Armageddon in Retrospect

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Overview

The New York Times bestseller-a "gripping" posthumous collection of previously unpublished work by Kurt Vonnegut on the subject of war.

A fitting tribute to a literary legend and a profoundly humane humorist, Armageddon in Retrospect is a collection of twelve previously unpublished writings on war and peace. Imbued with Vonnegut's trademark rueful humor and outraged moral sense, the pieces range from a letter written by Vonnegut to his family in 1945, informing them that he'd ...

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Overview

The New York Times bestseller-a "gripping" posthumous collection of previously unpublished work by Kurt Vonnegut on the subject of war.

A fitting tribute to a literary legend and a profoundly humane humorist, Armageddon in Retrospect is a collection of twelve previously unpublished writings on war and peace. Imbued with Vonnegut's trademark rueful humor and outraged moral sense, the pieces range from a letter written by Vonnegut to his family in 1945, informing them that he'd been taken prisoner by the Germans, to his last speech, delivered after his death by his son Mark, who provides a warmly personal introduction to the collection. Taken together, these pieces provide fresh insight into Vonnegut's enduring literary genius and reinforce his ongoing moral relevance in today's world.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Issued on the first anniversary of Vonnegut's demise, Armageddon in Retrospect collects 12 previously unpublished writings on war, peace, and our global future. The volume is enhanced by Vonnegut's own quirky artwork and a deeply personal introduction by his son, Mark.
Publishers Weekly

When Kurt Vonnegut died in April 2007, the world lost a wry commentator on the human condition. Thanks to this collection of unpublished fiction and nonfiction, Vonnegut's voice returns full force. Introduced by his son, these writings dwell on war and peace, especially the firebombing of Dresden, Germany. The volume opens with a poignant 1945 letter from Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to his father in Indianapolis, presenting a vivid portrait of his harrowing escape from that city. The fiction, full of his characteristic humor, includes stories about time travel and the impossibility of peace in the world ("Great Day") and, in the title piece, a kind of mock Paradise Lost, Dr. Lucifer Mephisto teaches his charges about the insidious nature of evil and the impossibility of good ever triumphing. In his final speech, Vonnegut lets go some of his zingers (jazz is "safe sex of the highest order") and does what he always did best, tell the truth through jokes: "And how should we behave during the Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don't already have one." So it goes. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

A worthy companion to the late Vonnegut's 2005 essay collection, A Man Without a Country, this collection of new and unpublished short fiction, nonfiction, and artwork examines the horrors of war with Vonnegut's trademark black humor and pessimistic criticism. Only a few of the 12 stories rely on the twists of reality and narrative present in Vonnegut's novels; the majority are carried by the characters' struggle with the absurdities of war and peace. Vonnegut's World War II experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden haunts the work, with multiple stories featuring American POWs in Germany. Completing the book are a nonfiction account of the firebombing of Dresden, a duplicate of a 1945 letter Vonnegut sent home to his father in Indianapolis after the bombing, and a copy of Vonnegut's final speech, written days before his death. The author's son also contributes an introduction. Readers of Vonnegut's books won't find any surprises here, but because he is at his sardonic best when working in short form, they won't be let down by his humor and poignancy, either. Recommended for public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ12/07.]
—Steven Chabot

Kirkus Reviews
From the now-silent typewriter of the mordant humorist (A Man Without a Country, 2005, etc.), an uneven posthumous collection of fiction and nonfiction once again plumbing the madness and soul-destroying inhumanities of war. Following an introduction by the author's son Mark, the book opens with a 1945 letter former POW Vonnegut wrote to let his family know that he was alive. It is a masterpiece of understatement and concealment suffused with the rage that animated Vonnegut's writing to the very end. The second piece, one of the highlights of the volume, is a speech he did not live to deliver. It's irreverent, sardonic and elliptical. "If Jesus were alive today," he notes, "we would kill him with lethal injection. I call that progress." Next is an angry, detailed account of the Dresden bombing, the last nonfiction piece in the collection. Vonnegut blasts American pilots-they killed countless women and children, he asserts-and excoriates military strategists whose goal was to knock out the railroads, which were running two days after the bombing. The remainder of the collection is comprised of ten short stories, most dealing with war and violence, some with the experiences of POWs. The best of them, "Happy Birthday, 1951," is a touching but wrenching cautionary tale of the fascination of the very young with the machinery of war; its final image of a little boy on a ruined tank is almost unbearably poignant-and hopeless. The other stories are previously unpublished for good reason; they are repetitive and predictable, little more than discarded shavings from the rich sculptures of Vonnegut's major works. In places, we hear that unique, vigorous voice; in others, only the sad but certainecho of "nothing gold can stay."
The Barnes & Noble Review
Once he got famous, the late Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) wasn't shy about sticking damn near every piece of writing he'd ever seen fit to put his name on between hard covers sooner or later, from dusty magazine stories to speeches and indignant letters. Especially in old age, he was also fond of repeating observations, jokes, and favorite quotations he apparently thought we hadn't gotten the first time. That's why longtime addicts know that a lot of 2005's bestselling A Man Without a Country -- his final book to see print in his lifetime -- deserved the title Kurt Vonnegut's Greatest Hits. So any intelligent buyer can probably guess going in that the previously unseen work now collected for publication as Armageddon in Retrospect on the first anniversary of Vonnegut's death is unlikely to be top-notch stuff.

And so what if it isn't? Sorry, but to this reader, the least of Vonnegut has more value than whatever John Updike or Joan Didion cooked up on whatever they think was the best day of their lives. What's annoying is that the Vonnegut estate and/or G. P. Putnam, the book's publisher, have opted to present Armageddon in Retrospect with nary a hint to when any of the material in it was written. Gee, could someone possibly be trying to foster an illusion -- note the timely sounding title -- that we're getting A Man Without a Country, Part Two, not a collection made up primarily of patently early fiction I'm guessing Kurt stuffed in a drawer something like half a century ago? Compared to the revolting mania Ernest Hemingway's heirs have shown for carving up Papa's sad wads of unpublished manuscripts into finished-looking commercial books instead of the scholarly editions they deserve, this is minor-league fudging.

In most of these pieces, the Vonnegut style is still in embryo, and one of his great gifts -- his unfailing sense of the point of whatever he was up to, no matter how slapdash the results looked to his less astute reviewers and colleagues -- is still relatively shaky. But we're watching him figure out how to be Kurt Vonnegut, and that's fascinating and moving. Aficionados of Slaughterhouse-Five won't need to hear more to send them pelting to bookstores than the news that four different stories here -- augmented by a nonfiction lament called "Wailing Shall Be in All Streets" and a facsimile of Pfc. Vonnegut's 1945 letter informing his family he's safe and sound -- are his first attempts to come to grips with the key event of his life: his seven months as a German POW after being captured during the Battle of the Bulge late in World War II, including his survival of the Allied firebombing of Dresden.

Outdoing Hiroshima in numbers of dead, the destruction of Dresden was the biggest civilian massacre perpetrated by our side in the war. In 1969, it also became the subject of Vonnegut's most famous novel, which turned him overnight from an oddball cult writer into a campus hero. Now we're getting to read what Slaughterhouse-Five was smelted out of -- the data an apprentice writer thought could be put to good fictional use but which Vonnegut's unfailing sense of the point convinced him to minimize or omit later on. The final novel is delicately chiseled and mordantly flippant. Partly because they're clumsier, the stories give us insights into what the whole jangled mess -- alternately mundane, disorienting, and horrific -- must have seemed like to him when he was still trying to assimilate his memories.

With a revealing mix of disgust and guilt, three of the POW stories hinge on Americans behaving badly: working the angles ? la Stalag 17 in "Brighten Up," pillaging civilian homes after being liberated in "Spoils," and finally scheming to murder one another in the most ambitious story, "Just You and Me, Sammy," in which it's possible to detect the germ of Vonnegut's later novel Mother Night. (The fourth, "Guns Before Butter," is about food-obsessed GIs finding common ground with an elderly German guard they inadvertently get into trouble.) It's always worth remembering Vonnegut was raised virtuously middle-class in Indianapolis and never disavowed his upbringing's values. Seeing how capable his fellow Americans were of crassness, greed, or worse when in dire straits plainly demoralized him.

Some of that does resurface in Slaughterhouse-Five, but it's been reorganized into one element in a bigger picture, and it's recorded without outrage. While it would be interesting to learn if the stories were ever offered for publication, my hunch is that Vonnegut held them back because he knew Dresden was the one experience he had to get right and didn't want to bungle it. His preface to the novel mentions plenty of trial efforts he'd written and abandoned, possibly including these.

Several other pieces reveal that what he'd seen and undergone in 1944 and 1945 bothered him enough that he was groping for different perspectives to articulate it. In "Great Day," an innocent living in a happy tomorrow where armies are for show gets zapped back to World War I's killing fields by a war-loving commanding officer. In "Happy Birthday, 1951," an old man in postwar Europe is depressed by a boy's excitement when they come across a decrepit tank.

Even though both tales suffer from mistakes Vonnegut would later avoid -- hick first-person narration that lays on the na?veté too thick in one case and an overly simplistic contrast in the other -- they're affecting as reflections of the young vet's trauma. More successful and therefore troubling is "The Commandant's Desk," told through the eyes of a Czech cabinetmaker to whom the victorious Americans in some future war have simply replaced Russian and German goons as his oppressors. But picturing its author trying -- if he did -- to get something like that into a U.S. magazine during the Eisenhower or JFK era is grim.

Because so much of Vonnegut's best-known work makes use of fantasy premises and cartoonish techniques, he's sometimes not unreasonably called an experimental writer. But if the shoe fits, that makes him the only experimental writer in U.S. literary history whose books sold like hotcakes for decades to a huge audience. Until TV killed the market for commercial magazine fiction in the early '60s, he'd spent a decade writing and selling just that to the likes of Cosmo and The Saturday Evening Post, and talk about terrific training. I can't recall a sentence of his that would confuse a bright 12-year-old.

To some of our culturati, that's always been a put-down, not a compliment. The obnoxious idea that literature should read like gobbledygook to nonspecialists got a boost from no less than Toni Morrison on Oprah Winfrey's show some years back. When Oprah confessed to trouble getting the drift of her good friend Morrison's knottier sentences, the Nobel winner took it as a compliment. My considerable respect for Morrison has never quite recovered.

Making yourself understood is a pretty basic test of literary skill, and even Faulkner didn't glory in incomprehensibility for incomprehensibility's sake. His books are difficult because they're trying to convey more than the English language can reasonably accommodate. Also because he was sozzled a lot of the time, but you can't have everything. Vonnegut's genius is that his originality is topped only by how accessible he is.

It's evident that he's still learning his craft in these stories. Even so, he takes it for granted his job isn't merely to attitudinize or string nifty-sounding words together but to create situations and dialogue likely to keep people interested for however long he needs to get his ideas about life across. That's what talented hacks do, too, but the difference is that they either don't have ideas about life or misrepresent them for popularity's sake. When you read the short fiction Vonnegut earned a comfortable living turning out for mass-circulation magazines in the 1950s -- the best collected in 1968's Welcome to the Monkey House, the rest in 1999's Bagombo Snuff Box -- you can't help but be impressed at his ability to stay true to himself and his then unconventional outlook while delivering the kind of entertainment that kept the checks coming in.

Even in his novels, he always respects his readers by assuming they'll find better things to do with their time if he can't keep them beguiled, amused, and surprised while he's dramatizing what matters most to him. Above all, that means he makes lots of jokes; the only better ones in our literature are mostly in Huckleberry Finn. Even so, most of the work collected in Armageddon in Retrospect is a long way from being as "imbued with his trademark humor" as the jacket copy claims, suggesting that even Vonnegut started out thinking writers need to sound solemn to be serious. Let's all be grateful he learned better.

Only his devotees are sure to find this book worthwhile. But if you aren't a devotee -- that is, if you don't already swear by Mother Night, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions, not to mention, oh, Galapagos, Slapstick, and so on and on -- there are honestly only two explanations I can think of. The nice one is that you're in for a treat, and never mind what the other one is. It's too rude. --Tom Carson

A two-time National Magazine Award winner during his stint as Esquire's "Screen" columnist, Tom Carson is currently a columnist at GQ and a regular book reviewer for Los Angeles Magazine, where his work has won the CRMA Award for criticism. He is also among the contributors to Stranded, Greil Marcus's anthology of rock writing, and the author of Gilligan's Wake (2003), a novel.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425226896
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 4/7/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 676,313
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most acclaimed American writers of the past century, died in New York City on April 11, 2007. He was the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen novels, including such literary classics as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Penguin Group (USA) was fortunate to publish several of Mr. Vonnegut’s books, including the novels Timequake and Hocus Pocus as well as a collection of short fiction, Bagombo Snuff Box.

Biography

Born in 1922, Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. His architect father suffered great financial setbacks during the Depression and was unemployed for long stretches of time. His mother suffered from mental illness and eventually committed suicide in 1944, a trauma that haunted Vonnegut all his life. He attended Cornell in the early 1940s, but quit in order to enlist in the Army during WWII.

Vonnegut was shipped to Europe, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was captured behind enemy lines and incarcerated in a German prison camp. As a POW, he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces, an event of devastating magnitude that left an indelible impression on the young soldier.

After the war, Vonnegut returned home and married his high school sweetheart. In addition to two daughters and a son of their own, he and his first wife adopted three children orphaned in 1958 by the death of Vonnegut's sister Alice. (He and his second wife adopted another daughter.) The family lived in Chicago and Schenectady before settling in Cape Cod, where Vonnegut began to concentrate seriously on his writing. His first novel, the darkly dystopian Player Piano, was published in 1952 and met with moderate success. Three additional novels followed (including the critically acclaimed Cat's Cradle), but it was not until the publication of 1969's Slaughterhouse Five that Vonnegut achieved true literary stardom. Based on the author's wartime experiences in Dresden, the novel resonated powerfully in the social upheaval of the Vietnam era.

Although he is best known for his novels (a genre-blending mix of social satire, science fiction, surrealism, and black comedy), Vonnegut also wrote short fiction, essays, and plays (the best known of which was Happy Birthday, Wanda June). In addition, he was a talented graphic artist who illustrated many of his books and exhibited sporadically during his literary career. He died on April 11, 2007, after suffering irreversible brain injuries as a result of a fall.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Kurt Vonnegut
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 11, 1922
    2. Place of Birth:
      Indianapolis, Indiana
    1. Date of Death:
      April 11, 2007
    2. Place of Death:
      New York, New York

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 31 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 31 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2008

    A reviewer

    The suggestion that some of these stories are not as strong as others is the worst form of nit-picking and critical snobbery. Kurt Vonnegut was [and is] a treasure. Every word he wrote was delivered with the honest intentions of a man who always seemed to be trying to tell us all something more important than what he feared most were prepared to hear. Listen, as you read, to the beating heart and sage wisdom of a true original trying to find hope in the hopeless. Vonnegut's unassuming yet richly detailed rage for truth was far beyond the 'being clever for clever's sake' golden malady that suffocates most critics of modern literature. It's good to have another hug from a dear old friend, the kind we all needed.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    My first BN.com review

    Fitting that my first review on BN.com be for Vonnegut. A true classic of literature and a must-read.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    terrific collection

    This is a terrific collection by one of the great commentators on human condition in the since WW II. As always Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. uses wry humor to rip into those warmongers who always send someone else to die. The anthology contains nonfiction like the letter he sent to his dad in Indianapolis in which the GI Grunt explains he is fortunate to escape the firebombing of Dresden in 1945 and ¿Wailing Shall be In All the Streets¿ where he discuses his POW job of burying the dead in Dresden. The short story fictions are also haunting as the title story advocates that good can never win over evil because good needs evil to exist just like the world can never be at peace for that ¿Great Day' would lead to war the author makes the case that violence is in the human DNA even the very young look to fight. This anthology is a fitting final tribute by the late great author who throughout displays his droll sense of the paradox that makes up the ¿Guns and Butter¿ of life and death on planet earth. --- Harriet Klausner

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