Posted in Short Stories

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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Posted in Short Stories

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.

Posted in Short Stories

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.

Posted in Short Stories

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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Posted in Short Stories

The Cruise of the Jolly Roger

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I was in the mood for some Kurt Vonnegut brilliance and I wasn’t disappointed with his short story “The Cruise of the Jolly Roger”.

Nathan Durant, a war veteran, sets sail in his cabin cruiser named The Jolly Roger to visit a few small New England coastal towns.  During his first visit, he encounters a group of artists that invite him to lunch.  He doesn’t exactly fit in and even though they make some feeble attempts to show respect, their attitude tends to be, in a word, snooty.  They condescendingly laugh at the name of his boat considering it too cliché for their tastes.

Durant moves on to the next town where he searches for people who knew an old army buddy killed during the war.  In spite of it being his buddy’s home town, not many people remember him.  However, his friend does have a small patch of grass in the middle of town named after him.  And as it’s Memorial Day, children are paying their respects to those who have died.   In struggling to come to terms with the situation, Durant listens to a grade school boy’s speech:

“He died fighting so we could be safe and free.  And we’re thanking him with flowers, because it was a nice thing to do”

The boy’s sentiment seems a little simple, a little cliché – but simple and cliché are not always bad.  It worked for Nathan Durant.  And it kind of works for me.

Posted in Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut: Thanasphere

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The King of Diamonds this week brought me to Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Thanasphere” from his collection Bagombo Snuff Box.  It’s one of the type of stories that has gotten Vonnegut the reputation of being a science-fiction writer, even though he has written some brilliant stories that would not fall under this category.

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I wish I could say that I liked “Thanasphere” better than I did.  Perhaps it was the fact that the story involves the first man to orbit the earth and the story was written before anyone had really orbited the earth.  I had a “been there, done that” feeling while reading it. Although, if I was interested in conspiracy theories (which I’m not), the story might make me wonder what I don’t know about space travel.  What secrets are out there and who really knows about them?

I enjoyed the conversations between the three major players:  Major Rice, the astronaut in space; Dr. Groszinger, the scientist involved in the mission; and General Dane, the military man in charge.  Both science and  the military have to deal with some unsettling discoveries from Major Rice.  Discoveries in the form of “voices” – but maybe not voices one would expect to hear in space.  I think I’ll just leave it at that.  Feel free to read the story to find out more.

Posted in Short Stories

“The Boy Who Hated Girls”

Bert Higgens has issues with his girlfriend, Charlotte, because she thinks Bert’s band teacher is nuts.  His band teacher is none other than Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional Lincoln High faculty member, George Helmholtz.  This story is also found in Vonnegut’s collection Bagombo Snuff Box.

In “The Boy Who Hated Girls”, Helmholtz has a striking revelation that a number of his star pupils look to him as a father figure – especially the ones that don’t have fathers, like Bert.  When Bert is promoted to another teacher, he begins to slack off, showing up drunk for practice, and generally doing whatever he can to get back under Mr. Helmholtz’s tutelage.

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This Helmholtz story has a slightly more serious tone and I didn’t think it really worked as well as the other stories I’ve read with this character.  I had grown to enjoy the light-heartedness of the misadventures of Vonnegut’s band leader.  At one point, Helmholtz realizes that many of these students went on to become alcoholics and drug addicts.  This struck me as funny but it took a couple of days of thinking about the story before the thought crossed my mind “Oh, that was funny.”  The story also doesn’t seem to stand on it’s own as well.  It seemed to be a part of something larger.  When the story ended with Helmholtz making some confessions to the school nurse, Miss Peach, I wondered whether this story line would continue somewhere else.  And I wondered whether Miss Peach would show up again somewhere – she could be just as interesting as Helmholtz.

For an interesting post about George Helmholtz, check out this one from Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Short Stories

“The No-Talent Kid”

I’ve grown to like George M. Helmoltz, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional Lincoln High band teacher.  He knows who he is and knows who he isn’t.  He goes for the gusto within these limitations -and usually gets it!  I’m only basing this observation on two stories that include Helmholtz, both contained in Vonnegut’s collection Bagombo Snuff Box.  If there are more, I look forward to reading them.

In Vonnegut’s “The No-Talent Kid”, Helmholtz tries to pass this view of life on to Walter Plummer, his C Band clarinet player who likes to challenge the A Band members.  Plummer eventually understands Helmholtz and they both help each other get what they want.  The wheeling and dealing between the high school teacher and his student amused me.

As in the other Helmholtz story I read, “Ambitious Sophomore”, the light enjoyment gained from reading this story is  just as much a testament to Vonnegut’s brilliance as some of his stories that have more of a social commentary attached to them.  I found this paragraph interesting as it gave a small inkling of Vonnegut’s World War II background:

While members of the C Band dropped out of the waltz, one by one, as though  mustard gas were coming out of the ventilation, Mr. Helmholtz continued to smile and wave his baton for the survivors, and to brood inwardly over the defeat his band had sustained in June, when Johnstown High School had won with a secret weapon, a bass drum seven feet in diameter.

Perhaps Mr. Helmholtz had been in the army during World War II?

Posted in Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ambitious Sophomore”

Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Ambitious Sophomore” from his collection Bagombo Snuff Box tells the story of George M. Helmholtz, a high school band leader who goes out of his way and outside of his school’s budget to boost the self-esteem of his male piccolo player.

Perhaps a male piccolo player that needs a self-esteem boost could be considered social commentary and satire – the kind that readers tend to expect from Vonnegut – but I would tend to call this story simply fun, funny, and pleasant.  Written in the 1950’s, this story seems more innocent than other of Vonnegut’s works.

The title of the story makes me wonder, though.  The sophomore in question doesn’t seem that ambitious unless one would count hitting on girls as ambitious.  I would think the ambitious one in the story would be Helmholtz, himself.  His desire to have the best competing high school band is truly the basis for the humor and plot of the story.  The opening sentence might be a favorite of mine:

George M. Helmholtz, head of the music department and director of the band of Lincoln High School, was a good, fat man who saw no evil, heard no evil, and spoke no evil, for wherever he went, the roar and boom and blast of a marching band, real or imagined, filled his soul.

Posted in Essays, Fiction, Non Fiction

Intelligent playfulness at its best

Kurt Vonnegut’s collection of writing Armageddon In Restrospect proved to be as thought-provoking as I thought it would be – and as funny.

Most of his writings here are fictional stories revolving around American prisoners of war in Dresden, Germany during World War II.  One of my favorites was “Guns Before Butter” in which three POW’s discuss their first meal when they get home much to the confusion of their lackadaisical German guard.  The POW’s write down the recipes in notebooks and draw pictures of their first meal.  I would have to go along with the private who wants a stack of twelve pancakes with fried eggs in between.  He wants chocolate syrup – I’d want maple.

Another story set in medieval England has Elmer and Ivy and their son, Ethelbert, deciding how to act when Elmer is forced to be tax collector for Robert the Horrible.  A trap Ethelbert sets for a unicorn brings all their problems to an end.  From a literary standpoint, I would put this one at the top of the collection.  It’s amazing how well-developed the characters are in spite of the brevity of the story.

Vonnegut has grown on me over the years.  I read Slapstick probably over twenty years ago and was mildly entertained by it.  I’ve been exceptionally impressed by the short stories I’ve read both in this collection and in Bagombo Snuff Box.   In the story from which the title of this book comes, a doctor states that “I think you’ll find that most of the really big ideas have come from intelligent playfulness.”  I think “intelligent playfulness” is the best way to describe much of Vonnegut’s writing.