Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #16: Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

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These are the stories wrote to finance his novels, and for that I’m thankful. Without them, we wouldn’t have classics such as Breakfast of Champions, or the more well-known Slaughterhouse-Five. That, however, does not mean that I liked what I read.

In fact, besides a story here and there, this collection is, at best, passable. To name a few, there’s “Harrison Bergeron,” well deserving of all its accolades, “Who Am I This Time?”, a love story which is charming in its unconventional nature, and “Long Walk to Forever” is a deceptively touching look into the romantic that resides deep within Vonnegut.

But then there are also a whole host of stories that seem to rely too heavily upon their concepts, such as “All the King’s Horses” in which men play chess with soldiers as their chess pieces, and ones that seem to end before they’ve reached a worthwhile destination, such as “Miss Temptation.”

Still, Welcome to the Monkey House is worth it for those occasional stand-outs, and to see how adept Vonnegut was at coming up with a gripping premise for a story.

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

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Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #12: Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

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When reviewing a book, it’s customary to provide readers with a succinct summation of the plot, I guess to help them determine whether or not it’s palatable to them, if it sounds in line with the type of stories they generally read. Though understandable to the extent that a hardened atheist wouldn’t want to read a novel espousing the manifold benefits of Christianity, like a religious pamphlet in the form of prose, it’s not a convention I often follow since it conveys so little.

Take Jailbird, for instance. Or, for that matter, any of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels. Its plot concerns the fictitious Walter F. Starbuck, imprisoned for his part in the infamous Watergate scandal which not many are liable to remember unless he goes out of his way to remind them, and the eventful two days immediately following his release, which land him first in a position of power at RAMJAC, a fictional multinational conglomerate, and then back in prison when the part he played in the meteoric rise of him, and a few select others, comes to light. Compared to the plot of, say, Vonnegut’s own Slaughterhouse-Five, it’s not about to send anyone running to the nearest library to check it out.

As I’ve put forth numerous times in previous reviews, though, that is what distanced Vonnegut by light-years from his peers, his ability to make the magical of the mundane. Even the aforementionedSlaughterhouse-Five, his most arresting work plot- and style-wisefound itself stuck in neutral when adapted for film and robbed of Vonnegut’s as of yet unparalleled ability to say in one line what lesser authors would be hard-pressed to say in one page. Like is often said of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, George Roy Hill’s film nailed down the details, yet not the spirit, resulting in a lifeless recreation of one of history’s liveliest writers.

Would the simple inclusion of some of Vonnegut’s words, via narration, have brought it back from the dead? You won’t hear me argue that it would have. But would they have been enough to carry me till the end, stopping me from giving up near the halfway point out of boredom? In all likelihood, they would have, no differently than when I read Hocus Pocus and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. In neither case did I continue on account of the story he was telling; rather, he held my interest with the manner in which he told it. Admittedly, his prose in both, like the story, wasn’t up to his usual level of excellence, but there were more than enough glimpses of that Midas touch of his for that not to much matter.

Which brings me back to Jailbird, in my opinion one of his least ambitious works, speaking strictly in terms of its plot. Starbuck’s life is an intricate and beautifully woven tapestry, myriads of contrasting colors and patterns somehow coming together and coexisting wonderfully, but it could just as easily have been drab and uniform if written by anyone else. Without Vonnegut pointing out the startling ironies that litter and, arguably, define Jailbird, what you would have is a comparatively simple story of a man imprisoned two separate times for peculiar reasons who happened to enjoy a two-day long stretch of luck in the time between them.

What you get instead, however, is a memoir of a man whose life is populated by characters you come to know almost as intimately, if not in some cases more intimately than, that man himself. Not unlike Vonnegut, Starbuck is concerned with the minutest of details that highlight the interconnectedness of life, the ones that don’t regularly translate to film. We are all close enough to one another that, if we were to reach out, there’s no telling who all we might inadvertently affect, and to what extent. One such example of this is how Starbuck inadvertently made a hodgepodge of men and women he’d encountered in his newfound freedom all vice presidents of the aforementioned RAMJAC, all this merely by innocently attempting to reaffirm for one of the four loves of his life that people do still have it in them to be kind, a woman who would turn out to be the mysterious puppeteer behind said conglomerate.

While he’d only met each of them in passing, the effects they had upon one another were significant enough to change the fate of the world’s largest conglomerate. Jailbird is rich with these connections that, out of context, would seem inconsequential but, when viewed as part of the larger picture, prove themselves as the foundations upon which everything that follows is born. In other words, Jailbird may seem simple on the surface, but its inner workings are so intricate, using so many moving pieces, that it’s a wonder Vonnegut managed it without the whole thing falling apart.

Moreover, it speaks once more to Vonnegut’s ability as a storytelller, as well as why, when a coworker of mine asked what Jailbird was about, I found myself at a loss, realizing that no words can describe Vonnegut or his work because all becomes clear only when you read him yourself. In short, whether or not my brief synopsis has you interested or not, I recommend you read Jailbird. And, for that matter, all of the late Kurt Vonnegut’s work. There are too few readers of his work in this world. I know, because not a single one of my coworkers has so much as heard of him, nor even his two most well-known works, “Harrison Bergeron” and Slaughterhouse-Five, a fact somehow more depressing than the knowledge that, with Jailbird finished, there are no more novels of his left for me to read. At least I still have his various collections, though I doubt they’ll last me long.

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #11: Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

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Galapagos is, to me, Vonnegut at perhaps his most playful. Where else would you find humans who evolve into seal-like creatures? Before you scoff at the absurdity of such a premise, remind yourself that this is Vonnegut, and do yourself the favor of withholding judgment until you’ve read the story itself.

Back when he and I weren’t so well-acquainted, I recall checkingGalapagos out from the library and returning it before I even got so far as halfway. This was prior to false-starts such as that becoming a regularity for me. Something about it just didn’t sit well with me.

Could it have been that I found the aforementioned wackiness unpalatable? Or maybe it was how he purposefully spelled it the coming events, not unlike the otherwise vastly different Stephen King, by means of asterisks beside the soon-to-be-dead, among other things. Whatever it was, it had no effect on me during the second go-around.

Was I bewildered by how he hammered home that big brains were what caused it all, this coming from an author who usually favors subtlety in such matters? And did it come to bother me, ever so slightly? To both questions, I answer in the affirmative. Did it have a marked impact upon how I view the work, on the other hand? No, I cannot say it did.

Honestly, it was a minor annoyance when looked at in the bigger picture. Because, despite the tremendous amount of foreshadowing Vonnegut laced it with, Galapagos moves at a brisker pace, narratively speaking, than any of Vonnegut’s other works. In addition, as I said in my opening line, it’s arguably his most lively and comical work. Which means I didn’t have time to dwell upon faults so tiny, since I’d no sooner read one of the lines about our big brains being the root of all evil than I’d be onto the next, laughing along.

In short, Galapagos is one of Vonnegut’s breeziest, in terms of both content and pacing, and I mean that in the best way possible. So don’t put this one off, like I did. Unless, that is, you want to go out on a high note by wrapping up his bibliography with one of his lesser-hailed masterpieces.

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #10: Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut

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“It’s the emptiest and yet the fullest of all human messages: ‘Good-bye.”

 With but three of his novels remaining, one might think I would’ve taken my time finishing them. To them, I ask a simple question. Have you never read Kurt Vonnegut before? Compared to the likes of Cat’s Cradle or Player PianoMother NightHocus Pocus, and God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater are lacking. Did that stop me from rushing headlong through all three? Of course not. Vonnegut was endowed with the knack for making whatever it is he wrote immensely readable. His work might not have always been as supremely revelatory as, say,Slaughterhouse-Five, but he wrote it in such a manner that you barely noticed.

It’s that quality, inherent in all of his work, that makes him part of my holy trinity of authors, alongside Stephen King and Douglas Adams. He’s like the uncle you ask to read to you because he tells the stories the best, giving even the weakest ones his own personal flair that can elevate pulp to gold. In every last work there’s a line here and a line there that only he could’ve put so eloquently, so perfectly, and they keep you going, like breadcrumbs leading you to his intended destination.

Without them, Bluebeard would’ve been nothing, at least in my opinion. If he were any other author, it’s unlikely that I get past the front flap to the first page. Reading the synopsis, I don’t see the makings of the kind of story I would typically read. Yet it took all of one line warm right up to it:

Having written “The End” to this story of my life, I find it prudent to scamper back here to before the beginning, to my front door, so to speak, and to make this apology to my arriving guests: “I promised you an autobiography, but something went wrong in the kitchen. It turns out to be a diary of this past troubled summer, too! We can always send out for pizzas if necessary. Come in, come in.”

No opening line of his encapsulates his writing more succinctly; above all else, he, like King and Adams, has a welcoming air about him. His stories all feel distinctly personal, like a haphazard odyssey through the inner-workings of his expansive mind.

It’s difficult – nay, impossible not to admire that in a writer. What more can a writer aspire to than crafting stories that read like a personalized letter to each individual reader, like a story you’re sitting down and telling them, at their behest, via proxy? Sedaris’ essays have that feel to them, which is the reason why I forgive him for what I perceive as aimlessness. The stories you tell your friends and your children don’t have the benefit of a professional editor. People go off track and speak of matters that are unrelated.

Why, then, should I fault Sedaris or, for that matter, Vonnegut for it?Bluebeard is, as that opening line suggests, in some ways a diary. One can’t get much more personal than that, so I can’t fault Vonnegut for indulging himself with side-notes and time jumping because, as I’ve said a couple times over, I believe such things are in our nature. With some, myself included, moreso than others.

Friends will often issue frustrated demands that I get to the point; as a result, one could say I sympathize with Vonnegut and, more particularly, Rabo Karabekian, the author of this so-called autobiography. If I were coerced into writing an autobiography, the result would be much like what you see here. Bluebeard would otherwise be beyond comparison, but the basic format, if you will, would stay the same. It would be hypocritical of me in a sense, then, to take offense to Vonnegut – er, Karabekian’s style of storytelling.

Even if I were to do that, as I said at the beginning, Vonnegut has the innate ability to make it, as well as any other problems, seem secondary. He can lose you one moment, then forcibly shake you back to attention with startling lines such as this: “Because of the movies nobody will believe it was babies who fought the war.” Or this: “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”

Vonnegut was as much a teacher as he was a storyteller. Many don’t exactly agree with his teachings, but I feel one has to at least respect them, and, more importantly, him. And if I had it my way, his teachings would be taught in school’s the world round, as significant a part of the curriculum as the likes of Shakespeare, because teachers owe it to their students to introduce them to those select few writers who really and truly had something to say.

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.