Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle

I’ve never understood the hype about Slaughterhouse Five. I really didn’t like it and it was probably one of the most disappointing books I’ve read. However, I tend to give authors a second chance so I tackled Cat’s Cradle. And I literally couldn’t put it down. I read it in one go and I loved everything about it. The strange style, the plot, the sciency bits… just mindblowing! Hand me some more Vonnegut anytime.

by Kurt Vonnegut

published: Gollancz (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963)
pages: 287
copy: paperback

my rating: 9/10

first sentence: Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.

Cat’s Cradle, one of Vonnegut’s most entertaining novels, is filled with scientists and G-men and even ordinary folks caught up in the game. These assorted characters chase each other around in search of the world’s most important and dangerous substance, a new form of ice that freezes at room temperature. At one time, this novel could probably be found on the bookshelf of every college kid in America; it’s still a fabulous read and a great place to start if you’re young enough to have missed the first Vonnegut craze.

Vonnegut has a way of helping his readers enter into this end-of-the-world story. Jonah, the first-person narrator, wants to write a book about the end of the world – so naturally his topic is the inventor of the atomic bomb, Dr. Frank Hoenikker, and what the people surrounding him were doing on the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It is his research that leads him to Hoenikker’s children, old acquaintances and, finally, on a journey that goes completely different than expected…

The protagonist himself spoils parts of his story right at the beginning of the book, but I will do my best to keep the review spoilerfree. Personally, I didn’t even read the blurb, I just dug right into the book. Maybe that added to the wonder I felt washing over me on every page. Truth be told, I picked this as my second-chance-for-Vonnegut book because it is fairly slim (yes, I am ashamed of myself).

The style is both simple and complicated. Vonnegut uses simple words and short, precise sentences to tell a story that folds back onto itself, that jumps back and forth in time and expects the reader to know things that are only revealed much later. I see how this may turn certain people off, for me it only added to the charm and the mystery of this novel. I like having to work my brain to figure out what’s going on. The revelations are just that much more satisfying. The many, very short chapters make for a nice reading experience and give you the illusion that you can stop after this chapter or that chapter – only to find yourself continuing because it’s just that good.

The themes explored in Cat’s Cradle are numerous – the invention of the atomic bomb being only the most obvious one. The fact that a weapon like that is not a toy and should very carefully be put in the hands of competent people, makes sense. But even competent people can make mistakes. Vonnegut leaves it up to his readers to make up their mind whether it would have been better never to invent such a deadly thing in the first place. He also shows the other side, namely that of science. Scientists, so we assume, do research and development not to create weapons, but for science’s sake. To acumulate knowledge. And what could be wrong with that, right?

Another theme is religion or, better put, the futility of religion. Jonah talks about that throughout the book, a religion called “Bokononism” of which we learn more later in the book. Discovering the rules and origin of this fictional religion was at least as much fun as following the plot. I just love how Vonnegut threw me into this maelstrom of moral dilemmas and yet never preached how to think about them. It’s up to the reader to decide, and reading this book, there is no way around at least having to think about these themes in depth.

Though there are only a few of them, all the side characters felt real to me and some of them tickled a few chuckles out of me. The protagonist himself was easy to identify with and made the story more compelling by acting the way I would in his situation. Vonnegut is known for his quotability but he also does his part for popculture. I’ve come across the word karass, for example, not only in real life and movies, but only recently in Jo Walton’s Among Others.

I was thoroughly impressed and fascinated by this novel, shocked by the ideas and thoughts it raises, and finished with my mouth gaping open, yearning for more science fiction books like this. Kurt Vonnegut’s second chance not only saved him for me but made him rocket up to authors I simply must read more of. And soon!

THE GOOD: Immediatly captivating, fuel for independent thought, a fast-paced plot and a very quick read.
THE BAD: Not always chronoligal, the mixing of reality and fiction may put some readers off.
THE VERDICT: Deservedly a modern classic of science fiction, everything a good sci-fi novel should be.

RATING: 9/10  Breathtaking

Chuck Palahniuk – Damned

Now, Chuck is one of my favourite writers so I admit I’m usually biased when I pick up his latest book. But biased or not, the thing is, he’s just really good. Damned was a fun romp through Hell and features one of Chuck’s most memorable narrators. A chubby teenage-girl, daughter of rich Hollywood parents, with  more sense than is good for her.

by Chuck Palahniuk

published: 2011
by: Random House
pages: 247

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.

Madison Spencer is the chubby, intelligent daughter of rich actor parents and welcomes a different new sibling to the family every other week – usually some orphaned child from a starving country (Brangelina, anyone?). At age 13, she dies of an overdose of marijuana and finds herself in Hell, which she soon discovers to be a lot more than smoke and brimstone. She and a group of fellow Hell-citizens go on a journey past the swamp of aborted children, the sea of discarded sperm and the desert of toenail clippings.

As usual, Chuck’s latest novel is instantly quotable. The things Madison comes up with are as well put as they are true. Reading this will (again, this is a Chuck thing) make you laugh out loud while twisting a salted knife in your guts (speaking of Guts – read it!). Damned holds up a mirror to society, to our narcissistic life style, our delusional ideas that by eating “organic” we’ll make it okay to drive a car that eats gallons of fuel. Of course, as this is set in Hell, there’s thoughts about religion, belief, and Heaven and Hell. Having followed Chuck’s writing for some years now and reading every interview I can find, none of his ideas surprised me, though they did give me strange comfort.

All the characters are well-developed, even if they only appear shortly. One gets an instant sense of like or dislike for them. Here’s a little thing that bothered me: A group of characters is introduced in the beginning and continues along with Madison for a while. Around the last third of the book, they all seem to disappear, except for the occasional, one-line cameo. That in itself is not a problem, but it felt unexplained and strange to me.

The plot takes a while to pick up but once it does, your mouth will gape open constantly. It may not be surprising that Hell features its very own call center or that all sorts of demons share the place with the condemned human souls. But Chuck mixes dark, dark humor with that thimbleful of undeniable truth so well that the book leaves you with a sense of both enjoyment and relief. It offers food for thought and although I doubt it will be a big hit in ladies’ book clubs, if you like Fight Club, pick this one up. And all other books by Chuck Palahniuk, for that matter. He’s that good!

THE GOOD: Black humor, concise writing, hints and jibes at our world and society. Great fun!
THE BAD: Maybe a bit crude or harsh for sensitive people (or, I’m assuming, very religious ones).
THE VERDICT: What you saw in Fight Club is what you get with Chuck. Almost all of his books are huge recommendations.