Jenn Reads: Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut is our July pick for the Cheshire Cats Classics Club. It was chosen largely to appeal to men and to those who like more modern classics. This is not my typical fare, necessarily, and was not even on my to-read list. Far from it, actually.

I’m not sure what I thought Slaughterhouse Five was going to be, but whatever notions I had where quickly dispelled. I think I heard that it included a fictional planet, and time-travel and thought “Not for me…” First impressions are often wrong, prejudiced, and just down right stupid.

Slaughterhouse Five is a crisp 275 pages, easily read, and likely easily misunderstood. Some may find the scenes of Tralfamadore ridiculous, the war depictions brutal, the episodes of sex raunchy, but they unfortunately have missed the essence of the book. And don’t let the ease of reading the book fool you: Vonnegut is trying to send an important message on the destructiveness of war, finding happiness, and mental illness.

Slaughterhouse Five, to me, is an anti-war novel on the surface. The subtitle, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death alludes to the fact that so many of the men who bravely fight our wars are merely boys. They are dancing with death in a way many of us will never experience.

What Billy Pilgrim experiences and views at the bombing of Dresden forever changes him and shapes the novel. Billy’s “strange” behavior of time traveling and episodes on Tralfamadore are manifestations of his PTSD. Knowing that Vonnegut himself saw the bombing of Dresden makes you wonder how much of this was truly Billy Pilgrim’s story and how much of it was autobiographical. Anyone who has seen actual warfare is never the same.

I listened to this book, as I try to do with all of the classics we read for the club. Ethan Hawk was the reader for this version, which included an interview with Vonnegut. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with this book, having gone in with low expectations. Hawk’s reading of it was admirable, although the mixing on the recording was very low and he was often difficult to hear, and the story moved.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (but it’s a hearty 3 stars)

Enjoyable Assigned Reading

Tackling books that have been labeled as classics, or are required reading in school, can be a daunting or even dreaded task. However, many of these books are classics because so many people enjoyed reading them, not just because of their literary value or the statements they make about humanity or the time in which they took place. Here are some of the classics, or assigned reading, that I have come to love, either when they were assigned to me or as I picked them up on my own.

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was originally published in 1953, and seems to be even more relevant today than we might want to admit. Guy Montag is a book-burning fireman that used to enjoy his job but is beginning to have some doubts. The boring life he leads with his wife contrasts drastically with that of his young neighbor Clarisse. This young girl inspires Guy’s doubts through her interest in books. When Clarisse mysteriously disappears, he decides to make some changes and begins hiding books in his home. When his wife turns him in, he is expected to burn his secret cache of books. Guy runs from authorities and winds up joining a group of outlaw scholars who keep the contents of books in their heads, hoping society will once again desire the wisdom of literature.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was originally published in 1960, and remains on my list of favorite books. We are introduced to the Finch family in the summer before Scout’s first year at school. Scout, her brother Jem, and Dill Harris,spend their days reenacting scenes from Dracula and trying to get a peek at the town bogeyman, Boo Radley. The alleged rape of Mayella Ewell, the daughter of a drunk and violent white farmer, has no impart on the children. But when their father Atticus defends the accused, Tom Robinson, they find themselves caught up in events beyond their understanding. As the trial progresses the good and bad of human nature is clearly exposed with the key aspects being the heroism of Atticus Finch, who stands up for what he knows is right, and in Scout’s learning to see that most people are essentially kind. To Kill a Mockingbird is funny, wise, and heartbreaking, and deserves to be reread often.

1984

1984 was written by George Orwell in 1948, and still stands as chilling prophecy about the future. This novel is set in a future world which is dominated by three warring totalitarian police states. Winston Smith’s longing for truth and decency leads him to secretly rebel against the government. Smith has a love affair with a like-minded woman, but they are both arrested by the Thought Police. The resulting imprisonment, torture, and reeducation of Smith are intended not merely to break him physically or make him submit but to destroy independent thought and spiritual dignity.

Dracula, Silas Marner, War of the Worlds, Pride and Prejudice, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Stranger in a Strange Land are some of my other favorite classic or assigned reads. Do you have a favorite book that you were required to read in school, or one you read afterwards that you wished you had been assigned to read?

Why Do The Classics Matter?

You had to read them in high school, or maybe for a coCLASSICllege English class. Some you may have liked, some you may have hated. There may have been titles you really wanted to read, but never quite got to. Some may have even been banned in your area of the country.

What are they? They are “the classics”.

Works of fiction that are considered classics have stood the test of time, have something important to say about their contemporary time period, or were a “first” of some kind. They are not daunting, or scary, or frightening to read.

Why read a classic? For all of the reasons listed above.  Reading a classic tells you something about a particular time period, or the thoughts, feelings, prejudices, motives of contemporary people. They tell us something about us as people. You may find that we are not that different than some of these infamous literary characters.

Many of us have read only a small selection of the world’s greatest books. The Cheshire Cats Classics is a book club for people who want to delve deeper into the world of classics to discover people, places and things which have become a part of our culture.