Next Door by Kurt Vonnegut – Selection 23 of Deal Me “IN” 2016

 

img_7504The Card: ♣J♣  Jack of Clubs

The Suit: For 2016, Clubs is my suit for “Legendary Indiana authors”

The Selection: “Next Door” from the short story collection “Welcome to the Monkey House”; it was originally published in the April, 1995 issue of Cosmopolitan. It was also made into a short film in 1975 – I was unaware of this prior to my “research” for this post.

The Author: Kurt Vonnegut. Hopefully he needs no introduction, but he is perhaps most famous for his novels Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle. Indianapolis was his home town, and today the city is home to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, which has a book club. Yes, of course, I am a member. 🙂 Vonnegut was also a frequent contributor of short stories in the great era when “The Slicks” – several prominent national magazines – were still regularly publishing short fiction.

img_6202What is Deal Me “IN” 2016? I’m glad you asked! Before the start of each year, I come up with a list of 52 stories to read and assign each of them to a playing card in a standard deck. Each week, I draw a card and that is the story I read. By the end of the year (52 weeks), I’m done, and ready to start a fresh deck. (For a more detailed explanation of the Deal Me In challenge, see the sign up post. For a look at my deck of cards/storylegacy project seal of approval 2roster click here.) Since 2016 is my home state’s bicentennial, in this year’s edition of my annual Deal Me In challenge, I’m reading only stories that have an Indiana “connection” of some kind. Deal Me “IN” is now also officially endorsed as a “Legacy Project” by The Indiana Bicentennial Commission.

Next Door

Young Paul Leonard, though only eight years old, is no longer “a baby” and is, the evening of this story, being evaluated by his parents to determine whether or not he’s old enough to be left “home alone” while they enjoy a brief night out to see a movie. Paul probably is old enough, if the night of being home alone would have stayed true to his original plan of “just looking through my microscope I guess.” Instead, his time gazing through a lens at “hair, sugar, pepper – stuff like that” is interrupted by an escalating domestic donnybrook between his neighbors next door, Mr. & Mrs. Harger.

The Hargers’ default strategy when domestically quarrelling is to just turn up the radio (coincidentally the same strategy I used to use when my car started making strange noises) to drown themselves out in consideration of the Leonards or anyone else who might be overhearing. This time the radio’s volume is insufficient to prevent Paul from hearing them shouting “awful, unbelievable” things. The radio, though, tuned to “All Night Sam’s” call-in request show, gives Paul an idea…

This also allows Vonnegut to introduce us to All Night Sam, one of those great characters you sometimes meet in a short story and wonder how, in such a brief time, you get such a complete and perfect image of them. Sam takes his job of dedicating songs from one lover to another quite seriously, and even waxes philosophic when Paul calls in and requests a dedication from “Mr. Lemuel Harger to Mrs. Harger: I love you. Let’s make up and start over again.” Sam is moved by the request and assumes Paul is the Hargers’ son. He goes into a whole spiel about love and marriage and how folks might better be able to stick together, etc. It almost had me getting a little misty-eyed for a minute too, but at the end we’re brought back to reality with “And here’s Eartha Kitt, and ‘Somebody Bad Stole the Wedding Bell!'”* (He is a disc jockey after all).

It wouldn’t be a great Vonnegut story, though, if Kurt didn’t spring a mousetrap on us by the end. All is not as young Paul assumes, you see, and he – and his parents – are in for quite a surprise before the night is over.

It was a real pleasure to revisit this story, which I first read back in 2011. In fact, the collection “Welcome to the Monkey House” ended up being one of my favorites of the books I read that year. I have one other Vonnegut story waiting to be drawn in this year’s Deal Me IN: the classic “Harrison Bergeron.” I hope I enjoy that re-read as much as I did this one. 🙂

*I had to look this one up, but want to hear Eartha Kitt “Somebody Bad Stole the Wedding Bell?”  https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=YmpRvGZ80r4

The Embellished Movie Quote Challenge (name the film): Sally Kellerman “Whoever did write this blog post doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut!”

In Indianapolis, we even have a Kurt Vonnegut mural!  Located, appropriately on Mass Ave downtown in the heart of the city’s Arts District.


Actually, just a couple weeks ago I was walking north (away from the mural) on Mass Ave, and passed a couple of young women who were walking south. One was saying to the other, “Is that Albert Einstein?” Her friend replied, “No. It’s Kurt Vonnegut. He’s an author.” The first one said,”Oh. He looks like Albert Einstein, though, right?” 🙂
Playing card image from http://ovdiyenko.com

Vonnegut mural pic from http://www.herron.iupui.edu/blog/10112011/pamela-bliss-paints-larger-life-vonnegut-teach-spring-2012-class

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Other Stuff Bibliophilopolis has Been Up To…

Seems I’ve been so busy lately all I have time to blog about it is my weekly Deal Me In challenge. Rest assured, I’m still reading almost as much as ever and trying to support the local “literary community” by attending events, etc.  Below are a few brief notes on some of my other activities.

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I’ve formed a reading group at my office! You’ll not be surprised that the focus of the group is on shorter works that “can be read in an hour or less” (but not limited to short stories). We have several essays and other non-fiction on our virtual bookshelf. We’ve had three (monthly) meetings so far and have read Anton Chekhov’s “The Black Monk,” Philip K. Dick’s “Beyond the Door,” and Rudyard Kipling’s “The Brushwood Boy.” Two of those I’ve already read for prior iterations of Deal Me In, but it was still fun to revisit them and talk about them with another group of dedicated readers. We have ten people signed up but attendance had been. 6 (once) and 7 (twice). I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of our discussions and how much fun our meetings have been (we do meet in a bar, so that helps!) I created a “group” for us on goodreads.com too if you’d like to take a look or even follow our progress.

A friend who is in this new reading group also gave me a birthday present of Robert E. Howard’s “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.” Yes, that Conan. Anyway, I’ve read the intro and a couple stories and have kind of pledged to start a “Cimmeria Sunday!” project and read my way through them. The first story I’ve read under this banner was “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” which, as it turned out, I really liked. This type of adventure fantasy is kind of genre broadening for me too, which I consider a good thing. I’ll keep everyone posted and maybe share a story or two if I get ambitious.

A couple weekends ago, I went to a couple local literary events. One was a launch party for a collection of poems by J.T. Whitehead, a local deputy attorney general/poet who is also the husband of the director of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (which hosted the event) here in town. I enjoyed listening to his readings of selected poems from the book, which I also purchased a copy of (pictured above). The title of the collection is “Table of the Elements,” and the first section has poems titled with names of the elements, while the other section’s titles are compounds. What a great idea! In the Q & A That followed, I asked if the author was familiar with the Sam Keane Non fiction work “The Disappearing Spoon” (which I’ve mentioned on Bibliophilopois before)  he said “No, but funny you should ask…” as apparently other poets or writers have had similar ideas and one was suspicious of him wondering how he was stealing her ideas!

IMG_6174(above: poet J.T. Whitehead reading from “Table of the Elements” at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. I always think it must be a little unnerving for guests of the library to speak with a framed print of Vonnegut’s doodle of a sphincter right behind them! [photo by me])

Lastly, I went to another local author event, hosted by Bookmama’s Bookstore, whose owner(?)/manager(?), Kathleen, is a stalwart supporter of local and independent authors (in addition to Big Name Celebrity Authors – e.g., I met former Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian at her little store in Indianapolis’s Irvington neighborhood, and a million-selling historical fiction author (and Hoosier) James Alexander Thom). I’ve written before about her store and “underground” studio. This event, however, was to support the publication of “Decades of Dirt” by the Speed City chapter of Sisters in Crime, a mystery writers organization whose anthology “Hoosier Hoops and Hijinks” is part of my library AND I’ve featured a couple stories from it in this year’s Deal Me In, “More Than the Game” and “Fallen Idols“). I picked up a copy of their new effort and look forward to exploring it, especially with my 2016 focus on Indiana writers for the state’s Bicentennial.

IMG_6173(above: author Andrea Smith at Bookmama’s Bookstore, reading from her story in Decades of Dirt. [photo by me])

Bibliophilopolis has also made modest donations to help sponsor a couple local literary projects, helping to offset the expenses of one of the guests for the Banned Books week events at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, and to help fund (still 6 days left to donate if you’re interested!) an anthology of Indianapolis stories, “Mythic Indy.” More on both of these as we get closer to kickoff time. Not to mention that you may still buy the anthology we helped sponsor last year, “Indy Writes Books,” which includes a dozen stories that have been featured in this year’s Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge. More info on this one may be found at http://www.indyreads.org/indy-writes-books/

What interesting bookish activities have YOU been up to that you maybe haven’t had time to blog about?

Jess Walter’s “We Live in Water”

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It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I enjoy short story collections. Even acknowledging that predilection, I found Jess Walter’s 2013 collection “We Live in Water” to be particularly good. The author is scheduled to visit Indy in November as part of the annual Vonnegut Fest (see copy of flyer below), and the book club (in which I am a regular participant) that meets at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library here in town had considered reading something by him but eventually felt there wouldn’t be time to include it in addition to our already scheduled monthly meetings. Being a rebel, and emboldened by a ringing endorsement from the library’s curator, Chris, I read a book of his anyway. I’m very glad I did.

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“He watched the fish come to the end of its blue world, invisible and impassible, turn, go around and turn again as he sensed another wall and another and on and on. It didn’t even look like water in there, so clear and blue. And the goddamn fish just swam in circles, as if he believed that, one of these times, the glass wouldn’t be there and he would just sail off, into the open.”

The above passage is one of my favorites from the title story, “We Live in Water,” which in my opinion isn’t even the best, or second best story of the book.

One thing that most of the book’s thirteen stories have in common is that the protagonists are often quite flawed individuals, living on the fringes of ‘civilized’ society, or – if they’re not quite flawed – the world they navigate certainly is. Oren Dessens, e.g., in the title story is a habitual absentee parent who frequently “comes apart” in the face of challenging circumstances he is unequal to. While he is away trying to wriggle out of self-created messes, his young son Michael (who, not as flawed, tells part of the story from an outpost in time 34 years later) entertains himself by watching the fish in a large home aquarium. While watching, he stumbles upon perhaps a depressing truth about our lives, prompting him to later (seemingly out of the blue) ask his dad the mystifying question, “Do we live in water.”

I think my favorite story was “Don’t Eat Cat” which is set in a darkly amusingly constructed post-zombie-apocalyptic world where things are still surprisingly normal as the “zombie population” (“I know, we’re not supposed to call them zombies.” – an oft-repeated refrain in the story) has been incorporated into the structure of civilization. Some even hold down jobs, like at “Starbucks-Financial” for example. (In this future world, most major corporations are “food-service-bank” conglomerates, such as “Walmart-Schwab” and “KFC/B-of-A”). The people of this world who have become zombies have done so from an addiction to a drug, “Replexen,” and include the wife of the protagonist, Owen. Part of the story involves his obsessive searching for her, even though there’s really no way to “bring her back” in this end-times world.

The following passage explains Owen’s view fairly well:

“Everyone has an opinion of when it all went to hell: this war, that epidemic, the ten billion people threshold, the twelve, the environmental disaster, the repeated economic collapses, suicide pacts, anti-procreation laws, nuclear accidents, terrorist dirty bombs, polar thaws, rolling famines- blah blah blah… But here’s what I’ve come to believe. That maybe it’s no different now than it ever was. Maybe it’s ALWAYS the end of the world. Maybe you’re alive for awhile, and then you realize you’re going to die, and that’s such an insane thing to comprehend, you look around for answers and the only answer is that the world must die with you.”

Pretty gloomy stuff, eh? Yet the story itself is not without a lot of humor. Admittedly rather dark humor, but still…

Another favorite story was “Thief“, where Wayne, a father of three – fourteen, eleven and nine year olds, notices that someone has been stealing quarters from a big glass jar of coins on the floor of his bedroom closet. The jar’s name in the house is The Vacation Fund, since, after about every two years it has filled up sufficiently enough to fund or at least subsidize a family vacation (“just like Wayne’s dad used to do it”). Wayne’s speculations about who might be the thief serve to illustrate how much his children have become strangers to him, each in varying ways and degrees of course. He contrives an elaborate ruse to catch the guilty party red-handed, and the reader is on the edge of his seat wondering what the impending confrontation will be like.

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Other entries include “Anything Helps” – kind of a day-in-the-life story of a panhandler/recovering alcoholic, who at one time when he falls off the wagon shares that he “…had a beer. In a tavern. Like a real person, leaned up against the wall watching baseball. And it was great. Hell, he didn’t even drink all of it; it was more about the bar than the beer.” I liked that.

Virgo” takes us into the mind of a man who has what you might call an “inclination for stalking.” When his world collapses around him due to his behavior he offers the following: “I suppose it’s what Tanya thinks of me too. Maybe everyone. That I’m crazy. And Maybe I am. But if you really want my side of the story, here it is: Who isn’t crazy sometimes? Who hasn’t driven around a block hoping a certain person will come out; who hasn’t haunted a certain coffee shop, or stared obsessively at an old picture; who hasn’t toiled over every word in a letter, taken four hours to write a two-sentence-mail, watched the phone praying that it will ring…” This is clearly another protagonist with a tortured soul.

I’ll mention one final story. “Whellbarrow Kings” is The Odyssey (I capitalized that on purpose) of two down-and-outers chasing a fool’s dream of getting some easy money by pawning a discarded big-screen projection TV. There’s humor in this story as well, as the two hapless men steal a wheelbarrow as part of their impossible quest. The two men on the wheelbarrow quest demonstrate another common theme: that most of these “flawed protagonists” still retain at their core a certain dignity, one that makes you root for them and certainly makes you want to read further.

Have you read anything by the Author Jess Walter? His novel, “Beautiful Ruins” was a best-seller and is on the short list of potential 2015 reads for yet another book club I participate in. I hope it’s selected, though I’ll proabbly read it either way. Like I said, I’m a rebel. 🙂

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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?

 

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?

May Reading – The Month Ahead

I’m always interested in hearing what my friends are reading (this is why Goodreads.com is favorited in my browser). Maybe you are the same way? Here’s what I think I’ll be working on in May:

First, a few ‘required’ reads, including a re-read of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slapstick, for the monthly meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club. The club has covered all of his novels already and this will be the first “repeat” since I began participating. I think this was only the third Vonnegut novel I had read at the time of my initial reading, and – now that I’ve learned so much more of this author and his works – I’m really looking forward to revisiting it.

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(above: the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s replica of Kurt Vonnegut’s study)

One of the reading groups at Bookmama’s Bookstore in Irvington is meeting on the 29th to discuss the second half of the Tolstoy Classic, Anna Karenina. I attended the first meeting, but have kind of left the daunting novel lie fallow for a few weeks. I need to pick it up again and see what happens to Anna, Vronsky, Constantin, & Kitty. When I finish this book, a serious gap (one of very many, I’m afraid) in my cultural literacy will finally be filled. I wouldn’t mind seeing the movie adaptation with Keira Knightley in the title role either…

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My Great Books Foundation discussion group is meeting on the 21st to discuss the famous Lawrence Sargent Hall story, “The Ledge.” It is also my turn to lead the discussion, so I plan to thoroughly read this one and be prepared.

(below: Lawrence Sargent Hall, author of “The Ledge”)

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I’ve also been reading Veronica Roth’s novel, Divergent, and may even wrap that one up this weekend. I’m liking it so far, but I admittedly have a thing for dystopic fiction. This one kind of feels like Harry Potter meets Hunger Games meets Brave New World. I know a few of my fellow bloggers were disappointed in the sequel, but enough of them also liked this one to cause me to take the plunge.  Oh, and it’s set in a post-apocalyptic(?) Chicago too (don’t you recognize Lake Michigan on the cover?), so as a midwesterner that’s a plus.

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What else? Oh, yeah, I hope to start reading The Shift Omnibus by Hugh Howey. It’s the anticipated prequel to the addictive “Wool” omnibus, which I tore through last month and have been recommending around to anyone who dares ask me. Someday I’ll post about “Wool” – if I can get my act together and write something decent.

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There are four Saturdays in May, so that means I’ll read four stories for my annual “Deal Me In” short story project. Which stories I read, however, will be determined by the luck of the draw, which is part of what makes this annual project so fun for me. That, and my line-up of fifty-two stories this year is perhaps my strongest yet. AND It’s not too early to starting thinking about coming up with YOUR OWN list of fifty-two stories for 2014 and join in the fun. Fellow blogger Dale at Mirror With Clouds is also doing the short story “Deal Me In” project with me this year.

Well, that’s about it for me (even though I will likely read a few random and unanticipated stuff too, as always). What about YOU, though? What will you be reading in May? I’d love to hear about your reading plans…

“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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February Reading – The Month Ahead

I haven’t done one of these posts in awhile, but I thought I’d share what’s in store for me, reading-wise, in the month ahead…

Starting with my “required reading,” I have two books and one short story I’ll be reading for book clubs or discussion groups.

First, for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club, we’re reading “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.” This will be a re-read for me, as I read it last year “immediately” upon discovering it was the only one of Vonnegut’s novels that I hadn’t read. I look forward to giving it a deeper reading this time, though, in hopes of being better prepared to “discuss it intelligently” with the largely erudite membership of that group…

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I’ve also just started today in reading Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House,” which is the February selection of a discussion group at a local library whose last meeting I crashed when I learned they’d be discussing Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.” I became hungry for more Willa Cather after reading her wonderful short story, “The Old Beauty,” as part of my annual short story reading project last year.

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Speaking of short stories, I’ll be re-reading Isaac Beshevis Singer’s classic tale, “Gimpel the Fool,” for a local discussion group/chapter of the Great Books Foundation. It’s been so long ago that I read this one the first time, though, that it will be practically the same for me as reading it for the first time. (Memory problems…)

(below: Isaac Beshevis Singer)

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Other, non-required reading includes Lloyd Alexander’s “The Prydain Chronicles” of which I began a “nostalgic re-read” of last month. I first read these books when I was but ten or eleven years old. The fact that they were written for younger readers has not diminished my enjoyment of them this time, though. I’m already on the third book (of five), and they’re quick reads so I also am padding my book total for 2013 (heh, heh).

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I’ll also have four short stories for my 2013 short story reading project that I’ll Knock off this month. In fact, I finished the first one yesterday (Poe’s “The Devil in the Belfry,” which I had never even heard of before today.) but there will be three more, decided – as always – by the turn of (hopefully) a friendly card.

What else? Oh, I’m considering reading Anna Karenina for a discussion at a bookstore in March, and it’s so long I’d better get started on it in February if I’m to have a chance at finishing it in time. Dale at Mirror With Clouds has said he’ll consider reading it along with me too – any other takers?

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One other book I’m intrigued with is “Generations of Winter” by Vassily Aksyonov, a novel that I first learned about via Ana’s review at Ana the Imp. I’m a long-time pushover for “anything Russian” (perhaps a relic from all those years playing chess, that favorite of Russian pastimes…) so this would be a natural choice for me too.

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That’s about it for me, although I’m sure I’ll read some other random short stories as well. But what about YOU? What books and stories are in your reading plans for February 2013?

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:

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