Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death couples World War II with the fictional story of Billy Pilgrim, a war veteran who travels freely through time. So he says. Known as Vonnegut’s most popular and influential work, it was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel (losing both to The Left Hand of Darkness). It has frequently appeared in “best of lists” such as Modern Library 100 Best Novels and Time magazine’s 100 Best English Novels (written since 1923).

Listen. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (first published in 1969) has come unstuck in genres. It started as autobiographically and ended as a science fiction, metafiction, and postmodernism stew. It has stumbled to the terrible bombing of Dresden in 1945 and has flown to the planet where the aliens come from. It is above all a satire and a anti-war book, blending the two together hilariously… well if you like black humour that is.

All this happened, more or less.

The book is told anachronistically, beginning with the author deciding to write a book about the war and choosing Billy Pilgrim as the person whose life he would narrate. Billy Pilgrim is, like him, a war veteran. However he claims to have become unstuck in time – freely travelling between all the events of his life. As such the book travels with Billy as he lives his life… moving between his war days, retirement, life as an optometrist, time as victim of an alien abduction and retirement in haphazard manner.

– Why me?
– That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
– Yes.
– Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.

The writing style is short and to the point, almost declarative, despite the relatively complex content. Indeed time time-travling in the story is used to highlight the relationship between fatalism and free will. The aliens (Tralfamadorians), and eventually Billy, believe in fatalism. This is because the aliens live in 4 dimensions, the fourth being time, allowing them to see all events that are happening, will happen and have happened.

All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. […] “If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Slaughterhouse-Five has made Kurt Vonegut an author I’ll be sure to look out for. It has coupling the fantastic and mundane in a narrative that is witty, haunting and compelling. The style and nature of the novel may not agree to all… Indeed I may be so trite to repeat that cliche, “You’ll either love it or hate it.”. All I can say is that this book is a new addition to my favourites.

[The book] is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

War in media

You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be portrayed in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.

– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – tv adaptation

Jonathen Strange & Mr Norrell has previously appeared on this site. I draw attention to it once more as a miniseries adaptation of it has arrived to much celebrating on my part. After watching the series I admit to being impressed – it is a good series in its own right and is a much better adaptation than that which we poor readers normally receive. It currently holds a rating of 8.5/10 on IMDb. And without further ado, here is the trailer to Jonathen Strange and Mr Norrell:

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett has died.Sir-Terry-Pratchett

The words resonated as I tried to understand.

Terry Pratchett has died. One of my most loved and delightful authors has passed away.

No more new tales full of laughter and delight …. no more hilarious tales of a cowardly wizzard, of friendly Death, of witty witches, of the incomparable  Ankh-Morpork.

Terry Pratchett … you will be missed.

 

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic. They were gentleman-magicians, ClarkeJonathanStrangewhich is to say they had never harmed any one by magic  – nor ever done anyone the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel, by  Susanna Clarke, is one of my favourite books. It’s set in Regency England (1800’s – the time of Napoleon) and reads like a wonderful historical fiction that just happens to be about the return of magic to England by the two titular magicians. It is a thoroughly different fantasy – this is blatant from the beginning. It’s this unusualness that prevents me from recommending it to everyone – I am aware that some people dislike the book for the same reasons that I enjoy it. You see this isn’t a quick-paced quick read – as it’s hulking size should suggest. It also isn’t the typical quick fantasy read filled with action, magical battles and easy going prose. Nor is it typical of the ‘saga’ type of fantasy, with their hosts of characters and sprawling sequels – this is a stand-alone book (although rumours of a ‘sequel’ set in same universe exist) with, as the name suggests, only two main characters.  I am not alone in my love of the book – it won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, reached number 3 on the New York Times best-seller list and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It is currently being adapted for a BBC One Drama.


Oh! And they read English novels! David! Did you ever look into an English novel? Well, do not trouble yourself. It is nothing but a lot of nonsense about girls with fanciful names getting married.

The basic premise is that once, long ago, magic thrived in England. It reached it’s pinnacle during the time of the Raven King – a human raised in Faerie who ruled Northern England for 300 years. Ever since, magic has declined and in 1806 all magicians are theoretical magicians – gentleman scholars who talk about what magic once was. The reason of the decline is unknown and when the York society of magicians attempt to discover why there is no magic in England they find out that there is one last practising magician –  Mr Gilbert Norrell. This reclusive bookworm decides that it his duty to restore English magic to it’s former glory – well actually, only the parts he thinks are proper and respectable. He enters the public sphere, after some difficulty, and demonstrates that magic is still a force in the world.  While doing so he accidentally sets in motion events that spiral beyond his control and knowledge.

It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.

So why do I like this book so much?

For a start the prose is brilliant. As the book is set in the 19th century the writing style is a pastiche of the time period’s writing styles (think Austen and Dickens). It is witty, moving, scary, sarcastic, compelling… fantastic. Clarke has an incredible gift with language – using the right words at the right time to create her multifaceted world – be it mundane or magical, it is written wonderfully. This is a book to read slower than normal to savour the descriptions and the wonderfully snarky narrator.

Mr Robinson was a polished sort of person. He was so clean and healthy and pleased about everything that he positively shone—which is only to be expected in a fairy or an angel, but is somewhat disconcerting in an attorney.

The story is character-driven and is not a sequence of magic battles, duels, explosions and all that action-ey fluff. Even though there is war in the book it presents itself atypically. In fact, this book could easily be recommended to people who don’t normally read fantasy – although magic is an all important part of the story it isn’t treated in the normal way. Magic doesn’t solve all the problems and neither is it a stand-in for some part of technology. It’s this all-powerful, mysterious, otherworldly force that is unpredictable and not understood despite the countless years of its study. Of a greater importance to the story are the characters, they are complex and interesting – there wasn’t one character that made me groan, “Oh, not her again…” (Sansa and Perrin – I’m talking to you).


I’d like to end with a quote by one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman, on this book:

Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years. It’s funny, moving, scary, otherworldly, practical and magical, a journey through light and shadow – a delight to read.

National Novel Writing Month – what its all about

National Novel Writing Month (shortened to NaNoWriMo) is a world wide novel writing project that aims to get people to write a novel in the month of November. It sounds like the ultimate challenge: write 50 00 words (the minimum novel length) in 30 days – ie. an average of around 1,667 words per day – but each year more and more people are participating in it (this year even I am). The non-profit organisation tries to motivate anyone who has ever thought about writing to sit down and start writing. The goal is completion and not writing a flawless novel – your draft can later be edited at your own leisure. No official prizes are awarded for length, speed or anything. Anyone who manages to complete the word count is called a “winner”. Since 2006 over a hundred novels have been (traditionally) published with many more novels having been published by smaller presses or self-published. Notable novels completed during NaNoWriMo include The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

The Essence of Love

You’re beautiful, but you’re empty…One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose. – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (review on site)

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I should have liked to begin this story in the fashion of the fairy-tales. I should have like to say: “Once upon a time there was a little prince rsz_le-petit-prince-1-822x1024_7217who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who had need of a sheep…” To those who understand life, that would have given a much greater air of truth to my story.

The Little Prince published in 1943, has gone on to become one of the most famous and well-read French books, with annual sales of 2 million (giving it a total of +140 million copies sold which makes it one of the best selling books ever published) and worldwide recognition as a literary classic. It happens to primarily be a children’s book, complete with illustrations by the author. It’s full of childish inquisitiveness, moral allegories, expounded wisdom and heart-wrenching sadness, an unusual combination if there ever was.  Personally it’s one of the book’s I enjoyed the most and I think this sad, sad Tale of the Little Prince has a marvellous appeal to both children and adults. For after all, “All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.”


The book is the account of a French aviator who crashes in the Sahara dessert, far from civilization (this actually happened to the author). While faced with dehydration, and desperately trying to fix his plane, he is approached by a young boy who asks him to draw him a sheep. The majority of the story is about the boy (the titular Little Prince) telling the story of how he arrived on Earth – why he left his asteroid, and started travelling from place to place until he came the aviator. During his travels he meets and talks to lots of different creatures, these conversations make up the famous parables of the book.

And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

This is a most remarkable book that I would strongly advise anyone to read. And for this book, I truly mean anyone – irrespective of age. It’s a beautiful, sad and wonderful tale that is sure to captivate. With a total length of 91 pages, there is no excuse for not having time to read this book.


littleprincelandscape

 It is here that the little prince appeared on Earth, and disappeared. Look at it carefully so that you will be sure to recognize it in case you travel some day to the African desert. And, if you should come upon this spot, please do not hurry on. Wait for a time, exactly under the star. Then, if a little man appears who laughs, who has golden hair and who refuses to answer questions, you will know who he is. If this should happen, please comfort me. Send me word that he has come back.