Book Blogger Suffering Mental Illness From Reading Catch-22?

Dateline: Bibliophilopolis, January 23, 2012
A local book blogger was found incoherent & disoriented in his home Sunday evening. Apparently, some fellow bloggers had become concerned when his blog had fallen silent for an even greater period of time than usual. Investigation revealed that he had been reading Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, in an “assignment” from the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club. Attempts to contact other members of the club for reaction are ongoing.

Apparently, the stricken blogger has been showing up every thursday at the club so far this month, thinking the meeting was scheduled. When told last week by library volunteers that the club meets the LAST Thursday of the month, he reportedly replied, “This IS the last Thursday!” He was then notified that the meeting is on January 26th which prompted the protest, “But that’s the NEXT Thursday of the month!” before storming off muttering to himself.

The blogger’s chief complaint seems to be that he imagines the book is getting longer and longer the more he reads. Just as the number of missions The unfortunate Yossarian is required to complete is continually raised in the book, the blogger claims whenever he thinks he’s nearing the end of the book, he sees there are more pages than the last time he looked. Clearly hallucinating, as even he acknowledged, he remained hopeful that in a sustained, marathon reading session he still might be able to finish by Thursday.

Asked just when he might be able to get a marathon reading session in, he would only say, “When I have more free time!” The same reporter inquired when that might be and was told, “Well, not until I finish this damn book, that’s for sure!”

Library officials have been attempting to contact other members of the book club in fear of the possibility that this phenomenon may be widespread. Ominously, only a few have responded, and in somewhat cryptic emails, perhaps confirming their worst fears. Whatever happens, this Thursday’s meeting should prove interesting – if anyone shows up…

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“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” – December meeting of the Vonnegut Library Book Club

The KVMLBC met for the last time in 2011 yesterday. Our book for this month was Vonnegut’s final published work, A Man Without a Country, a collection of essays published in 2005.

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When I was put on the spot during our meeting and asked, “Well, Jay, what did you think?” I replied, perhaps unfairly, with something like, “Well, it was another nearly lethal dose of pessimism.” But it IS full of pessimism. Vonnegut himself admits that late in life, one is less and less able to fend off the despair of life with humor, citing Mark Twain as an example and at one point saying that “Twain and Einstein gave up on the human race at the end of their lives.” I hope I don’t end up like this.

In spite of all the pessimism, however, the book is also thankfully sprinkled with little anecdotal pockets of uplifting moments. I enjoyed for example, reading about Vonnegut’s trips to the post office and how much he enjoyed meeting and talking to others waiting in line. And how he was “in love” with the cashier:

“I am secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. She doesn’t know it. My wife knows it. I am not about to do anything about it. She is so nice. All I have ever seen of her is from the waist up because she is always behind the counter. but every day she will do something with herself above the waist to cheer us all up. Sometimes her hair will be all frizzy. Sometimes she will have it ironed flat. One day she wore black lipstick. This is all so exciting and generous of her, just to cheer us up, people from all over the world.”

I wonder if this woman ever read this book or knows she has been made famous in a small way. This also reminded me a little of the scene in his book, Jailbird, where a man walks into a coffee shop and finds kind of an oasis of gentle, comforting humanity. I’ve written about this before .

Another section I really liked was when Vonnegut compared his two uncles. One uncle (Dan) seemed to be just the kind of blowhard that he despises. He relates a scene that took place after the author had returned from World War II, and Uncle Dan kind of slaps him in the back and proclaims, “Well, you’re a man now!” (“So I killed him.” Vonnegut jokes)

By contrast, there is his “good uncle” Alex, whose principal complaint about his fellow human beings was that they “so seldom noticed it when they were happy.” He goes on to relate how Uncle Alex would occasionally, such as when the family was all sitting around sipping lemonade on a beautiful day, interrupt the others and say, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!” Vonnegut continues by telling us that he has taken up the banner of his uncle and makes sure he says this occasionally too, as do his children and grandchildren. He urges us to do the same.

I suppose if I were a witty fellow I would have said those words sometime during our club’s meeting last thursday. If those monthly meetings aren’t nice, I don’t know what is. They are almost invariably a struggle for me to get to, as they are held in the middle of the day on a weekday I have to tear myself away from work – and whatever the “crisis du jour” is that always seems to be going on – for a few hours (commute downtown time, meeting time, grab a bite to eat time – it adds up), but they always end up being kind of an oasis of thoughtful reflection, discussion, and culture in the midst of my daily version of the rat race. The meetings always seem to end far too soon, and I hate having to return to work afterward.

I should mention, too, that at this meeting there was displayed a show-and-tell item as a kind of centerpiece to our circled tables. It seems Bill, the library’s historian had seen for sale on eBay a trophy from a 1938 skeet-shooting championship in Indianapolis sponsored by none other than Vonnegut Hardware. He watched the lonely item gathering a bid-less dust on the eBay site and as its time was expiring, contacted the seller and asked if – in the case of no bids being received – they would be interested in donating it to the library. They were, and Bill picked it up on the way to the meeting. Somewhat humorously, I got the impression that he wasn’t fully appreciative of the scale of the item, which turned out to be “the size of a small man” (okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much). So, it presided over our discussion with a towering presence…

(Below: the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in downtown Bibliophilopolis Indianapolis)

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Also, this month I’m going to append below the fold the “official” unofficial summary of our meeting, which one of our members (Dave) has been diligently creating for us in recent months.  It provides more detail of what was discussed than my personal impressions above and might give the reader a deeper impression of what our club is like.

MEETING OF THE KURT VONNEGUT BOOK CLUB,  DECEMBER 15, 2011

The Indianapolis regiment of the KV Book Club met on 12/15/11.  The alleged agenda was the discussion of KV’s collection of essays “A Man Without A Country”  published in 2005.  Many of the articles appeared previously in the left-wing rag “In Our Times”. Read the rest of this entry »

A Busy Book Week in Bibliophilopolis

Or at least it could be. Lots of stuff going on in town. We’ll see how much I actually get to do.

(1) Tomorrow, author Majie Alford Failey is discussing her book, We Never Danced Cheek to Cheek: The Young Kurt Vonnegut in Indianapolis and Beyond, at Bookmama’s Bookstore in Irvington. I stopped by Bookmama’s last week as their “Shared Pages” book club was discussing The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, one of my favorite short stories. At that time, I learned of this week’s event and bought a copy of the book. It’s only 150 pages or so, and I’ve already started it.

(2) Wednesday, the “Great Books” reading group is meeting at the Nora Library to discuss Sinclair Lewis’s classic book, Main Street. I’ve always wanted to read this and have downloaded to my Nook reader and gotten started, but I doubt I’ll be able to finish by then. I need to get to one of their meetings soon, though, as I asked to be included in their emails long ago but have yet to show up for anything. 🙂

(3) Thursday (Part I) The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club, in honor of Banned Books Week, is reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I completed my reading of this classic just yesterday and plan to attend this meeting for sure, barring unforeseen crises at the office (this is the club that meets in the middle of the day on a weekday; many of its members are retired).

(4) Thursday (Part II) My book club, The Indy Reading Coalition, meets to discuss Rex Stout’s Some Buried Caesar. I just read this short book last year, and don’t know if I’ll re-read just review to re-familiarize myself with whodunit. I can’t miss e meeting, though; my attendance record of about 58 out of 60 meetings is something I take pride in. 🙂

Do you ever have weeks this filled with book-related ‘events?’ I think is is a first for me…

Busy busy busy…

Two things must happen today. I must escape the office – in the midst of a short-staffed quarter-end – long enough to run downtown (and then back) for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club meeting, and I must, MUST finish Dostoevsky’s The Idiot!

I’m in the home stretch of the latter, with perhaps 90-minutes of reading to go. My feelings about this book have been very ambivalent (“very ambivalent?” can one say that?), and I look forward to trying to write a post about it. It’s one of the more quotable books I’ve read this year, and I find myself highlighting a ton of observations and witticisms. But it’s also just crazy. It’s “all over the place,” and I don’t really know from one chapter to the next what the plot or theme is supposed to be. After reading the autobiography of Anthony Trollope earlier this year and about his attention to plot detail, I suspect he would run from The Idiot in terror…

For the KVMLBC, we read “Wampeters, Foma, and Granfallons,” which is essentially a collection of Vonnegut’s non-fiction writings or transcripts of speaking addresses he gave at various places. This was a much easier read for me, although I must say I begin to grow fatigued with Vonnegut’s pervasive pessimism about our species. He’s so brilliant and “convincing” though that it’s difficult to escape “unscathed” (or “un-depressed?”) after reading him.

These two books briefly intersected in Vonnegut’s essay “Excelsior! We’re Going to the Moon! Excelsior!” (one of my favorite ‘chapters’ and originally published in the New York Times). He talks about the important symbolism of the first human footprint on the moon and quotes the Russian: “One sacred memory from childhood is perhaps the best education,” said Feodor Dostoevski. Vonnegut also says, “I hope that many Earthling children will respond to the first human footprint on the moon as a sacred thing. We need sacred things. The footprint could mean, if we let it, that Earthlings have done an unbelievably difficult and beautiful thing which the Creator, for Its own reasons, wanted Earthlings to do.” Very nice.

I’ll let you know later how things went today. My time at the coffee shop is running down and I must report to the salt mines, er, office, shortly…:-)

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June reading – what’s “on tap” for me this month

Seems like my month is kind of already mapped out for me, reading-wise. Let’s start with the “required reading”…

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The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

This is my personal book club’s selection for June. I actually read about the first 2/3rds of it yesterday. This means it has about 1/3 to go to redeem itself from its current “disappointing” status. I mean, all I keep thinking thus far in this book is, “My God, don’t these people have jobs?!” 🙂 it seems the narrator, Jake, spent about two and a half hours working at his typewriter in one chapter, but that’s it so far. If this book is indeed supposed to capture the “Lost Generation” of post-WW1, I can see why it’s called that. It seems the characters spend most of their time sitting in cafes, restaurants and nightclubs either hurting each others’ feelings or telling each other to go to Hell, or advising each other not to “be a fool” and getting “tight” (drunk).

Wampeters, Foma and Grandfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut

This is the June selection for the KVMLBC. It’s a collection of essays by Vonnegut (with the exception of one short work of fiction). I read the first six or seven of them on Saturday. Many are very good, but a couple didn’t capture my interest at all. It’s still Vonnegut, though, and his unique wit is always present. Thumbs up so far on this one.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

This is the first book of The Barsetshire series by this prolific author of the 19th century. I read The Small House at Allington earlier this year and also the author’s autobiography. Both kindled an interest in me to read more by Trollope. I also have book two of the Barchester series, Barchester Towers, waiting in the wings as The Warden is a mere 284 pages.maybe I’ll get to both of them(?)

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

I was reading about this in the NY Times book section yesterday. Many may know that this series of books is being adapted by HBO and is soon to be aired. This first book is quite lengthy (about 800 pages in my ebook version), but sounded good so I downloaded and explored the first couple chapters last night. I think it will go fast, and my recent reading of the first two books of Peter Brett’s “Demon Cycle” has whetted my appetite a bit for works of this genre.

Hmm… what else is there? Well, there’ll be a few short stories of course, and I have a few unfinished books from prior months that I still need to knock out. It’s “summer” here though, and I tend to read less “when it’s nice outside” so it may be a challenge to get my standard dose of four or five books in this month. We’ll see..

What are YOU reading in June?

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“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.

KVML Book Club Meeting

Another great meeting today of the burgeoning KVML (Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library) Book Club.  We set a new attendance record of 13 today, including 10 veterans and 3 first time attendees.  I’ll write more later (so much of what I hoped to talk about we didn’t have time for) after I get off work (these middle-of-the-day weekday meetings are killin’ me, man!).  Our book this month was Cat’s Cradle.  Next month’s meeting (April 28th) will cover Slaughterhouse Five, undoubtedly Vonnegut’s most famous novel.   Stay tuned…

February Reading – The Month Ahead

January was a good reading & blogging month. I discovered a new book that will likely remain among my all time favorites (A Prayer for Owen Meany), I wrote a personal record number of blog posts, I met some new and interesting fellow readers, the number of visitors to Bibliophilopolis increased by roughly fifty percent for the third month in a row, I discovered the Classics Circuit and have thoroughly enjoyed following it. A great month! Now… how can I “top it” in February? I probably can’t…

First of all, what will I be reading/finishing this month? Well, I have two reading obligations, one for my book club – Alex Flinn’s “Beastly”, which I’ve already read, but may read again since it’s short and I’d like to have it fresher in my mind for our meeting at the end of the month. For the KVML book club, we’re reading The Sirens of Titan. I can’t wait for that, as I’ve had it in my hands for awhile now, but the club kept picking other Vonnegut books to read. Then, I have to wrap up my Xenophon reading and write MY classics circuit post for this Friday. I have a couple hours of reading to go on that one. What else? Oh, yeah, the Bobby Fischer book I mentioned the other day in a post will be gobbled up quickly, I’m sure – as a “former(?) nerd chess player” I could probably read that thing in one sitting almost. Then there’s my short story project. I’m already a post behind (Raymond Carver’s, “Are These Actual Miles?”) and am currently reading Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”

That seems like a lot, BUT with the NFL season being over, suddenly I will have these huge, three to six hour chunks of time that I’ll no longer be “wasting” with my eyes glued to a television, so opportunities abound…

Soooo… what are you reading this month? Anything “good?” 🙂

-Jay

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

sab-o-tage
Function: noun

1: destruction of an employer’s property (as tools or materials) or the hindering of manufacturing by discontented workers
2: destructive or obstructive action carried on by a civilian or enemy agent to hinder a nations war effort
3: a: an act or process tending to hamper or hurt b: deliberate subversion

Player Piano was Kurt Vonnegut’s first published novel (1952). It describes a future America where a second Industrial Revolution has run amuck and a third one is nascent.  A schism is growing between people with “know how” (particularly engineers, but generally those with higher IQs) and those without (who are assigned menial jobs or to the army, or to the reeks and wrecks – kind of civilian manual labor force). To me, this sounded a lot like Huxley’s “Alphas” and “Deltas” from A Brave New World. (in fact, I read that Vonnegut ‘cheerfully admitted’ ripping off plot elements from that classic. BUT, there is no Soma drug in Player Piano to keep everyone pacified, and you don’t hear citizens walking around proclaiming “I’m glad to be in the Reeks and Wrecks!” as Huxley’s Deltas did.

The “upper class” of engineers and “smart people” enjoys greater privileges than their less gifted brethren, and the novel’s protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus, and his upwardly mobile wife, Anita, are no exception. Proteus, however, is ironically smart enough to sense something is not right with the way things are, and has second thoughts about being a willing part of this social structure. He learns of a growing “resistance” movement in opposition to the
current state of affairs, and eventually becomes swept up in it.

Part of the consequences of this is that he is condemned as a saboteur – the worst thing one can be in this dystopian society.  This term is particularly apropos considering the popularly accepted origin of the word. Legend has it that, in the early years of the actual Industrial Revolution, disgruntled French peasants, who were gradually losing their livelihood due to the emergence of weaving machines, would destroy them by throwing their wooden shoes (“sabots”) into the works of the machines. (below: Sabots – I can’t imagine they’re very comfortable)

This was a consequence of the first Industrial Revolution, described by Proteus in the book as “devaluing muscle work.” The second Industrial Revolution is one that “devalues routine mental work.” Proteus’s secretary wonders aloud “do you suppose there’ll be a third Industrial Revolution?” To which he replies,  “A third one?  What would that be like?”  She says,“I don’t know exactly. The first and second ones must have been sort of inconceivable at one time.”    He says, “To the people who were going to be replaced by machines, maybe. A third one, eh? In a way, I guess the third one’s been going on for some time, if you mean thinking machines.  That would be the third revolution, I guess – machines that devaluate human thinking.”

While reading this book, I often caught myself pausing and kind of staring off into space as I pondered some of the ideas and themes within.  It’s a good book that can do that to the reader, I think.  The subject matter was somewhat depressing to me, as a card-carrying rat-race participant, but it’s better to think about these things instead of simply burying one’s head in the sand and “trying NOT to think about them.”

This book was also re-published with a different name (Utopia 14 – see pic below) to play to the Sci-Fi crowd and increase sales. I’m not sure which Vonnegut book I’ll read next, but I plan to continue to work my way through them this year…

What about you?  Have you read Player Piano or other books by Kurt Vonnegut?  What were your impressions and which were your favorites?

December Reading- The Month Ahead

I have a lot of reading “obligations” this month. So many I’m not sure if I’ll get done with them all. I am currently working on a book called The Warded Man by Peter Brett. Yet another in a recent bent of “post-apocalyptic/dystopian” novels for me. I’m a little over halfway through this one and am enjoying it immensely. I heard of this book through a fellow blogger.

I also have a Project: Civil War book I’m just getting started with, The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox. This is my eleventh Civil War book of the year, and I don’t see how I’ll get through it AND another one to make it to my goal of twelve for the year. Another incomplete project .

As far as book club books go, my main club, The Indy Reading Coalition, is reading Greg Iles’s The Quiet Game. This is “due” by 12/23 and rather long too. I really need to knuckle down and get reading if I hope to finish it. Then, on top of all that, the KVMLBC (Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club) is meeting on 12/16 to discuss Player Piano. I had to miss last month’s meeting due to some training classes for work, and I may have to miss this one to as next week we are implementing the system that the training classes were for. A curse on system conversions and upgrades! :-). I plan to read the book nonetheless, as I did with Mother Night (the KVMLBC’s November selection).

Oh, and I also just bought an interesting, very short book titled The Bed of Procrustes by Nassem Nicholas Taleb. A great book of thought-provoking aphorisms. Only 68 pages, but very deep.

What about you? What are you reading this month? Do you find you get more reading in during the holiday season or less?

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