Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Souvenir”

Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Souvenir” includes the presence of World War II that shows up in so many of his stories.  In the case here, it comes in the form of a flashback that is told to a pawnbroker by a returning soldier.

Eddie takes a watch to Joe Bane to get an appraisal.  While Bane attempts to lowball Eddie in the price of the watch, Eddie tells him about the day he and his friend Buzzer find out that the Allies have won the war:

The young farmer, whose name was Eddie, and his best buddy Buzzer walked out into peace and freedom skinny, ragged, dirty, and hungry, but with no ill will toward anyone. They’d gone to war out of pride, not bitterness. Now the war was over, the job done, and they wanted only to go home. They were a year apart, but as alike as two poplars in a windbreak.

Unfortunately, the two soldiers are in Germany at the end of the war among those who don’t necessarily understand or care that it’s over.  Another wheeling and dealing ( as opposed to the one with the pawnbroker in the present time) among German soldiers ends tragically with Eddie maintaining possession of the watch – which by the time the story is finished – is understood to be of great value; however, Joe Bane has just made Eddie think it’s worth very little much to Bane’s detriment.

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I like the way Vonnegut swaps “price tags” in this story.  What is of real value isn’t known to anyone except the reader. The price tags placed on other things with lesser potential catches the eye of many of the characters in this story – and other Vonnegut stories, for that matter.

Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Poor Little Rich Town”

Newell Cady had the polish, the wealth, the influence, and the middle-aged good looks of an idealized Julius Caesar. Most of all, though, Cady had know-how, know-how of a priceless variety that caused large manufacturing concerns to bid for his services like dying sultans offering half their kingdoms for a cure.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Poor Little Rich Town”, we have another story with real estate although it’s more in the background than in “Any Reasonably Offer”.  I’m not sure why Vonnegut is choosing real estate as a topic but he does it really well in another story from Bagombo Snuff Box, “The Package”.  I would put it several notches above these two other stories.  But back to “Poor Little Rich Town”.

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Newell Cady has taken a job with Federal Aparatus Corporation (a vintage Vonnegut name) and proceeds to put into place all kinds of process-improvements and earns raves from his superiors for stamping out inefficiencies.  Outside of work, Newell buys a house in Spruce Falls, the little town close by, where he meets neighbors, postal workers, firemen, etc. Here, he also insists on making things more efficient, including the annual Hobby Show.  Cady begins to realize that not all aspects of life welcome extreme efficiency nor do they benefit from it.

Maybe the point Vonnegut is trying to make is that not everything needs to have a point or a goal or some sort of achievement to be worthy of admiration.

I don’t think Vonnegut’s writing always fits into specific genres or are structured using a certain formula. Many of Vonnegut’s stories are written from what I would call simply the joy of creating. This joy doesn’t always go hand in hand with efficiency.

Celebrating Banned Book Week with Kurt Vonnegut: “Any Reasonable Offer”

It’s coming up on Banned Book Week for 2015 and this year, to honor the freedom I have to read what I want to read, I am reading the remaining short stories in Kurt Vonnegut’s collection Bagombo Snuff Box.  I began this collection back in 2012 and have slowly posted about each story that I’ve read.  Since Vonnegut is one of my favorite advocates of free speech and freedom of expression, I figured finishing up these stories would be a good way to celebrate this upcoming week.  So here is the first of ten posts.

Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction

As I’ve said numerous times on this blog (but it’s been a while so I’ll say it again), Vonnegut is known for his biting satire and social commentary in which it is not uncommon for him to use material and language that could be considered offensive by some; however, so many of his short stories have such a playful innocence, a twinkle-in-his-eye kind of fun and even sometimes what I might consider a “cuteness” that I find myself wondering how he could be considered so subversive and dangerous that various governing bodies feel the need to ban or censor his work.

In this first story, “Any Reasonable Offer”, a real estate agent bemoans his job and the people who use his services only to go behind his back to avoid paying commission:

…it occurred to me there isn’t any profession – or racket, or whatever – that takes more of a beating from its clients than real estate. If you stand still, they club you. If you run, they shoot.

The agent narrates the story and as with many of Vonnegut’s stories, the narrator is unnamed and the reader gets at least a slight impression that the narrator is a fictional verison of Vonnegut, himself.  So much of Vonnegut’s work revolves around the absurdities of life and these aren’t lost on the realtor in this story. He attempts to sell a mansion to what appears to be a wealthy couple only to find that not all is as it seems with them.  I enjoyed the ending where the realtor takes an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” response to the absurd.

Kurt Vonnegut: Mnemonics

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This is Week 18 of my Deal Me In 2014 Project and this post will be short and sweet – just like Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Mnemonics”.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

In the story, Alfred Moorehead utilizes a unique system in which he remembers his boss’s list of things to do by associating each item with a female movie star.  As Vonnegut wrote this sometime around 1950 (I’m taking a stab at the year, here), Moorehead’s “leading ladies” are the likes of Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell, Ava Gardner, and Lana Turner.  His system works beautifully until he tries it on a list that is unusually long.  His boss, unusually named Ralph L. Thriller, prefers that he use a pencil; however, Alfred prefers his leading ladies which threaten to vanish inside his mind before the list is completed.

When reading Vonnegut’s short stories, I’m constantly surprised at how light, fun and innocent many of them can be.  The word that keeps popping into my mind to describe “Mnemonics” is “cute”.  For some reason that sounds condescending and derogatory to a Vonnegut story, but I’ve come to appreciate all aspects of his work – the satirical, the sarcastic, the controversial, the banned and the cute.

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Kurt Vonnegut: Find Me A Dream

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At a very concise 10 pages, for Week 10 of my Deal Me In 2014 project, I read Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Find Me A Dream” from his collection Bagombo Snuff Box.  The conciseness worked wonderfully well and provided a few subtly memorable characters.

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Arvin Borders is one of the most prominent citizens of Creon, Pennsylvania, the sewer pipe manufacturing capital of the world.  At age 46, he is also one of the more eligible bachelors of Creon.  He brings his date to the Creon Country Club for an evening of drinking, dancing, mingling and schmoozing.

Hildy Mathews, a relatively well-known actress and widow, accompanies Arvin to the Country Club; but at the time of the story, she’s outside on the patio crying into her highballs.  She’s still “mourning” the death of her husband.

While not literally in the story, Hildy’s dead husband plays a significant role in the conversations of the evening.  As Borders puts it, her husband was:

A dope fiend, an alcoholic, a wife-beater, and a woman-chaser who was shot dead last year by a jealous husband.

When he reveals his name to the band, they realize that Hildy’s dead husband was “probably the greatest jazz musician who had ever lived.” As the story continues, Vonnegut never mentions the Jazz musician’s name.  I found it incredibly funny that I could probably insert the name of any great Jazz musician and they would more or less fit the above description.

And then there is Andy Middleton, the leader of the band, the Creon Pipe-Dreamers.  I love his name, Middleton.  It reminds me of “middle of the road”, “fair-to-middlin'”, and even perhaps “Midwest”.   Andy discovers Hildy on the patio and begins talking to her with his band’s so-so music in the background.  Much talk is made of the band’s “average-ness”, but Hildy makes a proposal to Andy that promises to make him above average; however, from Andy’s perspective, something could be said for remaining average.

Kurt Vonnegut: The Powder-Blue Dragon

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One of my most enjoyable reading experiences since I’ve been blogging has been slowly reading through the short stories in Kurt Vonnegut’s collection Bagombo Snuff Box.  I’ve also read his collection Welcome to the Monkey House.  Vonnegut is at his best when he combines social commentary with his biting wit.  Some of the stories from Bagombo that fall into this category are “2BR02B” and “The Package”.  I have also been pleasantly surprised by some of his stories that may not be strong on social commentary but somehow are just brilliantly amusing such as “Ambitious Sophomore” where I first encountered Vonnegut’s recurring and very likeable Lincoln High band leader, George Helmholtz.

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Unfortunately, his story “The Powder-Blue Dragon” just didn’t fall into any of the above categories.  I think part of my problem with it comes from the plot line that just didn’t go where I thought it would or where I thought it should.  Kiah Higgins, a young kid, works a number of odd jobs and manages to save up enough to buy an expensive sports car – the powder-blue dragon mentioned in the title.  Many of the people he encounters after his vehicle purchase are quite surprised that he was able to buy the car.  This part of the premise I thought was great.  The surprise and bewilderment from people who are shocked that a kid could work enough to buy an expensive car could have made for a ton of laughs.  It also would have been fun to have put myself in the place of the kid (just a reminder, this is fiction).

Once Kiah buys the car; however, none  of what I thought would happen does.  It was a bigger disappointment than I was expecting.  But I will continue with the stories in Bagombo as this is the first disappointment of this sort that I’ve encountered.  Vonnegut’s still brilliant in my book.

Bagombo Snuff Box

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Where is Bagombo, anyway?  In Ceylon.  Where is Ceylon?  Africa? India? China?

I couldn’t help but like Eddie Laird.  He not only suckered his ex-wife and her current husband in to believing he was a wealthy world-traveler, but he suckered me into believing it, too.  I really felt like I was sitting in Amy and Harry’s living room. What an impression Eddie made on these two with his small bejeweled gift from his travels!  Looking back on the story, it’s funny how easily impressionable Amy and Harry were in comparing their suburban family life to Eddie’s stories.

Then, of course, their little brat, Stevie, comes in to ruin it all!  How dare a nine year-old enter the room and demand to know where Ceylon is?  Or to question the small tag on Eddie’s gift?  As the reader, the realization of what Eddie’s stories were didn’t dawn on me until Stevie and his parents go get an Atlas while Eddie makes a run for it.

The phone call Eddie makes at the end of the story could have been simply sweet and sentimental, but the air of sadness in it made me like Eddie all the more.  Vintage Kurt Vonnegut!

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