Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Vonnegut’

11th Decade Roundup!

It’s that time of my reading life again, where I review the last ten books I read, pretend I can remember them all, and then take stock of what happened. It’s also that time of my blogging life where I’m incredibly frustrated because WordPress has eaten three of my blog posts in the last two days. C’mon, guys, get it together.

This was a pretty good batch of books. It was a good mix of books I knew I’d enjoy, books that were just enough of a digression from my usual taste to be a challenge without being annoying, and books that I really liked but never would have read otherwise. It’s pretty much what you’d want in a book grouping.

I started out with What I Loved, which was fine while I was reading it, but very much on the “meh” portion of the scale. It wasn’t awful but I didn’t love it. I’m glad I read it, I suppose, but I doubt I’ll read it again. Another book in the category of, “glad I read it, now let’s move on” was The Girls of Slender Means. It was more enjoyable than I expected it to be, but I’d be surprised if I ever revisited it.

Then there were the books about two very different boys who were actually pretty similar, in some ways. Huck Finn is always a classic, and if you dialed up Huck’s delinquency and sense of adventure and combined it with a bit of crazy, you’d have Francie Brady of The Butcher Boy

Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye was a bit of an emotional read, but it was okay because it was followed by two zany books by Douglas Adams. It’s always fun to revisit Dirk Gently and his friends, and it’s even more fun to try and explain what you’re reading to people who don’t know Douglas Adams.

Finally, I was thoroughly sickened and shocked by Lolitabefore being captivated by some Murakami magic in Kafka on the ShoreI rounded out the bunch with the amazing Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. I think Vonnegut is swiftly becoming one of my favorite authors.

My favorite book out the batch was definitely Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut knows how to spin a phrase and play with language at least as well as Douglas Adams does, but there’s something about the way he weaves chaos through order and brings crazy insights into his work that I adore.

The reward for biggest shock goes to Lolita. I went in with bravado thinking that I was prepared and certainly wouldn’t be shocked like all those prudes who are sickened by books about sex. I was wrong.

And the book I liked the least was probably What I Loved. Like I said, it’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s just that it didn’t do anything for me. Not every book can.

Now I’m off to (hopefully) catch up on my post for the next book, House of Leaves, assuming WordPress stops eating my posts.


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: *****

Quotes I’ve Loved, First Half of 2013 Edition

Sorry I’ve been less than awesome at updating lately. I’ve just been on a string of trips, because my teaching schedule is drastically reduced in the summer and I have time to travel. At the beginning of the month I was in Italy (Rome and Venice, if you were curious), then my brother visited me in Prague and we went to Munich with my roommate. I’m currently coming at you from a hostel in Budapest, where I’m typing on the stickiest keyboard I’ve ever experienced.

This is my last trip for awhile, I think (though on Monday if you’d asked me what my weekend plans were, they wouldn’t have included being in Budapest…), so there should be more posts soon. I’m currently about 3-4 books ahead of the blog. I just have to write them. But here are some of my favorite quotes I’ve read this year to tide you over till my next post. These are the quotes that have REALLY knocked me over, made me feel something, think about something, or at least stop and underline them. They’re the ones I’ve taken with me in this project.


“The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.”
– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

“As you got older, and felt yourself to be at the centre of your time, and not at a point in its circumference, as you had felt when you were little, you were seized with a sort of shuddering, he perceived.”
– Mario Puzo, The Godfather

“[. . .] memory is time folding back on itself. To remember is to disengage from the present.”
– Madeliene Albright, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948

“Like many others who have lived long in a great capital, she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return.”
– E.M. Forster, Howards End

“[. . .] the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world.”
– E.M. Forster, Howards End

“A funeral is not death, any more than baptism is birth or marriage union. All three are the clumsy devices, coming now too late, now too early, by which Society would register the quick motions of man.”
– Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

“This rehearsal will end, the performance will end, the singers will die, eventually the last score of the music will be destroyed in one way or another; finally the name ‘Mozart’ will vanish, the dust will have won.”
– Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy,’ or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’ I’d like to show how ‘intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members’ connects with ‘the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.’ I’d like to have a world for ‘the sadness inspired by failing restaurants’ as well as for ‘the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.’ I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.”
– Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

“One may feel a certain indifference to the death penalty, one may refrain from pronouncing upon it, from saying yes or no, so long as one has not seen a guillotine with one’s own eyes: but if one encounters one of them, the shock is violent; one is forced to decide, and to take part for or against.”
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“What is more melancholy and more profound than to see a thousand objects for the first and the last time? To travel is to be born and to die at every instant.”
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“That light called history is pitiless; it possesses this peculiar and divine quality, that, pure light as it is, and precisely because it is wholly light, it often casts a shadow in places where people had hitherto beheld rays; from the same man it constructs two different phantoms, and the one attacks the other and executes justice on it, and the shadows of the despot contend with the brilliance of the leader.”
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“There is, as we know, a philosophy which denies the infinite. There is also a philosophy, pathologically classified, which denies the sun; this philosophy is called blindness.”
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“Not seeing people permits one to attribute to them all possible perfections.”
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“Our chimeras are the things which the most resemble us. Each one of us dreams of the unknown and the impossible in accordance with his nature.”
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“God, how we get our fingers in each other’s clay. That’s friendship, each playing the potter to see what shapes we can make of the other.”
– Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

“Way late at night Will had heart – how often? – train whistles jetting steam along the rim of sleep, forlorn, alone and far, no matter how near they came. Sometimes he woke to find tears on his cheek, asked why, lay back, listened and thought, Yes! they make me cry, going east, going west, the trains of far gone in country deeps they drown in tides of sleep that escape the towns. Those trains and their grieving sounds were lost forever between stations, not remembering where they had been, not guessing where they might go, exhaling their last pale breaths over the horizon, gone. So it was with all trains, ever.”
– Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

“Add up all the rivers never swum in, cakes never eaten, and by the time you get to my age, Will, it’s a lot missed out on. But then you console yourself, thinking, the more times in, the more times possibly drowned, or choked on lemon frosting. But then, through plain dumb cowardice, I guess, maybe you hold off from too much, wait, play it safe.”
– Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

“So, in sum, what are we? We are the creatures that know and know too much. That leaves us with such a burden again we have a choice, to laugh or cry. No other animal does either. We do both, depending on the season and the need.”
– Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

“Death doesn’t exist. It never did, it never will. But we’ve drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we’ve got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing.”
– Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

“Is Death important? No. Everything that happens before Death is what counts.”
– Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

“Coincidences happen, but I’ve come to believe they are actually quite rare. Something is at work, okay? Somewhere in the universe (or behind it), a great machine is ticking and turning its fabulous gears.”
– Stephen King, 11/22/63

“Home is watching the moon rise over the open, sleeping land and having someone you can call to the window, so you can look together. Home is where you dance with others, and dancing is life.”
– Stephen King, 11/22/63

“We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why. Not until the future eats the present, anyway. We know when it’s too late.”
– Stephen King, 11/22/63

“For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.”
– Stephen King, 11/22/63

“I believe the entire natural world is but the ultimate expression of that spiritual world from which, and in which alone, it has its life.”
– Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, In a Glass Darkly

“I am firmly persuaded that a great deal of consciousness, every sort of consciousness, in fact, is a disease.”
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground

Third Decade Summary

I’m doing to try something new. I want to try and reflect on the entire group of books I read, pick a favorite and least favorite from the set, and try to sum up my thoughts.

I had some big life changes while reading this set. I got a real teaching job at an actual language school during this set, so I’m no longer relying on the three or four private students I’ve found for income. This is great news, and it also means that I have a lot more time for reading. My language school sends teachers all over the city to teach in companies, so I’m traveling a ton. On average, I probably spend at least an hour a day on public transportation. When I write it like that, it sounds depressing, I just realized. But the bright side is that I have at least an hour a day where I have nothing to do but read. Hopefully this means that although I’m busier because I’m teaching more and planning lessons, I’ll also be reading more.

This was an interesting set. We had some interesting women: naive sisters and realism, a woman driven crazy by post-partum depression, and another woman who refused to accept society’s role for her. We also spent time with misanthropic junkies, Sicilian mafiosos, and a Holocaust survivor. We experienced the French Revolution and traveled through centuries in the strange and meta Cloud Atlas.

Finally, we reflected on time and memory with Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five through the Tralfamadorians and Billy Pilgrim, and also with Iris Murdoch in The Sea, The Sea, through the reluctant-to-let-go (and also creepy) Charles Arrowby.

It’s been, to say the least, a really interesting journey. Unlike the last group of books, where I felt a little bit “meh” about all of the books, this time I really enjoyed most of the books. Nearly all of them gave me something to think about and reflect on. It’s a good thing for me when books make me think about and see the world around me differently. That’s one of the things I miss most about my college English classes – I always felt like there was something newer and far more exciting in the world than I’d ever expected. I’m so happy that I’ve had the chance to feel that way again.

The biggest surprise was Jude the Obscure. I really was not expecting to like it. It’s a Victorian novel (and we know how I am about those) and, what’s more, it’s a Victorian novel that really hammers on women’s rights and societal restrictions. So, basically, this book is all of my least favorite things ever. But somehow, in spite of all that, I enjoyed and appreciated it. Maybe this project is starting to affect me. Maybe I’m learning to like Victorian literature!

My least favorite book was probably Trainspotting. Although I appreciate the effort and wound up liking it a bit in the end, I just didn’t get it fully. I didn’t hate it, my reading interests just lie somewhere outside the realm of Scottish-dialect-laden junkie novels. I suppose, though, that I maybe have liked Trainspotting more than Bunner Sisters. Bunner Sisters didn’t really have anything wrong with it, though. It was just sort of “meh.” Trainspotting was more of a struggle to read, but not in a way that challenged me and made me enjoy it.

My favorite books this time were The GodfatherSlaughterhouse-Five, and A Tale of Two CitiesCloud Atlas was also really good. It’s really stiff competition between these four books for my favorite from the group.* Slaughterhouse-Five is the winner, though. Vonnegut writes beautifully and his reflections on time, death, and life really resonate with me. It’s going to be one of those books that I’m constantly re-reading.

* That was kind of a terrible sentence. I feel like the longer I teach English, the worse my English gets.


Book #38: Slaughterhouse-Five

This was my second reading of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The first time I read it, I focused on the funny parts. What with the aliens and Billy Pilgrim being “unstuck in time” and “So it goes” and all, I thought it was a hilarious novel.

This time was different. This time I thought it was beautiful. It helps that Vonnegut’s writing is beautiful. Sometimes, one sentence knocked me over and made me stop and thing (“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”). But what really struck me was all the things Vonnegut says about time and death.

Slaughterhouse-Five felt like a meditation on time and moments. Billy Pilgrim learned to see time differently from the Tralfamadorians. Basically, time doesn’t have to be linear. It can be experienced in “out of order” or all at once. I really, really liked the image of humans as centipedes, moving from baby to child to teenager to adult to old person, all at once. It comforts me to think that you can be young, old, and everything in between at the same time, somehow.

I think about time passing and the way people age all the time. Maybe it’s because I’m 22 and feel really stuck between being a college kind and a ‘real adult.’ I dunno. Either way, I like to think that moments in time can be stopped and frozen forever, even if they’re in the past. Slaughterhouse-Five kind of lets me think that way and reflect on those things.

And of course, I couldn’t end a blog post about this book without talking about “So it goes.” After I read Slaughterhouse-Five the first time, I started saying that (or thinking it) when I read obituaries or heard about deaths. It’s one of the most coldly distant, yet accurate and heartfelt statements about death. Death is a thing that happens. So it goes.

But what Billy says about what he learned when he was in a zoo on Tralfamadore was that “when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.” It’s comforting, isn’t it, to think that when people die, they’re not really gone. They’re still there, just at different points in time.

Whether you believe that that’s literally true or not, I think it’s a beautiful way to look at the world.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Jude the Obscure

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