Review: Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

I should know better.  I very foolishly checked Slaughterhouse Five out of the library and brought it to read on our camping trip even though I suspected I wasn’t going to like it and I knew the person who recommended it to me was going to be on our camping trip wanting me to like it.  I read books when I’m given them, and when I don’t like them, I’m likely to say “I liked [specific thing],” or “It’s very well-written!”, rather than lying straight out with something like “Yes!  I liked it!”, and I had planned exactly what I was going to say when asked about it.  Only after I’d said all my evasive remarks, my sister said, “Did you like it?” and I felt too guilty to say no so I said yes but it was a tangled web of lies and if I’d had a second to think about it I’d have said something vague and noncommittal like I liked some things about it but I’d have to read it again to make up my mind completely.

Which wouldn’t exactly have been true either.  I have this blurry notion that lies are less wicked if they involve a lot of words and incorporate some elements of the truth.  Dear oh dear.  I feel sad when I don’t like other people’s favorite books, because I know how sad it makes me when other people don’t like my favorite books.

ANYWAY, Slaughterhouse Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s Masterwork, an anti-war novel that features the Tralfamadorians of whom I have heard (in my parapsychology class – I missed the final on account of writing down the date wrong, and our Vonnegut-loving professor was kind enough to let me take it the next day without penalizing me), and discusses the bombing of Dresden.  The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a soldier who becomes “unstuck in time”, traveling back and forth between moments of his life – times with his wife and children, his childhood, his time as a soldier in the Second World War, his kidnapping by aliens in a flying saucer, etc.

It was clever.  I think that’s what I’d say about this book.  The business of being unstuck in time was interesting, and I wondered if that’s where Audrey Niffenegger got the idea for The Time Traveler’s Wife (hope so – it always cheers me up to see other authors stealing ideas because it makes me feel better about myself).  It was clever, but there was nothing underneath it.  All this weak-jawed fatalism – it was quotable (the phrase “So it goes” occurs whenever something bad happens), but it didn’t lead to anything.  Not for the characters, and not for me either.  It was clever, but there wasn’t anything underneath the cleverness.  It was just a lot of words.

I meant to give it two stars, but I like the book less and less the more I think of it.  I have very few one-star ratings, because I feel guilty being mean about books that I know other people love.  But it’s a new year and I’m going to be bloody, bold, and resolute (Macbeth is my favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  When I quote that bit of it, though, I’m quoting Eliza from Knight’s Castle.  You can’t ever escape your childhood reading.) with my ratings.  One star it is!

What do you like or not like about Vonnegut?  Am I missing something vital about this book?  Anyone want to claim that Slaughterhouse Five is overrated and the real Vonnegut is only to be found through [one of his other books]?  I’m willing to try again…

If you haven’t read Vonnegut, don’t take my word for it; I know loads of people love him.  Other reviews of Slaughterhouse Five: things mean a lot, Becky’s Book Reviews, Just a (Reading) Fool, Rob Around Books, booklit, Bibliofreakblog, Rose City Reader, and you’ll tell me, won’t you, if I missed yours?

The Girl in a Swing, Richard Adams

Do you ever read a book where you finish it and you’re like, Hm, I think I may be deeply stupid?  I sort of felt that way when I finished reading A Pale View of Hills, but with that one, at least, I thought about it for a while and came to a conclusion.  I have been thinking furiously about The Girl in a Swing, ever since I finished it yesterday morning, and I am still trying to figure out what the hell happened.

I was excited to read this book.  I love Watership Down like crazy, and The Girl in a Swing is about a porcelain shop owner called Alan who is slightly psychic.  While in Copenhagen on business, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful sensual German woman called Kathe.  After a whirlwind romance, they are married and live happily ever after.  Except that Richard gradually begins to realize there is Something Not Right and actually they don’t live all that happily ever after, so I was lying about that before.  And did I mention it’s by the same guy that wrote Watership Down?

Psychic dude!  Something Not Right!  Watership Down author!  I WAS SO DISAPPOINTED.

I also felt stupid, as previously stated.  I feel like I understood the main thing that was causing spookiness – major spoilers in this paragraph only! – of how Kathe had a child and went into the woods and killed her dead so she could be with Alan.  I got that.  All clear on that.

Then there was all this stuff throughout the book about sex and Christianity and pagan goddesses and forgiveness that were confusing, and I think there may have been layers of meaning that I didn’t get.  Because of being stupid.  And maybe they would have made the book better.  Like, the porcelain thing that Kathe gets, the Girl in a Swing?  What was up with that?  Did that relate to the theme of forgiving yourself?  What all did I miss by being stupid?  And, well, okay, by being bored and my mind drifting away.

Yes!  Okay?  I was bored with this book!  It just took so long to get going; and if it hadn’t been Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, I’d have given up in despair. Occasionally there were strange little episodes with Kathe, but they were few and far between for most of the book.  Same with Alan, who was supposed to be psychic, but he hardly ever was – I wanted more out of Alan!  When Kathe wasn’t having fits at the sight of a church and shrieking at Alan to destroy the past and save her (i.e., most of the time), she and Alan were so sweety-sweet you just couldn’t stand it.  They were constantly going, Oo, darling, how clever and beautiful you are, and oo, darling, how quickly you do seem to have learnt everything about my porcelain business, and darling, isn’t it nice for us that everyone you know adores me, and darling, let’s have sex all the time like bunny rabbits.

Which, you know, is funny.  Considering.

I am so cross at being disappointed by a book I really wanted to enjoy that I officially say, Do not read this!  It’s a waste of time.  Read something good and thrilling and suspenseful like Watership Down.  In fact I am so cross, I am not even going to count this as part of the RIP Challenge.

Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi

In Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi writes about tar musician Nasser Ali, a great-uncle of hers who decides to die after his wife destroys his tar in a heated argument.  He tries and tries to find another tar that will be the equal of the one that was destroyed, but even the best of tars will not make the music he imagines.  He lies down on his bed and stays there for eight days, upon which he dies.  Chicken with Plums follows him through those eight days, through visits and memories and dreams and hallucinations.

The good: Marjane Satrapi charms me.  She writes with wry humor that spares no one, and interweaves the story of Nasser Ali with the history of Iran.  Despite how much I don’t care for Nasser Ali, the story is still emotionally effective.  I love how she used black backgrounds for the flashback sequences, many of which depicted the early relationship of Nasser Ali and his wife.  The shading difference provided a great visual reminder of how much their relationship has changed since they were first in love.

The bad (for me): I wanted to slap Nasser Ali.  This may have been the intended effect, but it took away from my enjoyment of the book.  He had children!  And left him!  And was unkind to his little son!  I do not condone the breaking of his tar, but mercy, I can see how his wife was driven to it.  So all the time he was moping in bed and refusing to get up and eat and talk to anyone, I was muttering unkind things about him under my breath.  Esp. after the chapter about praying for people not to die.  Hmph.  Absent parents, v. bad.

I have heard that you are not supposed to need to identify with the characters in books, but when I read a book with a protagonist that I think is a jerk, I often reach a place where I can’t be bothered reading any more.  Especially people who are whiny.  That’s why I couldn’t get on with Catcher in the Rye.  How do you manage books with unsympathetic protagonists?

Other reviews of Chicken with Plums: A Life in Books, State of Denmark, The Written World, Out of the Blue, and let me know if I missed yours!

My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier

Verdict: Not as good as Rebecca.

Philip, the protagonist of My Cousin Rachel, has been raised by his bachelor cousin Ambrose.  Ambrose goes away to Italy, marries there, and a few years later sends a letter to Philip intimating that he is in danger, and asking Philip to come to Italy straight away.  When Philip gets there, Ambrose has died, and Rachel is gone.  He conceives a hatred for her, believing that she was responsible for Ambrose’s death; but when she comes to stay with him in England, he falls for her straight away.  Is she evil?  Did she poison Ambrose, and is she poisoning Philip now?  Spooooooky.

I liked Rachel.  You can see why Philip falls in love with her – like Rebecca, she absolutely deserves to have the book called after her.  And like the protagonist of Rebecca, Philip is never completely sure where he stands, but unlike poor Mrs. de Winter, Philip is determined to be sure (act sure).  For me, this made all the difference – he drove me insane and I wanted to slap him.  Seriously, guy, ever hear of black and white thinking?  Also called splitting?  This is symptomatic of some really unpleasant personality disorders, and you could maybe think about curbing that tendency.  I couldn’t figure out why his godfather’s daughter liked him so much, good heavens.

On the other hand, Philip’s extremism makes possible something I love, which is that we see Rachel through his eyes, but that the rest of the characters all have things to say about her too.  So we can see that other people are reacting to her charm, the same way Philip does, but we can also see things that Philip refuses to look at or acknowledge – her extravagance, the way it looks to have her living in the house with him.  It keeps you guessing, and you never are sure whether she’s poisoning him, and poisoned Ambrose.  Per usual Daphne du Maurier writes beautifully and uses some gorgeous images.

Er, but it’s still not as good as Rebecca.  I love me some Rebecca.

Other reviews:

books i done read
Bookfoolery and Babble
Stephanie’s Confessions of a Book-a-holic
The Literate Housewife
a lovely shore breeze
S. Krishna’s Books
Once Upon a Bookshelf
Stuck in a Book
we be reading
book-a-rama

I don’t mean to go on and on

But I just read this and threw up in my mouth a little.  I can’t help feeling like this person has to be being sarcastic.  Because nobody could say these things seriously, right?  I mean everyone has noticed that Bella is a cipher, right?  Even if you have overlooked Edward’s tendency to stalk and make decisions for Bella and you think he’s the perfect man, you’ve noticed that Bella has no personality.  I mean, right?

Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof.

This paragraph encapsulates the essential thing about this series that I find so creepy and upsetting.  Defile her?  Are we really still in the mindset that sex (premarital sex particularly) is defiling a girl?  Defile.  Jesus.

Oh, yeah, and here’s the other thing about this damn book that makes me angry.  Stephenie Meyer says she sort of based Edward on Mr. Rochester, and named him after Mr. Rochester.  I mean you do realize that means that Stephenie Meyer thinks that Edward is like Mr. Rochester?  Half of my favorite literary couple ever?  Anyway, this article has also totally failed to get why Jane and Mr. Rochester are so good:

In short, Edward treats Bella not as Count Dracula treated the objects of his desire, but as Mr. Rochester treated Jane Eyre. He evinces the most profound disdain and distaste for this girl. Even after they have confessed their love for each other, he will still occasionally glare at and speak sharply to her.

What.  Ev.  Er.  Mr. Rochester does not evince profound disdain and distaste for Jane.  He teases her and she plays up to him.  That is why I love them.  They share a sense of humor.  I love that scene where Mrs. Fairfax is telling Mr. Rochester how good Jane is, and he’s all “Whatever, I’ll decide for myself.  She began by felling my horse,” and Mrs. Fairfax has no idea what he’s on about.   Profound disdain and distaste indeed.  Makes you wonder whether this person has actually read Jane Eyre.

Oh, society, please stop it with the creepy attitudes towards sex.  You are giving me a headache.

Waiting for Daisy, Peggy Orenstein

Oh, how distressing I found this book, and oh, how I wished that Peggy Orenstein had kept this whole distressing story to herself.

I got annoyed with Ms. Orenstein straight away when she said that in her pre-baby-mania days, she used to say that women who made pre-Betty Friedan choices shouldn’t be surprised when they end up with pre-Betty Friedan results. Which is to say, women shouldn’t choose to be stay-at-home mums, as that is a choice that could never be feminist, and if they do make that atavistic choice, they just deserve all they get. Nasty.

I found this book really, really creepy. She didn’t want a baby until it was suggested to her that she couldn’t have one, and then she didn’t want anything else but that. Superfastreader, on whose blog I read about this, says that Ms. Orenstein views having a pregnancy as an accomplishment she can’t live without, and that is exactly it. It’s as if the baby she envisions isn’t a baby, but some magic solution to all her problems. Like she needs the baby to fix her, instead of for its own sake; like her identity can’t be true without this baby. This passage made me queasy:

I no longer knew how to find my way back to my marriage unless I was pregnant. I needed a baby to restore faith in my defective body, heal my wounded sexuality, assuage my grief, relieve my feelings of failure – to make me whole again.

Ick.

But probably the most creepy thing of all to me was this: There’s a twenty-one-year-old girl that Ms. Orenstein has been in contact with since the girl was sixteen, a relationship that developed based on a book Ms. Orenstein wrote previously that meant a lot to the girl. And the girl, Jess, offers to donate eggs, and the author lets her and Jess’s parents support this, and Ms. Orenstein hopes that one day she’ll be that kind of parent to her own child.

Dude. Boundaries. I’m sorry, but there’s an extreme balance of power issue here with Ms. Orenstein and this girl, and I cannot imagine how it would be possible to be so self-absorbed as to subject a young woman, a young woman who trusts you and looks to you as a mentor, to this upsetting, painful (and, as it goes, unsuccessful in this case) process, so that you could have a baby to fulfill all your own needs. To be honest, it’s not unlike these creepy math teachers at my high school who used to make friends with all the high school girls and then have sex with them when they hit eighteen.

I’ve seen dozens of reviews that say this is so searingly honest and funny and tragic – and yes, it’s honest, so snaps to her for that, I guess, but funny? Not so much. In any spot. Ever. Too much instability in sense of self. Too much using of other people for her own ends.

The Head of the House of Coombe, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Seriously, how can it be that I have never before known about this book?  This is exactly my kind of book, and I am in total love with its amazing greatness, and I am way, way psyched about reading the thrilling continuation of the story in its sequel, Robin.

Basically there is little angelic Robin and her standoffish airhead twit of a mother, Feather, and Robin is sweet and innocent and only ever makes one friend, the manly gallant eight-year-old Donal, who is promptly whisked away from her because of how sinful and naughty Feather is, being supported financially by the presumably-sleeping-with-her Lord Coombe.  And Robin grows up and gets kidnapped by German spies and then rescued – no, it’s true.  She does.  German spies.  You can’t make that shit up.  It ruins her sweet innocence and rosy outlook on life, which I don’t know why she had one in the first place considering how vile her life was.

There are just so many good things about this book.  Like when Robin, who has been living in a crappy attic room with a wicked pinching nurse while her mother parties downstairs, asks Donal, “What is – a mother?” and also, my personal favorite, “What is – loves you?”  God, it’s amazing.  Oh yeah, and when you find out that Lord Coombe is the way he is because of this lovely frail woman he used to be in love with that looks just like Feather and got beaten to death by her brutal brute of a husband?  That was SO AWESOME.

This is not your mother’s Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I mean, it is my mother’s Frances Hodgson Burnett, because my mum knew about this all along, but it is way not the same as The Secret Garden and The Little Princess.  This is a for-real two-volume novel with young lovers and trials and tribulations.  Loves it.  In some small measure it helps to ease my Ligeia-paper pain, and I will be a-reading Robin (the sequel! in which Robin scandalously gets herself PREGNANT and Donal unsurprisingly gets himself DEAD) this evening before I go to sleep.

The Far Cry, Emma Smith

Teresa was at sea.  The boat moved – would she ever forget it? – away from the land.  And something was severed; she felt delivered.

“I never want to come back!” she screeched.

The grey land made no effort to hold her, gave no final sign of enticement.  It lay there, apathetic, allowing her to go.  The loud-speaker was playing “Indian Summer”.  Down pouring a huge flood of sound, drowning the salty air, paralyzing thought, emotion, everything, a vast crocodile tear of farewell, loudly lugubrious, and up against it soared Teresa’s voice, like a skylark beating its frail wings.  “I never never want to come back…”   Strands of hair whipped across her blasphemous mouth; the tears in her eyes belonged to the wind, for she was hard with triumph.  “Never, never…”

“Very well, never come back,” the flat grey mud that was England seemed to answer, indifferent to her wild cry of renunciation.  She gripped the rail, passionately free.

Recommended by: I actually don’t remember.  Persephone had it up, but I think I read about it on another book blog before then.

The Far Cry is about an excusably unpleasant girl called Teresa and her unpleasant father who go away to India in order to escape from her (I’m sure equally unpleasant) mother who has expressed interest in young Teresa for the first time in her life and may be contemplating stealing her away from her hapless father and bringing her up to be spoiled and pleasure-seeking.  They go on a boat and meet people, and then they get to India and meet a few more people, and then several very eventful events happen in a cluster and the book closes on a note of hope for Teresa’s future.

It wasn’t bad.  I didn’t love it but it wasn’t bad.  It’s one of those books that makes me bust out the litotes in order to talk about it: I didn’t dislike it.  The characterization wasn’t uninteresting.  There was just never a point at which I wouldn’t have been completely happy to put it down and read something else.  Things got set up that never went anywhere; and even when they did go somewhere, they never went anywhere satisfying.  Ms. Smith talked about feelings so much that I thought some emotional climax would be reached, and I suppose it sort of was, but it didn’t bring everything together, and it wasn’t very satisfying.

The girl, Teresa, reminded me of Frankie from The Member of the Wedding — misplaced and cranky.  I didn’t like The Member of the Wedding.  I support Southern gothic writers and everything but I do not love them in my heart (although that story of Flannery O’Connor’s with the girl called Joy and her wooden leg was a riot), so it wasn’t helping matters that I had Frankie in the front of my mind the entire time Teresa was around.

Two thumbs sideways.  Not in the hitch-hiking sense.  Or, okay, two stars.

The Keep, Jennifer Egan

I have no idea where I read about this book, but I’ve been intending to read it for ages.  I went to the library yesterday, ostensibly just to return Dark Shadows (which I realized once I got there I had left at the apartment), and I got maybe eleven books, which is pretty restrained, and out of all of them, I decided to read The Keep first.

I didn’t like it.

I really thought I must have missed something.

You know how sometimes you’ll watch a commercial, and you just can’t figure it out?  The commercial ends, and you’re staring at the screen wondering what the point of that was, how that could possibly make anyone consider using the advertised product, when it doesn’t even make sense?  And you think and think and think but you can’t figure out what you missed in that commercial that would have made it make sense?  And you start having a hissy, and you’re going on and on about how stupid and pointless that commercial was, and the person next to you is all, Dude, chill out, that’s a totally normal commercial.  And then after you’ve been breathing into a paper bag for a few minutes to help yourself relax, you ask in a quiet but vehement voice WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THAT COMMERCIAL? WHAT DID I MISS? and the person next to you explains it, and no, you were completely right, there wasn’t anything more to that commercial, you weren’t missing anything, it was exactly what it seemed to be.

This is what we call Not aimed at you.  And that was The Keep.  It was just not aimed at me.

It’s about a guy in prison writing about two cousins with a Past working together to restore an old castle with a keep and scary tunnels.  Things are turbulent.  Questions of freedom and imprisonment.  It sounded so good when I read about it, wherever I read about it, and I was very excited that it was in at the library, and all the time it was never aimed at me in the first place.

Thus, no review I give will really be of any value, because the book was just so blatantly not aimed at me.  Everyone else, please feel free to enjoy it.  I was mightily unimpressed by the book generally and by all of the characters particularly, and I didn’t care at all what happened to any of them, and if Danny and Howie and Ray and Holly and Mick and everyone had all just fallen off a cliff, I would not have felt any more fulfilled when I reached the end than I did when I reached the real end with all the stuff that actually happened.

So oh well.

Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

God knows I quote:

“Isabella.”  He pronounced my full name carefully, then playfully ruffled my hair with his free hand [when I think vampires, I think of playful hair-ruffling…you?].  A shock ran through my body at his casual touch.  [Of course it did.]  “Bella, I couldn’t live with myself if I ever hurt you.  You don’t know how it’s tortured me.”  He looked down, ashamed again.  “The thought of you, still, white, cold…to never see you blush scarlet again, to never see that flash of intuition in your eyes when you see through my pretenses [I love that he’s so full of shit that after hanging out with her for maybe three weeks tops he’s already fallen in love with the way she looks when she figures out he’s full of shit]…it would be unendurable.”  He lifted his glorious, agonized eyes to mine.  “You are the most important thing to me now.  The most important thing to me ever.”

But don’t worry.  He talks like that because he’s from the Olden Days.  That’s how they talked back then.

I’ve heard about this book from so many different places I can’t even remember them anymore. I knew it was going to be trashy when I checked it out. I could tell. Vampire books are not necessarily trashy, but they often are, and if fangs weren’t so sexy and if vampires weren’t so elegant, the whole vampire books thing would have ended ages ago because they are mostly so extremely trashy.

(Robin McKinley’s Sunshine being an exception. I loved Sunshine. Her best since Beauty, also not trashy.)

Well, anyway, it is very easy to see why Twilight is so popular. Youngish teenage girls love vampires. Fangs are sexy. Vampire dudes are elegant and dangerous. Stephenie Meyer is tapping into this in a big way. Edward Cullen, the vampire dude, is constantly being all “I love you more than my luggage, Bella dearest darling, but if you slip me any tongue while we’re kissing I will have to kill you and suck your blood”. And, you know, who wouldn’t want that?

(Vampires aren’t a very subtle metaphor for sex = death, are they?)

I’m kind of embarrassed by reading this book. When the sequels come in at the library, I’m going to have to check out several other quite-intellectual-looking books to keep the librarians from judging me, especially this one guy who always makes snide comments about everything I’m checking out but he can’t say anything if I have Twilight and then, like, War and Peace and And the Band Played On (not really, I own it) and What Fresh Hell Is This: A Biography of Dorothy Parker and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and…er, some other stuff that clever people might read.

It’s not awfully well-written, or awfully original. It’s just that people cannot resist that whole Will he kiss her or kill her thing. At all. Ever. Even if the guy is sort of creepy. And girls can’t resist vampires. Sexy. Dangerous. Elegant. (Especially elegant, in my case.) Even when they know as I do that these vampire books are silly and trashy, and Bella is ridiculous for being all, “Oh I love you so much and I’m so sure about it that I want to commit to you for all eternity even though I’m only seventeen and I’ve never had a boyfriend before”, and Edward is ridiculous for being all “If I truly loved you I would leave but I can’t because I’m so violently attracted to you and I’m so sexy that I make you faint merely by kissing you”, even then, people – and by people I mean me – cannot resist checking out both sequels as soon as possible.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a good book.

My mum always says this kind of thing – I felt vaguely the same about The Da Vinci Code, which is gripping but not that good a book – begs the question of what a “good book” is. Like, how is it a bad book if it intrigues you so much that you can’t put it down even though you know you want to go to bed early because tomorrow is your only day of the week to sleep late and your roommate is absolutely without question going to wake you up in the morning singing songs and talking on her cell phone? (says my mother) But I don’t think this is right because one only carries on reading out of curiosity about what will happen to the characters, which is the same reason people including her and me get hooked on soap operas, and if there is one thing we can say for sure it is that soap operas are rubbish and not quality television even though they are sometimes addictive.

So.

Edit to add: I just want to be clear here.  I can’t stand these damn books.  When I originally read Twilight, I had no idea of the mad culty Edward-is-perfect business going on across our great nation. The books are enjoyable (for how silly they are!) only insofar as nobody ever takes them seriously or thinks that Edward and Bella have anything approaching a functional relationship.  When people think that Edward and Bella have the perfect relationship, or thinking that Edward is perfect, then I have a problem.  A specific, angry problem with Stephenie Meyer writing a story about an emotionally abusive relationship and portraying it as romantic.  Like girls aren’t receiving that message enough.  He’s not romantic.  He’s a stalker.