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Sorry, I haven’t posted in a while.  I could say that I was kidnapped by terrorists, held in a remote cave, and had to fight my way out using household appliances I transformed into elaborate homemade weaponry.  But I was on vacation.  I’m back and now that summer is over, you can expect posts on a regular basis.  Deal with it.

Last week, I posted a couple updates to my last Vonnegut  review that let you know I finished my summer reading project.  It was a photo finish, but I made my goal.  The last two were Slapstick and Timequake. I’ll be posting reviews on both, as well as an overall essay on the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, later on in the week. But before I do all that, I wanted to jot down some surprising thoughts that this whole process has brought up for me.

Recently, and for the seemingly umpteenth-millionth time in my life, I came upon the phrase “eighty percent of success is showing up.”  It was in an article commemorating the just departed Ted Kennedy and the writer was making the argument that Kennedy embodied the phrase not just because of how his family legacy played a major part in his political career, but his tireless work ethic that kept him at the office late into the night. The idiom is said to have been coined by Woody Allen and, to be frank, always struck me as bullshit.  Sure, having the courage not to quit or run away is vital, but let’s be honest—that formula for success requires you to have somewhere to show up to, which seems to me means you need a lot more than perfect attendance (usually, a combination of perseverance, luck, and nepotism) and I think the vast titles of how-to books with “surefire ways to success” proves me right.

Right about the time I rediscovered that sanctimonious saying, I finished my summer reading project. And somehow, my feelings of accomplishment got me thinking that maybe showing up isn’t what’s important for success, maybe it’s finishing what you start. Or more specifically, it’s important for my success.

I’ll admit it: I’ve never been a big finisher.  Sure, I got through college and grad school, but when it came to self-initialed projects and goals I just never got around to completing them. My childhood was littered with model cars and airplanes that were put back in their boxes, half-glued with a few steps left to go in the directions.  Ideas for comic books, short stories, and novels are saved throughout my computer with only a few paragraphs and rough outlines to them. Inspiration has never been a problem for me, but following through on those thoughts is another story.  It always seems that I’m letting a project or idea drift by the wayside and then jumping on another new one, staying in the vicious cycle of good starts for solid ideas.

Meeting my goal of reading all the novels of Kurt Vonnegut by September 1st was the first time in a good long while that I finished something I started.  It wasn’t something I had to do for work or school.  I did it for no other reason than I simply wanted to.  It makes me want to finish a lot of things.

[Pic via sweatyguineapig.com]

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bluebeardOkay.  So, to start off: I’m so fucked.  Here I am on the last day of August (the day before my deadline) with still a ways to go.  Throughout this whole summer reading thing—for those of you just tuning in: I’m reading all the novels of Kurt Vonnegut—I’ve always said that my goal date to be finished is September 1st…tomorrow.  Shit.

So let’s get to the latest book for me to get under my belt: Bluebeard.  For me, this is the closest thing to a mystery that Vonnegut ever wrote.  As I explained in my post for Galapagos, Vonnegut’s habit of informing his audience on how the novel is going to end (generally in the first chapter) creates an irritating lack of suspense, particularly in the last fifty pages because…well, you know how it’s going to end!  Bluebeard seems to be Vonnegut’s response to such criticism.

Narrated by Rabo Karabekian, the abstract expressionist painter who made an appearance in Breakfast of Champions, the novel gets its title from the Bluebeard fairytale.  The legend tells of a king, or aristocrat, Bluebeard, who repeatedly keeps getting married even though all his wives eventually disappear.  When he does get married (for the umpteenth time), he tells his new bride that she is free to roam anywhere in the castle/mansion, except one specific room.  And of course, each time, the fact she can’t go into that single room piques the bride’s curiosity and drives her desire to see what’s in the there.  When she does manage to open the door and see what’s inside, the wife is shocked to find the room filled with the bodies of all the other wives (all of whom also broke the rule of not looking into the room and thus saw the bodies of their predecessors, as well).  Bluebeard then kills the latest wife/victim, adds her to his expanding collection of dead brides, and begins looking to get married again.

This legend mirrors the mystery of the book: Karabekian’s locked potato barn and former studio, which he has ordered no one to enter.  The novel, which Karabekian writes as his autobiography, explains his origin as the child of survivors from the Turkish Armenian genocide with an apprenticeship to the most famous classically trained artist in the U.S. to his service/capture by the Germans in World War II and eventual member of the abstract expressionist movement in 1950’s and 1960’s, joining the likes of Pollack and Rothko.  The narrative cuts between Karabekian’s life story and his present life in his Hampton mansion filled with the largest modern abstract art collection in the world, where a Baltimore widow/writer/uninvited house guest, Circe Berman, challenges his beliefs on art and everything else in his life.

For what it’s worth, this is one of my favorite Vonnegut novels and also the best of the titles that I’d never heard of before this project.  It does a great job of exploring ideas and themes tied to artistic creativity and even the communities that it creates.  While the “mystery” isn’t the biggest payoff when you finally see what’s locked in the barn, it does a good job of keeping the tension and thus setting the pace for the reader.

So here I am coming up on the last day and two books left to go.  Thankfully, I’m on vacation.  I think I’m going to make it.

UPDATE: I just finished Slapstick a little before 1 AM.  So all I have to do is finish reading Timequake by the end of the day.  I’ll post the reviews for both later.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Just finished Timequake a little before 1:30 PM on September 1st.

[Pic via Amazon.com]

Sorry, I didn’t post anything last week.  I’ve been busy—in the words of the American thespian, Vince Vaughn: “It’s wedding season!” So my time has been spent between a bachelor party in Atlantic City, a wedding in Maine, getting a jump on work to take the time off, and then playing catch up once I got back to the office.  Thankfully, I was able to get some reading done in my travels and knocked two more titles off my summer reading list.

So let’s get to the double dose of Vonnegut: Galapágos and Deadeye Dick. At the center of both novels (written in the mid-eighties) lay catastrophic events.  For Galapágos, it’s the end of all human life (as we know it anyway), while for Deadeye Dick it’s the detonation of a neutron bomb in the heart of an American Midwestern city.

Galapagos(Vonnegut)Let’s start with Galapágos.  If you’re a big believer in intelligent design, or not very intelligent (ya see what I did there?), then I might need to explain the title. The Galápagos Islands are a cluster of islands around the equator, just off the coast of Ecuador.  They feature an exotic array of wild animals that developed on their own, separated from the rest of the world, and were the key inspiration for Darwin to form the concept of evolution (you’ll notice that I didn’t use the word “theory”).  The novel itself centers on a group of survivors of a worldwide crisis that have washed ashore on a Galapágos island and how their descendents become (over a million years) into the next stage of human evolution.  Don’t worry; I’m not giving anything away—Vonnegut (as per his usual MO) let’s the reader in on that particular plot point fairly early on.

And for the most part Galapágos plays to Vonnegut’s strengths.  Its themes allow him to riff on a variety of topics—a personal favorite is a handheld electronic translator that seems like it would be a technology godsend, but is absolutely useless to the survivors.  And even though most of the book is funny, it became a grueling read.  Because Vonnegut informs the reader on how it’s all going to end anyway, with precise details including which characters will die soon and which will make it to the island, so there’s no tension to draw you along.  I honestly had to force myself to finish the last 50 pages.  The only really interesting aspect, for me anyway, is how the narrative voice breaks through the fourth wall and acknowledge itself has an omniscient first person—a ghost with ties to another Vonnegut character that has appeared in his previous work.

9780385334174Next up, is Deadeye Dick, which I wouldn’t classify as a direct sequel to Breakfast of Champions but more as a spin off.  The majority of its action takes place in Midland City, Ohio and features many of the same characters as Breakfast (including a major scene with Dwayne Hoover).  The title is the nickname for the novel’s main character, Rudy Waltz, which was assigned to him after a tragic incident as a young boy.  Waltz narrates the story from the hotel he owns with his brother in Haiti.  The plot goes all the way from how his aristocratic wannabe artist and Nazi-sympathizing father met his muted wallflower of a mother to Rudy’s own life as an outcast/night pharmacist/failed playwright in Midland City and how owning a hotel in Hatti saved his life.

The book explores ideas of guilt and loss fairly well and does a fantastic job of navigating  the concept of moral accountability—one scene in particular, in which Rudy’s father has a full blown manic episode of taking responsibility for what his child has done, is a tour de force of  humor, sadness, egomania, and so much more.  It all pays off with the previously mentioned catastrophic event and the idea that, except for Hitler (who also makes an appearance in the book) and of course Bin Laden (but this was written before 9/11) we can never really find that one person responsible for a national/worldwide tragedy.  One final thing from Deadeye Dick that I want to cover is the theme of failure as an artist.  Vonnegut really hits the nail on the head on this one, particularly in regards to something I’ve recently discovered in my own life—it’s easier to be poseur than to actually try.  Despite the fact that it’s a cliché doesn’t make it any less true: if you never really make an attempt at something, you’ll never fail.

Alright, that’s two down and here I am with only three books to go before I’ve read all of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, but with less than a week till my deadline of September 1st.  This is the story of my life.  It always comes down to the wire with me rushing to get my work done.  But I’m going to make it without any extensions.  I’ll just plow through the last three from now until Monday.  I can do this.

[Pics via Wikipedia and biblio.com]

HocusPocus(Vonnegut)In case you didn’t know, I’m a huge nerd.  How big a nerd? Well, remember those summer reading lists from when you were a kid? I’ve assigned myself one and it’s a doozy.  I want to be able to say by the end of August that I’ve read all the novels of Kurt Vonnegut.  I subtracted the few that I’d read before and am crossing the rest off one by one.  I’ll post reviews as I go and you can track my overall progress here.

Alright, so here I am in the home stretch.  It’s now the last month of summer and I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a little behind.  After this entry, I have five novels left with three weeks to read them; daunting, but completely doable.  If worse comes to worst and it doesn’t look like I’m going to make my deadline of the first day in September, I’ll push it back to the day after Labor Day, which a friend recently pointed out to me is when summer is “officially” over.   Anyway, let ‘s get to this latest review, which is…

Hocus Pocus was recommend to me by an acquaintance after I told him about my summer reading project.  “It’s my favorite,” he said—a surprise since most people will claim Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle as being their personal favorite.  Like a lot of the other books I’ve read so far, the cover for Hocus Pocus was emblazoned with the phrase “classic Vonnegut!” and the novel itself utilized many of the standard Vonnegut tropes and themes I’ve come to expect—non-linear narrative structure, heavy foreshadowing, stupid rich people, even a thinly veiled Kilgore Trout reference.  What surprises me most is that I still really enjoyed it.

As seen to some degree in previous books, Vonnegut writes in a broken up style again—though this time in the utmost extreme.  In fact, he inserts an editor’s note on the first page informing the reader that “the author of this book did not have access to writing paper of uniform size and quality” and thus it was written in snippets “on everything from brown wrapping paper to the backs of business cards.”  Lines cut through the text and separate it into sections, which are about three to a page.

The story’s narrator/main character is Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam veteran who has taken Vonnegut’s own advice to “make love often” (he screws anything that moves) and was once a professor at Tarkington College, a post-graduate school specifically for learning disable children of the wealthy and elite. Hartke narrates while a prisoner on the Tarkington campus, which is now a prison.  Taking place in the then near future (2001), this is an America that has been bought out by foreign companies (much like the RAMJAC Corporation in Jailbird).  And he tells of how he went to West Point, then to Vietnam, ended up teaching at Tarkington, got fired, got hired teaching at a prison owned by a Japanese company, wound up back at Tarkington when it became a prison, and in his lifetime has ended up killing the exact same amount of people he’s had sex with (which is a lot in both cases).

Although you wouldn’t think so, this is the most political of any Vonnegut novel I’ve read so far. Sure, his left of center views have always come through his previous work, but here it is more overt. Through a combination of factors, Vonnegut covers his view on pretty much everything under the American political sun: war, race, the penal system, imperialism, globalization, drugs, public relations, media, big business, etc.  One character, Helen Doe, is introduced near the end of the story and only seems to exist in order to spout theories on American class warfare.  Another, Jason Wilder, is a detailed amalgamation of every conservative media figure that has and will ever exist, right down to the pride of being so damn ignorant about the rest of the world.  It all feeds into Vonnegut’s message that, whether we like it or not, our lives are influenced by the political in some way or another; from the war that we watch on television to the job we take—it’s all caused by that behind-the-scenes “hocus pocus.”

[Pic via Wikipedia]

JailbirdIn case you didn’t know, I’m a huge nerd.  How big a nerd? Well, remember those summer reading lists from when you were a kid? I’ve assigned myself one and it’s a doozy.  I want to be able to say by the end of August that I’ve read all the novels of Kurt Vonnegut.  I subtracted the few that I’d read before and am crossing the rest off one by one.  I’ll post reviews as I go and you can track my overall progress here.

After finishing up Breakfast of Champions, I decided to try a different course in how I selected which Vonnegut novel to read next.  Previously, I’d just gone down the chronological list,  so  I wanted to “hop around” in sequence of titles.  I went on Amazon and ordered a bunch of used copies for the titles I’ve got left to go and are now reading them at random.  The first to be arbitrary pulled out of the pile is Jailbird.

Jailbird is more engaging as a cultural artifact than a novel. After a bizarrely long autobiographical introduction, Vonnegut introduces the protagonist Walter F. Starbuck, former public servant about to be released from prison for his role in the Watergate scandal (Vonngut also ties Starbuck to McCarthyism and, through the wealthy benefactor that pays for his college education, the labor movement of the early twentieth century).  The novel, written as a memoir, jumps back and forth through time telling as Starbuck recalls attending Harvard (the theme of being a “Harvard man” is thoroughly batted around), joining the Communist party in the late thirties,  joining government service and playing a major part in rebuilding a post-war Europe, getting sucked into Nixon’s dirty politics,  and then sent to prison.  The meat of the story takes place the two days following his release and subsequent destitute living in New York that leads to Starbuck becoming a Vice President at the omnipotent RAMJAC corporation, which pretty much owns EVERYTHING.

Vonnegut effectively explores a truly, though completely fictional, “American” life not just in politics but history.  It’s a fun light read that makes you reflect on the defining moments (both remembered and forgotten by the general public) in political affairs and how they affect the personal.  That being said, if you’ve ever read a Vonnegut novel, then none of the tropes used through this book will take you by surprise.  From autobiographical postmodern winks wrapped up in fractured chronology to heavy handed foreshadowing, hell there’s even half-cameo by Kilgore Trout—it’s almost as if Vonnegut reached a point where he had checklist to follow every time he sat down to write a novel.

I’m starting to think I’m overdosing on Vonnegut.

[Pic via Wikipedia.org]

breakfastIn case you didn’t know, I’m a huge nerd.  How big a nerd? Well, remember those summer reading lists from when you were a kid? I’ve assigned myself one and it’s a doozy.  I want to be able to say by the end of August that I’ve read all the novels of Kurt Vonnegut.  I subtracted the few that I’d gotten and am crossing the rest off one by one.  I’ll post reviews as I go and you can track my overall progress here.

So here we are at the halfway point.  After finishing this, I’ve now read seven of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels with another seven to go.  And it’s kind of fitting that Breakfast of Champions is that midway point.  In the introduction, Vonnegut calls this novel “my fiftieth-birthday present to myself” and an attempt “to clear my head of all the junk there.”   He also playful muses and riffs on copyright laws and the book’s title, which is derived from the old slogan for Wheaties—from then on we know that Vonnegut is at his wittiest (or at least trying his best to channel it). Every Vonnegut fanatic I’ve ever encountered has claimed this to be their favorite.  So you can understand why I had such high hopes for this novel….and it just didn’t do it for me.

One of the goals of the novel, which Vonnegut lays out in his rambling introduction, is to purge himself of certain characters he’s accumulated over the years.  In that vein, the story centers on fan favorite Kilgore Trout, who made appearances in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Slaughterhouse-Five (from what I understand he pops up in others, but I’ve yet to read them).  In my post reviewing God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, I described Trout as a “pornographic science-fiction writer” and I feel have to clarify what I meant.  It’s not that what he writes is salacious or offensive, it’s just that his writing is only published in porn magazines.  Trout’s entire library of work is bound in magazines that feature pictures of women either exposing themselves or engaged in sexual acts, even though they don’t relate in any way to what he writes about.

The plot revolves around Trout’s invitation to speak at Midland City’s Arts Festival (he was recommend to the chairman of the festival by Eliot Rosewater, the main character from God Bless, Mr. Rosewater and Trout’s number one fan) and upon reaching Midland City, located somewhere in the Midwest, his meeting of Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy businessman/car dealer who is going insane.  Their encounter and its aftermath are heavily foreshadowed and referenced as the story cuts between Trout traveling through America and Hoover descending into madness with various tangents that include the back stories of Midland residents and other secondary characters, summaries of Trout’s novels and stories, and Hoover’s delusions.  All this leads to a postmodern ending, breaking the fourth wall, that seems more forced than cathartic.

I couldn’t help but have the impression that Vonnegut was given too much leeway on this book and could have benefited from an editor reining him in.  Then again how does one tell a literary legend that he can’t include felt-tip pen illustrations of an anus or vagina in his book?  But God damn it, no matter what I say, Vonnegut makes it work.  He somehow makes  a narrative that’s been cut apart and sewn together flow smoothly and there are some really beautiful moments.  But it doesn’t all pack the same punch in the end like Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, or even Sirens of Titan, and that’s the most heartbreaking thing of it all.  It’s not a bad book, I just expected more than it delivered.

[Pic via Amazon.com]

GodBlessYouMrRosewater(Vonnegut)In case you didn’t know, I’m a huge nerd.  How big a nerd? Well, remember those summer reading lists from when you were a kid? I’ve assigned myself one and it’s a doozy.  I want to be able to say by the end of August that I’ve read all the novels of Kurt Vonnegut.  I subtracted the few that I’d already read and am crossing the rest off one by one.  I’ll post reviews as I go and you can track my overall progress here.

The driving force of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is fairly simple: money.  Eliot Rosewater is an eccentric millionaire (which is still a lot in 1965) who heads a philanthropic foundation originally created as a tax shelter for his family money.  A lawyer in the massive law firm that heads up his family’s affairs, Norman Mushari, plots to have Eliot declared insane and thus, by the foundation’s charter, revoked as president and replaced by a distant cousin.  Mushari’s scheme is to siphon off a portion of the Rosewater fortune during this change of power. There’s even a cameo by Vonnegut’s beloved pornographic science-fiction writer, Kilgore Trout.

Overall, I was not too impressed with this one.  It certainly has some classic moments of Vonnegut humor—Rosewater’s preferred method of serving the community is a combination of volunteer firefighting and one and one charity in the small county of Indiana where his family originally made its wealth (a really great moment is a phone conversation with a man contemplating suicide and Eliot’s haggling with him over how much it will cost to keep the guy from killing himself) and Vonneguts depiction of the distant cousin chosen to usurp Eliot is a boob who has a pretty comedic form of middle-class existentialism.  We see the same themes covered in previous Vonnegut novels, identity, destiny, social status, etc., and it begins to feel like he’s beating a dead horse.  There is some interesting ground covered dealing with loneliness in American society and the overall use of consumerism and money to feel accepted and even loved.  What I found more interesting is the how the novel moves through the plot via a series of interlocking shorter stories. The narrative jumps from scenes in the present action to scenes depicted in reports, letters, recounted memories, and dialogue. It gives a disjointed feel at times, but I think it works.

I also couldn’t help come away with a sense that Vonnegut really cannot stand people born into wealth.  Take this with the protagonists of the Sirens of Titan and it seems to be a drum he can’t help beating over and over—people who didn’t earn their money, especially if it’s a great amount, can’t properly function in society.  They don’t understand the everyday trials and tribulations of us commoners and are thus alien to the majority of people. It’s an idea that doesn’t take much effort to agree with, just look at Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian ( I’m pretty sure neither understands how to balance a checkbook or pay a cell phone bill).  Mix that with the chronic American fantasy of “if I had a million dollars,” and society does seem pretty comical and insane.  Still, while reading this I found myself thinking more than once, “Jesus, Kurt, let it go already!”

[Pic via Wikipedia.]