Book #110: Breakfast of Champions

I’ve loved Kurt Vonnegut for years, even though I’d only read Slaughterhouse-Five. But now I’ve read Breakfast of Champions, and I can say that I love Kurt Vonnegut for something other than Slaughterhouse-Five.

Breakfast of Champions is one of Vonnegut’s later works. He describes it as a fiftieth birthday present to himself. In some ways it feels a bit thrown-together. Things don’t always fit together nicely, often story ideas or concepts are laid out and half-written and left hanging with the words “and so on. . .” Don’t think this is a bad thing, though. Somehow it feels natural that Vonnegut should do this.

Breakfast of Champions is very hard to describe. Two characters drive the novel. One is Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy businessman and entrepreneur in the midwestern Midland City. Dwayne, we learn within the first page or so of the book, comes unhinged and goes crazy after reading a story by the famed science fiction reader Kilgore Trout.

Trout is the other driving force of the novel – he’s been featured in several other Vonnegut novels as well. In Breakfast of Champions we see him old and destitute. He’s written prolifically but has not been recognized, until he gets invited to Midland City to be the keynote speaker at a festival.

If there is a defined plot to Breakfast of Champions, you could say that it’s the events leading up to when Trout and Dwayne meet, and the moment not long after that Dwayne goes crazy and attacks people after Trout’s story makes him think that he is the only human in the world and everyone else is a robot programmed to interact with him.

However, this “plot” is thin and muddied. While the book traces Trout’s journey and hints at Dwayne’s mental state the whole way through, Vonnegut often diverges into summarizing plots of Kilgore Trout stories – this is where most random plot outlines are done and left with “and so on…” or drawing pictures – the book is filled with illustrations – and describing and commenting on the world.

It’s a little bit like if you were reading a twisted and political children’s history book. For example, after mentioning Vietnam, Vonnegut writes, “Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.” He also describes the European settlers as sea pirates:

“1492. The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.

[. . .]

The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.”

Vonnegut often steps out of the narrative to explain things like this. It’s weird, but you like it and it makes you think about the world differently.

Then, of course, Vonnegut inserts himself, as the writer, into the story. He interacts with his characters and Trout eventually becomes suspicious that he’s not like the rest of the people in the world of the novel.

Overall, Breakfast of Champions is beautifully all over the place. At one point Vonnegut writes, “Let others bring order to chaos, I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.” The book is a chaotic, semi-organized hodge-podge of themes and ideas that are loosely held together. I feel like it’s something that only Vonnegut can get away with, because the writing is so good and he’s just Vonnegut. It’s what he does.

Breakfast of Champions is filled with lots of pithy sayings, clever turns of phrase, and poignant passages. The end made me tear up. I enjoyed it.

Rating: *****

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Book #109: Kafka On The Shore

I love Haruki Murakami. In fact, my first ever post on this blog was actually about his 1Q84 It’s not on the list, but probably only because my version of the list predates the book.

I like Murakami because his books are really metaphysical and they always take me to this weird headspace where I’m never quite sure what’s real or what’s going on in the book. Reading Murakami can really mess you up for a bit, if you let it.

I read Kafka on the Shore in college. It was my first Murakami, and I loved it. I liked it just as much this time around. Murakami does something where he takes you into a world that could be ours, and it seems like it is ours, but things are just different enough that you wonder if there are so many things we don’t know about in this world.

It’s actually really hard to write about Kafka on the Shore, because there’s a lot going on and so much to think about, but it’s hard to get anywhere without just describing the entire book in detail. Certain books can only really be discussed with other people who have read them. This is one of them.

Kafka on the Shore deals with two separate storylines that converge in the end. The first story is driven by runaway Kafka Tamura, the “world’s toughest 15-year-old.” Kafka runs away from his wealthy father, hoping to escape a horrific prophecy. He winds up at a small library in a small city in Japan, where he’s offered work by the mysterious owner and her assistant.

The second story is driven by an elderly man named Mr. Nakata, who, following a mysterious incident when he was in elementary school, has been left mentally challenged but with a special talent – talking to cats. After a disturbing event, Nakata meets up with a trucker named Hoshino, and they embark on a mysterious journey in search of the entrance stone, which must be closed before reality is affected.

The storylines converge in strange ways as the world becomes stranger and less and less like ours. It rains leeches and fish, ghosts exist and interact with the living, and spirits break free from their bodies. It’s really a book you have to read to appreciate.

It’s also a book that I can’t say more about without giving things away, and I really want people to read it, so I’m not going to.

Kafka on the Shore is beautiful. It’s well-written and metaphysical and metaphorical, with beautiful observations about music, reality, love, and so much more. At the same time, it’s also a page-turner in parts, and as Kafka, Nakata, and Hoshino are drawn closer to the center of things, it gets really hard to stop reading and return to reality.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Breakfast of Champions

Quotes I’ve Loved, 2014

“…I attempted briefly to consecrate myself in the public library, believing every crack in my life could be chunked with a book.”
– Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

“…to this day there is something illusionistic and illusory about the relationship of time and space as we experience it in traveling, which is why whenever we come home from somewhere we never feel quite sure if we have really been abroad.”
– W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

“Darkness does not lift but becomes heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.”
– W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

“Although I had no regrets, I told myself sadly, that growing up was not the painless process one would have thought it to be.”
– Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

“The twenties are as frenetic a decade as the teens. You have a voice inside your head repeating I want, I want, I want,  but you don’t know what you want or how to get it. You hardly know who you are. You go on instinct. And your instinct mostly pushes you toward adventures you won’t grasp until you look back on them. Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward, some sage once said.”
– Erica Jongafterword, Fear of Flying

“What you imagine is what you remember, and what you remember is what you’re left with. So why not decide to imagine it a little differently?”
– Jennifer Dubois, A Partial History of Lost Causes

“‘Louis XVI was executed because they considered him to be a criminal, and a year later his judges were killed too for something. What is wrong? What is right? What must one love, what must one hate? What is life for, and what am I? What is life? What is death? What force controls it all?’ he asked himself. And there was no answer to one of these questions, except one illogical reply that was in no way an answer to any of them. That reply was: ‘One dies and it’s all over. One dies and finds it all out or ceases asking.’ But dying too was terrible.”
– Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
– James Joyce, Ulysses

“By eight Greg and I were in Truckee. By eleven we were still standing on the hot side of the road trying to hitch a ride to Sierra City.
‘HEY!’ I yelled maniacally at a VW bus as it whizzed past. We’d been snubbed by at least six of them over the past couple of hours. Not being picked up by those who drove VW buses made me particularly indignant. ‘Fucking hippies,’ I said to Greg.
‘I thought you were a hippy,’ he said.
‘I am. Kind of. But only a little bit.'”
– Cheryl Strayed, Wild

“What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”
– Cheryl Strayed, Wild

“I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.”
– Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

“Knowing too much about other people puts you in their power, they have a chain on you, you are forced to understand their reasons for doing things and then you are weakened.”
– Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

“Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable, and see if we may not eff it after all.”
– Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

“I’ve had the sort of day that would make Saint Francis of Assisi kick babies.”
– Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

“Works that have a certain imperfection to them have an appeal for that very reason — or at least they appeal to certain types of people. [. . .] You discover something about that work that tugs at your heart — or maybe we should say the work discovers you.”
– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

“You’re afraid of imagination. And even more afraid of dreams. Afraid of the responsibility that begins in dreams. But you have to sleep, and dreams are a part of sleep. When you’re awake you can suppress imagination. But you can’t suppress dreams.”
– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Book #108: Lolita

Wow.

That’s about all I have to say about Nabokov’s Lolita.

Wow.

Its reputation definitely proceeds it, so I thought I knew what I was getting into. I assumed the scandal was just because the novel was racy and the girl was a bit young. I was thinking maybe she was 17 or 18 and the guy was in his 40s.

I was not expecting the book to be, “My name is Humbert Humbert and I’m a dirty old man who likes 11-and-12-year-olds.”

But it was. It was and I had a much harder time dealing with it than I expected. It just kept pinging on my “wow this is really freaking creepy.” radar. Maybe I went into this book with a bit too much bravado. I was sure that it wasn’t as scandalous as I’d heard and totally confident that I wouldn’t be grossed out or disturbed by it.

But I was. I just…no. So much no. I can’t even begin to actually review the book or think about it analytically because it raises my No, HELL no! reflex too much. So I guess this post is more reaction than review. Hope that’s okay because I want to think about Humbert Humbert as little as possible.

Some people would say that “there’s no need for that” and that Lolita shouldn’t have been written because there’s no place for such stories in literature, but as much as this book truly disturbed me, I don’t agree. Would Nabokov have evoked such strong, visceral reactions from me (and so many other people) if Lolita had been 18 and a consenting “adult”? I highly doubt it.

For me there was the constant battle where I naturally wanted to sympathize with Humbert, or at least semi-relate to him, just because he was the narrator and reading makes you put yourself in the narrator’s shoes a lot of the time, but I’d be going along, starting to come around to him and then I’d stop and thing, yep, yep, you’re talking about having sex with a pre-teen.

It was wild. Not in a good way. I didn’t hate Lolita the way I hate books like The Scarlet Letter, because Nabokov is a freaking good writer. I just hated the experience of reading it. I wound up rushing through the last 30 pages or so just so I could finish and say, “I’m sure glad that’s over with!”

Here’s to never having to share brainspace with a creep like Humbert Humbert ever again!
I hope.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Kafka On The Shore

Book #107: The Butcher Boy

Oh man. Oh. Man.

Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy details a young killer’s descent into madness. It’s narrated by the teenaged Francis Brady, usually known as Francie. Francie grew up in a small Irish town with his mother and father, and he’s just a wee bit nuts. If you combined Norman Bates and Huckleberry Finn, you’d probably wind up with Francie Brady. If that’s not enough to interest you in reading this book, I’m not sure what to tell you.

Francie is an interesting narrator because he can seem so sane and rational, especially in the beginning, but then you slowly realize that this kid is fucking crazy.

He’s definitely a flawed narrator – he’s telling this story years later after he’s been convicted of murder – but his voice is so interesting. I found myself alternately hating him, being terrified of him, and feeling profoundly sorry for him.

It quickly becomes clear that Francie is not well and needs help, but there’s not really any help to be found. The twists and turns the narrative takes and the way Francie’s voice shifts and changes as the story progresses makes The Butcher Boy compelling and interesting the whole way through. You don’t really have time to get bored or look away or even get complacent.

The way the story unfolds and the changes in Francie’s voice as he gets closer and closer to recounting the actual murder and events that followed is so compelling. I really, really liked this book, even though it was pretty disturbing.

Rating: ****
Up Next: Lolita

Book #106: The Girls of Slender Means

Let me preface this by saying that I think just about any book I read after my wild and crazy romp with Douglas Adams was bound to be a bit of a letdown.

I had a hard time taking Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means seriously at first. I kept wanting it to be funny and assuming that everything she said was meant to be sarcastic or witty. I was kind of in the Douglas Adams “this is supposed to be silly” mindset, which wasn’t great for this book.

The Girls of Slender Means is a postwar story about a rooming house in London where literary, smart young women live. They’re pretty much all twenty-somethings, and they all are trying to find husbands and make their way in the world. And that’s pretty much it.

I will say this for Spark – she’s great at creating vivid, believable characters. We meet several girls who live in the hostel, and they are all real and believable, with interesting quirks, flaws, and ideas. They all come to life very well. I felt like I could know or encounter any of them in the real world and not be surprised at all. Almost all of them are fully developed and three-dimensional.

Overall, however, The Girls of Slender Means was a bit “meh” for me. I think I’ll chalk it up to the stark reality of Spark’s novel immediately following the colorful, clever, and zany world Adams created, because I did find myself enjoying it more by the end. I’d even recommend it to people who want a quick, relatively interesting read.

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Butcher Boy

Book #105: The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul

One of my favorite things about reading Douglas Adams is trying to explain it to other people. One night my dad and I were both reading and, probably inspired by my giggling over The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul from the love seat, he asked what my book was about.

“Thor is taking this girl to Valhalla to challenge Odin to a fight, because Odin made him count all the rocks in Scotland.”

“…that’s probably a metaphor for some deep thought, though, right?” he asked.

“Nope,” I said gleefully, and returned to the book.

It’s hilarious to think about the different things you can try to explain to people. Throughout the evening I’d occasionally say stuff like, “Oh my god, the guy got turned into a Coke machine!” or, “He turned the fighter pilot into an eagle!” or “The sofa can’t exist in that space because of time travel!” It sounds insane, because it is.

Another thing I love about Adams is the way he plays with language and turns sentences on their head. Dirk views the world in such a unique way, and you can tell by the way he thinks of things and says things. Immediately upon hearing about an “act of god” that destroyed an airport, Dirk wonders which god is responsible for this “act of god.” Things like that make me giddy.

I also appreciated this quote, which is a good example of how Adams can play with language in such a fun way:

“Let us think the unthinkable. Let us do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable, and see if we might eff it after all!”

Hilarious.

As a whole I didn’t enjoy The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul quite as much as Dirk Gently, however. It’s still Douglas Adams, so it’s still a zany romp through time, space, and dimensions. The pacing was just a bit off in this one, however. The crazy plots built and built, and then they were resolved a bit too quickly, which left me a tad unsatisfied. I was left happy, but also wanting more.

Douglas Adams is still Douglas Adams, however, and I still adored this book.

Rating: *****
Up Next: The Girls of Slender Means

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