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And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life Hardcover – November 8, 2011

4.3 out of 5 stars 69 customer reviews

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"My Father, the Pornographer" by Fang Lizhi
A son tries to understand his late father, by reading the 400-plus novels left to him in his father's will. Check out "My Father, the Pornographer".

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

Review

“An incisive, gossipy page-turner of a biography.” ―Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“An engaging, surprising and empathetic page-turner” ―Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

“The first truly exacting look into the life of a man who has fascinated so many.” ―Esquire Magazine

“Engaging and well paced, the book fills in the reality behind Vonnegut's work” ―Christen Aragoni, The American Prospect

“This first authorized biography probes both Vonnegut's creative struggles and family life, detailing his transition from ‘the bowery of the book world' to counterculture icon. Shields delivers a vivid recreation of Vonnegut's ghastly WWII experiences as a POW during the Dresden firebombing that became the basis for Slaughterhouse-Five. . . . Tragedies and triumphs are contrasted throughout, along with an adroit literary analysis that highlights obscure or overlooked influences on Vonnegut. . . . With access to more than 1,500 letters, Shields conducted hundreds of interviews to produce this engrossing, definitive biography.” ―PW, Starred Review

“This book fills a much-needed gap, since very little seems to be known about the late Kurt Vonnegut, despite his immense popularity over almost five decades. Shields did a thorough job, interviewing Vonnegut and his friends and family, and examining many letters. Vonnegut was one of the most influential authors of the late twentieth century, and this biography is essential reading.” ―Anis Shivani, Huffington Post

“Provide[s] a definitive and disturbing account of the late author, whose ambition and talent transformed him from an obscure science fiction writer to a countercultural icon.” ―Steve Almond, The Boston Globe

“[A] thorough and excellent new biography.” ―Tim Gebhart, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“The richest portrait of Vonnegut to date.” ―Craig Fehrman, Indianapolis Monthly

“[A] balanced, well-researched study of a flawed yet powerfully imaginative artist.” ―Ariel Gonzalez, Miami Herald Tribune

“A triumphant biography: scrupulously researched and powerfully written, compassionate, clear-eyed and compelling. Charles J. Shields manages a rare feat: offering a lucid assessment of Kurt Vonnegut's literary life alongside the moving tale of an American original and a misunderstood hero. From his harrowing survival of the Dresden firebombing through forty years of culture clashes and domestic battles, here is the Vonnegut we all thought we knew and the man we never got to see, a writer of searing wit and wisdom, of driving ambition, and perhaps most of all, of aching loneliness.” ―Jess Walker, author of The Financial Lives of the Poets and Citizen Vince

“Vonnegut's life was a fascinating tragicomedy worthy of his best novels, and I can hardly imagine a better teller of that tale than Shields. A superbly researched and above all very entertaining biography.” ―Blake Bailey, author of Cheever: A Life

“And So It Goes will entrance lovers of Kurt Vonnegut's fiction. With the blessing of Vonnegut himself and help from scores of Vonnegut's friends, relations, and acquaintances, Charles J. Shields gives us a distinguished, fearless, page-turner of a biography.” ―Carol Sklenicka, author of Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life

“Vonnegut once said that he kept losing and regaining his equilibrium, and Shields dexterously captures the ups and downs of Vonnegut's life and work in this definitive biography.” ―Henry L. Carrigan, Bookpage

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (November 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805086935
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805086935
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.7 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #675,523 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Charles J. Shields is an American biographer of Mid-Century American novelists.

In 1997, Shields left a career in education to write independently. Over the course of the next six years, he published 20 histories and biographies for young people. His first biography for adults, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Holt, 2006) went on to become a New York Times bestseller. "This biography will not disappoint those who loved the novel and the feisty, independent, fiercely loyal Scout, in whom Harper Lee put so much of herself," wrote Garrison Keillor in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. "As readable, convincing, and engrossing as Lee's literary wonder," said the Orlando Sentinel.

Two years later, Shields followed-up his biography of Lee with a young adult version: I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee, which received awards from American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults; Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year; Arizona Grand Canyon Young Readers Master List.

In 2009, with fellow biographers Nigel Hamilton, James McGrath Morris, and Debby Applegate, Shields co-founded Biographers International Organization (BIO), a non-profit organization founded to promote the art and craft of biography.

In November 2011, Shields published the first biography of Kurt Vonnegut, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt), described as an "incisive, gossipy page-turner of a biography," by Janet Maslin and an "engrossing, definitive biography" by Publishers Weekly in a starred review. It was selected as a New York Times Notable Book, and Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book for 2011.

In 2016, Lebowski Publisher in the Netherlands will publish John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel. Williams is the author of Butcher's Crossing, Stoner, and Augustus, which won the 1972 National Book Award.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Dresden, Germany. The night of February 13, 1945. Remnants of the Army's 423rd Regiment, 106th Division, captured almost as soon as they began fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, are roused from their bunks in a POW camp by an airraid siren. They are hustled into a meat locker, 60 feet below ground. German prison guards enter the bunker with them, and shut the steel door behind them. Above ground, the night time firebombing of Dresden begins. In the one thousand degree heat, "super heated tornadoes had sucked out the oxygen and turned hiding places into tombs." The bombing continued into the night. At dawn the next day, the POW's emerged from the meat locker to see what had happened, Private Kurt Vonnegut among them. What he saw that day colored his entire career and formed the basis for his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse 5.

The new Charles J. Shields biography of Kurt Vonnegut, And So It Goes, doesn't adhere to the love-hate mentality that was in vogue between biographers and their subjects a generation ago. In the current book, biographer and author seemed genuinely to like each other in the brief period they worked together. One could go so far as to say that before Vonnegut's death, they were well on their way to becoming, well, pals. Ah, I thought to myself. This biographer will suck up in person, then skewer the old man after he dies. It never happens.

This is not to say Vonnegut gets a free pass. Infidelities and indiscretions are on full view, and never more so than in the Fall of 1965 when the author begins an affair at the famous University of Iowa creative writing workshop.
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Though I was one of the young folks enthralled by Slaughterhouse-Five, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, and much more of Vonnegut's work, I really didn't know much about the man, his family, and his life--except for his youthful Army service and horrifying experiences as a POW after the Allied firebombing of Dresden. Charles Shields, who wrote the first substantive biography of Harper Lee, corresponded with Vonnegut, proposing a biography. Once he had convinced his subject--rightly--of his top-notch research skills, Vonnegut finally sent Shields a last illustrated postcard, this time captioned, "OK." Work had not progressed very far before Vonnegut tripped over his Lhasa Apso's leash, fell, and never regained consciousness, dying three weeks later in 2007.

Perhaps what finally pushed Vonnegut to trust Shields was the fact that really had been no previous biography of this literary icon of the second half of the twentieth century, which rankled Vonnegut. If America had a one-man Grub Street, Vonnegut grubbed away there in West Barnstable on Cape Cod for some twenty years churning out dozens of short stories and a few novels, amid clouds of Pall Mall smoke, before Slaughterhouse-Five made him a bestselling author. It also conferred financial security where previously there had been none. In this freelance writer's life existed a neat division of labor: Kurt wrote, while his then-devoted first wife Jane did everything else, including taking in three young, orphaned nephews when his adored sister Alice died of cancer just a day after her husband perished in a railroad accident.

In the mid-1960s, Vonnegut eagerly accepted a last-minute offer to teach at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop.
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I've waited a long time to write this review because I was pretty upset about several aspects of the book and wanted to calm down. It is an informative picture of many aspects of Vonnegut's life, but as other reviewers have pointed out, it dwells too much on deflating, sometimes inaccurately, the image of Vonnegut many admirers believed in, and it undervalues his literary achievement. Just to take one example of the image deflation, the author highlights Vonnegut's hypocrisy in owning Dow Chemical stock while presenting himself as anti-war during the Vietnam conflict, yet Donald Farber, self-described in an a New York Times Book Review letter to the editor as Vonnegut's "attorney, agent, manager and buddy for over 40 years" says that he managed Vonnegut's investments and is certain that Vonnegut never even paid attention to what specific stocks were in the portfolio. Sure, that can be thought of as a failing too, but it does not seem like the conscious hypocrisy it is portrayed as in this book. Shields' emphasis is usually on the negative, and when he does point out an act of generosity, it doesn't receive as much attention as the stories that tear down Vonnegut's popular image. As for the literary content of the book, Shields too often relies on book reviews that pointed out that the post-Slaughterhouse Five novels fell short. It is not unusual for books to garner a high reputation after publication that belies the initial reviews. Breakfast of Champions, for example, is very highly regarded by many readers, but Shields makes it sound decidedly second-rate. I know Vonnegut himself talked negatively about that novel, but authors are never the final arbiter of a book's success.Read more ›
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