“Vonnegut Short Story Madness” – Report from the War Regional

As usual, my blogging plans turned out to be way too ambitious when confronted with my limited free time. I originally had hoped to post about each story “matchup” in my “Vonnegut Short Story Madness” project, but now I’m going to try to write a post about each region. This post is about the War region.

My favorite pair of first round stories was “Souvenir” from Bagombo Snuff Box, and “Spoils” from Armageddon in Retrospect. The two stories are somewhat similar and deal with a topic that also came up last week at my Great Books Discussion Group. We were actually discussing Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Wall” (worth a read also, by the way) and we somehow got on a sidebar of how commonly we hear of war veterans who “never talk about” their war experiences. I have an uncle like that, and another member of the group mentioned an in-law who had recently passed away and whose multiple decorations for valor were on display at the service. The member of our group, though he had known this man for many years, had “no idea” that he had been so honored.

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WARNING: following content includes SPOILERS.

In the story “Souvenir,” a man (“Eddie”) hard up for cash decides to sell a “fantastic” pocket watch he’d “acquired” near the end of World War II. He wants five-hundred dollars for it, but the shady pawnbroker, to whom dealing and trading in such items was a game he played with relish and without mercy, begins to tirelessly haggle with him. He asks about the inscription on the watch, which neither can read since it is in German. He transcribes it onto a notepad and dispatches it off to a neighbor for a quick translation. Eddie then proceeds to tell the story of its acquisition, somewhere in Sudetenland near the very end of the war. A story where two German soldiers, a young blond man and an alleged General, try to surrender to Eddie and his buddy, Buzzer. The “surrender” is actually a ploy to kill Eddie and Buzzer for their uniforms in hopes that the Germans can then escape by passing themselves off as Americans. They originally pretend they are offering to buy the uniforms, first with German money (“Confederate Money!” as Buzzer complains) and later with the General’s watch, encrusted with four diamonds, a ruby, and gold.

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Eddie and his friend are slow to catch on to the ploy, a slowness that costs Buzzer his life. Eddie, however, escapes with the pocket watch, which he has held onto until now. Re-living the experience leads Eddie to realize he doesn’t want to part with the watch, which we now understand was purchased at a great price indeed. He tells the pawnbroker, “Thanks for letting me know what it’s worth. Makes more sense to keep it as a souvenir.” The pawnbroker offers him his original price of $500 as Eddie is leaving the store. After he leaves, the translation is brought back from the neighbor: “To General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the Army General Staff, who cannot rest until the last enemy soldier is driven from the sacred soil of the third German Reich – Adolf Hitler.”

(below: General Guderian on the cover of Time Magazine; he actually survived the war, and was, controvesially, not prosecuted for war crimes (as many others were) – apparently, his actions were deemed those of a professional soldier.

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Now, wasn’t I just speaking of twist endings in a recent post? Vonnegut liked to call these twists “mousetraps.”

Armageddon in Retrospect

The other story, “Spoils” tugs harder at the heart strings. “Paul” is another soldier who had once found himself in those mad, final days of the war. Now home long after the war, his wife has just returned from visiting a neighbor and tells him of the neighbor’s elegant silver service that she learned the husband had “liberated” from Germany at the end of the war. She shrewishly asks Paul why he “couldn’t have brought home something a little better” than he did (all he has is a bent Luftwaffe saber). He reminisces how “his first hours as a swashbuckling conqueror were his last,” and ponders “the thing that broke his spirit and … that tormented him” as he enters the realm of memory… He and his buddies are in the farming village of Peterswald, which is the midst of evacuation and then industrial scale looting. His comrades and encounter some Scotchmen participating in the looting who say, “You’re the victors, you know, you’ve a bloody good right to anything you like.”

His small band becomes swept up in the fervor and they select a house to pillage, but it has already been pretty much picked clean by others. The only thing intact is a child’s room with its toys and a lonely pair of children’s crutches. They eventually abandon their hopes of treasure and decide instead to focus on dinner, contemplating a feast including chicken, milk, eggs and “maybe even a rabbit.” They begin to scour the farms to prepare their table. Paul searches the barn of the house they had attempted to ransack, at first finding nothing, but – just as he’s about to leave – he hears a rustling under some hay. There a rabbit has been hidden in a cage. Dinner! He quickly dispatches and skins and cleans the rabbit there in the barn and brings the main course to his friends. Not before he sees the family who owns the house return, though.

A “wave of remorse and sorrow billows in his chest” as he watches the boy enter the barn. Soon he hears the boy’s faint shriek and sees him emerge from the barn holding the lifeless pelt of his former pet rabbit to his cheek. Paul mentions nothing of this to his friends, and eats what for him must’ve been a joyless meal with them.

During the final days of the war, Paul’s friends acquired a sizable quantity of German treasure but “for some reason, all Paul brought home was one rusty and badly bent Luftwaffe saber.”

Wow.

So, I awarded this matchup to the story “Spoils.” The final results of the “War Regional” are below. In the end, the regional champion turned out to be the story, “The Manned Missiles,” which, though it was tragic as well, also included hope. Hope for humanity and perhaps even for an end to war. I wrote about that story once before on my blog. You may find that post here if you’re interested.

Next up, results from The Love Regional. Stay tuned

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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?

Another Vonnegut Short Story

I’ve started working my way though the Vonnegut collection of short stories, “Bagombo Snuff Box,” and on my lunch hour today, I completed the fourth one, entitled simply “The Package” -a story first published in Collier’s Magazine in July, 1952 – almost exactly sixty years ago…

(above: the issue of Collier’s in which this story appeared.  I love how it says “top summer reading – six short stories” at the top)

***minor spoilers included***
Friends Earl Fenton and Charley Freeman are the same age. They went to the same college and were brothers in the same fraternity. Where they were different, though, was the fact that Charley’s family had money. Earl’s did not. In the setting of this story, Earl hasn’t even heard from Charley for over thirty years but gets a phone call from him “out of the blue” as Earl and his wife are just returning home from a lengthy vacation (you see, after college Earl has worked hard and become a shining example of the Self-Made Man).

Upon receiving the call, Earl, who is by nature a friendly person, invites Charley to come to their house (a brand new “package” house, with all the latest technology and gadgets). Coincidentally, moments later the developer they bought the house from calls and also invites himself over, along with a photo crew from a prominent “Homes Magazine” to do a story on them.

While awaiting the arrival of both invited parties, Earl begins to wish he hadn’t been so quick to invite Charley, as his memories of those days, which he confesses to his wife, are not all pleasant. “It does something to a man having to go around waiting on guys his same age, cleaning up after ’em, and seeing them with nice clothes and all the money in the world,” he says. Add to this uneasiness Charley’s somewhat strange appearance (his clothing looks a little threadbare) and behavior (he seems unfamiliar with a tv set, for example – “ah, tv, short for television, I suppose”) after he arrives, and Vonnegut has set up a nice little ‘morality play’ on class consciousness or maybe even class obsession.

For me, It was the mystery surrounding Charley, that made this story interesting. Where has he been? (he says upon seeing Earl for the first time, “This is a pleasure I’ve had to put off for a long time.”) “What has he been doing? Was he in prison? (as Earl’s wife suspects) Why have his fortunes fallen? The reader is kept in suspense about these questions until the very end of the story, which … I hope you will read yourself…

How Quickly We Forget

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Or, I should say, how quickly I forget. I was reminded this week of how often I do NOT remember the details of a book, and how sometimes they fade quickly. How was I reminded? Well, a co-worker to whom I had recommended a book by a “classic” author stopped by my desk to report she had finished it and, more importantly, to take me to task about an unhappy ending. (Apparently, someone died in someone’s arms in the final pages.) You’d think that’d be something one would remember, wouldn’t you? I guess not, at least in my case. Thankfully, she was just giving me a hard time and had actually really liked the book – as I suspected she would -and we now also have a third co-worker tentatively making her way into the book.

I’ve often been accused of having a great memory. I wish that were the case, although perhaps – relatively speaking – maybe I do. I have a fondness for trivia and seem to remember a lot of little facts about things. All well and good, and it has helped me pass through the Jeopardy! auditions twice now (they still haven’t called me, dammit! 🙂 , but I would actually like to remember things more worthy of remembering – like more of the plot of a Thomas Hardy novel. There, thats the final clue as to which book I’m talking about; I don’t want to type “Spoiler Alert” in this post!) that I read just a year and a half ago.

But how does one go about that? Are we chained to whatever aptitude for memory we are born with, or can it be enhanced? Long ago – I was probably still in college -I discovered a book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas (yes, the famous basketball player) about memory, and techniques used to “memorize” lists and things. I did learn some things from that book, but it did not deal with the type of memory I seek. I desire more to recall rather than “just” memorize. How is that done? Anyone know?

Personally, I think readers fall into one, or a combination, of the following groups of what they remember about books they read:

1: Some remember certain scenes very well if not the whole book

2. Some remember characters very well, as if they were people they actually know

3. Some remember dialogue or quotations that they can seem to recall at will much later

4. Some remember the emotions that a particular book elicited in them.

5. Some remember the entire plot. These are “the lovers of stories” I think.

6. Some – and these are the ones I “hate” 🙂  – remember “all of the above.

Which categories do you fall into? Which categories would you add to this list?

I suppose in truth we are all a mixture. For my part, I’m fairly strong on #1, respectable on #3, passable on #2, and a disaster on #s 4 & 5.

I should say that another short story I just read yesterday also helped prompt me to write this post. It was the second story in the Vonnegut collection, Bagombo Snuff Box, titled “Mnemonics.” In this sweet, very short story, our protagonist, Alfred Moorehead, works in an office which has him attend a memory skills seminar, where we learn that “The images used to help memory vary widely from person to person.” It turns out that the images that help Alfred remember are those of beautiful women, such as Lana Turner and Jane Russell, a technique that leads to amusing consequences regarding his pretty secretary, Ellen, who he has secretly pined for since he met her. There, no spoilers there either. 🙂

That’s all for now. Have a good Wednesday!

Buddhist Catnaps

Any regular visitor to Bibliophilopolis will already know that I am a big fan of the short story form. Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that the June meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club will be covering his collection, “Bagombo Snuff Box.” Twenty-four new morsels for me to feast upon!

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An even greater delight was Vonnegut’s own introduction to the book, where he repeats his eight rules for “Creative Writing 101” which I’d seen before but was nonetheless happy to encounter again. (I’ll quote them for you at the end of this post).

What I enjoyed most in the introduction was his speculation that reading short stories can often have kind of a therapeutic effect, relating how in high school “While I am reading, my pulse and breathing slow down. My high school troubles drop away. I am in a pleasant state somewhere between sleep and restfulness.” He then describes that he would often recommend a particularly good story to his father who, upon returning home from work, would be “tired and blue” and that Kurt would tell him, “I have just read this story I think you might enjoy.” He then observes the same impact on his father, “Dad starts to read. His pulse and breathing slow down. His troubles drop away, and so on.”

This doesn’t necessarily, technically prove anything, although Vonnegut believes it does:

“It proves that a short story, because of its physiological and psychological effects on a human being, is more closely related to Buddhist styles of meditation than it is to any other form of narrative entertainment. What you have in this volume, then, and in every other collection of short stories, is a bunch of Buddhist catnaps.”

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I did read the first story, “Thanasphere”*, from this book last night and enjoyed it. Written in 1952, it’s a creepy speculation about what humanity might discover when they eventually reach “outer space.” Also shocking was the similarity between this story and a failed NaNoWriMo project I attempted last year(!) My story was set about ten years later, but also involved an unpleasant surprise for an early astronaut. (*Thanasphere is the fictional name suggested in the book as a name for he “outer shell” of the atmosphere where the atmosphere ends and “dead space” begins. Those familiar with Greek will appreciate the appropriateness of that term…)

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Have I forgotten about Vonnegut’s eight rules? No. Here they for your perusal:

“1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

Sounds like pretty reasonable advice, don’t you think?

June Reading – The Month Ahead

As always, it’s hard to believe a new month is upon me “already,” but it is a fact I must deal with. 🙂

I had a likely record-breaking reading month in May, finishing ten books. True, many were shorter than my usual reads, and I had started a couple the month before, but nonetheless I consider it a good month, at least by my humble standards.

So, does this mean I can slack off in June? Hardly! I have many books I want to read this month. Two are for book club meetings so I’ll start with them:

1. The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

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I’ve actually already started this one and passed the halfway point this morning. Is been on my TBR list for quite awhile, and since I learned that the Carmel (north Indianapolis) Library book discussion group was meeting next week on it, I finally took the plunge. Liking it a lot so far, and not sure how it will end…

2. Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut

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The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library will be meeting on June 28th to discuss this short story collection which was published in 1999. Most of the stories were written in the 1950s and I hear he even re-wrote or re-worked three of em for this book. Another collection of Vonnegut stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, was my favorite book of those I read in 2010, so I’m really looking forward to working my way through these.

3. Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Yes, it’s time I picked up this series again – especially since my friend Edie is putting me to shame by tearing through the first four and a half books in just a few weeks. 🙂 In fact, it’s funny to ponder how often I have been led to read something due to “peer pressure” like this. Probably happens more than I’d initially guess… Anyway, I sometimes miss the direwolves and the compelling young characters in this series and look forward to rejoining them.

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4. The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomatox by John C. Waugh

This is a “leftover” from my 2010 Civil War Reading Project that I’ve always wanted to get back to. I read the first 25 pages or so this morning and will see it through to its finish this time.

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Other contenders: Panther in the Sky by James Alexander Thom (I admit to being a little daunted by the length of this book, BUT if I can read George R.R. Martin…); American Gods by Neil Gaiman (been on my TBR list for quite awhile now – this could be the month); A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (kind of listening to this on audio off an on at work, but can’t usually pay it enough attention that way, unless I’m doing really routine, drudgery-laden tasks, which I don’t have enough of at the office); finally, a book I just read about this morning on Jade’s blog, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (outside of my normal reading pattern, but very popular among book bloggers, and I trust Jade, who liked it. Might be one of those, “let’s see what all the fuss is about” reads)

Well, that’s about it for me. What about YOU?? Have you read any of the above books (or authors) and did you like them? Most importantly, what will you be reading in June???

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“To Be Yourself is All that You Can Do”

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The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library met last Thursday to discuss his final novel, Timequake. Published in 1997, it is the most autobiographical of Vonnegut’s novels (and they almost always are autobiographical to some extent). It is loosely constructed around an event called a “Timequake” in which history kind of “slips back” ten years and goes into a re-run. To those reliving the past ten years, it is nearly impossible to not drift into sort of an “autopilot mode” in which they know for certain that any free will is suppressed as the re-run plays out. Vonnegut uses this concept to explore the idea of free will and determinism. He more often, frankly, uses the book to comment on the human condition, and relate a lot of stories from his own life.

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(above: Chris Cornell & “Audioslave”)

While reading Timequake – as a fan of musician and songwriter Chris Cornell (front man for the band “Soundgarden” and later another favorite of mine, “Audioslave”) – I found myself often reminded of the great Audioslave song, “Be Yourself,” which includes the frequent refrain “(and) to be yourself is all that you can do…” Much of Vonnegut’s musing in the book settles back to this idea, probably most overtly in chapter 35, where after relating that geneticists are now “seeking and finding more and more genes that make us think this way or that way, just as a rerun or timequake would do.” He goes on to say that:

“…it appeared to me that Jane’s and my children, and Allie’s and Jim’s children, while not alike as grownups, had each become practically the type of grownups they had to be. All six are OK.”

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We had, as a guest at our book club meeting, author Majie Failey whose book about Vonnegut, “We Never Danced Cheek to Cheek,” I read last year. Somehow in our pre-game warmups before we started talking about Timequake, the matter of Vonnegut’s mother’s suicide came up. Mrs. Failey was of the firm belief that her death was accidental, citing several reasons why. One of our other members, Bob, pointed out that regardless of what we may believe, Vonnegut himself believed it, and it indelibly shaped the course of his life. He even states (chapter 26) “I’m a monopolar depressive descended from monopolar depressives.” Perhaps his life and artistic output was what simply had to be, or to paraphrase the words of Chris Cornell, “all that he could do.”

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This book was not among my Vonnegut favorites (too much of a downer) but there were many things about it I liked. One was the expanded role of Vonnegut’s recurring character, science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, who usually serves as the author’s alter-ego. Vonnegut also has several  insightful things to say about art as well. For example:

“Many years earlier, so long ago that I was a student at the University of Chicago, I had a conversation with my thesis advisor about the arts in general. At that time, I had no idea that I personally would go into any sort of art.
He said, ‘You know what artists are?’
I didn’t.
‘Artists,’ he said, ‘are the people who say, “I can’t fix my country my state or my city, or even my marriage. But by golly I can make this square of canvas, or this eight-and-a-half-by-eleven piece of paper, or this lump of clay, or these twelves bars of music, be exactly what they ought to be.”’

True, Vonnegut didn’t make this statement himself, but it’s yet another “bulls-eye” found in his writing.

Our club’s resident poet, Bill Briscoe, composed a second “diamanté” poem for this book. A snapshot is presented below. Information on the “rules” of diamanté poems have been presented previously on my blog here.

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I look forward to next month’s meeting, where we will be discussing the posthumously published short story collection, Bagombo Snuff Box, a selection of Vonnegut’s previously unpublished work.

For those interested, here are the lyrics to the song “Be Yourself”:

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“Someone falls to pieces, sleeping all alone
Someone kills the pain, spinning in the silence
To finally drift away

Someone gets excited
In a chapel yard and catches a bouquet
Another lays a dozen, white roses on a grave

Yeah and to be yourself is all that you can do
Hey, to be yourself is all that you can do

Someone finds salvation in everyone, another only pain
Someone tries to hide himself, down inside himself he prays
Someone swears his true love until the end of time
Another runs away, separate or united, healthy or insane

And to be yourself is all that you can do, yeah
(All that you can do)
To be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)

To be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)
Hey, be yourself is all that you can do

Even when you’ve paid enough
Been pulled apart or been held up
Every single memory of the good or bad
Faces of luck

Don’t lose any sleep tonight
I’m sure everything will end up alright
You may win or lose

But to be yourself is all that you can do, yeah
To be yourself is all that you can do

Oh, to be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)
Hey, to be yourself is all that you can do
(All that you can do)

To be yourself is all that you can
Be yourself is all that you can
Be yourself is all that you can do