Review: Cat’s Cradle

Book: Cat’s Cradle

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Recommended for: Fans of fun, thought provoking novels, those going through an existential crisis, anyone who likes the idea of challenging science and/religion, fans of other Vonnegut works as this is often called his best.

It seems like a lot of people read this book in high school – it certainly would have been an easy classic to digest as a high schooler compared to some of the thicker tomes we were forced to read. I, unfortunately, was never introduced to Kurt Vonnegut in my younger years and it wasn’t until I read Slaughterhouse Five last year that I knew anything about his works. It’s a shame too, because Vonnegut does a marvelous job keeping me entertained while also making me question some of the things I would have considered staunch beliefs. This was no different in his novel Cat’s Cradle, a 127 chapter novel about the end of the world.

The plot follows the story of a man named Jonah as he collects material for a book called The Day the World Ended, “an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan”. The story starts with him collecting material on a fictional father of the atom bomb, Dr. Felix Hoenikker. You see, Dr. Hoenikker had long since passed away, so Jonah contacts his three children in hopes of getting material for his book. In the process, he discovers that Dr. Hoenikker had also invented an isotope of water called Ice-Nine that is capable of destroying all life on Earth. Soon Jonah finds himself on the island of San Lorenzo with the three Hoenikker children and a host of other ridiculous characters and the events that follow lead to the death of almost all life on Earth. Ironic, as his journey started while writing a book called The Day the World Ended. Then again, with Vonnegut, irony is the name of the game.

Above all, this book was ridiculous and fun to read. As I mentioned, it consists of 127 chapter and yet the book itself is less than 300 pages long. This makes it very digestible and easy to read – which, I assume, is why it is a favorite for high school classrooms. Vonnegut has a way of making a novel entertaining and funny while simultaneously making the reader think about serious questions and issues.

One of the main themes here is that life is essentially without purpose and therefore, humankind has seen fit to try and give life some kind of meaning. As a result, some people turn to religion while others turn to science. Both have their problems and Vonnegut’s overall point is that it is ridiculous to try and give meaning to life.

Science, while providing countless benefits to society such as modern medicine, has also given the world the atom bomb and other terrible ways to kill and oppress people. Science and the search for truth without pause is a dangerous force that we often use without nary a thought for the side effects. Combine this search for truth – personified in Felix Hoenikker, a brilliant scientist who viewed his work on the atom bomb in the same way he might have viewed the discovery of a new kind of ultra-efficient toothpaste – with the military industrial complex and you have a recipe for disaster (ice-nine). Reckless abandon in scientific pursuits can have devastating results for humanity.

The fictional religion of Cat’s Cradle, Bokononism, is a religion based on lies. When Bokonon, the prophet of said religion, arrived on the island of San Lorenzo he saw the people there had no hope for a better existence so he created this religion to give them some shred of hope. The religion itself is all lies, as it states, and while everyone on the island practices Bokononism and accepts the fallacy of it, they still derive some shred of hope from believing in it. This is Vonnegut’s way of showing the ridiculous nature of all religion, and the teachings of Bokonon poke fun at many real religions practiced throughout the world. Throughout the book, Bokononism is used as satirical humor to dismantle the idea of religion, culminating in a very fitting ending for its followers. This was perhaps my favorite part of the whole book.

More than anything, this book is about human purpose. This is shown most prevalently through the story of the three Hoenikker children. Each of them possesses a small fragment of the world’s only sample of ice-nine. As they each search for purpose and meaning, whether that be through love, family or a successful career, they make stupid decisions that result in some of the great world powers gaining access to fragments of ice-nine. This inevitably spirals into a conclusion where ice-nine destroys the world. Funny how that works, huh?

Cat’s Cradle is a really fun and thought provoking read that I think everyone should tackle at some point. Old or young, the messages here are hidden behind layers of satirical humor and irony, but they aren’t hard to decipher. Let me know your own thoughts below!

“What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experiences of the Past Million Years?”


Review: A Farewell to Arms

Book: A Farewell to Arms

Author: Ernest Hemingway

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys books with beautiful imagery, endings that make you think, deadpan humor and fans of other Hemingway books (especially For Whom the Bell Tolls).

A Farewell to Arms is a novel by Ernest Hemingway about American expatriate Frederic Henry serving in the Italian army during World War I. As an ambulance driver, Henry witnesses the atrocities of war on the front, but he also meets an English nurse, Ms. Catherine Barkley, and they fall in love. The story alternates between the war and their love story, culminating in an ending which made me question my feelings and thoughts on the entire novel.

I started this book a couple years ago and couldn’t finish it despite Hemingway being one of my favorite authors at the time. Fast forward to September 2019 and it was still sitting on my shelf, so as I packed my bags for my recent trip to Greece and the Cycladic Islands I threw it in. I read a good chunk of this book while drinking Ouzo and taking in the beautiful Greek Islands – which was fitting because the part of this novel I enjoyed the most was the beautiful imagery. From the war torn Italian countryside to the spectacular Swiss Alps, I felt myself immersed in the settings as they were laid out.

Hemingway’s descriptions of the horrors of war and its impact on the minds of those in its midst was well done as well. His writing style perfectly suits this part of the book and reading about Henry’s time at the front was one of the most moving aspects of the novel. He even manages to throw in a bit of humor which I always appreciate. One of my favorite scenes was after Henry was wounded and his friend Rinaldi visits him in the hospital to tell him they are giving him a medal.

“They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver. Otherwise it will be the bronze. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?”

“No,” I said. “I was blown up while eating cheese.”

Hemingway’s deadpan writing style fits perfectly with this type of humor and is one of the reasons I enjoy his novels. I know from experience, though, that deadpan humor is not for everyone.

Most of the characters were very well written. Henry himself writes of war as a journalist – something typical of Hemingway protagonists due to his own experiences writing during various wars. His descriptions of the events were well detailed and helped me put myself in his shoes. Many of the secondary characters were likeable and often times had the best lines of dialogue. Rinaldi and the other ambulance drives were some of my favorites.

Catherine Barkley, on the other hand, was a terribly written character. Her dialogue was unbelievable and often times annoying. Her interactions with Henry usually felt fake and hollow and I was not at all interested in their love story. Never in my life have I heard anyone ask their partner so frequently if they love them. Since this is such a major part of the novel I almost gave this book three stars, but after some reflection I decided this may not be warranted. It is possible that Hemingway wrote Ms. Barkley’s character this way on purpose to reflect how hollow their relationship actually was. I don’t believe Henry ever truly loved her and I think since we are seeing things through his eyes it may have been intentional to show their relationship in such an unbelievable fashion. Maybe that’s true, or maybe I just don’t want to admit that I so strongly disliked a Hemingway classic. Either way, I will stick with my own theory on this one.

The ending, without spoiling it, is pretty well known at this point. We see similar themes crop up in several movies and other forms of pop-culture, but luckily (or maybe not?) for me I did not know how things were going to end for Frederic and Catherine. The ending, which I read on an 11 hour flight back to the states, really shook me emotionally. I suppose that is one of the reasons this book is so well known, but for me it almost broke the rest of the novel. It was only after reflection, which I discussed earlier, that everything came into place for me and I could feel like I was done with A Farewell to Arms.

In all, this book really made me think. There was a lot about it that I loved, but also a number of things that made me stop and question its place as one of Hemingway’s best works. If you enjoy Hemingway, I would recommend giving it a try. The imagery is beautiful and many of the characters are written very well. I think the love story leaves a lot open to interpretation. If you have read this one already, let me know your thoughts below!

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”