Kurt Vonnegut: A Different Kind of Fiction

If you haven’t read anything by Kurt Vonnegut, what have you been reading? That might sound bold, but if you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut, you know where I’m coming from. For me, its a combination of his dry and satirical humor and his unique way of presenting a moral that set him apart. In this context I’ll be focusing on three books: Slaughterhouse-five, Cat’s Cradle, and Mother Night, which I all wholeheartedly recommend. This is also the order in which I first read them, and approaching them linearly will hopefully help you follow my train of thought.

I first read Slaughterhouse-five my senior year of high school, outside of my English class, and I ended up finishing it in two days. For a fictional book that combined seemingly mutually exclusive topics such as war, time-travel, and aliens, I wasn’t expecting to like it. To be honest, I only picked it up because I knew it was a classic and that it was frequently referenced in literary culture. However, I was surprised by the unique writing style of Kurt Vonnegut; there is something so genuine and authentic about how he tells a story. He doesn’t seem to care so much about plot holes and accuracy, but more about the overall message of the story, and that was so different than what I was used to (considering intricate books such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien). Slaughterhouse-five was especially good at displaying how Kurt Vonnegut uses dry humor to understand humanity in the face of tragedy. A common phrase in the book is “so it goes”, in reference to everything from the end of the universe to the absurd and irrational murder of the protagonist’s companion. At first this sentiment just appears cynical, but after you finish reading you understand what Kurt Vonnegut is really trying to say: in the face of senseless human tragedy, humor is a way to cope with the truth, and to ultimately shift focus to the beautiful parts of existence.

Next I read Cat’s Cradle, and if I thought the plot of Slaughterhouse-five was bizarre, this book took it to another level. The main plot point is the existence of a dangerous material called ice-nine that turns any liquid into ice. However, the story follows a simple protagonist named John and his strange journey that eventually converges with the story of ice-nine. It also features a strange island with an outlawed religion called Bokononism, which is central to the themes of the book. Essentially it is a nihilistic and cynical religion, and Kurt Vonnegut uses it as a punching back to criticize the concept of religion as a whole. In doing so, Vonnegut expands beyond the traditions and beliefs of religion and reveals a human element in understanding life. Through his character development and use of humor, he shows how absurd humanity is, while simultaneously showing how the journey is more important than the destination. Even if everything ends in tragedy, as things often do when people are involved, the story is what teaches us how special it is to be human. This alternative perspective on life is so genuine in Kurt Vonnegut’s writing that you almost forget you were reading fiction.

Last but not least (in fact to many it is Kurt Vonnegut’s best work) I read Mother Night, a story about a spy named Howard W. Campbell, Jr. who works for the U.S. during World War II as a German propaganda radio host. After the war he is put on trial for war crimes, and the book is written as he is living in an Israeli jail. This is the least bizarre of the three books, featuring a pretty straightforward plot and only a few outrageous people and events. This book is also unique in another way, as shown by the first lines of the book:

“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Having already read Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle, this was a surprise to say the least. I loved Kurt Vonnegut because he didn’t hold your hand and spoon-feed you the moral of the story like other fiction writers, he made you work for it. I can only speculate why he did this, but after I finished reading the book I realized that this was only one of the morals. Perhaps he was just being ironic, because he knew that this wasn’t the full truth. Although this is definitely a lesson from the book, the true moral is revealed in the same way as the other two books: through his authentic characters and ability to draw profound truths from fiction. I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I won’t, but after I finished reading, I had no idea what I felt. The ending was tragic to say the least, but it went deeper than that; it wrestled with concepts of guilt and justice in the most profound way. Similar to Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle, he managed to show the complexity of humanity and also challenge our pre-held conceptions of what it means to be alive. It’s a moral that you can’t put into words because it’s so universal that it doesn’t exactly mean one thing. Kurt Vonnegut’s writing almost transcends traditional literature because he offers an entirely new perspective on life. Overall, after reading all three books, I feel as if Kurt Vonnegut is an entirely new kind of fiction: one that leaves the conventions of the genre and instead recognizes what makes it so powerful to begin with. I definitely recommend all three books, and I hope you can see the importance of his writing as I do. As for myself, he’ll always be on my list of favorite authors, and I hope to read more works by him in the future.

What to do on a snowday?

Once the University of Michigan cancelling classes for two days in a row, I thought to myself “Hooray!  I’m going to catch up on sleep for the next two days!” Then I tried to remember what I did on snow days during elementary and high school.  I would play outside for the day, or have friends over to play inside. So I decided that maybe instead of sleeping for the next two days I could do something else.  So here is a list of things that I might do during our snow-days.

Movie Marathons!  I am a huge fan of movies, my favorite genres are romcoms, sci-fi, and thrillers.  When creating a movie marathon you have the choice of watching a bunch or random movies, movies with the same theme, or a movie series.  Watching random movies is good so that you do not get too bored when watching a couple movies in one sitting. This way you can laugh, cry, and get scared in one day; which can be more exciting.  Watching movies from the same genre, or with the same theme can give you an extra dose of whatever feeling you want. Watching a movie series gives you purpose when you are sitting watching a movie, because you now have to finish the series.  I personally like watching movie series. You can always re-watch Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.

Read!  As a college student, I never do any reading for pleasure during the school year because I am constantly reading for my classes.  Taking two days to start and possibly finish a book that has been sitting unread in my bookshelf would be great. Cold weather is also the perfect reading conditions because then you are incentivized to sit in a chair curled up with a blanket and a book and are able to read for hours.  It’s also nice when you are sitting by a window that brings in natural light and so that you can look outside but you do not have to go outside.

Game night!  The last activity is better if there is someone else with you.  A game night or afternoon is always fun and relaxing, depending on the game.  I used to play a lot of board games growing up with my family, and I have not played them much since going to college.  I love when an opportunity comes up and I can play them again. The best games to play during snow days are games that take a long time because you have all of the time in the world.  I personally like to play Risk when I have a couple of hours to spend on a game.

Taking Advantage of My Free Time This Semester

Well, it’s my last semester here at the University of Michigan, and I’m lucky to be only taking six credits. It’s a huge change in terms of how much time I actually have on my hands; suddenly, I have class only on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, leaving me more days without class than with class.

This was probably a good choice. For one, why take an excessive number of credits when each class costs a lot of money and I’ve taken almost every class I need to graduate? It’s also a welcome break after 2016, which I spent as a Senior Arts Editor for The Michigan Daily. It was a position that seemed to sap almost every night of free time, even though it’s a relatively small time commitment compared to an editorial position on the news section, for example.

The thing about the Daily was even if it could be a pain to spend so much time there when I had so much studying to do all the time, it was rarely not fun being there. I worked closely with many of my best friends there, and it was a comforting place to go to each night I worked, not an unwelcome one. So even though the end of my editor position means a lot of nice free time, it also means spending less time in that fun environment surrounded by the people I laugh around the most. As a result, I think, I’ve felt a little despondent in the week since we came back from winter break…a little unmotivated, unproductive, with too much time to just sit in my room. I’ve felt a little lonely, to be honest.

And we all know what the best thing is for feeling lonely: art!

So I’m determined to start taking in a lot more art this semester, and not feel guilty about it. To start, of course, I’m watching a lot of TV and movies, and listening to a lot of music, as usual. I recently finished watching The Leftovers, and I just started Bates Motel tonight. I also have The Americans and Twin Peaks on my agenda for this semester. I have an endless list of movies to watch, and I’m going to enjoy watching them.

The most notable things, though are these:

First, I’m going to read more. I feel like I haven’t really read for pleasure that much since at least the summer, but more realistically farther back—you could even extend that to high school. I’m finally finishing Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth after starting it over the summer and promptly stopping when school started. I also have Super Sad True Love Story checked out, and plan to read The Handmaid’s Tale and some other good stuff soon.

Second, I’m going to journal consistently. My journal is massively important to me—I still have to write a longer post about that sometime—and I always inevitably fall behind because I spend so much time on it, imbuing every entry with so many details. When I fall behind, it takes the emotional power out of some of the entries, because I’m recalling events long after the fact, so I’m going to make sure to catch up once and for all and journal consistently this semester.

Third, I’m going to start writing fiction again. I haven’t done this in a while, either, and I really need to just write a novel already. It’s not good to take huge breaks from writing, and I need to learn to really discipline myself when it comes to that.

Anyways, yeah, that’s it! I’m also, obviously, applying to jobs for after graduation and trying to spend time with friends, but sometimes it seems like I am the single least busy person this semester, so I’ll have plenty of extra time, and art is the best way to fill that.

The Comfort of Public Readings

Last Friday, my friend Karen invited me to an open mic night for anyone who wanted to share their writing—poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, or even songs. Karen’s the editor-in-chief of Xylem, an independent, student-run literary magazine on campus, so some of the staff shared their work, but most of the readers were just people in the audience who decided to share.

Almost every reading I’ve been invited to I’ve gone to, but it’s a weird thing, because I don’t really love them. Okay, to be specific, I don’t love listening to people read. I’m not always the best auditory learner—my mind drifts, and I end up thinking about whatever’s going on in my life, in the same way your mind wanders during a particularly boring lecture. It makes it harder that I’m not super good at understanding poetry; sometimes I can work out the meaning (either the dramatic narrative or the emotional symbolism) if I sit down and concentrate hard and reread the poem a few times, but it’s almost impossible for me to figure it out when it’s being read aloud.

Even if I could carefully pay attention to every single person reading, I’m very bad at telling when poetry is actually good. Every student reading I go to, I hear poems that I sense are pretty good, since there are some decent images and cool words being used, but I have no idea what they actually mean. I know the point of poetry isn’t to figure out what it all ‘means,’ per se, but it still can be frustrating when you feel like you’re not getting much out of a poem aside from the sense that it sounds kind of interesting.

There were some stories and poems I really liked on Friday, when I was able to fully engage. One girl shared a ‘letter to all the guys she kissed,’ which involved a lot of wordplay with numbers. It was pretty hilarious, and well-read, and everyone was laughing with every line she read. One guy sheepishly read a short piece about the couch he owns, with all its mysterious and questionable stains—also very funny.

I thought a lot that night about why I continue to go to events like these when I’m only fitfully entertained and engaged in the reading itself. Well, for one, I go for my friends, like Karen. I want to support them, to hear them read their writing or see what they’ve dedicated their time to outside of class.

But I go mostly for the community. When I sat there in that room—the cozy back room on the second floor of Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tearoom—I felt, momentarily, at peace. It came at the end of a long week dealing with the results of Tuesday’s presidential election, and for a moment I wanted to just stop talking and thinking about it all and just sit and be with people who I felt understood me—even if I didn’t actually know most of them. One essay mentioned the election, but most of the pieces were about other things. When you’re dealing with what we all dealt with this week, poems about regular old teenage heartbreak are downright comfort food.

Even when an open mic night doesn’t come in the middle of a politically cataclysmic week, though, it provides comfort. There’s something about looking around and seeing English majors you vaguely know—that girl who talked a little too much in my Shakespeare class, that girl whose writing I was always jealous of in my creative writing class, those five people I recognize from The Michigan Daily. Even the people you don’t recognize can make you feel at home; some of the students sharing their work were STEM majors, and there was something endearing about seeing them timidly prefacing their reading: “I’ve never done this before,” or “I haven’t really looked this over yet,” or “Sorry, I’m kind of nervous.”

I looked out the window while one guy read, noticing the lights of the Ann Arbor News building across the street, the cars flitting by on the street below. I wondered if I’d have a similar, but larger-scale view a year from now, maybe living in New York and going to a reading like this one, with more people I didn’t know but who felt like my people. I wondered if I’d go to any Trump-related protests in Manhattan, if I’d have a group of liberal, revolutionary-type friends like me who wrote poetry and drank tea in cable knit sweaters and clapped and cheered for one another, even when the poems weren’t that good.

Maybe it was too romantic of an idea. Maybe we could all use a little romance right now.

 

Check out Xylem Literary Magazine here. The above photo was taken from Xylem’s Facebook page.

The Myth of Being Well-Read

Okay, hold up. If you haven’t heard the big news, I want to be the one to tell you.

Wait for it…

*drumroll*

Harper Lee is releasing her second novel ever.

*cue excited screams*

I know.

Frankly, when I first read the news somewhere on Facebook, I didn’t actually freak out on the spot. I mean, I was happy, but it took like a solid hour or two (or maybe three more posts on Facebook) to get me really, really pumped for this. Honestly, the weight of the news really didn’t hit me until then. This is huge.

And actually, it’s funny that this news has been released, because it coincides perfectly with a topic I’ve been meaning to write about lately.

Now, okay, maybe you’re reading this (or you read one of the various other news sources), and you’re thinking “Okay, so what?” To this, I would come up with two possible conclusions about you:

  1. You aren’t a reader and thus don’t understand the gravity that is when your favorite author announces that they’re publishing another book (think Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or The Winds of Winter, the forthcoming 6th book in the Game of Thrones series), or

  2. You’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird

These are both completely valid conclusions to come to if someone says “So what?” to this kind of news. The part that gets tricky is what comes after.

Maybe you are a reader, and that first conclusion isn’t true about you. You really really like sci-fi novels, and can’t wait for the next book in your series to come out, so you understand how it feels when this kind of announcement is made. But you still say “So what?” Maybe you don’t really like other types of fiction. Maybe you got into sci-fi because your mom really liked it growing up, and she got you reading, but because she doesn’t read much else neither do you. Maybe you tried to branch into mystery and got bored. For whatever reason, maybe you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird and the second conclusion does apply to you.

Like I said, the conclusion is valid, but the judgement that comes right after is not.

After being officially declared an English major for a year now (though in my heart I’ve been an English major since I got accepted to UM), I’ve noticed a trend within the English department, that I have to say also applies to me. And it’s not the English majors’ fault, because it’s not just English majors, but also any intellectual who studies/studied the humanities.

What I’m talking about people is the concept of being “well read.” If you go up to an English major and say “I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird” many will gasp loudly, protest vehemently, and automatically insist you pick it up right this minute, you know what, I’ll go buy it for you right now at The Dawn Treader. But what makes a book considered worth reading in the first place? It obviously isn’t popular opinion, because then Twilight and The Hunger Games would be included in the lexicon.

But more than that is the whole concept of it all, and the judgement that comes immediately after. Although comments such as these have never been directed at me, I’ve often felt uncomfortable in my classes when the topics of books comes up. This comes up most often at the beginning at the semester, when the favorite ice breaker seems to be “the last thing you read” or “the last thing you enjoyed reading.” For someone like me, who is seriously considering either going into creative nonfiction journalism (such as this blog) or into YA Lit, this question is always, without fail, a way to embarrass me, and I always have to have an acceptable back-up answer ready at hand. Last semester my back-up answer was the piece written by the Washington Post journalist that went to and was arrested in Ferguson. I don’t remember my back-up answer this semester, but I sure as heck wasn’t going to say that I finished The Moon and More by YA romance author Sarah Dessen. But that was my honest answer, it was in fact the last book that I finished. And the last piece I read was probably any sort of online article about music, movies, TV, you name it. In the stage of life I’m in right now, it’s honestly what I like to read. Sure, I have Water for Elephants and Life of Pi on my Kindle right now ready for me to read at a moments notice. But I’m also in the middle of reading Paper Towns by John Green, and I plan on finishing it sometime soon.

So why is it that when people talk about Dante’s Inferno or name drop Nietzsche (who I really didn’t know until last semester), I get really anxious and uncomfortable? I know enough about Inferno to get by when it’s mentioned, but I’ve never read it and I’m not planning on it any time soon. Why would I when there’s so many other books I’d enjoy much more?

And yes, okay, I am planning on reading “adult” books eventually. I finally read Frankenstein this past semester for class, and I do actually want to read Life of Pi, which is why it is actually on my Kindle right now. But if I don’t read them right now, does that make me less of a reader?

I’d like to argue that it doesn’t, and I’m sure this argument has been made many times, but I thought it was worth considering in the terms of a highly intellectual University. I’m not saying that every time a professor makes a connection between a novel and Paradise Lost they’re wrong and shouldn’t do it, because intertextuality is important when understanding the novel and its merits, but the judgement that comes when individuals have conversations about books and I just haven’t read one yet should not be happening.

But yeah. Harper Lee. Get excited. Or not. Whatever floats your boat.

5 Novels to Kick Off 2015

This is my first post of the new year/school year, and I am excited to kick it off with something that not only is my current obsession, but something that I feel would help all of you fellow pro-2015, make-it-a-great-year people out there. Reading! I can’t imagine that anyone in this day-in-age would whine and complain about the thought of picking up a good book, outside of what is presented for us to read in the classroom. I mean come on, whether it be the classics or the new-age books of today, there’s nothing like curling up with a great book that you are excited to escape into.

It’s 2015 and everyone is all about starting afresh with new goals and new ideas of turning your life around and making it the best year yet. Well the best way to start these goals off would be to dive into some good reads within the first month of this journey. Books dedicated to inspiring you, teaching you, and entertaining you, are always helpful in planting seeds for prosperous growth. I have a 5-novel list of some of the books that I plan to crack open/have already read (before school swallows me up and spits me out), that I hope sets you all on the journey to growth and enlightenment this upcoming year.

1. The Examine Life by Stephen Grosz

The Examined Life is a book of short stories containing over 50,000 hours worth of conversation on psychological insight into individual lives. What sets this book a part is Grosz’s intentional avoidance of psychoanalytic jargon, which allow for these real stories of human behavior, mistakes, discoveries, and ideals of losing and finding ourselves, to seem real and attainable.

2. The Woman I Wanted to Be by Diane Von Furstenberg

I currently have me nose in this book by Diane Von Furstenburg, one of the most renowned fashion designers and business women of today. What sets her a part from the pack is her effervescent sense of self that stands on the idea of practicing independence, becoming one’s own best friend, and using any hard or difficult past to create the best future possible.

3. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

This classic work tells the story of an Andalusian shepherd boy who is traveling to the Egyptian pyramids to find a hidden treasure. He encounters many people who aid in his journey to find this treasure, but what he comes to discover is the idea of finding treasure within himself. Cheesy caption, great read.

4. Girl Boss

Girl Boss follows the story of Sophia Amoruso, founder and CEO of Nasty Gal retail company, and her journey from the bottom to the top. There are many cliche’s and I-already-knew-that’s present in this read, but the biggest thing to take away is the idea of there ever being impossibility of succession, couldn’t be further from the truth.

5. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown

This quintessential self-help book is one of my read-a-little-everyday reads. There are so many inspirational quotes and mantras to live by, as this book draws on classic psychological concepts of what is needed to mentally live a healthier and happier life.