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And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by…

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

by Charles J. Shields

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I have read very few biographies, so I find it difficult to review a book in the genre. For all I know, any biography I come across could be a standout in the field, or it could be a pedestrian effort that covers little more than the basics. It would be hard for me to tell in many cases, but in short I enjoyed this biography of Kurt Vonnegut immensely. In part, I think it was well researched and thoughtfully written. It also benefits from being the only full biography of Vonnegut out there, so it has no competitors for top spot.

I can imagine a Vonnegut bio that would have been more engaging on some points, wider ranging in sources and opinions, more analytical in critiquing all of his works, but of course the writer always has to make choices. In biography especially, he is restricted by the material and people he can use in building his profile. People say no, you may not interview me. People say no, you may not use those unpublished letters or that diary, because I own the rights. And in the case of Vonnegut himself, people sometimes say okay, but you picked a bad time to get my assent, because unfortunately I won't be around much longer to answer your questions.

And so it goes, indeed. ( )
  phredfrancis | Feb 8, 2014 |
Still trying to formulate what I want to say here. I enjoyed the window into Kurt Vonnegut's life -- he's always been kind of furniture-like in my reading life, a major gateway to more sophisticated reading when I was in my early teens but not anyone I had a sense of past his books, so that was interesting and enlightening.

But I had a very strong sense that I wasn't reading the book that showed up on the shelves in the middle of November. Mine was a galley and really thick with copy editing errors, notably more than just about any pre-pub version of a book I can remember reading. I'm sure there was a push to get it out on time for Vonnegut's birthday, and hence to push the galleys along, but it was like no one had even read page proofs. And while that kind of thing is eminently forgivable, I have to wonder how much line editing was done on the book as well before final publication. It was enormously full of detail -- Shields' research was exhaustive -- to the point where some paring down would have streamlined and helped. And hey, if I can see that, I imagine the good editors at Henry Holt would have picked up on it as well, and I'm not going to feel comfortable quibbling with anything stylistic about the book until I can check out a finish copy. My criticisms aren't huge, really, but they definitely exist as far as the version I read.

But as a biography, and as far as the subject matter goes, it's good stuff. What a sad fellow Vonnegut was. And Jill Krementz, his second wife, comes off as the world's worst harpy. ( )
  lisapeet | Jan 1, 2014 |
need to return this quick or nothing else will happen for days - hoping Santa brings me a week off to read books!!
  lindap69 | Apr 5, 2013 |
Vonnegut is one of the authors I've put aside for years because the temptation to copy his style is too great. Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle would certainly make my Top 100 books list if I had one. There are few modern writers who have created more memorable lines, from brilliant socio-cultural observations ("History! Read it and weep!") to simple human experience ("then every cell in Billy's body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause").

While I was delighted to hear that Mr. Shields had published a biography of this very influential writer, I was initially dissuaded from pursuing interest after reading Christopher Buckley's review in the Sunday Book Review section of the New York Times, which described a "sad, and often heartbreaking biography." Fortunately, I received it as a Christmas gift and my fundamental interest in Vonnegut overcame my reluctance to take on anything gloomy.

I think Janet Maslin's review reflects my reading experience more accurately than Mr. Buckley's. What Ms. Maslin and I read was a well-paced and structured narrative attempting to describe an enormously complicated and contradictory man. While there are certainly aspects of his life that would clearly qualify as tragic, Mr. Shields has compiled a compelling, cohesive and balanced narrative that weaves together tragedies and triumphs to give the reader a satisfying, complete picture of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Yes, he alienated his wife, most of his children, a good part of his family and numerous friends---but he was also capable of passionate love, strong commitment and unqualified friendship. Yes, he produced piles of forgettable stories for the mainstream magazine market and some very bad novels---but he also gave us one of the great American novels in Slaughterhouse-Five. The man was a fundamental contradiction, something that I believe made his writing that much stronger.

While Mr. Shields gives detailed accounts of his relationships with his wives, children and lovers, I found the passages dealing with writing to be more dramatic and engaging. The author chronicles in varying degrees of detail the development, publication and reception of each of the novels, giving the greatest amount of attention to Slaughterhouse-Five. I found it amazing that a book that reads like it wrote itself was instead the product of years of struggle against writer's block, which disappeared only when Vonnegut returned to Dresden and failed to find what he thought he needed to write the novel. Vonnegut went there to collect details and background on what he missed by waiting out the great firestorm in a cellar (about which he felt absurd guilt). Instead, he returned to a place that bore little resemblance to what he had experienced, which forced him to realize that he had to make a significant detour from the path he believed he had to take. Much to his credit, he literally went with the moment, discovering that time itself is the overriding influence on meaning. It was almost as if something inside him reached out and grabbed him by the ears and shouted, "Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time."

As a struggling writer (aren't we all?), I was encouraged by the fact that Vonnegut considered himself a failure during much of his early career, bemoaning the fact that one of his early novels "only" sold 6,000 copies, a figure that a self-published author would die for. Even to the end, he complains that he doesn't have the status of a Kerouac. These are the parts of the book that "rang true" (pun intended) for me, confirming that the author's job is to write the best book he or she can write and realize up front that the reading public may not be in sync with what you have created. Times change, tastes shift, and fame comes with its own form of baggage, as Vonnegut learned during the long, dry period following the success of Slaughterhouse-Five.

The downsides of the book, as Ms. Maslin as pointed out, are that the author did not get to spend much time with Vonnegut before his death and was denied permission to quote from Vonnegut's letters. I also would have liked it better had Mr. Shields devoted more attention to the development of Vonnegut's alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. That said, And So It Goes is a fascinating, readable story of a living paradox, a strange concoction of fire and ice, a writer who lived beyond his time . . . in more ways than one. ( )
  robertmorrow | Oct 2, 2012 |
And So It Goes is a very probing biography that goes to the very core of Vonnegut’s psyche. We see his early insecurities and how he found a way to get attention among his distinguished family, as well as gain prominence as a writer.

There is very familiar territory here that has been retold countless times in Vonnegut’s own works. However, Shields reveals the man behind the stories and finds some very ugly truths. It reveals a writer that struggled through most of his career, not achieving the success that would make him famous for almost 20 years. In that time, he wasn’t the most effusive family man or very dedicated to his wife.

The fame attributed to him seemed to create a persona that really wasn’t his own. That those who read Slaughterhouse-Five were expecting someone more grandiose as opposed to a writer just trying to make ends meet. The sad conclusion in the latter half of the book was a fight over his will and the feeling by Vonnegut that he had outlived his usefulness. It would have been better to be famous and then die.

The book was important to me. I am a big fan of Vonnegut’s works so it was illuminating to find more to the story behind those works. Shields does an excellent job piecing together this biography. He provides the feeling of those who were closest to Vonnegut. All the wrongs, the slights, and anecdotes reveal interesting contradictions and an honesty that even though Vonnegut wrote extensively about himself, didn’t really reveal. The man in the story doesn’t always match the man in the prologue. ( )
  shadowofthewind | Aug 28, 2012 |
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Never did a man,

Expect an initial plan,

Ever go so wrong.

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0805086935, Hardcover)

An Interview with Amazon

Charles ShieldsCharles Shields is a writer who writes about writers. He previously penned a bestselling biography of Harper Lee, and now he's written the definitive portrait of Kurt Vonnegut, chronicling Vonnegut's slow and often difficult path to the upper ranks of American literature.

It's not always a pretty portrait. "Kurt wanted to be a writer from the time he was a teenager," Shields told me. But after serving in the military, getting married and having kids, he faced a dreary life behind a desk "which is not the kind of artistic one that he thought he'd have."

Yet the truth about writers is just that: they don't often live the exciting, public lifestyles of a Hemmingway or a Mailer. Most toil in solitary exclusion. It's a desk job in an office of one. It's sedentary, quiet, and often dull. Still, Shields is fascinated by the process of writing, and by the power and reach of the written word, which he discovered at age 15 upon earning a byline for his first high school newspaper story. "That was a magical moment for me," he said.

Shields has worked since to grow and change, to learn from others. That desire led him to study other writers and eventually to become a biographer, joining a group he admiringly refers to as "snoops" and "gossips." (Shields is co-founder of Biographers International Organization.)

When he learned Vonnegut was miffed that no one had tried to write his biography, Shields reached out. He was rebuffed, persisted, and finally received a postcard on which Vonnegut had sketched a self-portrait, smoking a cigarette. The card contained two letters: "OK."

Shields began working with Vonnegut in 2006. A year later, after a two-hour interview session at Vonnegut's Manhattan brownstone, Shields left, returning the next day to learn from the housekeeper that Vonnegut was in a coma. He had gotten tangled in his dog's leash and fell off his front steps, hitting his head. He died a month later at age 84.

"It's too trite to say that it was a shock," Shields said. "I felt a kind of… I felt sort of separate from myself for a little bit. Because I had invested a lot in this, and I had come to like him. And now suddenly, after dubbing me his biographer, he was gone."

Shields’s biography was saved by the discovery of 1,500 letters to or from Vonnegut, which had been presumed lost. "So, going on my interviews with him, and all of these long, intimate letters that he wrote, I was able to construct what I felt was a very authentic, personal portrait of this man as writer, father, struggling freelancer, suddenly famous man, divorced parent, divorced husband, over the course of more than fifty years," Shields said.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:39:27 -0400)

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An authorized portrait of the influential twentieth-century American writer draws on first-person accounts and Vonnegut's private letters while offering insight into his youth, the inspirations for his work, and his enduring literary impact.

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