Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr (1969)

Putting my pants on back to front this morning made me think of this madly sane and funny anti-war book. 

Preface. Those things sticking up in the air are my hands. I don’t pretend to follow some of what goes on with the intergalactic hero Billy Pilgrim. I’ve always thought of his journeys as blameless, get-away-from-it-all escapes into his head. (For me, that would be too echoey.)

Vonnegut uses three main pulses throughout. Given their make-up, they’re tricky to carry off with panache. Especially in a book that’s frightening one moment, funny the next, and freaky the one after. But the pulses give us emphatic beats in which to absorb the message, pause for thought.

So, let’s touch on those. Oh, and also want to share some flair in describing a sexy lady. Hell, why not.

But first, if you haven’t read it already (what you been doin’, then?), at the heart of the book is the bombing and fire storm of Dresden in 1945. Think devastation. Think desolation. Think death. Think really nasty shit. Everywhere.

The first is chocolate brownie. Oops, no, sorry – I’m eating one. The first is ‘blue and ivory’. Kurt could’ve just gone with skin and blood and bones. But then we wouldn’t get a sense of the once-fragile now cold, lifeless, deoxygenated flesh, and the precious and fragile feet and hands and skulls and blades and caps and carpals, all blown to smithereens. Everywhere. And so severely un-put-back-together-again-able. Devastation.

The next beat’s neat. A simple phrase, ‘A big dog barked.’ So what? Big dogs do. But put lots of them in that bombed and bleak wasteland and your winker will wince with every woof. Desolation. An example:

Somewhere a dog barked. With the help of fear and echoes and winter silences, that dog had a voice like a big bronze gong.

Sidebar. Reminds me of the dogs of Dagoretti. No, not a shit Welsh-Italian poet but a district of Nairobi. Overrun by packs of feral guard dogs, it was. When there, you stayed in your car. About 400-odd moons ago, we used to settle down to our sundowners (always joyfully early on the equator) with those hounds baying away in the background. Eerie. Even eerier when they stopped. No doubt got to the offal of some hapless tourist.

Anyways, back to this brilliant book. Those bow-wows keep a-howling here and there along the way reminding us of the wild and empty aftermath, just in case we’re getting complacent with Vonnegut’s funny bits peppered through the story.

The third recurring pulse is death, summed up in Vonnegut’s ‘So it goes.’ (I spotted 37 instances.) It’s everywhere. And there ain’t a god-damned thing you can do about it. I always think of it as ‘shit happens’. A kind of get over it, it’s beyond your control. An example:

His mother was incinerated in the Dresden fire-storm. So it goes.

Now before you go throwing that rope over yonder beam and looking for a stool, here’s some sexy style to cheer you up.

Maggie White… was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away.

Great way of putting it. A lesser writer would have merely gone with something like ‘voluptuous’ and then chatted about her shapes.

You can just see all those tail-waggingly keen males yapping and stotting with excitement.

Dogs again. Don’t get out of your car.

Thanks for being here.

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Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945)

Hello.

Someone somewhere told me once that Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited in an eye-rubbingly improbable couple of months or so. It takes me that long to still not get around to cleaning my bathroom.

Couple of delightful morsels for us. Batty thoughts and some diamond dialogue.

[Lady Julia Flyte, while driving, asks Captain Charles Ryder for a snout. They’ve just met.]

“Light one for me, will you?”

It was the first time in my life that anyone had asked this of me, and as I took the cigarette from my lips and put it in hers, I caught a thin bat’s squeak of sexuality, inaudible to any but me.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bat squeak. Do they? Well, it’d be fairy-faint.

But if you re-engineer back to the description of Julia just before this exchange you know that Charles sure heard it alright and Waugh helps us hear it too:

She wore a bangle of charms on her wrist and in her ears little gold rings. Her light coat revealed an inch or two of flowered silk; skirts were short in those days, and her legs, stretched forward to the controls of the car, were spindly, as was also the fashion. Because her sex was the palpable difference between the familiar and the strange, it seemed to fill the space between us, so that I felt her to be especially female, as I had felt of no woman before.

Hear it? Me, too. A sort of synaptic spark jumping the gap. (The absurdly sexy Diana Quick as Julia in the Granada Television’s 1981 series slam dunks it as well.)

It’s still with Julia that we get to blink through some smart, rapid-fire dialogue. Waugh’s staccato sentencing senses her thoughts – and emotions – tumbling out, jostling, all trying to get through the door at the same time.

[Charles has just told Julia that his wife Celia was unfaithful and so he felt it alright to dislike her.]

“Is she? Do you? I’m glad. I don’t like her either. Why did you marry her?”

Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. (Besides, and by the by, it clears the air for a good bang the next day too.)

Oh, go on then – just one more…

Here’s how to languidly pack and shrink-wrap hundreds of years of aristocracy, breeding, privilege, luxury, education, civility and charm into one sentence of dialogue. This time it’s Cordelia, Julia’s younger sister.

“I say, do you think I could have another of those scrumptious meringues?”

Damn it. I’ve sold it to myself and going to have to read it again.

Thanks for being here.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

Hello.

Most top ten lists of bloody brilliant novels have Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in them.

Leaving aside the oft-discussed and compelling story of betrayal, hanky-chewing, faith, nail-gnawing, marriage and related hand-wringing unravellings, here a couple of slices of Tolstoy style to savour. Nom nom.

Lessons from Leo – repetition

Stephen Arkadyevich smiled. He knew so well this feeling of Lenin’s, knew that for him all the girls in the world were divided into two sorts: one sort was all the girls in the world except her, and these girls had all human weaknesses and were very ordinary girls, the other sort was her alone, with no weaknesses and higher than everything human.

Ah, oxymoronic love logic. Always so earnest – and some neat repetition that works to concentrate it.

For those of you who can’t count or have had too many scoops, that’s four girls, three sort/s, three alls, two hers, two knews, two worlds, two humans and two weaknesses.

That’s a hit rate of a repeated word every three. Or, d’oh, 33 percent of the words in that one small paragraph of only two sentences were repeats.

Intense, huh? And kind of all comes together to make it sound slowly reasoned and calculated and not from someone head over heels in love. Which, in turn, makes it cute and endearing. Naw. Charming, even.

Talking of ‘charming’, here’s the maestro again making sure we get the point that Anna is indeed ‘enchanting’.

Some supernatural force drew Kitty’s eyes to Anna’s face. She was enchanting in her simple black dress, enchanting were her full arms with the bracelets on them, enchanting her firm neck with its string of pearls, enchanting her curly hair in disarray, enchanting the graceful, light movements of her small feet and hands, enchanting that beautiful face in its animation; but there was something terrible and cruel in her enchantment.

Hmm. [Scratches head.] That woman has a certain characteristic but try as I might I just can’t put my pinky on it.

You need both hands to count the six enchantings and one enchantment. Works, though, doesn’t it? Definitely left with a strong impression of Anna’s allure.

Wonder what her underwear was like.

Okay, okay, okay – that’s enough repetition.

Lessons from Leo – lips and losing it

Let’s finish with this little lesson from Leo on how to do lips and peepers. Oh, and someone teetering on the cliff edge of losing control.

[Kitty and Levin meeting again…]

Had it not been for the slight trembling of her lips and the moisture that came to her eyes, giving them an added brilliance, her smile would have been almost calm as she said: “It’s so long since we’ve seen each other!”

I can see the tiniest and prettiest little hairs on those quivery little lips. So tanks for dat, Leo.

Actually, Tolly rather rates his trembly lips and uses them again elsewhere in another example of Wobbly Lip Syndrome being so closely related to losing control in:

…but his lips trembled disobediently, and he could not get the words out.

Love ‘disobediently’ there.

I’m feeling they were fish-belly white and frilly. Need to lie down.

Thanks for being here.

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926)

I’ve read this several times. Gets me every time.

Dang, the man could write. No mean feat, given his marshmallows were well toasted most of the time.

To give a sound a colour without blinking like the ‘orchestra… playing yellow cocktail music’ is pretty, pretty cool. And he’s right – it is yellow. I can hear it drifting across the lawn down to the water’s edge. Eat your heart out, Kandinsky.

Can you smell the talc in this?

Daisy watched him and laughed, her sweet, exciting laugh; a tiny gust of powder rose from her bosom into the air.

I can. I also see pale pink and alabaster.

And then, whoosh! Away from the colourful jazz and clean breasts and down to earth with a sigh on how things really are elsewhere for the others, the masses of less fortunate. For those not protected by prosperity.

There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.

And,

…I tossed half-sick between grotesque reality and savage, frightening dreams.

Fitzgerald lifts you up and lifts you up some more – and then drops you.

She had caught a cold, and it made her voice huskier and more charming than ever, and Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.

Well, there you go. We all might as well pocket our pens and stop trying. Ah, the pointlessness of hot struggles.

And then there’s that last paragraph, if you haven’t topped yourself already.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

That futility again.

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Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (2009)

Hello. Thanks for dropping by. My first blog post – yikes.

I love reading. And I love to clock notable style as I come across it.

Maybe you’re a kindred soul who does the same or similar? If so, let’s kick over our bar stools and have some fun.

Maybe we can chew some fat on those magical moments when we come across a choice of word or the way of saying something that makes one leap up and pace the room saying, ‘Yes, they nailed it. That’s the perfect way of putting it.’ I love that feeling.

And I love great style, humour, brilliant dialogue. All personal opinion, of course.

Enough already. I’ll stop fannying around and get stuck in…

(Oh, at some stage I might link to places where you can buy the book I’m talking about. I might even get a penny or two from the bookseller if you go on to buy. Hope you don’t mind that. Everyone seems to be doing it these days. But I’ll more than likely forget – or can’t be bothered. Ta.)

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (2009)

This book still stands out over ten years later as a compelling read. Shocking and depressing in places, it made me dramatically cut back on the animals I eat (yeuch, sounds monstrous saying it like that). The veg/vegan thing for me is still a work in progress. But I’m getting there.

Foer wrote the book when a father for the first time. A time when you stand back and take stock of the world around you, your part in it – and the road ahead. Get this…

A few days after we came home from the hospital, I sent a letter to my friend, including a photo of my son and some first impressions of fatherhood. He responded, simply, “Everything is possible again.” [Love that line.] It was the perfect thing to write, because that was exactly how it felt. We could retell our stories and make them better, more representative or aspirational. Or we could choose to tell different stories. The world itself had another chance.

Bingo. Here’s to hope. Great start to a good book.

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