Review: Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

I should know better.  I very foolishly checked Slaughterhouse Five out of the library and brought it to read on our camping trip even though I suspected I wasn’t going to like it and I knew the person who recommended it to me was going to be on our camping trip wanting me to like it.  I read books when I’m given them, and when I don’t like them, I’m likely to say “I liked [specific thing],” or “It’s very well-written!”, rather than lying straight out with something like “Yes!  I liked it!”, and I had planned exactly what I was going to say when asked about it.  Only after I’d said all my evasive remarks, my sister said, “Did you like it?” and I felt too guilty to say no so I said yes but it was a tangled web of lies and if I’d had a second to think about it I’d have said something vague and noncommittal like I liked some things about it but I’d have to read it again to make up my mind completely.

Which wouldn’t exactly have been true either.  I have this blurry notion that lies are less wicked if they involve a lot of words and incorporate some elements of the truth.  Dear oh dear.  I feel sad when I don’t like other people’s favorite books, because I know how sad it makes me when other people don’t like my favorite books.

ANYWAY, Slaughterhouse Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s Masterwork, an anti-war novel that features the Tralfamadorians of whom I have heard (in my parapsychology class – I missed the final on account of writing down the date wrong, and our Vonnegut-loving professor was kind enough to let me take it the next day without penalizing me), and discusses the bombing of Dresden.  The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a soldier who becomes “unstuck in time”, traveling back and forth between moments of his life – times with his wife and children, his childhood, his time as a soldier in the Second World War, his kidnapping by aliens in a flying saucer, etc.

It was clever.  I think that’s what I’d say about this book.  The business of being unstuck in time was interesting, and I wondered if that’s where Audrey Niffenegger got the idea for The Time Traveler’s Wife (hope so – it always cheers me up to see other authors stealing ideas because it makes me feel better about myself).  It was clever, but there was nothing underneath it.  All this weak-jawed fatalism – it was quotable (the phrase “So it goes” occurs whenever something bad happens), but it didn’t lead to anything.  Not for the characters, and not for me either.  It was clever, but there wasn’t anything underneath the cleverness.  It was just a lot of words.

I meant to give it two stars, but I like the book less and less the more I think of it.  I have very few one-star ratings, because I feel guilty being mean about books that I know other people love.  But it’s a new year and I’m going to be bloody, bold, and resolute (Macbeth is my favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  When I quote that bit of it, though, I’m quoting Eliza from Knight’s Castle.  You can’t ever escape your childhood reading.) with my ratings.  One star it is!

What do you like or not like about Vonnegut?  Am I missing something vital about this book?  Anyone want to claim that Slaughterhouse Five is overrated and the real Vonnegut is only to be found through [one of his other books]?  I’m willing to try again…

If you haven’t read Vonnegut, don’t take my word for it; I know loads of people love him.  Other reviews of Slaughterhouse Five: things mean a lot, Becky’s Book Reviews, Just a (Reading) Fool, Rob Around Books, booklit, Bibliofreakblog, Rose City Reader, and you’ll tell me, won’t you, if I missed yours?

The Girl in a Swing, Richard Adams

Do you ever read a book where you finish it and you’re like, Hm, I think I may be deeply stupid?  I sort of felt that way when I finished reading A Pale View of Hills, but with that one, at least, I thought about it for a while and came to a conclusion.  I have been thinking furiously about The Girl in a Swing, ever since I finished it yesterday morning, and I am still trying to figure out what the hell happened.

I was excited to read this book.  I love Watership Down like crazy, and The Girl in a Swing is about a porcelain shop owner called Alan who is slightly psychic.  While in Copenhagen on business, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful sensual German woman called Kathe.  After a whirlwind romance, they are married and live happily ever after.  Except that Richard gradually begins to realize there is Something Not Right and actually they don’t live all that happily ever after, so I was lying about that before.  And did I mention it’s by the same guy that wrote Watership Down?

Psychic dude!  Something Not Right!  Watership Down author!  I WAS SO DISAPPOINTED.

I also felt stupid, as previously stated.  I feel like I understood the main thing that was causing spookiness – major spoilers in this paragraph only! – of how Kathe had a child and went into the woods and killed her dead so she could be with Alan.  I got that.  All clear on that.

Then there was all this stuff throughout the book about sex and Christianity and pagan goddesses and forgiveness that were confusing, and I think there may have been layers of meaning that I didn’t get.  Because of being stupid.  And maybe they would have made the book better.  Like, the porcelain thing that Kathe gets, the Girl in a Swing?  What was up with that?  Did that relate to the theme of forgiving yourself?  What all did I miss by being stupid?  And, well, okay, by being bored and my mind drifting away.

Yes!  Okay?  I was bored with this book!  It just took so long to get going; and if it hadn’t been Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, I’d have given up in despair. Occasionally there were strange little episodes with Kathe, but they were few and far between for most of the book.  Same with Alan, who was supposed to be psychic, but he hardly ever was – I wanted more out of Alan!  When Kathe wasn’t having fits at the sight of a church and shrieking at Alan to destroy the past and save her (i.e., most of the time), she and Alan were so sweety-sweet you just couldn’t stand it.  They were constantly going, Oo, darling, how clever and beautiful you are, and oo, darling, how quickly you do seem to have learnt everything about my porcelain business, and darling, isn’t it nice for us that everyone you know adores me, and darling, let’s have sex all the time like bunny rabbits.

Which, you know, is funny.  Considering.

I am so cross at being disappointed by a book I really wanted to enjoy that I officially say, Do not read this!  It’s a waste of time.  Read something good and thrilling and suspenseful like Watership Down.  In fact I am so cross, I am not even going to count this as part of the RIP Challenge.

Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi

In Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi writes about tar musician Nasser Ali, a great-uncle of hers who decides to die after his wife destroys his tar in a heated argument.  He tries and tries to find another tar that will be the equal of the one that was destroyed, but even the best of tars will not make the music he imagines.  He lies down on his bed and stays there for eight days, upon which he dies.  Chicken with Plums follows him through those eight days, through visits and memories and dreams and hallucinations.

The good: Marjane Satrapi charms me.  She writes with wry humor that spares no one, and interweaves the story of Nasser Ali with the history of Iran.  Despite how much I don’t care for Nasser Ali, the story is still emotionally effective.  I love how she used black backgrounds for the flashback sequences, many of which depicted the early relationship of Nasser Ali and his wife.  The shading difference provided a great visual reminder of how much their relationship has changed since they were first in love.

The bad (for me): I wanted to slap Nasser Ali.  This may have been the intended effect, but it took away from my enjoyment of the book.  He had children!  And left him!  And was unkind to his little son!  I do not condone the breaking of his tar, but mercy, I can see how his wife was driven to it.  So all the time he was moping in bed and refusing to get up and eat and talk to anyone, I was muttering unkind things about him under my breath.  Esp. after the chapter about praying for people not to die.  Hmph.  Absent parents, v. bad.

I have heard that you are not supposed to need to identify with the characters in books, but when I read a book with a protagonist that I think is a jerk, I often reach a place where I can’t be bothered reading any more.  Especially people who are whiny.  That’s why I couldn’t get on with Catcher in the Rye.  How do you manage books with unsympathetic protagonists?

Other reviews of Chicken with Plums: A Life in Books, State of Denmark, The Written World, Out of the Blue, and let me know if I missed yours!

My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier

Verdict: Not as good as Rebecca.

Philip, the protagonist of My Cousin Rachel, has been raised by his bachelor cousin Ambrose.  Ambrose goes away to Italy, marries there, and a few years later sends a letter to Philip intimating that he is in danger, and asking Philip to come to Italy straight away.  When Philip gets there, Ambrose has died, and Rachel is gone.  He conceives a hatred for her, believing that she was responsible for Ambrose’s death; but when she comes to stay with him in England, he falls for her straight away.  Is she evil?  Did she poison Ambrose, and is she poisoning Philip now?  Spooooooky.

I liked Rachel.  You can see why Philip falls in love with her – like Rebecca, she absolutely deserves to have the book called after her.  And like the protagonist of Rebecca, Philip is never completely sure where he stands, but unlike poor Mrs. de Winter, Philip is determined to be sure (act sure).  For me, this made all the difference – he drove me insane and I wanted to slap him.  Seriously, guy, ever hear of black and white thinking?  Also called splitting?  This is symptomatic of some really unpleasant personality disorders, and you could maybe think about curbing that tendency.  I couldn’t figure out why his godfather’s daughter liked him so much, good heavens.

On the other hand, Philip’s extremism makes possible something I love, which is that we see Rachel through his eyes, but that the rest of the characters all have things to say about her too.  So we can see that other people are reacting to her charm, the same way Philip does, but we can also see things that Philip refuses to look at or acknowledge – her extravagance, the way it looks to have her living in the house with him.  It keeps you guessing, and you never are sure whether she’s poisoning him, and poisoned Ambrose.  Per usual Daphne du Maurier writes beautifully and uses some gorgeous images.

Er, but it’s still not as good as Rebecca.  I love me some Rebecca.

Other reviews:

books i done read
Bookfoolery and Babble
Stephanie’s Confessions of a Book-a-holic
The Literate Housewife
a lovely shore breeze
S. Krishna’s Books
Once Upon a Bookshelf
Stuck in a Book
we be reading
book-a-rama

I don’t mean to go on and on

But I just read this and threw up in my mouth a little.  I can’t help feeling like this person has to be being sarcastic.  Because nobody could say these things seriously, right?  I mean everyone has noticed that Bella is a cipher, right?  Even if you have overlooked Edward’s tendency to stalk and make decisions for Bella and you think he’s the perfect man, you’ve noticed that Bella has no personality.  I mean, right?

Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof.

This paragraph encapsulates the essential thing about this series that I find so creepy and upsetting.  Defile her?  Are we really still in the mindset that sex (premarital sex particularly) is defiling a girl?  Defile.  Jesus.

Oh, yeah, and here’s the other thing about this damn book that makes me angry.  Stephenie Meyer says she sort of based Edward on Mr. Rochester, and named him after Mr. Rochester.  I mean you do realize that means that Stephenie Meyer thinks that Edward is like Mr. Rochester?  Half of my favorite literary couple ever?  Anyway, this article has also totally failed to get why Jane and Mr. Rochester are so good:

In short, Edward treats Bella not as Count Dracula treated the objects of his desire, but as Mr. Rochester treated Jane Eyre. He evinces the most profound disdain and distaste for this girl. Even after they have confessed their love for each other, he will still occasionally glare at and speak sharply to her.

What.  Ev.  Er.  Mr. Rochester does not evince profound disdain and distaste for Jane.  He teases her and she plays up to him.  That is why I love them.  They share a sense of humor.  I love that scene where Mrs. Fairfax is telling Mr. Rochester how good Jane is, and he’s all “Whatever, I’ll decide for myself.  She began by felling my horse,” and Mrs. Fairfax has no idea what he’s on about.   Profound disdain and distaste indeed.  Makes you wonder whether this person has actually read Jane Eyre.

Oh, society, please stop it with the creepy attitudes towards sex.  You are giving me a headache.

Waiting for Daisy, Peggy Orenstein

Oh, how distressing I found this book, and oh, how I wished that Peggy Orenstein had kept this whole distressing story to herself.

I got annoyed with Ms. Orenstein straight away when she said that in her pre-baby-mania days, she used to say that women who made pre-Betty Friedan choices shouldn’t be surprised when they end up with pre-Betty Friedan results. Which is to say, women shouldn’t choose to be stay-at-home mums, as that is a choice that could never be feminist, and if they do make that atavistic choice, they just deserve all they get. Nasty.

I found this book really, really creepy. She didn’t want a baby until it was suggested to her that she couldn’t have one, and then she didn’t want anything else but that. Superfastreader, on whose blog I read about this, says that Ms. Orenstein views having a pregnancy as an accomplishment she can’t live without, and that is exactly it. It’s as if the baby she envisions isn’t a baby, but some magic solution to all her problems. Like she needs the baby to fix her, instead of for its own sake; like her identity can’t be true without this baby. This passage made me queasy:

I no longer knew how to find my way back to my marriage unless I was pregnant. I needed a baby to restore faith in my defective body, heal my wounded sexuality, assuage my grief, relieve my feelings of failure – to make me whole again.

Ick.

But probably the most creepy thing of all to me was this: There’s a twenty-one-year-old girl that Ms. Orenstein has been in contact with since the girl was sixteen, a relationship that developed based on a book Ms. Orenstein wrote previously that meant a lot to the girl. And the girl, Jess, offers to donate eggs, and the author lets her and Jess’s parents support this, and Ms. Orenstein hopes that one day she’ll be that kind of parent to her own child.

Dude. Boundaries. I’m sorry, but there’s an extreme balance of power issue here with Ms. Orenstein and this girl, and I cannot imagine how it would be possible to be so self-absorbed as to subject a young woman, a young woman who trusts you and looks to you as a mentor, to this upsetting, painful (and, as it goes, unsuccessful in this case) process, so that you could have a baby to fulfill all your own needs. To be honest, it’s not unlike these creepy math teachers at my high school who used to make friends with all the high school girls and then have sex with them when they hit eighteen.

I’ve seen dozens of reviews that say this is so searingly honest and funny and tragic – and yes, it’s honest, so snaps to her for that, I guess, but funny? Not so much. In any spot. Ever. Too much instability in sense of self. Too much using of other people for her own ends.

The Head of the House of Coombe, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Seriously, how can it be that I have never before known about this book?  This is exactly my kind of book, and I am in total love with its amazing greatness, and I am way, way psyched about reading the thrilling continuation of the story in its sequel, Robin.

Basically there is little angelic Robin and her standoffish airhead twit of a mother, Feather, and Robin is sweet and innocent and only ever makes one friend, the manly gallant eight-year-old Donal, who is promptly whisked away from her because of how sinful and naughty Feather is, being supported financially by the presumably-sleeping-with-her Lord Coombe.  And Robin grows up and gets kidnapped by German spies and then rescued – no, it’s true.  She does.  German spies.  You can’t make that shit up.  It ruins her sweet innocence and rosy outlook on life, which I don’t know why she had one in the first place considering how vile her life was.

There are just so many good things about this book.  Like when Robin, who has been living in a crappy attic room with a wicked pinching nurse while her mother parties downstairs, asks Donal, “What is – a mother?” and also, my personal favorite, “What is – loves you?”  God, it’s amazing.  Oh yeah, and when you find out that Lord Coombe is the way he is because of this lovely frail woman he used to be in love with that looks just like Feather and got beaten to death by her brutal brute of a husband?  That was SO AWESOME.

This is not your mother’s Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I mean, it is my mother’s Frances Hodgson Burnett, because my mum knew about this all along, but it is way not the same as The Secret Garden and The Little Princess.  This is a for-real two-volume novel with young lovers and trials and tribulations.  Loves it.  In some small measure it helps to ease my Ligeia-paper pain, and I will be a-reading Robin (the sequel! in which Robin scandalously gets herself PREGNANT and Donal unsurprisingly gets himself DEAD) this evening before I go to sleep.