What I Read – December 2015

No Great Mischief – Alistair MacLeod (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan (Penguin Books, 2006)

…however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

Ru – Kim Thúy (Vintage Canada, 2015)

The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud (Vintage Books, 2007)

Emberton – Peter Norman (Douglas & McIntyre, 2014)

Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson (Grosset & Dunlap, 1965)

Dreamtigers – Jorge Luis Borges (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970) (translated from the Spanish by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland)

White Teeth – Zadie Smith (Penguin Books, 2001)

Samad watches it all and finds himself, to his surprise, unwilling to silence her. Partly because he is tired. Partly because he is old. But mostly because he would do the same, though in a different name. He knows what it is to seek. He knows the dryness. He has felt the thirst you get in a strange land – horrible, persistent – the thirst that lasts your whole life.

The Quick – Lauren Owen (McClelland & Stewart, 2014)

Currently Reading:

Don Quixote – Cervantes

Daydreams of Angels – Heather O’Neill

Transatlantic – Colum McCann

Christmas-y

IMG_6247Christmas is a little different around here this year. We are thinking about traditions – ones we have and love, ones we want to implement in our family. Christmas will look a little different again next year and the year after that.

A couple of weeks ago, we went on our annual Christmas tree hunt. It was cold and wet and probably the fastest hunt we’ve ever had. This year we searched for and found a smaller tree. Small enough to put up on top of a desk in the corner of our living room so that it’s out of reach of the smallest person around here.

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A small tree is definitely easier to cut down and transport.

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Pearl has opened one Christmas present so far and her favourite part was the bow so Christmas morning promises to be pretty pressure-free. (In future years I probably won’t be able to shop for her while she’s present but it’s been pretty convenient this year.)

Pearl and I dressed up for a Christmas party.

Pearl and I dressed up for a Christmas party.

Pearl has enjoyed* two Christmas parties so far, as well as a night with her grandparents while Peter and I were at his staff party. This week she is enjoying having Peter around all day (and I’m enjoying the naps I’ve had while the two of them hang out). It’s the first time in years I haven’t had to work in the days leading up to Christmas and that’s nice too.

*”Enjoying” might not be the right word for our little introvert but she was there.

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

IMG_6046This book was dangerously over-hyped for me. When I start to hear over and over again how great a book is (or anything really) my stubborn heels begin to dig in and I am ready to dislike it. Which is a silly reaction, I know, but a difficult habit to shake. Fortunately, I still enjoyed this book. I didn’t find it amazing or over-the-top good but it was solid, readable, and provoked some thought.

The story alternates between characters, times, and locations and Doerr handles each well. Our main characters are Marie-Laure. French, growing up in Paris with her father, blind at a young age. While blindness narrows Marie-Laure’s boundaries, her life is full. She learns constantly about the world around her, especially through her father’s museum work and his building of a model of their neighbourhood.

Parallel to Marie-Laure we have Werner, growing up in a children’s home in Germany. Smart and fascinated by technology and science in general and radios in particular, Werner’s future is laid out for him. When he turns fifteen, he will go to work in the mines.

Did I mention that the book begins in the 1930s? You can see where this is going, right?

Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris for the relative safety of St. Malo and the home of her great-uncle Etienne. Werner’s intelligence takes him to a military academy and then into the army. Both teenagers now, their paths grow ever closer together. That said, the ultimate connection between these two did turn out in an unexpected manner and I was pleased that Doerr went in a slightly different direction.

The details of this story are great. There’s a lot of tactile description, which of course fits well with a blind character. The author does a good job of creating a different feel in Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s childhoods, moving between an industrial German mining town and the gardens of Paris and then the seaside town of St. Malo.

Where I hesitate with this novel is Werner’s story line. Without giving too much away, do we need redemption stories for Nazi soldiers? From what I know of 20th century history, a story like Werner’s is not uncommon; a young man swept up in the pressures and fears and opportunities of Nazi Germany. Someone who doesn’t necessarily hate or desire conquest but doesn’t do anything to stop it or stand against it. It’s a tragedy of human nature that this is a common story. That this is too often our reaction to evil and wrongdoing. My question is, Do these stories need a defense? Does it make it better if that person grew up poor and an orphan and the military was maybe an escape from life and death in the mines? If they did at least one good act, does it cancel out the deaths they were responsible for? The deaths they witnessed and did nothing to prevent? Which is the story that will ultimately be told about their life? In this novel, the answer is the nicer version. In the end, the story told of Werner’s life is a good one. Not happy exactly but certainly the reader wants to root for him. And it was there that I struggled because for most of the novel Werner doesn’t do anything particularly evil but he doesn’t do anything to stand up against evil – something the novel draws to our attention by juxtaposing him against other characters who do. While I think that it was excellent to provide that contrast, it also made me not want to root for Werner because I didn’t want to root for a Nazi soldier, and I don’t think that was where Doerr intended my feelings to fall. Part of this is that Nazism remains a synonym for evil in our culture and common history and I’m not really interested in hearing about the nuanced morality of Nazis. Obviously this is a question larger than this novel and this plot and I found it an interesting one to consider. After all, a mark of a good read is one that you’re still thinking about days later.

A Day

Have you ever wondered what people with babies do all day? Are you nosy and like to peek into other people’s lives? (No? Just me?) Do you wonder how I read so many books while taking care of a 9-month-old? Do you want to see if your baby sleeps more than mine? (I bet she does!) Here’s what Pearl and I do all day:

Sunrise from the kitchen window.

Sunrise from the kitchen window.

6:15 am. My day begins. Peter’s already up and getting ready for work but Pearl’s still asleep. Ideally, I like to have some time to myself in the morning before she wakes. I head into the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee (Peter makes coffee every morning and I love him so). I settle back into bed with my mug, my Bible, and my journal. I haven’t been good at reading my Bible regularly since Pearl was born but with the start of Advent (the beginning of the liturgical year) I’ve begun following the Book of Common Prayer readings again. Every morning and evening there is one reading from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.

Journal, Bible, Book of Common Prayer - good start to my day

Journal, Bible, Book of Common Prayer – good start to my day

A quote from my morning reading:

I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me.

Isaiah 45

As I’m finishing, Peter joins me to drink his coffee and we chat a little about our days.

7:00 am. Almost on the dot, Pearl’s awake. I kiss Peter good-bye and head into her room. She’s usually up for the day at this time but I keep the lights low in case she’s still tired and settle into the chair to nurse her. (My current baby-feeding time book is Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges.)

7:20 am. Pearl’s clearly awake so I give her her Vitamin D drop, get her out of her sleep sack, and change her diaper. She stays in her pajamas until after breakfast because, well, mealtimes are messy and this cuts down on outfit changes.

7:35 am: With baby in tow, I start getting myself ready. I make the bed, get dressed, and put away clothes from yesterday. Pearl is happily playing with the packing paper a package arrived in yesterday. I open the Advent calendar for the day (one of my favourite Christmas traditions).

Eric Carle Advent calendar

Eric Carle Advent calendar

We move across the hall and into the bathroom where I wash my face, put on some moisturizer, and put in my contacts, all with one knee pressed against the cupboard door because Pearl can open cupboards now. “Please don’t play with the toilet,” is a thing I say daily.

7:45 am: I throw a load of diapers into the laundry and load the dishwasher. I have to do this quickly before Pearl realizes what I’m doing or she will attempt to climb in there with our dirty dishes.

Breakfast!

Breakfast!

7:55 am: Breakfast. Pearl has banana chunks. I have yogurt and granola with a bit of honey and cinnamon. I finish first (parenthood has made me a fast eater) and tidy in the kitchen a little before sitting down with Pearl to help her focus and finish her breakfast.

We're dressed and ready for our day!

We’re dressed and ready for our day!

8:15 am: After breakfast, Pearl gets dressed for the day. (Plus another diaper change.) I brush my teeth and then we sit down on the floor in her room and read The Runaway Bunny together.

The Runaway Bunny

The Runaway Bunny

“If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”

While she plays (ie: pulls books and toys off the shelf) I dig through boxes in her closet to find some pants the next size up for her. I get on my phone and send a quick e-mail.

8:50 am: We move into the living room where Pearl has a joyful reunion with her best friend, Big Bear.

I love you, Big Bear!

I love you, Big Bear!

Meanwhile, I do some haphazard dusting, sweeping, and general tidying. Pretty soon I settle down on the couch with Don Quixote. Pearl is playing happily with her toys and I read out loud to her. I have to laugh at this quote:

“…and so, as far as I am concerned, there is no need to employ any more words in describing her beauty, worth and understanding, for knowledge of her reading alone is enough to make me confirm her as the most beautiful and intelligent woman in the world.”

Reading is great.

9:25 am: Laundry finishes and I move it to the dryer. Pearl helps.

So helpful!

So helpful!

It’s time for Pearl’s first nap so we move back to her bedroom where she has a diaper change. I nurse her and cuddle her a bit before putting her in the crib.

I try not to be on my computer while Pearl’s awake so I take the opportunity now to catch up on reading some blogs. I also write a quick review of Kidnapped for my own blog (it’s this one that you’re reading). My in-laws text me during this time and we make plans for them to stop by.

10:40 am: Pearl wakes up. She’s not and has never been a great napper. Sure, some of my friends speak of babies who nap for two hours or more but that’s not my baby. She’s napped for fifty minutes and I’m happy with that. I bring her out to the living room where we have a cuddle on the couch until she’s feeling more alert.

Post-nap cuddles are some of my favourite times in the day.

Post-nap cuddles are some of my favourite times in the day.

We read Are You My Mother? while we wait for our guests.

Are You My Mother?

Are You My Mother?

11:10 am: My in-laws drop by with their dog (Bella the Dog) for a short visit on their way to picking out a Christmas tree.

12:10 pm: Once we’re on our own again, it’s time for lunch. I set Pearl in her seat with her sippy cup and some raisins while I make lunch. She loves her sippy cup. Raisins, not so much. She’s only had them once before and she takes time to warm up to most new foods. She gets antsy while I’m making scrambled eggs so I give her a bit of bread, which turns out to be a mistake because then all she wants to eat is bread even though she normally enjoys scrambled eggs. That girl loves her carbs. (She gets that from me.)

I love her little Bunnykins plate

I love her little Bunnykins plate

After toast and eggs we share an orange. You cannot eat an orange in Pearl’s presence without sharing.

Pearl and her current favourite read

Pearl and her current favourite read

12:30 pm: Pearl looks at her favourite book (I reviewed it here) while I clean up in the kitchen. One of the things we did before we moved into our house this summer is we removed half of the wall between the kitchen and the living room. We did this with the goal of opening up the house (it’s not big) and I’m so thankful we did. Aside from letting a lot more light in throughout, it gives me a clear sightline from the kitchen to the living room and makes it easy to keep an eye on Pearl.

This used to be a wall

This used to be a wall

I join her in the living room and fold laundry. She follows me down the hall when I go to her room to put it away. “No playing with the garbage can,” is also a thing I say daily. I quickly glance at the Canada Reads 2016 long list and try and make a mental note of titles I should read. (I won’t remember.)

1:05 pm: Pearl’s fussing a bit and the sun is shining so I get us ready to go for a walk. I try to get outside with her every day, barring really terrible weather. Usually it’s just a walk around the neighbourhood, sometimes just to the mailbox and back home but it’s always nice to get out.

Sweater, slippers, hat, she’s ready. We have a stroller and I do use it sometimes but Pearl doesn’t like it for long periods of time and especially not when it’s cold so I usually walk with her in the Ergo carrier.

The view from the end of our street

The view from the end of our street

Bundled up and out for a walk

Bundled up and out for a walk

1:45 pm: Back home and we play one of Pearl’s favourite games, which is basically just chasing each other around the couch. She’s getting pretty fast these days.

I can usually catch her

I can usually catch her

2:20 pm: Diaper change and I get Pearl ready for her afternoon nap. Once she’s down, I head into the kitchen and make myself a cup of tea. (I was going to take a picture of my tea but forget and, well, it’s tea. You know what it looks like.) I drink my tea and search Etsy for new knobs for a desk that Peter recently fixed up.

This cat likes to hang out in our backyard lately.

This cat likes to hang out in our backyard lately.

3:05 pm: Pearl starts crying. That is a woefully short nap so I go in to settle her and attempt to help her fall back asleep. I leave her in her crib where I can hear her chatting to herself. I read some more of Don Quixote while I finish my tea.

4:00 pm: Pearl hasn’t fallen back asleep but I decide to give up. Before I go into get her, I light up the house. It’s just starting to get dark so I turn on the Christmas tree lights and light some candles.

Lights = magic

Lights = magic

Pearl and I have another cuddle and another diaper change.

4:20 pm: I start thinking about dinner. On my best days, I know ahead of time what I’m going to make for dinner and so some mornings involve a bit of prep. Today’s dinner is easy so I haven’t had to do anything yet. Pearl is playing happily in her room so I leave her there and go into the kitchen. There’s not much that can harm her or that she can damage in her room and I make frequent peeks around the corner at her.

I’m making tomato shortcakes from Smitten Kitchen tonight. Easy and delicious.

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Before long Pearl makes her way down the hall and joins me in the kitchen. Now that she can open cupboards, this can make meal prep a little more complicated. I compromise by letting her go nuts with the Tupperware cupboard. She knows this and heads straight to it.

Sweet, sweet tupperware

Sweet, sweet tupperware

4:50 pm. Dinner’s prepped. The shortcakes will go in the oven as soon as Peter gets home. Pearl and I go back to her room and read Each Peach Pearl Plum.

Each Peach, Pear Plum

Each Peach, Pear Plum

5:20 pm: Peter’s home! When Pearl hears the door open she knows her dad has arrived and she goes racing off down the hall to him.

Book Review: Grace River by Rebecca Hendry

IMG_6023Grace River is a slim little novel, told from the alternating perspectives of four residents of a small town in British Columbia called Grace River. It’s a town where most people know each other, where most people grew up nearby, and the main industry is the smelter, Axis.

Our four narrators are Jessie, Daniel, Kali, and Jackson. Jessie and Daniel, husband and wife, grew up together in Grace River. Daniel works at Axis, as do all his friends. He works twelve hour shifts and then goes out to drink with his buddies before heading home to Jessie and their young daughter. Jessie is a waitress at the local diner, has begun to suffer from panic attacks and is beginning to wonder if who Daniel is reflects on who she is.

Jackson, the classic good guy, is still in awe that he ended up with his beautiful wife, Caroline, but also aware that she’s still the hard partying girl she’s always been, despite the fact that they now have two sons.

Kali is the only outsider of the group. Newly-divorced, she has arrived in Grace River with her two daughters and begun to date Mike, another local Axis worker. She’s a classic hippy, working at the health store, growing herbs in her garden, and brewing teas.

The action of the novel is started by the arrival of an American environmentalist. He’s in Grace River to test the waters, to see what damage Axis may be having on its surroundings, what it may be sending downstream, all the way to Washington. His presence is a cause of tension for those who work at Axis, who continue to insist that their work is safe, that Axis is doing things right, even as it begins to appear that the company may be hiding some things.

As these tensions mount, so do the tensions in each of these relationships. These are friendships and marriages largely created by proximity. It’s a classic example of being best friends with people because you’ve always been best friends. The book does a great job at opening up a small town and what life is like for many in such places where there aren’t a lot of other options. The characters are all interesting enough though tend to be a little similar in their descriptions and voices.

The tension surrounding Axis and its potential harm felt tacked on to me from the main plot drama, which is relationship-based. First of all, it seems too obvious that a company named Axis is going to be bad. Has there ever been a good Axis in history? Environmental and health concerns are a real thing in real communities like this but the timing in the novel felt too convenient, particularly when things start to go badly at the smelter. I was surprised too that there was no sense of anxiety among the townspeople that Axis would be shut down. In my experience, that is a very real fear in small towns with one major industry like this. Even if people know something’s might be bad for them – and, by and large, the characters are aware that they’re being exposed to lead and other harmful elements – the need for a job and an industry to keep the town going are much stronger than fear of future health issues. The characters have that lack of concern for the future because the present is okay but the novel never really explains why they’re okay with their lead exposure. It felt like a missed opportunity to further address why and how people get stuck in small towns like this. We get, perhaps, a glimpse in the character of Jessie, who is constantly coming up with plans to change her life, like making wooden chairs or selling jams but she never tells us what her final goal is. Does she want to leave Grace River or does she just want to make some extra cash. The result is that she comes across as flaky, even at the end when she does finally make a push to change her life in a major way.

There’s a lot of potential in this novel, Hendry’s first, and while it misses the mark in some spots, I hope to read more from her.

Book Review: Crazy Love by Francis Chan

Crazy Love, Gale Cengage Learning, 2007

Crazy Love, Gale Cengage Learning, 2007

There are two ways I have to approach a book like this. 1) As a reader and 2) as a Christian.

In the first instance, I didn’t love this book. I really wanted to. I’ve heard great things about Chan as a speaker but it unfortunately seems to be the case that, though he may be a great preacher, he is not a great writer. The book is short and certainly not complex but it took me a long time to get through. It wasn’t until the last couple of chapters that I really felt engaged.

That said, this is a book for Christians and I have to look at it as such. It’s a book for church-going, middle class, happy with their lives Christians. It was a timely read for me. After some big struggles in the past year and a half, life has gotten so good for me. I think every day how fortunate I am, how much I have. It’s really easy for me to live in this bubble of suburban motherhood where my biggest concerns are Pearl’s nap schedule and what am I making for dinner and how often do I really need to dust my house. And while I believe that my job as Pearl’s mom and my role as Peter’s partner in life are truly valuable and important, it’s so easy to be complacent. To throw out a “Thanks for everything, God!” and not give much further thought to the creator of the universe.

This is what Chan is speaking against. This book is a warning cry against lukewarm Christianity. Chan, the pastor of a church in southern California, explicitly details what a lukewarm Christian might look like and reminds us that, as stated in Revelation, God will spit the lukewarm Christians out of His mouth. Chan is calling Christians to question whether or not they are really living as if they believe in and love God. One of the most compelling points in the book for me was when Chan, speaking of Jesus’ parable of the sower, says,

My caution to you is this: Do not assume you are good soil.

While his intent isn’t to simply strike fear in his reader’s hearts or to make you question your salvation, Chan is challenging the church to do more than the bare minimum. Don’t look for how little you can get by with or how much you can get away with and still get into Heaven. Instead, Chan reminds us that the Bible compares Christ and the Church to a bride and groom and that when you are in love with someone – head-over-heels obsessed – you want to do everything for that person. You want to spend time together. You find the flimsiest ways to bring them up in conversation with other people. You will travel or work or sacrifice to make their lives better. And you don’t do so resentfully or reluctantly but with joy. This is how God feels about us and it’s how we as Christians should feel about God.

And when we do these things, that love should flow extravagantly into the rest of our lives. It should dictate and influence every interaction we have, every choice we make, every word we speak. This is where the real challenge comes in, at least for me. Do my actions demonstrate my love for Christ? Is my faith real and strong enough to take risks? To take risks with my finances, my home, my career, even with my family? Do I trust God enough to ask Him to truly work in my heart and in my life? To me, that can be such a terrifying thought. Because God might ask me to do something I don’t want to do. He might ask something of me that I don’t understand. He might ask me to let go of something that I’ve been gripping to tightly.

The fact is, I need God to help me love God. And if I need His help to love Him, a perfect being, I definitely need His help to love other, fault-filled humans. Something mysterious, even supernatural must happen in order for genuine love for God to grow in our hearts. The Holy Spirit has to move in our lives.

This is the paradox of faith. (Or one of the paradoxes at least!) That we are called to take big, terrifying steps. We are called to do things that we cannot possibly do. But we are called to these things by an infinitely loving God who has promised to never forsake us, to walk the dark paths with us. And yet, I am not even capable of reaching out to take His hand without His help. Instead, I can barely manage to pray, “God, help me not to clench my fist when You reach out to hold my hand.”

I have experienced that hand-holding, deeply passionate love of God for me. My whole life, really, but especially in the past two years. There have been things I’ve had to let go that I thought were truly what was right for my life. There are other things that I am still learning to release. Now, with a little bit of distance, I am overwhelmed by how much I’ve been given. How much I have. The question is – and this is the question that Chan is calling believers to ask – what am I going to do with what I have received?

I loved this prayer that Chan shares from A.W. Tozer and it is a prayer that I will be praying:

O God, I have tasted Thy goodness and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more. I am painfully conscious of my need for further grace. I am ashamed of my lack of desire.

O God, the Triune God, I want to want Thee; I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made more thirsty still. Show me Thy glory, I pray Thee, so that I may know Thee indeed. Begin in mercy a new work of love within me. Say to my soul, “Rise up my love, my fair one, and come away.”

Then give me grace to rise and follow Thee up from this misty lowland where I have wandered so long.

Book Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

IMG_6025I’m very low-key about my hair. I get it cut maybe twice a year. I don’t colour it and I rarely use product in it. I go to the drug store and I buy whatever shampoo and conditioner is on sale. I’ve never given much thought to the privilege this represents.

There is an eye-opening scene in Americanah where one of the main characters, Ifemelu, is told to straighten her hair for a job interview in the United States. She does so, using relaxers, and soon her hair begins to fall out due to damage. Later on in the book, the regime she uses to keep her hair natural is described. I’d never really thought about why it is that I can go to a drug store and buy cheap shampoo and not think about it. That shampoo is made for hair like mine because it’s targeted to a market that assumes most people have hair like mine. Or if they don’t, that they should aspire to it. (By which I mean, not my hair in particular because I don’t think there’s anything super special about it, but hair that is straight.) In short, the hair of a white person. Ifemelu is African and she has naturally kinky hair. The drugstore is full of products that don’t work for her. From shampoo to foundation to “nude” band-aids that don’t match her skin colour. This is what is meant by racial privilege in America.

Americanah presents a perspective I haven’t read before. But I’m coming to expect that from Adichie, whose writing I’ve been greatly enjoying this year. Ifemelu states that she never felt black until she left Africa, until she moved to the United States where being black suddenly became a part of her identity.

The novel divides between Ifemelu and Obinze, beginning in high school when they meet and fall in love. Obinze is quiet, smart, the son of a professor. Ifemelu is stubborn, a little brash, the daughter of a radically religious mother and a father long unemployed for his refusal to call his boss, “Mummy”. Their connection is powerful and immediate. Like any young people, they make plans for their future together. But they are living in an unsteady climate and country. Their time at university together is continually disrupted by strikes. When Ifemelu has the chance to move to the United States, they decide together that she must take it and Obinze will join her as soon as he can.

For many reasons, not least of all a post-9/11 America, Obinze never gets his visa and they are never reunited in the U.S. We follow Ifemelu’s transition to life in America. Poverty, success, relationships. We follow Obinze’s struggle in Nigeria, his attempt at an undocumented life in England, his later successes.

This is an immensely readable book. While it deals with modern day Nigeria, racial identity, and immigration in Western countries, it really is a book about relationships. Adichie skillfully offers a perspective that many Westerners may not be familiar with and she does it in such a deceptively simple manner that you might think you’re just reading another good novel.

Book Review: Going After Cacciato – Tim O’Brien

Going After Cacciato, Broadway Books, 1999

Going After Cacciato, Broadway Books, 1999

“The soldier is not a photographic machine. He is not a camera. He registers, so to speak, only those few items that he is predisposed to register and not a single thing more. Do you understand this? So I am saying to you that after a battle each soldier will have different stories to tell, vastly different stories, and that when a war is ended it is as if there have been a million wars, or as many wars as there were soldiers.”

In Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried (which I highly recommend) , the matter of truth is discussed and the idea of a true story that never happens. He says, “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”  This is how O’Brien writes about the Vietnam War. This is how he delves into a soldier’s experience in Vietnam.

Going After Cacciato takes this idea even further, into a realm of magic realism war story. Cacciato is a nebulous sort of figure, a dumb, childish soldier who takes off one day after telling his squad that he’s leaving the war and he’s going to walk to Paris. The rest of the soldiers, led by a lieutenant laid low by dysentery, who has already seen more than one war, follows him. They tell each other this is their mission, that they will find Cacciato and bring him back. But the mission – and their motives – becomes murkier as they get further along, and further from war.

Can you walk from Vietnam to Paris? Sure, but that isn’t really what the story is about. There are several key players in this group of soldiers but the tale focuses primarily on Paul Berlin. Twenty years old when he is called up, he has not been in Vietnam long. He is afraid and confused. He doesn’t know why he’s here and he doesn’t know what the war is about. He clings to his father’s advice to “try and see some of the good.” He wonders what the Vietnamese people think of them, what he could see to them, how he might explain his own role in this war.

There is a lot in this story that is left to the reader to decide. O’Brien masterfully points us in the right direction. We are shown – without comment or exaggeration – the experience of soldiers in Vietnam. Deaths in tunnels, marches through the jungle, villages burning, beauty in a rice paddy. We are shown fantastical moments. A man in flight, a blind journey underground, an apartment by a river. It’s tempting to lay out what’s “real” and what’s not but I don’t think that’s the point of this story. It’s about experience and perception and how a person can deal with fear and horror.

“This is not a plea for placidness of mind or feebleness of spirit. It is a plea for the opposite: that, like your father, you would build fine houses; that, like your town, you would endure and grow and produce good things; that you would live well. For just as happiness is more than the absence of sadness, so is peace infinitely more than the absence of war.”