book review: Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

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CAT’S CRADLE by Kurt Vonnegut
★★★★☆
Dial Press, 1998
originally published in 1963

 

This is one of those books that’s more interesting to think about than it is to read. The main word I’d use to describe this deceptively short book is tedious – though Vonnegut hits his mark with the humor more often than not, the meandering, repetitive style gets old, and even the once-funny jokes start to become stale. It’s also the kind of classic that hasn’t aged well, at all; jokes about dwarfism and sexist remarks abound – it’s inevitably going to induce more than a few cringes from the modern reader.

So, why 4 stars? Because it’s fascinating and smart as hell. This novel is filled to the brim with intriguing, relevant, timeless ideas: how religion adapts to suit the needs of the people, conceptions of social identity and what it means to belong to a group, the paradoxical role of science in how it’s used by humanity – both for medicine and for warfare. The interplay between science and religion in this novel is done so well, as is the bizarre fusion of absurdity and realism. This was my first Vonnegut, and I can’t help but to think I would have enjoyed his work a bit more if I’d read it when I was a teenager, but it was every bit as thought-provoking as I’d been led to believe and I’ll certainly be looking into reading more of his works at some point.

I read this novel as a part of the Traveling Book Review organized by Kaleena over at Reader Voracious: Kaleena shipped out her copy of Cat’s Cradle and a group of us are sending it around and scribbling notes in the margins while we read.  It was such fun!  I was only the third on the list, so I’m excited to see what everyone else thinks.

18 thoughts on “book review: Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Great review! I first read this when I was in high school, and enjoyed the style a lot; the brief chapters and scattered focus seemed much less tiresome back then. Definitely agree that for adults it’s a book that’s more interesting to think about than read.

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    • I really wish I’d read it in high school! I think it’s one of those books like The Catcher in the Rye that teens can really connect to but adults may find a bit self-indulgent. But still, even if I didn’t think it was perfect I’m glad I read it and am definitely eager to try more from Vonnegut.

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    • Oh I’m glad! Tedious is just one of its many attributes, lol. And it was a VERY quick read, with some of the shortest chapters I’ve ever seen. Just a bit ‘get to the point already Vonnegut.’ But still, all kinds of brilliant ideas in here. I’d love to hear your thoughts when you read it.

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  2. Vonnegut’s a favourite of my dad and brother, and I like his style (as a human) a lot too. You might find Mother Night less full of jokes that have aged badly (I’ve just read The Sirens of Titan and although the sexism was slightly less noticeable, it’s implicit in the emotions and thoughts that Vonnegut chooses to foreground).

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    • That’s funny, Mother Night is the one I was already thinking of picking up next! I’d had that recommended to me before at some point so I think it’s the only one of his books that’s actually on my Goodreads TBR. I’ll probably check out Slaughterhouse 5 at some point, and Sirens of Titan sounds appealing as well. The period typical sexism is certainly grating but definitely not the defining factor in my experience with these male-authored modern classics.

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  3. I used to LOVE Vonnegut as a teenager, but my problem with him ended up being what you said in your review — the style and the jokes get old. While there are a couple standouts, most of his books feel like the same thing over and over again. The more of him I read, the less I liked his writing, although it’s been a while since I’ve tried anything new. Mother Night was definitely my favorite read by him, and Look at the Birdie was a great collection as well! Slaughterhouse Five was also a favorite, but it was a) my first Vonnegut and b) something I read when I was 16, so I’d need a reread to confirm that.

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    • You literally just described my EXACT experience with Murakami dsklfjdsklf These straight men always let us down…. I was really enchanted by his style when I was a teenager but the older I got the more I was like oh, this is actually appallingly sexist and every single book is just a variation on the same thing. There’s still merit to his writing and I want to revisit it at some point but so much of the magic has gone out of it.

      ANYWAY I really really wish I’d read Vonnegut as a teenager for that reason, I feel like I would have connected a lot with his books when I was younger. Still looking forward to checking out more, but definitely not New Favorite Author status. Steph recommended Mother Night to me ages ago so that’s definitely the one I’ll pick up next!!

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  4. Wonderful review, Rachel, and I am glad that you enjoyed thinking about the themes brought forward in this one! I know a lot of this book didn’t age well, but for some reason I just love the concept of floating onward to the end, and Bokonism is really interesting to me!

    While Vonnegut is my favorite author, I haven’t read most of his work in at least ten years. I remember the themes the most and not the nuances of storytelling. One of my favorite things about his work is he kind of plagiarizes himself often and borrows from his body of work to make almost a treasure hunt of references. Kilgore Trout makes an appearance in many of his books, Howard W. Campbell Jr in Slaughterhouse Five gets his own narrative in Mother Night, and the Tralfmadorians of SH5 get their own spotlight in Sirens of Titan.

    I do want to note that repetition is one of Vonnegut’s main literary devices that crops up in most of his books. SH5 you get “So it goes,” Mother Night has the “moral of the story.” In SH5 particularly, where ‘so it goes’ is repeated 106 times every time there is a death, driving home the fatalism and meaninglessness. It frustrates a lot of readers, but it is also very impactful.

    If I were going to suggest someone to read his work, I almost want to suggest SH5 first because his other works draw from it in such a way that makes reading the other books really fun. But the good thing is that while they are connected, they aren’t really “connected” and can be read in any order. I might re-read Mother Night this weekend, actually.

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    • Thank you for the comprehensive comment Kaleena! I loved hearing your thoughts on this, especially as someone who’s been a Vonnegut fan for a while. One internet tendency that annoys me is how everyone wants to view certain issues as completely black and white, and I think something like this is a perfect example. Yes, there are hideously sexist and ableist elements to this book; yes, it still has value outside that. So I was definitely able to enjoy the thematic elements I mentioned. I found Bokononism fascinating too, and there was so much brilliant and frighteningly relevant commentary on U.S. foreign policy. So timely to read right before the election!

      And thanks for the advice on which of his books to read next. I was leaning toward Mother Night but now I think I’ll definitely go with Slaughterhouse Five, it seems like a good starting point. Then Mother Night after… and then I’ll see if I want to continue with Vonnegut or not! I’m so glad I have officially been introduced to his works! He clearly has a brilliant mind.

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