Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dinner Train Book Club: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

One book, two beers, two menus, and one hand model.
It's time for confessions! 
1)  I read this book in April.  I know I enjoyed it, I know it moved me, I know I thought it was a stunningly crafted book, and I know I honestly can't quite remember much of my other thoughts about it, a fact exacerbated by confession number two. 
2)  I read it in the midst of training for a half marathon, which meant I had no desire to stand and cook anything after running for two hours.  I also knew that this book was sufficiently depressing so as to not want to make any sort of cheeky, cute, or quirky German sounding dish.  SO I CHEATED.  I treated my fellow book clubber, aka, the one and only PopTart, to some good old fashioned German-style tidbits and brewskis at Jacob Wirth's, a Euro-pub that has been a Boston establishment since 1868.  Fun fact: my grandfather, who worked in a POW camp for German soldiers in New Hampshire somewhere, used to frequent Jacob Wirth's during his med school days.  But I digress.  I normally have pretty good recall for conversations and the interesting tidbits that surface.  However, someone mismapped her training run the morning of book club, which wound up being a full half instead of the scheduled training ten miles.  This mean that one beer became the equivalent of many, despite the brats and schnitzel.  Consequently, the conversation details are...fuzzy.  Self high-five. 
3)  While I'm baring my soul, I'll also take the opportunity to confess something truly naughty: I gave up on Moby Dick for July without even looking at it, and I don't even feel bad about it in the slightest.  I've read a ton of stuff I enjoyed, instead of slogging through one million pages of a crazy dude chasing a whale that obvi doesn't want to be caught because he's heard of the term blubber, and who can blame him?  In short, it was an informed decision to break my New Years Resolve!

Confession time over.  I will now attempt to briefly summarize the few things I remember about Slaughterhouse-Five, but will leave the actual summary to others, because hello, there are nothing BUT summaries of this book all over the internet (here is one, here is another, here is one for you high school and college cheaters out there).  Reflections, followed by food all the way at the bottom:

  • I, as many people presumably have, came to realize this is as much Vonnegut's story as it is Billy Pilgrims.  Both witnessed Dresden, both survived, despite the horrors of war described in this novel.  Vonnegut clearly expresses (if the narrative voice in the first chapter is as we believe, his) this book is an anti-war statement.  And whooboy, is it a powerful one.  It devastates the reader (in my case) with the level of destruction, the lack of humanity in war, and the disassociation that is required to survive.  Billy Pilgrim is that for us, and for Vonnegut.  He's there, but he's not.  He observes, but leaves, traveling away to another place to cope.  In this case, war is the ultimate science fiction.  What is really real and what is not doesn't matter - the space and time traveling vignettes are part of Billy's (and presumably) Vonnegut's method of coping, and criticizing this, and other wars.  I think Vonnegut summarizes Slaughterhouse-Five best when he says, " [i]t is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." (p. 24)
  • There is one thing specific item I remember from our book club discussion, which I think I get kind of a free pass on, what with not being around until the 80's.  The PopStar pointed out that this book was published in 1969, which meant it was written during an incredibly tumultuous period in United States history: the late 1960's.  He's right, and there's not a chance this didn't alter the book, or even the reception this book has received in our country.  A book as strongly anti-war as this one?  There was not a chance it wouldn't be embraced.  There's no way Vonnegut was immune to the anti-Vietnam protests occurring around the country, which is reflected in this critical line on page 214 about "the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline...dropped on them from airplanes.  Robots did the dropping.  They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground."  If that's not a thinly veiled dig at what was happening in Vietnam, in the late 1960's when this was written, I don't know what is.  Support of the wild popularity and acceptance of this book at the time is supported by the PopStar's own experiences.  He (and I could be beer-hallucinating this memory, so correct me) mentioned reading this in high school, as a teenager with the draft looming for him and for his friends, and that many of his teachers were young guys, there to avoid the draft.  I rest my case!
  • Let's talk about the the most famous quotation in this book:  So it goes.  Prior to reading this, I knew where it came from, and that a lot of people were moved by it enough to get a tattoo of it to last them until forever.  I was largely okay with this; sometimes words are just that moving.  However, after reading it, I'm a little curious as to what makes people want to get this particular quotation tattooed on their body until forever.  One of my favorite blogs, Contrariwise: Literary Tattoo's, has over 44 submissions of tattoos of these very words.  While many have chosen to use these words as a commemoration, others seem to interpret them more literally, as a almost a "shit happens move on" mantra.  That's what I assumed they meant too, until I read the book.  My interpretation?  I have a whole nonsensical post-it with random words jumbled together with question marks throughout.  I think, ultimately, I read it as an elegiac statement.  Always appearing after the mention or news of a death, it seems to be a sigh, or a lament.  It's almost commemorative; a pause in the narrative to process the loss.   If you have it as a tattoo and did not get it as a commemoration, when you read the book, what did made you feel it was a more literal statement to move on with life?  I'm so curious!  
  • I'd really like to pause here and ask why it is that so many years have gone by, and we still don't really know about or talk much about Dresden.  (So it goes?)

And now onto the more uplifting subject of food!  Jacob Wirth's is a fun place to go for German-style snacks and old-timey atomosphere, especially when tippling in the daytime with your father.  "We" ordered lots (someone had just accidentally run a half, remember?).  This included the sausage and sauerkraut balls, Jake's Nibbler, and I think the special of the day.  I may have sweet talked my way into getting just one pretzel instead of a bucket.  I also remember, and the pictures seem to indicate, the presence of spaetzle, and of a cherry/apple strudel.  In short, it was a really fun way to discuss a heartbreaker of a book.  Thanks for the company, PopTart!

The hand model does an action shot.

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