The Sirens of Titan

Sirens of TitanThe Sirens of Titan is actually a re-read for me as I venture through all of Vonnegut’s novels. If I recall correctly, I first read this book in 2015 and it was the first Vonnegut book I ever read. My recent re-read is due to my new appreciation of Vonnegut’s works, and I wanted to read this book with my new perspective. I did like it the first time around, but I enjoyed it a bit more this second time. This definitely falls in the genre of science fiction as many of his earlier works do, but it is less a science fiction story than a story that hints at that question: What is the meaning of life?

This novel has many interesting ideas and themes much like his other novels. I think I enjoyed this one more than most of his others partly due to the science fiction elements but also because it hints at a beauty through the harshness of humanity and even hints at the beauty of action in a universe seemingly pre-ordained. It speaks to the resiliency of humanity in a universe where we have no real control and there is no clear reason for our existence. It playfully dabbles with religion but does not comment directly like a few of his other novels. This story also dabbles with the meaning of luck and its inequity. Life can be difficult and unfair, just as it can be easy for some. Just as Malachi Constant.

It’s difficult to give a summary of this book without giving away key elements. To put it as simply as possible, this novel is about Malachi Constant, the wealthiest man on Earth for a time, who travels from Earth to Mars to Mercury, back to Earth, and finally to Titan, a moon of Saturn. This may not be the most enticing descriptions of a novel, but given the other tidbits discussed above, I think you’ll know whether or not you want to give it a go.

Happy Reading.

Bluebeard

BluebeardBluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut was first published in 1987 and is the hoax autobiography of Rabo Karabekian. This novel is laced with many parallels to Vonnegut’s own life. Much more so than his other novels as they all include aspects, either references or core experiences, from his personal history. Regardless of any level of direct association between author and text, this book was fun to read because it focuses on a changing history within America (and the world) mostly around art, war, and the changing of generations and what is remaining, fading, or gaining the spotlight of world events.

This novel centers around Rabo Karabekian, an aging artist and World War II vet, who has a secret locked away in his potato barn on Long Island. Along comes a younger, recently widowed, woman who invites herself to stay in his home and badgers him to tell her his life story. The result is in effect the entirety of this novel.

Circe Berman, the widow in question, is tiresome at times with her efforts to uproot Rabo’s contentment with (or resignation to) the life he has led. I doubt anyone would really have put up with some of her behaviors, but her own vitality re-ignites the old man’s interests in life to the point he is no longer content just sitting around and waiting to die. This gives us our story and one which I recommend because Vonnegut again gives a narrative that provides a unique perspective of what life means on this small world and how we live together within it.

The celebrities of today will fade and new popular artists and persons will emerge. Each generation seems to have their own heroes and time is unrelenting. Rabo Karabekian was fine thinking he was a forgotten artist who possibly made it into a footnote of history. He had seen much change in the world and most of his friends were gone. His perspective of seeing a world that has somehow already moved on from such a major event as World War II is both incredulous and sorrowful.

Unfortunately, the technologies of today almost make it seem like newsworthy events are cycling through the front page faster and faster than ever before. The world has forgotten the realities of the World Wars and unfortunately quickly forgets the realities of yesterday leaving us no time to mourn or laugh or even ponder the moments that are making up our lives.

So, dear reader, I hope you remember to slow down and enjoy the life you have. Read books that make you feel, think, wonder, and learn. Read books that give you new perspectives. The world is rich with all types of experiences. Go forth and enjoy the time you have.

Happy Reading.

Mother Night

Mother NightMother Night is Kurt Vonnegut’s third book and was originally published in 1961. It is one of several of Vonnegut’s novels that is relatively short and, at least for me, read easy. I very well could have finished it in an evening. I did finish in just a few days.

This story features Howard W. Campbell, Jr. who is wanted as a WWII Nazi war criminal. However, he was secretly a spy for America, his native country, but has no way to prove his work that helped defeat the Nazis and no agent from America will or can vouch for him. His work as a spy prevented him being tried as a war criminal directly after the war, but after 15 years lying low in New York, he becomes the center of many people’s, and several nation’s, attention once again.

Not only does this book drip with references to Vonnegut’s own time during WWII, but it provides a fictional yet very real perspective of how people still hold strong beliefs and alarmingly hateful ideas despite what paths have been walked throughout history. I hate to say that this book very much remains relevant considering the growing number of people spouting old hatreds that should have been buried by society long ago (or perhaps the hatreds were always there and they found new ways or more confidence in shouting them).

Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is a man who did and promoted terrible things. He admits as much and states how he was able to do them in order to survive the times that enveloped much of the world. He knew the evils he committed but held shreds of hope that his work was worthwhile as through those evils he provided information to assist those he truly believed in. His struggles resulted in a mostly apathetic, shattered old man who finds a way to live through any situation or society. Unfortunately, I think to a degree, we all take part in a society where we disagree with many aspects and wish things were better than they were or more accepting of the things we hold most valuable.

For me, that would be books, and the recent increases in book bans (including works by Vonnegut) only increases my desire to speak up and spread the information others want to suppress. Perhaps this counts as doing just that.

Happy Reading.

And So It Goes

And So It GoesChris J. Shields’s biography And So It Goes – Kurt Vonnegut: A Life is a deep look into the incredible life of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. By incredible, I don’t necessarily mean great, good, or terrible. I mean Kurt experienced a lot, both good and bad, and approached life valiantly while notably having his own shortcomings. I had known he was a POW during WWII and was held in Dresden when the city was destroyed. This much is mentioned many times in discussions, intros, and summaries of his novels (especially Slaughterhouse Five). Much of what he wrote about does go back to his experiences during that time. There are snippets of Vonnegut’s personal life in his novels but more so on their jackets, so some of the major events within this book (i.e. of his life) were known ahead of time, but what was offered in those snippets were unfocused facts and this biography gives them clarity.

Reading more about Vonnegut gives a different perspective for his novels. Certain things seem more personal, or significant, than they had been previously. Much of what he covers in various stories seem sourced directly from his life. Many of his short stories were written earlier in his career, and many of his novels written later with the exception of his more popular books. For example, his first book Player Piano was published in 1952, then Sirens of Titan (1959), Mother Night (1961), Cat’s Cradle (1963), then his fifth and most famous novel Slaughterhouse Five released in 1969. He wrote a total of 14 books and many other articles, short stories, essays, speeches, etc. all the way up until his death in 2007 with several publications being posthumous including an in-progress novel he had been working on.

The world Vonnegut was born into in 1922 was completely different than the one we know today 100 years later (perhaps it is by more than chance I’ve come to Vonnegut at this century marker). The world we know today is already completely different than the one he died in back in 2007. The world is ever changing while human societies seem to change at a much slower rate. There is a quote from Vonnegut in this book that goes something like “take the world seriously, but none of the people in it.” I think that is sound advice.

Vonnegut was a prolific writer who enjoyed much of the fame he had heaped upon him in his later years, and he enjoyed most of this fame while disliking some of it. The Vonnegut many readers imagine in their minds, derived simply from his books, is quite different from the man who wrote those books. Not having known him myself, I rely on this biography and other anecdotes I’ve read by others to build a better picture of the man himself. This biography does a phenomenal job and may be the most extensive record we have of his life, but an entire life is ~425 pages is still a small window.

Vonnegut was no doubt a great writer, but he was an absent father and poor husband. He was married to Jane for 34 years and likely would not have become the writer he was without her support and without her taking on the role of singular parent to six children. Granted, Kurt took in three nephews when his sister and brother-in-law died tragically within days of each other. Much of what Kurt did was aimed with good intentions except of course his infidelities which lead to the eventual end of his first marriage. His second marriage seemed almost to include a little karma for his shortcomings in his first. I’m not one to judge solely from one perspective, but I believe Chris J. Shields did a phenomenal job presenting the facts of Vonnegut’s life and had the extensive research notes to support them. Essentially, Kurt’s second wife was an apathetic, overly-ambitious bitch who treated him poorly especially at the end of his life.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had a long, incredible life rife with blessings and curses. He wrote stories that bombed and stories that were immensely successful. He remains a prominent author today and is read widely, and I think as a society we still don’t know how best to categorize his work. He “began” his career being placed in science fiction due to the use of some themes of that genre. Later, he was deemed “black humor” and of course each book has its own elements that would sway things one way or another. I think his work has come into its own and is simply referred to by his name. Vonnegut is Vonnegut whatever that means for each of us.

I for one have come to enjoy Vonnegut’s work and will continue to read through his novels (and likely re-read a few I hadn’t fully appreciated early on). Knowing more about him as a person, I likely will read his books with a little more insight and understanding. I think anyone who is a fan of Vonnegut should read this book to better understand who he was as it differed in many ways from what is gleaned from his novels.

Happy Reading.

Player Piano

Player PianoAgain I return to Vonnegut and am now recommending his first novel Player Piano. I was pleasantly surprised with this one. This is an incredible debut novel first published in 1952, making it now 70 years old this year. The story follows engineer Dr. Paul Proteus through a world that is near full-automation. Machines run practically everything and only a handful of engineers are needed to maintain the system alongside a group of managers. These managers and engineers believe themselves to be the elite while all others are employed by the government via joining the Army or by joining an organization called the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps playfully called the Reeks and Wrecks.

Being 70 years old, and Vonnegut himself passing away in 2007 mere months before the first iPhone was released, there was no way this novel could have predicted the development of the technology we know today. However, it does imagine a highly technical, although mechanic, world where humans are quickly replaced by machines to complete their work which leaves them few options and little excitement or pride in their lives. Everything is studied/surveyed en masse prior to anything being produced so everyone gets pre-fabricated houses with the same appliances and all entertainment is generalized and must fit pre-determined guidelines.

People take exams when they graduate/reach adulthood and are given a score that prescribes their future. The score, highly focused on IQ level, essentially tells them they can go to college to be an engineer or will have to choose either the Army or Reeks and Wrecks. Their IQ is public record and cannot be changed. Any discussion of anti-automation is considered treason. The word “saboteur” holds a special meaning and is considered the worst offense.

There is a lot packed into this one novel and it still speaks to much of what society grapples with today. Though machines may not be as prevalent, we have computers that can replace what were once people-operated jobs. The surveying of the public is now market research and we all have experienced the dreadful targeted ads. The Reeks and Wrecks would be considered Socialism and railed against politically, and many people are working multiple jobs for demeaning wages. This book was written at a time when the nation’s wealth was more equally distributed, so it is hard to imagine what Vonnegut would have had to say about the number of billionaires today who pay their frontline workers so little they need to utilize food stamps. But that is a rant for another day.

I think this novel holds up quite well now 70 years later. In fact, it may be one of Vonnegut’s best novels though it doesn’t get discussed as much as Slaughterhouse Five, Sirens of Titan, or Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut focused much of his work on societal observations and problems people faced or society faced as a whole. Player Piano seems to be the most direct that I’ve read yet. There are more I still need to read, and I will get to them eventually.

Happy Reading.