“Mother Night”

Mother Night

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Kurt Vonnegut’s third novel, published in 1962. I read a 2009 Dial Press Trade Paperback from the library.

Buy the Book.

3 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 2

Seen the Movie: There’s a movie? Weird. There’s a movie. Have not seen it, do not plan to.

The Plot:

American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who spent World War II promoting fascism and hate on German radio (while being a secret agent for the United States), explains how he ended up in an Israeli prison.

Kurt Vonnegut isn’t aging well. Or maybe I’m not aging well. Authors and books I used to love are leaving me irritated. When I read Mother Night four years ago, I gave it five stars. This time, it was a struggle to justify three.

Vonnegut tells us the moral of Mother Night in the introduction: “We are what we pretend to be” (p.v). Which means this tale is about a Nazi. Our sympathies are supposed to be with Howard Campbell and I have no idea why.

There are some very good scenes, all involving events during the war (the death of a dog, the hanging of Campbell’s father-in-law, and a scene in a bomb shelter), but the events and characters in the near-present are caricatures and punchlines. Fascist, racist people are portrayed as harmless buffoons and are given more humanity than Resi Noth, who wins the award for most depressing female character I’ve encountered this year (see note [51]).

By the halfway point, Mother Night had me wishing I’d picked up something else from the library.

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“Bluebeard” (Post 2/2)

Bluebeard 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Buy the Book

Post 1


[34]

But there was nobody to ask, so I never found out. So there is one storytelling fizzle for you, dear Reader. I never found out.

(p.106)

[35]

I didn’t see anybody I knew, which was hardly surprising, since everybody I know is dead.

(p.107-08)

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“Bluebeard” (Post 1/2)

Bluebeard 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


One of Kurt Vonnegut’s last novels, published in 1987. I read a 1988 Dell paperback which has seen better days.   

Buy the Book.

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 2

The Plot:

Failed artist Rabo Karabekian is spurred to write his autobiography by a famous author who is crashing at his Hamptons house for the summer. She’s also dying to know what he’s got locked up in the potato barn.

Like most of Vonnegut’s work post-Cat’s Cradle, there’s not much of an active plot here. Bluebeard is a scattershot character study, jumping around in time, going from thought to thought. The major plot point is figuring out what’s in Karabekian’s potato barn (the answer to which won’t come up in this review. Some things I just won’t spoil).

What draws me to Bluebeard more than Vonnegut’s other later novels are the characters of Circe Berman and Marilee, who call Karabekian (a thinly-veiled Vonnegut) out on his shit. Vonnegut seems aware of some of the criticisms against him and acknowledges their validity. Bluebeard is his ode to women – their strength, the abuse of – while still set firmly in classic Vonnegut style. Continue reading

“God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater”

God Bless You

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]


Kurt Vonnegut’s 1965 novel. I read a Dell paperback edition with a bizarre cover illustration…

2 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 2

No Film Version (as far as I know)

The Plot:

Eliot Rosewater can keep control of his family’s estate as long as he’s legally sane but in a society that sees kindness and unconditional love as irrational, Eliot Rosewater is crazy as hell.

I’m a John Lennon fan, but follow me on this one:

Lennon’s “Imagine” is revered for its Humanistic message; it guaranteed his borderline-sainthood. But on that same album (also titled Imagine) there’s a song called “How Do You Sleep?” Do you know this one? It’s a petty slap-in-the-face to Paul McCartney, sneeringly taunting him for writing popular music (“Those freaks was right when they said you was dead” / “The sound you make is muzak to my ears” and so on). “How Do You Sleep?” is spiteful and hateful and difficult to reconcile with the message of “Imagine.”

And so we have Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Ninety-nine percent of reviews that quote any part of Mr. Rosewater contain this:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-:

“ ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ”

(p.93)

Beautiful, right? It’s Vonnegut at his best: using simple language to break your heart, reducing complex ideas to their most basic elements. Seeing that quote in isolation, it’s easy to categorize Mr. Rosewater as a Humanist tale. In my memory, it was exactly that.

Reading it again, the “How Do You Sleep?” comparison jumped out at me. The narrative of this book is so hateful toward humanity that it’s damn near poisonous. It’s hard to believe Vonnegut’s “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” when he describes his characters like this:

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“Player Piano” (Post 2/2)

Player Piano 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1


[21]

“I want to be sure you understand that men really do worry about what there is for their sons to live for; and some sons do hang themselves.”

“And this is as old as life itself,” said Paul.

“Well?” said Lasher.

“Well, it’s too bad. I’m certainly not overjoyed about it.”

(p.83)

[22]

The kitchen was, in a manner of speaking, what Anita had given of herself to the world. In planning it, she had experienced all the anguish and hellfire of creativity – tortured by doubts, cursing her limitations, at once hungry for and fearful of the opinions of others. Now it was done and admired, and the verdict of the community was: Anita was artistic.

(p.95)

This is clearly sarcasm. Paul (and Vonnegut) look down on Anita for caring and toiling over home design. But listen: Anita is doing this right. She understands exactly what reality she’s living in and how to find worth. She doesn’t sit around moping about how bored and empty and worthless her life is, she’s doing something and I applaud her even if Vonnegut wants to be snooty.

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“Player Piano” (Post 1/2)

Player Piano 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

 Post 2


Kurt Vonnegut’s debut novel, published in 1952. I read a battered and burned Dell Laurel Paperback.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 2

The Plot:

In the years since The Last War, America has entered an age of perfect mechanization and human comfort. Doctor Paul Proteus, son of a legendary engineer, rejects his role as plant manager, wanting something more than subservience to machines.

Player Piano is Kurt Vonnegut’s vision of the near-future from a 1950s perspective. Not every author can be H.G. Wells or Arthur C. Clarke. Vonnegut gets most of it wrong; even by the 1960s, he would have seen how wrong. He assumes computers will remain cumbersome, hulking things used for production and work. There’s no place for technology as entertainment in Player Piano (beyond television) and this is where he really bungles things up.

In Player Piano, regular men – the ones without the high IQs required for engineering jobs – sit around all day with every comfort in the world but nothing to do and therefore no way to justify their existence. Women (except for one female secretary), have nothing to do but watch television; their housework and chores have been taken away, you see. What else is there to do?

Oh, I don’t know: be artistic, read, write, go for walks, play sports – people can find fulfillment and worth in almost any situation. Sit a man in a dark room for long enough and he’ll create a fantasy world to nurture. Boredom is 99% self-imposed. These people simply have no motivation. It has nothing to do with the machines.

So, on a base level, I can’t sympathize with the complaints of Player Piano. But I’ve grown up with technology. I’m quite happy to put my laundry in a machine and read a book while the machine’s hard at work. I’m guessing most people my age (and under) feel the same way. Player Piano will cease working as a narrative at all (if it even works now) in the next couple of decades. If this book is remembered, it will be for two reasons: 1) It was Vonnegut’s first and 2) Its predictions are wrong enough to be an amusing oddity.

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“Cat’s Cradle” (Post 2/2)

Cats Cradle 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/2


 [37]

He held a glass of champagne, which was included in the price of his ticket. That glass was to him what a fishbowl would have been to a normal man, but he drank from it with elegant ease – as though he and the glass could not have been better matched.

The little son of a bitch had a crystal of ice-nine in a thermos bottle in his luggage, and so did his miserable sister.

(p.80) Continue reading

“Cat’s Cradle” (Post 1/2)

Cats Cradle 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 classic. I read a 1970s Dell edition. I wish I knew who designed the cover. 

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 2

The Plot:

Atomic bomb creator Felix Hoenikker has left his last great invention to his three children: Ice-nine, with the power to destroy all life. His children muck it up, of course.

Cat’s Cradle might be Vonnegut’s most pop-culture-referenced book. I’d heard of ice-nine before I ever read it (not that I had idea idea what it was). Vonnegut’s invented terms for his invented religion have also taken on lives of their own. He establishes this religion, Bokononism, effortlessly (also handling a large cast) in less than two-hundred pages.

There are also 127 “chapters” fit into those pages; more like snapshots and set-ups/punchlines than a traditional narrative.

If you’re looking for plot, motivation and character depth, Cat’s Cradle will fall flat. As a thought- and conversation-starter, it’s wonderful.

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“The Sirens of Titan” (Post 3/3)

part 03

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/3

Post 2/3


[45] Vocabulary:

The actual babble, spatter and potch of the fountain could underline the Space Wanderer’s words.

(p.243)

 

noun – A slap, especially to a child.

verb     (1) To slap or spank a child (2) To slap; bump

(Uncommon word. This is a strange use of it.)

[46]

Rumfoord did not look well. His color was bad. And, although he smiled as always, his teeth seemed to be gnashing behind the smile. His complacent glee had become a caricature, betraying the fact that all was not well by any means.

(p.244)

[47] I need to get a better feel for the difference between:

(a) “____,” Rumfoord said.

and

(b) “____,” said Rumfoord.

There is some subtle change in effect between the two. I tend to use (a) but there are times I see authors use (b) and it fits so well. It keeps a conversation flowing; doesn’t imply as much of a pause or finality in the dialogue, like in the following:

“They’d like it just as much the other way around, you know,” he said.

“The other way around?” said the Space Wanderer.

“If the big reward came first, and then the great suffering,” said Rumfoord. “It’s the contrast they like. The order of events doesn’t make any difference to them. It’s the thrill of the fast reverse-

(p.246)

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“The Sirens of Titan” (Post 2/3)

part 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/3

Post 3/3


[24] Vocabulary:

He carried his whangee walking stick at port arms.

(p.67)

 

noun – the wood of any of several Asian bamboos; a walking stick or riding crop of whangee

[25] Vonnegut’s default outlook was pissy and pessimistic, especially in his later years (Everything’s going to hell; there’s no hope for humanity). Ray Bradbury tended toward the absolute opposite (Humans are wonders; we are all miracles; goodness lives in the heart of children). Both were very good writers when they didn’t succumb entirely to these extremes. Sirens of Titan is early enough in Vonnegut’s career that the glimpses into his philosophic pessimism still have an element of wry humor and satire. I’ve read some of Vonnegut’s later speeches and essays and had a miserable time: The man really thought we were all trash.

As Fern expressed the philosophy conversationally, in its simplest terms:

“You go up to a man, and you say, ‘How are things going, Joe?’ And he says, ‘Oh, fine, fine – couldn’t be better.’ And you look into his eyes, and you see things really couldn’t be much worse. When you get right down to it, everybody’s having a perfectly lousy time of it, and I mean everybody. And the hell of it is, nothing seems to help much.”

This philosophy did not sadden him. It did not make him brood.

It made him heartlessly watchful.

(p.69)

[26]

His system was so idiotically simple that some people can’t understand it, no matter how often it is explained. The people who can’t understand it are people who have to believe, for their own peace of mind, that tremendous wealth can be produced only by tremendous cleverness.

(p.73)

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