Kurt Vonnegut’s “Sucker’s Portfolio”

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Sucker’s Portfolio is a collection of six complete short stories, one essay, and one unfinished short story (all previously unpublished – until November 2012) by Kurt Vonnegut. The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library here in Indianapolis is reading this collection for our April meeting, which takes place… today! I purchased an e-version of the work via Amazon when it came out, and it was part of their “Amazon Serials” imprint. “They” sent you one story a week until you had the entire volume available to read on your kindle or other app. I admit I read the first one right away back then, but waiting patiently was never something I was good at so I decided to wait until I had the whole thing before I read on. And here – a year and a half later! – I finally get back to it. 🙂

I’m not, at least philosophically speaking, a big fan of literary work that is posthumously published. I always want to say, well – it probably wasn’t published for a reason: the author wasn’t happy with it, potential publishers didn’t deem it “ready,” and so on. Then I think about authors who, once they’ve “hit the big time” have no trouble getting anything they write published. Publishers are less strict about quality at that point since they’re selling the name. Considering that, ALL of the short stories in this collection would have had no problem being published. And, for my part anyway, they actually are worthy of being published on their own merit (without the Vonnegut name attached to them). They’re a heck of a lot better than a lot of other stories that are getting published, in my opinion anyway.

Most of the stories are typical of his early work for “the slicks” – major magazines of the day that frequently published short fiction. Several are somewhat romantic tales with a tincture of the dark humor he became best known for later in his career. Okay, maybe more than a tincture. 🙂 I liked almost all of them. The first, “Between Time and Timbuktu,” explores the near-death experience – after the main character, David Harnden, witnesses a doctor revive a supposedly dead-by-drowning man by the pond near his home. It contains a lot of ruminations on Time and one can almost see some of the ideas of time as viewed by the Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse Five beginning to coalesce in the author’s mind. The character in this story “ached to understand time, to defy it, to defeat it – to go back, not forward.” He is told by the doctor that a large percentage of ‘near death’ victims say the phrase “my whole life flashed before my eyes” and Harnden begins to wonder if such is the case, can that condition be artificially created so that, for example, he could go back and see his deceased wife. The doctor warns that time travel is too paradoxical citing for example that “you knock off Charlemagne, and you kill about every white man on earth.” (!) Harnden realizes though that, in the case of the near-drowned man, “if he really did travel through time, (he) didn’t go anywhere but where he’d already been,” thus eliminating the possibility of interfering with history, I guess(?). An entertaining little story, which includes the great observation that “time – not cancer or heart disease or any other disease in his books – was the most frightening, crippling plague of mankind.”

The second story, “Rome,” deals with a small town play which is being produced with an unlikely ragtag cast. “Rome” is the name of the play, and its four characters include a naïve and simple-minded young man, a world-wise and cretinous young man, an innocent and pure young girl who happens to be the daughter of an irredeemable crook (but who also blithely believes him to be the greatest man on earth – e.g., when he shows up at rehearsal reeking of alcohol she exclaims, “Oh, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, you’ve got too much aftershave lotion on again.”), and our narrator, who is placed there to detail the action for us…

Another good story is the title piece, “Sucker’s Portfolio,” about a financial advisor who is hoping to save a young heir from squandering a $20,000 portfolio which has been painstakingly built up over the years. Odd requests from the young man for money and a sense of urgency would lead one to the natural conclusion that ‘something’s up,’ but maybe just not what we think. I guessed the ‘mousetrap ending’ to this one long before its unveiling occurred, but it was still an enjoyable story nonetheless.

Maybe my favorite story was the sixth one, titled “Paris, France.” Three couples share a cabin on a train during a journey from London to Paris, each making the trip for widely different reasons, AND the members of each couple also have different expectations for the trip. One couple is described as “two old and demoralized tourists from Indianapolis” which, being from that city myself, I enjoyed. 🙂 One husband is particularly irascible and wishes he had “stayed put” and not gone on a trip. He points to two empty seats and says, “There’s the seats of the two smartest people.” Nice. One of my favorite lines was describing one couple on a shoestring budget, when upon seeing the older couple Vonnegut relates, “Growing old was even tougher on Harry and Rachel than being broke all the time. Coming across really old people had the same soothing effect on them as easy credit.” Ha ha! I thought this was a great story which showcased Vonnegut’s skill at brief but effective characterizations of the principal characters.

The non-fiction essay, “The Last Tasmanian,” was an incisive almost stream-of-consciousness polemic decrying how big a mess we humans have made of things. Sprinkled with his usual RDA of humor, it wasn’t too different from a lot of other non-fiction Vonnegut I’d read in “Man Without a Country.” The title refers to the fact that the aboriginal peoples of the island of Tasmania were quickly wiped out by their European discoverers and how, a while after the arrival of the “civilized” people, they lost the will to even reproduce, not wanting to bring a new generation into existence. I don’t know if this really happened or if it is an exaggeration by Vonnegut (but he was an anthropology student at the University of Chicago…). He comments that the native Tasmanians hadn’t even domesticated fire, which sounds outrageous as well.

The unfinished story fragment, “Robotville and Mr. Caslow” is tantalizing and stops almost mid-sentence. It really made me want to see where he was going to take the rest of the story had he completed it. It takes place sometime after “World War III” where many of the veterans living in town served as “robots” in the war. Some still have a kind of antenna implant in their cranium, via which they used to receive instructions during the war, and there is a movement afoot trying to get them some kind of work where they can once again be told via transmitter what to do and when to do it, etc. I also found it interesting that Vonnegut chose to write this fragment in the 2nd person. As if the reader were receiving transmissions of his own…

All in all a fun volume to read my way through. Is it Vonnegut’s best work? No. Is it worth reading? Definitely.

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What about you? Have you read this or other Vonnegut works? How do you feel about all the posthumous publishing that takes place?

 

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The “Live Tweeting From a Book Club Meeting” Experiment

(This actually went pretty well, I think. It WAS quite a challenge trying to keep up with all the great discussion – and especially to convert the highlights to tweet-sized bursts of text. By my count, I sent out 45 tweets, including a few photos (the latter with help from my friend, Bob). The hash tags used were #vonnegut #bookclub #slaughterhousefive – if you search for these individually or in combination you can see the tweets. Or you can follow me (@bibliophilopoly) and also see the tweets I forgot to add the hash tags to… 🙂

I don’t know how many might have followed along, but we did actually get a handful of comments from the twitterverse, which the in-person group was happy to hear.

I’ll try this again in January, when the club will be discussing the Library’s first two issues of its Literary Journal, “So it Goes.” I should point out that an official, much more detailed (and literate!) record of the meetings is posted to the Book Club’s blog (also linked on the left in my blogroll). http://vonnegutbookclub.wordpress.com/

February is my turn at the discussion leader helm again for the short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House, so I’m sure I won’t be doing any live-tweeting then. Maybe someone else will pick up the baton?

(Below: My ham-handed tweeting efforts)

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“…I’ll always say it was a library card that killed them…”

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This tantalizingly mysterious quotation is from the novella, “Basic Training,” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Yes, he later drops the “Jr.” from his books, but this one was written before he made that change, so I’ll include it here). Written while Vonnegut was working as a PR man for General Electric, this novella was originally rejected by publishers of that time, The Saturday Evening Post among them. Published for the first time in 2012 in electronic format by Rosetta Books, it initially took the top spot in Amazon’s kindle charts. Now, it has been combined with the author’s “last” (unfinished) work, “If God Were Alive Today,” and published as “We Are What We Pretend to Be.” This combination book is the July selection for the book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library here in Indianapolis.

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(picture from wikipedia)

Basic Training is the story of a youth, Haley Brandon, who has moved to live and work on a farm owned by his uncle, a rigid and hyper-organized man referred to even by his own family as “The General.” Haley’s new “household” consists of The General, his three daughters, and a hired hand, Mr. Banghart, who is a great worker but also seemingly unstable. Haley, a musician by training and aspiration, finds the work of baling and stacking hay backbreaking and one of his cousins irresistible. He chafes under the draconian rules and “punishments” meted out by The General (i.e., sleeping with no pillow for two weeks!) and eventually flys the coop after he and the farmhand are involved in a costly accident and fear general’s wrath. The refugee’s sojourn in Chicago is eventful to say the least.
(below: Chicago of 1950; postcard found at http://chuckmancollectionvolume15.blogspot.com)

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Oh, you may be wondering about the quotation in the title of this blog post… early on in the story the General is telling the story of another young man “a lot like” Haley, who seemed destined for greatness because of his “well-readedness.”

“He was always reading books, books, books – anything he could get his hands on. We used to ask him to come fishing or to play baseball, and things like that, and he always had she same answer: ‘No thanks, I just got a new book that looks very interesting.’ Sometimes he’d forget to stop reading for meals. By the time he was fifteen, he knew more about the royal family of Siam and the slum problem in Vladivostok than I knew about the back of my hand. All his teachers swore he was a genius, and said he’d be at least President of the United States when he was thirty-five.”

When World War II broke out, he was of course made an officer, but when the going got tough, he “cracked up immediately” since he “didn’t know the first thing about leadership,” which led to a whole company being wiped out – a tragedy the General blamed, naturally, on the man’s life of reading as opposed to action.

The story plucks many elements from Vonnegut’s own early life where, as a sixteen-year old boy, he would frequently ride to “the Rainbow Farm” of his father’s cousin, just outside of Indianapolis. The young Vonnegut was also in love with one of the farmer’s daughters and went to do work on the farm just to be close to her. This information is shared with us in the delightful introduction to the book, written by the author’s daughter, Nanette. In my “drive-by research,” I wasn’t able to find where this novella was still on sale by itself, but the combined book may be found at: http://www.amazon.com/We-Are-What-Pretend-To/dp/1593157436

Have you read this novella or book? How do you feel about all these authors whose unpublished works continue to leak out long after the authors have passed away?

“Look at the Birdie” by Kurt Vonnegut

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(above: Vonnegut pictured in the 2009 N.Y. Times review of “Look at the Birdie”)

From the 2009 NY Times review of this collection:
“For the last many decades of his life, Vonnegut was our sage and chain-­smoking truth-teller, but before that, before his trademark black humor and the cosmic scope of “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse-­Five,” he was a journeyman writer of tidy short fictions.”
Full review link:

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(I found the above (Spanish translation) cover of the book online – pretty cool, huh?  Not sure what the significance to the book is, however… anybody know?)

I read this collection for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book Club meeting here in Indy later this week. Just when I think our group has pretty much read everything ever written by Vonnegut, a new book seems to pop up. This collection of stories was probably the weakest (only by Vonnegut standards, though) of the ones I’ve read, but it still contained several gems, some that I will likely re-read someday.

“Look at the Birdie”

“I use the cat-over-the-wall technique, a technique I recommend to you.” – Felix Koradubian, the “murder counselor” in the story “Look at the Birdie”

The title story in this collection was quite humorous. It begins with the narrator sitting in a bar telling “rather loudly” about a man he hates. He unwittingly draws the attention of a self-proclaimed “murder counselor.” Is this man insane, or just a drunken fellow bar patron? A former psychiatrist (albeit one practicing without a license), this murder counselor’s “cat-over-the-wall” technique is quite effective, both for murder AND blackmail, as our narrator finds out.

Another favorite was the somewhat long-ish “Ed Luby’s Key Club.” In it, two honest and hard-working, salt of the earth citizens, Harve and Claire Elliott, run afoul of the well-“connected” Ed Luby. Luby is a former bodyguard of Al Capone who now, for all practical purposes, runs the old mill town of “Ilium” (a locale used frequently in this author’s works). In danger of being framed for murder, Harve and Claire had “only one thing to cling to – a childlike faith that innocent persons never had anything to fear.” Will innocence triumph against the odds in its battle with a corrupt infrastructure? Will Harve be able to get “his side of the story” fairly heard? This story provides a roller-coaster ride on the way to learning those answers.

As a card carrying member of The Rat Race myself, I found the second story, “Fubar,” particularly good. (In the parlance of the story, that’s an acronym for, of course, “fouled up beyond all recognition” (these stories were written with hopes of being published in the popular magazines of the day). The protagonist of this story, Fuzz Littler (yes, that’s really his name) “became Fubar in the classic way, which is to say that he was the victim of a temporary arrangement that became permanent.” A member of a gigantic corporation’s Public Relations Department, (as Vonnegut was himself, during a stint with General Electric in Schenectady, New York) Mr. Littler was the odd man out when his department ran out of room in “Building 22.” Temporarily reassigned to building 181, and later to an office in the basement of building 523 (also known as the company gym!). He labors in obscurity and boredom until one day he achieves the rank of supervisor and learns he will be assigned a “girl” of his own. The young and beautiful Francine Pefko (another name that appears elsewhere in Vonnegut’s fiction) brings some light and happiness into his dreary existence. Whether for just a day or longer is left somewhat up in the air at the story’s end.

The best story, in my humble opinion, was the one called “King and Queen of the Universe.” In it, a young couple, Henry and Anne – seventeen years old – are leaving a dance (at “The Athletic Club”) in formal clothes and cross a city park to the garage where they have parked. Somewhat fearful of running into trouble, they instead run into a man who, though he’s first described as “what seemed to be a gargoyle on the rim of a fountain,” means them no harm, but only wishes them to aid him in perpetrating a little white lie to his invalid mother, in hopes that she will die thinking her son has become a success. The best intentions of both still lead to tragedy, though, and the two youngsters learn something of “real life” and not the sheltered fairy tale existence they have only known thus far. A happy ending is in store though, as after their trouble in the park, “Henry told Anne he loved her. Anne told him she loved him, too. They had told each other that before, but this was the first time it had meant a little something. They had finally seen a little something of life.”

There are fourteen stories and all – the above four were my favorites, though.  Have you read this collection?  Which were your favorites?  What is your favorite all-time story by Vonnegut?

(below: The Indianapolis Athletic Club – likely the basis for the club described in “King and Queen of the Universe.”  There IS a park across the street from it, but I doubt today’s ‘inhabitants’ would be as friendly with a young couple late at night as those in Vonnegut’s story were)

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Banned Books Week – a Fahrenheit 451 “Creature Feature” Quiz!

At the monthly meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club last week, Bill Briscoe, the KVML’s official historian and the book club’s unofficial poet laureate, shared with us a quiz…

Bill writes: “After reading Fahrenheit 451, I have concluded that Ray Bradbury loved to use “creatures” to “illustrate” his text. This quiz is simply a fill-in-the-blank exercise. The right column contains quotations from his novel. Just pick one of the “creatures” from the left column that are “featured” in the book. The quotations are in the order that they appear in the book in case you wish to search for any of the answers. Even though many of the “creatures” show up multiple times, each “creature” is used only once in the quotes.”

This was such a unique – and fun! – diversion I thought I’d share it here. Are you a Fahrenheit 451 scholar? How many can you get right? I’ve read it three times, but was lucky to get over fifty percent – and wouldn’t even have done that well except for some that can be inferred through context. Just click on the picture to expand and go to work. Good luck! (I’ll list the answers below the fold)

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Answers:

Read the rest of this entry »

Banned Books Week at the Vonnegut Library – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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In honor of “Banned Books Week” (starts Sunday!) the book club at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis read Ray Bradbury’s often-banned novel, “Fahrenheit 451.” At our meeting yesterday, we were also lucky to have a special guest, Jonathan Eller, who is the Director and General Editor of the “Center for Ray Bradbury Studies” in … Indianapolis! Located on the IUPUI campus, it’s part of the “Institute for American Thought” which in turn is part of the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts. This “discovery” makes me wonder what other local hidden literary treasures might await me if I looked around a bit more.

Anyway, on to the book. This marked my third reading of this classic. The first time, in January 2001, was simply for my own pleasure. The second was just in 2010, when I re-read it for a discussion at Bookmama’s bookstore. A brief post about my 2010 reading of the book may be found here. I had no regrets about having to read it yet again for the KVMLBC. It’s a short book too, checking in at under 50,000 words. It can be read in a just a few hours, even by a slow reader like me. I won’t re-hash the plot of the story (I’m assuming “everyone” has already read it and, if not, please buy a copy and get started now.) 🙂

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I was looking for ‘something different’ while reading this time around, and I was struck by how “fire” itself could almost be considered a character in this novel. (I felt something similar last year when reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – also for the KVML book club for banned books week – and found the Mississippi River also arguably taking on the role of a character). Initially, in Fahrenheit 451, fire is destructive only. In Fire Chief Captan Beatty’s lecture to the novel’s protagonist, Guy Montag, he describes it thus:

“What is there about fire that’s so lovely? No matter what age we are, what draws us to it? It’s perpetual motion; the thing man wanted to invent but never did. Or almost perpetual motion. If you let it go on, it’d burn our lifetimes out. What is fire? It’s a mystery. Scientists give us gobbledygook about friction and molecules. But they don’t really know. It’s real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences.”

Later when Montag, after his escape from the city, stumbles upon some men around a campfire, the “personality” of fire had changed:

“It was not burning, it was warming. He saw many hands held to its warmth, hands without arms, hidden in the darkness. Above the hands, motionless faces that were only moved and tossed and flickered with firelight. He hadn’t known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take. Even its smell was different.”

It’s little wonder that fire holds a place as one of the four original, primordial “elements” is it?

(below: Nazis burning books; these events happened not too long before Bradbury began work on the earlier versions of Fahrenheit 451. “I hate those guys.” )

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(And so did Indiana Jones, even if he did get Hitler to sign his dad’s “Grail Diary”)

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Due to our special guest’s presence, I also learned a lot about the book – and Bradbury – that I didn’t know. Here are a few tidbits:

The inspiration for Fahrenheit 451 was the 1940 novel, “Darkness at Noon,” by Arthur Koestler.

The original publication of Fahrenheit 451 included some books with asbestos board for covers (!) According to Eller, who has seen one, they have not aged well and should be opened only if wearing a breathing mask of some sort. This edition is pictured at the top of this post.

Eller also told us that Bradbury had a soft spot in his heart for the pedestrian, and that he felt they were a kind of “indicator species” for society (much in the same way ecologists view amphibians in the world of biology). Coincidentally, when Bradbury passed away earlier this year, I searched online for a story – any story – of his to read as a small tribute, and the one I found was “The Pedestrian,” a great short story about a future where being a solitary pedestrian late at night was apparently an arrest-able offense. Eller shared with us that Bradbury wrote this story after an encounter with law enforcement he had himself while out walking. This story may be read online here. It should be mentioned here also that an innocent pedestrian is also victimized in Fahrenheit 451 when the government, having allowed Montag to escape their televised chase, chose a pedestrian as a stand in to hoodwink the viewers into thinking they “got their man.”

We also learned about some of the earlier phases Bradbury’s story went through before it became the final version we know today. The highlight of our meeting (at least to me) was seeing some of the literary artifacts that Eller brought with him. One of these was an original copy of “Galaxy” magazine, wherein the Bradbury short story, “The Fireman” was published. This story was Fahrenheit 451 in, perhaps, it’s “larval” stage…

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Several of those in attendance were curious as to the reasons that Fahrenheit 451 had been banned.  It was mostly “foul language,” (“hell,” “damn,” – you know the type) and the sterilized amendments (many of which were published) seem but minor changes in today’s world.  One member of the club had a book (recently published, too) from a local school that STILL had the amended, sanitized text. Mr. Eller was surprised to learn this, and planned a call to, I think, Simon & Schuster… Eller has also written a book about Bradbury and  A Barnes and Noble review of “Becoming Ray Bradbury” may be found here

Overall, another wonderful day at the KVML…

A couple final things: I read somewhere before that Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper will burst into flame. Later I learned it’s actually 451 degrees Celsius at which paper combusts, but that Bradbury felt Fahrenheit sounded better as a title. I can’t remember where I read this, though. Can anyone confirm or deny? It’s interesting to note also that Bradbury was a steadfast supporter of “real” books over e-books, energetically opposing his own titles being released in electronic form. But – one can’t burn an e-book…

LEFTOVERS – from the July meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club meeting about “Palm Sunday”

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As the size of a book club grows, the amount of time each member has to be heard shrinks (assuming the length of the meetings remains the same). This is beginning to happen to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club. I went to our July meeting armed with several things I would like the group to talk about, but didn’t get a chance to voice most of them. This is fine. I have a book blog where I can talk about anything I want. 🙂 So as a result, I have some leftovers from the book I’d like to share.

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Published in 1981, Palm Sunday is an outstanding collection of mostly essays, speeches, and excerpts from letters with a sprinkling of previously unpublished fiction. It’s not a book I would recommend to those not already familiar with Vonnegut’s oeuvre, but is full of his trademark witticism and truth-speaking, no matter if the latter may be painful to the reader.

One of our members, Karen, asked a great question near the end of the meeting, and we didn’t really have time for everyone to weigh in on it. It is perhaps more appropriate for our group, where most of us have read a lot of Vonnegut already. Her question was, “What new thing did you learn about Vonnegut from reading this book.” My reflex answer would be something cheesy like, “too much to pick just one,” but I’ll share a couple.

I did get some detail on KV’s brief encounter with another favorite writer of mine, Jack Kerouac. I had known from other sources that Kerouac had visited Vonnegut’s home in Cape Cod, and that Kerouac had behaved in a boorish manner. Here in this book we learn the pity felt for Kerouac by Vonnegut. “There were clearly thunderstorms in the head of this once charming and just and intelligent man.” He goes on to relate how Kerouac almost picks a fight with Kurt’s son, Mark, when the latter shows up dressed in what might be described as typical beat generation gear. It seems Kerouac was disturbed by this. “You think you understand me,” he said to Mark. “You don’t understand me at all. You want to fight about it?” Interesting and sad at the same time time. (below: Mark Vonnegut, M.D. See the resemblance?)

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(author Jack Kerouac)

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Another hitherto unknown trove of information dealt with his family history, presented as it had been compiled by a family friend named John G. Rauch. It’s always interesting to learn more about the background of a favorite artist, and the urge to come up with some “Ah, well THAT explains it!” moments is almost irresistible. In reality, though, too many factors are in play to truly figure out why someone “turned out the way he did.” Vonnegut adds a page or so with the postscript of Rauch’s history. Quoting Goethe, he advises that “Whatever it is that you have inherited from your father, you are going to have to earn it if it’s to really belong to you.” Words of wisdom.

Vonnegut also gave us a little more of a glimpse into his time at General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He expresses that he has a mysterious (he actually uses the word “irrational”) persisting concern about whatever became of his coworkers there, noting that they became a somewhat tight-knit group and that they shared the common ground of all “just getting our footing as adult citizens.” He also speculates that “I may have been born with some sort of clock in me which required me to love those working alongside of me so much at that time.” He sadly adds that the company’s view of what sort of relationship they should have with their coworkers was different. “It was the Darwinian wish of General Electric, of the Free Enterprise System, of course, that we compete instead.” Sad. He lasted there three years, from 1948 to 1951. Coincidentally, I just finished my third year at the most “corporate” job I’ve ever had. Almost gives me the idea it’s time to go. Hmmm….

There were some parts of the book that I didn’t enjoy, though, particularly a labored “musical comedy” based upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,” for which I couldn’t wait to end. The strongest parts of the book to me were the author’s interview of himself (chapter five) as published in the Paris Review in 1977. You can tell Vonnegut is happy to seize the opportunity to answer all those questions he wished he had been asked. Great stuff.

Another favorite section of mine was from his chapter (13) concerning his children. He says, “What is my favorite among all the works of art my children have so far produced,” and chooses a letter written by his youngest daughter, Nanette, who was working as a waitress in the summer of 1978 when an irascible customer made complaints about a fellow waitress’s service. This other waitress was fired as a result, and management posted the customer’s letter of complaint on the company’s bulletin board. Nanette wrote him back (heh heh) and really let him have it, but in the nicest, most civil language you can imagine. The complete text of the letter is included in the chapter. It’s too long for me to re-type but its conclusion is representative:

“I feel it is my duty as a human being to ask you to think twice about what is of importance in life. I hope that in all fairness you will think about what I have said, and that in the future you will be more thoughtful and humane in your actions.”

Now, what was that I was saying earlier about heredity…?

(Below: The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis)

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August Reading – The Month Ahead

It’s August already, and time to think about what reading I might be able to accomplish in the new month. Strangely, for the first time in a long time, I don’t really have much of an idea which direction I’m going in an upcoming month. The one exception is Kurt Vonnegut’s “Armageddon in Retrospect,” a posthumously published collection of essays on war and peace that is being read by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club for August. Worth noting is that this book, I think, is the ONLY Vonnegut book I haven’t read yet, so this will be the last ’first read’ I’ll be able to do of one of his books. I’m both proud of and sad about this.

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What else, hmm… Well, I’ll have four or five short stories as part of my annual project, but I won’t know what they are until I draw a card from those remaining in the deck each Saturday morning. By the way, I was thinking about making my annual short story “Deal Me In” project a public Reading Challenge next year. Do you think many (any) people would be interested? I’ve never hosted a challenge at Bibliophilopolis, so I’m apprehensive.

What other books might I read? I have started Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, which would count toward my “author biography” project that I’ve been neglecting. I’m also very interested in the new bio of the Bronte sisters that I think has just come out, or is about to. It weighs in at a staggering 1,000+ pages, though.

Maybe I’ll finally get around to Panther in the Sky by James Alexander Thom too, as I’ve been promising for some time.

Another possibility is Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” which got my attention a while ago, and of which Dale at Mirror with Clouds has reminded me of recently.

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Geez, I have 20 books on my “to read” shelf on Goodreads.com. Seems like I ought to be able to come up with something, right? Or… perhaps you could help guide me. What do YOU suggest I read in August?

“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

March Reading – The Month Ahead

Here it is, already March 4th, and I need to come up with a game plan for what reading I might get done this month. We’ll start with my required reading…

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While Mortals Sleep – Kurt Vonnegut

This is the selection of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club for March. I look forward to reading it. Well, I’ve actually already started, having read the first of the sixteen previously unpublished short stories in this book, just released in January of 2011. My only fear is that they were unpublished for a reason, but that fear is tempered by my rationalization that Vonnegut’s “rejects” are likely better than almost everyone else’s polished final product. We’ll see.

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Unstuck in Time – Greg Sumner

This one is kind of “required” as it is part of my main 2012 reading project of “one author biography per month.” THus far, I’ve finished Hawthorne and, almost, Kerouac, and since I just went to a talk and book signing by this author on Friday, it’s a natural pick for the next one.

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The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements – Sam Kean

Wow, what a long title! This one’s for fun, and I’m already about one-third of the way through it. Very readable for non-fiction and particularly for science-related non fiction. I’m learning a lot. I won’t spoil the “Disappearing Spoon” reference in the title in case you want to read the book yourself, just trust me that it’s a funny story…

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Lost Moon – Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger

On loan from a co-worker (for a few months now), I need to get around to reading this one so I can return it (Ben Franklin would be ashamed of me!). Everyone knows the story of Apollo 13 (especially if you’ve seen the great film dramatization with Tom Hanks), but I’d like to read Lovell’s own thoughts on it as well.

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Henry V – William Shakespeare

Trying to read one Shakespeare play a month this year (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and MacBeth? Already done). In 2008 I attempted a reading project which involved reading ALL of his plays (yes, overly ambitious of me) and made it about 2/3 of the way through. Unlike the prior two, this is one I didn’t get to during that project. I will break out my trusty Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare to help me find the way…

Short Stories (and something by James Alexander Thom)

My one story per week project rolls on (see my reading selections). I also would like to read something else by author James Alexander Thom, (pictured below & a favorite author of my Mom’s) who I had the pleasure of meeting in person last week. Perhaps his From Sea to Shining Sea would be the logical choice since I just read his other Lewis and Clark Expedition book (Sign Talker) last month.

Well I guess that’s about it (& isn’t that enough?!) – but what about you? What are your reading plans for March?

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