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

by Charles J. Shields

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Back in the 60s, everyone read Kurt Vonnegut – for his humor, his satire, his snarky comments, and his off-beat and quirky style. I tried Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse 5. I rated both “Meh!” Recently I came across some of his later works, and I went back and re-read the two early novels. While I didn’t really enjoy, the novels, I was curious about them. Then, along comes a new biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes, by Charles J. Shields. Now I have a much better understanding of Vonnegut and a greater appreciation for his work.

Shields authored Mockingbird, a best-selling biography of Harper Lee. A former teacher, Shields has served as a reporter for NPR, a journalist, and the author of several non-fiction books for children. His biography of Vonnegut, is detailed, well-documented, and illustrated with several photos of important people and moments in the life of the quirky author.

Kurt Vonnegut had a difficult life. He constantly found himself in the shadow of his older brother, Bernard, who informed the young Kurt he was “an accident.” He also had a difficult relationship with his father. Added to that was a rocky marriage complicated by the arrival several nieces and nephews orphaned by a train wreck (their father) and the death of Alice (their mother) of cancer a few days later.

At a party, Kurt sat down to play the piano. Two women joined him, and the bench collapsed. Shield’s writes, “Beneath the hilarity, though, several women got the impression that [Kurt’s wife] Jane, pregnant, already had two children on her hands: three-year-old Mark and her husband. ‘Being Mrs. Vonnegut,” said one of her friends, ‘was not a nine-to-five-job because he was not inclined to do things for himself.’ When attention strayed from Kurt, she tried to direct it back to him. He didn’t deem like the typical father, either, at least to another dad at the party – rather distant, in fact. When Mark [Kurt’s son] rode his tricycle into the room, Kurt said quietly, ‘Mark, that’s gauche,’ and let it go at that. Nevertheless, Jane whisked around the party, floating on happiness. // Two months later, on December 29, their second child Edith was born.” (110).

Vonnegut also had a peculiar relationship with his wife. Kurt wanted to move to Cape Cod where he could befriend other writers, and have the peace and solitude he needed to write. Shields explains, “From now on, they would live for the arts. They would read the best and latest books, discuss them, make notes to each other in the margins, and give full rein to Kurt’s career in a location that couldn’t be more salubrious for creativity. They must do it – to be true to themselves. And for Kurt it was the vicarious realization of his mother’s dream to live and write on Cape Cod’ (118). Vonnegut also agonized over the suicide of his mother. This tragedy, together with his knotty relationships and his World War II experiences as a P.O.W. in Dresden during the horrific firebombing by British and American air forces shaped his personality and informed his style.

Kurt Vonnegut is an important figure in post-war fiction. Charles J. Shields’ biography, And So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life sheds a brilliant light on this quirky writer. It also led me to a better understanding of his fiction. 5 stars.

--Jim, 6/2/15 ( )
  rmckeown | Jun 2, 2015 |
"What a biographer is looking for is patterns of behavior."
Charles J. Shields, "And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life"

That may be true, but it is the exceptions to those patterns, the inconsistencies, that make a life interesting.Charles J. Shields, whose "Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee" was such a fine literary biography, equals that with "And So It Goes," his 2011 portrait of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. And for all the clear patterns of behavior in Vonnegut's life, the inconsistencies prove just as important.

Shields makes much of the fact that Vonnegut, while the darling of the Left from the time he became a major literary figure in the 1960s, was in many ways a conservative at heart. Like a reactionary, says Shields, he longed for the good old days. He hated the way his world was changing. Vonnegut may have spoken out against Big Business, yet he invested heavily in the stock market and counted on Big Business to protect his fortune. Vonnegut wrote and spoke often about the importance of family and old-time values, yet his own family life was a mess. He preached the value of friendship and cooperation, yet he betrayed many of his own friends and the people he did business with.

Vonnegut was one of many novelists to come out of World War II, yet it took him decades to write the war novel that would make his reputation, "Slaughterhouse-Five." A prisoner of war, he had been in Dresden during the fire bombing that destroyed the city in 1944. He survived by being underground at the time, in Slaughterhouse-Five, yet being underground he wasn't actually a witness to the bombing, so he didn't know how to tell the story. Finally he found a way using science fiction, time travel and aliens from space to create one of the most unique novels of the 20th century.

He continued to write, but none of his subsequent books measured up to his masterpiece, although some of his earlier novels, virtually ignored when first published, later became admired. His shrinking reputation frustrated Vonnegut. He now had fame and fortune, yet with each new novel, critics took him less and less seriously. Many of his books were bestsellers, but he hated being thought a literary fraud.

Had Vonnegut been true to his values; been faithful to Jane, his first and best wife; been a better father and a better friend, he most likely would have had a happier life than he had. But his biography, if anyone even bothered to write one, would have been much less interesting. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Feb 23, 2015 |
All in all a very informative overview of Kurt Vonnegut's life. I enjoyed learning so much about one of my favorite authors but I was dissatisfied with the very abrupt ending without any kind of epilogue or afterward about events that transpired after Vonnegut's death. The last sentence of the book is simply: "Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007." Not a very unique way to end a biography, but whatever. It's still a good read for any Vonnegut fan interested in the personal life and development of the author behind so many great works of literature. ( )
  zenslave | Jan 13, 2015 |
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 |
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Never did a man,

Expect an initial plan,

Ever go so wrong.
(jimcripps)

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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:45 -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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