Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut book review

Book Review: Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Toward the end of my time as an undergraduate, one of my creative writing professors gave me a copy of Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut as a reward for perfect attendance (probably the only class that has ever been true for). In the front cover, she inscribed a short message essentially saying that she believed I would like the novel because Vonnegut and I had similarly dark imaginations. I hadn’t read much Vonnegut by that point, but now that I’ve read around a dozen of his books, it doesn’t surprise me that she made that connection. None of the stories I submitted in that class could have reasonably been described as “upbeat.”

(Here is your obligatory spoiler alert. But seriously, the book was published in 1963. What are you waiting for?)

What Vonnegut does with his fiction, particularly in Cat’s Cradle, is almost exactly what I strive for in my own stories. Using dark humor to make his stories palatable, he writes about the more ridiculous aspects of human nature with a heavy focus on one of the most tragic topics imaginable—war. Of course, Cat’s Cradle isn’t as focused on that particular subject as Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-5, but the scars of his experience as a POW in World War II are still clear to see.

At its core, Cat’s Cradle is Vonnegut’s critique of mankind. The story revolves around the narrator, John, who is writing a book on what the relevant individuals in the development of the atom bomb were doing when the first of them was dropped on Hiroshima. The main subject of John’s interest is the late Felix Hoenikker, who is referred to as “The Father of the atomic bomb.” John ultimately ends up a participant in a quasi-family reunion with Hoenikker’s three bizarre children on the island of San Lorenzo, a banana republic ruled by the dictatorial President “Papa” Manzano. John later discovers that the three siblings possess Hoenikker’s final curse on humanity, a material called Ice-9 which instantly freezes any water it touches.

Hoenikker’s offspring are all outcasts in their own way, so they individually decide to use their allotments of the Ice-9 as bargaining chips to assuage their loneliness or otherwise improve their lives.

Through the three siblings as well as a rich cast of supporting characters Vonnegut satirizes nearly the whole of humanity, along with some of its most revered institutions. The richly imagined characters are really what makes the humor in this story work too. Although you may find yourself chuckling every few minutes while reading Cat’s Cradle, there are few one-liners in this story–the comedy is all grounded in character. One of the best examples of this is the Ugly American H. Lowe Crosby, who proclaims patriotism but decides to move his bicycle factory to San Lorenzo to take advantage of the island’s non-existent labor regulations.

Even subjects like science and religion—which are so often portrayed as being in stark opposition to each other—are equally skewered by Vonnegut’s satiric wit. Hoenikker is essentially a caricature of scientists who care little for the ramifications of their research (like those who developed the atom bomb), and San Lorenzo’s dominant religion, Bokononism, is clearly designed to force the reader to think about the nature of religious belief.

Ultimately though, it is the carelessness and selfishness of ordinary people that brings humanity to the brink of collapse when the Ice-9 given to “Papa” Manzano by Felix’s oldest son falls into the ocean and freezes almost all of the water on Earth. The warning from Vonnegut is clear: when you combine modern technology (and weapons specifically) with humanity’s seemingly boundless capacity for thoughtlessness and stupidity, disaster is inevitable.

Perhaps it seems counter-intuitive, then, that Cat’s Cradle is the book I most often turn to when I am feeling cynical about humanity. But this is the power of Vonnegut’s fiction–he forces us to confront the things we most fear or dislike about life and then laugh in their faces.

Photo credit: “Cat’s Cradle” by Alaina Buzas licensed under CC by 2.0. No changes made.

ACC Football: Making Sense of the Coastal Division

Since writing for Rant Sports isn’t like writing a blog, I’ve decided to announce a feature that I will be working on for them here. Over the next two weeks or so, I’m going to focus on the ACC Coastal division. Unlike the Atlantic, where the Florida State Seminoles are almost a lock to win, the famously unpredictable Coastal division is completely up for grabs this year. I could image almost any of its seven teams making an appearance in the ACC Championship game.

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A New Gig: ACC Football Writer for Rant Sports

After leaving a full-time copy writing gig back in March, I’ve had very little free time. I’ve kept busy with my creative writing, reading, and quite a bit of traveling (because these are all work related when you’re a writer!). But the biggest reason for my lack of free time these days is I am out on my own, pursuing the freelance writing career I’ve been thinking about for so long.

I’ve had a few jobs since then and, of course, the search for work is never ending. Unfortunately, most of the work I’ve done as a freelancer hasn’t been anything that I could link to here, so I haven’t had much to post about. I’m hoping to change that now.

I just accepted a job as an ACC Football writer for Rant Sports. I will most likely write about Syracuse football quite a bit, but I plan to cover the entire league. The site is opinion based and, despite the site’s name, I’m hoping to add a thoughtful, analytical voice to their coverage.

I won’t spam this space with every article I write, but expect the occasional update on how things are progressing with the new gig, along with any random thoughts I might feel like posting. And if you want to check out my thoughts on ACC football, be sure to head over to Rant Sports.

Why I Plan to Diversify My Reading in 2014

When the new year rolled around, it was time to look over what I had read in 2013. I went into that year with a goal of reading 52 books in 52 weeks. And while I knew for the bulk of the year that I was going to fail miserably at that goal, when I looked over my list, I realized that I had failed in another way.

One of the things that I love about books–and fiction, in particular–is that it offers a glimpse into someone else’s world. Even if that world isn’t real, a good story puts you into the mind of another human being and lets you experience their view of the world. Now scientists are beginning to report that literary fiction builds empathy. Those of us who enjoy literary fiction are wondering what took them so long to realize this.

I don’t regret reading the books that I did finish. I read some fantastic stories this year. But I realized that I missed an opportunity to expand my world view further. My greatest failing wasn’t falling short of my goal to read 52 books, it was that of the nearly 30 books on my list, only three were written by women. On top of that, only two were written by authors who were not white.

I think this is a problem, both as a reader and a writer. Stepping into someone else’s shoes for awhile is a great reason to read a book, but that experience is absolutely vital when learning how to write fiction. It would be silly to think that I could write compelling fiction without being able to imagine the world from someone else’s viewpoint.

I’m working on my first novel right now. I’m not going to go into much detail, but one of the main characters is a woman. And, truth be told, I’m having more difficultly with her than I do with the male characters I normally write (something else I’m working on). And while I don’t really think I’m struggling because of gender issues, every time I sit down to write a scene that features this character, in comes my nagging fear of turning her into a stereotype. The best thing I can do to quiet that doubt, I think, is to examine characters created by great female authors.

With all of that in mind, my new goal for 2014 is to expand my world view by reading as many books as I can by authors who are not white men. They won’t be completely excluded but, for the most part, the white men are going to remain on the shelf this year.

So far, I’m actually on pace for that 52 in 52 goal (a pace I am not likely to sustain). But, more importantly, I’ve begun to branch out a bit. After kicking off the year with “A Man Without a Country,” by Kurt Vonnegut (because I read it regularly and it can be finished during the course of a lazy weekend afternoon), I moved on to “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood. Both were terrific reads, and I may go into more detail about those reading experiences in a later blog post. Same for “Dream Lives of Butterflies,” by Jaimee Wriston Colbert, “This is How You Lose Her,” by Junot Díaz, and “Dear Life,” by Alice Munro.

I haven’t yet made a list of specific books but there are a number of authors that I plan to read for the first time. They include Zadie Smith, Virginia Woolf, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. “Beloved,” also guaranteed that Toni Morrison will appear in my reading list again some time in the future.

It’s too early to say what I’ll take away from this. Based on what I’ve read so far, I expect I will be learning a lot. And, if nothing else, it should be a great year of reading.

Feel free to leave any reading suggestions in the comments.

Don’t Mess with Texas

In my last post, I mentioned that I had an announcement to make. I found out a couple weeks ago that a short story I wrote, Don’t Mess With Texas, was a finalist for Litreactor’s first Featured Workshop Story. My piece, along with two others, was sent to the guest editor, Craig Clevenger, the author of Dermaphoria and The Contortionist’s Handbook. Clevenger then selected one story to be published.

As it turned out, he picked mine. And the really exciting part, for me, was reading Clevenger’s assessment (over, and over, and over):

This one is nuts-and-bolts prose. It reads casually and effortlessly, as though heard by someone telling it over drinks (an effect heightened by the second-person POV, which normally throws me, as does the present tense); at the same time, there’s nearly zero superfluous verbiage here. The exposition is devoid of any driftwood, and when the characters speak they’re front and center, without any authorial intrusion. Really solid piece, this one.

The story is up over at Litreactor now, so go check it out.

Millenials in the Workplace

I wrote a guest post about Millenials and office culture over at Heidi Oran’s website, The Conscious Perspective.

Go read it, and check out the rest of Heidi’s website.

Millenials in the Workplace

Also, make sure you check back here in the next couple days. I have a big announcement to make this week, along with a few new projects that I want to share. Things are getting pretty exciting.

Syracuse Football: Coach Shafer makes the right call in giving Hunt a shot

The Syracuse Orange had another tough game against Big Ten foe Northwestern on Saturday. The result: a 48-27 drubbing and an 0-2 record. But while the coaches had a tough time finding anything that worked, they did provide fans with a reason to show up for the home opener.

Late in the fourth quarter, after Drew Allen threw his fourth interception, Terrel Hunt entered the game. Hunt proceeded to lead the offense down the field for a touchdown, and displayed a blend of running and passing ability. He completed two passes to Quinta Funderburk for 22 yards and ran for 30 more, including a 15 yard touchdown run.

And just like that, Coach Shafer officially had a quarterback controversy on his hands.

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