Meeting, September 28, 2017

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We met on this lovely fall day at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library to discuss George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984,” which was published in 1949. The discussion was moderated by Bill Briscoe and others participating were Janet Hodgkin, John Hawn, Phil Watts, Dave Young, Karen Lyst, John Sturman, and Janet Penwell.

In 1958, William Styron was quoted in “Writers at Work” as saying:
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it.” Most of us found the book painful and exhausting but nevertheless worthwhile. The torture scene with the rat cage in Room 101 was indelible. Among us were a few who were in their formative years when this book was written and we recalled how tenuous our form of government seemed in the 1950’s. Communism threatened to bury us and the alternative to Communism appeared to be some form of fascist totalitarianism. Almost seventy years later, democracy still prevails in the West but it seems to be threatened again by technological advances that were beyond Orwell’s wildest dreams and ever more powerful and demanding governments that have lost, to a large degree, the trust of the underclass (Orwell’s Proles) and the middle class (his Outer Party) and are controlled by a bi-partisan elite (his Inner Party) that can no longer relate.

We decided that “Big Brother” worked more effectively for Orwell as a concept and not a person because a concept can be immortal. Reference was made to Steve Bannon’s favorite work “The Fourth Turning” (Howe and Strauss – 1997) and its dire pronouncement that every 80 years or so there is an upheaval. “History is seasonal, and winter is coming,” they warn. To add fuel to the fire, someone dug up the old chestnut, attributed to Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Actually no one can prove that he ever said that. The phrase “culture beats strategy” has been around for decades and someone has tarted it up for modern consumption.

Just to prove they are hip to dystopias, the literati among us brought up
“We” the dark 1921 Russian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin (okay, I admit I had to look it up) and Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 post-apocalyptic novel “The Road.”   Our group’s favorite destination appears to be dystopian.

Orwell’s take on the future in 1949 still has meaning for today even if his timetable is way off. Our representative government is divided and seems unable to deal with problems. Our bloc of nations (Oceania) is constantly struggling with other blocs in East Europe and in Asia. We seem to have a constant need for an external enemy to more or less hold us together.

The cultural root of all this is that there is no reality. Everything is perception which trumps reality. Truth is malleable and fake news is everywhere. Language controls thinking but not feeling and when language becomes flexible and is controlled emotion triumphs.

Orwell’s two way television set that could capture your bedroom action while you were watching late-night TV is very old hat. Don’t forget to put a piece of tape over that little camera facing you on your laptop! Paranoia everywhere. Someone in Russia is probably monitoring every keystroke on your many keypads and sampling your phone conversations! Maybe when your family doctor gave you your flu shot he also slipped in a microchip that regular reports your GPS location to the authorities. Run, run for your life.
………………. .

“1984” merited an 8.4 out of 10.0 on the vaunted KV Scale. We then journeyed a few blocks northeast to Asian Harbor, 203 W. Michigan, and enjoyed its Asian Fusion (that means you can choose both sushi and chop suey) menu. We will next meet on Thursday, October 26, 2017 at 11AM at the KV Memorial Library. John Hawn will lead us through KV’s 1965 novel “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” in which he skewers philanthropy. Maybe someone from the Lilly Foundation will appear to give us another viewpoint.

Dave Young

A synopsis from Wikipedia follows:

Winston Smith is a man who lives in Airstrip One, the remnants of Britain broken down by war, civil conflict, and revolution in the year 1984. A member of the middle class Outer Party, Winston lives in a one-room London flat in the Victory Mansions. Smith lives on rations consisting of black bread, synthetic meals, and “Victory”-branded gin. Telescreens in every building, accompanied by microphones and cameras, allow the Thought Police to identify anyone who might compromise the Party’s regime, and threat of surveillance forces citizens to display an obligatory optimism regarding the country, who are afraid for being arrested for thoughtcrime, the infraction of expressing thoughts contradictory to the Party’s ideology. Children are encouraged to inform the officials about potential thought criminals, including their parents, and are indoctrinated by Party propaganda from an early age. Winston’s neighbor, Mr. Parsons, is deeply involved in patriotic activism, and his children are highly indoctrinated with Party propaganda and desensitized to violence.
Winston works at the Ministry of Truth, or “Minitrue”, as an editor. He is responsible for historical revisionism; he rewrites records and alters photographs to conform to the state’s ever-changing version of history itself, rendering the deleted people “unpersons”; the original documents are destroyed by fire in a “memory hole”. At work, he re-writes a Times article reporting on a government official condemned as a thoughtcriminal by writing a story on a nonexistent war hero named “Comrade Ogilvy”, and notes the state-sponsored media reporting an increase in the chocolate ration during an actual decrease. Despite his proficiency in his profession, Winston becomes mesmerized by the true past after seeing a photograph of three former high-ranking upper class Inner Party officials in New York, discounting the official government account that they had been collaborating with Eurasian officials. Winston tries to get more information about the true past, and purchases an old journal in an antiques shop in a proletarian neighborhood of London. In a place beside his flat’s telescreen where he believes he cannot be seen, he begins writing a journal criticizing the Party and its enigmatic leader, Big Brother. By doing so, he commits a crime that, if discovered by the Thought Police, warrants certain death, and Winston quickly resigns himself to the fact that he will eventually be arrested for thoughtcrime. In the journal, he records his sexual frustration over a young woman maintaining the novel-writing machines at the ministry named Julia, whom Winston is attracted to but suspects is an informant. He also suspects that his superior, an Inner Party official named O’Brien, is a secret agent for an enigmatic underground resistance movement known as the Brotherhood, a group formed by Big Brother’s reviled political rival Emmanuel Goldstein.

The next day, Julia surreptitiously hands Winston a note confessing her love for him. Winston and Julia begin an affair after Winston realizes she shares his loathing of the Party, first meeting in the country, and eventually in a rented room at the top of the antiques shop where Winston purchased the diary, which is owned by the seemingly kindly Mr. Charrington. They believe that the shop is safe, as the room has no telescreen. During his affair with Julia, Winston remembers the death of his family; during the civil war of the 1950’s, Winston stole rationed chocolate from his malnourished infant sister and his mother, and would return home to discover that they had disappeared. He also recounts his terse relationship with his ex-wife Katharine, whom he was forced to have sex with and despised to such an extent that he considered pushing her off a cliff during a nature walk. Winston also interacts with his colleague Syme, who is writing a dictionary for a revised version of the English language called Newspeak. After Syme insightfully reveals that the true purpose of Newspeak is to reduce the capacity of human thought, Winston speculates that he will be vaporized. He is later proven correct when Syme disappears without a trace, and no one acknowledges his absence.

Weeks later, Winston is approached by O’Brien. They arrange a meeting at O’Brien’s flat where both Winston and Julia swear allegiance to the Brotherhood. A week later, O’Brien clandestinely sends Winston a copy of “The Book”, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, the publicly reviled leader of the Brotherhood. Through The Book, the author explains the structure and practices of Oceania. In particular, The Book explains the concept of perpetual war, the true meanings of the slogans “War is peace”, “Freedom is slavery”, and “Ignorance is strength”, and how the Party can be overthrown through means of the political awareness of the proles (proletarians).
The Thought Police capture Winston along with Julia in their rented room. The two are then delivered to the Ministry of Love (Miniluv) for interrogation. Mr. Charrington, the shopkeeper who rented the room to them, reveals himself as a Thought Police agent. O’Brien is also an agent of the Thought Police. He is part of a special sting operation used by the police to find and arrest suspected thoughtcriminals. Winston is placed in a prison cell with Parsons, who had been reported by his children and believes himself to be guilty. O’Brien interrogates and tortures Winston with electroshock, telling Winston that he can “cure” himself of his “insanity”—his manifest hatred for the Party—through controlled manipulation of perception. Winston is held in the prison for an unspecified length of time, and confesses to crimes that O’Brien tells him to say that he has committed, but O’Brien understands that Winston has not betrayed Julia. After awakening from a nightmare in which he confesses his love for Julia, O’Brien sends him to Room 101 for the final stage of re-education, a room which contains each prisoner’s worst fear. Winston shouts “Do it to Julia!” as a wire cage holding hungry rats is fitted onto his face, thus betraying her.
After being put back into society, Winston meets Julia in a park. She admits that she was also tortured, and both reveal betraying the other. Later, Winston sits alone in the Chestnut Tree Cafe. As he remembers a rare happy memory of his family, he convinces himself that it is false. A raucous celebration begins outside, celebrating Oceania’s “decisive victory” over Eurasian armies in Africa, and Winston imagines himself as a part of the crowd. As Winston imagines a gun being pointed at his head, he feels that he has at last ended his “stubborn, self-willed exile” from the love of Big Brother—a love Winston returns quite happily as he looks up in admiration at a portrait of Big Brother.
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Unknown

“No sense of the irony of human existence, that we are the highest form of life on earth and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die.”
― Don DeLillo, White Noise

“Beware Friend as you pass by
Where you are now
So once was I
So prepare yourself
For Death and Eternity”
— Tombstone seen in my family’s cemetery

 

Meeting, August 24, 2017

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We met to discuss Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel “White Noise.” Dave coordinated the discussion.   Those present: Celia Latz, Karen Lyst, John Sturman, John Hawn, Diane Richards, Fritz Hadley, Bill Briscoe, Dave Young, Jay Carr, and Janet Penwell.

I (Dave) kicked the meeting off with a sketch of Don DeLillo condensed from his biography on Wikipedia. He was a New Yorker through and through, born and raised in an Italian-American family in the Bronx, educated at Fordham and something of a cult writer until he was about 50 when “White Noise” made it to the charts. He had no particular interest in writing as a young man but spent all of his leisure time at the movies. He later speculated that movies taught him how to understand plotting and character development. He never went Hollywood and his only screen play was a baseball flick “Game 6” starring Michael Keaton which first ran in 2005. He did write five stage plays in addition to fifteen novels. KV and DeLillo must have caught up with one another in New York, but I can find no evidence of it. KV was president of PEN and PEN gave DeLillo a few awards……so there!   DeLillo also dedicated his fourteenth novel, “Cosmopolis,” to KV. That novel, about the 9/11 disaster in NYC was rated by many as his worst novel. DeLillo, who is still writing at the age of 80, has always been rather humble and reclusive. He rarely gives interviews and claims not to care what critics think of him. Some critics have treated him harshly. I am lifting the following from Wiki:

“[They] argue that his novels are overly stylized and intellectually shallow. Bruce Bawer famously condemned DeLillo’s novels insisting they weren’t actually novels at all but “tracts, designed to batter us, again and again, with a single idea: that life in America today is boring, benumbing, dehumanized…It’s better, DeLillo seems to say in one novel after another, to be a marauding murderous maniac – and therefore a human – than to sit still for America as it is, with its air conditioners, assembly lines, television sets, supermarkets, synthetic fabrics, and credit cards……” George Will called DeLillo a “sandbox intellectual” and a “bad citizen.” Another ecocritic accused him of indulging in “hysterical realism.”

Then we riffed around the room trying to figure out the meaning of the phrase “white noise.” I thought it was the sound put out by some Black guy on his motorcycle amplifying rap music at about 130 decibels but one of our more educated members gave us a scholarly definition of “white noise” and contrasted it with “pink noise.” A lot of stuff about wave lengths and coefficients if you really want to know. No one talked about “black noise” and although DeLillo seemed anxious to address everything that was troubling America in the 1980’s, he had little to say about racism. Then someone piped up with the distinction between bright white light (which is the sum of all wave lengths) and pigment (which is the absorption of some wave lengths). If that wasn’t enough we were obliged, in the current fashion, to determine if there was a racial element to all of this. Is white noise somehow connected to white privilege? The mind boggles.

One of our scholars reminded us that “whiteness” as the symbol of death is a major theme in our literature. Think of Moby Dick, the White Whale.  Another theme in Western literature is regeneration through violence. Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment: comes to mind. Then someone let us know that the book itself was “white noise.”   Full of distractions, intentional nonsense phrases, and the author’s tendency to show off with extended philosophical dialogues that went nowhere other than to convince the protagonist, Jack, that killing someone else would somehow enhance his meaningless existence. Intentionally using a lot of deja vu, the author constantly loops around various themes, repeating catch phrases. Reportedly, DeLillo wanted to call the novel “Panasonic” but his publishers exercised their contractual right to call it whatever they wanted.

The novel seems to be making a statement about the nuclear family.
Jack has been married to four different women. His previous wives had some mysterious connection to the intelligence community which made them somewhat inaccessible. His current wife, Babbette, whom he objectifies by addressing her in the third person, seems at first glance to be a healthy, athletic, out-going mom of their toddler and an assortment of children from their previous marriages. You almost need a scorecard to keep track of all the characters. However, she is consumed by a fear of death and takes her body to a seedy motel to exchange sex acts for a pill which is supposed to suppress that fear. That pill was developed by her commercial lover, Willie Mink, who is destined to be gut-shot by Jack.   The children, it seems, are wiser and better grounded than the adults.

DeLillo indulges his black humor by ridiculing academia, particularly the American Studies (styled as American Environments) Department at the College-on-the Hill. Jack and his colleague, Murray, like to take long walks on campus clad in their abbreviated academic robes with their hands clasped behind their backs, European style.  One of our number compared this part of the novel to the Beeb 2’s “A Trip to Spain” series in which a pair of Brits walk about Spain and sample various foods while discussing philosophy and putting one another down.   At least the Brits got a good meal out of it.

Jack invented the Hitler Studies program for the college and is hosting an international meeting of Hitler scholars. Much is made of his ignorance of the German language and his attempts to cover it up. Other colleagues are devoting their scholarship to studying car crashes in movies and the importance of Elvis.

DeLillo is not finished with the Germans. Failing to completely carry out his plan to murder his wife’s lover, he loads the  gut-shot lover up in a car and takes him to an infirmary run by a nameless order of German nuns laboring under a picture of JFK holding hands with Pope John XIII in heaven. The nuns are nun-believers but their obligation is to pretend that there is a God because “Hell is when no one believes.” This caused us to think about KV’s formulation: “We are what we pretend to be.” Does a belief in religion make it easier for us to accept that we are all going to die? Talk amongst yourselves.

KV also liked to say that humans are “dancing animals” and he always seemed to find some joy in his dystopias. There is little joy in this book.  We tried to put this 32 year old novel into a modern context realizing that the world wide web was in its infancy in 1985 and people communicated via snail mail or ephemeral phone conversations. Now social interactions are preserved forever and everyone thinks they know everything. So much noise becomes like no noise. We talked about working in offices dominated by wall-less systems furniture and how dehumanizing that is.

Another similarity to KV’s novels is the open architecture of “White Noise.”
Many plot lines are opened up, but nothing ever seems to get resolved. There is a gesture toward community, however. In the beginning of the novel there is the long-standing ritual of move-in day at the college with a cortege of station wagons. At the end of the novel, the community silently assembles on an overpass to watch the sun gloriously set in the polluted toxic atmosphere.

Perhaps white noise is nothing more than the diversions that fill up our lives. Our fears of death are drowned out by consumerism, the media, sex, our complicated familial relations, and whatever is happening now.

“White Noise” received the National Book Award and made the reading list of several compendiums of the best in American fiction. But,
the book was not very well received here and two of our number could not summon the energy to finish it. We gave it a rather low 7.0 rating on the infallible Kurt Vonnegut ten point scale.

Afterwards, we all went to the legendary John’s Famous Stew, 1146 Kentucky Avenue, where the tatted waitress tried to force all of the “first-timers” to order the stew. Next book: on 9/28/17 we will discuss George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty Four.” Bill Briscoe will try to keep us on track.

Dave Young

Plot Summary (from goodreads.com):

White Noise tells the story of the Gladney family — Jack, Babette, and their four kids (two by previous marriages) — as they come to terms with their own fears and desires, with the strangeness of contemporary American culture, and with the omnipresence of death and catastrophe. As the main characters go about their daily lives, characterized by all the trivialities of a consumerist society, they also confront the major philosophical and social concerns of the modern era.

In part I (“Waves and Radiation”), we get to know who we are dealing with. Not much actually happens in this section, in terms of plot, but it prepares us for what follows. Jack Gladney, the first-person narrator, is founder and chairman of the Hitler Studies department at the fictional College-on-the-Hill. His colleagues, Murray Jay Siskind, who specializes in Elvis Presley, and Alphonse Stompanato, head of the college’s popular culture department, resemble Jack in their fascination with contemporary culture. But the real focus is Jack’s family. He and Babette, his fourth wife, could be almost any other American couple coping with the usual trials of parenthood and professional anxiety, but the family is undeniably unique, even a bit strange. Babette is concerned that Jack’s son Heinrich might become a mass murderer; Babette’s daughter Steffie is fascinated with health and medication; Jack finds some strange pills that Babette has been taking. The Gladney parents grapple almost obsessively with the idea of death, wondering who will die first, and whether it would actually be better to be the first to go. Part one, in other words, has introduced us to the novel’s major themes: consumerism, disaster, love, death.

In Part Two (“The Airborne Toxic Event”), a train derails and releases an enormous, noxious cloud that slowly drifts over the area, forcing an evacuation of local residents. Hundreds of families get in their cars and crowd the roads, trying to flee, as the government sends in helicopters and a SIMUVAC team in attempt to restore order. The Gladneys, confused and distressed by the calamity (with the possible exception of Heinrich, who seems to thrive on the intellectual excitement of it all), are eventually quarantined for nine days with the other families in an army barracks. It turns out that Jack has been exposed to the black cloud — identified as the lethal chemical Nyodene D. — but no one knows how long he has to live or how his life might be affected. One of the symptoms is reported to be déjà vu.

The third section (“Dylarama”) deals with the aftermath of the Airborne Toxic Event and with the more personal disasters that Jack and Babette confront in their own marriage. Jack makes two discoveries: first, that Babette has been taking Dylar, an experimental drug designed to stave off the fear of death, and second, that she has been having an affair with the scientist, Willie Mink, who has been developing the pill. Jack conceives the plan of murdering Mink, drives out to the motel where the scientist is staying, confronts him, shoots him, and then, in an act of mercy and compassion, drives him to the hospital. The novel then closes with a series of images and vignettes that are thematically significant but do not really resolve anything: the young boy Wilder pedaling his tricycle across the expressway, families coming out to watch a spectacular sunset, Jack avoiding his over-curious doctor, people in a supermarket confused by the rearranged shelves.
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All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

th-1.jpegth.jpegth-2.jpegThe Kurt Vonnegut book club met on Thursday, July 27, 2015 to discuss Margaret Atwood’s sex-drenched novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Participants were: Bill Briscoe, Jay Carr, Diane Richards, John Hawn, and Susan Thomas. Karen Lystra guided our exploration and John Sturman recorded the notes.

*****************

The Notes

Atwood began work on The Handmaid’s Tale (THT) when she was residing in West Berlin before reunification. She finished the book while in Tuscaloosa AL. Published 1986 in the US. Multiple influences are detectable: 1984, Brave New World, etc. Atwood lived in Afghanistan during the writing and wore a chaudor. She was a student at Harvard, and dedicated the book to Perry Miller. The book is sited at Harvard.
Atwood kept a rule in writing THT: all events were events which had occurred previously in history, and no new technologies were invented.
Similarities/inspiration for THT: American slavery, Wives of southern planters, Vlad the Impaler, Christian right, holocaust, nuclear catastrophe (Three Mile Island), Nazi birth program, reeducation camps in Communist China, Soviet Gulag, escape to Canada (slaves, Viet Nam draft resisters), Late 1970’s-1980’s feminist program against porn, liberal feminists supported free speech, Stasi in East Germany, sumptuary laws of 17th century (obligatory dressing according to rank).
Another dystopian novel cited: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1924.
Oppression by clothing
Did book persuade reader of possibility of revolution?
Consensus was yes, though issue of decentralized nature of American politics noted, but some people would sign on to any major change. Opinion that it couldn’t happen as written.
If THT anti-religious?
No, by consensus.

Humans need structure and ritual.
“Doing is believing.” Or per KV: “We are what we pretend to be.”

Quakers ran underground railroads for slaves, so Atwood casts them in same role.

 

 

Is THT feminist?
Yes, from liberal feminist viewpoint. Novel featured “hierarchical silos.” We note consumerism coopts most movements in America. Broadest interpretation is that THT is about tyranny—this transcends feminism.

Last chapter gives structure to the remembrance of events by Offred. Narration ends with her escape. We can hypothesize that the story ends abruptly as she was recaptured or tapes were lost.

Humans cling to vestiges of power, seen repeatedly though THT.

Disturbing rituals: particicution, prayerama, salvaging

Literary analysis: 2 endings, nonchronological time sequence, 7 sections titled “Night,” containing the flashbacks to pre-Gilead, deferred and withheld information by the author, some information is eventually supplied, different versions of events, esp. Nick chapters, includes other voices, Aunt Lydia, Moira

Would KV like THT?
He would be jealous of the female character developmental.

Consensus score = 8.5

John Strumming
****************************************************
After the meeting, the gang retreated to the Shoofly Public House for further discussion. We will next meet on August 24, 2017 when we will discuss Don DeLillo’s “White Noise.” Dave will attempt to lead the discussion. Hope to see you on that date at 11AM at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. Everyone is welcome!

DEY

 

The following is a plot summary from the all-knowing Wikipedia

The Handmaid’s Tale is a 1985 dystopian novel[2] by Canadian author Margaret Atwood Set in a near-future New England, in a totalitarian, Christian theonomy that has overthrown the United States government,[5] the novel explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain individualism and independence.
Plot summary
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, a theonomic military dictatorship formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America.[5]
Beginning with a staged attack that kills the President and most of Congress, a fundamentalist Christian Reconstructionist movement calling itself the “Sons of Jacob” launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order.[7] They are quickly able to take away women’s rights, largely attributed to financial records being stored electronically and labelled by sex. The new regime, the Republic of Gilead, moves quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical model of Old Testament-inspired social and religious fanaticism among its newly created social classes. In this society, human rights are severely limited and women’s rights are even more curtailed; for example, women are forbidden to read.
The story is told in the first person by a woman called Offred (literally Of-Fred). The character is one of a class of women kept for reproductive purposes and known as “handmaids” by the ruling class in an era of declining births due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. Offred describes her life during her third assignment as a handmaid, in this case to Fred (referred to as “The Commander”). Interspersed in flashbacks are portions of her life from before and during the beginning of the revolution, when she finds she has lost all autonomy to her husband, through her failed attempt to escape with her husband and daughter to Canada, to her indoctrination into life as a handmaid. Offred describes the structure of Gilead’s society, including the several different classes of women and their circumscribed lives in the new theocracy.
The Commander is a high-ranking official in Gilead. Although he is supposed to have contact with Offred only during “the ceremony”, a ritual of sexual intercourse intended to result in conception and at which his wife is present, he begins an illegal and ambiguous relationship with her. He offers her hidden or contraband products, such as old (1970s) fashion magazines, cosmetics and clothes, takes her to a secret brothel run by the government, and furtively meets with her in his study, where he allows her to read, an activity otherwise prohibited for women. The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, also has secret interactions with Offred, arranging for her secretly to have sex with Nick, the Commander’s driver, in an effort to get Offred pregnant. In exchange for Offred’s cooperation, Serena Joy gives her news of her daughter, whom Offred has not seen since she and her family were captured trying to escape Gilead.
After Offred’s initial meeting with Nick, they begin to meet more frequently. Offred discovers she enjoys sex with Nick, despite her indoctrination and her memories of her husband. She shares potentially dangerous information about her past with him. Through another handmaid, Ofglen, Offred learns of the Mayday resistance, an underground network working to overthrow Gilead. Shortly after Ofglen’s disappearance (later revealed as a suicide), the Commander’s wife finds evidence of the relationship between Offred and the Commander. Offred contemplates suicide. As the novel concludes, she is being taken away by the secret police, the Eyes of God, known informally as “the Eyes”, under orders from Nick. Before she is put in the large black van, Nick tells her that the men are part of the Mayday resistance and that Offred must trust him. Offred does not know if Nick is a member of the Mayday resistance or a government agent posing as one, and she does not know if going with the men will result in her escape or her capture. She enters the van with her future uncertain.
The novel concludes with a metafictional epilogue that explains that the events of the novel occurred shortly after the beginning of what is called “the Gilead Period”. The epilogue is “a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” written in 2195. According to the symposium’s “keynote speaker” Professor Pieixoto, he and colleague, Professor Knotly Wade, discovered Offred’s story recorded onto cassette tapes. They transcribed the tapes, calling them collectively “the handmaid’s tale”. Through the tone and actions of the professionals in this final section of the book, the world of academia is highlighted and critiqued, and Pieixoto discusses his team’s search for the characters named in the Tale, and the impossibility of proving the tapes’ authenticity.[8] Nevertheless, the epilogue implies that, following the collapse of the theocratic Republic of Gilead, a more equal society, though not the United States that previously existed, re-emerged with a restoration of full rights for women and freedom of religion.
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All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We met to talk about Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 novel “Mother Night.” Those who had something to say about it included: Janet Penwell, Diane Richards, Celia Latz, Tom Logue, John Hawn, Dave Young, and Bill Briscoe.

We discussed this novel twice in 2010 and once more on June 26, 2014. Phil, Bill, Janet, and Dave of the present group were onboard three years ago. I have tried to avoid repeating what I wrote about that gathering. Go to the archives on this blog if you really care.

So we gladly dove into the pool of moral ambiguity that is Kurt Vonnegut.

In his introduction (writing as Howard Campbell’s editor) Vonnegut takes on the age old question of the relationship between Art and Truth. Keats tried to slam the door on this debate two hundred years ago with this observation: “ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Can we reach a higher truth through lies and deception? Jonathan Gruber, Donald Trump, and Johnny Depp would probably have some strong opinions about this. Kafka gave us his view in his famous paradox: “Art depends on truth, but truth, being indivisable, cannot know itself: to tell the truth is to lie. thus the writer is the truth, and yet when he speaks he lies.” Vonnegut puts it this way:  “I will risk the opinion that lies told for the sake of artistic effect can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth.”

This all leads into the moral of the story (as KV sees it): “We are what we pretend to be.” Campbell falls into a trap by following the path of least resistance. When his parents leave Germany for America early on in the Hitler regime, Campbell chooses to stay in Germany where he has established himself as a playwright.  He goes on to become a highly effective spreader of Nazi propaganda through his very popular radio show.   . He is recruited with a minimum of cultivation (actually in one conversation) with his handler and his motivation has more to do with his need for drama than with his affection for the US.

He likes the snazzy uniform he has designed for himself and his association with the Nazi elite. The enormity of his collaboration does not hit him until he goes to say goodbye to his father-in-law, the former police chief of Berlin, and learns that the chief, who never liked him, suspected that he was an American spy all along but was not concerned because his masterful use of Nazi propaganda made him extremely useful and convinced men like the chief to press on even when they had lost faith in their own leaders.

Those of us who are enthusiastic followers of spy tradecraft will have problems with the lack of active handling and absence of sources.  The code system was so primitive that it could bear little more information than Paul Revere’s one or two lanterns code.  Nevertheless, in Campbell’s handler’s telling,  it conveyed riveting intelligence to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Bill Donnelly, the head of the OSS.  Never let details get in the way of a good story.

How do decent people allow themselves to become tools of repressive regimes?   We avoided politics but could not help but reflect on the current situation in our beleaguered country where those of us in the middle are buffeted on both sides by the deranged and the the unhappy.

This is KV’s third novel. Although it is well-crafted in many ways it is evident that he was still making the transition from short stories to the novel. We are given very short chapters, some of which appear to be fillers that do not advance the narrative

Typical of KV, there isn’t a lot of character development on display. He violates the “show, don’t tell” rule by elaborately describing his characters who are often nothing more than stick figures, easy to satirize.

The first person narrative usually allows the author to humanize the protagonist even when he is a monster. KV does not let up on Howard Campbell, Jr. who, despite his heavy guilt, is still  self-absorbed and emotionally cold. Campbell is estranged from everyone. His parents (American and presumably horrified by his association with the Nazis but nevertheless making him their heir) are rarely mentioned. To make his escape at the end of the war he steals his best friend’s highly valued motorcycle . He turns his back on the young woman who professes that she has no reason to live without him before committing suicide in his arms.

The tone of this novel is terribly sad, but it is enlivened by a quick pace and flashes of black humor. High points here include the over-the-top satirical treatment of the American Nazis, the decision to bury Resi’s pet dog whom Campbell has euthanized so that it won’t be eaten by the starving populace, and his advice to Adolf Eichman on writing his autobiography. There is also some hilarity in recounting the success of Campbell’s Russian plagiarizer who became famous stealing Campbell’s plays and was only executed after he tried to write something original. One would like to think that he was influenced by his beloved Russian translator, Raisa Rait‐Kovaleva, but he did not meet her until 1972. The Russians seem to be involved in everything!

We talked about Howard and Helga’s “Nation of Two.” The high point of his life seemed to have been his relationship with Helga. She had acted in some of his plays but they did not seem to have had an intellectual relationship, it was mostly sexual and non-verbal. Helga was not aware of his duplicity. She died entertaining the German troops and Campbell never got over it. There seemed to be some parallels here with Meursault in Camus’ 1942 novel “The Stranger.” Meursault, who is also facing death (for murdering an Arab in self-defense) found existence to be meaningless and the only pleasure he had had in his life was sex with his girlfriend.  Sexual intercourse is what it is, unmediated no bullshit.  We concluded that Vonnegut would have found that a “nation of two” was not big enough to sustain the communitarian society that he advocated.

In the end we have to give Howard Campbell, Jr. props for accepting responsibility for his actions and acknowledging his need for punishment. Today he probably would declare himself a victim and establish a go-fund-me account. As a Mann der Tat he stole the hangman’s noose from the Israelis and did the job himself.

The group gave the novel a rousing 8.8 score on the internationally acclaimed ten point Kurt Vonnegut Scale. This is a drop from three years ago when twelve of us awarded it a 9.3.   Afterwards, most of us joined with Fritz Hadley for splendiferous dining at the fabulous Red Key tavern.

We will meet next month on July 27, 2017 at 11AM (at the KV Memorial Library) to go over Margaret Atwood’s 1985 futuristic dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.” We need a discussion leader for this one. See you there!

Dave Young

 


Meeting, May 25, 2017

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We met on May 25, 2017 at KVML to talk about KV’s 1963 novel “Cats Cradle.” The wet, cool spring day did not discourage John Sturman, Phil Watts*, Karen Lyst, John Hawn, Diane Richards*, Janet Hodgkin*, Bill Briscoe* and Dave Young* from showing up. Karen expertly led us through our discussion of this fast-paced and complex novel shot through with dystopian and science-fiction themes.

This is the 4th attempt this club has made to discuss what some consider to be KV’s most acclaimed novel. We discussed this in May 2010, March 2011, and on March 27, 2014. The five bookclubbers above with stars after their names were there in 2014! No notes were taken at the first two meetings.  Look at the archives if you want more background on the book.

Several of us had read this book more than twice. Not a daunting task as Vonnegut kept his chapters short and his breezy style pulled the reader through the narrative even though technical details and his elaborate invented language threw up some obstacles. Karen wanted to know whether a second reading changed our appreciation of the novel and what we liked most about it. That kept us busy for awhile. Someone said that if you liked this book you had to be either sick or sarcastic. This led to a discussion about the meaning of “pissant.” Let’s just stick with KV’s definition: “A pissant is somebody who thinks he’s so damn smart, he can never keep his mouth shut. No matter what anybody says, he’s got to argue with it. You say you like something, and, by God, he’ll tell you why you’re wrong to like it. A pissant does his best to make you feel like a boob all the time. No matter what you say, he knows better.”

Karen used her comparative lit skills to link “Cat’s Cradle” to “Moby Dick.”
The first sentence in the book (“Call me Jonah”) evokes the first sentence in “Moby Dick” (“Call me Ishmael’). The prophet Bokonon is spit out by the sea just as the prophet Jonah is spit out by the whale. Just as the Pequod sinks with the loss of all lives except Ishmael, the narrator Jonah is the only one to escape San Lorenzo as it slides into the soon to be frozen sea.

The initial metaphysical device of the book is that Jonah is going to write a book about what various people were doing at the exact moment the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It so happened that one of the inventors of the bomb, Felix Hoenikker, was trying to involve his son in the game of cat’s cradle. Hoenikker was a rather inept parent and he only succeeded in terrorizing his son.

We decided that the atomic bomb (and the putative destruction of the human race) was the wampeter of the book. Hoenikker’s second invention of mass destruction, “ice-nine,” becomes the objective correlative for the rest of the book evoking the emotional coldness that sets off the chain of events that leads to the end of civilization when the rivers and seas all turn to ice.

What is it about the game “Cat’s Cradle?” There is no cat and no cradle, just a handful of yarn. What we have here is appearance versus reality. Cat’s Cradle is nothing more than a “foma” or a harmless untruth. Something that gets us through the day. Perhaps the strings are the stickiness of human frailty.

At the end we were left with that old chestnut about KV. Did he or did he not believe in God. We seemed pretty sure that he did not believe in an anthropomorphic God even though he seemed to be a little soft-hearted when it came to Jesus. Maybe the German free-thinker in him saw something God-like in the “geist” (we are talking spirit and not the reservoir) that bound a community together. His idea of a utopia was apparently a small, self-sustaining gathering of souls who looked out for one another. We had to leave it at that.

We gave this book a 9.3 rating on the rigorously tested and highly scientific ten point KV Scale. One of the highest ever! This is slightly better that the March 2014 rating of 9.1. As R.W. Emerson would have it: : “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”

Karen led all eight of us to Pure Eatery, 1043 Virginia Avenue for a healthy lunch where we continued our discussion.

Next Book: Mother Night (1962) John Sturman will guide us through this entertaining post-war novel when we meet at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library on Thursday, June 22, 2017 at 11:00AM.

Here is an event note from the Kurt Vonnegut Library: “On Thursday June 1st, we’re hosting a party with our friends Stelth Ulvang and Nick Jaina! Tickets are only $25 for this one-of-a-kind opportunity to see two of the most unique and creative musicians and writers in a small show setting, all to support the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library! So join us at the beautiful new Indianapolis Professional Firefighters Local 416 Union Hall on Mass Ave for a night of music, drinks, and fun!”

Dave Young

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All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

The threat of spring rains did not deter a dozen of us from gathering at the KV Memorial Library this morning to discuss Stephen Crane’s 1895 war novel “The Red Badge of Courage.” Those who made the trip were: Karen Lystra, Phil Watts, Janet Penwell, Diane Richards, Sarona Burchard, Janet Hodgkin, John Hawn, Dave Young, Bill Briscoe, and Celia Latz. Newcomers were Susan Thomas and Tom Blogue. We hope they will come back. Our esteemed discussion leader was our founder,  Phil Watts.

We started out with an observation as to how appropriate it is to read a war novel in these troubled times. The author, Stephen Crane belonged to the same college fraternity as KV and KV gave “The Red Badge of Courage” a mention in “Slaughterhouse Five.” The American War Between the States was a particularly stupid war with over a half-million dead, probably more due to diseases and infection than enemy action. It is said that the military command is always fighting the last war and the Civil War was no exception. The Generals had not kept up with the change in military technology and new, more accurate and fast-loading, rifles took an unexpected toll in close combat. Then there was the Spanish-American War which some believe was a creation of William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper. Someone mentioned a movie about the US invading Canada and upon googling it, it was sure enough a 1995 Michael Moore movie starring John Candy and Alan Alda.

Whether one liked the novel or not, it was indisputably a hit when it was first published in London in 1895 and it later caught on in the US. It may have been the first widely distributed novel to have been written from the point-of-view of the ordinary, non-heroic soldier. Crane originally titled his manuscript “Private Fleming/His Various Battles” but at some point changed to “The Red Badge of Courage” which, of course, refers to the bleeding war wound. It seemed significant that the protagonist, Henry Fleming, is the only character identified by a first and last name. We could only think of two others who were named at all: “Jim” and “Wilson.” The other characters were given iconic names such as “The Tattered Soldier.” Jim may have been named because he was the only soldier Henry had known before the war and Jim’s death was more personal. He may have been inspired by someone Crane knew and Crane apparently wanted his name known.

Some thought that Crane’s style was revolutionary in that it was mostly simple and direct in a way that may have inspired Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Ernest Hemingway. However, his forced language in repeatedly describing natural history was tiresome. Describing the sun as a “red wafer in the sky” and extending the metaphor made me want to hurl. Others were irritated  by his use of dialect. Karen, our Twain scholar, contrasted Crane to Twain, and found that Twain had mastered dialect by using it wisely and sparingly. It is quite difficult to capture dialect on the page. The sainted and immensely popular James Whitcomb Riley made his fortune doing dialect and by today’s standards is a boring failure.

Another bitch about the novel was that, unlike most successful war novelists, Crane was never a soldier. He was born six years after the Civil War and did have some exposure to battle after he wrote “Red Badge” as a war correspondent in Cuba in 1898. Nevertheless, he was a good listener and reporter and apparently had interviewed many war survivors at an Army regiment in New York City. Any grunt who read the novel would note that Henry had little to say about boots or rations, two topics that are central in the daily life of a soldier in the field. Crane, not Henry (who was rather chaste), did share with soldiers an affection for prostitutes. His sad life ended at the age of 28 when his lungs bled out.
The flow of the novel has Henry running away from his unit during an early skirmish (for the Civil War buffs out there who don’t already know, the setting for the novel is the Battle of Chancellorsville). He is aghast to learn that his unit stood its ground and prevailed. He worked his way back to his unit and quietly lived with his shame for a while until (the high point of the novel some say) he realized that he was no more cowardly than the rest of them. At the end, he picks up the unit standard (which makes him a key target for an enemy sharpshooter) and leads them into battle, emerging unscathed. In this rite of passage a youth becomes a man. The end of the novel is made noble and in a burst of naturalistic overwriting Crane shows a ray of sunshine which we can interpret to be hope for the human race.

Is this an anti-war novel? We wanted to know but couldn’t decide. Henry is definitely an anti-hero and war is hell but there is a certain Victorian sensibility about all of this. The conflict is generalized and there are few hints as to time or geography. We gather indirectly that Henry is with the Union but not much is made of that and there is no discussion of the issues that caused the war. It is all about death and the grinding daily existence of combat. Theirs was not to reason why, theirs was to do and die. And die they did.

There is some mystery about the last few flowery lines in the novel.

“He had rid himself of the red sickness off battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and of war. He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks – an existence of soft and eternal peace. Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.”

These lines do not appear in Crane’s manuscript and appear to have been added later. The novel was initially serialized in a newspaper and subsequent editions had minor changes.

There was some quibbling about our rating of this work, but the novel finally came in at a 7.7 on the vaunted ten-point KV Scale. At least it was short and you could like it for that. Phil, exercising his full powers as discussion leader, directed us to lunch at Ralph’s Great Divide where we were excellently served with copious quantities of human consumables, pig being one of Ralph’s favorite dishes.

We have some minor changes to our reading schedule. Janet Penwell will lead the discussion on “The Fall Creek Massacre” in November and not in July. Celia Latz will fill the gap by leading the discussion on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel: “The Handmaiden’s Tale” on July 27, 2017.

Our next meeting will be on May 28, 2017 at 11AM at the KV Memorial Library. Karen Lystra will lead us in a learned discussion of KV’s 1963 novel “Cats Cradle” which was accepted as his AM thesis at the University of Chicago. Send your questions and observations to Karen in advance so she can come in loaded. See you there.

Dave Young

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

I left in such a hurry this morning that I grabbed the wrong notebook. The one that I stuck into my book bag was given to me by a young (now quite old and haggard) witch. I had misplaced the magic pen that went with it and thought that the pad was quite ordinary. It was only after recording the notes of our discussion this morning of Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” (1951) that I noticed that my scribblings kept revising themselves and giving new meaning to what I had intended to write. If what appears below makes no sense to you, blame it on the witch and not on me! *Stop that right now!*

We met at the Ray Bradbury Center at Cavanaugh Hall on the IUPUI campus where Jon Eller was our gracious host and, as usual, provided us with his encyclopedic knowledge of Ray.  Janet Hodgkin, who obviously has been at some point in her life been deeply immersed in the Bradbury canon, led the discussion and provided many interesting insights into the short stories she selected. Regulars attending in addition to Janet were: Bill Briscoe, John Hawn, Dave Young, John Eller, and Jay Carr. We were also joined by staffers from the Bradbury Center: Robin Condon,  Austen Hurt, and Daniel Sweet. Liz Goodfellow, a major gifts officer at IUPUI’s School of Liberal Arts, also contributed to the meeting and took us to lunch at Chancellor’s Restaurant.  Who knew you could buy liquor on an IU Campus!

 

We started out by comparing the various versions of “The Illustrated Man” we brought with us and discovering that almost all of us had brought an edition with a different cover and that some editions did not contain the short story “Fire Balloons.” John gave us a short history of the various artists who drew the cover art for the illustrated man whose tattoos became animated and told the stories Bradbury interpreted. The story “Fire Balloons” was dropped in the British edition. Neither does it appear In my 2011 Harper Perennial Modern Classic edition. *He had chosen to move to a new plane of existence. He would become   Buddha, without bothering to know what Buddha was all about. His new name would be Siddhartha.*

Ray had no tolerance for intolerance (see “The Other Foot”) or injustice and displayed a big heart when it came to children. *o ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole* In many of his stories children triumph while adults suffer. “The Veldt” is a good example of this story line. One might think that he had a troubled childhood, but Jon assured us that, although he grew up in poverty during the Great Depression as his father travelled from Waukegan to Tucson to Los Angeles while looking for work, he had a stable childhood and was much loved by his family even though he was bookish while his family was more inclined to outdoor activities. In Los Angeles, he cultivated radio and movie stars at an early age and at the age of 14 actually began writing scripts for George Burns.

Ray was a prolific writer and wrote about 1,000 words each day. He let his subconscious drive him and rarely rewrote or self edited his stuff as he thought that might change its meaning.Self-taught, he was disciplined and intent about his craft. On the other hand, KV expressed the belief that “the purpose of life is to fart around.” It took twenty years of short story writing to get Ray to the point where he could put a novel together. “The Illustrated Man” was an attempt to string eighteen stories together.

Jon told us a little about the 1969 film  “The Illustrated Man.”  Rod Steiger played the tattooed man and Claire Bloom was the tattoo artist. The Steiger character narrated three stories from the collection: “The Veldt,” “The Long Rain,” and “The Last Night of the World.” Ray sold the stories for $87K but was not consulted on the script which was universally panned. The film was a critical and financial failure. Ray hated it but remained close friends with Steiger.

We tried to compare KV to Ray. Both were born two years apart in the midwest but were identified with the opposite coasts. You only have to read a few pages of each to realize that there is little in common in their literary style. Coincidentally, they both had television shows at the same time and got together at least once (see photo above) Although he defied his family’s attempt to make him a scientist, KV was fairly well grounded in scientific method and was fairly numerate in his handling of data. Ray had a wide range of interests but was self-educated and was not scrupulous about dates or the science behind any of his imagined scenarios. He seemed to be distrustful of technology and thought it was necessary to keep the specifics of life going forward. Ray was traumatized after seeing a horrific fatal auto accident as a child and went through life without ever driving an automobile. KV had a brief affair with a Saab and became a Saab dealer for a short time. He blamed his failure with Saab as the excuse the Swedes needed to deny him the Nobel Prize. *We are going down the same path staring into the tunnel of Death.* Both were unhappy with the attempt to pigeon-hole them as sic-fi writers but were powerless to do anything about it. Ray considered himself to be a fantasy writer. KV though of himself as a serious writer who used sci-fi as a tool to comment on earthly behavior or to make a point. *Lawdy, Massa Dave, you dun gone kreativ agin?* What is the difference between fantasy and science-fiction? Talk amongst yourselves.

We gave this collection an honorable score of 8.5 on the fabulous 10 point KV Scale. Everyone liked it except one old curmudgeon who thought the stories were imaginative, but depressing and creepy. Our next outing will happen at 11AM on April 27, 2017 when Phil Watts will help us understand Stephen Crane’s 1895 war novel “The Red Badge of Courage.” This will be at the KV Memorial Library on Senate Avenue.  See you there.

Upcoming events. We were made aware that on April 8, 2017, the KVML will put on its eighth annual Fundraiser “Night of Vonnegut” at the Atheneum where a few notables will be on hand to discuss Kurt’s perennial theme of common decency. Tickets are still available. Then on April 29, 2017, the comedian Louis Black will do a stand-up act at the Old National and then entertain the KV crowd at an afterparty. If that isn’t enough for you, you can tour KV’s childhood home at 4401 N. Illinois, Indianapolis, IN as part of the St. Margarets Guild’s annual Decorator Show house from April 29 to May 14.

Dave Young

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

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Back to the salt mines. Having exhausted both my friends and my vacation money I have returned to process the notes of the KV book club all by myself. Today we met at the Library (the move to the new place has been delayed!) to further discuss Kurt’s collection of essays and speeches  “Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons.” We were ably led by Diane Richards. Phil Watts, John Sturman, John Hawn, Janet Penwell, Dave Young and Bill Briscoe joined in the fun.

We had problems from the git-go with the epigraph: I have travelled extensively in Concord – Henry David Thoreau. He may have said that somewhere but everybody knows that what he said in Walden Pond was: “I have traveled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.” Now, Concord, Mass. is a village of about 17,000 souls and to travel extensively therein seems problematic. Thoreau does not seem to have said this sarcastically, but Kurt might have done some word play to give this a sarcastic twist. I guess the lesson is that there is something to be learned in every place, no matter how small your universe.

Diane went around the room asking each what they found to be memorable about the book. Following KVBC protocol, I will not put responders on the spot by identifying them.

First up came “Oversexed in Indianapolis” in which one of our members asserted that KV had (to use a football metaphor) “clotheslined” Dan Wakefield, the author of the book KV was reviewing. After paying tribute to their friendship and noting that Dan had helped push his books, he gently tears the book apart. Art apparently transcends friendship.

We kicked around Biafra a little bit as we tried to comprehend its history and geograpy. Kurt went there in January, 1970 as part of a humanitarian mission to deliver food and supplies to the Biafrans who were being starved to death by the Nigerians. The lady who organized the mission probably wanted KV along to help publicize the lamentable plight of the Biafrans. He did help out with a longish piece in the now defunct (2002) women’s magazine McCalls. He displayed his humanitarian side by admiring and sympathizing with the the doomed Biafrans. The trip was probably the most action he had seen since WWII as the plane he left on was the last to leave Biafra unmolested by Nigerian gunfire.

KV had problems with women. He did not get along well with his mother or his two wives and (being a writer in the “Mad Men” era) he did not find a major role for women in any of his novels. However, in Wampeters he pays major tribute to two interesting Russian women “Madame Blavatsky” and “Rita Rait” and he has some nice things to say about Miriam Reik, the daughter of the psychoanalyst Theodore Reik, who persuaded him to accompany her on what must have been a harrowing trip to Biafra. Madame Blavatskyy died long before KV was born. She was a brilliant woman who married twice but never went to bed with any man. A con artist who may have believed her own con, she stayed true to herself all of her life. Rita Reit was twenty years older than KV but fell in love with his writing which she translated for his Russian audience. She invited him to tour Paris with her in 1972 and he attempted to get her to come to the United States. I have appended to this blog (under the page “external essays”) a 1977 New York Times article regarding KV’s favorable reception in Russia. Apparently the regime allowed him to be published there because they saw him as anti-American in his portrayal of vicious capitalism and empty materialism while the Russian masses liked him because of his contempt for authority and organized religion.

Kurt is never more engaged than when he is ranting against the stupidity of war and three of his essays deal with this topic. In “Thinking Unthinkable, Speaking Unspeakable” he approvingly quotes a woman who refused to honor American Flyers who were shot down in Viet Nam after bombing civilian populations.” As if John McCain didn’t have enough detractors! “In a Manner That Must Shame God Himself” he takes on, among others, my old religion professor at Earlham College, D. Elton Trueblood. KV interviewed him at the 1972 Republican Convention where Trueblood gave moral support to that other erstwhile Quaker, Richard Nixon. He wanted Nixon to know that he wasn’t like the Quaker on the box of Quaker Oats and that he shared the values of other common Americans. Therefore he saw no problem in laying Quaker pacificism aside to support the war effort.

Kurt displays his pessimism in “Reflections of My Own Death” where he expresses his belief that the only eternity is some yet undiscovered dimension in which every moment in history is trapped in some kind of filing cabinet forever. “When I think about my own death, I don’t console myself with the idea that my descendants and my books and all that will live on. Anybody with any sense knows that the whole solar system will go up like a celluloid collar by-and-bi. I honestly believe, though, that we are wrong to think that moments will go away, never to be seen again. This moment and every moment lasts forever.” Yeh. But he never says where you have to go to see that moment.

We devoted a whole meeting to “The Playboy Interview” on July 28, 2011.
Bill, Phil, Dave and four others were there. The interviewer in 1973  was David Standish (former IU student and English Prof at Northwestern) but we were convinced that due to the length and careful phrasing of the answers that KV was allowed to do an extensive edit. The interview was wide-ranging with excellent questions and extended answers. He showed a lot of himself and we learned about his loneliness and his sympathy for underdogs. Bill brought in his personal copy of the 1973 Playboy for us to peruse. We pretended to ignore the centerfold.

We are what we value. What did KV value? Talk amongst yourselves!

The group’s enthusiasm for “The Playboy Interview” apparently pushed our rating on the not-so-fake ten point KV scale up to an 8.33.   Our next meeting at 11AM on Thursday, March 23, 2017 will feature a 1951 collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury entitled “The Illustrated Man.”  Janet Hodgkin will lead the discussion at the Ray Bradbury Center, Room 121, Cavanaugh Hall, IUPUI.

The grand opening for the new Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library and Museum has been indefinitely postponed. After the meeting, five of us returned to Bluebeards for a pleasant lunch.

On March 2, 2017, the KV Library is sponsoring a Year of Vonnegut event. Here are the details: “Writer Nelson Price, muralist Pamela Bliss, Visit Indy, and WFYI  will host a discussion about Vonnegut’s hometown and ties to Indianapolis following a screening of the 2016 documentary, A Writer’s Roots: Kurt Vonnegut’s Indianapolis, on March 2 at WFYI’s Community Room from 6 to 8 pm.” The event is free but reservations are suggested due to limited space.

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

The January 26, 2017, meeting of the Vonnegut Book Club convened without our loyal scribe, Dave Young, who is basking in the sun in Florida at this time of year. Janet Hodgkin is standing in to record the discussion of Kurt Vonnegut’s, Wampeters, Foma, & Granfalloons (Opinions), published in 1974. Only half of the reviews and essays in the collection were selected for January reading. Diane Richards led the discussion, and she will continue leading the discussion of the second half of the book for the February 23 meeting. Diane suggested readers should keep themes in mind when reading the remainder of the essays beginning with “Oversexed in Indianapolis”.
January is often a month for Hoosiers to travel, so only six members were present for this meeting. Bill Briscoe, Jon Hawn, Phil Watts, John Sturman, Janet Hodgkin, and Diane Richards attended.

Before the meeting officially opened, Bill Briscoe passed out the 2017 reading schedule. Three months the year do not have books or leaders listed. So anyone interested in the months of August, November, or December can still choose a favorite book to discuss. The other months are as follows:

March 23 … Illustrated Man Ray Bradbury
April 27 … Red Badge of Courage Steven Crane
May 25 … Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut
June 22 … Mother Night Kurt Vonnegut
July 27 … The Fall Creek Massacre Jessimyn West
Sept. 28 … 1984 George Orwell
October 26 … God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater Kurt Vonnegut

Also, Bill Briscoe brought the list of members who have attended in the past but have not attended during the past year. A discussion ensued that these members should be contacted to renew interest. Also, information about the book club should be placed in areas, such as, The Writer’s Center and libraries. Next, Bill apprised the group of the up-coming events related to the Kurt Vonnegut Library and Museum. The major  Monday, February 13, 2017 (corrected – DEY) event will be a showing of “Slaughterhouse Five,”  along with readings and music at Union Chapel Methodist Church in Indianapolis. For other events during March and April, see the Vonnegut website.

Diane began the discussion of the essays by noting Vonnegut appears more likable after reading the more personal works and noted several themes running through each one. The themes mentioned were using humor, even black humor, to serve society (using new ideas), dangers of automation, humans wrestling with existence/faith, personal attractions, advances in medical science, and the good and bad of new technology.

Time was spent discussing the “Yes, We Have No Nirvanas” essay, for example, using the above mentioned themes. The group questioned if, perhaps, the separation of Kurt and Jane may have in some part had to do with the transcendental teachings of Marharishi which both Jane and 18-year-old daughter, Edith, came to believe. Vonnegut tells of the meditations and describes the new religion as” not-a-religion-but-a-technique”, and asks “What kind of holy man is it that talks economics like a traveling secretary of the National Association of Manufacturers?”

Also, the group discussed the events/experiences that probably influenced Vonnegut’s writing of essays or reviews published in magazines during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The discussion brought out Vonnegut’s time at GE, writings such as those of George Orwell, the Great Depression, Vonnegut’s view of the decline of the German culture, an anti-war obsession, the Kennedy assassination, and even Vonnegut’s own depression were possibilities. Several also mentioned that the moral up-bringing of the Vonnegut children was mainly left to the family cook. Therefore, a lack of parental role models has to be included.

Also, “Teaching the Unteachable” brought the discussion to journalism of today and in the past, and that creative writing (as Vonnegut saw it at writer’s conferences, for example) is not teachable, but journalistic writing can be taught to a point. Of course, the discussion of journalistic writing continued and revolved around the changes in newspapers/tv news from the days of barely noticing slanted news to the left or right to the over-bearing leanings of today. That opinions, more than facts, are thrown to the public now 24/7.
Another of the essays, “Fortitude” had the attention of the group. The discussion centered on Dr. Frankenstein’s relationship with Sylvia, the patient who was completely mechanical except for her head. The essay embodied every one of the themes Diane had outlined in the beginning of the session. Even added to the discussion, of course, was the quality of life issue.

Finally, the group touched on the public’s tendency to put violence on display (as long as our family is not the one being violated). In “There’s a Maniac Loose Out There” the group noted the combination of mixing humor with violence, along with deep sadness, and with fear. The exposure in this piece of humans who lose all compassion and good sense in the face of sensational ism was especially gruesome. For example, a young man was found to be selling bagged sand from the murdered girls’ grave sites for fifty cents a pound.
As the session wound up, looking back over the essays, the definitions Vonnegut gave in the Preface for Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons made more sense.

So far, the collection has been rated 7.3 by the group.
Remember, Book Club readers, February 23, the discussion will address the rest of the collection.

Janet Hodgkin

220px-remarque_im_westen_nichts_neues_1929german-soldiersAll entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Listen up, troopers. This is Gunny Watkins, Dave’s platoon Sergeant from way back when. He radioed me his field notes for his bookclub’s discussion of Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and asked me to do up his blog. He has a lot of balls asking someone who fought the Krauts to think about a war novel written by one of them, but what the hell. Dave led the discussion and these are the statesiders he claimed gathered around the table to talk the book over: John Sturman, Celia Latz, John Hawn, Bill Briscoe, Karen Lyst, Dave Young, Phil Watts, and Diane Richards.

When he isn’t dodging incoming, an infantryman has two concerns: his feet and his stomach and a lot of this book is about boots and food. Vonnegut made a big deal out of boots in “Slaughterhouse Five.” I remember when me and Dave would go on “midnight requisitions” to liberate food from the mess hall to add to our lousy rations. Wasn’t as intimate as the night Paul and Kat stole and roasted the goose, but we did have our times. Well, let’s get to them notes. Stow those body bags and gimme a oorah. We are going in!

They started out with a bio bit about Erich M. Remarque (1899-1970). What a stud that guy was! After raking in a fortune with “All Quiet” (1929) he bought a chalet in Switzerland to get away from the turmoil in Germany and rotated between Paris, New York, and Hollywood. During his travels he bedded down with Hedy Lamar, Dolores del Rio, Marlene Dietrich, and numerous other starlets. His second wife was Paulette Goddard. Erich did endure about six weeks at the front in WWI until he was wounded and spent the duration of the war in a Catholic hospital. He had wanted to become a classical pianist, but switched to literature because of combat damage to one of his arms. He loved fast cars, fine art and music, and had a large collection of art stuff. He considered himself a German Patriot and did not speak out about politics hoping to stay in the good graces of the German regime. However, the Nazis found his books to be to critical of the German High Command and German society and banned them. Later they decided that he was really a Jew and in 1938 revoked his German citizenship. For good measure, they beheaded his sister and sent him the bill. Erich became a US Citizen in 1947 but soon returned to his villa in Switzerland which he considered to be his permanent home. He continued to commute to Hollywood and acted in a small role in “A Time to Love and A Time to Die” which was based on one of his novels.

Then we did a quick overview of the causes belli of WW1 and the workings of trench warfare.  This war seemed more accidental than most wars and exploded because of mutual defense agreements that were not well conceived. The trench warfare devolved into a two year stalemate when the allies finally conceded that attacks on the German defenses were not only futile, but suicidal. Only when tanks were introduced in the last year of the war did the defenses collapse. Remarque did a great job describing the misery and squalor of the trenches. The absence of rats in the trenches appeared to be a good sign until the troops realized that they were absent only because they were consuming corpses cut down in the open field. Remarque intentionally made the war scene universal. It is not clear or important where the battle was being fault and the enemy was so impersonal that at times you didn’t know whether they were French, British, or Americans. There are no heroic battles and war is not glamorized. Religion does not get much play in the novel despite the fact that the German’s helmet displayed the imperial motto “Gott mit Uns.” In fact, when Paul and his buddies were hospitalized in a Catholic hospital they were outraged that they were forced to hear the nun’s morining orisons.

Despite Remarque’s extreme realism, he did not do much with the sense of smell. This came up as we tried to imagine the soldiers trying to protect themselves from incoming shells and attackers by hiding in a cemetery among the rotting corpses and split-open coffins. We decided that the sense of smell is not as necessary to survival as the senses of sight and sound.

Remarque did not give us any comic relief and the only black humor seemed to revolve around elimination functions. There was the scene in which the starving soldiers gorged on a pig they had slaughtered and spent the night in repeated defecation. Not as funny as the farting scene in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Sadldles” but you have to get your laughs were you can in this novel. The image of the soldiers contributing their urine to keep the water-cooled machine gun going was also mildly amusing. There was also something poignant about the naked midnight rendezvous of Paul and his buddies with the willing French farm women. Even though they did not speak the same language they fulfilled one another’s needs and Paul felt more satisfied than he had been in the German brothels.

One point that Remarque kept driving home was that war changes young men in a way that makes it impossible for them to really go home again. Paul’s return to his home town on military leave was painful. He had to listen to the town’s elders tell him that he did not get the big picture, did not know what was going on outside his small area of conflict.  How could someone who had seen what he had seen deal with that?

Two events turn Paul upside down and lead to his demise.  He is forced to stab to death a French soldier who has crashed into his trench and endure the sounds of his slow death.  He goes through his papers and comes to the conclusion that he and the Frenchman are comrades and that their common enemy is whatever sent them to kill one another.  Then, toward the end of the novel,  Paul carries his wounded friend on his back to an aid station.  He had thought the wound to be slight and the effort to bring him in was difficult.  When he unloaded Kat he was told by the medics that Kat had died of another hidden wound.  Paul was totally undone.

This novel which is promoted as “The Greatest War Novel of All Time” has been a best-seller in many languages for over eighty-five years and is still taught in schools. It has never been a banned book in America. It is easy to list as it contains no explicit sex and no obscene or vulgar words. The closest Remarque comes is a reference to a “famous” phrase used by the foul-mouthed Tjaden, but Remarque does not tell you what that phrase actually was. Dave researched this and learned that the phrase in German was “Er kann mich in Arsche lecken.”  You can read more about this phrase in the “external essays” pages of this blog.

Back to you, Dave.  War is Hell.  Over and out.

We haven’t had a poem on this blog for quite so time, so I found one that resonates with our monthly theme. This is by a very British (never mind the name; his mother adored Richard Wagner) and very gay fellow called Siegfried Sassoon. He was a highly decorated infantry officer in The Great War and lived in the trenches with his troops. He finally broke and publicly refused to return to the front. The Brits decided not to court-martial him but put him in the booby-hatch for the duration of the war under the diagnosis of neurasthenia (shell shock). He used the time to write what must have been a hundred or more anti-war poems. This is one of them:

SUICIDE IN THE TRENCHES

By Siegfried Sassoon

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

The group gave this rather gloomy anti-war novel a rousing score of 9.4 on the internationally acclaimed KV ten point scale. Then they all, every one of them, decamped to Pizzology for lunch as snow spit through the freezing air. Our next meeting will be on January 26, 2017 when we will meet at the KV Memorial Library on the corner of Senate and Vermont at 11AM. Diane Richards  will guide us through KV’s book of essays: “Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons.”

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