Just Finished: Bagombo Snuff Box

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Over the past couple weeks, I’ve truly enjoyed devouring this collection of short stories by Kurt Vonnegut. Short story anthologies or collections, by their very nature, are somewhat difficult to rate or review, even when all the stories are by the same author. While contemplating this post, I found myself reminded of a batch of favorite cookies, you know the kind, “Like Mom Used to Make.” When they come out of the oven, your anticipation heightens as the aroma and diffusing heat of the oven trigger a textbook Pavlovian response. They’re all the same kind of cookies, so you know you’ll like any individual one of them, but they’re not all exactly the same, depending on their placement on the cookie sheet, the possible vagaries of the oven, or – as in the case of something like chocolate chip cookies – the “local chip concentration” in the batter used for that particular cookie. In spite of these variables, though, when you eat one, there is little doubt you are eating a chocolate chip (or oatmeal butterscotch (Hi,Kim!), or whatever type) cookie.

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So I savored the chance to read this new “batch” of Vonnegut stories, and though some I enjoyed more (or less) than others due to their “crunchiness” or “chip volume,” there was no doubt when I finished one that I had just read a Vonnegut short story, and I was not a little sad when I realized that the entire batch had been consumed. Okay, this labored analogy is starting to make me hungry, so on to the stories…

Though sometimes labelled as a “Science Fiction” writer, Vonnegut wasn’t really one, though two of the stories could be fit into that mold, the lead off story, “Thanasphere,” and later in the book “2BR02B” (the “0” in the title should be taken as “naught” – get it?). Both were quite good, the former – written way before man’s first orbital flight – speculating on what we would encounter, and the latter envisioning a somewhat grim future with a Federal Bureau of Termination and Ethical Suicide Studios that call to mind the 1973 sci-fi classic film, Soylent Green, released eleven years after this story was first published.

(below: Edwin G. Robinson as Sol Roth in Soylent Green’s version of an “Ethical Suicide Studio”)

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Three of the stories – “The No-Talent Kid,” “The Ambitious Sophomore,” and “The Boy Who Hated Girls” – all featured the recurring character, George M. Helmholtz, the “band director of Lincoln High School,” who I first encountered in the superior story, “The Kid Nobody Could Handle” from Vonnegut’s other collection of short stories, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” I was also among those treated to a great “live” reading of this story (by fellow KVML book club member, Janet) this spring at Bookmama’s Bookstore’s “Vonnegut Day” here in Indianapolis. (below: treats for ‘Vonnegut Day’ at Bookmama’s.  Why, yes, of course that’s “monkeybread” 🙂 )

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The three Helmholtz stories in this collection were not among my favorites, however, and I wondered who the real-life inspiration for this Helmholtz character that “keeps showing up” might have been, or whether he could be a conglomerate of various teachers Vonnegut remembered from his days at Shortridge High School. Maybe one of my fellow book club members will have the scoop for me on this next week…

As you might expect from Vonnegut, there were a couple stories clearly influenced by his experience in the war, the somewhat comic “Der Arme Dolmetscher,” where a hapless protagonist is recruited to be a translator because in high school he had memorized, and was still fond of repeating, the first stanza of Heine’s “Die Lorelei” – without even understanding the meaning. The poignant “The Cruise of the Jolly Roger” is much deeper and thought-provoking, however.

If I had to come up with a “common theme” throughout this collection, it would probably be that most of the stories deal with the “struggle to find happiness” if you want to call it that. Happiness in one’s job, one’s relationships, and one’s place in society are all covered,often more than once. I was reminded of Thoreau’s observation about most men leading “lives of quiet desperation” during many of these stories. (Below: an illustration from The Saturday Evening Post from the story, Custom-Made Bride)

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Stories of this type were also my favorites in this collection. I’ve already posted about one of them, “The Package” earlier this month, but here I’d also like to recommend “Lover’s Anonymous,” “Custom-Made Bride,” “The Powder-Blue Dragon” and “This Son of Mine.” The last of these, which my friend Dale also just posted about on his blog Mirror with Clouds, came up by coincidence in my reading order just the day after Father’s Day. The story deals with two fathers and sons and their relationships, which have been sabotaged and crippled by misunderstanding. In fact, I’d argue that misunderstanding (during the search for happiness) is another common theme in this collection, perhaps best illustrated in the “Lovers Anonymous” story already mentioned.

Well, I’ve done it again and rambled on far longer than I like to in a blog post, but Vonnegut is one of my favorites, and it’s hard for me to stop sometimes. 🙂 By my count I’ve now read over sixty of his short stories, and the well will soon run dry since there will be no more forthcoming. I am not happy about this.

So, what about you? Are you a Vonnegut fan or have you read any of his short fiction? What are your favorites?

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3 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    June 25, 2012 at 9:40 am

    “The Package” and “This Son of Mine” are the only Vonnegut short stories I’ve read but I would put them up there with or maybe even above the few novels of his that I’ve read. I want to read more. I admit I usually think of science fiction when I think of Vonnegut and perhaps that’s what blew me away with these two stories: they were about normal life.

    I just started Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in A Strange Land’ and there is a book critic blurb by Vonnegut from the New York Times on the cover. I’m wondering if I can find the entire review somewhere on line. I’d like to read the whole thing. Or perhaps at the library.

    Thanks for mentioning me in your post!

    Like

  2. Jay said,

    June 25, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    I’ve learned from my time with the Vonnegut Library book club that Vonnegut never was comfortable being pigeonholed as a “science fiction” writer.

    Speaking of fathers and sons, my Dad was a big Heinlein fan, but I’ve never read him… 🙂
    -Jay

    Like

  3. July 6, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    […] at Daddy’s Timeout and Jay at Bibliophilopolis – check them […]

    Like


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