Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Salon: The Vietnam War (My Reading, Part 1)

I met a woman the other day who shared her story with me. She was a young mother in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. She fled for her life, having no knowledge that she was carrying her second child at the time. She was scared, afraid for her life as well as that of her family. She made it to the United States, although how exactly, she sometimes wonders to this day. She brought with her both painful and happy memories. Hers is just one of many stories about Vietnam and the toll the war had on our lives.

It impacted me in a much less direct way. My father is a Vietnam Vet, having served time during the war. It changed him in ways I cannot imagine. His experiences will always be with him, and so, however indirectly, with me. It is that knowledge that I bring with me into every book I read that touches on the Vietnam War. The stories become more personal as a result. I can't help but think of my father during that time in his life.

It was with these thoughts that I opened Nam Le's The Boat, a collection of short stories, only a couple of which are directly related to Vietnam. I decided to read the first story in the book, "Love and Honor and pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice," which is about a father and son who have barely spoken in three years. The son, Nam, is struggling to find inspiration for his current writing project, when he decides to write about his father's experiences during the Vietnam War. His father, who is visiting from out of town, is reluctant for the story to be written, but shares it with his son anyway. Author Nam Le's story is beautifully written and yet it does not blunt the horror of the son's father's story of the Americans arrival in Vietnam, of the murder and fear. But more so, this is a story about a father and son, about their relationship, and the son's desire to distance himself from his father while all the while to understand his father and to have his father understand and accept him.

I recently read an interview with the author in which he discusses his exploration of "'authenticity' in fiction." The story is autobiographical but is also fiction; but how much of it? The author purposefully leaves the reader to wonder and ponder whether it affects the reading experience.

This month I am participating in the read-a-long of Paco's Story by Larry Heinemann for the War Through the Generations Vietnam War Challenge. Each week, participants are reading two chapters of the book and answering a set of questions. This past week, we were assigned to read the first two chapters. I confess, it was hard to just stop there!

1. Who do you think the narrator is?

While this may seem like a simple question on the surface, when it comes to Paco's Story it appears to be a bit more complicated. The identity of the narrator is not exactly clear. The text seems to indicate that he is one of the Alpha Company soldiers who died that fateful day at Fire Base Harriette.

2. What does the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1 tell you about the narrator?

The war has touched the narrator as it did many of the soldiers who fought in it. He is hardened and embittered. He makes it clear up front that he isn't writing just another war story--no one wants to hear that, he says. From what I can tell so far, the novel seems like so much more than just that.

3. How do you think Paco’s survival impacted the medic’s world view? And how did that change the medic?

The medic from Bravo Company had been disillusioned long ago. Death is an inevitable part of war, and, all around him, it seemed as if death followed. His efforts to save the injured soldiers were for naught all too often. He came to expect that everyone he attempted to bandage up and heal would die. He expected no less of Paco. Facing the carnage of the Alpha Company was the last straw for the medic. And as he waited for the call that never came, the call that Paco had died, he realized just how fruitless his efforts were, how helpless he was, and how hopeless he felt. He lost all interest in pretending anymore that he could make a difference.

4. Is Paco's Story narrated in a way that is “too” honest?

Paco's Story is raw and real in a way that novels like this should be written. War is violent and harsh. There is nothing pleasant about it and to gloss it over would be to betray the experiences of so many who have fought, died and survived. I also think it is important for those of us who have not experienced similar events in our lives to know the unvarnished truth. Paco's Story strikes the right balance of honesty in the narration. This novel would not be as powerful or authentic as it is otherwise.

Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness is hosting a read-along for Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried this month. She plans to post her thoughts on the book on July 26th and encourages others to join in on the discussion.

I bought a copy of the book years ago for my father, hoping he would loan it to me after he read it. He loved it, but because of the physical distance between us, I never was able to borrow the book from him. As a result, I bought my own copy and it has sat unread on my shelf for quite some time. The Things They Carried was the first book I thought of adding to my reading list for the Vietnam War Challenge this year.

It seems fitting that I should choose to read this book right alongside Paco's Story. Paco had been a soldier in the Alpha Company, and the interconnected stories that make up The Things They Carried are about men in the Alpha Company. I will not be reviewing each of the stories in The Things They Carried separately; rather, I will follow Kim's example and post my overall thoughts on the book later this month.

Are you participating in any of these read-a-longs this month? Have you read these books? If so, what did you think?

Where has your reading taken you lately?

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. I am adding both the books to my TBR pile!

    Here is my TSS/Weekly Geeks post!

  2. I have read a few stories from The Boat and plan on reading them all, in time! Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. I'm participating in Paco's Story as well, and I'm trying very hard not to read ahead! I actually read The Things They Carried about a month ago (review coming soon) and it was incredible. In fact, A Hundred Feet Over Hell was incredible too. Just draining. I'm find that Vietnam books are draining me more than WWII.

  4. The tragedy of war affects so many people who aren't directly involved in it. I sure wish we could figure out a way to put an end to it.

  5. I'm woefully under-read in the Vietnam War department, even though I've got The Things They Carried on my TBR pile and The Boat on my wish list.

    Autobiographical fiction is a funny thing, isn't it? I just finished a whole semi-autographical trilogy, and it definitely adds a different dimension to the reading, wondering what parts are true and what parts are fiction.

  6. Gautami - I hope you enjoy them!

    Book Bird Dog - I've only read the one story so far, but if the others are as good as that one, I'm sure I will enjoy it. :-)

    Sandy - I agree. The books on Vietnam do seem to be more draining. And oh so good!

    Kathy - I do too, Kathy. I really do.

    Megan - I will be curious to know what you think of The Things They Carried When you get to it. Having started reading it, I'm glad I decided not to review it in bits and pieces. Each chapter really does play into the others.

    I'm with you and autobiographical fiction. I believe The Things They Carried was also written in the same vein.

  7. Those sound great. When I was in college, I took a Vietnam seminar. Actually, I think I took it twice because it was so awesome. We read tons of books about the war and used Karnow's Vietnam as our text. Awesome class. I was just telling my teenager about 10 minutes ago that he really needed to read this book in order to understand so much of the past 40 years.

  8. The Things They Carried was an eye-opener for me; loved it! I also have The Boat (waiting to be read).

    Hope this is a good week for you Wendy.

  9. Sarah - It would be really interested to take a class devoted to the Vietnam War. I read a lot of nonfiction about the war many years ago and am enjoying exploring more of the fiction side this year.

    Diane - I am really enjoying The Things They Carried so far.

  10. I've always wanted to read The Things They Carried so I can't wait to hear your thoughts on that one. I should have joined in myself but I've got too many other books calling my name right now. Hope you have a great week of reading!

  11. I've just found Paco on Serena's blog and it certainly looks like a book that I need to read. My uncle was in Vietnam and he will not discuss it with anyone...ever! I felt that in high school we glossed over that time in history so I think reading these books would really help me understand what happened.

    Great post Wendy!

  12. Samantha - I know how that is! I probably shouldn't have picked up The Things They Carried right now with everything else I have going on, but I couldn't help myself. :-)

    Staci - My husband's uncle is like that too, never wanting to talk about the war. As it was, my dad doesn't really talk about it with me. Growing up, he just used to tell me I wouldn't understand anytime I asked about his time there. As a result, I made a point to read up about the war on my own, hoping it would shed some light on what he wouldn't talk about. He's since reconnected with fellow soldiers and they sometimes talk about those days. I think it really has helped him.

  13. I have the same relationship with Vietnam fiction as you - my dad is also a vet. He did two tours w/ the Navy - one on land as a corpsman, one on an aircraft carrier. The Things They Carried is the first book I read in an attempt to understand what he experienced - and still reside son my top ten favorite books of all time list. I haven't read Paco's Story, but plan to at some point. I look forward to reading your response to it.

  14. I'm not participating in either Read-a-long, but you're piquing my interest. I'm interested in stories about the 1960's, but haven't read many dealing directly with what happened in Vietnam; I've tended to stay on the home front. Maybe I need to widen my sights a bit.

    Most of my reading lately has kept me in the contemporary USA, but right now I'm in Niagara Falls, Ontario during the World War I years (The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan).

    Have a good week, Wendy!

  15. Carrie - So far, I can see why The Things They Carried is on so many favorites' lists. It's really good.

    Florinda - I was pleased to see the amount of attention the Vietnam War is getting this year in publishing. It's like they knew about the Vietnam War Challenge and were catering to those of us who signed up to participate. What's great too is that there is so much variety, choice wise, that fits in with quite a few different reading preferences.

    I am looking forward to reading Buchanan's book. It's on my must read list for this year (which I'm slowly making progress on).

  16. I'm so glad that you are participating in the Vietnam War reading challenge readalong of Paco's Story. It is such a powerful book, and I'm having a hard time rereading it at a slower pace for the challenge.

    I'm going to have to check out The Boat, and I may be participating in The Things They Carried readalong with Sophisticated Dorkiness.

  17. I find the Vietnam War to be one of the most fascinating wars to read about and have quite a few books about it on my shelf. I remember writing a research paper on it in my first year of college, and getting so engrossed with it that I almost wrote too much. It was a frightening war, not only because of the politics, but also because of the crazy battle tactics and weapons they used. Great review, Sandy. I think both of these books sound really good, and I am adding them to my list.

  18. I found your posting very interesting. I think Paco's Story strikes me as one I'd like to try.

    My dad isn't around anymore but he was in WWII. He never talked about it much except that he participated in boxing matches they had for recreation. (He was in the Navy). I wish I would've asked him more. His brother also never talks about the war side, some stories he tells are more people side or joke side. I think it is just hard to talk about those things you see in war.

  19. I can't even begin to imagine how you feel reading these books knowing your father served in the Vietnam war. I always think of my Grandfather when I read WWII books, but because the war is so distant for me and because I never lived with my Grandpa and he rarely talks about it..I feel it's much different from your situation.

    I'm glad to see you are enjoying Paco's story so far. I think you hit it on the head regarding the medic..hopelessness. That's what I was feeling regarding the medic..but I couldn't put into words what it was I felt he was described it perfectly.

    I really enjoyed The Things They Carried and look forward to your review later this month.

  20. My dad was drafted and served in Vietnam. It is very difficult to get him to talk about and for the most part we don't. This book would be a good way to gain some insight.

  21. Being a U.S History major in college I learned quite a lot about Vietnam. I took a History of the Vietnam War course and we had students come in and speak to us who had come here after the fall of Saigon. Hearing their stories was heartbreaking. I've heard a lot about The Things They Carried. I had it checked out of the library and didn't get a chance to read it before I had to return it. It is definitely on my list to read in the future.

  22. Thanks for participating in our Read-a-Long. Paco's Story is a very powerful, important book, and like you, I believe people need to know the honest truth.

  23. What a thought to start with the book. One of the reasons I love reading your reviews is the perspective you take on when writing them. Thanks for the review!

    My recent reading has taken me into the world of tattoos again. I've just finished Karen's latest book, DRIVEN TO INK. It makes me want to get a tattoo all over again!

  24. I missed the Paco readalong, I have the Tim Obrien book so maybe I'll join in that. Vietnam was with me growing up, so I tend to avoid reading books about it. I am participating in the Vietnam challenge at Anna and Serena's so I need to pick up the pace. Why do all the other books always come first. I think I'm over committed.

  25. My dad borrowed my copy of The Things They Carried and absolutely loved it. He even wrote a great review for my blog without being asked! I'm planning to join Kim, too.

  26. Serena - I am so glad you and Anna had the idea for the read-a-long. I am enjoying being part of the discussion.

    I've only read the two stories from The Boat so far, but I'm really impressed with the author's ability to get in the skin of his characters.

    Heather - It's such a complex war, to be sure.

    Carla - Paco's Story is definitely an interesting one. I might not have known about the book had it not been for the read-a-long.

    I imagine talking about war in general is difficult for the vets, at least the more painful stories. I don't think any of us who haven't been through would really be able to fully understand. We can come a little close maybe, by reading books like Paco's Story and The Things They Carried, but it's not the same.

    My grandfather served during WWII and was stationed in the Pacific. There's so much I wish I knew about his time there that I don't have a clue about. My dad has copies of my grandfather's letters that he keeps meaning to go through and make sense of. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet.

    Kris - It really brings the war home, reading about it and knowing my father was in the middle of it.

    Stacy - I so agree, Stacy. It's so hard for my dad to talk about it with those of us who weren't there. I do think that reading books about the war have opened up the communication between us on some level, even if only in a small way.

  27. Kathleen - There's nothing quite like getting first hand accounts of people's experiences in a war or any part of history really, is there?

    Anna - Knowing our history is so important for a variety of reasons. Even in fiction, we can learn so much.

    Alice - Thank you, Alice. It's funny how these little coincidences happen.

    I am really looking forward to reading Driven to Ink. It looks like it will be another good one.

    Wisteria - It's not too late to join in, Donna! Paco's Story isn't a long book. I'm really liking O'Brien's book. I hope to finish it by next weekend.

    You still have time to catch up with the challenge. :-) But I know what you mean. There's never enough time to get to all the books we want.

    Lisa - I am glad The Things They Carried really resonated with your dad. It definitely did with mine as well.

  28. I'm joining in on Paco's Story and The Things They Carried also. It's been a rocky beginning for me with Paco's Story, but I seem to be in the minority. I want the same story, the same details, just written a little more clearly. It seems to be getting better though. Whether I'm enjoying it or not, I do feel it is an important story to share.

  29. Shelley - I'm glad you joined in on the discussion! You know, having finished the book, I know exactly what you mean. For me, the narration was inconsistent at times and it almost felt like I was reading two or three separate novels. Even so, I really enjoyed the book and am glad I read it.


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