“Leftovers” From the KVMLBC meeting on Cat’s Cradle

We only have an hour to meet.  Some of that hour is spent administratively – what book are we reading next (Slaughterhouse Five if you’re interested), introductions, especially of first time attendees, and the informal rating of the book on a scale of one to ten.  So naturally, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of discussion time.  I wanted to share here a couple things that we didn’t get to or cover in the official meeting.

Ice-Nine

The fictional substance that brings about the “end of the world” brought back a couple of memories.  One was of the concept of the ‘seed crystal’ – I also encountered this recently when my book club read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (see chapter 15) last year.  As Dr. Breed says in Cat’s Cradle:  There are several ways in which certain liquids can crystallize – can freeze – several ways in which their atoms can stack and lock in an orderly, rigid way.  So it is with atoms in crystals, too; and two different crystals of the same substance can have quite different physical properties.”  This reminded me of when I learned “why ice floats” back in high school(?)  The angle of the bond of the hydrogen and oxygen molecues is slightly large in the frozen state, thus making it less dense than liquid water.  I think it was my high school biology teacher who said – if the reverse were true, lakes and rivers would freeze ‘from the bottom up’ and wouldn’t that leave life and biology in a pickle?

Vonnegut’s Humor

We talked some – as we always do – about the humor in Vonnegut’s writing.  One of my favorite humorous sections of the book was Chapter 15 and the poor secretary Miss Pefko.  Described initially by Vonnegut as “twenty, vacantly pretty, and healthy – a dull normal.”  She tells Breed and Jonah that “You scientists think too much, you ALL think too much.” She claims she doesn’t understand what she’s typing when she takes dictation from Dr. Horvath, and Dr. Breed advises her to ask Dr. Horvath to explain it to her, “He’s very good at explaining.  Dr. Hoenikker used to say that any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.”  Miss Pefko’s response: “Then I’m dumber than an eight-year-old.  I don’t even know what a charlatan is.”  (I think I laughed out loud at that passage)

Destroying the World, Bokononist Style

We skirted all around this at our meeting, but in Chapter 106 we learn that “Now I will destroy the whole world,” is something Bokononists always say when they are about to commit suicide.  Think about that a moment and you will realize how in a sense it’s exactly true….

“The Bokononists

Many of us struggled – somewhat humorously too – with the pronunciation of Bokononism and Bokononists. We always seemed to want to add another “n” or leave one out! I also discovered in my ‘research’ after reading the book that there is a funk/punk/surf band in Winnipeg named the Bokononists.  I don’t know if they’re still together now, but they were active as recently as last year.  From what I read it seems, sadly, that they did not choose their name out of any deep appreciation for Bokononism or Vonnegut, they just liked the name. You can google them for more info.

Borasisi and Pabu

Also, we didn’t talk about the whole Bokononist cosmic creation myth, which I absolutely loved (I’ve always been fascinated with the differences – and similarities – of the creation myths of different cultures).  To Bokononists, Borasisi (the Sun) held Pabu (the moon) in his arms and “hoped that Pabu would bear him a fiery child.” Unfortunately, “…poor Pabu gave birth to children that were cold, that did not burn; and Borasisi threw them away in disgust.  These were the planets, who circled their terrible father at a safe distance.  The poor Pabu herself was cast away, and she went to live with her favorite child, which was Earth.”  Great stuff.  I also read somewhere that a pair of “trans-Neptunian” (I think that means beyond the orbit of Nepture?) objects in the Solar System have been named Borasisi and Pabu.  Awesome.

A personal connection for me

I didn’t want to delay the club’s discussion with a personal story, but I feel myself free to do so here.  As fate would have it, Kurt Vonnegut and my father died about six weeks apart in 2007.  Also as fate would have it, I was reading Cat’s Cradle for the first time in the Spring of that year.  I chose a short passage from this book to include in the remarks I made at my Dad’s memorial service, since – even though in the book they were spoken by Dr. Hoenniker – they rang true for the spirit of my Dad’s intellect as well.  They’re found early in the book when Newt Hoenniker asks Jonah if he’d ever read the speech his father made when he accepted the Nobel Prize.  “This is the whole speech: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen.  I stand before you now because I never stopped dawdling like an eight-year-old on a spring morning on his way to school.  Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn. I am a very happy man. Thank you.”

Now, my father was NOT like Felix Hoenniker in most of the other traits we learn of in Cat’s Cradle, but that spirit of excitement and wonder in learning is something they shared.  Hopefully I have inherited part of this spirit as well.

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Just Finished: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I hope to write an in depth post of my thoughts on this book later.  My book club is meeting to discuss it this Thursday, and I’m looking forward to hearing what other people thought of it.  I’ll share our reactions here online later.  For me, it brought back a lot of memories of my one Philosophy class in college (I was talked into it by my genius roommate – a pre-med double major in Biology & Philosophy. You do the math and guess which one of us was “lost” in the class…)

Well, maybe not “completely” lost as I was remembering some material from it during my reading of the Robert Pirsig novel.  Hume, Kant, etc. “blah, blah, blah…”  I’m reminded of an old comedy routine from Steve Martin where he says, “In philosophy, you learn just enough to really screw you up for the rest of your life.”  You know, I think there’s perhaps more than a kernel of truth in that…

(above: Pirsig & son)

So, What’s on My Reading Schedule for September?

It seems my reading for the next month has already been determined by all my “book club” commitments. This is what’s on the agenda:

1.) There I Grew Up: Remembering Abraham Lincoln’s Indiana Youth (by William E. Bartelt)

This is the September book for the “Bookmama’s” bookstore’s discussion group. I have been to a couple of their previous discussions earlier this year (Fahrenheit 451 & Some Buried Caesar) but haven’t made it back lately due to scheduling conflicts. I spoke to Kathleen, the owner of the store, yesterday and she said that the author of this book will also be there, so I hate to miss an opportunity to discuss a book with the author present. This meeting will take place on Monday, September 13th, so I don’t have much time, but there is a three-day weekend between now and then… Also, I don’t even have a copy of the book yet, but I ordered it yesterday and Kathleen said I could pick it up next weekend. This book also fits into my Project: Civil War reading.

2.) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

This is my book club’s September book a and is actually one that I picked for us to read. (we take turns picking from a list of suggested titles by members of the club, but one cannot pick his own suggested book). Is is one of those books that, throughout my life, friends have suggested I read, saying “knowing you, I bet you’d really like this book,” etc. I’m skeptical but we’ll see. Someone said it sounds a lot like another book my club read (Illusions by Richard Bach) which I did not like AT ALL, so I am a bit concerned… I’ve downloaded this book already from Barnes & Noble and it’s not too long, so we’ll see.

3.) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

This will be a re-read for me (third time). My original book club back in the 90’s read it on my recommendation, and I read it myself for the first time in the late 80’s and was very pleasantly surprised, not knowing it wasn’t just a ‘monster book.” This book is the featured reading of a “Great Books” reading group on the north side of Indianapolis, a couple members of which I’ve met on my visits to the local chapter of the CFI (Center for Inquiry), an organization that promotes science and critical thinking. They have a weekly Sunday morning “coffee & conversation” at their location downtown on the canal, which usually features a lot of intimidatingly smart people. For the most part I just keep quiet and nod my head occasionally…

4.) Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

One of my favorite “discoveries” this year is the soon-to-open Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in downtown Indianapolis. They actually have an all-Vonnegut book club that meets the last Thursday of the month (September 30th in this case). I visited them last week for their meeting on Slapstick (more on that later) and it’s a nice group of people, one of whom was a personal friend of Vonnegut(!) and another of whom knows mNy of the Vonnegut family through her work in establishing the memorial library.

That seems like a lot of reading (“required” reading, anyway) for one month, but I think I’ll be able to handle it, and it’s not any more than I’ve been averaging this year.

Well, that’s what’s on tab for Jay this month. What are you reading? Have you read any of these four? Anything I “need to know”…?

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