Wednesday, February 29, 2012

the last book I ever read (Slaughterhouse-Five, excerpt four)

from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five:

Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the first, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody good as new.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

the last book I ever read (Slaughterhouse-Five, excerpt three)

from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five:

Somewhere in there was an awful scene, with people expressing disgust for Billy and the woman, and Billy found himself out in his automobile, trying to find the steering wheel.

The main thing now was to find the steering wheel. At first, Billy windmilled his arms, hoping to find it by luck. When that didn't work, he became methodical, working in such a way that the wheel could not possibly escape him. He placed himself hard against the left-hand door, searched every square inch of the area before him. When he failed to find the wheel, he moved over six inches, and searched again. Amazingly, he was eventually hard against the right-hand door, without having found the wheel. He concluded that somebody had stolen it. This angered him as he passed out.

He was in the back seat of his car, which was why he couldn't find the steering wheel.

Monday, February 27, 2012

the last book I ever read (Slaughterhouse-Five, excerpt two)

from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five:

Billy blinked in 1958, traveled in time to 1961. It was New Year's Eve, and Billy was disgracefully drunk at a party where everybody was in optometry or married to an optometrist.

Billy usually didn't drink much, because the war had ruined his stomach, but he certainly had a snootful now, and he was being unfaithful to his wife Valencia for the first and only time. He had somehow persuaded a woman to come into the laundry room of the house, and then sit up on the gas dryer, which was running.

The woman was very drunk herself, and she helped Billy get her girdle off. "What was it you wanted to talk about?" she said.

Friday, February 24, 2012

the last book I ever read (Slaughterhouse-Five, excerpt one)

from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five:

The orchestration of the moment was this: Barbara was only twenty-one years old, but she thought her father was senile, even though he was only forty-six--senile because of damage to his brain in the airplane crash. She also thought that she was head of the family, since she had had to manage her mother's funeral, since she had to get a housekeeper for Billy, and all that. Also, Barbara and her husband were having to look after Billy's business interests, which were considerable, since Billy didn't seem to give a damn for business any more. All this responsibility at such an early age made her a bitchy flibbertigibbet. And Billy, meanwhile, was trying to hang onto his dignity, to persuade Barbara and everybody else that he was far from senile, that, on the contrary, he was devoting himself to a calling much higher than mere business.

He was doing nothing less now, he thought, than prescribing corrective lenses for Earthling souls. So many of those souls were lost and wretched, Billy believed, because they could not see as well as his little green friends on Tralfamadore.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

the last book I ever read (And So It Goes, excerpt six)

from And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields:

He had made choices, consciously or unconsciously, that had created multiple and even contradictory identities. He was a counterculture hero, a guru, and a leftist to his fans; a wealthy investor to his broker; a champion of family and community and yet a distant father; a man who had left his "child-centered" home to save his sanity, but then married a younger woman who was leading him into fatherhood again; a satirist of American life but feeding at the trough of celebrity up to his ears.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

the last book I ever read (And So It Goes, excerpt five)

from And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields:

For Kurt's fiftieth birthday in November 1972, Jill threw him a party. There was an additional reason to celebrate: he had finally completed Breakfast of Champions, a fiftieth birthday present to himself, he said. He felt as if he were "crossing the spine of a roof--having ascended the slope."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

the last book I ever read (And So It Goes, excerpt four)

from And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields:

The first thing Vonnegut noticed about his guest was his long, intelligent face and whiskery Vandyke beard, which, added to his rawboned frame, made him resemble a carnival magician. Despite being one of the most widely anthologized American science fiction writers, Sturgeon was haggard looking. He had been writing nonstop for days. His readership for new novels was rather small, and despite his standing in the literary community of his peers, reviewers ignored him. What the conversation at dinner was like, Vonnegut couldn't recall later, but he never forgot what followed.

In high school, Sturgeon had been captain of his gymnastic team, and he announced that he would perform one of his best trucks. Clearing away some of the furniture in the living room, he stood with his feet together, back straight, arms outstretched, and suddenly he whirled backward in a flip. But instead of landing upright, he hit the floor on his knees, shaking the whole house.

Struggling to his feet, "humiliated and laughing in agony," Kurt could tell, Sturgeon would become the model for one of Vonnegut's best-know characters: Kilgore Trout, the wise fool of science fiction, ignored, sold only in pornographic bookstores, and half-mad with frustration. But Sturgeon wasn't a fictional character--his reversals and the blows to his pride were real. And Kurt was afraid he had just witnessed a glimpse of his own future, too. "Kilgore Trout is the lonesome and unappreciated writer I thought I might become."

Friday, February 17, 2012

the last book I ever read (And So It Goes, excerpt three)

from And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields:

Now and then, Mary Lou returned home from college for a visit and to help with the store. She was persnickety about her rented-out bedroom and didn't like seeing the wastebasket stuffed with wadded sheets of Mr. Vonnegut's typing paper. Each time it happened, she burned them in her mother's incinerator. Years later, she regretted doing that.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

the last book I ever read (And So It Goes, excerpt two)

from And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields:

To dull the ache in his belly and sharpen his wits, Vonnegut, like everyone else, bartered smokes for food and vice versa. A good touch for food was Private Edward "Joe" Crone from Rochester, New York, because he would always swap his portions for smokes. Feeling a little guilty, the other prisoners took his bread, cheese, or soup in exchange for cigarettes, which he constantly craved.

In fact, there was something unworldly, and definitely unsoldierly, about Crone all around. Just a glance at his childlike face framed by big ears said he would never have a nickname like "Rocky" or "Brownie" the way two other guys in the Arbeitskommando did. He told everyone he was going to be ordained an Episcopalian minister when he got home. Before the war, as proof of his seriousness about his ministerial calling, he had listed on his application to Hobart College the dates of fives years of perfect attendance at St. Paul's Episcopal Sunday School in Rochester. His high school assistant principal, wondering how to praise a youngster who had a reputation for being physically awkward and shy, recommended Joe to the admissions office at Hobart as a young man "possessed of great moral courage."

In his sophomore year at Hobart, he was drafted and Joe made an uncomplaining but terrible infantryman. On long marches, his assigned buddy in the 423rd regiment would get fed up having to "walk behind him and pick up all the utensils falling out of his backpack. He could never do it right." He seemed unwilling to believe that his survival would largely depend on what he carried. Observing him, Vonnegut realized, "Joe didn't understand the war and of course there was nothing to understand. The world had gone completely mad.

In this bewildered young man who kept expecting a rationale that would explain to his satisfaction the ultimate bedlam that is war, Vonnegut later found the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, for his novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

the last book I ever read (And So It Goes, excerpt one)

from And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields:

After spending Friday and Saturday at home relaxing on leave, Kurt was awakened by Alice early Sunday morning, Mother's Day. Something was wrong with Mother, she said. Together, they went quietly into her bedroom, where Kurt bent over his mother. He left to get his father, who was sleeping in another room. Edith Vonnegut, age fifty-six, was dead from an overdose of sleeping pills.

There was no note by the bedside. There didn't need to be, although she might have left some words to assuage her family's grief. Edith Vonnegut's upper-class ideology had failed her. Faced with adversity, she couldn't adjust her hopes, her pretensions, not even her existence to the changes in her situation. Lying in bed for many days at a time, too unhappy to rise, she listened disconsolately to the radio and the laughter that might just as well have been directed at her. Later in his life, Vonnegut attributed his mother's death to a refined nature that wasn't strong enough to stand up to the times. "It was the war itself that wrecked my mother, and not was against Germany." The simple truth was, Edith Vonnegut deigned not to go on living if she had to be like everybody else.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

the last book I ever read (Nothing to Envy, excerpt four)

from Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea:

In the first years of the food shortage, the children at the train station survived by begging food, but before long there were simply too many of them and too few people with food to spare. "Charity begins with a full stomach," the North Koreans like to say; you can't feed somebody else's kids if your own are starving.

When begging failed, the children picked up anything on the ground that was vaguely edible. If they couldn't find food, they would pick up cigarette butts and reroll whatever tobacco remained with discarded paper. Almost all the children smoked to dampen their hunger.

Hyuck sometimes joined up with children who formed themselves into gangs to steal together. Chongjin always had a nasty reputation due to its street gangs, but their activities took on new urgency in hard times. There was a natural division of labor between the bigger kids--who were faster and stronger--and the little ones, who were less likely to get beaten up and arrested if caught. The big ones would rush at a food stand, toppling everything onto the ground. As they sprinted off with the angry vendor in hot pursuit, the little kids would scoop up the food.

Another trick was to find a slow-moving train or a truck carrying grain and slit the sacks with a sharp stick. Whatever spilled out was fair game for the children. Eventually, the railroad company hired armed guards with shoot-to-kill orders to prevent such thefts.

Friday, February 10, 2012

the last book I ever read (Nothing to Envy, excerpt three)

from Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea:

Hardly a day went by that Mrs. Song didn't stumble across the dead and dying. For all she had been through with her own family, she could not get used to the constant presence of death. Late one day on her way home from the market, she took a detour to the train station, hoping to find customers for some unsold cookies. Workers were sweeping up the station's plaza. A couple of men walked by, pulling a heavy cart. Mrs. Song looked to see what they were transporting. It was a heap of bodies, maybe six of them, people who had died at the station overnight. A few bony limbs flopped out of the cart. A head lolled as the cart jostled over the pavement. Mrs. Song stared; the head belonged to a man about forty years old. His eyes blinked faintly. Not quite dead yet, but close enough to be carted away.

Mrs. Song couldn't help thinking of her own dear husband and son. How fortunate she was that at least they died at home in their beds, and she was able to give them a proper burial.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

the last book I ever read (Nothing to Envy, excerpt two)

from Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea:

The line bore little relationship to anything in Korean history or geography. The little thumb jutting out of China that is the Korean peninsula is a well-delineated landmass with the Sea of Japan to the east, the Yellow Sea to west, and the Yalu and Tumen Rivers forming the boundary with China. Nothing about it suggests that there is a natural place to carve it in two. For the 1,300 years prior to the Japanese occupation, Korea had been a unified country governed by the Chosun dynasty, one of the longest-lived monarchies in world history. Before the Chosun dynasty, there were three kingdoms vying for power on the peninsula. Political schisms tended to run north to south, the east gravitating naturally toward Japan and the west to China. The bifurcation between north and south was an entirely foreign creation, cooked up in Washington and stamped on the Koreans without any input from them. One story has it that the secretary of state at the time, Edward Stettinius, had to ask a subordinate where Korea was.

Koreans were infuriated to be partitioned in the same way as the Germans. After all, they had not been aggressors in World War II, but victims. Koreans at the time described themselves with a self-deprecating expression, saying they were "shrimp among whales," crushed between the rivalries of the superpowers.

Neither superpower was willing to cede ground to allow for an independent Korea. The Koreans themselves were splintered into more than a dozen rival factions, many with Communist sympathies. The temporary demarcations on the map soon hardened into facts on the ground. In 1948, the Republic of Korea was created under the leadership of the seventy-year-old Syngman Rhee, a crusty conservative with a PhD from Princeton. Kim Il-sung, an anti-Japanese resistance fighter backed by Moscow, quickly followed suit be declaring his state the Democratic People's Republic of Korea--North Korea. The line along the 38th parallel would solidify into a 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide thicket of concertina wire, tank traps, trenches, embankments, moats, artillery pieces, and land mines.

With both sides claiming to be the legitimate government of Korea, war was inevitable. Before dawn on Sunday morning, June 25, 1950, Kim Il-sung's troops stormed across the border with Soviet-supplied tanks. They quickly captured Seoul and swept southward until all that was left of South Korea was a pocket around the southeastern coastal city of Pusan. The daring amphibious landing at Incheon of forty thousand U.S. troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur in September reversed the Communist gains. Besides the United States and South Korea, troops of fifteen nations joined a U.N. coalition--among them Britain, Australia, Canada, France, and the Netherlands. They recaptured Seoul and headed north to Pyongyang and beyond. As they approached the Yalu River, however, Chinese Communist forces entered the war and pushed them back. Two more years of fighting produced only frustration and stalemate. By the time an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, nearly three million people were dead and the peninsula lay in ruins. The border remained more or less along the 38th parallel. Even by the dubious standards of twentieth-century warcraft, it was a futile and unsatisfying war.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

the last book I ever read (Nothing to Envy, excerpt one)

from Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea:

As the Japanese emperor read his statement over the radio, across the globe in Washington, D.C., two young army officers huddled over a National Geographic Society map, wondering what to do about Korea. Nobody in Washington knew much about this obscure Japanese colony. While elaborate plans has been drawn up for the postwar occupation of Germany and Japan, Korea was an afterthought. The Japanese had ruled for thirty-five years, and with their abrupt withdrawal there would be a dangerous power vacuum. The United State was concerned that the Soviet Union might seize Korea as a staging ground on the way to the bigger prize of Japan. Despite the World War II alliance, distrust of the Soviet Union was growing in Washington. Soviet troops had already entered Korea from the north the week before Japan's surrender and were poised to keep going. The Americans sought to appear the Soviets by giving them the northern half of Korea to administer in what was supposed to be a temporary trusteeship. The officers, one of whom was Dean Rusk, later to become secretary of state, wanted to keep the capital, Seoul, in the U.S. sector. So the two army officers looked for a convenient way to divide the peninsula. They slapped a line across the map at the 38th parallel.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

the last book I ever read (Ragtime, excerpt four)

from E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime:

About two hours later Coalhouse Walker Jr. came down the stairs of the Library with his arms raised and started to walk across 36th Street to the brownstone. This was according to the negotiated agreement. The street had been cleared of all observers. Facing him on the opposite sidewalk was a squad of New York's Finest armed with carbines. Lined up from one sidewalk to the other were two troops of mounted police facing each other at a distance of thirty yards, the horses shoulder to shoulder, so that a kind of corridor was formed. Coalhouse was therefore not visible to anyone looking on from the intersections at Madison Avenue or, more remotely, Park Avenue. The generators on the corner made a fearsome roar. In the bright floodlit street the black man was said by the police to have made a dash for freedom. More probably he knew that all he must do in order to end his life was to turn his head abruptly or lower his hands or smile. Inside the Library, Father heard the coordinated volley of a firing squad. He screamed. He ran to the window. The body jerked about the street in a sequence of attitudes as if it were trying to mop up its own blood. The policemen were firing at will.

Monday, February 6, 2012

the last book I ever read (Ragtime, excerpt three)

from E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime:

The most fascinating of all was a small, limber man who wore jodhpurs and a white silk shirt open at the neck and a flat white linen cap with a button. He was a flamboyant, excited person whose eyes darted here and there, like a child's, afraid of what they might miss. He carried on a chain around his neck a rectangular glass framed in metal which he often held up to his face as if to compose for a mental photograph what it was that had captured his attention. One cloudy morning on the hotel porch it turned out to be Mother. Caught in the act he came over and in a thick foreign accent made profuse apologies. He was, he said, the Baron Ashkenazy. He was in the moving-picture business and the glass rectangle was a tool of the trade which he could not forbear using even when on vacation. He laughed sheepishly and Mother was charmed.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

happy Super Bowl Sunday

I had every intention of making posts a little less personal, but on Friday Deadspin ran my 49ers interview with Clint Malarchuk and last night the Tusk book was mentioned in the first paragraph of an LA Times piece on Best Coast and this morning Bethany Cosentino was kind enough to send a very sweet tweet.

all of which combine to warm the cold cockles quite agreeably.

and to make sure it lasts until kickoff I've got an early afternoon delivery from John Brown Smokehouse scheduled.

happy happy joy joy.

Friday, February 3, 2012

the last book I ever read (Ragtime, excerpt two)

from E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime:

After the bombing of the Municipal Fire Station, when Coalhouse's picture was published on every front page in the country, he sat down with a sheet over his shoulder and permitted one of the young men to shave his head and his neat moustache. The change in him was striking. His shaven head seemed massive. Younger Brother understood that whatever its practical justification this was no less than a ritualistic grooming for the final battle. A day or two later one of the band brought in the daily papers with photographs of the Model T raised from the pond. This tangible proof of the force of Coalhouse's will made them all feel holy. By the time they received news of Willie Conklin's flight and sat down to discuss the proper response, they were so transformed as to speak of themselves collectively as Coalhouse. Coalhouse gone to that coal and ice yard, one of them said, Willie be a dead man now. We missed our chance. Naw, Brother, another said, he better to us alive. He keeping Coalhouse in the folks' minds. He a plague. Now we going do something so terrible bad in this town, no one ever mess with a colored man for fear he belong to Coalhouse.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

the last book I ever read (Ragtime, excerpt one)

from E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime:

Evelyn saw stores with Hebrew signs in the windows, the Hebrew letters looking to her eyes like arrangements of bones. She saw the iron fire escapes on the tenements as tiers of cellblocks. Nags in their yokes lifted their bowed heads to gaze at her.