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Book Review: Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

Pink coiled snake with a mint green background.Summary:
In the future when humans have evolved to have much smaller brains and the ability to swim like penguins, a long-lasting ghost from the prior stage of human evolution tells us the tale of how it all went down.  How overpopulation of the old-fashioned, big-brained humans, a very bad economy, and a series of unfortunate (fortunate?) events led to an odd group of humans being marooned in the Galapagos, surviving the worldwide fallout, and evolving into the smaller-brained, fish-eating, natural swimmers we have today.

Review:
I picked this up during a kindle sale for incredibly cheap purely for the author.  I’d read three other Vonnegut works previously: Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five (read before my book blog), and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (review).  I enjoyed the first two and felt meh about the last, so I was fairly confident I’d enjoy another Vonnegut book.  So when one night my partner and I decided we wanted to read a book together (out loud to each other), we looked on my kindle, both glommed on to the name Vonnegut, and chose this as our first read together.  So my reading experience was a mix of listening and reading out loud myself, which I am grateful for, because I honestly think Galapagos sounds even more absurdist aloud.

There is an incredibly unique writing style to this particular scifi book.  So much so that my boyfriend and I wound up researching to find out if, perhaps, Vonnegut wrote this toward the end of his life when he was perchance senile.  (It was not, although it was published in the 80s, unlike my three prior Vonnegut reads, which were published in the 60s).  Then we wondered if maybe Vonnegut had Asperger’s, although we didn’t bother checking up on that.  Why these wonderings?  Well, Galapagos is a very odd book.  The premise isn’t that odd for scifi — a projected future evolution of humans and telling how we got there.  But the ultimate future is kind of hilariously odd (penguin-like humans).  Mostly, though, the way the tale is told is odd and unique in a way that took time to grow on me.

Beyond the whole odd scenario, there’s the fact that if a character will be dead by the end of the chapter, an asterisk appears next to their name.  And the names appear a lot.  Vonnegut is incredibly fond of naming everyone and everything by their full name every time they appear.  He also loves lists.  (This is the part that had us wondering about Asperger’s).  At first this is grating on the nerves, but with time it comes to feel like the vibe of the world you’re visiting when you open the book.

Similar to the lists and constant naming, there are philosophical asides.  Some of these are worked smoothly into the story thanks to a handheld computer device (similar to a smartphone) that pulls up relevant quotes to read to the survivors.  Other times, though, they are truly random asides that go so far off the path of the story you’re left wandering around in a cave in the woods instead of on the nice paved road.  But then everything comes right back around to the story, and you can’t really be upset about spending some time listening to an old ghost ramble.  For example:

What made marriage so difficult back then was yet again that instigator of so many other sorts of heartbreak: the oversize brain. That cumbersome computer could hold so many contradictory opinions on so many different subjects all at once, and switch from one opinion or subject to another one so quickly, that a discussion between a husband and wife under stress could end up like a fight between blindfolded people wearing roller skates. (page 67)

Off-topic? Yes. Quirky? Absolutely.  Interesting and fun nonetheless? Totally.

The plot, in spite of being deeply meandering, does develop and actually tell a story.  We learn how overpopulation caused disaster and then how a few humans managed to survive on the Galapagos Islands and evolve into the futuristic penguin-like folk.  Along the way we have some fun side-trips like an Argentinian military man appearing on a talk show and trying to explain that Argentina really does have submarines, it’s just that once they go underwater they never show up again.

Although I did ultimately appreciate the absurdity and the quirkiness, I must admit that I think it was perhaps a bit overdone.  At the very beginning of the book when the list-making and other elements like that were much more prevalent, I was more annoyed and might have stopped reading the book if it wasn’t for the fact that my boyfriend and I wanted to finish the first book we started reading together.  It took until about 60% of the way in for the list-making to ease off a bit and the style of the book to really start to work for me.  I could easily see a reader being totally lost by some of the more annoying elements of the book, and I wonder what the effect would be if the order was reversed.  If the quirks built throughout the book instead of starting that way.  Or even if they were just dialed back a bit.  I think just that tiny bit of editing would have made me love the book.

Overall, this is a fun piece of absurdist scifi that examines evolution from an over-the-top hypothetical situation.  Potential readers should be aware that this book is even more absurdist than Slaughterhouse-Five, so you must be willing to do some more intense suspending of disbelief and be willing to do some meandering and read some lists.  If absurdist fiction is something you enjoy and meandering and lists won’t bother you, then this humorous examination of overpopulation, end-of-the-world, and future evolution might be right up your alley.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

September 6, 2010 6 comments

Book cover with a large blue V and a pig wearing pearls.Summary:
A satire on free enterprise, money, and capitalism in America told by examining the fictional Rosewaters–an uber-wealthy American family whose ancestor acquired his wealth essentially by profiteering during the Civil War.  The current Rosewater fights in WWII and returns with this crazy idea that everyone deserves to be equally happy and people who inherited wealth did nothing to deserve it.  He responds to this conundrum of conscience by returning to his ancestor’s hometown and using the Rosewater Foundation to help the “useless poor.”  In the meantime, a lawyer by the name of Mushari decides to attempt to prove that Mr. Rosewater is insane, and the foundation money should be handed off to his cousin, currently a suicidal, middle-class insurance man.

Review:
How to review Vonnegut?  Upheld (at my university anyway) as the epitome of great American writing.  He is certainly prolific, and some of his books absolutely deserve the high praise (Slaughterhouse-Five springs to mind).  I don’t feel that this novel lives up to his reputation, however.  I was left feeling that I somehow had missed his point.  That he was attempting to make some high and mighty, heavy-handed vision known to me, and it just didn’t come through.

I think part of the problem stems from the fact that the first third of the book is focused on Eliot Rosewater, the next on his cousin, and the last on Eliot again.  Just as I was getting into Eliot’s story, it switched to his cousin.  Then when I was getting into his cousin’s story, it switched back to Eliot.  To top it all off, the ending left me with little to no resolution on either one.  Maybe Vonnegut’s point is that capitalism either makes you crazy or depressed with no way out?  I’m not sure.

That’s not to say that this wasn’t a fun read, though.  Vonnegut crafts the mid-western town Eliot lives in and the Rhodes Island seacoast town his cousin lives in with delicious detail.  What is interesting about both are of course the people in the towns surrounding the main characters, and not the main characters themselves.  In particular the Rhodes Island town is full of surprisingly well-rounded secondary characters from the cousin’s wife who’s experimenting in a lesbian relationship, to the local fisherman and his sons, to the local restaurant owner who is intensely fabulous (yes, the gay kind of fabulous. There’s quite a bit of GLBT in this book, for those interested in that).  I was so interested in this town.  This was a town that actually demonstrated the problems innate in some people having too much money while others don’t have enough.  This was so much more interesting than Rosewater’s sojourn in Indiana.  But then!  Just when I was really getting into it and thinking this book might approach Slaughterhouse-Five level….bam! Back to Indiana.

Much more interesting than the heavy-handed money message was the much more subtle one on the impact of war.  Mr. Rosewater’s sanity issues go back to WWII.  I won’t tell you what happened, because the reveal is quite powerful.  Suffice to say, Vonnegut clearly understood the impact WWII had on an entire generation and clearly thought about the impact of war on humanity in general.  In this way, this book is quite like Slaughterhouse-Five.  Another interesting way that it’s similar is that Mr. Rosewater listens to a bird tweeting in the same manner (poo-tee-weet!)  I haven’t read enough Vonnegut to know, but I wonder if these two items show up in many of his works?  The birds, especially, are interesting.

Overall, if you’re a Vonnegut enthusiast, enjoy reading for setting and character studies, and don’t mind a message that’s a bit heavy-handed, you will enjoy this book.  Folks just looking for a feel of what makes Vonnegut held in such high esteem should stick to Slaughterhouse-Five though.

3.5 out of 5

Source: PaperBackSwap

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