Kurt Vonnegut: Harrison Bergeron

DEAL ME IN WEEK 1 – SEVEN OF HEARTS

It’s Week 1 of Deal Me In 2015 and it couldn’t start off better than with a short story by Kurt Vonnegut!  I drew the Seven of Hearts which corresponds to one of Vonnegut’s better known stories and one of his best – “Harrison Bergeron”.  I read this story previously when I read the collection Welcome to the Monkey House.  Reading it again only made it that much more enjoyable.

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Much of Vonnegut’s work includes either social commentary or humor.  With “Harrison Bergeron”, both are blended almost perfectly.  Harrison, the son of George and Hazel Bergeron, is arrested for not going along with the government regulations of the year 2081. These regulations are designed to keep everyone average and the “same”.  Thinking too much isn’t tolerated. As George and Hazel watch a ballet on television, the program is interrupted by Harrison (on television), who, for a brief moment, is able to provide a glimpse of beauty, a sneak peek at human potential and what art can be when it’s unhindered by the government.

Vonnegut’s wicked humor shines throughout the story.  The methods in which the government keeps people from thinking would be scary if they weren’t so funny.  As I read the story, I can easily imagine the twinkle in Vonnegut’s eye.  I don’t know if there is such a category as dystopian comedy, but “Harrison Bergeron” would belong to it.

Since I’m a sucker for comedy, I’ll end this post with the story’s final lines, an “average” conversation between George and Hazel:

“Gee – I could tell that one was a doozey,” said Hazel.

“You can say that again,” said George.

“Gee -” said Hazel, “I could tell that one was a doozey.”

My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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Incidentally, prior to this post, Kurt Vonnegut was in a three-way tie with Jack London and Ernest Hemingway for most tagged author on my blog.  He now pulls ahead of his two “colleagues” by one tag.

But wait, now that I’ve mentioned London and Hemingway in this post, I can tag them, too, and it will be even again. I’m not sure that would be fair, though.  And I have no doubt that London and Hemingway will be tagged again soon.

A Branch of the Service by Graham Greene

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This week I drew the Nine of Spades which corresponds to Graham Greene’s short story, “A Branch of the Service”, on my list for my Deal Me In 2014 project.  I’ve come to the conclusion that a short story can be an excellent format for comedy and humor.  Perhaps the brevity of a short story can keep humor from getting too “old”.

“A Branch of the Service”, in addition to being a short story, uses another format for comedy.  Sometimes joining two elements that one might not think of together can be ripe for a good laugh.  In Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut has a couple of stories where his narrator is a storm window repairman for the rich and the famous such as the Kennedys and the Hiltons.  They are brilliantly funny, as is this story by Graham Greene.

Graham Greene

The unusual pairing in this story is a Restaurant and Food Critic who doubles as a spy for the British Government.  Or is he a spy for the British Government who doubles as a Restaurant and Food Critic?  The two are blended together so perfectly that it doesn’t really matter.  The agency for which the narrator works originally was named International Reliable Restaurants Association but this had to be changed due to “Irish difficulties” (IRRA) with the new name being International Guide to Good Restaurants (IGGR).

Through the course of the story, the narrator, with wonderful British sarcasm and dry wit, tells the tales of two of his spy/restaurant encounters.  In the first tale, he makes a name for himself by nabbing a secret document in a manner that would make James Bond proud.  For the second tale, he’s not quite as successful as a risk of being a spy/restaurant critic is eating something that doesn’t quite agree with you.  The narrator graciously spares the reader the “unsavory details” but he makes his point.

It’s a little too early to really start thinking about a favorite short story for the year, but as far as funniest, this is the one to beat.

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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.

Welcome to the Monkey House

I’ve come to greatly appreciate the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut.  Here are some ramblings about his short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House.  

Welcome to the Monkey House

In an introduction written by Vonnegut’s son for another book, he states that his father was an optimist trying to be a pessimist.  I continue to find this to be the best way to describe Vonnegut’s work – especially his short stories.  In spite of some biting satire aimed at the world we live in and at institutions cherished by many, the twinkle in Vonnegut’s eye seems to always make its way into the stories.  Though world-weariness often takes the stage, the innocence of Paul, the boy trying to bring his fighting neighbors back together through a radio dedication in “Next Door”, never seems far behind.

For sheer comedy, I can’t remember the last time I laughed as hard as I did when Vonnegut’s storm window salesman-narrator pays a call on Commodore Rumsfoord, a Goldwater Republican who lives next door to the Kennedy Compound in “The Hyannis Port Story”.  On his way there, he stops at the First Family Waffle Shop where the menu items are named after the Kennedy family.  He has “a thing called a Teddy – and a cup of Joe.”  The same storm window salesman installs a bathtub enclosure (because storm window salesman do that, too, as he points out) at the home of Gloria Hilton and George Murra in “Go Back to your Precious Wife and Son”.  While both of these stories have characters that date them in the early 1960’s, the comedy and humor is timeless.

I personally enjoyed the character of Harry Nash in “Who Am I This Time?”.  While a mild mannered hardware store clerk, he quickly turned into whatever character he needed to be when auditioning for the community theater – and helped his fellow thespians find their characters, also:

When he faced us again, he was huge and handsome and conceited and cruel.  Doris read the part of Stella, the wife, and Harry bullied that old, old lady into believing that she was a sweet, pregnant girl married to a sexy gorilla who was going to beat her brains out.  She had me believing it too.  And I read the lines of Blanche, her sister in the play, and darned if Harry didn’t scare me into feeling like a drunk and faded Southern belle.

One of Vonnegut’s stories that I’ve heard others talk and post of frequently in the past as being one of his best is “Harry Bergeron”,  a funny story with some more serious undertones.  He brilliantly has the government controlling exceptionally intelligent people by planting in them a hearing device that blasts loud noises into their ears to distract them from thinking anything too intelligent.

A couple of his more serious stories included “All The King’s Horses” , where a Colonel is forced to play chess with his troops and family as live chess pieces.  While their lives were on the line, I still couldn’t help but chuckle at the situation where chess pieces could literally question the Colonel’s moves.  “The Manned Missiles” touchingly presented two letters from fathers who had lost their sons – one father was American and one was Russian.

I found “Adam” to be the most poignant of all the stories.  Heinz Knechtmann’s wife gives birth to their first son; however, he has no one with whom to share the happy news as the rest of their families were killed in Nazi concentration camps.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a story where loneliness is portrayed quite this way.  I’m still not sure, though, about the significance of the title.  The baby is named Peter.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “The Kid Nobody Could Handle”.  Another story about the incomparable George M. Helmholz, the Lincoln High band leader.  As the title implies, Helmholz uses his love of music to help a troubled youth from his neighborhood.  A line from this story beautifully describes why Helmholz appeals to me so much:

And then, Jim, I remember I’ve got one tiny corner of the universe I can make just the way I want it!

This collection includes a total of twenty-five stories all written in the 50’s and 60’s.  I read them all within a few days, unlike Vonnegut’s collection Bagombo Snuff Box, which I’ve read a few stories at a time and with which I’m still not finished.  It brings up a question about short story collections:  is it better to read them all at once or separately?   I may have to read Welcome to the Monkey House again – only this time read it a story at a time.  Each one was so good, I want to appreciate it by itself.  Does anybody have any suggestions as to when to read short stories individually and when to read them as a collection?

 

 

Summer Reading Plans

It may not  be officially summer, but with Memorial Day weekend behind us, I started thinking of what I will potentially be reading for the next few months.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has taken me longer than I had planned.  I am on page 506 out of 536.  Look for a final post within the next few days.

Non-fiction tends to always be a little scarce on my reading list so I am going to start out the summer with two non-fiction titles that I’ve wanted to read for a while.  One of them is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  Over the last year, this title seems to pop up frequently.  As I’ve heard that Cain’s focus tends to be introverts in the business world, I’m very curious about what she has to say.

The other non-fiction title I have on my list is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.  This book is perhaps the book that has been recommended to me the most that I still have not read.  I also thought it would coincide well with our family vacation to Philadelphia and New York City in about a week.  I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Starship Troopers

It’s also time for my third annual summertime Heinlein/Hemingway match-up.  I started this tradition inadvertently during the summer of 2011 prior to blogging.  A friend of mine recommended Robert A. Heinlein’s novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and my then book club The Indy Reading Coalition had selected Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as our book for June of that year.  I didn’t think anything of it until last summer (2012) when I read Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land just before rereading Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls.  It was then that I decided to do the same thing this summer.  My plan is to read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and reread Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  I’m looking forward to both of them.

A Farewell to Arms

I also want to finish Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories and read Kurt Vonnegut’s collection Welcome to the Monkeyhouse.  

I could possibly throw in a newer book such as Khaled Hosseini’s And The Mountain’s Echoed.  I enjoyed his novel The Kite Runner a number of years ago.  I want to at least read one of Salman Rushdie’s novels this year.  The summer might be a good time to do that.  Midnight’s Children is the one I’ve got my eye on.

As usual, the best-laid reading plans can change in an instant, if a different book catches my interest.  We’ll see how the summer plays out.  How about you?  What are your plans for reading this summer?