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Original Essays | July 22, 2014

Nick Harkaway: IMG The Florist-Assassins

The three men lit up in my mind's eye, with footnotes. They were converging on me — and on the object I was carrying — in a way that had... Continue »
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    Nick Harkaway 9780385352413


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While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut
While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction

Heather L, September 30, 2011

In the Foreword, Dave Eggers writes:

"I’ve been thinking a lot about what we lost when we lost Kurt Vonnegut, and the main thing that keeps coming to mind is that we lost a moral voice. We lost a very reasonable and credible--though not to say staid or toothless--voice who helped us know how to live."

Vonnegut has been one of my favorite authors since reading Welcome to the Monkey House in high school and I agree with Eggers. In everything Vonnegut wrote--short stories, essays, novels--there is a lesson to be learned about the human condition. Whether it’s about love, money, fame, war or any of the other various subjects he wrote about, Vonnegut always made his very reasonable and moral voice heard.

The short stories in While Mortals Sleep were previously unpublished and were written when Vonnegut’s career as a writer was just getting started. As I learned from Eggers’ Foreword, Vonnegut was selling his short fiction to magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post and the structure of these stories reflects what those magazines were looking for at the time: a solid plot, simple prose and conflict, and an unexpected twist at the end. And although these stories are simpler than others he wrote later on, they are certainly no less interesting. Vonnegut was a wonderful writer even at the beginning of his career. The characters are well-written; the plots are simple, but solid and intriguing; the scenery is described well and easily pictured; and the plot twists are great. What makes these stories so good was Vonnegut’s complete grasp of life and human nature. The characters are the kinds of people we are apt to encounter in our everyday lives. Their situations are not always common, but Vonnegut’s writing makes it seem like this kind of stuff happens every day. And Vonnegut tries to teach us some very good lessons with these stories. For example: be yourself; don’t judge people by what’s on the outside; life is always unpredictable; and sometimes when you play a joke on someone, the joke ends up being on you.

There are sixteen stories in While Mortals Sleep and while I liked them all, I definitely had my favorites. “The Man Without No Kiddleys” was particularly funny to me because I have known men with these same personalities and could easily picture them as the characters in the story, making a bet about how many kidneys they still have between the two of them. And “kiddleys”? Too funny. In “Tango,” I loved that dancing the tango was what brought Robert Brewer back to life (figuratively speaking) in a boring, stuffy, isolated town. If you’re not familiar with Vonnegut’s imagination and writing style, here’s a taste in which he describes what “dancing” means in the town of Pisquontuit:

"Dancing at Pisquontuit was an almost imperceptible shifting of weight from one foot to the other, with the feet remaining in place, from three to six inches apart. This seemly shifting of weight was all things to all music, samba, waltz, gavotte, fox-trot, bunny hug, or hokeypokey. No matter what new dance craze came along, Pisquontuit overpowered it easily. The ballroom could have been filled with clear gelatin to shoulder height without hampering the dancers. It could have been filled to a point just below the dancers’ nostrils, for that matter, for agreement on every subject was so complete that discussion had been reduced to a verbal shorthand resembling asthma."

I absolutely love his sense of humor. And finally, what the main character’s mother ended up doing in “With His Hand on the Throttle” was just hilarious and awesome. I have never been a huge fan of short fiction only because I would rather read a long, meaty book, but I love Vonnegut’s short fiction. Time and time again he proves that he is in no way limited by the short story structure, fitting a lot of good substance into so few words.

I would recommend this to anyone who is looking for great fiction and great writing. Even if you aren’t usually a fan of short fiction, like me, I still think you’ll enjoy this book. If you have never read anything by Kurt Vonnegut before, you’re missing out, in my opinion. Pick up this book--or any of his others--and give him a read. You won’t be disappointed. To those of you who are already fans of Vonnegut, I think you’ll agree that it’s so nice to see his previously unpublished writing being published now for us to enjoy. The stories in While Mortals Sleep are typical, wonderful Vonnegut (read: unique and refreshing) and I really would recommend it to any and all fiction readers.
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When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir by Said Sayrafiezadeh
When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir

Heather L, September 30, 2011

Sayrafiezadeh’s story shows how a person’s politics can trump everything else, even family, and how labels--Iranian, Jewish, socialist, communist, revolutionary, student, boy--can seriously complicate a child’s life, especially if those labels and political ideals aren’t fully explained to the child’s satisfaction. But When Skateboards Will Be Free isn’t just about politics. It is so much more than that, too.

If I had to choose five words to describe Sayrafiezadeh’s childhood (or its theme), they would be: truth, struggle, suffering, waiting, and absurdity. I was unprepared for just how good this book was going to be. I plowed through it in a little over a day and it is full of underlined passages and notes in the margins now. Sayrafiezadeh is a very good writer and his story is heartfelt and fascinating. I got really caught up in reading about the politics of the times, not only those of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and our dealings with Iran, but also with those of the Civil Rights Movement and how things like desegregation and busing fit into Sayrafiezadeh’s narrative. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading memoirs, to anyone interested in the politics of the SWP and of the United States in general in the 1970s and 1980s, and to anyone who is interested in what it was like for Sayrafiezadeh to attempt to reconcile his many different cultural/political identities in order to come up with ideas and a voice of his own.
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Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited (P.S.) by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited (P.S.)

Heather L, September 30, 2011

I loved this book--I think it’s extremely interesting and relevant to today’s society. With all of the anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications being prescribed today, we may not be far off from the soma of Brave New World… and we already live in a society where people would rather watch American Idol than the President’s State of the Union Address. In general, we are a society of distracted consumers--the people of Brave New World were genetically engineered and conditioned to be passive, but how unsettling is it that many people in our society today choose to be this way?

My favorite character was John--he may be naïve about the ways of the world, but his ideas about freedom, dignity, and integrity are right on point. The conversation he has with the Resident Controller of Western Europe is fantastic and thought-provoking. The Resident Controller is explaining to him why stability and happiness are so important to the World State and John replies, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” Personally, if given the choice between today’s world and the Brave New World, I would want those things, too.

This book is also the perfect mixture of plot and theory. Huxley’s main themes are the ways in which advances in science have the potential to affect the population, and how building a utopian society would greatly threaten our personal freedom. He needed to find a way to incorporate his theories in a good storyline that would keep readers interested even if they weren’t previously inclined to be concerned with such ideas, and I think he did an excellent job.

To any adult at all interested in Science Fiction or the Dystopian theme, I highly recommend this book. It poses a lot of good questions about the tradeoffs between being free to feel and have our own thoughts even if it means being occasionally unhappy, and the potential alternatives. This would be a great book for young adults to read, too--although I would like to believe that we would never accept the Brave New World of Huxley’s imagining, some form of this is not altogether impossible and this book would definitely give today’s distracted youth something to think about.
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The Word: Black Writers Talk about the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing by Marita Golden
The Word: Black Writers Talk about the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing

Heather L, September 30, 2011

This is a fantastic book. Marita Golden asked great questions, not only about reading and writing, but also about the state of education in our country and the recent decline in reading for pleasure. All of the writers she interviewed have inspirational stories to tell; inspirational not only for young people, but for adults, too. They all describe how picking up that first book changed their lives and how, by writing, they are giving back and hope that others can share that same experience. I really enjoyed reading about their histories, what inspired them to start reading, what their favorite books are, which books they would recommend to others, and how each of them approaches their own writing. To be honest, I had never heard of many of these writers--or some of the books they recommend--so I also discovered many new books that I’d like to read. Even though each of their stories is unique, they all had a common message: reading is very important. Reading is fundamental. You cannot really learn without reading. Reading helps us understand the world and the people around us. It helps us learn empathy. Reading promotes independent and critical thinking. It empowers us. I could go on and on. I love what J. California Cooper says about reading:

“…a book is a mind, it’s somebody’s brain you’re meeting. The author of the book is preparing you for life. A book is a world, a book is a friend, that’s why people love books. A book is a marvelous thing. It’s a person between covers.”

I would definitely recommend this book to readers and writers alike, both young and adult.
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The World According to Garp by John Irving
The World According to Garp

Heather L, September 30, 2011

The World According to Garp--first published in 1978 and the book for which John Irving won a National Book Award in 1980--now holds a spot on my list of favorite books, and Irving is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. He is an incredible storyteller; in my opinion, one of the best. Speaking through Garp, Irving says, “…a writer’s job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as our personal memories.” Irving has definitely accomplished that with The World According to Garp. The first half of this book made me laugh out loud numerous times (sometimes for very inappropriate reasons), while the second half of the book had me in tears or gasping in sad disbelief numerous times. I went from one extreme to the other on the spectrum of feelings--and experienced every emotion in between--all within 437 pages. Now that’s a sign of good storytelling. This is one sensational story.
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