I have sunk so far into vacation mode already that I forgot to blog yesterday and by the time I remembered, prompted from a question from Bookman, “what did you blog about today?” it was simply too late to bother. I’ll do it in the morning. But morning came and the day has slipped by and here I am at the usual blogging time to tell you about two slim Kurt Vonnegut books the kind people at Seven Stories Press sent me.
God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian was originally a series of ninety-second pieces that Vonnegut did for WNYC public radio. In book-form, these twenty pieces on near-death trips to the pearly gates, made with the help of Dr. Kevorkian, are filled with biting humor. We never know who might be waiting at the gates for a chat. Sometimes it is someone famous, sometimes someone infamous. Early on we get to meet Salvador Biagini, a 70-year-old retired construction worker recently deceased from suffering a heart attack while rescuing his schnauzer, Teddy, from attack by a pit bull. I’ll let Vonnegut finish:
The pit bull, with no previous record of violence against man or beast, jumped a four-foot fence in order to have at Teddy. Mr. Biagini, an unarmed man with a history of heart trouble, grabbed him, allowing the schnauzer to run away. So the pit bull bit Mr. Biagini in several places and then Mr. Biagini’s heart quit beating, never to beat again.
I asked this heroic pet lover how it felt to have died for a schnauzer named Teddy. Salvador Biagini was philosophical. He said it sure as heck beat dying for absolutely nothing in the Viet Nam War.
We meet The John Brown, unrepentant, who calls into question America’s unquestioned belief in the goodness of Thomas Jefferson, a man who wrote the immortal words, “all men are created equal” while owning slaves.
Others who make an appearance are Clarence Darrow, Eugenge Victor Debs, Adolf HItler, romance language expert and children’s book writer Frances Keane, and many, many others. Eventually the near-death trips have to stop though because of Dr. Kevorkian’s legal troubles.
God Bless You, Dr. Kervorkian is a zippy read. It only took me two and a half short train rides to get through. And if you read the book in public, I promise someone will stare at you because of the book’s title.
The second book, Like Shaking Hands with God, is the record of two conversations about writing between Vonnegut and author Lee Stringer that took place in October 1998 and January 1999. Both men, each from very different backgrounds, have some interesting things to say about writing. Heh. I wonder if this is true for readers and bloggers too?
Vonnegut remarks that when he teaches writing he isn’t looking for people who want to be writers:
I’m looking for people who are passionate, who care terribly about something. There are people with a hell of a lot on their minds, Lee being a case in point, and if you have a hell of a lot on your mind, the language will arrive, the right words will arrive, the paragraph will be right.
This makes it sound like Vonnegut believes in the writer as conduit theory where the words and the story just come to you and you are just taking dictation. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t subscribe to that theory. What I think he means is that a good writer needs to have something to say first and then the writing style and technique, etc will come later. Content before form.
One of the benefits of being a writer, says Vonnegut, is that writers are “able to treat their neuroses every day by writing.”
But the conversation isn’t just about writing, it is about reading too because if you are a writer, you by necessity need a reader. But Vonnegut isn’t bothered by what seems to be a decline in the number of people who read:
And of course literature is the only art that requires our audience to be performers. You have to be able to read and you have to be able to read awfully well. You have to read so well that you get irony! I’ll say one thing meaning another, and you’ll get it. Expecting a large number of people to be literate is like expecting everybody to play the French horn. It is extremely difficult. And as I’ve said in this book here [Timequake], when we think about what reading is…it’s in horizontal lines in only twenty-six phonetic symbols, ten arabic numbers, and about eight punctuation marks. And yet there are people like you who can look at a printed page and put on shows in your head – the battle of Waterloo, for God’s sake.
Reading is pretty amazing when you look at it that way, isn’t it?
Like Shaking Hands With God is also a slim book that took me only a couple of short train rides to read. Both books are tasty little morsels that can be enjoyed whether or not you have read a lot of Vonnegut. I have only read Slaughterhouse Five but after these two, I’ll definitely be reading more.