Apr 8, 2008

A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut

I was so thrilled when I found this book at the library. A collection of essays by Kurt Vonnegut! Reading more non-fiction and reading more Vonnegut – two goals of mine met with a single book.

A Man Without a Country was the last book Kurt Vonnegut published before his death. These essays were written over a period of five years, and some were originally published in the magazine In These Days. The structure of the book is very loose. The book has been referred to as a “part memoir”, and Vonnegut does make reference to some of the things he experienced, but what he mostly does is go on about a large number of subjects – and he does so with grace, humour and insight.

The topics covered include humour, writing, the bombing of Dresden and the process of writing Slaughterhouse-Five, music, war, politics, technology, literature, the environment, education and the wonderfulness of librarians. I simply could not put this book down. Kurt Vonnegut is funny and touching, often at the same time. Reading this book made me admire him in the same sort of way I admire Terry Pratchett.

I guess that at first glance the book could give you the impression that Vonnegut’s outlook is pretty bleak. More than once says that the likelihood of all of humankind dying in a nuclear war is quite high. He says that the Earth’s immune system is trying to get rid of humans because of what we have done – and continue to do – to it. Put like this, this makes it sound as though he has given up on people. But at the same time, he believes that we can put a stop to pollution, to warfare, to cruelty. We just have to want to – all of us. The essay in which he explains why it is that he goes out to buy an envelope and mail a typed manuscript, instead of just doing it online, is a touching example of how much he liked people, how much he enjoyed just talking and connecting with others. And he believed in being kind and decent. It’s as simple as that.

Vonnegut was one of the best. The more I read him, the more I realize this. Here are a few of my favourite passages:
I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.

The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.

All I really wanted to do was give people the relief of laughing. Humour can be a relief, like an aspirin tablet. If a hundred years for now people are still laughing, I’d certainly be pleased.
It will be a year on Friday that he passed away. He is missed.

Other opinions:
An Adventure in Reading


  1. I still haven't read any of his books but I do hope to at some point. This sounds like an interesting collection and it is a nice way to mark the anniversary of his death.

  2. Wow, a year already...that's crazy. I think I'd like to read this one. I remember it being published not long before he died and I can imagine enjoying reading his non-fic. He was definitely a humorous guy and I've always enjoyed that sort of pessimistic humor that he can have sometimes. I say pessimistic, but in all reality he's not a pessimist...he just looked at things how they were sometimes. Poor guy, still miss him :(

  3. Thanks for the review Nymeth. I haven't read anything by him nor do I know a whole lot about his life. I enjoy getting glimpses into an author's mind, though, outside of his/her fiction writing. I'd really like to read Slaughterhouse-Five one day.

  4. you're a review machine!:P I feel so behind....

  5. Rhinoa, I think you'd probably enjoy his novels. Has Alex read him? From what you tell me of his taste in books, Vonnegut seems to be his type.

    Chris: It seems like yesterday, doesn't it? And yes, I love his sort of tragic yet hopeful sense of humour...he was one great guy.

    Trish: He had quite a life. He fought in WW2, and he was a war prisoner in Dresden when it was bombed...his experiences in the war made him fiercely anti-war for the rest of his life. I loved Slaughterhouse-Five. I hope you do too!

    Valentina: I was also always behind, but here's what I started doing: I write a bunch of reviews in the weekend of the books I read the previous week, and then I go posting them throughout the following week. It's been working so far :P

  6. I should do that too!i need a time manager :D

  7. You are so right...he is missed!

    This is one of his books I haven't read yet, but would definitely like to one of these days. Actually I'd love to re-read everything of his I have read, too.

  8. This is so weird, Yesterday I looked at a Kurt Vonnegut book at my library and did not pick it up, I will pick it up next time I go.

    Thanks for the inspiration

  9. It's hard to believe it's been that long. I haven't yet read anything by him, but I do have one of his books on my shelf waiting its turn. I didn't realize A Man Without a Country was a book of essays. I'll have to add it to my wish list. As always, thank you for a terrific review, Nymeth.

  10. Valentina: You should!

    Debi: I hope you enjoy this one. I really want to read more of his fiction!

    Madeleine: I hope you enjoy his work as much as I do.

    Literary Feline: Which one do you have? And yeah, it doesn't feel like a whole year. Time flies.

  11. I have DEAD EYE DICK and GOD BLESS YOU DR KEVORKIAN by Kurt Vonnegut, picked them up today :)They have so many of his books, I'll start by reading those two


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