Tag: Cat’s Cradle

Top 50 Books List (2012 edition): 30-16

You’ve seen my 50-31 books of all time, now it’s time for the next 15. Get ready for 30-16. Remember, series only count as one spot. Click on the titles that are links for fuller reviews.

30. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

“It’s like when you put instant rice pudding mix in a bowl in the microwave and push the button, and you take the cover off when it rings, and there you’ve got ricing pudding. I mean, what happens in between the time when you push the switch and when the microwave rings? You can’t tell what’s going on under the cover. Maybe the instant rice pudding first turns into macaroni gratin in the darkness when nobody’s looking and only then turns back into rice pudding. We think it’s only natural to get rice pudding after we put rice pudding mix in the microwave and the bell rings, but to me, that is just a presumption. I would be kind of relieved if, every once in a while, after you put rice pudding mix in the microwave and it rang and you opened the top, you got macaroni gratin. I suppose I’d be shocked, of course, but I don’t know, I think I’d be kind of relieved too. Or at least I think I wouldn’t be so upset, because that would feel, in some ways, a whole lot more real.”

I reviewed this book a few weeks ago and it won’t even be the most recent entry onto this list. Just go read that review to find out why this books is so awesome.

29. The Commitments – Roddy Doyle

“Soul is the music people understand. Sure it’s basic and it’s simple. But it’s something else ’cause, ’cause, ’cause it’s honest, that’s it. Its honest. There’s no fuckin’ bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there’s a lot of different music you can get off on but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite.”

A hilarious novel about trying to form a soul band in northern Dublin. Doyle writes music better than anybody else I’ve seen. It’s hard to do but he pulls it off.

28. Danny the Champion of the World – Roald Dahl

“I was glad my father was an eye-smiler. It meant he never gave me a fake smile because it’s impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you aren’t feeling twinkly yourself. A mouth-smile is different. You can fake a mouth-smile any time you want, simply by moving your lips. I’ve also learned that a real mouth-smile always has an eye-smile to go with it. So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you but his eyes stay the same. It’s sure to be a phony.”

This story is the definition of ‘wonderful’. Roald Dahl is one of the best kid-lit authors there ever was, and this charming tale of a boy and his dad and their pheasant-snatching escapade is top notch Dahl.

27. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke

“I mean that two of any thing is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery. Two must always watch each other. The eyes of all the world will be on two, uncertain which of them to follow.”

This, like the Magician series in the previous post, came out after the Harry Potter boom. It deals with magic and magicians, although in a completely different manner. It takes place during the Napoleonic Wars and it is written to emulate the literary style of the time. There are two magicians with wildly differing points of view on how magic can be used to beat the short Frenchman which, of course, builds to an epic rivalry. It’s a large book but completely worth the length.

26. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut

“People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order so they’ll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything really meaningful to say.”

What starts off as a man on a quest to write about the invention of the atomic bomb becomes the funniest post-apocalypse story you’ll ever read. Vonnegut does the sci-fi and the humor perfectly, as always. And the Koans of Bokonon, some guy who made up his own religion, are delightfully insightful while also making fun of the idea of religious living.

25. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

“A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. It was hardly a tune. But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.”

I first heard this series as my father read it to me every night before bed. Then, when I got older, I read it myself. I went back and reread it again semi-recently and it was just as good. Lewis’s Narnia is a vast and intriguing universe with all kinds of different stories to be told within it.

24. Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories – Dr. Seuss

“And the turtles, of course…all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”

This is basically a stand-in for all Dr. Seuss books. They formed such an important part of my childhood that they must have a place on this list. His felicity with the English language is something all writers should strive for.

23. Maus – Art Spiegelman

“Sometimes I don’t feel like a functioning adult”

This book (or pair of books) is a memoir and a family history of the author’s father and mother and their fight to stay alive during the Holocaust. Also, they’re all mice. The device of making each nationality a different species is the hook, but the meat is probably the best Holocaust story I’ve ever encountered in any medium.

22. The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh is growing his talent. He started by writing plays, then he moved on to short films (he won an Oscar for Six Shooter), and this year he’s releasing his second feature film, Seven Psychopaths. All of his stories, regardless of medium, share a dark sense of humor and a distinct sense of place. There’s also a surprising amount of heart in each of his stories. It’s quite a feat to get so dirty and then pull out an emotional climax.

21. Watership Down – Richard Adams

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”

This is the story of talking rabbits. It should not, however, be confused with kid-lit. It is a very adult book, full of allusions and philosophical musings. It’s a road book and a settling book and a war book and an escape book. It’s a book about talking rabbits that is as profound as anything else on this list.

20. Hamlet – William Shakespeare

“Lord Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Lord Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
Hamlet: Between who?
Lord Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.”

Shakespeare is a funny guy. Even his tragedies have wordplay and clever little exchanges like the one quoted above. I don’t know why, then, I don’t like his comedies all that much. He’s a master of tragedy (historical or not), but the comedies never come together for me. Give me Hamlet’s sarcasm any day of the week. Also, ghosts.

19. Cosmicomics – Italo Calvino

“I could distinguish the shape of her bosom, her arms, her thighs, just as I remember them now, just as now, when the Moon has become that flat, remote circle, I still look for her as soon as the first sliver appears in the sky, and the more it waxes, the more clearly I imagine I can see her, her or something of her, but only her, in a hundred, a thousand different vistas, she who makes the Moon the Moon and, whenever she is full, sets the dogs to howling all night long, and me with them.”

Here’s a strange book. A collection of short stories, some with an idea of a recurring character, though he takes different shapes depending on the story that is being told. Each story takes on a scientific concept and extrapolates it out into a kind of fairy-tale. Calvino’s mixture of science and fiction is unlike any other sci-fi you’ll read.

18. Winnie-the-Pooh – A.A. Milne

“What I like doing best is Nothing.”

“How do you do Nothing,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.

“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.

It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

“Oh!” said Pooh.”

Pooh is a bear of very little brain. That doesn’t make him useless. He’s a vital part of our cultural heritage and the world would be a better place if everybody read this collection of short stories every five years. Sometimes it’s important to remember how things really work, and how to have fun, and what’s important, truly. Pooh, despite his very little brain, remembers.

17. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

“When I was a girl, my life was music that was always getting louder.
Everything moved me. A dog following a stranger. That made me feel so much. A calendar that showed the wrong month. I could have cried over it. I did. Where the smoke from a chimney ended. How an overturned bottle rested at the edge of a table.
I spent my life learning to feel less.
Every day I felt less.
Is that growing old? Or is it something worse?
You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.”

Both of Foer’s fiction works have been adapted into films. Both films lose large chunks of the story in order to fit everything into a two hour package. It is those missing chunks that are vital to the power of his stories. They are about everything. Love and loss, happiness and sadness, history and family. This book incorporates two timelines, a diary, a fictionalized version of the author, and a magical realist book that tells the history of a small town in Eastern Europe. It’s beautiful.

16. The Dark Tower Series – Stephen King

“Jake went in, aware that he had, for the first time in three weeks, opened a door without hoping madly to find another world on the other side. A bell jingled overhead. The mild, spicy smell of old books hit him, and the smell was somehow like coming home.”

I could have just as easily picked another quote from this series to stand in for all seven books worth of writing: Go, then, there are other worlds than these. It is a eulogy of sorts in the book, but it gets at the overriding idea of the series. It connects most of King’s works into a grand universe unparalleled in fiction. It’s a huge series, full of pulp and profundity, like all of King’s works.

The Handmaid’s Tale; The Old Man and the Sea; Cat’s Cradle

Faith is only a word, embroidered.

Do not think about sin, he thought. There are enough problems now without sin. Also I have no understanding of it.

“No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s . . .”
“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”


I recently went on vacation to Portland, Maine. I took a few books with me to read, waiting to decide which one would get the call up from the general population to a seat of high honor until I arrived at our destination and got a feel for the place. You can’t just charge into these things willy-nilly. The lucky book was a used copy of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know why. Anyways, I read it, and I got some new used books. I finished it on our second night there. The next night I had to decide what book would succeed it. I took our location into account and decided that Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea should enjoy its reign. It was short, a one night stand. And then, finally, I chose to re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, a book I hadn’t read since high school and had only vague memories drifting around in my head. These three books in the span of a week. So there won’t be any single review, instead let us look at each book as it relates to the other. Because what good are coincidences if they are not explored?

The Handmaid’s Tale and The Old Man and the Sea

Here are two books that seem to be complete opposites. Atwood’s prose is, quite literally, flowery. We are introduced piece by piece into a world where the religious zealots have taken over and made everything more sacred. Some women are lucky, married to officers in the new government, and enjoy some degree of freedom. Others are less lucky and are forced to have sex with the officers in the stead of the wives because such an act cannot be left to chance anymore, and these women are the best bets for conception, that most holy of acts. The remaining women are forced into labor camps where they spend the short remainder of their lives working in radioactive wastelands. It’s not a fun time. In fact, the strongest element of Atwood’s novel is the illustration of how little good has actually come of these changes. The wives despise their replacements and the replacements despise everything. The sense of despair permeates the descriptions provided by the narrator, Offred, one of the replacements. Her language is detailed and florid, emphasizing the physical and mental limits she has taken on. It’s a tough read at times, but so goes the dystopian novel.

The Old Man and the Sea is opposite in almost every way. Where Atwood describes everything in long, detailed thoughts, Hemingway is the master of the short, concise sentence. It is a simple story of an old man who goes fishing as he does every day and lands an almost mythic marlin. Half the book describes his attempts to tire the fish out enough to kill it and the rest details his journey back to his hometown on the island of Cuba while he fends off sharks from eating his prized fish. The book is short, very short, and not much really “happens”. Hemingway takes time to describe the physical torture of a multi-day battle with such a gargantuan force and then the sinking spirits of a man that has his great accomplishment taken away from him, piece by piece. We get a few insights into the old man’s thought process, too, but little more than a few thoughts on God/The Great DiMaggio and a young boy who had been his apprentice until a recent unlucky spell forced the boy to abandon him for a different fishing crew.

The Old Man and the Sea
A Picture I took while in Portland

Perhaps you’ve noticed that my descriptions do overlap a bit. Both books are focused on the physical torture forces outside of the characters impose upon them, and they both examine the role of God and religion in the lives of their protagonists. Where The Handmaid’s Tale takes the time to chronicle minute details of Offred’s situation, The Old Man and the Sea takes an almost workman-like look at a very physical job. It’s taken as a given that the man would suffer great pain in order to finally catch the fish, and then it happens. When the old man arrives back at his port with only a skeleton, head, and tail lashed to the side of his boat we see how much the long journey has taken from him. He’s malnourished and has almost nothing to show for it. Similarly, Offred undergoes much pain, though we see a lot more of the emotional side for her, with nothing to show for it. Were she to get pregnant she would never know the joy of raising her child, nor would the wife have any emotional attachment to the kid. It’s the worst of all possible worlds. The religion that forced everybody to change for the benefit of a few in The Handmaid’s Tale is taken a little less seriously in The Old Man and the Sea. He thinks about God and whether he should be killing such a marvelous animal and the harm he is doing to himself while he does so, but equal merit is given to the great baseball stars of the time, including Joe DiMaggio. Maybe the worst part of his week-long expedition is the fact that he’s missed reading about the baseball games that have happened while he was doing battle.

Cat’s Cradle

Like I said above, this one was a re-read. I remembered only a scene on a plane and the effects of Ice-Nine vividly, the rest was a swirl of ideas and characters that meant little to me. Upon this reading I think I understood more of what Vonnegut was going for, having settled more into what I do and do not believe in. Religion is a big part of the book, the made-up religion of Bokononism permeates almost every chapter and page. It’s probably the best kind of religion you can have. One of the central tenants is the implicit silliness of any belief system, and it exploits the way our lives overlap and interact with other lives. Perhaps the most cogent element put forth is the idea of a karass and a granfalloon. The first is the group of people that make up the important players in your life, the second is a group of people that think their connection is important when it is actually meaningless. It’s a great way of thinking about the ways we try to organize ourselves. There are the people that we think matter and those that actually do. The book is full of these fantastic ideas and it’s presentation is at once hilarious and sad. I knew the ending this time around, and the point of view presented by our main character acknowledges the kind of cosmic comedy of such a disastrous scenario.

Game Trail

If The Handmaid’s Tale is the ultimate serious examination of the potential problems of a religious regime, and The Old Man and the Sea gently points out some of the ways pop culture has begun to replace religion, then Cat’s Cradle presents both the benefits and detriments of religious belief. There’s something to be said for the idea that, in our own wandering from point to point we are really fulfilling some kind of cosmic destiny. I don’t necessarily believe that’s the case, but I do think that by doing what we do, we form our own kind of meaning. If this is all there is it’s our duty to do the best we can. Bokononism places the highest value on love and the intermingling of selves through the touching of foot to foot, sole to soul. This ritual serves as a metaphor for all of our interactions. There’s always a mixing of ideas, personalities, feelings when a person interacts with another. And that’s the most important thing we can do.

Ok, that’s enough of that. I’ve been away for a while, so I hope you excuse this longer post. Turns out I had a bit to say. If you want to talk about any specific element of any of these books or any idea’s I brought up in this piece, please do so in the comments. They’re all great books with a lot to say, no matter the subject or style. And follow me on Goodreads to see what I’m reading and my ratings for what I’ve read in the past.