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Tim O'Brien

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We don't have a dedicated thread on Tim O'Brien, although his novels appear in various "Lit" threads and are among the best books some of us have ever read.

After reading The Things They Carried way back in college -- which is one on my top novels of all time -- I read several other O'Brien novels. But I never went back to the author's earlier If I Die in a Combat Zone. And, to be honest, I haven't even thought about that memoir in at least a decade.

Salon's "The Listener" alerts me that the book is now out in audio, with an O'Brien interview included.

I'll probably make a point of listening to this one sometime in 2013, but if anyone out there has a read it and has an opinion on it -- pro or con -- I'd love to hear it.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I'll probably make a point of listening to this one sometime in 2013, but if anyone out there has a read it and has an opinion on it -- pro or con -- I'd love to hear it.

I liked it a lot. It's easy to see which events from O'Brien's tour in both The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato.

I'd love to see more from O'Brien. It took him over a year to write a single page from The Nuclear Age, though, so I'll just have to be patient.

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Do you know the story of what he went through writing In the Lake of the Woods? The guy was basically suicidal, and discussed it in publicity interviews. I remember because at one of the public readings for Lake that I attended -- I've seen O'Brien a few times on his various book tours -- the book store employee introducing him mentioned one of those interviews and pleaded with him not to follow through, saying she hoped things in his life had improved. (They had by that point, if memory serves. O'Brien kind of smiled sheepishly at the mention -- I think he was already trying to live down those comments at various public appearances.)


"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Do you know the story of what he went through writing In the Lake of the Woods? The guy was basically suicidal, and discussed it in publicity interviews. I remember because at one of the public readings for Lake that I attended -- I've seen O'Brien a few times on his various book tours -- the book store employee introducing him mentioned one of those interviews and pleaded with him not to follow through, saying she hoped things in his life had improved. (They had by that point, if memory serves. O'Brien kind of smiled sheepishly at the mention -- I think he was already trying to live down those comments at various public appearances.)

I did not know this — this is absolutely fascinating. In The Lake is my favorite O'Brien book, and just reading it took an emotional toll on me. (I consider it a horror story in a lot of ways; in fact, I think it's partially responsible for how I looked at horror as a genre.)

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A.O. Scott reviews the audiobook of The Things They Carried.

 

Sometimes the impressions feel a little too on the nose, as if we are watching a corny World War II platoon picture, and the voices of Vietnamese and female characters edge close to caricature. But for the most part the individuality of long-dead, sparely sketched people is honored and restored. The novel’s two best sections — the account of an aimless drive around an Iowa lake interspersed with flashbacks to a horrible night in a Vietnamese bog, and the chronicle of an abortive flight to Canada on O’Brien’s part — take on new and gripping power.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I recently finished up O'Brien's 1998 novel Tomcat in Love. I first encountered O'Brien in college over a decade ago and—over the following five years—gobbled up everything he'd written. Well, everything except Tomcat. I don't know why I put it off, but I bought the book in the mid-2000s and let it sit on my shelf. The idea of him writing a comedic novel really weirded me out, so I let the novel collect dust on a bookshelf (before dusting it, and then it would collect dust again, and so on). I've long considering him one of my favorite authors, and since I've been considering revisiting some of his works I thought it was high time to read Tomcat first.

 

I had a tough time with this book. Lots of the review blurbs on the first few pages talk about how laugh-out-loud funny the novel is, which makes me scratch my head. I think the novel is a comedy, in the Greek or medieval definition. And it is a farce, and a surreal satire. But it really isn't ha-ha funny (of course, I recognize that some people might find it really funny...keep me away from those people). 

 

It is well-written, though, and has some of O'Brien's sharpest critiques of how human beings treat each other. The narrator, a linguistic professor and self-styled Lothario, is an awful person. Just awful. O'Brien knows this, of course, and I think one of the things he's getting at is that many men act a little bit like this guy and don't realize it. I had a hard time sitting with Prof. Chittering for 300+ pages, but I'm glad I stuck with it. O'Brien's writing is fantastic, and he really gets into some of those weird little language- and psyche-related corners. The narrator dwells quite a bit on how words mutate when they come in contact with bad experiences, and while this is nothing new, O'Brien comes at it from an angle that really haunted me. Just like he did with some of the "what did I do?" stuff from In the Lake of the Woods

 

If anything, reading Tomcat made me miss O'Brien. I have a feeling he's done writing, though I hope that feeling is wrong. 

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Book critics aren't as immune to cultural influences as they sometimes let on. While I don't recall Tomcat in Love being universally praised, it did receive a glowing review in the Washington Post's Style section and shot to the top of the local combined best-seller list here. Or, almost to the top. I remember O'Brien appearing in D.C. to promote the book, and pointing out that his novel was selling better than anything in D.C. except the Starr Report.

 

Yes, Tomcat in Love came out in the wake of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and that, surely, had a lot to do with how people interpreted the main character, and with their "laugh out loud" reactions. I happen to remember thinking the book was pretty funny, if too long. Or maybe the comedic elements dropped off later in the story.


"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I remember reading that review sitting in the driveway of the place I lived at the time, waiting for my ride that morning, Christian. For the most part, I learned about new books back then when I saw them on the New Releases shelf at a bookstore or library or maybe the backpages of Time magazine, and I was excited to see an author I liked reviewed in the local paper.

 

My memory was that the reviewer called it the funniest book he had ever read, though I've now found a link and my memory was a bit off:

 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/books/reviews/tomcat0901.htm

 

I blamed that review for it taking several months for an available copy to be found at the local library and, not surprisingly, I was dissapointed when I read it. It couldn't possibly live up to the expectations I had for it.  I am still a bit haunted by the crucifixion scene though.

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Book critics aren't as immune to cultural influences as they sometimes let on. While I don't recall Tomcat in Love being universally praised, it did receive a glowing review in the Washington Post's Style section and shot to the top of the local combined best-seller list here. Or, almost to the top. I remember O'Brien appearing in D.C. to promote the book, and pointing out that his novel was selling better than anything in D.C. except the Starr Report.

 

 

Judging from the number of positive reviews in the front, it seems like it was pretty well regarded at the time. And yes, like J. Henry said, several of the reviews say it's one of the funniest books ever, etc. 

 

I do appreciate how O'Brien portrays academic culture in the book, and any rate. I got the most chuckles (about six) out of that. 

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I remember reading that review sitting in the driveway of the place I lived at the time, waiting for my ride that morning, Christian. For the most part, I learned about new books back then when I saw them on the New Releases shelf at a bookstore or library or maybe the backpages of Time magazine, and I was excited to see an author I liked reviewed in the local paper.

 

My memory was that the reviewer called it the funniest book he had ever read, though I've now found a link and my memory was a bit off:

 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/books/reviews/tomcat0901.htm

 

I blamed that review for it taking several months for an available copy to be found at the local library and, not surprisingly, I was dissapointed when I read it. It couldn't possibly live up to the expectations I had for it.  I am still a bit haunted by the crucifixion scene though.

I, too, remember reading that review while sitting in my office on Connecticut Ave. NW, then walking a block to the Borders near work during lunch and being told that book had sold out that morning because of reader reaction to the review.

 

I don't know how I got a copy, but I had one when O'Brien came to the Olsson's at Dupont Circle and and read from it.


"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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