It's about: A short story cycle based on O'Brien's experiences, The Things They Carried follows the adventures of one platoon of American soldiers in Vietnam. It tells of the horrors and beauties of war, its implications on society, and the effects on the individual. However, this book is more than that -- it is a story about stories, a self-conscious narrative about the difficult, therapeutic, and necessary writing process.
I thought: This is my favorite book I have read in months. It is not a book about war; it is a book that examines and exposes the human condition. It is beautifully crafted in a non-linear format but with consistent characters who are real, funny, representative, and memorable: Henry Dobbins, who wears his girlfriend's pantyhose around his head as a sort of talisman; Kiowa who hauls his moccasins and his illustrated New Testament; Ted Lavender, who always has a stash of marijuana.
O'Brien rightly focuses on the "story-truth" of the war, not the "happening-truth." In other words, he recognizes that truth sometimes resides more in emotion than in fact, and this work of fiction is a tribute to that idea.
He writes not only about the war, but he also writes about writing and examines the process we must all go through to cope with our pasts. It was an enjoyable, relatively fast read, a moving and beautiful piece of art that forces us to examine our own histories and the people we've known and the things we've carried.
Verdict: Stick it on the shelf! Stick 3 copies on the shelf!
Reading Recommendations: As this is a short-story cycle with a non-linear plot line, I would recommend reading this in one to two sittings for most enjoyment. Also, if you are looking for a straight-up factual account of the Vietnam war, don't bother with this book, because it will probably make you angry.
Warning: As this is a war story, it is at times true to the cliché that soldiers have some nasty language. I didn't think there was an excess of it, but there are several "f bombs." Also, as is the nature of a war story, there are some mature themes, including death and a girl who wears a necklace of tongues.