What I’ve Been Reading – April 2008
Here I am, seven days late, frantically trying to figure out what I’m going to write about. It’s as if, for this month at least, this column has turned into an albatross around my neck – a weight dragging me down, a job I wish I could just pass on.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences – Lawrence Weschler
The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
But that’s not how I work. I have a meticulous personality that expects nothing less than consistency. A What I’ve Been Reading column every month and a chicken in every pot. I can’t fail the fans, right? Wait – these columns are too long to read anyway? They’re just a sort of literary masturbation? A fit of intolerant rhetoric on why the books I read are worth mentioning and torturing you with?
All kidding aside, I only read one book this month: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
“Just one?” you might say. “And I thought you considered yourself a reader!”
I do. Leave me alone. It just so happens that sometimes life doesn’t want me to read. That’s fine. I’m okay. Sure, there’s this itching in my mind from being bled to death by the diodes of a television screen, but it’ll pass. At least, that’s what the guys on television say.
It’s NBA Playoff season, and reading has taken a few steps back while I watch somewhere between a quarter to a half of each playoff game. I’ve taken the Celtics on as my pet playoff team (I’m warming to them as a new favorite team altogether, especially considering my penchant for the early to mid-80s Larry Bird) and have been thrilled to watch tons of great players that I often don’t get to see during the regular season.
Of course, on those days when basketball isn’t the focus, I find myself enjoying the outdoors. Or recovering several weeks of sleepless nights thanks to Sierra. Or monitoring election turnouts. Or visiting friends. Hey, I’m a busy person, and where the winter allows me seemingly thousands of hours of available reading time, a warm weather front pushes that idle page flipping to the back of the room, causing it to crowd with blogging and other computer-related activities.
The Things They Carried isn’t a book that’s difficult to get through. It’s not a dense or overcomplicated story by any means. Quite the contrary – it’s a series of short stories that move from half-fiction to faux-autobiography, simple and easy to read, about a subject that we’re all familiar with in one way or another – war, specifically the Vietnam war.
The Things They Carried was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and I can see why. It’s a no-holds-barred look at the war and how it affected those who were a part of it. And while some stories focus on the crazy darkness of Vietnam’s trenches, The Things They Carried takes care to fill us in on the more positive traits of war – the brotherhood, the stories, the fellowship and the relief of find yourself safe, suddenly, without warning.
Don’t get me wrong – the looming shadow of death is always present. But it’s not the driving factor like many novels about Vietnam seem to think.
There’s a voice that filters through the entire book – the voice of a man who feels fortunate to have made it out alive. Tim O’Brien is not shy about admitting that his stories blur the line between what really happened and what makes the story more memorable – not only for dramatic effect, but also for personal salvation; he changes part of the story because he’s not able to take it on himself.
Admittedly, The Things They Carried is fiction that is based on Tim’s own experiences. But the interjections by the author help make it seem more real. You get the feeling that each death really happened – and probably did happen – with the names and places changed to protect the dead and buried. He talks about the difference between real truth and story truth – the idea that what happens in the heat of the moment is skewed, is remembered in a way that no one else can experience, adding a larger-than-life image to a darkly human story.
These exaggerations aren’t lying, O’Brien explains, but are simply a “happening truth.” They happen to you on another plane of being. If you imagine the bullet slowing down, curving around in midair, striking the head of a friend in a fury of laughter; if the sky darkens as if an eclipse, and the trees bend away from the scene of action – these are all true, because they happened to you. They are part of your story. They are not an exaggeration.
What it creates is a fictional representation that better illustrates the war than the pure facts would. It’s a way to, in his words, “the correct way to clear his conscience and tell the story of thousands of soldiers who were forever silenced by society.”
I only read one book this month. It took me forever, even though it was easy. I seriously wasn’t sure I’d even have it finished by the end of the month.
But it was powerful. And I know this for sure – I’ll barely remember any of the playoff games I’ve watched this month. The Things They Carried? That I’ll be able to keep in my mind for years to come.