Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Cat's Cradle

I think I have a love/hate relationship with the author Kurt Vonnegut.  With most of his books, I can appreciate the message and the angle with which he’s trying to relate it.  On the other hand, his absurdism is just too much for me.  I really don’t find it funny – in fact, I think he uses it as a tool of condescension, and it detracts from my enjoyment of his books.  But Vonnegut is a talented writer and his books are not difficult to read.  So I torture myself on occasion, with the hope that this time, I will really enjoy one of his books.

The premise of Cat’s Cradle is simple:  Dr. Felix Hoenikker has left the world a legacy, “Ice-9,” a weapon so powerful, it is capable of freezing the entire world.  A writer, researching the life of Dr. Hoenikker, seeks out Dr. Hoenikker’s three children and eventually winds up on a Caribbean Island where the son, Frank Hoenikker is the right hand of Manzano, the island’s dictator.  Before long, they all realize that “Ice-9”  has proliferated throughout the world, leaving civilization on the brink of apocalypse.

With the invention of atomic weapons, the fear of total annihilation was on the minds of many, including Kurt Vonnegut.  He shares that fear through this novel, asserting that the idea that “goodness” in a weapon of such mass destruction is based on lies.  He further asserts that such a life of fear necessarily requires religion, also based on lies.  More than 50 years later, we ask ourselves: “was he correct?”  The fears of the day – that the USSR and the United States would devolve into nuclear war were not realized.  There was certainly a element of truth behind the fear, but in hindsight, there were far too many variables (known and unknown at the time), for Vonnegut to be completely accurate in his assessment.  I would argue the same holds true for religion.  Which brings me back the hate part of my feeling for Vonnegut’s work.  It’s preachy and elitist and condescending.  He takes a subject, asserts that the issues are black and white, adds absurd humor to stress his point, and then presents it to the world, which responds with literary accolades.

After Slaughterhouse-Five, I think Vonnegut loses me.  With that novel, his opinion was based on first-hand knowledge.  He was there for the fire-bombing of Dresden.  He was one of the many serving in combat during World War II.  He directly observed others and his own reactions to the war.  His opinion held merit.  I cannot say the same for Cat’s Cradle.   Rating this book was not easy.  Vonnegut’s approach to the subject matter and his literary style should be held in high regard.  But I have to deduct at least a point for the opinion and the condescension.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1963
306 pages

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A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Tale Of Two Cities

I remember reading A Tale of Two Cities while I was still in high school.  There was a used bookstore local college students regularly purchased and sold their books.  My friends and I were regulars there, and I loved poring through the classics.  On a spring day, while still in my youth, I picked up this novel and immediately became entrenched in the world of the French Revolution a la Dickens.  I vividly remember finishing it on my front porch, stifling a sob when I realized how Sydney Carton aimed to help poor Charles Darnay.

A Tale of Two Cities begins with that classic line:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  The two cities are London and Paris and it is in London where the novel opens.  Dr. Manette is reunited with his daughter Lucie after being imprisoned for 18 years in the Bastille.  Paris is now on the brink of revolution and Dr. Manette is a hero for his unjust suffering at the hands of the government.  Meanwhile, Charles Darnay, an exiled aristocrat and Sydney Carton, an English lawyer, both fall in love with young Lucie.   Their lives come together in a Paris courtroom drama where the threat of the guillotine looms large.

It only seems fitting, that years later, I read this wonderful novel again.  While it didn’t hold that same element of surprise and awe (after all, I already knew the ending), it is still a marvelous work and continues to hold a warm place in my heart.

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1859
489 pages

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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


Frankenstein: The Original 1818 ‘Uncensored’ Edition

I saw “The New Annotated Frankenstein” and read some excerpts. I was interested to learn there was an earlier version that was different from the version I owned: Mary Shelley’s original 1818 text. I download the 1818 version and it sat on my Kindle for months. When I decided to finally read it I was curious about Mary Shelley and the book she wrote so I did some research starting with wikipedia. I noticed was it was published on 1/1/1818 – exactly two hundred years ago. That’s pretty cool. But the most amazing thing was how a 19 year old girl managed to write what is arguably the first science fiction novel. It was her first novel too. Some argue, her future husband, Percy Shelley wrote the story, but it definitely reads in a woman’s voice. I’m sure he helped out, but the book is her’s.
The story is charged with Gothic and Romantic era writing and is really out there.. even today.

Shelly uses a framing narrative to introduce Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Captain Walton runs into Victor and the creature on his way to the North Pole. The book ends with Victor’s destruction and creature heading into the wasteland. Edgar Rice Burroughs used these framing narratives all the time. So I’m used to them, however they seem rather cheesy.

I also have issues with Victor’s relationship with his creature. A young Victor Frankenstein reads a lot of books at home, studying outdated theories. He leaves for school: University of Ingolstadt in Germany. Victor excels at chemistry and other sciences, soon surpassing his instructors. Victor develops a technique to impart life to non-living matter. He builds an 8-foot being over the course of two years using pieces from “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house”. It’s easier to work on an out-sized creature. If the point is to test his life-giving technique, why doesn’t he use an animal. Or if he wants to go all the way, re-animate a drowning victim? Hell, he could dig up his recently deceased mother and reanimate her. Nope, he builds a monster and brings it to life. It’s only then he notices his creature isn’t exactly Adam. He has a nervous breakdown, the creature disappears, and Victor requires four months of care to recover.
Meanwhile the creature is busy studying humans. He learns to speak (and read!) The creature may be large and misshapen but it’s strong, fast, and quick to anger. But it’s only looking for love.. from its creator. Victor’s reaction to the creature is weird. Why did Victor create the creature only to have such a violent reaction against it?
Victor comes close giving in to the creatures demands by building it a mate. But Victor changes his mind at the last minute. The creature tortures Victor by killing his family and friends one by one. It’s only then that Victor decides to purse the creature and destroy it?!

Also left unsaid, Victor has discovered how to re-animate life. This is just glossed over. I’m I the only one to think this is a big deal. The fact his first experiment was something of a bust should not preclude further investigation.
His first experiment was a 8-foot homicidal monster. Okay, what about the military. I’m sure some country wouldn’t mind a small army of Frankenstein’s creatures.

It’s also funny how 1800 science infuses the work. Victor is concerned that if he makes a mate for the creature they will reproduce and there will be little monsters running around. I have to laugh. Assuming they could reproduce at all wouldn’t a normal human baby be the result.
The creature has no memories from before it’s reanimation. Did Shelley think the brain Frankenstein used would be wiped clean?

I also think Victor could have controlled the creature if he hadn’t so wildly rejected the poor thing. Sure civilization at large would recoil in horror from it, but they would get use to it. Elephants are big and misshapen and we got use to them.

After Victor dies, who got all his notebooks, all his secrets. In the movies it’s his younger brother. But in the book, the creature has the best shot at learning Victor’s secrets. What if the creature re-animated Victor. Wouldn’t that be ironic. The creature could teach Victor, mk II, to love him.

219 pages

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Midnight Line by Lee Child

The Midnight Line

There are two types of Reacher novels. One where Reacher saves the world, and one where Reacher works his magic in a smaller setting. In “The Midnight Line” it’s the latter. Thankfully. I find the small stage suits Reacher better. It certain suits Lee Child as he usually does his best writing there.

Reacher gets off the bus in Wisconsin. The only thing open is a pawn shot. He notices a 2005 West Point class ring. Something is obviously wrong. Reacher isn’t going to stop until he finds out what it is and corrects it. Reacher convinces the pawn shop owner to name names. Reacher heads to Rapid City, SD and from there to Wyoming and a dusty dead end in the middle of nowhere. He has to beat up some bikers, and some drug dealers but it’s all works out. He runs into a former FBI agent, working as a PI who looking for the same person. The story is will written, believable, and very entertaining – maybe Child’s best. Jack Reacher Novel #22

385 pages

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Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

Travels With Charley

In the early 1960’s famed writer, John Steinbeck, took his camper and his trusty French Poodle Charley, and explored America.  Beginning on the east coast and heading across the northern states, Steinbeck encountered the natural beauty of our country and also it’s people.  It’s an interesting memoir and brought me back to times when national pride was still in the heart of America’s people.

From start to finish, I found no strangers.  If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively. But these are my people and this is my country. If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself. If I were to prepare one immaculately inspected generality it would be this: For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed.

The latter part of the book involves his travels through the South, on the way back to the east coast.  The racism he encounters leaves him troubled and he shares his conversations with racist white people and also with a young black man he meets.  He encountered none of this his whole journey across the northern states.  I suppose it’s because there were very few people of color living in those areas at the time. Growing up in North Dakota, the first black person I encountered enrolled in my middle school.  I was raised to be color-blind as far as people were concerned, and I never felt any divide based on skin color, even after I moved to New York City and regularly associated with people of all stripes.  I eventually moved back to North Dakota and raised my children here.  Today there are far more people of color in the community and integration is pretty seamless.  I know racism does exist to some extent here, but we never encountered it in our school or social circles.  The stories I hear typically involve some worker who migrated here from the South.  They learn pretty quickly that we don’t tolerate that kind of behavior.  My son attended a school in Florida last year and had two black roommates.  He’s a good-natured kid, and it took most of the year to realize that his roommates were taking advantage of him because he was white.  Their subtle comments about “white people,” were unfortunate, and my son and I had a long talk about racism as a result.  But above all, I didn’t want him to change the way he viewed people of color because of this experience.  Today, that’s so important.  Hypersensitivity has brought about labels due to misconceptions of racism and erased possible relationships into racial division.

I bring all this up because of Steinbeck’s experience with racism in the South. What he experienced probably wouldn’t happen today, but racism still exists.  Hopefully it declines with each new generation until eventually it’s gone.  But it won’t if we continue to point fingers instead of building relationships.  It’s in the knowing of others that we recognize our similarities – that we all love our kids and that comfortable place we call home.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1962
288 pages

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Joy To The World by Scott Hahn

Joy To The World

Dr. Scott Hahn is a Catholic scholar and teacher, and I’ve greatly enjoyed some of his other books.  Joy to the World is a closer look at Jesus’s birth – both in terms of what is known historically and how His coming was seen in theological terms.

As I was reading Joy to the World, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus.  Dr. Scott Hahn’s love of history and the importance of the birth of Christ shone through in this book.  But Hahn’s expertise takes the story in a direction O’Reilly didn’t – and that is the greater significance.  Most people, even good practicing Christians, don’t have the wealth of theological and historical knowledge that Dr. Scott Hahn does.  Reading Joy to the World should be a must for everyone, regardless of their faith.  At the very least, it will assist in understanding the huge significance of Jesus’s birth and the rise of Christianity as a result.  But ultimately, it should deepen your faith.

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2014
192 pages

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The Girls Of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

The Girls Of Atomic City

During World War II, the race was on between the allies and the axis to build a super-weapon, a bomb which would decide the fate of the war.  In the sleepy hills of Tennessee, the Federal Government built a fenced-in, secret community called Oak Ridge, and they hired specialists of all stripes to work on the Manhattan Project, which ultimately led to the creation of the atomic bomb.

Kiernan spent much time interviewing and researching the women who worked in Oak Ridge, from secretaries and maids to scientists and the wives of the men who worked there.  It was a unique and highly secretive community, and it’s story was one worth telling.

I thought The Girls of Atomic City was much better than Hidden Figures  by Margot Lee Shetterly (about black women working in NASA), but it fell far short of holding my interest the way Dr. Richard Feynman’s narrative did.  Feynman discussed his working on the Manhattan Project in his memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (a book highly recommend to anyone).

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
373 pages

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