“The Great George Helmoltz Hoax of 2013”

A recurring character in the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut is the oft-beleaguered high school band teacher, George Helmholtz. He appears in four stories that I can immediately recall (there may be another or two) – “The Ambitious Sophomore”, “The Kid Nobody Could Handle”, “The Boy Who Hated Girls” and, from the collection “Look at the Birdie,” the very funny story “A Song for Selma.” In this last story, reference is made to a musical composition by the sixteen-year-old genius, Al Schroeder, entitled “Hail to the Milky Way.” Unlike the song from the title of this story, there are no lyrics mentioned to go along with “Hail to the Milky Way.” (although we are treated to the humorous acknowledgment that, with the furthest star in The Milky Way being “approximately ten-thousand light years away” that “if the sound of the music was to reach that star, it would have to be played good and loud.”

At The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club meetings here in Indianapolis, we have previously wondered about this Helmholtz character, and whether he was based on a teacher Vonnegut knew at Shortridge High School, or if instead he was a conglomeration of several real people. At our most recent meeting last week, Bill Briscoe, the library’s historian, uncorked the revelation that he “had done some research” and that there was a music teacher during Kurt’s high school years named Herman George, upon whom the character was based. We were all fascinated and unaware – as yet – that Bill was reeling us in. For my part, the name was perfect – I could see Vonnegut combining Herman George & that famous name from science, Herman Helmholtz, into George Helmholtz. That would be so Vonnegut.

Bill went on to explain that he had even located Herman George’s son, who related that most of his father’s personal effects had been “lost in a fire,” but one thing from his papers that survived was a few stanzas of a song, “Hail to the Milky Way”(!) It should be mentioned here that Bill is also our club’s unofficial poet and our meetings usually end with him sharing his latest work (related to the book we’ve read that month). He brought the song fragment (though charred around the edges and encased in a plastic sheath) with him to the meeting and read the three verses it contained:

Hail to the Milky Way
And to the Sky we pray
While stars do dance and play
Hail, hail, all hail, we say!

Our galaxy we tout
It’s great without a doubt
It has such big clout
hail, hail, all hail, we shout!

Our universe is dear
Nothing else comes near
And so we raise our beer
Hail, hail, all hail, we cheer!

Bill passed around the alleged “artifact” but, as far as most of us were concerned, the jig was up. How conveniently the burned edges of his “historical document” circled the perimeter of the verses, and few could mistake the well-known style of our poet in residence. When the document reached me, I inquired aloud, “Are you sure this isn’t a Briscoe original?”

So, some fun was had and nobody got hurt. I think this would have been a meeting that Kurt Vonnegut himself would have heartily approved of.

(Below is a photo I snapped of this historical document – sorry for the focus issues…)

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A couple other examples of Bill’s work from prior meetings:  A tribute to Breakfast of Champions (extra credit goes to anyone who can identify the four initials on the olives); and, at bottom, a visually impressive poem from our meeting on Hocus-Pocus.

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“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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“Vonnegut Short Story Madness” – Report from the War Regional

As usual, my blogging plans turned out to be way too ambitious when confronted with my limited free time. I originally had hoped to post about each story “matchup” in my “Vonnegut Short Story Madness” project, but now I’m going to try to write a post about each region. This post is about the War region.

My favorite pair of first round stories was “Souvenir” from Bagombo Snuff Box, and “Spoils” from Armageddon in Retrospect. The two stories are somewhat similar and deal with a topic that also came up last week at my Great Books Discussion Group. We were actually discussing Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Wall” (worth a read also, by the way) and we somehow got on a sidebar of how commonly we hear of war veterans who “never talk about” their war experiences. I have an uncle like that, and another member of the group mentioned an in-law who had recently passed away and whose multiple decorations for valor were on display at the service. The member of our group, though he had known this man for many years, had “no idea” that he had been so honored.

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WARNING: following content includes SPOILERS.

In the story “Souvenir,” a man (“Eddie”) hard up for cash decides to sell a “fantastic” pocket watch he’d “acquired” near the end of World War II. He wants five-hundred dollars for it, but the shady pawnbroker, to whom dealing and trading in such items was a game he played with relish and without mercy, begins to tirelessly haggle with him. He asks about the inscription on the watch, which neither can read since it is in German. He transcribes it onto a notepad and dispatches it off to a neighbor for a quick translation. Eddie then proceeds to tell the story of its acquisition, somewhere in Sudetenland near the very end of the war. A story where two German soldiers, a young blond man and an alleged General, try to surrender to Eddie and his buddy, Buzzer. The “surrender” is actually a ploy to kill Eddie and Buzzer for their uniforms in hopes that the Germans can then escape by passing themselves off as Americans. They originally pretend they are offering to buy the uniforms, first with German money (“Confederate Money!” as Buzzer complains) and later with the General’s watch, encrusted with four diamonds, a ruby, and gold.

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Eddie and his friend are slow to catch on to the ploy, a slowness that costs Buzzer his life. Eddie, however, escapes with the pocket watch, which he has held onto until now. Re-living the experience leads Eddie to realize he doesn’t want to part with the watch, which we now understand was purchased at a great price indeed. He tells the pawnbroker, “Thanks for letting me know what it’s worth. Makes more sense to keep it as a souvenir.” The pawnbroker offers him his original price of $500 as Eddie is leaving the store. After he leaves, the translation is brought back from the neighbor: “To General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the Army General Staff, who cannot rest until the last enemy soldier is driven from the sacred soil of the third German Reich – Adolf Hitler.”

(below: General Guderian on the cover of Time Magazine; he actually survived the war, and was, controvesially, not prosecuted for war crimes (as many others were) – apparently, his actions were deemed those of a professional soldier.

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Now, wasn’t I just speaking of twist endings in a recent post? Vonnegut liked to call these twists “mousetraps.”

Armageddon in Retrospect

The other story, “Spoils” tugs harder at the heart strings. “Paul” is another soldier who had once found himself in those mad, final days of the war. Now home long after the war, his wife has just returned from visiting a neighbor and tells him of the neighbor’s elegant silver service that she learned the husband had “liberated” from Germany at the end of the war. She shrewishly asks Paul why he “couldn’t have brought home something a little better” than he did (all he has is a bent Luftwaffe saber). He reminisces how “his first hours as a swashbuckling conqueror were his last,” and ponders “the thing that broke his spirit and … that tormented him” as he enters the realm of memory… He and his buddies are in the farming village of Peterswald, which is the midst of evacuation and then industrial scale looting. His comrades and encounter some Scotchmen participating in the looting who say, “You’re the victors, you know, you’ve a bloody good right to anything you like.”

His small band becomes swept up in the fervor and they select a house to pillage, but it has already been pretty much picked clean by others. The only thing intact is a child’s room with its toys and a lonely pair of children’s crutches. They eventually abandon their hopes of treasure and decide instead to focus on dinner, contemplating a feast including chicken, milk, eggs and “maybe even a rabbit.” They begin to scour the farms to prepare their table. Paul searches the barn of the house they had attempted to ransack, at first finding nothing, but – just as he’s about to leave – he hears a rustling under some hay. There a rabbit has been hidden in a cage. Dinner! He quickly dispatches and skins and cleans the rabbit there in the barn and brings the main course to his friends. Not before he sees the family who owns the house return, though.

A “wave of remorse and sorrow billows in his chest” as he watches the boy enter the barn. Soon he hears the boy’s faint shriek and sees him emerge from the barn holding the lifeless pelt of his former pet rabbit to his cheek. Paul mentions nothing of this to his friends, and eats what for him must’ve been a joyless meal with them.

During the final days of the war, Paul’s friends acquired a sizable quantity of German treasure but “for some reason, all Paul brought home was one rusty and badly bent Luftwaffe saber.”

Wow.

So, I awarded this matchup to the story “Spoils.” The final results of the “War Regional” are below. In the end, the regional champion turned out to be the story, “The Manned Missiles,” which, though it was tragic as well, also included hope. Hope for humanity and perhaps even for an end to war. I wrote about that story once before on my blog. You may find that post here if you’re interested.

Next up, results from The Love Regional. Stay tuned

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“Vonnegut Short Story Madness!” Early Round Matchups – Part I

I made it through eight stories in my “Vonnegut Short Story Madness” game the first weekend of March, and eight more this past weekend.  Time to start catching up with the results.  Instead of playing through one regions , I randomly selected one matchup from each region. My first was from the “Love” region, featuring “Girl Pool” vs. “Runaways.” The former is found in the collection “While Mortals Sleep,” and the latter in “Bagombo Snuff Box” (if you’re playing along at home).

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This is my first time doing anything like this; although I sometimes rate books on a scale of 1 to 10 or 1 to 5 stars, I have never necessarily tried to rate and compare two works against each other. I immediately realized it’s unfair, as you often can’t use the same criteria for both stories since they may have been written for different purposes or in different styles. Be that as it may, I reminded myself that this was a game and “just for fun” and pressed on.

I read “Girl Pool” first, and perhaps was influenced by my excitement in getting started on the project. I loved the story immediately and began thinking, “Geez, it’s going to be tough to beat!”

***SPOILER ALERT*** Briefly,”Girl Pool” is a story told by a man about his now wife, “Amy Lou” who works in a gigantic corporation’s ‘girl pool’ – a reservoir of secretarial workers whose daily existence consists mostly of transcribing letters and such from a endless stream of tapes from, predominantly, the men in the company. Amy Lou works for the officious Miss Hostetter, who Vonnegut describes a “great elk of a woman, righteous, healthy and strong.”

As you might guess, the drudgery of her work quickly wears on Amy Lou, who is at heart a romantic. She feels “no sign of life” at the job until the excitement of the news that Larry Barrow, a fugitive (and wounded) murderer, is rumored to be hiding somewhere in the vast acreage of the corporation. Resourceful, he sees on a corporate bulletin board about how the girl pool is at the service of anyone with a dictaphone machine. He finds one and dispatches a plea for help.

Amy Lou is the lucky employee who receives this message in a bottle and resolves to bring some food to the remote building where Barrow is hiding out. Later, though, she discovers that the particular dictaphone tape, which had hidden in her desk drawer, is now missing. A quick search discovers that it is now in Miss Hostetter’s desk. Afraid that Miss Hostetter will turn him in, she hurries to the building with a care package of candy bars to take to Barrow. She is shocked to find Miss Hostetter already at the building. It seems she is a softie at heart as well, and is on a similar errand of mercy!

Sadly, Barrow has died before they got there, but the two workers now have a new understanding of each other, and hopefully the dawn of a new, more pleasant work environment for Amy Lou is in order. On her way home, waiting for the bus, Amy Lou runs into the narrator of the story. Initially maintaining the “impersonal bus stop distance” with each other Amy Lou suddenly bursts into tears, leaning into the narrator who says, “My gosh, another human being!”

What chance did the story, “Runaways” have against a great story like that? I felt sorry for it while reading, since I knew it “stood no chance” against such a strong performance. Though an underdog, it made a game of it for awhile, though. “Runaways” is about young love. Teenage love, featuring Annie, the daughter of the governor of Indiana, and her young beau, Rice Brentner, the proud new owner of a car. They run away together only to be tracked down and returned to their families, Annie to the Governor’s mansion (Vonnegut grew up just a few blocks from the real Indiana governor’s mansion) and Rice to “the other side of the tracks.” Brentner won’t be denied, however, and phones Annie pretending to be a more “suitable” boy from her own social circle so that her parents will let her come to the phone. In no time,they are off again, speeding across the state line and into Ohio before they are caught this time. Thinking they’re in even more trouble than before, they are shocked when a message from the governor says, “you are to return home in your own car whenever you feel like it.” Ah, the old reverse psychology gambit… It works in this case, though. The kids realize they’re not ready and the parents win this round.

(below: the Indiana Governor’s Mansion – “just down the street” from where Vonnegut lived as a boy)

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One thing I liked about this story was how Vonnegut wove song lyrics into the narrative. Of course, these were all subversive song lyrics, encouraging teenagers to wildness and delinquency. I don’t know if they’re from real songs or if Vonnegut made them up. I suspect the latter; that would be more like him.

So, I’m awarding this first round matchup to “Girl Pool,” which will move on to face the winner of “A Night for Love” and “Find Me a Dream.”

The second of the matches I’ll cover in this post is “Epicac” (the story of a ‘nerd’ and a computer who both fall in love with the same girl) vs. “The Powder Blue Dragon” from the technology region. I wrote about Epicac at length before here (check out the sonnet in the post, exspecially), and thought this would be a rout, but the other story nearly pulled off the upset.

“The Powder Blue Dragon” is about Kiah Higgins, a lower-class orphan boy who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps, working three jobs, the primary of which was in an car dealership and service shop. He has somehow saved enough money to buy the most powerful car available, the exotic-sounding Marittima-Frascati (a name made up by Kurt Vonnegut, who once ran a Saab Dealership on Cape Cod – the first in America).

(below: some of Kurt Vonnegut’s drawings on his old Saab dealership stationery)

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Kiah feels owning this car will be his ticket to acceptance. When he first gets behind the wheel of the car out on the turnpike he “ceased to feel like an intruder in the universe.” He soon learns that, outside of the car, he is still viewed as just a boy and is not taken seriously or given respect. He even tries, though bragging about his car, to make time with a rich girl who, when her actual boyfriend arrives and she says to Kiah, why don’t you tell Paul about your Vanilla Frappe.

I liked Kiah’s character a lot, but the story “Epicac” had a little more going for it, I thought, so it moves on and will be matched with the winner of “ThePackage” and “2BR02B” in the round of sixteen.  In other first round match-ups: In the “War” region,  The Manned Missiles (previously posted about here) defeated the comical Der Arme Dolmetscher from Armageddon in Retrospect and in the Humanity region, Deer in the Works (previously posted about here) defeated Custom Made Bride (previously mentioned here).  I’ll probably wait to post updated brackets until the first round is completed…  The starting brackets may be found in the original post.

My Personal “March Madness”

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I’ve always loved games. Since I was a child, I’ve rarely been without a current game “relationship.” Some were/are long running (chess, trivia) and some flared up brightly and then quickly burned out (e.g., poker). I also spend a lot (too much, if you’ve got to know the truth) of time and effort as a fan (football, basketball, chess, tennis, or sometimes just whatever’s available at the time). If there wasn’t a game to be found, I’d invent one. (and yes, of course, the above is from the classic movie, “Wargames,” starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy)

This month, I’m going to try a “Vonnegut Short Story Madness” game. I’ve picked 32 of his short stories, sorted them into four regions (Love, War, Technology, and Humanity) and throughout the month will pit them against each other in a single-elimination competition for my reading affections to determine my “2013 favorite”…

My plan is to write about each “matchup” and justify my selection of the “winner.” The further the stories advance in my “tournament” the more detailed the write ups may become. Maybe, if I have time, I will read the stories yet again for each new round of the tournament. I know, I know, I can hear the “Nerd Alert!” sirens blaring, but it should also be fun…

I will also welcome lobbying from my fellow citizens of Bibliophilopolis, and am willing to be swayed if the argument is convincing. Just add a comment in support of a story that’s one of your favorites – or rake me over the coals for eliminating another!

All the stories may be found in the following four Vonnegut short story collections:

Welcome to the Monkey House
While Mortals Sleep
Bagombo Snuff Box
Armageddon in Retrospect

By my count, these collections include 75 stories, but I picked the 32 I remembered enjoying at least to some degree.

Below are my “regional brackets” (seeding is not quite random), and the winners of each region will meet in my Vonnegut Short Story Final Four. I’ll try to summarize a bracket’s round 1 results every four days or so, then slow down the pace a little for the later rounds. If this project works out, I already am contemplating a “Ray Bradbury Short Story Madness” next year. 🙂

What do YOU think of my new game?

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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?

Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Veldt”

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My first short story of 2013 as part of my annual project (see here for more details) is Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” from his collection of stories titled “The Illustrated Man.” The stories in The Illustrated Man are introduced and linked by the title character, who is covered head to toe in tattoos (or “skin illustrations” as he insists they be called). The first story, “The Veldt,” is introduced by a tattoo of a lion. The story was first published separately in the September 23, 1950 edition of the saturday Evening Post under the title “The World the Children Made.”

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“Handing Over the Reins”

George and Lydia Hadley are, we are to assume, a typical couple of the future. They want the best for themselves and their family and spare no expense when acquiring a sort of “automated” house complete with a “nursery” for their two young children. This is a special nursery, however – one that reads the thoughts of the children and creates whatever landscape or situations they dream up (think of the “holodeck” on Star Trek, only with the programming coming directly from the minds of its inhabitants).

The Hadleys discover there is a price to pay for “turning over” control of their lives to machinery (of course, they ponder this as the mechanism of the house is preparing their dinner ). They are disturbed because the children are spending too much time in the nursery and are apparently obsessed with its setting of an African grassland (the “Veldt” of the story’s title). The lions that inhabit the Veldt give the parents quite a scare when they visit the room while the children are away at a party, and the Hadleys decide it is unhealthy for the children to be interested in a place where there is “so much death.” (The lions are always “feeding on” something and sometimes the parents can hear screams from behind the door that sound “familiar.”)

When they confront the children about Africa, the kids deny that the nursery has that setting. When challenged to “go see for yourself,” the daughter heads down the hall and into the nursery, which then produces a lovely forest scene. The kids are hiding something. Willfully. Perhaps they are rebelling because they were denied “a rocket trip to New York” referenced earlier, or perhaps they have just reached “that age.” Whatever the reason, the elder Hadleys are concerned and consult a psychiatrist, who recommends they shut down and dismantle the “nursery.” They agree, but did they wait too long?

(below: Claire Bloom & Rod Steiger in the Veldt from the movie version of “The Illustrated Man”)

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I found a copy of this story on line at http://www.veddma.com/veddma/Veldt.htm  Give it a read. It’s not very long.

When reading this story, I was reminded a bit of Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano (which I’ve blogged about before), where protagonist Paul Proteus discusses the industrial revolutions that have taken place in human history: the first one produced machines that devalued human muscle, the second one, devalued human routine mental work, the third one – currently in progress, he argued in 1952 – would produce machines that devalue human thinking. The Hadleys have accepted the machines of this third wave, even turning over the duty of “babysitting” to machines – with predictable results.

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Have you read Bradbury? Any favorite stories? Have you seen the (often critically panned) movie adaptation of The Illustrated Man (with Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom)?

(below: the edition of The Illustrated Man that I own)

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Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Manned Missiles”

One of the books I enjoyed the most during my first year of blogging (2010) was Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” It’s only natural, then, that when I was planning my 2012 short story reading project, I would include at least one of the stories from that collection.

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As many already know, the year 1957 marked a turning point in the new space age. Unexpectedly – to the United States anyway – the Soviet Union launched the satellite, Sputnik, into orbit, which became a visible, public (it was visible to the naked american eye as it hurtled over our continent) reminder that we weren’t “in the lead.” It served to shock the United States out of a complacent delusion of technological superiority and was an event that sparked the “space race” which led t0 the July 20, 1969 moon landing.

It was in this climate that Vonnegut’s story “The Manned Missiles” was published in the July 1958 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. (see cover picture below, which trumpets “five stories and a complete mystery novel!”)

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***Spoiler Alert!***
This story is unique among Vonnegut’s work because it was the only thing he wrote in “epistolary” form. It consists entirely of an exchange of letters between the fathers of a pair of astronauts, one American and one Russian (I guess I should’ve said an astronaut and a cosmonaut?). Anyway, we learn that both sons are dead and their deaths are somehow related (Vonnegut withholds the details, portioning them out gradually). The Russian son, Stephan Ivankov, is the first man in space and the American son, Bryant Ashland is sent up immediately after Ivankov in a kind of reckless technological one-upmanship between the nations. An “accident” has occurred, however, and both sons were killed.

The letters between the fathers seem intent on convincing the other that, in spite of what has happened, the sons were “good men” and not the villains that the governments and media involved seem to want to paint them. Ivankov’s father, a stone mason, had long struggled with why his son wanted to be a pilot and later a cosmonaut. Having eventually figured him out, he shares with Ashland’s father that “It was not for the Soviet Union but for the truth and beauty of space, Mr. Ashland, that Stephan worked and died.”

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Ashland, who runs a gasoline station, concludes his letter to Ivankov by admitting that he’s “crying now” and that, “I hope some good comes now from the death of our two boys. I guess that’s what millions of fathers have hoped for as long as there have been people.”

The story is made even more poignant by the fact we learn near the end that the two “baby moons” (that’s how Vonnegut refers to satellites and spacecraft in the story) have, after the accident, split into a bunch of baby moons, drifting apart, two of which are… Ivankov and Ashland.

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This story interested me mainly because of the time in which it was written. What must it have been like to be in America in the late fifties, seeing Sputnik fly over head and know the U.S.A.was “behind…”

This weekend also marked the passing of American Astronaut, Neil Armstrong, who became the first human to walk on the moon eleven years after this story was published. A few years back, I read a good biography of Armstrong, “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen. It’s well worth reading, if you’d like to learn more about the remarkable life of an inspiring man.

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

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

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

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

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

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(author Jack Kerouac)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Below: The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis)

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August Reading – The Month Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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