ENG 590: Kurt Vonnegut

I only have one class left between me and graduation, and that class is ENG 590: the Graduate Seminar. The topic of the graduate seminar for this semester is Kurt Vonnegut. (Last spring, it was James Joyce. SCREW YOU, JAMES JOYCE.)

I have never read anything by Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve been told he’s similar to Mark Twain? I honestly have no idea. My boyfriend, Steven, is a huge Vonnegut fan. I’ve already told him he’s writing all of my papers. He seemed to think I was kidding.

Anyway, here’s a list of the novels I bought for this semester, and a short summary from Wikipedia. I bought all of them on various online sites (read my strategy for buying cheap textbooks here!) for about $35.

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BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS

Published in 1973, Breakfast of Champions is the seventh novel by the American author Kurt Vonnegut. Set predominantly in the fictional town of Midland City, Ohio, it is the story of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.” One of these men, Dwayne Hoover, is a charming but deeply deranged Pontiac dealer, and extensive land and franchise owner, whose mental illness causes him to believe that a science fiction story by the other man, Kilgore Trout, is the literal truth. Trout, a largely unknown pulpscience fiction writer who has appeared in several other Vonnegut novels, looks like a crazy old man but is in fact relatively sane. As the novel opens, Trout hitchhikes toward Midland City to appear at an art convention where he is destined to meet Dwayne Hoover and unwittingly inspire him to run amok.

This is the quintessential Kurt Vonnegut book. In fact, this is the only book that I knew that Kurt Vonnegut wrote. I had no idea he had others.

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WAMPETERS, FOMA + GRANFALLOONS

Dear Reader: The title of this book is composed of three words from my novel Cat’s Cradle. A “wampeter” is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve. The Holy Grail would be a case in point. “Foma” are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls. An example: “Prosperity is just around the corner.” A “granfalloon” is a proud and meaningless association of human beings. Taken together, the words form as good an umbrella as any for this collection of some of the reviews and essays I’ve written, a few of the speeches I made

A collection of reviews and essays doesn’t sound so bad.

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SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE

science fiction-infused anti-war novel by Kurt Vonnegut about the World War II experiences and journeys through time of Billy Pilgrim, from his time as an American soldier and chaplain’s assistant, to postwar and early years. It is generally recognized as Vonnegut’s most influential and popular work.[1] A central event is Pilgrim’s surviving the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner-of-war. This was an event in Vonnegut’s own life, and the novel is considered semi-autobiographical.

I take back what I said about Breakfast of Champions. I think I knew Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five, too, but didn’t actually connect the two.

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GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER

A novel written by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1965. It is the story of Eliot Rosewater, a millionaire who develops a social conscience, abandons New York City, and establishes the Rosewater Foundation in Rosewater, Indiana, “where he attempts to dispense unlimited amounts of love and limited sums of money to anyone who will come to his office.”[1]

“Attempts to dispense unlimited amounts of love and limited sums of money to anyone who will come to his office.” That just sounds creepy, y’all.

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JAILBIRD

A novel by Kurt Vonnegut, originally published in 1979; it is regarded as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Watergate novel.”[1] The plot involves elements that include the U.S. labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the dialectical back-and-forth of labor and management, Marxism and capitalism in the 1930s and 1940s, even up to the imperiousness of the Nixon administration. Jailbird revolves around Walter F. Starbuck, a man recently released from a minimum-security prison in Georgia after serving time for his comically small role in the Watergate ScandalJailbird is written as a standard memoir, revealing Starbuck’s present situation, then coming full circle to tell the story of his first two days after being released from prison.

I know next to nothing about the Nixon administration, so this one should be an interesting read.

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A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY

A Man Without a Country (subtitle: A Memoir Of Life In George W Bush’s America) is an essay collection published in 2005 by the author Kurt Vonnegut. The extremely short essays that make up this book deal with topics ranging from the importance of humor, to problems with modern technology, to Vonnegut’s opinions on the differences between men and women. Most prevalent in the text, however, are those essays that elucidate Vonnegut’s opinions on politics, and the issues in modern American society, often from a decidedly humanistic perspective.[1] In January 2007, Vonnegut indicated that he intended this to be his final work, a statement that proved to be correct with his death in April 2007.[2] Later published works of Vonnegut’s were all published posthumously, and consisted almost entirely of previously unpublished material from early in his career.

So, chalk me up to being completely uninformed, but I did not know that Vonnegut was dead.

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BLUEBEARD

Bluebeard, the Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916–1988) is a 1987 novel by best-selling author Kurt Vonnegut. It is told as a first person narrative and describes the late years of fictional Abstract Expressionist painter Rabo Karabekian, who first appeared, rather briefly, in Breakfast of Champions. Circumstances of the novel bear rough resemblance to the fairy tale of Bluebeard popularized by Charles Perrault. Karabekian mentions this relationship once in the novel.

Okay, so this has some sort of connection to Breakfast of Champions. I wonder if these will be read in tandem? This also happens to be Steven’s favorite book of Vonnegut’s.

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Kurt Vonnegut: Letters

This extraordinary collection of personal correspondence has all the hallmarks of Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction. Written over a sixty-year period, these letters, the vast majority of them never before published, are funny, moving, and full of the same uncanny wisdom that has endeared his work to readers worldwide.

I actually had to get this description from Amazon because Wikipedia didn’t have a description or even a page for this book. I’ve always found author letters to be interesting; I had to read The Letters of JRR Tolkien for the Tolkien class I took a few years ago, and those were very interesting. Here’s hoping Vonnegut’s stuff is as interesting as Tolkien’s.

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So there you have it! I’ve got eight books for this class this semester; it’s a 15 week semester, so I’m figuring one book every two weeks (like we did for the Jane Austen class last semester), with something from the Letters book to supplement every week. (At least, that’s how the Tolkien class worked.) I am rather worried about this class, because I don’t know if Vonnegut is my style or not. I guess we’ll find out.

In any case, it can’t be as bad as the James Joyce class…right?

Do you have any experience with Vonnegut? Do you have any tips for reading him? Do you think I’ll enjoy reading him? Let me know in the comments!

And as always, keep reading.

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