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The Things They Carried & The Sorrow of War

Updated: Feb 12, 2019

Two excellent books about the Vietnam War

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

No collection of short stories is ever quite perfect, but Tim O’Brien gets close with some of the pieces in this intimate, ostensibly fictional account of the Vietnam War. “How to Tell a True War Story,” “Speaking of Courage,” and “Notes” are especially remarkable—stories that land like a punch in the gut and probe deep into questions of memory, storytelling, and the line between truth and fiction. O’Brien occasionally overplays his themes and spells out meanings that are already self-evident. Still, he has a gift for crafting dialogue and images that are impossible to shake—a baby buffalo shot through the knee, a boot floating in a shit field, a man swallowed by sunlight. Throughout the collection is the creeping sense that war isn’t hell so much as a complete and utter waste.


The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh

A searing, deeply surreal book about the Vietnam War, written by a former North Vietnamese soldier who weathered the deadliest, most turbulent years of the conflict. The relentless stream of vignettes that course through this work seem to be deeply informed by Ninh’s own experiences as a young recruit, to the point that the narrative perspective occasionally slips, unannounced, from the third person to the more visceral first. This is a fevered, elliptical account in which truth and fiction, past and present, memory and nostalgia bleed and blur together, leaving the impression of national and personal traumas that have no real beginning and no real end. Reading this novel feels like dragging a metaphorical body across some 300 pages—by no means a light or easy journey, and one that offers little in the way of relief.


My full, side-by-side reviews: