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"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien

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I could have been drafted in 1971, for induction in 1972, my twentieth year. I was in college a few years later and encountered Viet Nam veterans attending classes, and noted a certain tone in their discourse. I tried to identify it one day for one of them, and I clearly struggled. There was a frankness in it, borne of necessity on the battlefield, no doubt, but also carried from there and adapted to everyday conversation. You could sense the entitlement in it, the “Geez, I was there, and you don’t know shit” attitude, and clearly I didn’t and never would. I also sensed an expectation, like they perceived a want of gratitude on the part of the population that just wanted to forget the whole miserable thing. In Tim O’Brien’s patchwork exposition of his Viet Nam experience, we have the full and glorious flowering of this plaintive theme.

The Things They Carried isn’t a novel, but it does have novelistic features. Its closest relative, the memoir, has less invention, and clearly fewer of the attributes of fiction. Tim O’Brien knew he had to tell his story, complete with ambiguity, heart-rending tragedy, and monstrous stupidity, because as he says in the end, he needed to try to save himself.

This is so much more than war memoir, as has been said so often before, and much more persuasively. There are passages about belief, about morality, perception, pain, and so much else, but all of it is done in such a ruthless tone of honest
soul searching, that in the end, you wonder about Tim O’Brien, and how he came back at all.

The Things They Carried contains the full Viet Nam veteran’s prayer for understanding. By its ruthless honesty, by its raw power, by its willingness to shoulder more blame than is maybe justified (if blame is warranted at all), O’Brien’s book achieves its end overwhelmingly well. After I finished, I felt ashamed I had waited so long. If you haven’t yet, take up The Things They Carried. It will fill out your understanding of a wretched, wounding time.

"Unmentionables" by Laurie Loewenstein

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Author Laurie Loewenstein sets up her story in a small Midwest town, at an epoch of change for the United States and the world – the Great War – and uses the tides and currents of these changes to drive her wonderful novel, Unmentionables. Characters open the story in opposition to each other and sometimes themselves, and the forces they encounter produce alterations along the way, and new characters result. This is the stuff of excellent fiction, and Unmentionables is excellent.

At story’s outset, the big tent swings into town and with it the Chautauqua lectures. The year is 1917, and the edifying lectures include one on women’s undergarment reform (the “unmentionables” of the title). A tall, statuesque divorcée delivers this lecture and the reception is predictably mixed. Agents for change, she and the local newspaper publisher encounter violent race prejudice and jingoism, dominant attitudes during World War I, and Ms. Loewenstein does a superb job of bringing these other unmentionables home to us. Besides the vivid scenes in small town America, we get unforgettable passages on the eastern front in France, and in the industrial relations trenches of Chicago.  These chapters have a brightness, an immediacy. They remind us that dragging journalism into the 20th century didn’t come without a cost; that giving women the right to vote and to hold jobs in the marketplace, were wrenching changes, requiring sacrifice and dedication.

This book portrays the effect of sweeping social changes on a handful of individuals, but I want to make clear that Ms. Loewenstein’s characters have depth and nuance and are not cardboard cutouts by any stretch. The central players all benefit from the author’s skill at observing a mental state, or an emotional motivation. This is a gratifying, impressive debut for both the author and the publisher, thought-provoking on the social history, sympathetic on the human level. Well done!

"The Stone Diaries" by Carol Shields

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Carol Shields’s majestic The Stone Diaries combines several features of excellent fiction: its events unfold in a rending emotional palette because of heroine Daisy’s sympathetic nature; its secondary characters ring true to life (even if sometimes eccentric or even bizarre); it uses multiple symbolic foci which balance each other superbly; and engages us with intriguing shifts in point of view.

But wait, there’s more! Stone Diaries makes unique use of a first-person narrative: there are stretches completely outside Daisy’s awareness, which she could have only learned of second hand, but then Daisy’s voice reasserts itself and focuses on Topic A – Daisy’s life. This now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t quality simulates life, or simulates our awareness of our lives. Ms. Shields does this brilliantly, it will captivate you. I was plunged into the protagonist’s consciousness, and out of it, in a way I had never experienced. And certain parts of this narrative are handled obliquely; written correspondence exhibited chronologically, brings to light a sudden change in Daisy’s life, which ends in a severe bout of depression. The whole works seamlessly – you don’t notice any abruptness or arbitrariness in these changes.

The Stone Diaries tells the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett, orphaned in a tiny Manitoba hamlet at the moment of her birth, unofficially adopted by a kindly neighbor lady, whose son eventually becomes her husband and the father of her three children. The home towns of her childhood depend on quarries and stonecutting for their existence, and Daisy’s father Culyer Goodwill has skills in that area. In fact, so extensive are his skills that he builds a monument to his dead wife out of a series of stones that he cuts, and this monument grows
so large that it becomes a tourist destination. He follows this project with a plan to build in his Indiana back yard a miniature model of an Egyptian pyramid, using hundreds of thousands of cut stones. Balance this against Daisy and her husband Barker. Barker, a botanist, has assembled a respectable collection – 23 species of lady’s slippers – but his work takes him into the more prosaic work of hybrid grains and the upper reaches of government service in Canada. Daisy seems dull and unambitious, and her quotidian life is sometimes the despair of her friends. However, she does succeed brilliantly with her garden, and makes it work with the deep understanding of a professional, even a scientist.

Obviously these thematic tropes challenge us to find the deeper, more hidden paths to meaning and intent, and they add greatly to my enjoyment. However, Stone Diaries is a highly enjoyable read just for its sumptuous, elegant prose, and for its worldly wise humor. The author’s craft vaults her to the head of the class – no 20th century novel has a lovelier cadence or appeals to the ear more profoundly or pleasingly.

The Stone Diaries won the 1993 Governor General’s Award for English language fiction in Canada and the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Shields was born in Illinois and was a naturalized Canadian citizen, so she was eligible for both. It’s lucky for the panels that anoint our best literary fiction, because the book deserves these and any other awards that might be available. Important enough to be iconic, enjoyable, balanced, intriguing.

"Sarah Thornhill" by Kate Grenville

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Multiple award-winning author Kate Grenville completes her acclaimed early-Australia trilogy with Sarah Thornhill. This is the story of the eponymous heroine and it wraps up the overarching narrative of Will Thornhill’s family – Will who was transported to Australia as a convict in 1806 – and it contains a highly satisfying, balanced, and beautiful denouement for all that went before.

As the life of a strong-willed woman, Sarah Thornhill contains some vivid and pitch-perfect scenes throughout. She is thwarted in love early on, and the author sets these scenes in an appropriately high melodrama. The tone subtly and gradually calms for Sarah, as she agrees to marry landowner John Daunt a few years later, and settle at his station to her lot of toil and family-raising. But Ms. Grenville’s theme of the treatment and mistreatment of Aborigines drives this trilogy, and reaches if not a full atonement, then at least Sarah’s contrite and climactic offering on a far-off New Zealand shore during a ceremony honoring a dead Maori girl.

Sarah’s odyssey and expiation exhaust her, and Ms. Grenville’s treatment of the climax here deserves every honor and accolade. Her character doesn’t really do enough – she will never fully forgive herself for her unwitting participation in slaughter – but she does everything she can. She empties herself of her story, weeps openly before
the village’s women for its fatal history. The native women understand and accept her offering and her tears, and the emotionally drained heroine goes back to the shore in the nighttime. Here she once again reflects on the grand universe, in which she knows she and her family are as nothing, mattering not at all. In truth, not enough can ever be done about humanity’s rapacious nature and the conclusion of this book treats this truth with respect and rectitude. There is no neat wrapping-up and cleansing-of-hands here. The author is too wise and compassionate for that.

Sarah Thornhill concludes this trilogy in the only way that seems possible. The Europeans who plunder and occupy Australia are wise enough in Sarah’s case to understand the enormity of their sin, and must live with the dark knowledge. Read this trilogy for its comprehensive and highly artful treatment of this chapter in history. It is outstanding.