nonfiction

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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Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag

Sick JusticeAn eye-opening and compelling critique of the American criminal justice system, Ivan Goldman’s Sick Justice examines the political, social, and economic forces that have increased the per capita number of federal and state prison inmates by well over 250% since 1980. Working under that assumption that the criminal justice system should create a safer, more humane society, Goldman argues that shortsightedness with respect to the problem of crime has done the opposite. We have become, in Goldman’s words, a society, “more concerned with punishment than with truth.” As a result, any semblance of order afforded by the so-called war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentences, and draconian policies like California’s “three strikes” law is ultimately illusory.

Frequently, Goldman demonstrates throughout his study, criminals who know how to play the game tend to stay out of jail—either by eluding capture, informing on other criminals for reduced sentences, or by simply slipping through the cracks. Indeed, the sheer number of prisoners, parolees, and probationers clogging the system (estimated at over seven million) makes it nearly impossible for authorities to keep track of their charges, thus providing greater opportunities for the most dangerous criminals to commit acts of violence. Meanwhile, many people who find themselves on the wrong side of the law do so unwittingly. Sick Justice offers a wide range of anecdotes regarding naïve first-time offenders who, in some instances, happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or, in others, committed crimes so petty as to be otherwise laughable. Due to their inexperience with the system—not to mention a distinct lack of criminal connections on whom to inform—these offenders often end up serving sentences incommensurate with the crimes of which they’ve been accused.

Goldman also examines a number of adjacent issues that have hastened the breakdown of the criminal justice system. The closing of mental health institutions across the country led many former patients to spend the rest of their lives, in Goldman’s words, “bouncing from homelessness on the street to homelessness in jail.” Additionally, the rise of corporate-owned for-profit prisons has led, in turn, to intense lobbying for harsh laws and strict sentencing guidelines: “The Gulag industry can always justify putting more people in prison and imposing longer sentences, no matter what’s going on outside the walls: if crime rises, we must need more people behind bars. If crime goes down, wholesale imprisonment must be succeeding.” Finally, the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, have left in their wake a culture less invested in attempting to balance freedom and security—erring, it goes without saying, almost invariably on the side of security.

Ultimately, Goldman’s point is that the American criminal justice system has sacrificed long-term effectiveness for short-term gains. Promising to get tough on crime always plays well for politicians in election years but does little to address such underlying causes of crime as poverty, hunger, mental illness, and inadequate education. Yet by focusing almost solely on punishment, Goldman demonstrates time and again, we have, in more ways than one, become a nation of criminals.

Hot Dog: A Global History

Bruce Kraig’s Hot Dog: A Global History offers an in-depth examination of that most American — yet curiously multi-cultural — of foods, the hot dog. Highlights include the history of the term “hot dog” as well as an examination of the myths surrounding the origins of the hot dog. The book is at its best when discussing the social significance of the hot dog, particularly with respect to regional variations both within the United States and beyond. Photographs of hot dog stands are an added bonus. Also intriguing is a reference to the following ads featuring an early incarnation of Jim Henson’s Muppets.


Memory’s Wake

In Memory’s Wake, Derek Owens lovingly revisits his mother’s troubled childhood to offer a hopeful and moving meditation on the relationship between the past and the present. Early in the book, Owens sets the stage for this meditation by explaining that his mother’s memories of the events in question lay dormant for years until the gradual departure of her grown children allowed for their return. Soon the author is traveling in his own mind back to the house where his mother suffered both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his grandmother to interrogate his own memories and also to ask what it really means to remember.

Reconstructing his mother’s flight from the abuse in question, Owens overlays the young child’s journey with a narrative recounting the violent extirpation of the Iriquois who once populated the same lands his mother wandered as a child. The effect is both chilling and intriguing. We are a species, this telling juxtaposition suggests, that is capable of great cruelty. At the same time, however, our resilience knows no bounds. Still later, similar historical parallels drive home the point that our ghosts — or at least our history — will always be with us, but the fact that his mother did not perpetuate the cycle of abuse with her own children bears silent testimony to our collective ability to change for the better. Haunted though we may be by the past, the narrative insists, the present is what we make of it.

Stylistically, Memory’s Wake offers a highly engaging blend of history and personal narrative that suggests the two are less discrete than we might normally imagine. Throughout, Owens displays a talent for homespun yet telling imagery, as when he describes an average dinner with his grandmother: “ashy potatoes, smears of applesauce. peas grainy from freezer burn. slices of pot roast pearly gray, fibers on the ends sticking out like frayed wires. in the middle of the table a gravy boat, mud colored skin, thick as a bathmat. if you dropped a pea on top it would have sat there, tiny green planet.”

Heartbreaking and hopeful, Memory’s Wake will appeal to anyone interested in exploring the borderlands between history and personal narrative and will also make for an excellent text in any creative nonfiction course.

Cover Up – Free from The Permanent Press

Karl Grossman’s Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power was a big seller for The Permanent Press when it was originally released in 1980 and also when a second edition came out in 1982. With recent uncertainty surrounding the safety not only of the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station but of nuclear power in general, Grossman’s book is as important as ever, and The Permanent Press is issuing a third, updated, edition free of charge for anyone interested in downloading a copy. In the words of publisher Martin Shepard: “We’re not interested in making a nickel off Cover Up. Let William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, make a profit from 20-year-old Bristol Palin’s ghost written Not Afraid of Life due out this summer. Our passion in publishing has always been the good feeling that comes from doing worthy books, which trumps profits any time.” Click here to download a free copy.