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



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.

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:


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.”






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.

KARUMP, KABOOM. What you hear is the sound of a thousand balloons bursting as the elite country club Uniparty is imploding. Now that my gig with The Donald is over, my attention has shifted from politics to art. Dave has given his notes to me, Irving Gottbuks, to write up the summary of his bookclub’s discussion of “The Sirens of Titan” (KV’s second novel published in 1959) and it is going to be incredible, that I can tell you. To be honest, I don’t think that ole Dave has even read the goddamned book. I guess an artiste like himself is too busy to waste a whole day reading science fiction even if it is written by the sainted KV. Here is a list of the time-warpers who participated in the discussion: John Hawn, Karen Lyst, Bill Briscoe, Janet Pennwell, John Sturman, Dave Young,  and Celia Latz. No one volunteered to act as moderator so it was like one of those TV political talking heads panels where everyone is talking at once.

My fortune is both huge and ginormous yet unsatisfying. Money cannot buy wisdom because wisdom can only come through pain and suffering (Unk’s point #72 if you really want to know). Art is about to transcend reality and escape the greasy bounds of time and history. Let us put our bodies together and DANCE!

But where do we begin? KV’s fertile imagination deals with so many topics: religion, anthropology, scientific progress, space travel, technology and so on. Is our fate a result of free will or determinism? What about aesthetics? This is the novel as allegory.  Let’s start with those darling stone Sirens of Titan themselves. Unlike the flesh and blood Homeric Sirens, these three asexuals are carved from stone by Salo and are covered with slime. There is no getting by these Sirens as they trap you for eternity. Like Rumsford’s wife, Beatrice, there is no external beauty here. The beauty is within. The meaning of life can be discovered by exploring the terra incognita within oneself and not by exploring the external universe. To look outward is to be ignorant of the truth.

Next we visited the Magnus Opus Building (not unlike Trump Tower). Magnus Opus was founded as a holding company by Malachi Constant’s father. In a bare hotel room, Neil Constant, using a Gideon Bible as an investment guide, assembled a large number of companies and built a 31-story headquarters building housing all of his ventures including “King O’Leisure Shirts.” KV’s contempt for corporate America which he first explored in “Player Piano” is restated here. The furniture on the 31st floor is legless, suspended by magnetism. We saw this as an expression of flawed progress; design over comfort, form not following function and we riffed on uncomfortable furniture we have had to contend with. It was from this building that Malachi Constant was kidnapped and made a Colonel in the Army of Mars.  On the way to Mars, Malachi makes a pit stop at Mercury. There he and his companion Boaz (apparently inspired by the “father of American anthropology” Franz Boaz) discover the cave of the Harmoniums, a non-human species that vibrates in its love for music. They do not create music but are driven into ecstasy by music that Boaz provides them. Our group likened them to Al Capp’s Schmoo and The Tribbles from an episode of Star Trek. Malachi continues on to Mars while Boaz exercises his free will and steps out of time and history to stay with the Harmoniums.

This led to a hopeless discussion of scientific matters we were ill prepared to deal with: String Theory, Multiple Dimensions, Parallel Universes, and Unity Theory. We were shocked to learn that sound does not travel in a vacuum and that Mars is deaf. On a planet where everyone is deaf, the man with the wired earbuds is King. Another gem: Artificial Intelligence will become smarter than human intelligence when AI robots learn to replicate themselves. We marveled at how KV, writing in 1959, did such a good job of theorizing about the future. Lord knows what he would have done if he had access to Twitter. Someone wondered why KV didn’t deal with Nuclear Winter. Well, he did make a big deal of an Orange Sky.

Malachi was hanged in effigy. What was that all about? Perhaps a reverse crucifix? We are shown the misuse of religion to justify hatred, to persecute the Christ Killers, and to promote the sale of gimcracks. “The Sirens of Titan” can be read like “Harrison Bergeron” as a critique of communism and its need to find someone to demonize.

The book contains an enormous amount of religious symbolism even though the free-thinking KV was undoubtably an atheist. Yet he affirmed humanist values while skewering organized religion. His message was that you did not have to be religious to value others or to be kind. A comparison was drawn between KV and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” You can see it in the small doors and the transformative pills or “goofballs.” Carroll questioned Victorian certainties of logic and objectivity while KV questioned science and progress.

In the final analysis, we need to realize that our attempts to control the Universe, the World, or even the Middle-East are pathetic. Spending our finite resources to explore space is wasteful. KV would refer to such exploration in a later essay as “The Great Spacefuck.” We need to look inward and to heal ourselves and our communities. If only our free will will take us there. Art can be part of the process because truth is beauty and beauty is truth. That is all ya need to know.

The novel has never been made into a movie. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead had the movie rights and after his death KV purchased those rights and on a handshake deal gave them to Bob Weide. A script has been created but there seems to be no immediate prospect for a film.

At the end of the novel, Malachi Constant died (And So It Goes) on the frigid streets of Indianapolis waiting for a much delayed IndyGo bus. If KV had only lived to see our magnificent new Julia M. Carson (Praise be to Allah!) Transportation Center, he might have come up with a different ending.  Hallelujah.  You were sick but now you are well and there is work to be done!  Your future will be bigly ginormous, that I can guarantee. The club gave the novel a rousing 8.5 grade on the 10 point Vonnegut scale. We then split to the Columbia Club for lunch and more book talk. We will next meet on Thursday, December 8, 2016 to discuss Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.”  This meeting will be at 636 Massachusetts Avenue, Indianapolis, IN.














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 met Dave in a coffee shop several years ago and because I am an Ellen Jamesian and cannot speak, we started exchanging notes. I can hear but Dave thought we would be on equal footing if we just stuck to notes. It took me awhile to interpret his childish scrawl but now I can read his notes like my own. So it didn’t surprise me when he asked me to summarize his notation of the Vonnegut Book Club’s discussion of John Irving’s “The World According to Garp.” I read the book but didn’t go to the meeting because, lacking a tongue, I would have been very frustrated. Among the illustrious, fully-tongued literati gathered there were: Celia Latz, Bill Briscoe, John Hawn, Karen Lystra, John Sturman, Phil Watts, Janet Penwell, and Dave Young. John Hawn led the discussion.  Before I hit the notes, I would like to say that I found this novel to be a somewhat humorous put-down of feminism and a paean to death and oral sex which for all I know might be the same thing. However, as I look back, if I hadn’t taken feminism so seriously, I might not have cut out my own tongue. As a result I have lost my interest in oral sex and also food but still remain very much alive. I enjoyed the metafictional aspect of the novel as the author, John Irving, seems to be working out his own problems as a novelist through his protagonist-author, T. S. Garp.  Garp is troubled by his readership’s conflation of autobiography and imagination.

This 1978 Kunstlerroman was a huge bestseller; a page-turner with strong narrative drive that even in its darkness elicited strong emotional reactions from those who did not like it at all. A few in our group, frustrated by the violence and joyless sex, were unable to finish it.

The crux of “The World According to Garp” is in Chapter 13. KV once said that his novels were a series of carefully crafted jokes and he would have appreciated Irving’s big joke. Irving spends about 200 pages setting this up. Garp’s wife has been seduced by her graduate student. After the affair is exposed, she tries to disengage by giving the student a good-bye blowjob in the front seat of his Buick Roadmaster parked in the Garp family driveway. Garp, stuffed in his Volvo with his two sons, can’t see out of the iced-over window. Following his weird practice of coasting without lights into his driveway, he rams into the Roadmaster while his wife is in flagrante delicto. The lover experiences the amputation of his member (Irving may have castration anxiety issues) and Garp loses his youngest son while the other son loses an eye on the Volvo’s naked gear shift lever which Garp had failed to repair. The gear shift knob is kind of a McGuffin for the novel. The next 200 pages are the unwinding of this event.

John, who has read the book five times, found five themes in this novel: feminism, gender transformation, fame, lust, and death. Irving’s treatment of feminism (this was written, after all, in 1978) was satirical and arguably hostile. Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields (who dominates the early  chapters of the novel) probably did not consider herself a feminist. Jenny is presented as a hermetically sealed nurse who was certain of what she wanted and went after it. She was really an asexual radical individualist who cared for wounded women and after writing her autobiography became the icon for a twisted corps of mutilated feminists who called themselves “Ellen Jamesians.”

Irving studied under Vonnegut at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the 1960’s and wrote four novels before hitting the big time.  Comparing Irving to Vonnegut we concluded that Irving’s darkness is more internal  than the external darkness in Vonnegut’s novels and Irving’s humor is more submerged. In this novel Death wins, as he always does. First Jenny Fields and then her son, Garp, are killed by crazed assassins. Then Irving launches into an epilogue in which he explains how all of the other characters meet their end. Probably unnecessary. To our group, the characters all seemed to be rather flat and under-developed. The sex was loveless and amoral and rather mechanical. Although the reader might be drawn into the action of the novel, the characters are less accessible. The only figures who seemed likable were the trans-sexual Roberta (a former tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles) and Ernie Holm (Garp’s wrestling coach and father-in-law).

A contemporaneous review by Chistopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times summed the work up nicely: “However you see it, between the imagined event and mundane reality that inspired its invention, there is room for laughter. What is ultimately funny about “The World According to Garp” is not the events themselves, but the imagination that is inventing them.  Not that the world Garp imagines is any more extreme than the one the reader knows in reality that our responses to that world are any less absurd than Garp’s. It’s just that we don’t normally make the connections that Garp does. If we could only see ourselves as Garp sees his characters, our world might seem funny too, even though it is filled with assassinations and rapes and maimings. What Mr. Irving has done is to take such extremes and treat them as if they were domestic routines. As the novel concludes, “. . . in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” If we could so consistently see ourselves as terminal cases, we too might joke about and laugh at our tragedies.”

Bill read his short poem: “A Pledge of Devotion,”  a tribute to his frat bro Kurt Snarfield Vonnegut. We were unable to pin down a good definition of “snarf.”

The group scored this novel as a 6.0  on the KV ten point scale. We then went to the neighboring restaurant Pizzology to continue our discussion. The next monthly selection will be KV’s “The Sirens of Titan” on November 10, 2016 at 11AM at 646 Massachusetts Avenue. We are going to wing it without a discussion leader.




Meeting, September 22, 2016

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.

If you really want to know the truth, I like to lie a lot so what you read here isn’t necessarily so.  I owe Ole Dave some favors, don’t ask me why, so I told him I would sub for him on his mossy old blog and then he gave me a bunch of crap about some corny format that I am supposed to follow. I must list the names of all the geezers that show up and then summarize their discussion. Then I have to tabulate how they all felt about what they read and put it on some corny 1-10 scale. If that isn’t enough, I have to write what they are going to talk about next month and mention the phony restaurant where they go to lunch and buy some edgy over-the-top kind of food that I can’t afford and then talk some more. His scribbly notes are hard to read and I ought to bag it but Dave can get real nasty when he is crossed so it is just easier to do it than get into a screaming match with him. He wanted me to work in something about the weather but I refused. That is just too lame.

So here are the ones who showed: Karen Lyst (Dave claims she is a lit prof somewhere) led the discussion and if I can read his notes right she did a good job of getting people to open up. Also, John Hawn, Bill Briscoe, Phil Watts, Diane Richards, Dave Young, John Sturman, and Fred Mandelkorn.

What they were talking about was a book called “Catcher in the Rye” by Jerome Salinger who wrote this in 1951 which was if you can believe it even before my grandfather was born. It was the only good thing he ever wrote and even though he kept hinting he was working on something bigger he never came through. It is still a cult thing and Barnes and Nobles has several copies in many editions on its shelves. Teenagers eat it up because it is about angst and alienation and all that crap kids my age have to deal with.

Vonnegut and Salinger were New Englanders of the same age and both were in that big war they fought about a hundred years ago but they didn’t hang out together or anything and didn’t have much in common. The only reason the club picked this book was because the Vonnegut Library is celebrating Banned Book Week and this book was banned. What that means I guess is that many years ago if a church or school board or someone didn’t like a book because it used dirty words, made fun of the baby Jesus, or wasn’t setting a good example for people like me, they’d just stop it from being passed out. Hard to imagine that people could have been so dumb but times change. I am not shitting you, believe me.

What freaked me out about Holden was his New York/Donald Trump way of talking. He’d say he had done something a hundred times when you knew it was really only a couple of times.Then he would always double-down on a point he was making by telling you “You won’t believe how huge it is going to be “ or something like that even though you knew it wasn’t the truth.   And after that, he would repeat himself over and over and all just in case you didn’t get it. I really mean it, I really, really mean it. It was like he was afraid that people would think he was as phony as the rest of them.

Even the title is all messed up based on a poem that no one heard right by some old Scottish guy. “Gin a body meet a body comin thro’ the rye” is the way it was written. I guess if they called it “Meeter in the Rye” it wouldn’t sell so goddamned well.

Where do those goddamn ducks go in the winter? Why should I care what some pimply-faced prep school jerk wants to know about ducks. The ducks can go fuck themselves for all I care. Just want to get this Vonnegut book club thing over. Think of all those old retired dudes sitting around and trying to figure out what a writer means when a writer writes. Just wasting time when they should be trying to figure out their own messed up lives.

This goddamn talk is killing me. My lousy vocabulary can’t get the job done. I don’t think I can explain it but even if I could I probably wouldn’t feel like it so I am going to have my mom write the next couple of paragraphs based on Dave’s shaggy-assed notes. She is old and wrinkled by not nearly as old as Dave. I told her that the folks at the book club were really good people. You have to say that kind of crap or something if you want to stay alive.

Continue to suspend your disbelief. I really, really am the kid’s mom. The kid has not yet mastered the adult skill of adapting to phoniness and pretense. Like Holden, he thinks that innocence only resides in children, the little bastards. Rabbie Burns was a cockhound and his poem “Comin’ thro’ the Rye” is all about casual sex in a natural setting. When Holden hears a child sing this poem, a seed is planted in his adolescent mind that grows to see him heroically trying to catch children running through a rye field to keep them from plunging over a cliff at the edge of the rye.  At sixteen,  he is caught between a world of innocent children and phony adults. The author does not resolve his problem. Perhaps Holden is Salinger’s alter ego and after he tells his story he has nothing more to say.

Another screw-up is the misattribution of a quote (Chapter 24) by Otto Ludwig to that Freudian scholar of jackings-off and perversions, Wilhelm Stekel. This is the nutgraf of the chapter as his former teacher, a kindly old pedophile, tries to tell him what life should be all about. The original quote: “Das Höchste, wozu er sich erheben konnte, war, für et was rühmlich zu sterben; jetzt erhebt er sich zu dem Größern, für etwas ruhmlos zu leben” barely translates to the given phrase.

Karen noted that this book has sold over 65 Million copies in the last 65 years and as of 2013 was selling at a rate of 500k books per year. The group tried to imagine how a current teen-ager would view the book which seemed quite dated to many of them. Are all of the sales the result of being on required reading lists? As far as banned book week is concerned, Time Magazine (are they still in business?) in 2008 declared “Catcher” to one of the ten most banned books in all of human history. Karen also observed that Salinger was not a recluse but merely a person who went to great lengths to protect his privacy while indulging his pursuit of youthful females and Hollywood starlets.

Some mention was made of Louis Menand’s fifty year retrospective of “Catcher” in the 10/1/2001 issue of the New Yorker. Menand was not pleased with Salinger’s glamorization of misfits or the nostalgia of youth culture he celebrated. What the hell was Holden’s problem?   He was obviously disaffected and possibly had attention deficit disorder. He was filled with anger and the group speculated that the death of his younger brother bothered him greatly. Did he have post traumatic stress disorder? Is this really a war novel? Salinger did have some harrowing experiences in WWII and maybe this is his way of working them out through a weirdly moral boy who, like Huck Finn, understates what he finds wrong with the world.

Holden’s unique voice persona demonstrated an attitude toward life that was new to literature. It is a language that parents and school boards have found offensive over the years but is probably mild compared to the vocabulary of contemporary youth. Holden cannot go a paragraph without a “goddamn” but gets freaked out by “Fuck You” graffiti because he does not want his innocent sister to have to deal with it.

We know from the git-go that Holden is not going to tell us much about his parents, his background, or “that David Copperfield kind of crap.” So the novel is relatively free of character exposition beyond what the first person narrator chooses to tell us. It is an irony-free zone and there is very little character development. At the end, Holden is holed-up in some rehab facility (apparently in California) contemplating a shot at a fourth prep school in the fall.  He is not sure that he is going to be able to get his shit together and his prognosis is neither good nor bad. But, what the hell, he is only sixteen.  He does claim to miss some of the characters he has previously hated,  so maybe he is not hard of heart.

Okay, kid. Take us out.

The geezers voted on this book and came up with 8.75 on a scale of ten. The next book on the schedule will be “The World According to Garp” (1978) by John Irving. They get to examine “white privilege” at another prep school. Irving learned from KV at the U of Iowa Writer’s Work Shop and they became good friends.  John Hawn has promised to lead the discussion on Thursday, October 27, 2016 at 11AM.   Well, I guess that is enough of this crap. My goddamn nerves are shot, they really are. I am going to go off into a corner and puke my guts out. I am.  I am, really am, going to do it.    Oh, yeh.   Afterwards, everyone went to lunch at the Shoe-Fly and had some greasy German sausage dish.



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.


Joe Heller

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”
—Kurt Vonnegut
The New Yorker, May 16th, 2005


Karen Lyst, John Sturman, Fritz Hadley, Janet Penwell, John Hawn, Jon Eller, Bill Briscoe,
Dave Young, Phil Watts, Diane Richards, Kathlee Angelone, and Janet Hodgkin all survived the late summer tornados and came together at the KV Memorial Library on this hot and humid day for our monthly meeting.   We   (Janet Hodgkin,  Bill,  Dave,  Phil,  Kathleen and four others) previously discussed today’s work on January 26, 2012.  We were not as kind back then as now; we rated  it only a 7.5 on the KV Scale.

Jon Eller led us in a discussion of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22.” One of Jon’s specialties is the forensic study of literature and he gave us the inside story on the novel’s difficult birth and publishing history. Heller (1923-1999) began writing the eponymous novel in 1953 and after a long struggle published it in 1961. Jon met Heller in 1986 while teaching at the USAF academy and established a casual relationship with him over the years which resulted in Jon editing the extensive addendum to the Simon and Schuster 50th Anniversary edition of “Catch 22.” He brought with him copies of archival material including (mostly encouraging) letters to Heller from distinguished authors who  had read advance copies of the controversial novel.

Prior to meeting Heller, Jon had discovered an earlier edition of “Catch 22” that included a chapter (“Yossarian Survives”) that was deleted from the US edition. He queried Heller who was not aware of the deletion and Heller later arranged for the missing chapter to be published in Playboy (December 1987). Jon graciously provided all of us with copies. Many critics describe the novel as “rambling” and even “incoherent.” Heller wrote that editing cut his original manuscript from 800 pages to 600. Jon put the number at about 150 pages. The original manuscript, handwritten in red ink on yellow pads, is presently in the archives at Brandeis University. It is a commonplace to complain that the novel is bloated and overwritten.

Another possible missing chapter was “Love, Dad” which also appeared in Playboy. This consists of letters to Lt. Nately which were found on his body after his bomber was shot down.

When the novel initially came out, it was not well received in the US which was still captivated by left-over war fervor and super-patriotism. The novel was an instant best seller in England for which war had lost all romance. Back in the States a new generation of college students developed an enthusiasm for the book that propelled it to be a paperback best seller. It continues to sell well and “Catch 22” appears on several lists naming it one of the top 100 novels in the last century.

We wore ourselves out thinking of examples of Catch-22 situations. Jon reminded us that the novel was not so much about War but about Big Business in 1950’s America when the phrase “What’s good for General Motors is good for America” sounded perfectly reasonable. The wildly exaggerated business ventures of Captain Milo Minderbinder were more than a subplot. They exposed the underbelly of the Military-Industrial complex. Heller continued this anti-capitalist theme in his 1974 novel “Something Happened” which is a satire of corporate America. As the originator of “McHale’s Navy” Heller put his sense of humor to work.

Much has made of the opening line in the novel: “It was love at first sight.” This language was Heller’s inspiration to start the novel and the love is agape rather than eros. He is talking about his encounter with the chaplain who is probably the only decent, uncorrupted human being in the book. The rest of the cast is deranged. Joke titles for this novel include “The Marx Brothers Go To War” and “From Here to Insanity.” One of the characters is known as “The Man in White” who is a faceless, silent patient who is completely encased in bandages. “Is there anything at all under there, they ask?”  No just a bunch of mutilated flesh. A body without a soul is just garbage. Then there are the graphic images of Snowden the tail gunner who appears to be lightly wounded by enemy fire until his guts fall out and the headless man whose body is blown apart. This playfulness about the morbid caused Christopher Hitchens to call Heller a “ludic Kafka.”

We took a side trip into the very bitter falling out of Norman Podhoretz and Heller who had once been tight friends in the close circle of Manhattanite Jewish Authors. Heller dropped Podhoretz first because the hawkish Podhoretz was sucking up to Nixon and Kissinger. Podhoretz struck back:

“In due course even World War II fell victim to the onslaught of the antiheroic ethos that was resurrected in the Sixties and given even greater currency by Vietnam. Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 is the key document here. Though published in the early days of American involvement in Vietnam, Catch-22 was a product of the new climate, and so powerful was this climate already becoming that Heller not only got away with but was even applauded for what a few years earlier would have been thought virtually blasphemous—showing up World War II as in effect no different from or better than World War I. As Heller portrayed it, there were no heroes in that war; there were only victims of a racket run by idiots, hustlers and thieves.”   [Sorry to say I have lost the attribution – DEY]

There was some talk of the literary agent Candida Donadio who, as a rookie agent, sold “Catch 22” to Simon and Shuster for a $750 signing fee. She was also an early promoter of Thomas Pynchon.

We had to give credit to Playboy Magazine for breaking sexual barriers in the 1950’s and 1960’s by publishing and promoting short stories by Heller and others.  There was plenty of sex in Catch 22 but our pristine group insisted that it was archetypal and transactional, not the nasty kind. Someone said it was non-gratuitous but they forgot about about the brothel. Sex is seen as the partner of stress and combat in an era that did not romanticize sex.

Heller had a hard time coming up with the last four chapters. Yossarian was haunted by Nately and when he went to the empty brothel to find Nately’s Whore (she apparently did not deserve a name) the brothel owner gave him her interpretation of the phrase “Catch 22.” “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” As the novel’s end approaches, Yossarian’s commanding officers, fed up with his malingering and constant bitching about the number of missions required for recycling, offer him a cynical deal. They will load him up with medals and send him back to the States a hero. Yossarian’s anti-heroic solution is to go AWOL to Sweden for the duration of the war. On the way out the door he is attacked by Nately’s Whore who is on a singular homicidal mission to avenge the death of Nately. Perhaps Nately’s Whore is Yossarian’s conscience.

Bill did not entertain us with another poem but did come up with a meme. Many authors must be mathematicians he speculated, naming works such as Slaughterhouse Five, Catch 22, Mila 18 and numerous others. We cranked up the famous KV rating machine and Phil computed the result: “Catch 22” merited a whopping 9 on the 10 point KV scale. Nine of us then adjourned for a leisurely meal and further ruminating at the Milano Inn.  “Catch 22” fades into our September 22, 2016 selection “Catcher in the Rye” replacing the anti-hero Yossarian with the adolescent anti-hero Caulfield. Salinger (Like Vonnegut) was an Army veteran who had been through the Battle of the Bulge and at least one critic has described Catcher in the Rye as a “disguised war novel.” Karen Lyst, newly retired from UC-Fullerton, will bring us to full attention as we relive our adolescent exposure to this work.

Upcoming events. On the weekend of September 16-18, The Indianapolis Opera Company will present its version of KV’s “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” in a premier performance at the Schrott Center for the Performing Arts. The composer is Richard Auldon Clark and the libretto is taken from KV’s only completed play. Bill is still working on a plan to get regulars comp tickets for the dress rehearsal on 9/16/2016. He will let us know.

The KVML has reportedly raised enough money to contemplate its move to new quarters next spring. The new space at 636 Mass Ave (just up the street from the KV mural and the Atheneum) has five times the display space of the current library.

Looking forward to seeing you at our next meeting on 9/22/16.

Dave Young