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review 2017-12-15 13:05
'The Things They Carried' by Tim O'Brien
The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien

Nearly 40 pages into my used copy of The Things They Carried I found a large post-it note with the words "Start here" scribbled in small print at the very top. It's the point where the novel, which till then seems to stick to the premise of viewing the Vietnam War by examining the things U.S. soldiers carried. The writing comes back to these items again and again, grounding the story in pictures and mementos, weapons, ammo, clothing, and small comforts like a bible, a knife, pantyhose, what have you. Some are practical, some are remembrances, but they provide some insight into the men of Alpha Company, but going into the fourth chapter it starts to lose its ground.

 

Except, after page 38, the story drifts away from these items, and from the perspective Lieutenant Jimmy Cross who was central through these early pages, and from the kind of straight war story that we know well. The story gets messy. Tim O'Brien then writes in snapshots and in framed stories that, even when the subject is usual, have a touch of the surreal. Whole chapters veer off as in "The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong" in which one character tells the impossible-seeming story of a man bringing his girlfriend to visit him at his station in Vietnam and her getting lost in the world of special forces -- first asking questions, then tagging along, then participating in missions, and eventually dropping off the grid altogether. But as the subject matter gets more outlandish, the narrator "Tim O'Brien" won't give us neat answers on what is true. Some very believable scenes he reveals to be fiction, others he insists are true, others are true but didn't happen to that person, or the person had a different name.

 

"A true war story is never moral," we are told on page 68. Then on the next page, "You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you." Then on page 71, "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen," then "In many cases a true war story cannot be believed," and still later down the page, "In other cases a true war story cannot be believed." Reality becomes a non-Newtonian fluid, appearing clear before us, but slipping away whenever we try to hold it too tightly.

 

From a literary studies angle, it may be interesting to model what is supposed to have actually happened to "Tim" and what has not, but following that post-modern rabbit-hole down to try to tell what happened to O'Brien is a fools errand and lead you far astray from the important lessons of the novel [and that realization may lead you to one of the important take-aways from this story]. 

 

I often thought back to Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut while reading The Things They Carried. Something in the tone and the way reality seems to shift under your feet while reading it. But where Vonnegut let that distortion play out in fantastical ways, with aliens, time travel and other science fiction elements, Tim O'Brien keeps our eyes on the war the whole time. Truth, time, beauty, and reality are distorted but in a way that is much more familiar in the way we understand memory and especially traumatic memories. "Tim" isn't taken away to a far away planet with a beautiful movie star. He is Vietnam, even when there is a discordant, impossible, beautiful image like that of Curt Lemon stepping back so that the sun catches his face and flying into the vines and white blossoms, blown by the explosion of the landmine he stepped on.

 

The Things They Carried is a meditation on war, on youth [and youth lost] and on storytelling, whether through novel, gossip, or your own memories. O'Brien's war stories, to whatever degree they are factual, feel truer than most, and closer to home. He never tries to educate on the 60s, the war, or the government, though it's hard not to walk away with some thoughts on these matters. The war for him and us readers is what the dozen men [give or take] of Alpha Company see, hear, and feel. It's death and loss and a connection unlike just about any other on Earth. 

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review 2017-10-08 14:11
Four stories of the man as a young artist. For lovers of experimental literary fiction and New York.
4 3 2 1 - Paul Auster

Thanks to NetGalley and to Faber & Faber for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I’ve been following with interest the Man-Booker Prize this year and realised I had quite a few of the books on my list to be read and decided to try and read in a timely manner and see how my opinion compared to that of the judges. When the shortlist was announced, only one of the books I had read so far had made it, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a book I really enjoyed. And then I got the chance to read 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster, another one of the novels shortlisted, and I could not resist.

I had read a novel by Paul Auster years back, The Book of Illusions and although I remember I enjoyed it, I had never read another one of his books until now. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and I had always kept in mind that at some point I should pick up another one of his books but that day hadn’t arrived.

I hadn’t read anything about this novel before I started reading it, other than it had been shortlisted for the Man-Booker, and therefore I was a bit surprised and confused, to begin with.

First, as happens with e-books, I had no idea how long it was. It’s around the 900 pages mark. Second, I didn’t realise it was a fairly experimental novel, or, at least its structure was not standard. The novel starts as if it was going to be a family saga, with the story of a Jewish immigrant arriving in New York, and we follow his story and that of his family for a couple of generations until we get to the birth of a boy, Archibald Ferguson. He doesn’t like his first name that much and for the rest of the novel he is referred to as Ferguson. When things start getting weird is when at some point you become aware that you are reading four different versions of his life. These are narrated in the third person, although always from the point of view of the character, and yes, they are numbered.  So the first chapter (or part), you would have 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and then, the next part would be 2.1… and so on. The story (stories) are told chronologically but chopped up into bits. Some of the reviewers have commented that you need to be a member of MENSA to remember and differentiate the various stories, because yes, there are differences (fate seems to play a big part, as sometimes due to incidents that happen to his family, financial difficulties, relationship issues… the story takes a different turn and deviates from the other versions), but these are not huge, and it is difficult to keep in your mind which one of the versions is which one (at times I would have been reading for a while before I could remember how this version was different to the one I had just been reading). Because the differences are not major (yes, in one version he ends up going to a university and in another to a different one, in one he works at a newspaper and in another starts writing books, in one he goes out with a girl and in another they are only friends…), and the characters are pretty much the same in all versions (although sometimes their behaviour is quite different) it makes the stories very similar. Added to that, all versions of the character are also very similar as if the different circumstances were not earth-shattering and had not affected that much the development of his boy (in the debate of nature, nurture, it’s safe to say Auster supports nature). The devil seems to be in the detail, or perhaps the point is that we might strongly believe that there are moments when our decisions could have sent us down one path or a completely different one (Sliding Doors anyone?), but the truth is that of all the infinite possibilities (and that makes me think of a book I read very recently, Do You Realize?) only one is conducive to life as we know it (the Goldilocks theory of life. Neither too hot nor too cold, just right) and our life was meant to be as it if.

Ferguson loves films and is a bit of a film buff (there are lengthy digressions about Laurel & Hardy, the French New Wave, American Films…), he also loves books and writing, and some versions of the story include his translations of French poets, or his own stories (that sometimes end up being exactly the same as the story we are reading, and others are either full stories or fragments of the books he is writing), and sports, mostly baseball, although also basketball.

Towards the end of the book (well, it’s a long book, so let’s say from the time the characters goes to college), we get much more detailed information about politics and historical events in America. There are lengthy descriptions of reactions to the murders of J.F.K, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, race riots, the Black Power Movement, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, the Columbia University demonstrations and student political organisations, and also about New York and Paris (more New York than Paris) in the 1960s and early 70s. Although in one of the versions Ferguson is attending Columbia, he is a reporter and even when he is physically there, he narrates the events as an observer rather than as if he was personally involved. His engagement seems to be intellectual above all, no matter what version of Ferguson we read, although the reasons for his attitude might be different.

I don’t want to end up with a review as long as the book itself, and after checking other reviews of the book, I thought I’d share a couple I particularly liked, so you can have a look.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1909935118?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/paul-austers-novel-of-chance

What I thought the book did very well, in all its versions, was to capture the feelings and the thoughts of a teenager and young man (although, as I’m a woman, I might be completely wrong). Although the emphasis is slightly different in each version, that is fairly consistent and rings true. As a writer and film lover, I enjoyed the comments about books and movies, although these could be frustrating to some readers. I also enjoyed the works in progress of the various Fergusons (some more than others) but this could again be annoying to readers who prefer to follow a story and not wander and float in flights of fancy. I agree with some of the comments I’ve read that the latter part of the book is slowed down even more by the endless description of incidents at Columbia that, no matter the version of the story we read, are analytically reported rather than brought to life.

My main problem with the book is that I did not connect that much with the main character. Considering the amount of time readers get to spend with the different versions of Ferguson, we get to know him, but I did not feel for him. Strangely enough, sometimes I felt more connected to some of the other characters in the story (his mother in some versions, some of his friends, a teacher…) than I did to him. I’m not sure if it was because it all felt very artificial, or because none of the versions completely gelled for me. I admired his intellect but did not connect at an emotional level and I did not care for him. I’m aware that readers who know Auster’s oeuvre better have commented on the biographical similarities with his own life, and I’m aware that he has denied it is (or are) his story. There are, for sure, many points of contact. Some readers have compared it to books that have used a somewhat similar format to tell their stories, but as I haven’t read any, I will not comment on that. The ending, metafictional as was to be expected, will probably satisfy more those who enjoy formal literary experiments than those looking for a good story. I do not think many people will find it surprising, but I don’t think that was the author’s goal. The writing is good, sometimes deep and challenging, others more perfunctory. And yes, I still intend to read other Auster’s books in the future.

In sum, a fascinating exercise in writing, that will be of interest primarily to followers of Auster’s career, to those who love experimental literary fiction, particularly those interested also in films, literature, the writing process, sports, and New York. Not a book I’d recommend to those who love dynamic stories with exciting plots, or those who prefer to emotionally engage with characters. Ah, and it requires a reasonable memory and a serious investment of time.

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review 2017-09-28 05:55
AN ODE TO THE VIETNAM WAR (1964)
The Only War We've Got - Daniel Ford

"THE ONLY WAR WE'VE GOT" is taken from the dispatches the author had been contracted to write for a national magazine in the U.S., based on his experiences as a journalist on attachment with the U.S. Army in South Vietnam between May and July 1964. At the time Ford was in-country, "there was a grand total of forty foreign reporters in the country - full-time and part-time, and of all nationalities, not just American." 

Ford had written his observations and reflections of all the people he met in South Vietnam --- soldiers, airmen, and civilians alike --- from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, to further north in the Central Highlands near the Laotian border, and eastward to the shores of the Gulf of Tonkin. 

Ford returned home before the end of the summer and within a few months, the Vietnam War would take on a greater urgency with the landing of U.S. combat troops on March 8, 1965. The chapters he had written and then sent home were never published after all. Indeed, it would be another 36 years before Ford would re-read those chapters. According to Ford, "[t]hey were a revelation: about the country and the sort of war we were fighting in those early days, and likewise about the young reporter who'd flown to Saigon with an innocence as grassy-green as the American involvement itself." 

I was inspired to read this book because of the PBS TV documentary series on the Vietnam War that has been broadcast both last week and this week. I was born the same year Ford went to South Vietnam and have no memories of most of the events associated with that war. I was simply too young to take all that in. But my earliest memories of Vietnam are from 1973, when I watched on TV the arrival in the U.S. of freed American POWs. I grew up with the feeling as the '70s proceeded apace that most Americans simply wanted to put Vietnam as far behind them as possible, and just get on with their lives. Thus, Vietnam became for me a vague abstraction. The Second World War, by contrast, for me was very real because my Dad had fought as a GI in Europe during 1944-45 and several other relatives had also served in the U.S. military during that time. It has only been in the last 20 years (when I read David Halberstam's book 'The Best and the Brightest', a history of the Vietnam War as it passed from being a French war of reconquest in Indochina to an American war) through a slow, gradual process that I began to want to know more about the Vietnam War. 

For all its 163 pages, "THE ONLY WAR WE'VE GOT" is a very engaging story replete with many of the B&W photos Ford himself took during his sojourn in South Vietnam. One passage that stands out for me concerns the meeting Ford had with a civilian aide worker who had 20 years' experience of work in underdeveloped countries. It is as follows ~

'I asked USOM Man [the name Ford gave to this civilian aide, because he didn't want to name him, for fear of possibly costing the aide his job] what better solution he had in mind. He said we should cut our military advisory group to its 1962 level - five or six thousand - put most of our money and energy into educating the people, training them to use modern agricultural techniques, and providing them with health care. "The people, " he said mournfully in his almost-German accent. "We need men and women who will work with the people, not more and more military advisors. Pah! What do military men know about the people?" It was a fair question and I decided to find out.'

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review 2017-09-19 15:12
1960s Saigon War and Culture
13 Months in Vietnam - Bill Kroger 13 Months in Vietnam - Bill Kroger

The majority of Vietnam stories take place mid-war after the fighting has begun. Relatively few start in the early phases of the war, when soldiers were professional Army enlistees who viewed themselves differently, and whose experiences were substantially dissimilar from soldiers who followed in their footsteps. 13 Months in Vietnam reveals those early years as it follows a squadron who travels the country in 1963, before the major shooting begins.

 

The first thing to note is that because of this pre-war story, the action is quite different than the usual Vietnam-era saga. Although it is penned by an enlisted soldier who spent 13 months in Vietnam traveling from Saigon to near the North Vietnam border, and is thus based on true events, it also incorporates a sense of place, people, and social and political perspectives which are quite different from the typical in-country story line.

 

The soldiers who enter Vietnam in this story are teens on the cusp of adulthood: as such, they carouse, have ambitions and dreams about the wider world, and demonstrate a perspective that involves much more than their roles in Vietnam, which slowly unfolds as circumstances change.

 

In a way, 13 Months in Vietnam is more of a classic coming-of-age story than a tale of military experience: readers can see the protagonist and his buddies growing, learning, and changing before their eyes. Of course, Vietnam is their focal point, and there are battles and cultural conflicts; but there are also moments of comic interlude even in the heart of danger and plenty of descriptions of evolution amidst a tour of duty that grows ever more challenging to the close-knit group.

 

At first the boys respond to the action with excitement. It's almost like TV - immediate and interactive; yet seemingly distant. It takes a series of events turn the boys from a tight-knit group to a close-knit company where the reality of death sinks in, overcoming the thrill of seeing action. As they imbibe and relive experiences, there are plenty of moments of reflection and growth.

 

Are they really protecting liberties and American ideals? Or is something else happening?

 

More so than most novels about the Vietnam era, 13 Months in Vietnam offers an often-intimate, realistic perspective of how boys turn into men and the thought processes that careen from excitement to hard realizations about individual choices and their impact and life and death.

 

Readers who seek a gritty, first-person perspective that fully embraces the evolutionary growth of boys to men under battle conditions, and who want a better-rounded view of the culture and experiences of Vietnam than battle scenes alone, will find 13 Months in Vietnam more than fits the bill for a thought-provoking, extraordinary survey of responsibilities, worries, and the culture and social atmosphere of 1960s Saigon.

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url 2017-09-17 17:07
NY Times's 20 Must-Read Books on the Vietnam War

With Ken Burns's new documentary on the Vietnam War premiering tonight, the New York Times had one of their editors publish a list of twenty books on the Vietnam War. It's pretty solid -- most of the key classics are there, as well as a couple of the newer books -- so if you're looking to read up on the topic du jour this is a good place to start.

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