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.

A chair versus a skyscraper… how different could they be?

I was at the Start Up Career Fair last Friday, talking with a few representatives of the furniture company Floyd, and my conversation with them struck my interest in the question: how different are architecture and furniture, really?
People say that architecture studies humanities to build spaces for humans to live their lives in. Sounds good. But when it comes to furniture, it’s almost as if nobody really cares about it; we take it for granted.
To me, my conversation with the Floyd team resonated with our beliefs that architecture and furniture design are really basically the same thing- the only difference is their sizing scale. This is our argument, which I’d love for any of you readers to comment on whether or not you agree!
1. Both architecture and furniture deal with societies and their habits.
2. Both architecture and furniture’s goals are for the design and aesthetics to be one and the same thing within itself.
3. Both architecture and furniture have the power to change our lifestyles.
4. Both architecture and furniture require stable engineering and general understanding of physics in order to function.
5. Both architecture and furniture fields have the power to influence one another throughout history.

Let me know what you think! I’d love to hear some thoughts!

A New Man and a Crispy Realization


On September 30th, Bon Iver released his newest album 22, A Million. Upon first reading the title, I didn’t understand it. What does the number-word combination mean? At first glance, why should I understand it? When you meet someone for the first time, are you supposed to know anything about him or her? Well, no. That’s the beauty of getting to know someone! I have never met Bon Iver singer-songwriter Justin Vernon and maybe I never will, but slowly I may get to know what Justin Vernon sounds like.

His friend Trever explains that the “22” represents the recurring symbol of the number 2. Growing up, he has seen this number continuously appear on signs, jersey numbers, and other patterns. Justin identifies with 2 as the duality he feels between himself and “A Million” people with whom he shares the world: the many people he will never know. Justin Vernon is just one of “A Million” people with his own individual sound. Read more at http://boniver.org/bio

We all have a collection of sounds for our life. Each day has a new sound. If you have a routine, then this song repeats like a chorus. When something shakes the repetition, a new verse begins. It’s difficult to learn the words of these unique lines as opposed to the chorus. Change is hard. But these verses contain the most spectacular messages hidden within the change in sound. The lines are in the song for a reason just like things in your life happen for a reason.

Bon Iver’s previous albums deliver a sense of reflection like the beautiful For Emma, Forever Ago he wrote as a recluse near his home town, Eau Claire, as a means of coping with longing and lost love. Compared to these previous albums, he creates more of optimistic tone in 22, A Million. The unique layering of sounds makes you peel apart each element of the song and think. Usually his songs let you wind down like unraveling the tension between two strands of tightly intertwined rope, but this album lets you wind down, then sends you into a new direction of thought like those singular fibers of a strand of rope becoming independent of each other and modified into a new shape. This journey of thought is one that you may take alone. The use of echoing vocals creates a sense of isolation, but not in a negative way. It’s as though you have rebuilt yourself from trouble in your life and have finally turned the corner into a direction of prosperity, into a new direction of thought. On Bon Iver’s album For Emma: Forever Ago, there is a song called “Re: Stacks.” This is one of my favorites particularly because of the honesty in one line when he says, “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization; it’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.”

Now it’s been a while since the For Emma: Forever Ago album. 22, A Million sounds like the transition to a new man and a crispy realization.


Why Bookstores Are My Favorite Place in the World

Being a semi-immobile student at U of M, I rarely get the opportunity to branch out to the fantastical ‘real world’ off of this campus and bask in its awesomeness. Luckily, the opportunity came about this weekend. Where was it absolutely imperative that I make a stop at? Yes, my beloved and forever a staple, Barnes & Nobles Bookstore. There’s this really big one somewhere out in that real world that sits high in the sky and when you walk in there’s the hustle and bustle of readers, writers, coffee addicts, and pure happiness throughout the air. The books line all of their perfectly organized rows, (like in every B&N you come across…I don’t know why I’m being dramatic) and the opportunity to get lost in new worlds are endless.

There is just something about a great bookstore that really brings me true happiness. Is it the books? I love reading, but lately my Kindle is where I easily search and find my new conquests. Maybe it is the people? Young and old alike, meshing together to immerse themselves in literature, business, chit-chat, and music. Hmm,  I don’t think it’s just one thing I can pinpoint that makes bookstores my favorite place in the world. I think it’s a large concept that transcends to all that I am as a person.

Bookstores evoke my favorite parts of myself…in a store. Is that weird? I don’t care, it’s true. I enjoy reading really great books that I can escape into. Fall hopelessly into and work hard all day just so I can get the opportunity to fall back in and get lost again. Being surrounded by the latest and the greatest is one of the great pleasures of bookstores alike. Most carry classics that will always bring you peace, and the new ones they offer will definitely get your wheels turning. Back when I had my first job at 16 working in my local mall, the bookstore was my favorite stop every chance I got a break. I would grab the book that interested me of the moment, and read it every time I had that break until I finished it completely. The best part was I didn’t have to spend a dime because it is socially acceptable to consume the merchandise at a bookstore. Maybe that is the true reason why I love them so much…

Then there is the atmosphere. The way in which this structure (depending on how advanced this society gets) will never go out of style and there will always be at least one person who can appreciate it enough to walk in there. People are all around, doing their own thing and making the most of their shopping experience.

From what I mentioned before, I do fear of the impending way that these brick and mortar bookstores will change due to the advancement of technology in our society (Fahrenheit 451 moment anyone?). I am proponent of utilizing a digital reader for books, magazines and music. I will search Amazon and have the ability to go through my day without any physical or time-consuming interruptions. Yes, a lot of people lack the free leisure time to immerse themselves in bookstores to possibly buy nothing, but could entirely taking out the symbolic structure from society really be the next step? We have to have bookstores on our streets forever. They’re magical, inviting, safe, and fun. I guess we must wait and see what the future holds, but until then I will continue to cherish the time I get to spend in a great bookstore.

Reality TV and It’s Complexes

It seems like whatever channel we turn to on the TV or when we open the homepage to Hulu and Netflix, reality TV shows have taken over our lives. This is nothing new. It’s 2015 and what people want to see are people like them, who are more dramatic, funny, daring, outgoing, etc. This craving to relate to one another seems to be intensifying, with reality shows of the more intimate nature like Dating Naked and Sex Sent Me to the ER, enticing viewers more than scripted TV. Why is that?

It could be our connection to the digital world. The constant need to be connected to each other online, to be in this space of constant entertainment and interaction, we then utilize reality TV as a way to feel as though we are connected with each other on a physical and emotional level. Beyond the space of virtual life.

Nothing seems to be off limits now, with issues like sex, dating, addiction, and drunken fights being the central focus of the plots. These controversial subjects have been topics of discussion for years on scripted shows, but what made them different were their ability to discreetly or pedagogically illustrate these topics to audiences in which we could learn something from it. Now reality shows have a desire to do this, but the presentation and the theatricality and at times camp nature in which it presents these topics make these shows seem like “trash TV”.

Although, scripted TV is making its comeback in many ways. From ABC dramas like Scandal, to AMC’s Mad Men, what has made these shows so revolutionary are not only its amazing production staff, but also the power in which it stands compared to the low-impact reality television shows of today. So, in ways, it adds value to what we may have taken for granted in the past.

Love it or hate it, reality TV means something to today’s world.


Thoughts From Places: Passions, January Edition

So lately I’ve been thinking.

Now, I know as well as anyone how dangerous that can be, so just stay with me here.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my future (like, with jetpacks), and what I want that to look like. Now, I haven’t come up with any definite conclusions, but I do have a few basic requirements:

  1. I have a job. It sucks, but I can’t do anything in this world (like, say, live in an apartment) without money, so I have to have a job.

  2. This job has to be something I enjoy. I can’t be waking up every day, hating my own guts because I have to drag myself to the same old crummy job every week.

That’s it. Since practically my kindergarten days, these two things are all I’ve wanted for my life. But the funny thing about life is that it changes…like, a lot.

I used to think that if I ended up working in an office it would be the death of me and all I consider fun and exciting, but now I’m (slowly) acclimating to the idea of working in an office…as long as it’s an office working on something I enjoy as well.

I also used to think that I’d become an actress, but that dream is almost all but gone. Would I go back to the stage if offered? In a heartbeat. But am I at college just waiting for my big break on Broadway? Not so much.

But recently, I’ve been coming to a different conclusion. I love to write, in case you haven’t noticed the weeks and weeks and weeks of columns I’ve written, and I decided to become an English major so that I can get a degree in something I love so I can get a job in something I love. That fulfills both of my above requirements. I thought becoming an author would make me just as happy as if I were acting on stage.

But I love writing for this blog too. I love writing about art, something that I’m really passionate about (see above potential jobs), and I love getting to have deep, meaningful conversations with other people who love art just as much as I do. And although they don’t make much, being a cultural/pop culture journalist is sounding really, really cool to me as a junior looking at a job market I’ll soon be entering.

I’m not exactly sure what I’m trying to get at, and I know this only loosely coincides with my task of writing about art once a week, but I guess I’d say that finding passions is not something that automatically happens. I didn’t wake up one day knowing I was going to get a job at arts, ink and love it more than any other job I’ve ever had. Passion is a process, which is something I think most people don’t understand. Art is a passion, but it’s also a process.

So I guess I’m saying find your passion. But don’t give up if it takes longer than you expect it to, because all passions are different. And don’t reject something when you haven’t tried it. Did I want this job when I applied for it? Yes. Did I think I was going to like it so much that I’d want to turn it into a career goal? Not a chance. But am I glad I did it?

I think you can answer that for yourself.