Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sunday Salon: The Vietnam War (My Reading, Part 3)

Unfortunately the final discussion for the Paco's Story read-a-long came and went without my being able to join in last month. I had intended to, even managed to stick to the planned reading schedule, but then got sidetracked by unavoidable events in my life. In that time, I also finished reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. Both novels cover the lives of Alpha unit soldiers who fought during the Vietnam War.

In Larry Heineman's Paco's Story, Paco was the only surviving soldier after a raid that decimated his unit. With both physical and mental scars, Paco re-enters society, going through the motions of life. Readers are offered a glimpse at how a soldier from that war was treated upon his return, both with disdain and occasional pride. We get an inside look at the horrors of war, and Heineman pulls no punches in describing the war in brutal and honest terms.

Paco's Story began strong, one of those books I was sure would be a five star book by the time I finished. However, I was a little put off by the shifting voice of the narrator as the novel went on. It was inconsistent at times, and therefore a bit disjointed. It is still a powerful book, one I am glad I read, and deserves a high rating and much of the praise it has received.

The Things They Carried hit me almost in the opposite way. As I began reading the collection of stories and essays that make up the novel, I had doubts that it would knock my socks off as it had for so many others. The more I read, the more the stories came together, and the more the book came to life for me. By the end, I was, in fact, blown away.

Tim O'Brien's accounts of the Vietnam War in The Things They Carried are fiction, based in fact. It's hard not to think of the book as completely nonfiction when reading it, especially since the author writes in the first person and the narrator shares the author's name.

O'Brien's book is real and raw, sometimes funny, often sad. The collection of stories is about friendship, love, hope and death as much as it is about the war experience itself. Several of the stories stood out for me, in particular the one in which Tim receives his draft letter. Opposed to the war, he considers dodging the draft. How does a person reconcile one's beliefs with one's duty? My own father enlisted in the military and so his going to Vietnam was not a forced issue, not really. What must it have been like for a man who didn't make that choice on his own, who was forced to fight in a war he didn't believe in? "On the Rainy River" struck a chord with me that still lingers in the back of my mind and probably will for a long time to come.

There are also stories about the first kill, about coping with death, how a soldier may do many brave things during a war, but it is what he fails to do or isn't able to do that gnaws away at him. The author captures the many faces of war: the friendships that form, the horrors, the pressure, pain and strengths of the men. And how fitting the title, The Things They Carried! Not only do these men carry heavy loads of physical items, they also bare psychological and emotional burdens.

In fiction, there is truth. Sometimes it is easier to get to the truth through fiction than through nonfiction. We can see into the heart of it much more clearly. Both Paco's Story and The Things They Carried are good examples of portraying the truth in fiction at its finest.

I topped my Vietnam reading spurt off with Jason Aaron's The Other Side, a graphic novel following the stories of two soldiers, one a U.S. Marine and the other from the People's Army of Vietnam. Illustrated by Cameron Stewart, the novel is both beautiful and harsh. For the American, Billy Everette, a farm boy from Alabama, going to Vietnam was not something he especially wanted nor did he believe he'd come home alive. He is haunted by the ghosts of fellow soldiers, scared and unsure of himself. He is fighting a war against communism, to help the Vietnamese people. Vo Binh Dai, also the son of farmers, sees the war more as a spiritual quest; it is his duty to protect his country from the outsiders, the Americans, who are bent on destroying everything the Vietnamese hold dear. Two different views, one war.

I wasn't overly impressed with the author's first volume of Scalped, I confess, but I was really taken with The Other Side. The artwork, above all, is what makes this graphic novel stand out. One of my favorite pages carried panels of the horrors of war while others of a beautiful butterfly. Those drawings said so much more than words could ever express. The Other Side is definitely worth checking out.

Paco's Story by Larry Heinemann (Vintage, 1986) - Rating: * (Very Good)
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (Broadway, 1990) - Rating:
* (Outstanding)
The Other Side by Jason Aaron & Cameron Stewart (Vertigo, 2007) -
Rating: * (Very Good)

Many thanks to Serena and Anna for hosting the Paco's Story read-a-long as well as the War Through the Generations Vietnam War Challenge. I still have one more book to read for the challenge to reach my personal challenge goal. There are three books in particular I would like to get to before the year is out, but if I read at least two of them, I'll be happy.

I currently am on an urban fantasy kick, having just discovered author Ilona Andrew's Kate Daniels' series. I am devouring the books and hope to post my thoughts on the first four books of the series at some point in the near future. There are quite a few movies I have seen recently that I also want to share with you.

You may have noticed my sporadic attendance here at Musings of a Bookish Kitty in recent months. I rarely talk about my work here, and while I won't go into details, I will say that I have been putting in a lot of overtime. In addition, my boss has stepped in to cover for one of her bosses who is now in a different position and, in the meantime, I am one of two who is acting in her stead, along with continuing with my usual duties. We've been told this will go on for awhile, most likely through the end of the year at the minimum. On the home front, my husband and I have been working on several different home projects in preparation for the eventual sale of our house. At times it seems silly given that our house will be torn down, but the more money we can get out of the city, the better off we'll be when we are ready to buy a new house. We finally got the official letter from the city promising an appraisal soon. It looks like the waiting is almost over. I did say almost, right?

That's a taste of what's going on in my life right now, among other things, anyway. I can hear the critics saying it's all about making time for what you love. While true to an extent, I've had to sacrifice somewhere. And right now, that's my blog. I am still reading. Just yesterday I was caught reading while waiting for a train to go by at an intersection. You have to read when you can, after all.

I appreciate all of you who still stop by and visit--more than you know. I am not commenting on your blogs nearly as much as I'd like, but I do visit when I can. I hope to make the rounds soon to say hello and let you know I'm still alive and kicking.

So, tell me what you all are reading these days? Anything you think I should jump on right away? What has been going on in your life?

Enjoy the rest of your weekend and happy reading!

Source: The Other Side was a gift from my husband, which he purchased. The other two books were both purchased by me.

© 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. Life's been intruding on my reading, too. That's just the way it is. I try to squeeze in some reading and blogging when I can.

    The Things They Carried is required reading for a history class in our high school and I've seen the kids carrying the book around with them. I haven't read it myself, but, I have a feeling that will change after reading your excellent review.

    Take it easy, Wendy, and I hope everything settles down for you soon

  2. I have missed you, Wendy, but I am so glad that all is ok and it is just that cycle of life. I know that things will settle down sometime soon.

    I am so impressed with your diligence to read about the Viet Nam war. That is a topic that I feel I "should" read --- but I just can't bring myself to do right now. While I have not read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, I did read In the Lake of the Woods and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is one of the books that stays with you a long time.

    Have a great week!

  3. Linda - Thanks for your kind words, Linda. That's all we can do, isn't it? We just do what we can, as best we can.

    I hadn't realized The Things They Carried was required reading for some schools. I think that's great. It's definitely a worthwhile book to read. If you do read it, I would love to know what you think.

    Molly - I've really missed you all too. Thank you.

    I have the Vietnam War Challenge to thank for getting me back into reading about the Vietnam War. I am not sure I would have been so eager to dive back in otherwise. It'd been years since I'd last cracked open a book about it. I kind of burnt myself out in my quest to learn more about it all those years ago.

    I hope you have a great week too!

  4. Last year you were dealing with furloughs, and this year it's overtime - the joys of working with the state, huh (in one way or another)?

    I'm glad to see you back, Wendy - I've missed you! My reading/blogging balance shifted a bit over the summer too - I was doing more reading, and I liked it. Now that I'm back at work full-time and through with traveling for a while, I have much less time to read, and I need to think about what I really want that balance to be.

    Reading about the Vietnam era appeals to me more when it's a backdrop than a central theme, to be honest, but I always like getting your take on books :-).

  5. It sounds like you've been keeping very busy! I've been thinking about what it will be like to go back to work after being out of the workforce for almost ten years, but have decided it doesn't make sense for me to do until my youngest is at least in the first grade since we don't want to do day care.

    I've been seeing a lot of good reviews for The Things They Carried, and have finally decided to add it to my wish list after reading this post.

  6. The Things They Carried is a masterpiece. It is graceful and heartbreaking and poignant. Paco's Story was not any of these things - it was harsh and raw. But they both present very real viewpoints on the Vietnam War, and I enjoyed both. I am ALL OVER that graphic novel. I have one more book to read for the challenge, and I think that is going to be it, if my library carries it.

    I did not realize you were moving! It is such a royal pain, but also will be a new adventure. I wish you lots of energy and luck in finding your next home!

  7. Florinda - I worked quite a bit of overtime last year too, although not quite as much--even with the furloughs last year. It's impossible to furlough an emergency service and not expect to pay out lots of overtime. While I'm not furloughing anymore, my staff who fall under a different union are. We're struggling to work out their schedules and ensure there's still plenty of coverage at the moment. We have until the 26th to come up with a schedule. And then it takes effect that day. :-S

    Finding a good balance can be tough. It's a constant struggle for me.

    Alyce - And then some! I imagine going back to work won't be an easy adjustment in some regards, and I can't blame you for wanting to put it off until your youngest is in 1st grade. If you can manage it, that's definitely a good way to go.

    Sandy - I'm kicking myself for waiting so long to read The Things They Carried. I should have read my dad's copy before I gave it to him for his birthday all those years ago. LOL

    Paco's Story has a lot going for it and ultimately my complaint about it is minor. I loved that it was harsh and raw. It felt like I was reading two or three different novels at times, however, and I would like to have had a little more consistency in that regard.

    I do hope you can get your hands on The Other Side. I'd offer you my copy, but my husband's already claimed it and won't let go. :-(

    The move has been a long time coming, only it's been a big waiting game as we wait for the city to decide what it's going to do. We still have a ways to go, but at least the ball is rolling and we're a little less in the dark than we were before. I imagine once the actual appraisal is done, things will start moving pretty quickly from there. A lot hinges on how much the city is willing to give us for our house.

  8. I remember when i took up ham radio and was trying to tackle morse code everybody kept saying just practice 10 minutes a day. I felt like saying that there are only so many 10 minute periods and it seemed like they were all filled up with other things! Like meals, and dogs and horses and work and this and the other.
    It all seems to level out in the end somehow.
    I've been reading/listening to shorter things lately. Finished up Whirligigs by Paul Fleischman and just loved it! Did Bull Run and Practical Magic before that. I think I'll try Terrier next week by Tamora Pierce.
    Going to State Fair on Monday and back to work part time temp this week.
    Have a great week!

  9. I can totally see why you haven't been around as much - your life has been crazy! I hope things settle down for you soon. Moving is a pain, but it's also exciting!

    I was blown away by The Things They Carried too.

  10. I have surprised myself today and got quite a bit of reading done in Year of Wonders. I might actually finish it today, or tomorrow.

    I read The Things They Carried. First as a short story and later the novel. I was blown away by it, especially by the way that the events could have been perpetrated by any of the men. He really set that book up brilliantly.

  11. Wendy, you sure have a lot going on at the moment! Hope the work stuff reaches a state of manageable equilibrium. Glad you're still reading !

  12. I read a lot of the posts for the Paco's Story read along, and think that that is definitely a book I want to read. I also just bought a copy of The Things They Carried, and am looking forward to it. I find the Vietnam War very interesting.

    It sounds like you are very busy right now, what with work and the house, and I hope things begin to calm down soon for you! Take care of yourself and try to relax as much as possible!

  13. Sounds like you've been as busy as me. It is hard to focus on blogging when the "real" world gets in the way. It's nice to have you back for the day and hope you will be back a bit more in the future, depending on your work schedule and busy house stuff. I haven't read The Things They Carried but haven't yet heard a negative review. I can't wait to read it. I had it out from the library but had to return it unread a few weeks ago.

  14. Carla - It's not always easy to find time for everything, is it?

    I hope you enjoy Terrier! Enjoy the State Fair. It's been so long since I was last able to go to one. My parents go every year, but I haven't heard them say whether they'd go this year yet or not.

    I hope you have a great week too!

    Kathy - Yes, I'm looking forward to the move although I wish all the stuff in between was already finished: the actual packing, looking for a new house, etc. LOL

    Nicole - It's always nice when you find extra time to read. I hope to get to Year of Wonders one of these days.

    It really was a stroke of genius, the way The Things They Carried was put together. Such an awesome book.

    Laura - Thanks, Laura. I just feel lucky I'm not carrying the load by myself at this point.

    Heather - The Vietnam War has so many different facets to it. It's definitely an interesting war to study and read about. Being so close to it through my father, it makes it even more fascinating. I do hope you are able to read both of the books and will enjoy them as much as I did.

    Kathleen - We can only do so much and so we do the best we can. Hopefully you will get a chance to read The Things They Carried one of these days. It took me years so you still have time. :-)

  15. I've been wondering about you, Wendy. It's so good to see you back and after reading your post, I can totally understand why you haven't been updating your blog as usual. I hope all things will go on well and smoothly for you, both work wise and the house moving. :)

    Hope you've a great week ahead!

  16. The Things They Carried is on my TBR list. I keep waiting for the right mood to read it.

  17. Melody - Thank you, Melody! I hope you have a great week too.

    Christine - Being in the right frame of mind is a good idea. I hope you do like it when you get to it.

  18. I'm so glad that you are participating in the reading challenge and the readalong..>What great insights into two fantastic books...and another book for me to check out as well.

    We'll get links up as soon as we can.

    I hope that the summer ends well for you and that you get what you deserve from the appraiser.

    we were thinking of doing a readalong for the things they carried, but it seems everyone has read maybe we'll change it to Matterhorn!

  19. Good luck keeping your life in balance. You're right, something's gotta give, and it certainly can't be your career or your responsibilities at home. We'll all be here to read whatever you write whenever you have time to write it, so don't worry about that. :) Here's hoping that things settle down for you soon!

  20. Oh Wendy, you sure have your hands full! I have missed seeing more of your posts but I think we all just go through moments when the blog has to take a back seat. Don't worry about that - just make sure you still have time for yourself and of course to relax with books when you get those little breaks :)

    One day I will read something by Tim O'Brien! I have a hard time picking up a book I know is about war because I just find it so hard to read about. Still I don't want to miss on a good read.

  21. You sure do have a lot going on! Good luck with the house and I hope you get a break with work soon.

    If it was between reading and blogging, I have to admit that I would have to put reading above blogging too. I sure you you are getting in some good reading time every day.

  22. As I always say, real life comes first. I've had some crazy months on the home/work fronts myself, so I haven't been reading blogs as much as I'd like. Hopefully you'll be able to relax soon!

    I'm glad to see you were blown away by The Things They Carried. I just selected it as my next book club pick!

  23. I think I'm going to take a break from urban fantasy soon and try to get some classics read and some of these unread books on my shelves.

  24. Hi Wendy, I'm reading PACO'S STORY at the moment, and it's everything you've said here. I've got the one by Tim O'Brien too and that's going to be next to be read after I finished Paco's.

    I'm experiencing the same situation with my blog and I've been blogging irregularly because of work. My blog has to go off the priority list at least for now. I'm glad we have each other here for support.

  25. Absolutely agree with your opinions about The Things They Carried, except that I was immediately pulled in. Reading about the weight of the things the men carried, both tangible and intangible was gripping for me. It's really a book that stays with you.

  26. Serena - The Matterhorn would be a great selection for a read-along! Keep me posted if you do decide to have one.

    Heather J. - Thank you, Heather. I think it will be a while before things settle down for me, given what's to come, but I'm excited about some of that change.

    Iliana - It's been nice to take the pressure off myself and accept that I can only do so much.

    Tim O'Brien has a way with words and adds enough humor into his book The Things They Carried that it makes it easy to read. Some of the time. :-)

    Kris - Thank you, Kris! I've been enjoying my reading quite a bit, fortunately.

    Anna - The Things They Carried would be a great book for a book club discussion. I hope yours went well!

    Jen - That sounds good! It's been nice jumping back into the urban fantasy after being away from it for so long. Reading too much of one kind of book does grow tiresome after awhile. I like to mix things up more often than not.

    Alice - You've had so much going on, what with the move and new job on top of everything else. I am so glad you read Paco's Story and The Things They Carried.

    Lisa - Yes, O'Brien's book definitely does stay with you long after you finish reading it.


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