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22nd September
2009
written by Steph

You know how sometimes we define ourselves as readers by what we don’t read?  Perhaps you say thing like, “oh, I don’t read poetry,” or “I don’t read anything published before I was”, (?) or “I don’t read sci-fi.”* And then you come across an author like Kurt Vonnegut, who defies all convention and those convenient little genre labels, and you get really quiet and think, “Huh.  Maybe I do like all of those things after all…” And then you feel confused and maybe just a bit ashamed for what you said. *For the record, I am fairly certain I have never said any of those things… Well, at least not two - ok, maybe just one - of those things.  I leave it to you to guess which one. Kurt Vonnegut is an author I’m sure everyone has heard of, but I wonder how many of us have actually read him. I read my first Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, last year. I liked it well enough, but I wasn’t as blown away by it as I thought I would (should?) be. I remember thinking the book was smart and clever, but I guess because Slaughterhouse Five is about WWII, I expected it to pack more of an emotional punch. That being said, it was an enjoyable read, and I knew I wanted to read more by him in the future. For the longest while (perhaps coincident with his death), our local library had none of his books, but on our last trip, they had a huge selection, which seemed like as good a sign as any to give the man another shot. Cat’s Cradle is a hard book to summarize, but the basic gist is that it follows a man named Jonah, who is attempting to write a book called “The Day the World Ended”, which is meant to share stories about what people were doing on the day the atomic bomb was first detonated. In particular, Jonah wants to interview the Hoenikker family, as Dr. Felix Hoenikker was the creator of the bomb in question. So the bulk of the novel involves Jonah tracking down the various Hoenikkers (one is more elusive than the others), and learning about their life stories. Along the way, Jonah also discovers one of Hoenikker's last inventions: ice-nine, which was invented so that soldiers would never have to fight in the mud again; just a tiny crystal of ice-nine is capable of freezing anything it comes in contact with. Everything culminates on the strange little island country of San Lorenzo, whence the religion of Bokonon (of which Jonah is a follower, and whose tenants he outlines throughout the book) originates. This is a book where it’s easy enough to just read to see what happens next, enjoying the twists and turns as well as Vonnegut’s playful sense of humor.  I won’t lie, sometimes I got the sense that Vonnegut was writing about something larger than I could grasp, but I was ok with that.  He seems so effortlessly clever, kind of like a mad scientist of literature.  If Slaughterhouse Five was Vonnegut’s “war book” then I think this must be his “religion book”.  He is so cheeky, poking fun at religion, but also pointing out how it’s one of the many threads that helps hold our society together.  While he says that all religions are founded on lies (this is essentially the central tenant of Bokonon), many of the other elements of Bokonon are strongly based around the notion of Fate and predestination.  Everything that should happen will happen. I don’t feel that I can put together much that is groundbreaking or all that insightful to say about this book, but I will say that I enjoyed it a good deal and I had fun reading it.  I found it very clever, both in terms of the writing (although, I found some of the songs/poems pretty juvenile/silly) and in terms of the plotting.  Highlight the white space if you’d like to read about what I found so clever in this respect: I thought it was very cool how Cat’s Cradle starts off with Jonah talking about how he wants to write a book about the day the world ended, but doesn’t think it ever will.  But by the end of this novel, he has in fact recounted the story to us of how the world ends all because of ice-nine.  I really liked how from the very beginning, Vonnegut tells you outright what this madcap journey is going to be about, it’s just that we’re too dumb to know it! Now a smattering of thoughts: One question that remains with me is whether we are supposed to know what Jonah’s last name is (he mentions it is unusual and the same as the one inscribed on the funerary angel), because unless I missed it, I don’t think it is ever mentioned.  I expected it to be a big revelation, but then it never showed up. Also, I'm not sure if I really get the significance of the cat's cradle, both either in the book, or as the title. I am also trying to convince Tony that he wants to do the foot rubbing ritual that the Bokononists do in order to bond (is it weird that that seemed so appealing to me? I promise, we both have very clean feet!).   I also really loved the ending of the book – that last paragraph was so fitting and appropriate, it was really fulfilling. This is a Vonnegut that I would love to read again, and I would highly recommend it to any of you out there who have yet to give the Big V a shot.  It’s zany and kind of sci-fi, but in a way that is really accessible. His novels are always talking about larger truths, if through the veil of the absurd, and they’re a lovely way to pass an afternoon or evening.  I’ll definitely be checking out more Vonnegut in the future! Finally, a quote I really enjoyed:
"When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed."
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

24 Comments

  1. Lu
    09/22/2009

    I hope it’s not that you don’t read poetry, because if that’s the case, I might have to work really hard to change your mind 😉

    I might have to pick this one up. I read Slaughterhouse Five for an English class my freshman year of college and that really changed the reading experience for me. I think I would have been slightly underwhelmed if I had not had the opportunity to discuss it.

    I find that I like most books after I discuss them. I rarely have too many complaints about a book once I’ve dissected it with some classmates or friends, because everything suddenly seems purposeful. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing?

  2. Cats Cradle is my only experience with Vonnegut, I had to read it in college, and I don’t remember being particularly enthralled with the book. Perhaps I should try another of “the big V”‘s books. 🙂

  3. 09/22/2009

    I have to admit, I’ve never read any Vonnegut, and I think it’s the intimidation factor. I fear I won’t ‘get it’ and spend the entire book wondering what I’m missing. Your review makes me feel a little less inferior, though, so perhaps I will pick up one of his books someday. Thanks!

  4. Lots of people recommended Vonnegut to me when I joined the science fiction challenge. I haven’t read any yet, but am keeping an eye out for his books. I am pleased to see that you loved one and will try to get hold of one soon.

  5. 09/22/2009

    I don’t remember it so well from the last time I read it, but I believe the title refers to the meaningless of things (no cat, no cradle, no point to the game, just as religion is a farce, weapons to defend actually destroy, etc.)

    Re Jonah’s name, I don’t remember about the *last* name, but perhaps it is Ishmael, since there is an angel named Ishmael. (“Call me Jonah” as you probably know is a reference to “Call me Ishmael” from Moby Dick except in this case the “whale” kills the seeker instead of the seeker killing the whale so Ishmael is transmuted into Jonah.)

    As for wanting to do the foot bonding thing, well, I’m just glad you don’t operate a reality cam!!!!

  6. 09/22/2009

    Thanks for the interesting review – I just bought this book at my library’s book sale, but I didn’t know much about it. I’ve read “Slaughterhouse Five” and a collection of essays and articles by Vonnegut, with a fair amount of pleasure. I’m looking forward to reading “Cat’s Cradle”.

  7. 09/22/2009

    I just read this last week for one of classes, but didn’t like it nearly as much as you did. When we had our discussion for the book in my class, we thought the title had something to do with how Bokonism requires two people to interact and cat’s cradle requires two people to play. Focus on interactions, I guess.

  8. 09/22/2009

    I read Slaughterhouse Five a few years ago as part of my self-education, then said, “Well, I don’t have to read any more Vonnegut.” Except now I do, because some blog I’m following is doing something and their first book is Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle I think). Wish I could remember the name of the blog.

  9. 09/22/2009

    Padfoot & Prongs
    The Good Book Challenge
    1st book = Mother Night by Vonnegut
    Whew!

  10. 09/22/2009

    I actually haven’t read any Vonnegut but have heard loads about Slaughterhouse Five and didn’t think it would be the book for me. However, this one sounds very intriguing to me, and based on your reactions to it, I think I am going to give this book a try. I am not really sure what to expect from this author, but I think it’s a little silly for me to have avoided him for so long. I think it stems from the fact that I just don’t really enjoy that much science fiction, and I have been being a bit narrow minded about it for some time. My husband would love it if I just did away with some of my preconceived notions about the genre and gave it a chance. I know there are some book he is dying to share with me, but I remain stubborn. Maybe after reading this book I will be better able to be open minded about science fiction.

  11. 09/22/2009

    Vonnegut is one of a bunch of authors on my “I’ll get around to that eventually” list. I’ve gotten as far as acquiring a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, but haven’t gotten as far as actually reading it. After Infinite Jest, I think it’ll be a while for I’m ready for another convention-breaking book.

  12. 09/22/2009

    @ Lu: I admit, I’m not a huge poetry reader. BUT, I did give a collection of Neruda poems to Tony for Christmas last year, so I can’t say across the board that I don’t read poetry! 😉
    I think Vonnegut books would be great for group discussion, but then I tend to get a lot more out of books (especially those I don’t really like) when I can talk about them with others. Maybe I should keep Vonnegut in mind for the next time I’m up to pick something for my book club…
     
    @ Heather: I could see how Vonnegut wouldn’t be for everyone – he is a bit zany and kooky, so he’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes. The two books of his I’ve read have been similar in tone and scope, so I suppose that if you don’t enjoy his style, then he might not be an author for you. Or it might have been the time – sometimes a bit of time can allow us to appreciate certain books or authors we didn’t much care for in our younger days.
     
    @ Lesley: I really don’t think you should be intimidated by Vonnegut – his books are actually really approachable and not what I would call difficult reads (at least in terms of prose).
     
    @ Jackie: I’ll be curious to see how you like Vonnegut. I think he does sci-fi (if that is what he does) in a really approachable way. I like how off the wall he can be, but perhaps those who like their fiction hardwired in reality might not care for him.
     
    @ rhapsody: Thanks so much for your insights into this novel! You’re right that the whole “cat’s cradle” thing may just be a metaphor for the fact that everything is all an illusion (i.e., a lie). Also, I never would have connected Jonah with Ishmael, so I’m glad you brought that up. I did catch the resonance with the Moby Dick opener, but I didn’t take it past that!
     
    @ Sarah: I think if you’ve enjoyed other Vonnegut, then you should like this one a good deal. I look forward to your review!
     
    @ Christina: Interesting insight about the interactions amongst people! I’m not sure that I see how that ties to the rest of the book or speaks to larger themes, but I fully admit I could just be missing something.
     
    @ Cara: I suppose we never HAVE to read more (or any!) of anyone we don’t want to, but I hope that if you do read another Vonnegut (I know nothing about Mother Night) that you enjoy it. I think my next one by him might be Galapagos, but we shall see. He’s an author I don’t mind going long stretches in between reads.
     
    @ zibilee: For whatever reason, I don’t fully associate Vonnegut with conventional sci-fi, so I think he could be a good author to ease one’s way into the genre. I think his books are fun and accessible, and while they definitely have an “other worldly” element about them, they’re not offputting. I picked this one up without knowing anything about it, and liked it quite a lot!
     
    @ Teresa: I think after Infinite Jest, you would find Vonnegut a mental reprieve. I don’t really find his books taxing, and while they might be frenetic, they go down easy. Slaughterhouse-Five does involve a lot more chronological shifting about, so if you’re looking for a strictly linear narrative for the next while, then yes, it’s probably best to hold off for now!

  13. 09/23/2009

    Steph – Vonnegut is my all time favorite author. His work is just amazing. Cat’s Cradle is my favorite Vonnegut book, followed by Breakfast of Champions. So glad you enjoyed Cat’s Cradle – there is so much there. I’ve read that book several times and each time I feel like I find something new I missed. Cat’s Cradle is the book that got him his Masters at the Uni of Chicago. With regards to the title being Cat’s Cradle and why, I remember that Felix (the creator of the atom bomb) was playing that game when the atom bomb was dropped, but I’m not so sure why he selected that to be the title. With regards to Jonah’s name I never really thought much of it aside from the whole Moby Dick reference, so I’m not so sure if there was supposed to be a big revelation about his last name. I think its just that Jonah is like Ishmael in the sense that both are narrators to a story that they play a role in. Anyhow, just glad that you enjoyed this great work! Hope to read more reviews of Vonnegut’s works by you. Cheers!!

  14. 09/23/2009

    @ Nadia: I know that there will be more Vonnegut reviews from me in the future, but there may be another one of Cat’s Cradle even sooner – Tony says that he’d like to re-read it while we have it out from the library, so he will undoubtedly have completely different insights than I did!

  15. 09/23/2009

    I have never read this author, but have been meaaning to lol
    I’m really glad you enjoyed this one so much. It seems this would be a good place for me to start. Great Review

  16. 09/23/2009

    The title alone would not convince me to read the book. But the premise does sound very interesting. My only experience with Vonnegut is Slaughterhouse Five.

    How can the library not have Vonnegut?

  17. 09/23/2009

    Steph! Don’t laugh! Okay, I just purchased Slaughterhouse 5 the other day because I needed a V author for the A to Z Reading Challenge! I’m pretty sure I’ll fare better with it than my D author, ‘no?

    I was actually contemplating on his other books and wondering which other ones I’d be interested to read after Slaughterhouse 5. I also read a really positive review about Galapagos before, so that one’s on my radar as well.

    As for what you used to say you don’t read.. you don’t read sci fi? 😀

  18. Ben
    09/24/2009

    I really enjoyed this book. I read it over a very spread out period of a couple months so I feel like it deserves another go around someday. I don’t think this is right but I seem to recall Jonah’s last name being Hoosier? When he meets the other two older folks on the plane to San Lorenzo I thought they had the same last name. I’m sure that’s probably not right, my mind has a habit of remembering things how it wants not how I read them haha.

  19. 09/24/2009

    @ Diane: I think this would be a good Vonnegut to start with because it seems to me like it accurately reflects the rest of his work, so if you read this and liked it, there would be a good chance you would like his other stuff.
     
    @ Matt: I don’t know how our library didn’t have any Vonnegut! I think maybe it had to do with him having died recently so people went wild borrowing his books so they had none on hand. At least, that’s what I hope the reason was!
     
    @ claire: Oh, Claire! I admit I laughed a little at your admission! 😉 But I do think you’ll do better with your V author than you did with your D author. I am really looking forward to how you react to Slaughterhouse Five – to me it seems very different to most of the other stuff you’ve read this year. I hope you like it! I’m also intrigued by Galapagos, so that very well be my next Vonnegut.
     
    @ Ben: You are not misremembering the Hoosier thing, but I didn’t think that was his last name. I thought it referred to the area he was from (perhaps some slang term for people from Illinois?)… I could be wrong, but I recall that the woman who was all like, “you’re a Hoosier?” also said that two of the Hoenikker kids were too, so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t his last name.
    I think I would have been really confused if I had read this book over several months, just because things jump around so much, I would have a hard time remembering what had been going on!

  20. 09/24/2009

    Cat’s Cradle was my first Vonnegut, and I fell in love. You’re not alone – I found the feet ritual appealing too. Something about the intimacy of it. It’s hard to explain, but no, I don’t think it’s weird!

  21. 09/24/2009

    “who defies all convention and those convenient little genre labels” This little comment of yours got me excited about this review!!

    Vonnegut scares me, but you’re review helps me! Sounds like it really drew you in and captured you with interest!

  22. 09/25/2009

    @ Nymeth: Phew! I’m glad I’m not the only one who found the foot ritual enticing! It does seem really intimate, doesn’t it?
     
    @ Rebecca: I’m amazed at all the people who are scared by Vonnegut! I think this is a case where people are psyching themselves out. I can’t say that everyone will LOVE Vonnegut, but I think he’s not as intimidating as many people believe.

  23. Meg
    09/25/2009

    I completely agree that I tend to throw myself into a certain category as a reader — most notably, that I don’t read science fiction! And then I started reading books like The Hunger Games and other dystopian novels… and I started to really change my mind.

    Like you, my first experience with Vonnegut was through Slaughterhouse Five — and that was back in high school! Needless to say, I don’t think I gave it the time and energy it deserved. Cat’s Cradle sounds really compelling and, on a superficial note, I love the name Jonah. Maybe I’ll expand my mind just a bit more! 🙂

  24. 09/25/2009

    @ Meg: I think it’s really easy to burn through Vonnegut novel’s without giving them enough consideration because the prose is so deceptively simple! I think he tackles a lot of big ideas, but lulls you into this sense that you’re just reading a rollicking outlandish adventure, but really there’s a lot bubbling away beneath the surface, I think.

    I think I tend to prefer Fantasy more than sci-fi, but I think I’m always up for a good story (preferably with strong writing!) regardless of genre. And for whatever reason, I do have a soft spot for dystopian fiction.

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