“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut – selection 36 of Deal Me “IN” 2016


The Card: ♣4♣ Four of Clubs

The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me IN, clubs is my suit for “Stories by Legendary Hoosier Authors”

The Selection: “Harrison Bergeron” originally published in 1961 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, I own it as part of the author’s excellent short story collection “Welcome to the Monkey House.”

The Author: Kurt Vonnegut. If you haven’t heard of him, you may be a newcomer to this blog, since I’ve featured him often. A native of Indianapolis, the city is also home to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library and museum. The library has a book club that I’ve been attending pretty regularly for over five years now. Vonnegut is most famous for his anti-war novel Slaughterhouse Five, loosely based on his own experiences in World War II, where he was captured during the Battle of the Bulge before being shipped off to the city of Dresden as a P.O.W.

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 also now officially endorsed as a “Legacy Project” by The Indiana Bicentennial Commission.

Harrison Bergeron

“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was quicker or stronger than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th amendments to the Constitution and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”

Harrison Bergeron is fourteen years old and “a genius and athlete, and under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.” He is the son of George and Hazel Bergeron, and they all live in a future where everyone is made to be equal. How this is accomplished is that gifted people are forced to wear specific “handicaps” based on their gifts in order to drag them back down to the norm. George, for instance, is above average intelligence so he has a radio transmitter attached to his ear that intermittently gives off distracting blasts of random sounds (automobile collisions, ball-peen hammers striking milk bottles, and so on) in order to disrupt George’s “unfair ability” to concentrate better than others. He also has to wear a bag containing “forty-seven pounds of birdshot” around his neck in order to counteract his superior strength. Ballerinas in this future world are similarly handicapped by heavy “saddlebags” around their waists. If your vision is above the normal, you are forced to wear thick, wavy-lenses glasses. Well, I’m sure you’re beginning to get the picture.

The head of the U.S. Office of the Handicapper General, one “Diana Moon Clampers” – one of my all-time favorite names in fiction – has legions of “H-G men” who continually think up new and improved handicaps to attach to those who are “unfairly gifted,” but they can hardly keep up with the exceptional Harrison Bergeron, who now stands seven feet tall and is outgrowing handicaps faster than they can come up with them. As this story commences, he has broken free from the authorities trying to “keep him normal,” and George and Hazel learn of his escape via news bulletins that interrupt their tv watching.
In the climax of the story, Harrison briefly takes over the television station, declaring himself “emperor,” ripping off his multitude of handicaps and those of one of the ballerinas. They dance as none must have danced since the onset of the Office of Handicapper General, enjoying some brief moments of existence as normal – THEIR normal anyway. Such a display cannot continue in this future dystopia, of course, and Diana Moon Clampers herself arrives on the scene to once again “equalize” things.

♫Personal Notes: Thankfully I haven’t experienced much close to this dystopia Vonnegut describes, but occasionally I am reminded of this story by events in our current culture, many of which are new developments that weren’t around in my youth, like “participation trophies” and the like (if everyone gets a trophy, isn’t that about the same as no one getting a trophy?). Recently at work, I got a “first place” ribbon for our Fitbit challenge. In our online group, I think I was actually 16th place or something. I guess management wasn’t comfortable singling out real winners. That could’ve hurt somebody’s feelings… I’ve noticed in education too how things are different now compared to when I went to school. I hear “horror stories” (to me anyway) of students being allowed to take a test multiple times, or with an open book, etc. Maybe not everyone’s strictly “equal,” but everyone passes. Eventually anyway. Hats off to Vonnegut for “seeing this coming” and appropriately lampooning it in this story.


Handicapper general seal from goodreads.com


(One artist’s illustration of Harrison and his ballerina; found at http://prosencons.tumblr.com/post/47152229853/harrison-bergeron)

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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

“God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut: And Farewell” by David Hoppe – selection #17 of Deal Me “IN” 2016

The Card: ♠♠♠Three of Spades

The Suit: For 2016, Spades is my suit for “short, Indiana-related nonfiction works”

The Selection: “God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut: And Farewell” from the book “Personal Indianapolis,” a great collection of short essays. This particular piece deals with the author’s thoughts on the passing of Kurt in 2007. I have three other essays form this book yet to be drawn in my Deal Me IN challenge this year: “Education Testing: Just Doing my Job”, “Peyton Manning – Champion: This Doesn’t Happen Very Often”, and “Songs of Experience: Bob Dylan at the Egyptian Room”

The Author: David Hoppe. He has lived in Indiana since 1980 and is a contributing editor and regular columnist for the Indianapolis alternative weekly magazine, Nuvo. Find out more about him at his website: http://www.davidhoppewriter.com/index.html – you may also see and read some of Hoppe’s recent work at http://www.nuvo.net/blogs/Hoppe/

img_6202What is Deal Me “IN” 2016? 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.

“God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut: And Farewell”

The Spring of 2007 was a rough time for Indianapolis’s literary community, as it marked the passing of one of the most famous authors our city and state has ever produced, Kurt Vonnegut. It was just a few years later, shortly after I started writing this blog back in January of 2010 that the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library opened in Indianapolis. This was undoubtedly a great thing, I thought, and then when I heard the library has its own book club, I was All IN (of course!) and have been a frequent attendee and supporter of the library ever since. Indeed, Vonnegut is probably THE one author for whom I’ve come close to reading “everything he wrote.” It probably will not surprise you if I say that all that reading has been time well spent.


Hoppe mentions in his essay that in 1991 he played host to Vonnegut who was attending a book festival (organized by Hoppe) called “Wordstruck” (nice name, eh?).  Anyway, he mentions that he had read Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” in college but “hadn’t picked up a Vonnegut book since” – Something he quickly rectified after meeting the author in person:

“Needless to say, I began reading the books – all of them, as their author took justifiable pride in saying, still in print. Oh, what I’d been missing! There was the humor, that dark sense of human comedy and hapless mischief. But there was also Vonnegut’s slapstick way of collapsing fact and fiction, like that boy he wrote about, roughhousing with his favorite dog on the living room carpet, as a way of seeking something like the truth.”  

Hoppe also takes issue with the many people who consider Vonnegut a cynic, but I think the problem here may just be semantics. Vonnegut’s pessimism can be crushing at times, and by my definition, he would still be considered cynical, just with a healthy dash of hope to keep him – and us – going.


This essay was very short (as are almost all in the book) and left me wishing that the author would have shared more of his thoughts on Vonnegut. I’ve since read several of the other “bite-size” essays in Personal Indianapolis and have found them a great option when I find myself with one of those abbreviated windows of reading opportunity.

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On a personal note:

Vonnegut will always hold a special place for me, as he passed away shortly after I had “discovered” and begun to appreciate him. Added to that, the month after he passed away, my dad – more or less his contemporary – followed him into “the great mystery.” I had recently read Cat’s Cradle myself at the time and even quoted a passage from it as part of my remarks, which I’ll share below, at my Dad’s memorial service:

“Another famous Hoosier (if I may be permitted to phrase it that way), Kurt Vonnegut, also recently passed away at the age of 84. In one of his books, Cat’s Cradle, a certain quotation is, I think, quite appropriate here. A character in the book (Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the fictional inventor of the atomic bomb) had won a Nobel Prize and gave an abbreviated 4-sentence acceptance speech:

’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, although I would never describe Dad as having ‘dawdled,‘ I think he was indeed a very happy man for just these reasons, and perhaps those in attendance today can honor his memory by embracing the spirit behind this quotation.”

Card image above from https://playingcardcollector.net/2013/07/18/kashmir-playing-cards-by-printissa/

Kurt Vonnegut’s Birthday is today.

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Born November, 11, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut would have been 92 today. I’ve probably posted more often about him than any other writer on this blog. Partly because he’s from my home town, partly because I participate in a book club that meets at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, but mostly because he’s just … awesome. Looking back, and in no particular order, here are a few of my favorites…

The Manned Missiles (short story) from 2012

Player Piano (novel) from 2011

Deer in the Works (short story) from 2010

Jailbird (novel) from 2010

Hocus Pocus (novel) from 2012

Basic Training (novella) from 2013

Kurt Vonnegut Letters (letters) from 2012

Bagombo Snuff Box (short story collection) from 2012

Timequake (novel) from 2012

Cat’s Cradle (novel) from 2011

The Lie (short story) from 2010

EPICAC (short story) from 2010

Which of Kurt Vonnegut’s works are your favorites?

Deal Me In – Week 18 Wrap Up

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Below are links to new posts this week. The blogs of a couple of our regular participants have been quiet in recent weeks, but for now I’m assuming they’re on holiday and will return with several short stories to share. 🙂 In other news, we’ve “inspired” one blogger to launch her own variant of Deal Me In – check out Julianna’s blog “Cedar Station” at  and her own DMI line-up at http://cedarstation.wordpress.com/reading-roulette/

Also, thanks to May being National Short Story Month, DMI got some recognition courtesy of C.A. LaRue and her blog, Bonespark. Check out her post at https://bonesparkblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/selections-for-short-story-month/ where she provides links to some great recommended stories.

It’s always nice to discover other blogs that are “Friends of the Short Story,” and I hope you take a moment to visit them if you have the time.

Dale encountered a short story by Kurt Vonnegut: “Mnemonics” http://mirrorwithclouds.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/kurt-vonnegut-mnemonics/

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Katherine visits “The Barnum Museum” gaining her ticket from author Steven Millhauser – http://katenread.wordpress.com/2014/05/04/deal-me-in-week-18-the-barnum-museum/

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James brings us another unlikely pairing with stories by Grace Paley (pictured below) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and explores their stories “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” and “The Thing Around Your Neck,” respectively. http://jamesreadsbooks.com/2014/04/29/grace-paley-vs-chimamanda-ngozi-adiche-a-deal-me-in-short-story-challenge/

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Candiss at Read the Gamut read the Roald Dahl story “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.” http://readthegamut.wordpress.com/2014/05/04/deal-me-in-challenge-story-18-the-wonderful-story-of-henry-sugar-by-roald-dahl/

I’m still playing catchup, with pending posts on Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” and the Anton Chekhov classic, “The Black Monk.” Hope to have them up soon. 😉

See you all next week!

May Reading – The Month Ahead

I used to post fairly regularly near the start of a month about what was on deck for my reading but have kind of fallen out of the habit in recent months (years?). BUT, I was sitting here this morning thinking about my May plans (reading and otherwise) and thought I’d jot down what’s on my reading docket…

Books:
“The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science” by Will Storr
I actually just passed the halfway point in this book. It’s been fascinating reading thus far, especially the more “sciencey” sections discussing how the brain often conspires to delude us in our thinking. Storr, a journalist, seems to earnestly attempt to understand the thinking of a wide range of belief systems that fly in the face of facts and traditional evidence. Storr asks himself the question, “Why don’t facts work?” and the answers are unsettling thus far.

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2. “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen and “Northanger Abbey” by Val McDermid

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A friend just completed reading my copy of Jane Austen’s classic about the same time I heard of this new treatment of the story. I thought it might make for good blogging to read both and write about them in comparison. Oh, and it would be a good excuse to read some Austen for the first time in many years too. 🙂 This feels a little ambitious to read both, and I’m not sure I’ll find the time, but my instincts tell me it might be fun. We’ll see.

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3. “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? – Advice for the Young” by Kurt Vonnegut
This book is a collection of graduation speeches by the late author, and it is the May selection for the book clubl at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library here in town. It includes an introduction by author (and friend of Vonnegut) Dan Wakefield, who is scheduled to join us at our meeting. Can’t wait to read this one.

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4. “Scapegoat of Shiloh: the Distortion of Lew Wallace’s record by U.S. Grant” by Kevin Getchell
I went to a lecture by the author a couple weeks ago. As a fan of Lew Wallace, I am interested in reading this.

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(above: two new purchases in April – see? I don’t only buy e-books, so get off my case!)

Reviewing books I’ve previously read:
A couple book clubs I (irregularly) participate in are discussing books that I’ve already read. Twice. The Carmel Clay Public Library is discussing Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” (set in Indianapolis) next week, and the relatively new book group at Indy Reads Books book store is discussing Carson McCullers’ “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” toward the end of the month. I won’t read these a third time, but I will certainly review them and revisit my “incisive underlinings” (ha ha) in my copies.

There’s also a new edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House” short story collection that I picked up at a book signing by author Gregory Summner, whose non-fiction work, “Unstuck in Time” has become a reliable reference work for me when dealing with Vonnegut’s novels. This new edition has some background info on how many of the stories came about, which I look forward to reading.

Other items:
Of course I’ll continue reading a short story a week for Deal Me In 2014, but fate determines which stories those will be. I have a strong roster, though, so I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

I want to get refocused on increasing my vocabulary. For several months starting back in October, I was creating monthly “bundles” or sets of flashcards on my iPad and reviewing them fairly frequently. Yeah, that only lasted through January, though. Seems my laziness knows few bounds. It was a good system, and I need to return to it(, dammit).

I also have a big backlog of blog posts to write or finish about books (-not short stories)  I’ve read. I’ve let my blog’s focus drift too heavily toward short stories and would prefer it to be more balanced. I need to post about some of these books(!)

Well, those are my reading/literary plans for May. What are YOURS? I’d love to hear about them…

 

 

 

 

 

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 if you “knock of 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?

 

We Are What We Pretend to Be – Vonnegut’s “Alpha and Omega” Stories

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I just finished reading the second half of this book, which purports to contain author Kurt Vonnegut’s “first and last works.” I already posted about the first one, “Basic Training,” which I enjoyed. The second one was not as well received – by this reader anyway.

The second novella, “If God Were Alive Today,” is the rambling story of Gil Berman, a brilliant but greatly troubled comedian. To me it was too much of a re-telling of themes that we regular readers of Vonnegut have encountered many times before. This one was unfinished as of the author’s death in 2007, and I think you can tell.

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“Excuse me, stewardess, I speak Vonnegut” (taking some liberties with June Cleaver’s – er, Barbara Billingsley’s dialogue in Airplane)

What it did contain, however, was something I’ve noted at the meetings of The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. Vonnegut comes up with (often hilarious) new definitions for commonplace things. I threatened before to “come up with a quiz” including some of these so here it is:

Do YOU speak “Vonnegut?”

Match the term Vonnegut uses with the “real life” word or words. Admittedly,some of these are just traditional ’similes’ I guess, but nonetheless, lets see how you do…  (I’ll post the ‘answer key’ as a comment in a few days)

vonnegut matching

Oh and I also learned a new word from this novella. Do you know what puttees are? You’ve seen them. They are the leggings frequently worn by British soldiers in World War I (see picture below)

Woolwraps

“…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…

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