Kurt Vonnegut

Bookmarked: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 4.13.14 PMThe Bookmarked series, in case you were wondering, is a new line of books from IG Publishing in which lesser-known authors meditate on the impact that various works of literature by better-known authors have had an impact on their lives. Tackling Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the second volume of the series, Curtis Smith takes a cue from the subject of his investigation and offers what might best be termed an “unstuck in time” reading of the novel. Bouncing from point to point and theme to theme throughout Vonnegut’s novel gives Smith the opportunity to touche on a wide range of topics, including (but not limited to) Ayn Rand, Genghis Khan, SpongeBob SquarePants, PTSD, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the ancient Stoic theory of Ekpyrosis, which holds that the universe is destined to be consumed in flames only to recreate itself from the ashes. Yet even as Smith’s musings careen from one topic to the next, he never loses sight of the thread that holds them all together. Indeed, if the central question of Vonnegut’s novel was how to write about a massacre, the central question of Smith’s extended essay is how to write about a book about a massacre. The big difference, of course, is that where Vonnegut could only conclude that there’s nothing sensible to say about a massacre — nothing, that is, beyond the plaintive Poo-tee-weet? of singing birds — Smith finds that there’s plenty to say not only about Vonnegut’s novel in particular, but also about writing in general, and its place in our efforts to make sense of the chaotic world around us. We are capable of great savagery, it turns out, but our saving grace is that we’re ultimately a kind, compassionate, caring species. So, yes, we are doomed time and again to witness and sadly participate in conflagrations large and small, but we’re also party to the kindness and curiosity that allow for new life to emerge from the destruction we wreak. In this engaging take on Vonnegut’s classic anti-iceberg novel, Smith comes down solidly on the side of humanity, for better and for worse.

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The Universe in Miniature in Miniature (and the future of books)

As is well-documented, there’s been a lot of anxiety in recent years about “the future of the book.” Lately, that anxiety has focused on e-books and whether they’ll supplant traditional books as our preferred literary medium. Maybe they will, and maybe they won’t. But one thing’s certain: e-books can’t do the kinds of things that titles from Chicago-based Featherproof do. Scorch Atlas, for example, has the look of a book that’s been through hell and back. Daddy’s looks, at first glance, like a fishing tackle box. And Patrick Somerville’s The Universe in Miniature in Miniature can, if the reader is ready, willing, and able, be converted into a working model of the solar system (see diagrams below!). You just can’t do that with an e-book no matter how hard you try. Yes, these titles are available in e-formats, but half the fun of owning them is just plain looking at them — or “accidentally” leaving them out on your coffee table for your guests to admire and enjoy. To put it another way, these books are cool.

The other half of the fun inherent in Featherproof’s titles, needless to say, is reading them. As reported in an earlier post, Christian Tebordo’s The Awful Possibilities is a mind-bending roller-coaster ride of a read, and Patrick Somerville’s aforementioned The Universe in Miniature in Miniature follows in the same vein. Indeed, the works in Somerville’s collection display a colossal range of imagination and emotional depth. He is an author who is as comfortable depicting the end of the world (as in the apocalyptic “No Sun,” which sees the Earth stop in its tracks without cause or explanation) as he is following the burgeoning passions of a teenage girl (as in the coming-of-age tale “The Wildlife Biologist”).

Significantly, Somerville is also funny, as initially evidenced by the book’s dedication to Slartibartfast (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) and borne out through subsequent tales of wayward, incompetent aliens, grad students in unaccredited MFA programs, and a balding man desperately seeking matriculation into an overseas institution known only as Hair University. The humor in all of these situations is, of course, balanced with pathos, underscoring the exquisite ambivalence of the human condition in ways reminiscent of both Kurt Vonnegut and Woody Allen. Our struggle for happiness, these stories suggest, will always be undercut by our tendency to screw things up, yet it’s our tendency to screw things up which, ironically, makes us keep trying (and failing, and trying again) and, not coincidentally, also makes us human. We are flawed, and we are beautiful, and we are funny. Patrick Somerville sees all of it (and then some), and reports lovingly on our shared humanity throughout The Universe in Miniature in Miniature. It is, in short, an amazing collection of stories.

Most likely, we’ll be debating the future of the book until the Earth does, in fact, stop in its tracks, but as long as small presses like Featherproof — which is to say, people who care deeply not only about storytelling but about books themselves, the very experience of reading a book, the thrill of regarding a book as more than a medium for conveying information but as a work of art in and of itself — have anything to say about it, the printed word will continue to thrive. If you or someone you know is a book lover, do yourself a favor and check out this wonderful press.

Build your own solar system with Patrick Somerville's THE UNIVERSE IN MINIATURE IN MINIATURE!

Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story

Fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater will find a familiar figure in Doris Buffett, the subject of Michael Zitz’s new biography, Giving It All Away. Like the fictional Rosewater, Buffett (the sister of legendary investor Warren Buffett), has made it her life’s mission to share her fortune with people in need. As with Rosewater, many who seek aid from Buffett are individuals who, through no fault of their own, have fallen upon hard times, and it’s not uncommon for Buffett to personally telephone those who request her help. Unlike Rosewater, however, Buffett was not — as some might imagine — born into wealth. Indeed, a good portion of Giving It All Away focuses on Buffett’s early years, during which she endured the verbal abuse of her emotionally distant mother.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the stormy relationship between herself and her mother, Buffett gravitated toward adults who could provide a template for the kind of woman she would one day become. Most notably, a widow named Florence Post opened her eyes not only to cultural issues but to the value of kindness as well, planting the seed of philanthropy and, more important, resilience in Buffett’s heart at an early age. In her life, Buffett has overcome depression, failed marriages, and bankruptcy, and if there’s one thing that these experiences have taught her, it’s that everyone encounters bad luck from time to time.

Though Giving It All Away returns frequently to the subject of her generosity, Buffett also emerges as a complex “character” in her own right throughout the narrative. Most notably, Buffett’s involvement with anti-communist politics and her subsequent work with the Barry Goldwater campaign in the early 1960’s stands in stark contrast to her eventual support of Barrack Obama in 2008 and her interest throughout the last two decades in what might, for better or worse, be termed “liberal” causes. The irony, of course, is not lost on Buffett, who is quoted as saying, “There used to be a myth that communists were trying to take over America by influencing the five percent of college students who were most intelligent and the most sensitive… Now I’m trying to do the same thing.”

Ultimately, Giving It All Away paints Buffett as a social pragmatist. Though seemingly “liberal” on the surface, the causes she has supported over the years are all, in her estimation, beneficial to the whole of society. For example, as many states slashed funding for education programs in prisons, Buffett got behind many such programs and kept them afloat. Her reasoning was simple: although some might argue that criminals don’t deserve a “free” education, statistics show dramatically reduced rates of recidivism among those who have completed degree programs. For Buffett, then, supporting these and similar programs is pure common sense.

Inspirational without being syrupy, Giving It All Away does for readers what the caring adults in Buffett’s youth did for her: it gives us a template for generosity and, borrowing a phrase that gets repeated throughout the book, challenges us to pay our good fortune forward.