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.

Vietnam War Linky

The 2014 War Through the Generations Reading Challenge With a Twist is wrapping up. For November and December, reviews for the Vietnam War should be linked here.

To be clear, you don’t have to read just Vietnam War books now, but any of the books that fit the war categories. We’ll just be posting the linkies for the reviews in the months we designated here.

Welcome to the Vietnam War Reviews linky for Nov./Dec.:

Looking for the Linky for the Gulf Wars, go here.

Looking for the Linky for the French and Indian War, go here.

Looking for the Korean War Linky, click here.

Here’s the Linky for WWI, go here.

Here’s the Linky for WWII, go here.

Read-a-Longs for 2014 War Challenge

Since readers can read any of the war categories throughout the year, we thought it would be additional fun to host several read-a-longs.

In February, we’ll be hosting a read-a-long for Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers for the Gulf Wars (this one is about Operation Iraqi Freedom).  SCHEDULE TBD SOON.

In April, we’ll be hosting a read-a-long for the French and Indian War with I Am Regina by Sally M. Keehn.  SCHEDULE released in March.

In June, we’ll be hosting a read-a-long for the Korean War, with War Babies by Frederick Busch.  SCHEDULE released in May.

In August for the 100th anniversary of WWI, we’ll be hosting a read-a-long of Stella Bain by Antia Shreve.  SCHEDULE released in July.

In October, we’ll be hosting a read-a-long of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter for WWII.  SCHEDULE released in September.

In December, for the Vietnam War, we’ll be hosting a read-a-long for Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien.  SCHEDULE released in November.

We hope that you’ll be joining us for at least one or more of these read-a-longs in 2014.

2014 War Challenge With a Twist

2014 is fast approaching.  Here at War Through the Generations, we decided to mix things up a bit.

Check out the details on the 2014 challenge page.

Read-a-long Discussion #4: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Since Anna and I both wanted to read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes for this year’s Vietnam War Reading Challenge, we decided to read it together in small chunks since it is over 500 pages long.

Each Friday throughout December, we’ll be posting discussion questions with our answers. Please feel free to join in if you’ve already read the book or want to read along with us.

Today’s discussion will be on the final Ch.  16-23.

1.  What do you think Hawke’s motivation is for disobeying orders and heading to the dire situation on Helicopter Hill?

Serena: I think Hawke has seen enough  the stupidity back at base camp among the officers, realizing that he’s the only one with first hand knowledge of the real situation and not just the rumors about how Bravo Company got so pinned down.  But it isn’t just the intellectual knowledge that motivates him. . . it also is the connection he has with the men that remain on Helicopter Hill, his old company.  He feels for their situation; he’s been there; and he’s in a position to help even if it means he might not make it back.  This sort of camaraderie propels him to make a risky decision, but I think its a decision that will garner him even more respect among the men in Bravo Company.

Anna: These men are Hawke’s family, his brothers.  They fought side by side, humped through the jungle together for many months.  There’s a special bond among soldiers who’ve been through the horrors of war together, and when Hawke hears and sees the stupidity back at base camp, as Serena so accurately describes it, he has to do something.  He has to do the right thing, the thing that the superior officers can’t bring themselves to do — throw ambition and body counts aside and save men who need saving.

2.  The victory of Bravo Company and the others at Matterhorn rouses a number of responses from the troops.  How would you describe the prevailing feeling of Mellas and the others?

Serena: It seems that the victory is a bit hollow to Mellas in the face of all the men he’s lost, the devastation of the landscape, and the horror he’s experienced.  Despite all of his ambition for garnering a medal for combat, it seems that all he can focus on now is the empty victory of taking the mountain from the NVA and the realization that the enemy will never give up the fight no matter how hopeless.  This realization pushes him to examine his own capacity to continue fighting in Vietnam and he concludes that his determination is lacking compared to the NVA.

Anna: Here is where the evolution of Mellas’ character becomes evident.  Ambition and medals mean little when you’re watching your men get blown to pieces, when you have your hand in the throat of a friend and feel him take his last breath.  The cheers from those watching the battle on Helicopter Hill grate on Mellas because war is not a game, it’s life and death.  And when he sits back and thinks about everything he’s seen and experienced in the last couple of months, he just can’t understand what is the purpose of all of it.

3.  China’s showdown with Henry over the Black power movement leaves China with few options.  Explain how you think China will respond to Henry’s display of greater power among the “brothers?”

Serena: Because China is part of non-violent Black power movement, his options are very limited because he is not in a position to take money and drugs away from the rest of the brothers and make them do what he wants.  As I see it, his options include ratting them out or just following along with their plans to frag an officer.  Neither choice is optimal, but that’s all he’s got.  I’m going to go with ratting them out as his option given his commitment to nonviolence.

Anna: China is really stuck between a rock and a hard place.  China seems to have assumed a non-violent stance after all he’s seen on Matterhorn, whereas Henry thinks violence is necessary to get things done.  China has seen the senseless killings on the battlefield, and he knows that the dead bodies stacking up really don’t accomplish much except cause pain.  China has to stand up for what he thinks is right, regardless of the power struggle.

4.  What’s the significance of Mellas dropping Vancouver’s “gook” sword out of the chopper on his way to VCB have?

Serena: I felt as though Mellas was not only saying goodbye to Vancouver, but also to his past ambition and convictions about the war.  He has had a life-changing experience, and now is the time for him to buck up and face reality, not his ideal notions of what war is and the medals that can be won.  In other ways, dropping the sword is giving the jungle back its warrior — the one that seemed at home in the jungle and attuned to its noises and hiding places.

Anna: Well, for one, if it’s not longer in his possession, unscrupulous individuals can’t take it from him and sell it.  Vancouver was one with the jungle, and letting the sword rest there is a fitting tribute.  Mellas also has to find a way to let go of all he’d seen on Matterhorn and move on in order to survive.

5.  What are your thoughts and feelings upon finishing the novel?

Serena: Blown away.  This is a novel that should be read by anyone interested in the Vietnam War or war-related literature.  I think the critics are right when they say this is an instant classic.  Marlantes obviously took his time crafting the evolution of his characters, getting the settings down, and weaving in the political aspects of the war without dragging the plot or hampering the story arc.  Of all the Vietnam War-related books I’ve read this year, it is one of the best and will surely be one I read again.  I’d love to see a movie of it too.

Anna: Matterhorn is definitely on my all-time favorites list and definitely one of the best novels of the Vietnam War ever.  Now, I’m saying that from the point of view of someone who’s read a lot of war novels, but not someone who’s lived through what the men in the book lived through.  Marlantes engages readers, makes us use all of our senses, and puts us right in the jungle with Bravo Company.  I just finished the book about 15 minutes ago, and I’m still finding it hard to put it into words.  I cried, and I still feel the need to curl up in the fetal position and bawl like a baby.  It’s definitely a book that will stay with me for a long, long time.  It’s a heavy book, an intense book, but so worth the emotional exhaustion.

Anna and I want to thank everyone that has participated in the discussion and hope that more of you chime in once you’ve read the book.

We’d also like to thank our participants this year and to assure you prize posts for the Vietnam War Reading Challenge will be up sometime next week.

So stay tuned, and see you in the New Year for the U.S. Civil War Reading Challenge.

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