Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Jenny's Book 5: The Things They Carried


My next book is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. I picked up this book at what has become one of my favorite days of the year: the day the the high school students clean out their lockers. The first year I started working at my current school, I was amazed at the stuff the kids threw away. Along with all the accumulated garbage of a school year, the facilities staff put huge bins in all the hallway for the recycling and donation of books, binders, and usable school supplies.

You wouldn't believe the stuff that gets tossed----especially the books. Some of the them are worn, heavily highlighted, and well used. These are the books from kids who actually study and do the reading. But on this particular day, and this day only, I hate those kids. Instead, it's the slackers' books that you want to look for. They might be awful to have in class, but their books are *pristine*. My copy of The Things They Carried probably got carried into class once. It is completely unmarked except for some pink highlighting on pages 189-202 and then some underlining, in pen, on 226-228. Sweet.

The Things They Carried is a novel based on the experiences of the author in Vietnam. I'm drawn to the book because my Dad is a Vietnam Vet, but I know that it's hard for him to talk to me about his experiences there. And yet, O'Brien is very careful not to call this a memoir. The older I get, the more open I am to different genres, but I am no fan of the memoir. The recent kerfuffle over Three Cups of Tea has only reaffirmed my dislike of memoirs. Reading one makes me feel skeptical and suspicious. Perhaps it is because, as you know, my own memory is so faulty. I simply don't believe that people are able to recall conversations and events with that level of reliability. I'm dubious that anyone can be so sure of the past and the part they played in events. Is anyone's story that clean? I know mine isn't.

In fiction, I can assume that even if people or events are partially inspired by real life, at least some of it has been invented. I'm comfortable with the idea that fiction, even though it's untrue, can reveal truths. In non-fiction, I can check the footnotes and bibliography; I can determine the validity of the argument or explore the counterargument. But a memoir is some sort of bizarre middle land, and I am unable (or unwilling?) to suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy it. I'm sure there must be authors who interview and investigate before writing their memoirs. But how can I know who's fact-checking and who isn't? I have to assume that some of the dialogue has been recreated, that some of the feelings have been reshuffled and smoothed over, but if that's the case, why not call it fiction?

What about you? Any genres out there that you are unwilling to read?

P.S. I just thought of one exception. After hearing Tina Fey on Fresh Air last week, I think I'd enjoy reading Bossypants (despite the disturbing man-hands cover). But that books seems more like the entertaining musings of a sharp, funny writer than a true memoir.


  1. One of my favorite books I read in high school came from Locker Cleanout Day! Do you remember that kid Gabe? He had the locker next to mine Freshman year. He was throwing away The Talisman. I loved that book!

    I love your take on memoirs -- I don't think I've ever read one. (!!!)

    I'm ashamed to admit this, but I think the genre that I stay away from is... pretty much all non-fiction. There are 6 non-fiction books on my TBR pile and they're all there because they've been languishing while I pick up fiction books before I touch them.

    I guess I don't "avoid" non-fiction as much as, when prioritizing reading time, fiction always comes first. Since I'm not that fast of a reader, I'm more interested in the entertaining stuff than in the brain-enriching stuff. (This comment makes me sound like a moron! Yay!)

  2. K,

    The older I get, the less ashamed I am of my reading preferences. Non-fiction really *can* be a slog, and when it's poorly written---ugh---even worse.

    And, no, of course I don't remember "that kid Gabe." Ironic you'd ask that in a post where I admit to my crappy memory. Heh.


  3. I actually do remember his last name (of course), which might have helped you, but I don't particularly want him to find us if he googles himself. ;)

    Not surprising that you don't remember him -- he left our class after Freshman year. In fact, I think he actually repeated Freshman year and then failed out entirely. Thanks for the book, Gabe!

  4. You know... maybe *I* could write a memoir you could have faith in! :)