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Customer Review

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A biased portrayal, September 3, 2012
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This review is from: And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life (Hardcover)
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. The fact is that all of Vonnegut's novels are still in print, with at least four-star ratings in Amazon reviews (the last time I checked). That is pretty impressive. In addition, literary critics (as opposed to book reviewers) have analyzed most of them favorably, including Breakfast of Champions. So the book is valuable for giving us the shape of his life, but it has a bias with regard to how that life is presented, and it falls considerably short of presenting the magnitude of Vonnegut's substantial literary achievement.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 10, 2016 10:01:54 AM PST
I was trying to find a decent biography, and was about to choose this, when I read your well-written insightful comments, which give me pause. Is there something else you would recommend, or should I go ahead, your caveats aside? I usually buy used books, so I'm not investing a lot.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 10, 2016 10:41:32 AM PST
Jazz Doctor says:
I'd go ahead and buy it, especially since you will be getting it used. It does give the important details of his life and I don't know of a better one.
There are critical studies and collections of interviews with him, but that may not be what you are looking for. Just keep in mind the things I pointed out, e.g. don't use Shields' judgements in choosing which Vonnegut novels you want to read in the future. As for the details of his life which remain troubling even when corrected for Shields' slanting, I would advise not deciding what novels to read based on the character of the novelist (except in the most extreme cases). I'm a big jazz fan and I would never listen to the music of Miles Davis if I felt I had to restrict my listening to musicians who led exemplary lives. Artists are flawed beings just like the rest of us.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 17, 2016 5:49:58 AM PDT
The book came yesterday. I opened to three random spots to snide author commentary. Started this morning at the beginning. Past the prologue and into chapter one, and it's largely derogatory. I hope it gets a little more balanced. (And I'm glad I bought it used).
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