Tag Archives: Vietnam War

Thoughts on The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried

Earlier this week, my colleague Holly wrote about how we’re going big with the Big Read.  I’m excited about these upcoming events here at the Library and especially about Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried as the 2014 book selection.

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but when my friend Kim of the excellently-named blog Sophisticated Dorkiness organized a The Things They Carried blogger read-along several years ago, I wanted no part of it.  Even though Kim and I have similar literary tastes (we’re nonfiction junkies). I mean, if your literary diet is similar to mine, you’re not going to readily pick up a “war book.”  Plus, with all I had going on in my life at the time, I wasn’t in the mood for “tough reading.”

Then someone else told me how remarkable this book was. And then someone else. And then my library had a display that mentioned The Things They Carried as being an American novel that everyone should read.

So, I caved.

And I’m so glad I did.

Yes, it’s a hard subject matter, one that most of us would like to avoid.  Yes, there are some tough, heart-wrenching scenes and descriptions.  But Tim O’Brien’s writing?

Absolutely breathtaking.

“To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true.  Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive. The grass, the soil – everything. All around you things are purely living, and you among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble. You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self – your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by the force of wanting it. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord, things you never knew you wanted. There is a kind of largeness to it, a kind of godliness. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost.” (pg. 77-78)

Is that not spectacular?

I want to elaborate for a minute on this part: “Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life.” 

 To me, those three sentences are the very core of this book. The Things They Carried has an element of mystery about it, because while it is billed as “A Work of Fiction by Tim O’Brien,” it reads very much like a memoir due in large part to O’Brien including himself as a character in the book.  That leads the reader, including myself, to wonder how much of the story is true and how much isn’t.

O’Brien uses this technique brilliantly and, I believe, on purpose.  I was born in spring 1969, so I draw my Vietnam references from books and movies, from Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon” played (and sung) too loudly in a college dorm, from my uncle who returned forever changed. By using this literary device of purposefully not telling his reader what is true and what is not, O’Brien is making a similar statement on the nebulous and confusing times of which he writes.

Likewise, the “proximity to death bring[ing] a corresponding proximity to life” is also an intriguing line because, yes, there is so much death in this book but there is also so much life.  The soldiers of Alpha Company are very much alive, even in their deaths as their memory lives on.  And, as The Things They Carried makes clear, so are those who were left behind at home and those gone before their time. Being exposed to death so young has the effect of making one appreciate one’s life and the lives of those we love.

This is an incredibly powerful book, one that should – yes, absolutely – be required reading for every American.  I may not have wanted to pick up The Things They Carried, but once I did, I could not put it down.

~ Melissa F.


Filed under Uncategorized

We’re Going Big with the Big Read

The Big Read is a nationwide celebration of reading, and locally the initiative is spearheaded by CCAC.  It is a “month-long series of free outreach events designed to promote literacy, reading and open dialogue within our community.”  The Library can definitely get behind this mission, and as such we have a schedule chock-full of events to celebrate this year’s book, The Things They Carried.

This is a beautifully rendered story about the Vietnam War, and the library is working within this theme to present talks, discussions, and film screenings on themes related to veterans.  Below is a well-rounded list of options!  Many of the book discussions will have free copies of the book to give away, courtesy of CCAC.


3/6/2014. 6-8 pm Dr. Todd DePastino

 Todd is co-founder and director of the Veterans Breakfast Club, a nonprofit organization dedicated to gathering veterans of all eras and generations together to share their stories of service. Todd will tell extraordinary WWII stories of veterans living in the region and his quest to preserve and celebrate them.


3/11/2014, 6-7 pm Book Discussion 

Tuesday Evening Books Presents: a book discussion of The Things They Carried

3/25/2014, 6-8 pm Vietnam War Documentary

Downtown and Business

3/18/2014, 12:15 pm Return With Honor documentary

American Experience examines the lives of American pilots who became prisoners of war in Vietnam and describes their struggles in captivity.  This documentary includes rare footage of prison camps and captured prisoners.  Narrated by Tom Hanks.  Presented by PBS.

Hill District

3/18/2014 1 pm Tuskegee Airmen: A Neighborhood Legacy.

Join a discussion and film on historic Tuskegee Airmen, focusing especially on those men and women from the Hill District community.


3/11/2014, 7 pm Buzz: Pairings: The Things They Carried Book Discussion

 On 3/11, we’ll discuss The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien at the Lawrenceville Library. On 3/25/14, we’ll discuss Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers  at a neighborhood location. Check http://clpbookbuzz.wordpress.com for more information.

3/29/14, 2-5 pm Classic Film

Watch and discuss a classic film about a young man who volunteers to fight but quickly discovers that the Viet Cong are not his greatest enemies. This academy award winning film is rated R and includes extreme violence and language. Participation in this program is limited to individuals aged 18 and up.

Main, First Floor

3/13/2013 6:30-7:45 pm The Things They Carried Book Discussion

Bound  Together is a collaborative book discussion. In March, we’ll  discuss The Things They Carried at the Carnegie Museum of Art, with some views of the Carnegie International to boot.

4/17/2014 1 & 6 pm  Books in the Afternoon

Books in the Afternoon will feature discussions of The Things They Carried.

Mt. Washington

3/13/2014 7:00 pm  The Big Read in Pittsburgh:  The Things They Carried.

Mt. Washington will host a lively book discussion.

Woods Run

3/11/2014 11:30 am Book Discussion of  The Things They Carried

Copies will be available at the circulation desk.  Refreshments will be served.

Happy Big Reading!



Filed under Uncategorized

Oh, The Places You’ll Go

Most of us have seen or heard comments about books and reading; their ability to transport us away from the here and now to the wherever and whenever.  It could be Berlin in the Cold War and you’ve become one of Smiley’s People, or perhaps you remember when Jules Verne took you aboard the Nautilus and you were sweating out how to fight off giant squid.  Maybe you even saw yourself as an aspiring literature student off to interview a successful, handsome businessman, but we’ll let that one go.

Every so often we forget some basic truths and need to be guided back to the better path, and I don’t mean morals. I’m talking about writing.  This happened to me just recently.  Browsing the New Books display on the second floor of Main Library, one of the spine names caught my eye – Philip Caputo.  If you haven’t heard of him, and you enjoy reading, then you really should do right by yourself and find some of his works.  He successfully writes both fiction and non-fiction, has shared a Pulitzer for Journalism, and is credited with writing what is perhaps the first (and best?) defining book about the Vietnam War.  The title that drew me in and was a delight to read is: The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean.


I discovered Caputo when I bought hist first book, A Rumor of War, his Vietnam memoir, right after it was published in 1977. I was either still in high school or just on my way to college, and its currency (remember, the war had ended in 1975) brought some unpleasant truths home to me. Not so much the war, but the warriors, the Vietnam Vets who were my brothers’ ages became very real.  It was the first time I remember that history lost some of its abstraction.  Philip Caputo writes vividly and in the case of a combat narrative, not gratuitously; every episode and description in Rumor’s pages has a purpose and a function.   I became hooked for many years, in the same way others of us patiently wait for the next Sue Grafton, Barbara Kingsolver or James Lee Burke (me.)

The Longest Road lives up to that literary city-on-the-hill of moving the reader.  In 2011, the then 70 year old author and his wife take us with them (and their two English Setters) on their 16,000 mile trip from Key West, Florida – the southern most point in the continental US –  to Deadhorse, Alaska – the northern most point. Their mode of travel; a 19 foot Airstream and a 2007 Toyota Tundra.  Yes, the goal was to see America, maybe in a 2010s derivation of Kerouac or a modified Zen and the Art of Airstream Repair.  They pretty much avoided the interstates and deliberately went through populated areas. For much of the trip they followed the route that Lewis & Clark forged, but no visits to Pittsburgh.  Caputo’s focus is simpler and more aligned with his background as a newspaperman. Given the extreme political divisiveness of the last 5-10 years, he wanted to find out what holds us together as Americans. Or maybe if we really still hold together.

The book’s Preface sucked me in and I was hooked after that; I couldn’t put it down. When I did, I couldn’t wait to pick it up again.

The idea hatched on Barter Island, A WIND-SCOURED ROCK in the Beaufort Sea that was almost not an island; the channel separating it from the Alaskan mainland looked so narrow a center fielder on one side could have thrown to a second baseman on the other.

. . . Kaktovic had the architectural charm of a New Jersey warehouse district: a dirt airstrip, a hangar, houses like container boxes with doors and windows.

More than just enjoying the book, and thinking about Americaness through the writer’s eyes, is the idea plant. That kernel in the back of my head that’s trying to think about how I’d approach my wife (not to mention the Library) with the idea of finding a camper or an Airstream (NO, they are not the same) and making our own American sojourn.

– Richard


Filed under Uncategorized

A Tale of Two Barrys

Antiwar protest, 1967

Antiwar protest, 1967

If you ask people about the 60s, the responses and images they conjure up tend to be of hippies, anti-war protests, the counter culture, free love and rock n roll. Certainly other images (and memories) come to mind, the civil rights movement, The King and Kennedy killings, urban riots and even positive things like the Mercury and Gemini programs, the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion, the Mazeroski home run, and two events that left an indelible mark on me – the Apollo 11 lunar mission and the Miracle Mets winning the 1969 World Series.  But that’s for a different piece.  This one’s about music.

Joan Baez & Bob Dylan

Joan Baez & Bob Dylan

What we learn, what we remember or think we remember is often subject to wishful thinking and maybe prevailing attitudes. My musical 1960s were shaped by 3 older brothers, their collection of LPs and 45s, and the 77 WABC radio DJ “Cousin Brucie” (Bruce Morrow, who by the way is still broadcasting on Sirius Satellite Radio).  I have to tell you, it wasn’t all about Elvis, hot-rods, lovesick teens, lovesick teens on the beach, or the mop-topped British.

Album Cover, Eve of DestructionMy brothers’ had two records (it’s collective because I couldn’t tell you who owned which ones) which struck me even then as not being like the others. They didn’t fall into the regular pattern of performances by the Ronettes, Jay and the Americans or The Four Seasons.  These two LPs came out 6 months apart and each said something definitive about the period. Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire was released in July 1965 and went to No.1 on Billboard in the last week of September. Ballads of the Green Berets by Sgt. Barry Sadler was released in January 1966 and went to No.1 in three weeks, and was the Billboard no.1 single for 1966.

McGuire’s “Eve” was angry, in your face and harsh; it didn’t leave room for very much hope.  On the one hand it captured the realities of the day, though not the mood.  That would come later.  It certainly didn’t have much in common with other songs of the day.   Needless to say that “establishment” response to Eve of Destruction wasn’t positive, being banned on several US stations, and even on the BBC.    

The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’

But you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don’t believe
We’re on the eve
Of destruction.

At the other end, Sadler’s Ballads of the Green Berets (the title single is “Ballad of the Green Berets” ) was straightforward, sung in a very personal style, and quietly patriotic.  It was about the soldiers but not about the war itself.

Fighting soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret

Silver wings upon their chest
These are men, America’s best
One hundred men will test today
But only three win the Green Beret

The album’s place on the charts and its content benefit Album Cover, Ballads of the Green Beretsfrom having been released in 1965-66 rather than later on. I have to wonder if it had been written 2-3 years later whether RCA could have released it, and if it wouldn’t have had some of the same anger McGuire has, but from a different perspective.  At first glance the lyrics to “Ballad of the Green Beret” may seem kitschy, but remember the influences are still the Righteous Brothers and The Lettermen, and the Green Berets felt they’d responded to JFK’s appeal of “What you can do for your country”.

Talk about a juxtaposition.  “Eve of Destruction” has always stuck with me because it was so stark and honest.  I can even draw a line from McGuire to Neil Young’s 1970 ode to the Kent State shootings – Ohio, another no-punches-pulled song.  In the Sadler album, there’s a song titled “I’m a Lucky One” about a soldier who’s finished his tour and is about to go home.  In it he reminisces about his friends and perhaps what shortly lies ahead in the American collective memory.  They come to him in a dream and appeal to him as the survivor – “…Tell them about us Sadler, don’t let us die in vain.”

– Richard 


Filed under Uncategorized

Enemy Faces

I grew up in the Eighties, the Golden Age of America. Reagan had the Communists on the ropes and we were all going to be rich someday.  Hollywood blockbusters provided us all with stories and shared experience, like so many bearded shamans around the Neolithic campfire. I was particularly struck by the wave of Vietnam War films of that time. I wanted to know more and consumed dozens of books on the American involvement in the war. I was always most eager to read the personal narratives of soldiers in the conflict.

In the stacks last week I came across this book, Red Plateau: Memoir of a North Vietnamese Soldier. Looking it over, I had the startling realization that I had never read anything from the Other Side. All the personal stories from the war I had read were from American perspectives. Whether in book or film, the enemy was a largely faceless and impersonal danger, an elemental force lurking in a primeval jungle.

I read the short book in a day and half and was floored.  Comparing the differences and similarities between this story and the American stories I have read was interesting. The inherent wastefulness and horror of war are present in both. As a North Vietnamese soldier fighting in the south, Nguyen Van Tan is away from home like his American counterparts. But he doesn’t count the days until he can return. He and his comrades are there to fight until they are killed or the North prevails.  The details of the hardships he faced are gripping and poignant, marching for days and days with only puddle water and moldy rice balls for sustenance, frequently under the threat of nightmarish B-52 strikes. The North Vietnamese soldiers are a sentimental lot and form the close bonds familiar to anyone who has served. His entire platoon weeps openly after Tan, himself paralyzed with shock, receives a letter with the news of the death of his father.  Nguyen Van Tan  miraculously survived some of the heaviest engagements of the war, including the assaults on Khe Sahn.  He credits his survival to a grievous wound he received in 1971, keeping him off the line for a long period of recuperation. Tan had been a schoolteacher and his rudimentary knowledge of English was put to use for a time translating captured documents. In these sections we can read that the North Vietnamese troops found their American foes equally inscrutable.

I only took a moment to mine some more material in the stacks.

Vietnam: A Portrait of its People at War contained personal stories from members of another shadowy antagonist of  the Vietnam War film, the Viet Cong. Interestingly, this book was first published under the title Portrait of the Enemy.

Once again, the power of browsing is revealed. I didn’t know I needed to read these books until I saw them.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized