Nearly Thirty Years Later “The Things They Carried” Still Matters

The Things They Carried

By Tim O’Brien

Published 1990

Read 2011; Dec 2019

This reader first encountered this book when the 20th anniversary edition was published.  At the time, this reader was very impressed with the title story, the first in the book, and less satisfied by the remainder of the book.  However, several images from the first reading were ignited in memory during the second reading and this reader savored the entire offering this time.   

The title chapter remains a pivotal chapter.  O’Brien starts by describing personal items the soldiers carried (ie gum, photographs), then turns to the weapons and ammunition, and other combat equipment, delineating their weight.  By now the reader realizes the solider is pretty burdened and essentials such as raingear, a way to sleep, and clothing hadn’t been mentioned yet.  O’Brien includes these but then begins ratcheting things up—they carried foot rot, lice, the soil itself—and cranks further with feelings—thoughts of a girl (did she love him or not), fear—of the enemy, of not performing under fire, of not getting the medals expected by a father– and more.  The relentlessness of including more and more of what was carried draws the reader into the Vietnam foot soldier experience in a mere few pages in a more memorable way that any other story or film has done for this reader.  The reader is glad they didn’t have this experience personally but this reader realizes if so, they could never forget it even if they wanted to.  Touché.

This book has been described as “not a novel”.  It certainly isn’t that.  It has been described as a set of somewhat connected short stories.  This reader feels the better description is a set of essays, stories, and notes by the author serving to record the stories that are still in his head so that he may relieve himself of some burden of trying to remember them.  But he also shares his thoughts on what stories are, what they, mean, what they accomplish, and why we all need them to learn about others’ lives and to live our own.

O’Brien writes early in the book:  “forty-three years old and the war occurred half a life time ago, and yet the remembering makes it now.  And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever.  That’s what stories are for.  Stories are for joining the past to the future.  Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are.  Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”    Tim O’Brien give us a flavor of his experiences in a war he didn’t want to join but did to, according to his story “On the Rainy River”.  After several days spent trying to decide whether or not to cross the Minnesota/Canadian border he goes home “and then to Vietnam, where I was a solider, and then home again.  I survived, but it’s not a happy ending.  I was a coward.  I went to the war.”   This book helps us understand why he was never the same.

O’Brien gives us stories from a few angles sometimes about a particular incident and honesty tells us that perhaps none of the takes on this story are true.  O’Brien gives us an assessment of the stories told by Rat Kiley, the medic that helps O’Brien during his first wound:  “For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute, and then multiplying by maybe.”   So stories were important even then to make  it through the experience of a foot soldier in Vietnam, humping through the jungles of Vietnam with limited understand of why they were there, what their missions were supposed to accomplish, and with limited actual encounter with the enemy, but with lots of encounters with the sights and sounds of the humans and other inhabitants of this dense, hilly jungle. 

This reader especially appreciated the writing on this reading of the book.  O’Brien is superb in his descriptions.  Another example, this time citing “From “Night Life” describing night missions:  “No moon and no stars.  It was the purest black you could imagine, Sanders, said.  The kind of clock-stopping black that God must’ve had in mind when he sat down to invent blackness.”

We hear about the loss of the well-liked soldier Kiowa in a muddy shit field and the impact this had on the whole group.  Norman Bowher commits suicide in 1978, about ten years after his return.  Jimmy Connor, the commander keeps his men searching for the body against difficult odds of finding and certainly terrible circumstances being in that field again.  O’Brien returns to the shit field with his ten-year old daughter long after the fighting is over.  “Over the years, that coldness had never entirely disappeared.  There were times in my life when I couldn’t feel much, not sadness, or pity, or passion, and somehow I blamed this place for what I had become, and I blamed it for taking away the person I had once been.  For twenty years this field had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror.  Now it was just what it was.  Flat and dreary and unremarkable.”

This reader appreciated the stories and notes he provides here about Vietnam as we can’t imagine it with any accuracy otherwise.  This reader applauds his language and thanks him for his raw insights and sharing.  O’Brien helped this reader to better understand the power of storytelling—how it helps get you through the unimaginable as well as “joining the past to the future…when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”   Readers like this one realize that we all have need for stories to help us understand how we got from there to here, wherever that is. 

Florida by Lauren Groff


By Lauren Groff

Published 2018

Read Nov 2019

In Florida, Lauren Groff provides the reader with unforgettable stories.  This reader was often literally stunned by what the author was saying and how she said it.  “Helene was in the viscous pool of years in her late thirties when she could feel her beauty slowly departing from her.”  “…the moon really was laughing at us.”

Groff repeatedly engages time and the universe in her stories and requires us to face into the vastness of them in comparison with the finite period of our lives.  One of her characters is overwhelmed with the state of the planet-climate change, volcanos, etc., and is concerned her children will be the last humans. 

Although not a Florida native, Groff has lived in Gainesville, FL long enough to understand much about the raw Florida that is being turned into pavement and amusement parks, although even these can’t conquer hurricanes that are a staple of Florida.  She sets one story in the midst of a hurricane.  She sets another at an old hunting camp in a swampy region filled with many wild animals including snakes and a panther.  In “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” she invokes both the reality of the propensity of snakes in Florida’s wilds and the reality of the impact of paving over the swamp on the habitat of these snakes and other creatures.  Interestingly the pavement and buildings are those of a growing university; shouldn’t an institution focused on knowledge creation and dissemination be aware of the impact of loss of the wild? Two stories involve women who leave Florida’s blistering heat and humidity of the summer for tourist-free setting with milder climates and in so touches on an interesting reality of living in Florida.     

At the same time, the stories draw us into the here and now of these characters.  The mother who is so concerned about the planet forgot it was Halloween so didn’t prepare her children for it and doesn’t have a trick-or-treat supply at the ready.   The woman living through the hurricane is confronted by visions of unresolved relationships from her past.  The family vacationing at the hunting camp is clearly in distress.  The mother whose herpetologist husband is fighting the university’s spread into the wild has to leave her son behind to escape the physical and mental situation her husband has created in the home. One woman who takes her children to France for a month in the summer to escape Florida’s heat is also escaping her husband’s focus on work to exclusion of the family.  Interestingly she eventually decides she belongs in Florida, not France. 

Although the stories have somewhat dark elements with respect to the fragility of the earth and the issues individuals must face daily in the midst of general decline around them of the planet, Groff provides three stories with children playing central roles that demonstrate there is hope in the long run.  The children vacationing in the hunting camp deal with a calamity and compassionately care for their mother while waiting for help to arrive.  Two children abandoned on an island in the middle of a swamp endure their situation and find a path to their salvation from their dire circumstances.  The mother escaping Florida by a trip to France with her children to do research on a French author is refocused by her children on the role she plays in their lives and the impact they have on hers. 

The story endings are purposefully not tidy.  Rather they challenge the reader to pause and consider what really has happened, what that really means, and how the reader will go forward with this new perspective on the world and its inhabitants. 

Groff has certainly gained a new fan who will seek to experience her other work.  

Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth

The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton

Published 1905

Read Nov 2019

We meet Lily Bart as a 29 year old single woman.  She has no siblings.  We learn that shortly before her father’s death he revealed to his family that they had been living beyond their means for some time and they were essentially broke.  After his death, Lily and her mother had managed to keep up appearances as Lily had only recently “come out”.  After her mother died about two years after her father, her father’s sister agreed to take her in for a year, a situation which she extended indefinitely.  The aunt provides Lily an irregular clothing allowance and a place to live with the usual amenities the upper class address.   Now 11 years after coming out, Lily remains unmarried. In addition to the irregular clothing allowance, she has only a very small income to cover her other personal expenses which causes her difficulties as she attempts to “keep up with the Jones” which includes playing bridge for high dollar stakes.  She knows her only solution is to marry someone with sufficient capital and income to support her lifestyle.  But herein lies the issue.  She would also really prefer to marry someone interesting and that she loves (or at least could come to really love vs just tolerate).  

When we meet Lily she has a two hour wait for her train to Bellomont where she will be spending the weekend with her friends Gus and Judy Trenor.  She runs into Lawrence Seldon who is quite willing to entertain her at a teashop during her wait.  While walking in his neighborhood he invites her, on a whim, to his apartment in a bachelor apartment house for that tea and she accepts.  They spend a enjoyable time together.  She indicates she can talk freely to him as he isn’t someone she would consider marrying (insufficient funds).  She laments her situation as a marriageable girl—the restrictions and expectations.  On leaving the apartment house on her way to the train, she encounters Mr. Rosedale and lies about why she was at that address which he knows is a lie.  This is the first of several missteps Lily takes in the course of this story.  The second mistake is to lose the possibility of engagement to Mr. Percy Gryce, a wealthy but dull and conservative man.  She chose to spend Sunday afternoon with Seldon after dodging the church service Mr. Percy Gryce was attending.  This act, in addition to learning that Lily gambled at cards, prompts Mr. Percy Gryce to leave Bellomont early, without an engagement to Lily Bart.

Through the rest of Book 1 we see Lily make several more missteps as she attempts to fund her gambling debts and live the more generous and glamourous life she prefers.   In Book 2, we see Lily bear the consequences of her missteps and the solutions she attempts to repair her situation.  Her aunt dies and leaves her only a small inheritance so she loses her address and residence.  She is innocent of deeds she’s rumored to have committed.  She has no protector or councilor.  But Lily retains her principles and writes her own terms within the narrow confines available to her.  She remains loyal to her friends even when they are not loyal to her. 

Like Tess d’Uberville, Lily is alone and must clothe, house, and feed herself.   Like Tess, the man she loves turns away from her.  Like Tess, society’s expectations and restrictions regarding her gender are limiting and unfair.  Like Tess, she is principled and works to manage through the increasing number of obstacles in her path.  This reader became a fan of both Tess and Lily. 

The Woman in White

The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins

Published serially in Charles Dicken’s magazine “All the Year Round” 1859-1860; in book form in 1860

Read Dec 2019

The Woman in White has had a long history, being first published serially in 1859-1860 and being adapted multiple times for theater (starting in 1860), in film (starting in 1912 and as recently as 1982), TV mini-series in multiple languages (starting in 1971 and as recently as 2018).  It brought commercial success to Collins if not critical success at publication.  It made the “the top 100 greatest novels of all time” list compiled by Robert McCrum for the Observer in 2003. 

What has made this novel so engaging for all this time?  The story includes love, deceit, thrills, mystery, intrigue, and a virtuous approach to revenge.  It is set in a time and place when marriages are arranged by parents, are necessary to provide financial security for women, but in which married women have a very unequal position in the marriage. 

Collins uses a structural device he used again in The Moonstone:  portions of the story told by different narrators, each being a primary witness to the material they provide.  Walter Hartright, a young teacher of drawing and of limited means, compiles the story which he has been driven to reveal in his quest to restore the stolen identity  of the woman he loves but could not marry due to social standing issues and prior planned engagement arranged by his love’s father.  This approach provides not only “reliable narrators” (and “real evidence” for Hartright’s case), but also a chance for the reader to engage directly with, become familiar with, and to form an opinion regarding each narrator, most of whom are essential characters in the story. 

The serially published novel was a huge hit for Dicken’s magazine.  Collins is adept at creating many engaging and interesting installments for a serial, each keeping the reader looking for the next issue, which nicely publish as a (very) long novel.   This was an enjoyable read via audiobook (25 hours at 1.25 speed) for this reader while cooking, cleaning, gardening, driving, etc.  This reader anticipates it would may have been somewhat tedious at times to read “via eyes” given the language and intensely detailed descriptions, but this reader agrees with McCrum that it’s a very worthy read.

Home Fires: An Updated Antigone


 by Sophocles

Written ~440 BC

Home Fires

by Kamila Shamsie

Published 2017

Read Oct 2019

The Theban Legend of Oedipus King of Thebes and his family was well known before Sophocles wrote his Theban plays in the 5th century BC. This reader was educated in the legend through Sophocle’s Theban plays.  This reader will not comment on Sophocle’s innovations or brilliance.  Others are far better positioned to do so.  This reader will only recount the overall plot of his first Theban play, Antigone.  

Before the play starts, the sons of disgraced Oedipus, Polyneices and Eteocles, have contended for the throne of Thebes, held by Creon, the brother of Oedipus’ widow and the person Oedipus charged to care for his children as he leaves for exile.  Polyneices has attacked the city of Thebes while Eteocles fought to defend it, supported by Creon.  The brothers have killed each other in direct face-to-face combat with each other.    Creon, again firmly in charge of Thebes, has proclaimed that Polyneices, because he attacked Thebes, will not be buried but will be left to rot and scavenged by carrions while Eteocles will be buried per customs.   The ruling against Polyneices is considered very harsh punishment.   

Oedipus’ daughter Antigone and Ismene differ with regards to their willingness to obey Creon’s proclamation.  Antigone declares her brother will be buried; Ismene promotes caution and is unwilling to war against the state.  Antigone executes some burial rites defying Creon.  She admits this to Creon and argues with Creon about the immorality of the edict and the morality of her own actions.  Antigone and her sister are taken away for punishment although Antigone indicates Ismene is innocent.   Creon’s son and Antigone’s finance, Haemon, arrives and initially indicates support for his father, suggesting he is turning against Antigone, but then argues for lenience for Antigone including that the people support Antigone’s actions.  After arguing, Haemon leaves, indicating he will never again see his father.  Creon decides to punish only Antigone and has her buried alive in a cave, to minimize wrath from the gods.  After interaction with a blind prophet, Creon eventually decides to reverse his decision and orders Antigone released.  Unfortunately Antigone has already hanged herself.  Haemon kills himself when he finds Antigone’s body.  Creon begins to blame himself for all that has happened but not soon enough as his wife, Haemon’s mother, has also committed suicide.   

In the acknowledgements to Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie tells us she took up a suggestion to adapt Antigone in a “contemporary context”.  This reader found her results stunning.  This writer has decided not to reveal details of the adaptation and leave that for readers to discover themselves.  However, this writer can indicate that the choices Shamsie made to exemplify Oedipus’s disgrace,  Polyneices’ crime against the state,  and the circumstances Creon creates for himself and his state allow us to experience the extreme situations that the ancient Greeks understood about the Theban Legend.  The choices force us to experience the terrible dilemmas the characters face and to realize the answers seem obvious but aren’t.   

Congratulations, Kamila Shamsie for enabling this reader to really understand the depth of the questions Antigone requires us to face. 

J.K. Rowling’s Detective Series by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo’s Calling

Published 2013; Read Aug 2019

The Silkworm

Published 2014; Read Oct 2019

Career of Evil

Published 2015; Read Oct 2019

By Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first in a series of detective novels featuring Coroman Strike and his temp, Robin, written by J.K. Rowling under the name Robert Galbraith.  This reader enjoyed these books while doing long distance driving for many of the same reasons she enjoyed listening to the Harry Potter series while driving:  the characters—both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are richly drawn and well-rounded with positive and negative attributes; the characters make some bad decisions that lead to consequences they need to repair; the plot is engaging; the language is great.  The reader gets engaged in the personal story of the detective and his temp (later investigative partner) while the chase is on to solve the case of the specific book.  In Career of Evil, the case directly involves Robin and brings forward some perps from Coroman’s past.  The series is set in London and the daily routines and corresponding language and idioms fall nicely on the listener’s ear.   This reader looks forward to listening to the fourth book in the series and hopes J.K.  aka Robert will continue finding new adventures for this engaging and unlikely pair of investigators.