“Leftovers” From the KVMLBC meeting on Cat’s Cradle

We only have an hour to meet.  Some of that hour is spent administratively – what book are we reading next (Slaughterhouse Five if you’re interested), introductions, especially of first time attendees, and the informal rating of the book on a scale of one to ten.  So naturally, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of discussion time.  I wanted to share here a couple things that we didn’t get to or cover in the official meeting.

Ice-Nine

The fictional substance that brings about the “end of the world” brought back a couple of memories.  One was of the concept of the ‘seed crystal’ – I also encountered this recently when my book club read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (see chapter 15) last year.  As Dr. Breed says in Cat’s Cradle:  There are several ways in which certain liquids can crystallize – can freeze – several ways in which their atoms can stack and lock in an orderly, rigid way.  So it is with atoms in crystals, too; and two different crystals of the same substance can have quite different physical properties.”  This reminded me of when I learned “why ice floats” back in high school(?)  The angle of the bond of the hydrogen and oxygen molecues is slightly large in the frozen state, thus making it less dense than liquid water.  I think it was my high school biology teacher who said – if the reverse were true, lakes and rivers would freeze ‘from the bottom up’ and wouldn’t that leave life and biology in a pickle?

Vonnegut’s Humor

We talked some – as we always do – about the humor in Vonnegut’s writing.  One of my favorite humorous sections of the book was Chapter 15 and the poor secretary Miss Pefko.  Described initially by Vonnegut as “twenty, vacantly pretty, and healthy – a dull normal.”  She tells Breed and Jonah that “You scientists think too much, you ALL think too much.” She claims she doesn’t understand what she’s typing when she takes dictation from Dr. Horvath, and Dr. Breed advises her to ask Dr. Horvath to explain it to her, “He’s very good at explaining.  Dr. Hoenikker used to say that any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.”  Miss Pefko’s response: “Then I’m dumber than an eight-year-old.  I don’t even know what a charlatan is.”  (I think I laughed out loud at that passage)

Destroying the World, Bokononist Style

We skirted all around this at our meeting, but in Chapter 106 we learn that “Now I will destroy the whole world,” is something Bokononists always say when they are about to commit suicide.  Think about that a moment and you will realize how in a sense it’s exactly true….

“The Bokononists

Many of us struggled – somewhat humorously too – with the pronunciation of Bokononism and Bokononists. We always seemed to want to add another “n” or leave one out! I also discovered in my ‘research’ after reading the book that there is a funk/punk/surf band in Winnipeg named the Bokononists.  I don’t know if they’re still together now, but they were active as recently as last year.  From what I read it seems, sadly, that they did not choose their name out of any deep appreciation for Bokononism or Vonnegut, they just liked the name. You can google them for more info.

Borasisi and Pabu

Also, we didn’t talk about the whole Bokononist cosmic creation myth, which I absolutely loved (I’ve always been fascinated with the differences – and similarities – of the creation myths of different cultures).  To Bokononists, Borasisi (the Sun) held Pabu (the moon) in his arms and “hoped that Pabu would bear him a fiery child.” Unfortunately, “…poor Pabu gave birth to children that were cold, that did not burn; and Borasisi threw them away in disgust.  These were the planets, who circled their terrible father at a safe distance.  The poor Pabu herself was cast away, and she went to live with her favorite child, which was Earth.”  Great stuff.  I also read somewhere that a pair of “trans-Neptunian” (I think that means beyond the orbit of Nepture?) objects in the Solar System have been named Borasisi and Pabu.  Awesome.

A personal connection for me

I didn’t want to delay the club’s discussion with a personal story, but I feel myself free to do so here.  As fate would have it, Kurt Vonnegut and my father died about six weeks apart in 2007.  Also as fate would have it, I was reading Cat’s Cradle for the first time in the Spring of that year.  I chose a short passage from this book to include in the remarks I made at my Dad’s memorial service, since – even though in the book they were spoken by Dr. Hoenniker – they rang true for the spirit of my Dad’s intellect as well.  They’re found early in the book when Newt Hoenniker asks Jonah if he’d ever read the speech his father made when he accepted the Nobel Prize.  “This is the whole speech: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen.  I stand before you now because I never stopped dawdling like an eight-year-old on a spring morning on his way to school.  Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn. I am a very happy man. Thank you.”

Now, my father was NOT like Felix Hoenniker in most of the other traits we learn of in Cat’s Cradle, but that spirit of excitement and wonder in learning is something they shared.  Hopefully I have inherited part of this spirit as well.

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7 Comments

  1. Stacey S said,

    April 2, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Yes, Jay I would say you have inherited the spirit of learning from your dad. I think my next book I will read will be Three by Kurt Vonnegut, which has Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, and Breakfast of Champions in it.

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    • Jay said,

      April 3, 2011 at 2:00 pm

      Wow, Stacey. All three of those are ‘full novels’. That would be quite a book to read. I’d guess you might like Cat’s Cradle the best. Reading Vonnegut can be an ‘acquired taste.’ I’ll be interested to see what you think of him…

      -Jay

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  2. Scott said,

    April 2, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Jay,
    In what little contact I had with your father, the quote seemed quite apropos. It is a great way to remember him. I have a couple Vonnegut books on the shelf to read. (I don’t think I’ve read him yet.) I got to see him one in person, but only from a distance. He happened to be at the opening of the Indiana Historical Society when they moved into their current building. I had always seen his younger publicity photos and remember thinking he looked so much older that day. Anyway, good work.

    Scott

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    • Jay said,

      April 3, 2011 at 2:06 pm

      Thanks Scott. My Mom remembers Vonnegut’s father from when he was on the board of directors of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. I don’t think he made much of a good impression on her for some reason, though.

      The Vonnegut book club has the added wrinkle of the fact that a couple of the people in the group knew him personally.

      -Jay

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  3. chris stack said,

    April 11, 2011 at 10:20 am

    thanks for your insights jay. i enjoyed the recap of the creation story, especially the idea that a couple of new planets bear the names of KV’s planets, and that earth is pabu’s favorite child.

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  4. Jay said,

    April 11, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Thanks for stopping by, Chris. I wish our book club meetings were longer. This month maybe I’ll suggest adjourning across the street to the Bourbon Street Distillery for lunch if anyone wants to go into ‘overtime’ with me. (I have that afternoon off)

    -Jay

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  5. February 14, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    I’m so glad my two current favorite authors (Vonnegut jr & Heinlein) both like their femmes “vacantly pretty”. Somehow it all makes sense.

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