So it goes

Thursday night I went to see Tim O’Brien and David L. Ulin talk at the downtown library, and it was one of the best conversations I’ve witnessed at the ALOUD series. The occasion for this event was the 20th anniversary of O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried, a book that is, unfortunately, still very pertinent. In fact, O’Brien expressed a mixture of pride and regret that his book is still so popular. Usually, a novelist would be thrilled, but in this case it just means that many of the same problems exist today as did during the Vietnam era. This country is still fighting a futile war on the other side of the world, and young men (and women) continue to be sent to foreign shores to deal with inhuman situations. O’Brien admitted that he’s finally resigned himself to the fact that good literature cannot trump the politicians. He invoked Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five when he said “Writing an anti-war novel is like writing an anti-glacier novel.” It’s not meaningless though; we still need stories, he assured the audience.

And the audience was a wonderful mix of Vietnam veterans and and, I would guess, Iraq veterans and the wives or girlfriends of soldiers currently overseas. There was a group of high school students. And then there were the bookworms and the writers, like me. I don’t usually go for war-themed fiction. Actually, I read War & Peace a few years ago hoping it would help me understand why men continue to start wars all over this planet. I thought Tolstoy might give me some insight into this phenomenon, and I think he did, but it’s actually more unsettling to understand the trivialities and the everyday human frailties that lead to war and ultimately cause so much widespread suffering. As you can guess, I preferred the peaceful parts of the novel! Anyway, since reading O’Brien in college, I’ve been a huge fan of his work because he writes so beautifully about such horrible circumstances. He signed my copy of In the Lake of the Woods, and he shook my hand. It made my night!

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~ by Valerie Palmer on March 22, 2010.

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