A Man Without a Country (Kurt Vonnegut)

4 out of 5 Stars

Cut to the Chase:
“You know the truth can be really powerful stuff.  You’re not expecting it…” This is a wonderfully put together collection of essays; Vonnegut’s voice is distinct, cutting, witty and insightful.  The essays are very opinionated and after a while, you can easily predict some of his standpoints, yet they’re expressed so vividly that the collection is still worth reading, still compelling.  He compares Cinderella to Kafka, and then both to Hamlet (there’s a very interesting, but brief, section near the beginning where he includes graphs showing character journeys of each of these stories).  He talks about the war and his childhood as a jokester, admits that his wife is the oldest woman he’s slept with, discusses his writing life, the war, and how he feels as though he should sue the cigarette companies for not killing him off.  This was a quick read that I finished in the bookstore, but then had to buy anyway.

Greater Detail:
Perhaps it would be best to just give you some snippets from the book, so that you can be the judge of whether you’ll appreciate Vonnegut’s particular voice and personality:

“Starting when I was only twelve years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls.  And for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me… But I am now eighty-two…”

There were times, like above, when I would laugh aloud at the confessions the eighty-two year old Vonnegut was making of his life’s lessons and self-proclaimed ignorance.  A Man Without a Country pulls you along with its conciseness, its crispness, to give you a multi-layered look at his thoughts:

“Our president is a Christian?  So was Adolf Hitler…”

“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC”

His writing on the war in Iraq (though many of the viewpoints, again, are ones I have heard and read before, if not from Vonnegut, then from others) is so precisely written that it’s really worth the read:

“In case you haven’t noticed, our unelected leaders have dehumanized millions and millions of human beings simply because of their religion and race.  We wound ‘em and kill ‘em and torture ‘em and imprison ‘em all we want.
Piece of cake.
In case you haven’t noticed, we also dehumanized our own soldiers, not because of their religion or race, but because of their low social class.
Send ‘em anywhere.  Make ‘em do anything.”

They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas…”

He often speaks directly to the reader, as if in conversation, he tells you when he’s kidding, and at other times, you’re left guessing.  Much of it is commentary on a variety of levels:

“Can I tell you the truth?  I mean this isn’t the TV news is it?  Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial.  And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.”

It is philosophical at times, and although it is usually clear which “side” Vonnegut is on throughout his writing, the prose is still so well-written that it makes you think twice, even when it’s a view you’ve heard before:

“ ‘Socialism’ is no more an evil word than ‘Christianity.’  Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition.  Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.”

This book is definitely not for everyone.  The writing is great, which makes it worthwhile from my viewpoint…but, appreciating the concise but stylized writing aside, you’re only really going to truly enjoy A Man Without a Country if you agree with at least some of his views… from the excerpts above, you can probably tell if you’ll love it or hate it.

 Comparisons to Other Authors:
I haven’t read enough memoirs for this to be meaningful… The Last Lecture was technically a memoir, but in a very different situation, but a non-writer sharing life lessons. Margaret Atwood had a collection I would consider similar-ish, but still too different to compare. I will say that I like Vonnegut’s nonfiction (e.g. this) as opposed to his fiction.

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