January 2012

“You are who you pretend to be, so be careful who you pretend to be.”

That is the central thesis statement of Vonnegut’s  Mother Night as well as its most powerful line. While I enjoy Vonnegut in general and am also a particularly big fan of Slaughterhouse Five, God Bless You Mister Rosewater, the short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House  among his works, this book, I think, is the pinnacle of Vonnegut’s creation.

It’s about a man who by day works as a propagandist for the Nazis and by night is a spy for the Allies. Pretty straightforward stuff, right? Only this man is wracked by guilt, both in the sense that he worries about what people might think of him in the West when they realize what he’s really doing and also, on a personal level, whether the stuff that he’s doing for the “good guys” is equal on a moral calculus to all the propaganda he’s put out for the Nazis. These are not questions with easy answers, and Vonnegut deftly maneuvers his way through this issue, all while keeping the wit that brings us to read Vonnegut about him.

Vonnegut uses a framing approach to this book, pretending that it’s actually a memoir being written by the main character while he is awaiting trial in an Israeli prison, which lends an extra bit of verisimilitude to the whole shebang. This also would have made it quite topical for the time, as the book’s release (1961) coincides with the capture, trial, and execution of Adolph Eichmann (caught in ’59, tried in ’61, hanged in ’62). Eichmann, of course, always claimed that he was little more than a bean counter in the Nazi machinery. The main character’s role in advancing the Nazi cause was, if anything, greater, and yet he seems at once more sympathetic and, because of the spy connection, perhaps a bit more likely to be set free.

Mother Night  might not be the best introduction to Vonnegut, although unlike, say, Faulkner, it is hard to make a misstep in just picking out one of his works. I might recommend Slaughterhouse Five if, somehow, you have managed to avoid reading him up to this point. That being said, Night is in my opinion his best book, so I guess I could also say that if you are only going to read one of his books in your lifetime it ought to be this one. That being said, take care to read lots and lots of Vonnegut. He’s good for the soul.


This blog is rather… cluttered, so I went ahead and opened up a new one. It is, for now, abookadaythatsallweask.wordpress.com. So everyone who came here for the capybara pix, this is still your place!!!

I’ll get started with, appropriately enough, a baseball book considered by many to be a classic of American literature.

This book is in a… strange situation in literature. Don’t get me wrong, I think the book is fantastic, but it’s also shaded by a pretty fun baseball movie which is purportedly based on it but which really isn’t. I mean, the main character of Roy Hobbs is in there as are most of the minor ones, but the movie – and hey, I am not telling you that you should not like it, but you have to respect the difference here – completely gutted the theme of the book in favor of a more general “ain’t baseball grand?” one.

In my opinion “The Natural” is a must-read for anyone who has ever been interested in the Pete Rose case. Gambling is potentially a huge problem in sports because it can affect the outcome of the games. Sometimes fiction is better than dry fact in explaining why things are the way that they are, and this book is like that. I don’t want to spoil the whole thing, but you know that bit in the movie where Roy Hobbs shatters Lightning and then he’s rounding the bases and he’s bleeding and then suddenly it turns into a scene of father and son playing catch? Needless to say, that’s not in the book. The ending is… just a bit darker than that. Without getting into too much detail, this book is a classic American tragedy – since it’s about baseball perhaps it’s *the* classic American tragedy – about a man who attempts to overcome his personal foibles with God-given talent.

I think that the character of Roy Hobbs in the book is a lot more nuanced and, frankly, interesting than the Roy Hobbs of the movie. The movie Hobbs is just an everyday great guy who has an Eddie Waitkus-like run-in with a Baseball Annie but who is otherwise a pretty likeable guy. The book Hobbs is, well, a lot more like we think professional athletes as being today: more than a little arrogant about all things, super-confident about his own ability to play his chosen sport (is it arrogance when you know you’re good?), boastful, brash… to me, the really interesting bits about a character aren’t the things that he can do but that he can’t or won’t do. And unlike the movie Hobbs, the book Hobbs is full of can’ts and won’ts.

So yeah, great book. I should warn you, though: if you’re already a fan of the movie, reading this may make you want to throw it out (or at least see someone remake it).

So, just to get back into the hang of writing and to get this blog going a bit more, I think I’m going to try to go through my voluminous book collection and, once a day for the next year, review one of the books from it. Will I succeed? Will this endeavor last more than a week? Tune in, dear reader, to find out!