“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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How Quickly We Forget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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