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30th July
2009
written by Tony

I’ve spent some time thinking about this book. Almost a month now, to be precise. As I sat getting my hair cut one afternoon (the cut I wore to my wedding) by a woman from Mankato, a tiny town about 20 miles away from my hometown, I wondered how she made it all the way down to Nashville. It occurred to me that she probably wonders the same about me. I asked, and she said she wanted a change of scenery. Who knows why anyone ends up where they do sometimes? I feel like that is really the theme of this book, like it’s a couple hundred pages that just really ask “Why am I here? Why me? Why not me?” Thinking about all this makes me think about the stories in this book, and about my father, a veteran of the Viet Nam war and the things he told me about being in the service.

There is a lot to take in through this rather short novel, and the way O’Brien blends truth and “story truth” makes it difficult or impossible to separate the real from the imagined in many cases. That seems about right to me. I’ve asked my dad about what went on overseas and while some of his memories are strikingly vivid and accurate, many things are lost to him. He has spent a lot of time trying to figure out where he served and who he served with. Sometimes, when I thought about it, this search seemed odd, like it shouldn’t be something so easily forgotten, but later, when I come back to what he has told me of his memories, they are so large, so impossible to comprehend, that it seems like he shouldn’t be able to fit anything else in his head, and as I lived more of my life I began to understand how certain things just get lost along the way.

My father’s memories range from shocking to profound and often feel like they should be impossible, assuming the world were a just or fair place (as we all know, it isn’t). There is no way to ever understand, really understand, what happened to the men who went to Viet Nam, or any other war for that matter, and as much as many people would look to this book for insight into that experience, I don’t think they’ll find it, I don’t think they can. What I did find is a set of stories that kind of sum up how people remember these experiences, how your memory can jump from event to event, come back to the same thing, expand certain things while leaving out others, and all the while leaving you unsure of the veracity of everything, vivid and at once obscure. The truth is so hard to understand that sometimes it takes fiction to make it sound real. This book isn’t about understanding the men who went to war, it’s about understanding how they understand the things they remember.

This is a good book. It’s well written and deeply affecting in parts, but I just can’t quite feel totally invested in it. Even a month after finishing the book I still can’t place why I feel so detached from this book. I recommended that my dad read the book, a recommendation I stand behind because I think he’ll genuinely enjoy it, but I’m still not sure about my own feelings where this book is concerned. I’ve heard a lot of people say that this is one of the best books they’ve ever read, and more than a few say it makes their list of favorites of all time.

I’m beginning to think that the intensely personal nature of this book is what is pushing me away from it. The things O’Brien tells sound like what my father has told me. Obviously, they are very different experiences, but the way O'Brien tells them makes me feel like they aren’t and I think because of that I rebel against them in favor of my father’s memories. The strange familiarity I felt reading this book seems wrong, because it shouldn’t be possible. This book ends up muddling my thoughts in a way I don’t expect and can’t seem to sort out, and I’m quite certain this is something most readers won’t experience.

Ultimately, I think this book is asking one question: “Why?” Most of this book is spent showing people trying to find an answer any way they can under circumstances no one should have to endure. O’Brien doesn’t try to answer the question, because that isn’t the point, there is no answer. O’Brien tires to show us the important part, which is how people deal with that question and that some things happen simply because someone is there to see them happen, and you can’t explain them any more than you can change them.

It's possible at this point you don't know how I feel about the book and might be confused about the rating I have given it, so let me try to be succinct: I liked this book, quite a lot. I read it voraciously, and it moved me. I don't know how to feel about it, but that's my issue. Anyone would enjoy this book, though be prepared if you are of a faint constitution, some stories are quite upsetting for various reasons. This is an excellent book, don't let my over-intellectualized vacillation confuse you there. That's my final word.

4.5 out of 5

6 Comments

  1. the title sounds a bit symbolic, when considering the subject matter…things they carried with them to vietnam and how the experienced changed them…and what they literally or figuratively carried back home…

    sounds poignant..more of a winter book for me. i need light reads during the summer…

    thanks for the review–i enjoyed it. and why did you leave MN for TN?

  2. 07/31/2009

    @ nat: I came here for school… and a girl (go ahead, roll your eyes). After school I got a dog, a job, a house, lost the girl, lost the house (to the girl), kept the dog (take that, girl!), got another dog and after a long story ended up getting a much better girl (the best) in the end. So let’s say I came here for Steph.

  3. Simona
    08/01/2009

    Awwww

  4. Ben
    08/02/2009

    I will definitely be reading this book in the near future. Add it to my already large stack of books that should already be read. I know exactly what you mean about favoring what Dad has told us about Vietnam though. I felt the same way when I read Dear Mom about a marine sniper. Which still remains one of my favorite books to this day.

  5. Mom
    08/03/2009

    Tony your article was very moving and really well written, you have good insight about what your Dad went through over there,not many people do. The wedding pictures are BEAUTIFUL !!!!!! Ill send mine soon Love Mom

  6. 08/05/2009

    Although you had some difficulties in relating how you felt about this book, I think your review was very well written and honestly, your reaction seems a lot more genuine and discerning than some of the other reviews of this book that I have read.

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