral.  It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.  If a story seems moral, do not believe it.  If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.  There is no rectitude whatsoever.  There is no virtue.  (page 65)

Here is the happening-truth.  I was once a soldier.  There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look.  And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth.  He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty.  He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe.  His jaw was in his throat.  His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole.  I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.  (pages 171-172)

Wow.  So I guess it boils down to this:  War is ugly, and there is a bit of both truth and fiction in these stories.  Sometimes the true facts are unemotional and distant, while a fictional account that truthfully portrays war is more emotional and more alive.

O’Brien punctuates thoughts like these with stories of the men, such as those about First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who carries the photo of a girl he loves who doesn’t love him back, who carries the guilt of mistakes he made when his mind was on Martha and not on his men, who was afraid to disobey orders and camped his men on a village latrine (a literal shitfield) and had to face the disastrous consequences.

The Things They Carried is about the physical things (weapons, keepsakes, other men) and the mental things (fear and guilt) that the soldiers carried on their shoulders.  O’Brien covers everything from memory and guilt, to friendship and loss, to action and inaction, to decision and dishonor.

As a novel of the Vietnam War, I expected The Things They Carried to be brutal and gruesome and heartbreaking.  I’ve read many war novels, and they all have stayed with me in some way.  But after I finished this book — in my opinion, a literary masterpiece — I carried with me a great sadness and will for a long time carry the stories of these men (whether fact or fiction) in my heart.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Things They Carried as a gift from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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The weapon in my right hand is a pirated Ithaca Magnum-10 shotgun, gas-operated, semi-automatic, a full-choke barrel sawed down to ten inches for ease in single-hand handling at close quarters.  It was captured from a North Vietnamese officer, later presented to me as a gift.

The bulge in my left hip pocket is a soggy paperback edition of the poems of Emily Dickinson.

Such things live together here, poetry and shotguns.  Alive and well in a single body.

(from Fatal Light, page 46)

First published in 1988, Fatal Light is the story of a young man who receives his draft notice in 1967 at the age of 18 and is sent to Vietnam as a medic.  Richard Currey uses some of his own experiences as a Navy corpsman in Vietnam, but he says the book is “highly fictionalized” (page xiii) and draws also from the experiences of people he knew.  Fatal Light is not a linear novel, but more like snippets from the life of a young soldier who becomes disillusioned with war and life after all that he witnesses.

The unnamed narrator is close to his family, and Currey gives a glimpse of what his life is like before the war.  He spends summers with his grandfather, has a girlfriend for whom he bought a ring just before being drafted, and spends the night before recruit training listening to his father’s stories from World War II and Korea and dancing in the living room with his mother.  And then his life changes dramatically.

As a medic, he is told he will be in the rear most of the time and have people looking out for him.  They make it seem like war will be easy for him.  Instead, he sees men minus heads after their jeep hits a mine, and he sees soldiers go nuts, shooting random villagers and keeping body parts of the dead Viet Cong as souvenirs.

Because the novel is written as snippets from the narrator’s life and war experiences, the chapters are short and disjointed.  There are only a few other characters, and you don’t see too much of them.  There are odd dreamlike sequences when the narrator is suffering from malaria.  But they join together to form a powerful and heartbreaking story about the way the war changed the men who fought.  The prose is sometimes sparse, sometimes poetic, but the scenes are full of emotion and description that tear at your heart, punch you in the gut, and thrust you into the scene.

Sleep ceased to be rest, was never an escape.  Dreams careened, haunted, collided, and I was always forced to look:  the double amputees, incinerated faces with lips burned off and teeth locked in satanic grins, bodies in decay and distended with gas, fingers and noses and ears rat-gnawed, the ones floating face down in paddies pulled out after days with tongues and eyeballs protruding from macerated skulls and their gunshot wounds looked so innocent, so simple.  On the road out of a northern ville I saw a dog eating the body of a man.  The man had been shot in the head, eviscerated, tossed aside.  The dog pulled at a dirty loop of intestine, one paw braced against the opened belly.  The passing scene on any ordinary day.  (page 96)

If this nauseating scene was ordinary, it’s no surprise that many Vietnam veterans have trouble talking about their experiences.  Currey forces readers to consider these scenes because war isn’t pretty.  There is a scene right after the narrator comes home in which he shows his grandfather pictures from Vietnam that he took as proof of what really happened.  His grandfather tells him not to show people because they won’t want to see them and aren’t ready to see them.

The truth about war is that it’s terrible and grotesque, it destroys innocence and scars people’s souls.  The truth hurts, it angers, and it leaves men who’ve witnessed this truth wondering what to do and where to go with all they have seen and learned.  Fatal Light emphasizes this from the first page until the last, but Currey takes these horrifying images of war and turns them into a beautifully crafted, powerful novel.

Disclosure: I borrowed Fatal Light from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Our man Paco, not dead but sure as shit should be, lies flat on his back and wide to the sky, with slashing lacerations, big watery burn blisters, and broken, splintered, ruined legs.  He wallows in this greasy, silken muck that covers him and everything else for a stone’s throw and dries to a stinking sandy crust.  He lies there that night and all the next day, the next night and half the second day, with his heels hooked on a gnarled, charred, nearly fire-hardened vine root; immobile.  And he comes to consciousness in the dark of that first long night with a heavy dew already soaked through the rags of his clothes, and he doesn’t know what hit him.

(from Paco’s Story, page 18)

Set during the Vietnam War, Paco’s Story, winner of the 1987 National Book Award for fiction, is a haunting novel about the only survivor of the massacre of Alpha Company at Fire Base Harriette.  Paco is an ordinary soldier who somehow managed to live, but it almost seems as though his surviving was the easy part.  Haunted by the ghosts of the soldiers who died that day, Paco must re-enter the land of the living.

Larry Heinemann uses a ghostly narrator to tell Paco’s story, someone who can observe the people who interact with Paco, how they feel about the war and their concern (or lack of) for the returning veterans.  Paco takes a bus to Boone, Texas, with his AWOL bag and a cane, and a sympathetic WWII veteran gives him a job as dishwasher at the Texas Lunch.  Full of painkillers and booze, Paco lives a quiet routine of work and sleep — quiet, aside from the nightmares.  The owner of the diner, Ernest, and Jesse, a Vietnam vet passing through Boone, talk about their wartime experiences, which is something Paco is unable to do, leaving that job to the narrator.

The narrative often seems choppy and can be difficult to follow at first, and I saw so many things I missed the first time I read this book in college.  There are many layers to Paco’s Story, from Paco himself to the secondary stories about the medic who found Paco and a promiscuous young woman intrigued by him, among others.  These asides might seem out of place at first glance, but given that Paco isn’t telling his own story, the reactions and observations of the people around him say a lot.

It is easy to pity Paco the victim, and Heinemann does a great job showing how difficult it is for Paco to live with the pain of his wounds and memories.  But Paco isn’t an innocent soul, and in a horrifying, brutally violent scene involving a Viet Cong girl, Heinemann drives home the point that war isn’t pretty.  Paco’s Story will force readers out of their comfort zones with graphic imagery and harsh language, but its raw honesty is what makes the book so important.  The book doesn’t sugar-coat or romanticize war, and readers soon understand why some Vietnam vets continue to struggle with memories of their experiences and find it hard to talk about what they did and what they witnessed as soldiers.

At War Through the Generations, we hosted a read-a-long for Paco’s Story during the month of July.  If you’d like to learn more about the book, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of the discussion.

Disclosure: I purchased my worn-out copy of Paco’s Story. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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