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Book Review: Armageddon In Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut

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On the anniversary of his death, Kurt Vonnegut's son, Mark Vonnegut, released this latest collection of the famous author's early short stories, as well as an essay, a speech, and a letter to his parents written from a prisoner of war repatriation camp in France towards the end of World War Two. Armageddon In Retrospect opens with an introduction written by Mark Vonnegut, providing a brief glimpse into the writing habits and lifestyle of Kurt Vonnegut.

The book includes a written copy of Vonnegut's speech presented at Butler University's Clowes Hall. Always a joker, this speech provides a taste of some of the vintage Vonnegut sense of humor.  In the speech, he provides advice to new writers: "Don't use semi-colons!"

Perhaps the most moving sample included is a simple letter, written by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. to his parents, after he was released as a prisoner of war during World War Two. During this time period, Vonnegut witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden by American troops. These two events, being a P.O.W. in WWII and witnessing American troops bomb Dresden, seemed to be the primary pivotal events that shaped and influenced much of the recurring tone throughout Vonnegut's writing. They provide some of the framework for Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, among others. The short stories included in Armageddon In Retrospect are further examples of the impact of these themes throughout Vonnegut's work. They serve as his early attempts at creating tales from his memories of these tragic events.

From Wailing Shall Be In All Streets:

The occupying Russians, when they discovered that we were Americans, embraced us and congratulated us on the complete desolation our planes had wrought. We accepted their congratulations with good grace and proper modesty, but I felt then as I feel now, that I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World's generations to come. That is how everyone should feel about every city on Earth.

A couple of the short stories included in the book, specifically Great Day and Armageddon In Retrospect (for which the book is named), venture into Vonnegut's more whimsical fantasy or science fiction settings.

Although perhaps not the best examples of his work, this collection does provide a framework for some of Vonnegut's recurring underlying themes. I would venture to guess that one reason Vonnegut did not seek publication for these stories during his lifetime was that most were early exercises in honing his own voice. For someone new to Vonnegut's work, I would recommend starting with one or two of the novels that better represent both his writing style as well as his satire, such as Slapstick or Sirens of Titan.

I expect that this book would be appreciated by loyal Vonnegut fans as further insight into the work and musings of the author who experienced much in his 84 years and felt compelled to write about his, as he put it, "disgust with civilization" in a way that caused many of his readers to seriously reflect yet still laugh about the dismal state of affairs.

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About Lisa Damian

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • Kurt Vonnegut is, in my opinion, the number one most influential writer of the last part of the 20th Century. His influence is still profound; Recent writers, such as Fiona Maazel and Kevin Brockmeier are borrowing directly from Vonnegut, renewing many of his ideas in a post-9/11 world.

    Thanks for the review, and pointing out this book for me. I definitely want to add it to my wish list.