Category: bookish

The truth of fiction in The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried

I first read this book as a senior in high school. I didn’t know how to react to it. It made me very uncomfortable (especially the few scenes in which animals are involved) but it also struck me as being undeniably true, and for that I couldn’t put it down.  This book is one of four that defined my writing early on (Don Quixote, Narnia and Sandman being the others).

The Things They Carried is the only book that has literally followed me. It came up again, and again, and again in reading assignments during my college career, and I was not surprised to find it on Chatham’s reading list when I began my MFA. It wasn’t until I read it for the second time, about a year after my first reading, that I realized why I felt so drawn to it.

O’Brien not only jerks us around with the “did this really happen to him or not” theme, but he puts us into a living hell and makes us live it with him. This is not an easy book to read. People die, animals die, and terrible things happen to characters, both physically and emotionally. By the end we know that it doesn’t matter whether or not the events he describes “really happened”. They’re still true. And therein lies the book’s true power: It distills the essence of fiction. “This never happened in real life, but it’s true all the same.”

Of course that doesn’t even take into account the issues surrounding war and Vietnam that the book addresses. Although I wasn’t alive during the Vietnam War, I can still see its impact on America’s psyche, and perhaps more relevant to my every day life, its impact on people whom I care about who fought in Vietnam and came out less than whole. The ’60s and ’70s were two of the most important decades in terms of major changes to American society and culture, and Vietnam played a huge role in that. O’Brien’s book also distills that and makes it real, makes it relevant even to those of us born a decade or more after the war’s end.

For those two reasons, every single U.S. citizen should read this book.

(I also have to give partial credit to this book for my obsession with metafiction and the resultant blog, The Narrative in the Blog—which has since been retired and archived here on My post on metafiction in The Things They Carried can be found here.)

Writing take away: The tension between truth and reality fascinates me, and I look to books like this one and Don Quixote as the prime examples of fiction that really explores that theme. The Things They Carried has already had an immeasurable impact on my writing and will continue to do so.  While many classes or professors will focus on the namesake short story/first chapter of the book and the physical and emotional things the soldiers carried and the technique with which O’Brien portrays that, I focus more on the way O’Brien tells his stories.

He not only tells many of the stories multiple times in different ways with different details, but from different perspectives as well. He speaks as a character and as an author, as a participant and as an observer. And he never fails to mention that none of it happened, but all of it’s true.

Storytelling has cropped up in almost everything I’ve written over the past two years, without me even trying to include it or doing it consciously. More than one of my stories also examines the tension between truth and reality. Now that I see what a major theme it’s become for me, I am purposefully playing with it and experimenting, and it was definitely be a major theme in my MFA thesis and the resultant manuscript, She’s Tired of Going Nowhere.

A version of this post appeared originally on this blog on July 11, 2011.

#FridayReads: Read A Book Day 2018

Yesterday was National Read A Book Day.

Well, Kelly, you might ask, did you read a book?

Well, I might respond, is the sky blue? Is the grass green? Do humans need oxygen to survive? Are we still trapped in a hell dimension?

Which is to say, of course I read a book.

I’ll say a bit about the book I read, but first I want to draw your attention to two delightful essays on books by two fantastic authors. The first is this Twitter thread by Chuck Wendig (you might remember him from the whole gay Star Wars character thing right before The Force Awakens came out, and also that he gives zero fucks about your bigotry).

It’s a long thread, which you should read, but here is my favorite tweet:

Ah, yes. So true, Chuck. So true.

But on a more serious note, books are magical portals of escape! It’s like having a space ship in your pocket. Or a time machine. Or a jet. Or all of these things, and then some.

And more than that, books are vitally important repositories of knowledge, wisdom, and stories–you know, those things that we’ve been making up since the dawn of time? Those things that form our worldviews, our mythology, our religions? Those foundational elements of our very society and humanity?

Neil Gaiman, whose work I’m 100% confident saying saved my fucking life in high school, wrote an essay on the importance of books, libraries, and librarians. Artist Chris Riddell illustrated it, and you should read the whole thing, but I want to put the following image in a frame. Or get it tattooed on my arm. Something.

Words by Neil Gaiman. Pictures by Chris Riddell. Click through for the full essay.

The text in the image reads: Fiction is the lie that tells the truth. We all have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that society is huge and the individual is less than nothing. But the truth is, individuals are the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

I was a miserable teenager. Depressed. Self-harming. Not *quite* suicidal, but man did I think a lot about suicide. Multiple English teachers took me aside to have conversations because they were worried I was going to hurt myself. They were right to worry. Thankfully, I had books. Books saved me. Those teachers saved me. Libraries saved me.

Books are fucking important, and if anyone tells you otherwise, they probably voted for our dipshit fuck president and you should probably run very far away from them

So back to what I was reading on National Read A Book Day.

Yesterday, I finished a re-read of Batman: Hush, which could easily go on my list of ten most important comics. I don’t remember the exact issue I started buying Batman month-to-month, but it was somewhere in the late 500s, and the Hush storyline started with #608, so it came pretty early in my Batman issue reading life. I’d read lots of Batman trade paperbacks before, but this was the first (Batman) storyline I remember reading piece by piece each month.

Reading Hush now took me right back to being an awkward goth teenager, convinced I was in love with a boy who certainly didn’t feel the same way, writing bad poetry about death, and escaping it all by submersing myself in novels and comic books.* I was prepared for my memory to not live up to the reality, but actually Hush is a pretty damn solid Batman story. It’s got everything a good Batman tale should have: Batman/Catwoman romantic tension, action-packed fights, a mystery that keeps you guessing, and Alfred’s dry humor.

Even back then, my bedroom was set up around my books. I had a bunk bed with a futon on the bottom. I hooked up a clip on desk lamp to the top and had pillows and a blanket to make a proper reading fort. The bookshelves in my room were cheap Ikea things, the actual shelves bowed from the number of books stacked onto them. I kept sturdy bags in my car for the sole purpose of filling them with library books whenever I had an excuse to be near the library

I remember reading Hush on that futon, my latest haul from the comic shop in a paper bag next to me, the issue spread across my lap. Thirty-two pages never took me long to read, but when I finished Batman, I had Ed Brubaker’s Catwoman. And then Fables. And then Star Wars. And after I’d gone through my monthly comics binge, I had David Weber’s Honor Harrington books, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan Saga, and Tolkien, and the volumes of Sandman I checked out of the library over and over.

Clearly, the whole book thing stuck, because now I write them, and teach other people how to write them, and work in a bookstore, where I get to talk about books all day.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Book Review: The Patron Saint of Cauliflower by Elizabeth Cohen

First, a confession: Elizabeth Cohen contacted me a few months ago and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing her new poetry collection. I really loved her short story collection, so of course I said yes. Unfortunately, I did not foresee losing Lexi at the beginning of June, or how much time I’d need to “recover”. As you can see from my publication history, I haven’t done much writing since then, even though I did read this poetry collection back in June. I finally feel like my creative batteries have recharged (though I still miss Lexi fiercely every day), so here is this very overdue review.

cover of The Patron Saint of Cauliflower

The Patron Saint of Cauliflower (Saint Julian Press, $17.50) is first and foremost a poetry collection about food, family, and the complex, multi-faceted connections between the two. The collection opens with “Goulash,” a poem about putting together a clear-out-the-fridge soup, and what’s more, a goulash that children will eat and enjoy. “I think of the insides of them, making sense of beets / and pasta, of chicken strands and slips of onion / the way each one of them will make sense someday / of snow-caked walkways, of books left out in the rain / and heartbreak, which is to say I like the way they chew,” the goulash cook muses.

It’s these moments throughout, the moments that link food (goulash) and the quotidian (slips of onion) to larger existential questions (heartbreak) that elevate the collection above and beyond simple but beautiful writing about food. Poems like “Salt” connect food and the earth with life in a visceral way. Cohen compares the taste of her child’s blood after an attempted suicide to the taste of “sour mash, of salt marsh / of all the mistakes you had ever made.” Salt can enhance flavor, and it is essential for life, but too much will turn food bitter and poison the body. So too with the every day tragedies and hardships we all face. The mother’s blame is felt in these lines as well. Whether or not it’s true, the mother feels that her mistakes have poisoned her child in some way–and no matter how good we are as parents, we always leave our children with something, some trauma.

The collection is not all doom and gloom though. Quite a few poems inject levity, such as “Pink Himalayan Salt,” in which the narrator imagines the salt’s journey from deep, dark mountain caves across the ocean on a plane, probably with a layover at JFK. Another poem acts as a sardonic ode to Cinnabons everywhere, and another personifies an artichoke, which laughs at the woman peeling it to get to the tender heart.

I’d be remiss not to mention the magical elements of The Patron Saint of Cauliflower. A series of poems about the patron saints of various foods (cauliflower, olive oil, pretzels) and spells for the right avocado and the best pesto capture the mystical aspects of shopping for food and cooking. The “Patron Saint of Cauliflower” is a princess and “the beauty queen / at the county fair.” She would make a good wedding bouquet, the narrator says. “You could cast a circle, place / her countenance in its center.” In “Spell for a Layer Cake,” the cookbook is “hallowed” and the cake “can be conjured from nothing.” The poem takes the reader through the motions of baking a cake, the flour, the eggs, the mixing, and then the “something else” of baking: the “incantation” the baker speaks over the cake like a prayer or a wish.

These poems breathe with care, with love, with life. It’s not that they elevate the realm of the domestic, it’s that they shine light on the magic already inherent in these everyday tasks.

Pick up a copy of The Patron Saint of Cauliflower from Powell’s Books!

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