Final Week: Going After Cacciato Read-a-Long

Welcome to the final week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien. For this discussion, we read Ch. 25-the end.

In a blend of reality and fantasy, this novel tells the story of a young soldier who one day lays down his rifle and sets off on a quixotic journey from the jungles of Indochina to the streets of Paris. In its memorable evocation of men both fleeing from and meeting the demands of battle, Going After Cacciato stands as much more than just a great war novel. Ultimately it’s about the forces of fear and heroism that do battle in the hearts of us all.

Here’s the reading schedule and discussion dates:

Serena: Do you think the use of the surreal and fantasy helps illustrate the process soldiers go through in coming to terms with their actions in war?

Anna: Yes, I think O’Brien does a great job showing the coping mechanisms that are needed for them to keep going after all they’ve seen and done. After the description of Cacciato dumping Buff’s face out of his helmet, I knew the whole story must be a daydream, which goes back to the quote before the opening of the novel: “Soldiers are dreamers.” Paul Berlin needed something to push these images out of his mind. And there were clues all along the way that things weren’t what they seemed.

Were you surprised about that aspect of the story? What do you think happened to Cacciato?

Serena: I wasn’t surprised so much that it was all a dream, and that Berlin had to create a fanciful story to make it through his daily missions.

Cacciato is the catalyst for Berlin’s daydream and it gives him hope that there is something beyond these jungles and the war. That there will be life after his time as a soldier. The helmet scene still disturbs me now!

What do you think about Doc’s position that war is war no matter the perspective and Berlin’s comments that you cannot outrun the consequences of running even the consequences of imagination?

Anna: Exactly. I didn’t feel cheated by it having been a dream because of the idea of hope and the sadness of the whole situation. The soldiers were just boys, and how can they not be haunted by it all?

There are consequences to every action, whether running or imagining that you are. It made me think about what the consequences might be for Berlin related to his imagination. He could lose himself (and his mind) in those dreams, lose his ability to see clearly, and lose his life as a result. And in a way, imagining that he was running was another form of running away from the war.

As for what Doc says, maybe he means that running or not running or dreaming about running, it’s all part of the war. The soldiers each come from a different place, have different perspectives, internalize what they see differently, but it doesn’t matter, because when it comes down to it, they’re all fighting the war.

What do you think was the significance of O’Brien calling him “Paul Berlin” throughout, never just “Paul” (or not that I recall anyway)?

Serena: I agree, even running away in his mind is a kind of desertion that would have consequences…but even then Berlin says that he never thought he would be a good soldier or even effective. I wonder if in that way he’s worse than Cacciato who gave it a go and just left.

I’m not sure why he was consistently referred to as Paul Berlin — there is some reference when he’s promoted to WWII and all of that, but I’m really not sure what to make of it. What are your thoughts on it?

Anna: I honestly don’t have a clue. There must be some significance because he’s the only character referred to by first and last name. For most of the other characters, you either know their first or last or a nickname but not both.

Do you think Sarkin Aung Wan was the girl with the gold hoop earrings that Paul Berlin wanted to like him, to see he had no malice in his soul? I know he’d kept saying how young she was throughout, but I didn’t make the connection between the two until after he described the girl with the gold hoops and then later described Sarkin Aung Wan taking hers off. O’Brien was very subtle in the clues he gave that the journey was a figment of Paul Berlin’s imagination.

Serena: I think Sarkin Aung Wan was the young girl with the earrings, but that’s why I’m a bit disturbed by his kissing her. While he clearly wanted more from her, there relationship seems pretty chaste. She also seems to be some kind of lifeline to hope — like if he can get her out of the war and to Paris, life will resume a more normal path, not like the crazy unpredictability of war.

There are so many moving elements in this book, fantasy and reality. What did you think about those Observation Post chapters? Did you think they were merely anchors to reality for readers? Or do you think they were something more?

Anna: I wasn’t so disturbed by the kiss, because based on all the talk about girls and sex, even with the kiss, their relationship was pretty chaste. Plus, he never says how old either girl is, and I just assumed she might be slightly younger than him. She’s young enough to be excited about beauty products, but old enough to understand that the lieutenant needs someone to care for him. He might have been attracted to the young village girl’s innocence, and that gave him hope.

The Observation Post chapters were interesting in that you knew they were taking place after the whole thing with Cacciato. I think those earlier OP chapters gave me the first inclination that the chapters in which they moved from country to country were a fantasy. So maybe they were a way to ground readers, to get them to see Paul Berlin’s state of mind as he contemplates it all when he’s alone in the dark of night.

Serena: I think you’re right about that.

Thanks, everyone, for joining us for this discussion. See you in 2015.

Week 1: Going After Cacciato Read-a-Long

Welcome to the first week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien. For this discussion, we read through Chapter 24.

In a blend of reality and fantasy, this novel tells the story of a young soldier who one day lays down his rifle and sets off on a quixotic journey from the jungles of Indochina to the streets of Paris. In its memorable evocation of men both fleeing from and meeting the demands of battle, Going After Cacciato stands as much more than just a great war novel. Ultimately it’s about the forces of fear and heroism that do battle in the hearts of us all.

Here’s the reading schedule and discussion dates:

  • Friday, Dec. 12: Discussion of Chapters 1-24
  • Friday, Dec. 19: Discussion of Chapter 25-the end

Serena: What are your initial thoughts on the more surreal and real elements of the novel so far?

Anna: I can’t wait to find out more about why Cacciato left the war in the first place, but I was surprised by how surreal the novel is.  The shift in the time line between chapters was pretty jarring at first, but I do like that O’Brien goes back to fill in the gaps from the very first paragraph of the novel where he lists all the soldiers who died.  I’m still waiting to find out how the chapters in the observation post fit into the story, as they seem to occur after the whole business with Cacciato ends, though how it ends is still anyone’s guess.

At first the shifts in the time line had me confused, but I’m starting to understand the structure more.  I’m enjoying that I have no idea how it’s all going to play out.  However, the whole mission of finding Cacciato is a bit bizarre and hard to buy into, especially once they cross the border into Laos and seem to be more like civilians on vacation.  Of course, I can understand them looking for a way to escape the war, even if only for a little while.  I find myself just trying to go with the flow at this point.  It seems like a lot of the novel is about Paul Berlin and what at this point appears to be a breakdown in his mental state.

What do you think about it all?

Serena:  I think I’m at an advantage because I remembered parts of the novel being surreal and dream like — almost like a fantasy.  I think that at this point, Paul Berlin has definitely had a break with reality and perhaps all the stuff about Laos and “being on vacation” is just a fantasy he created to replace what really happened on the mission to get Cacciato.

All of these men in the unit seem to be eccentric, don’t they?  I find their personalities all over the place, with the one tough guy who handles it all with force and the burned out Lt. who is trying to keep as many people alive as he can but still complete the missions.

What did you think about Doc’s diagnosis of Berlin as having too many fear biles?

Anna: I was thinking that it might all be made up in his head. I hope we find out what really happened by the end if that’s the case.

Well, I’m sure the amount of pot they smoke on a daily basis helps contribute to those eccentricities. I do like how O’Brien gives them all distinct personalities, though, so that even though there are a lot of characters to remember, it’s fairly easy to tell them apart.

Doc is an especially interesting character because his diagnoses all seem to be from the 1800s, with all the talk about fear biles. Though when you take the “biles” out of the equation, what he has to say is pretty interesting.

What do you think of Paul’s relationship with the refugee girl? She’s definitely an interesting character, who seems both strong and flighty.

Serena: I agree about Doc and his remedies. They do seem to be pre-modern medicine. Perhaps he’s not really a medic at all, but the only one they have close enough to being one.

As for the refugee girl — I don’t remember from a previous reading — she could also be a fantasy of Berlin’s, especially if he saw her in town when he was on leave. Perhaps he paid for her services or she was just a girl who was nice to him at one point, and he’s got a rescue fantasy going on about her now. Regardless, she seems strong but still looking for someone to save her — which could be related to his perception of her.

I found the part in the tunnel system interesting, with the guy sentences to 10 years in the tunnels as a punishment. What are your thoughts on that guy?

I do like how O’Brien blends the surreal and real in these alternating chapters. It keeps the reader guessing.

Anna: Well, since this is my first time reading this novel, I’m just going with the flow. I know the story isn’t what it seems, and the quote from the very beginning of the book — “Soldiers are dreamers” — seems to be a big clue. I don’t want to spoil for myself the twist I sense coming, so I just file these little tidbits away while I wait for all the pieces to come together.

The section in the tunnel was probably the most surreal so far, especially the descriptions of them all falling through the hole in the road. I don’t know what to make of the prisoner in the tunnel, especially since it didn’t seem too hard for Paul Berlin’s group to get out of the tunnel system in the end. Maybe his story is symbolic of those dreams where you look for a way out but can’t find one.

And the whole thing about Cacciato is odd and doesn’t add up. He’s not just AWOL, but leading them somewhere, even warning them about the hole under the road before they fall through. He could have got away so many times, yet he’s always only one step ahead of them, almost like he’s taunting them. So it’s obvious there’s more to this story.

Serena: I agree there is a lot going on in this book, and I cannot wait to see how it all pans out — again!

What are your thoughts up through Ch. 24? Please chime in with your thoughts and questions. We’d love to hear from you.

For next week’s discussion, we’ll be reading the second half of the book. We hope you’ll join us.

December Read-a-Long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien

As part of the War Through The Generations 2014 Reading Challenge with a Twist, we’ll be hosting our final read-a-long in December for the Vietnam War.

For December, we’ll be reading Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien.

Discussion questions will be posted on Friday for the designated chapters.  Here’s the reading schedule and discussion dates:

 

  • Friday, Dec. 12: Discussion of Chapters 1-24
  • Friday, Dec. 19: Discussion of Chapter 25-the end

While we know that the final chapters fall on the say after Christmas for most of us, you can feel free to add to the discussion long after the holiday.

We hope you’ll be joining us next month for our final read-a-long.

Final Weeks: The Monuments Men Read-a-Long

Welcome to the final week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. For this discussion, we have read from Ch.29-end of the book.

Sorry for the delay.

At the same time Adolf Hitler was attempting to take over the western world, his armies were methodically seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe. The Fuehrer had begun cataloguing the art he planned to collect as well as the art he would destroy: “degenerate” works he despised.

In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Momuments Men, risked their lives scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture.

Focusing on the eleven-month period between D-Day and V-E Day, this fascinating account follows six Monuments Men and their impossible mission to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.

Here’s the read-a-long schedule:

Feel free to add your thoughts or questions.

Wow, for the last two sections, I’m again blown away by the modesty of these men and their accomplishments in the final years of WWII.  As the Nazis are running away with their tails between their legs, grabbing what they can, and destroying what they cannot take with them, the Monuments Men are pushing forward with their units to secure mines, castles, and holes in the earth to save precious art stolen not only from France but from personal collections.  The authors do an excellent job of giving not only the troop movements and the movements of the Nazis but also the more personal accounts of the Monuments Men, who are still struggling for supplies and support.

Even after finding the works of art, the men are pressured by deadlines beyond their control, as political leaders determine how to divide up the territories captured by the allied forces and the Soviets.  Rather than a week to take care of the art, George Stout finds that he has less than a few days.  Later the deadline is extended as the political powers squabbled about whether Austria’s territory was under the same deadline as Germany — a sense of confusion that Stout took full advantage of.

I am fascinated by these modest men and their accomplishments, and how they continued to praise one another.  Even when the war is over, there were still controversies…as people came out of the woodwork claiming to play roles in saving art or finding it.  Even the governments were involved in these controversies, which clearly has a lot to do with the legacy they wanted for their own people in the wake of the Nazi’s big loss.  Returning the work took six years after the end of the war, and there are still some pieces that are missing.

The existence of the death camps came to light as these men searched for art and the allied forces battled back against the Nazis.  It was interesting to see which of the Monuments Men decided to visit the camps and which did not, and what their respective reactions were and reasons were for seeing or not seeing the camps.  Beyond the destruction and looting of art, these men realized that the Nazi regime was even more destructive than they had imagined.

Some of the fun facts for me were that Lincoln Kirstein had written and published a book of poems, which unfortunately, my library system does not have and cannot be loaned through any of the other Maryland library branches, and George Stout had been a director of the Worcester Art Museum after WWII (1947), which is near my childhood home.

What were the most interesting parts for you?

What do you think? Feel free to respond to our discussion and/or post any questions you might have in the comments.

Come back in December, for a read-a-long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien for the Vietnam War.

Monuments Men Read-a-Long Update

We’ll be postponing the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long for week three’s discussion of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter and discuss both section 3 and 4 on Oct. 31.  Sorry for the delay.

If you are playing catch-up, here’s discussion 1 and discussion 2.

Discussions 3 and 4 will be held next Friday, Oct. 31, for Ch. 29-the end of the book.

See you next week!

Week 2: The Monuments Men Read-a-Long

Welcome to the 2nd week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. For this discussion, we have read through Chap. 28.

At the same time Adolf Hitler was attempting to take over the western world, his armies were methodically seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe. The Fuehrer had begun cataloguing the art he planned to collect as well as the art he would destroy: “degenerate” works he despised.

In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Momuments Men, risked their lives scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture.

Focusing on the eleven-month period between D-Day and V-E Day, this fascinating account follows six Monuments Men and their impossible mission to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.

Here’s the read-a-long schedule:

Sorry today’s discussion is a little behind, but here are my initial thoughts and Anna will chime in later in the comments.  Feel free to add your thoughts or questions.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on section one of the read-a-long, and we look forward to the next section: Chap. 29-42.  We’ll post the next discussion on Friday, Oct. 24.

I’m curious to hear what other readers think about the Monuments men and if anyone has a favorite.  I really like Stout because he seems to make things happen, even if he has to think outside the box a lot, and I really like Rose Valland.  She’s enigmatic as well as unassuming, which made her a great spy for the French Resistance while France was occupied by Germany.  It got me thinking about whether someone else like her could have made it through the entire war without being caught and that maybe the fact that France is the hub of art and artists made it easier for her to survive the war right under the noses of the Nazis.  She recorded as much as she could about the art they took and where they took it, as well as the conversations she heard them have.  I cannot imagine stealing documents, copying them at home, and returning them to the Nazis with them none the wiser.

This section also had some photos, which made some of the pieces and people become more real for me, like the tapestry they talked about.  I had an idea what a tapestry from that period might look like, but the photo showed me it was much longer than I had imagined.  Does anyone else find that the pictures helped them visual the pieces of art and people?

One of my other favorite anecdotes in this section was the entanglement of The Raft of the Medusa being caught in the low-hanging wires of the streetcars in Versailles.  I could picture that vividly and how shocking that might have been to see, especially afterward when they had a truck escort and men with poles moving the wires out of the way as they continued on their journey.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on section two of the read-a-long, and we look forward to the next section: Chap. 29-42.  We’ll post the next discussion on Friday, Oct. 24.

Week 1: The Monuments Men Read-a-Long

Welcome to the first week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. For this discussion, we read from the beginning through Chapter 14.

At the same time Adolf Hitler was attempting to take over the western world, his armies were methodically seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe. The Fuehrer had begun cataloguing the art he planned to collect as well as the art he would destroy: “degenerate” works he despised.

In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Momuments Men, risked their lives scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture.

Focusing on the eleven-month period between D-Day and V-E Day, this fascinating account follows six Monuments Men and their impossible mission to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.

Here’s the read-a-long schedule:

  • Friday, Oct. 10: Chapters 1-14
  • Friday, Oct. 17: Chapters 15-28
  • Friday, Oct. 24: Chapters 29-42
  • Friday, October 31: Chapters 43-end

Sorry today’s discussion is a little behind, but here are my initial thoughts and Anna will chime in later in the comments.  Feel free to add your thoughts or questions.

What I found so interesting is how disorganized this mission was, even though art historians and other experts in the military thought it was a good idea to preserve the great art of the world in spite of the destructive nature of war.  Even though there were no supplies given to this group, they were able to improvise enough to get themselves to the locations they needed to get to and to mark special sites in a way that kept people from destroying them — such as using signs that the place was full of mines and to keep out, rather than signs stating they were protected works of art and history … signs that likely would have been ignored by soldiers.  They had not set chain of command and no procedures to follow, it was interesting to see how they remained organized and able to accomplish some of their goals in spite of that — possibly because they were in the military already and were disciplined.

Included in the beginning about the mission was another example of the Nazi’s meticulous nature, having sent ahead soldiers and others from Germany to these foreign countries to make lists of art and historically significant buildings and more ahead of the German movement to conquer the rest of Europe.  The fact that the Nazi party and Hitler changed laws to make their actions legal doesn’t surprise me, but it is different than what most dictators would have done — they simply would have reached out and taken what they wanted without bothering to change the laws.  Hitler often made it a condition of a nation’s surrender to hand over art works, which was also unique.  It was interesting to note that Hitler even thought himself entitled to art work that was not Aryan or made by those of superior birth.  But there seem to be these contradictions all the time with Hitler.

Was anyone else appalled that Hitler and his soldiers were using the guise of the Red Cross to go into churches and other places to steal art?!  I know that this is war and he had an agenda, but it was even more appalling to me that he would use an organization meant to help the injured and in need to carry out his thefts of art.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on section one of the read-a-long, and we look forward to the next section: Chap. 15-28.  We’ll post the next discussion on Friday, Oct. 17.

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