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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 February 2015
Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut, is a story about memory, time travel and the futility of war. The author was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was fire bombed by the allied forces in 1945 killing 135,000 people and devastating the city. This experience is pivotal to the story. As its narrator he opines that, like Lot’s wife, we are not supposed to look back lest we be lost. His protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has come unstuck in time, travelling backwards and forwards through his life. What is recollection, memory, thought, if not a type of time travel?

‘We went to the New York World’s Fair, saw what the past had been like, […] saw what the future would be like, […]. And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.’

Billy Pilgrim considers time to be like space. In his view death is simply another moment, a feature on the path of a life. People will continue to exist if remembered.

‘We will all live forever no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be.’

The tale told is a collection of memories, a non linear life story. In many ways Billy would be considered ordinary: a son, husband, father, successful optometrist. In other ways he was extraordinary: prisoner of war, plane crash survivor, time traveller, alien abductee.

When he starts to share some of his more bizarre memories his daughter remonstrates with him, fearing that he is losing his mind. He asks, what is normal? Bookstores are filled with books about sex and murder; the news is of sport and death; people pay to look at pictures of others, like themselves but with no clothes on; they get excited about the price of things that do not exist called stocks and bonds. These things are accepted yet when someone tries to talk of what is not understood it is not believed, it is assumed that it cannot have happened.

At one point in the book Billy is watching a war film backwards.

‘American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off […]. Over France a few German fighter planes […] sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. […] a German city was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. […] everything and everybody as good as new. […] factories were operating night and day dismantling the cylinders […] so they would never hurt anybody ever again.’

War is accepted yet it kills and destroys.

The observations on attitudes are razor sharp. The story resounds with wit and wisdom as it challenges normality. Billy may have conflated fact and fiction at times but who is to judge what is real in anyone else’s life?

I loved this book. I fear that my review cannot do justice to the impact of the writing. I want to quote so much; better that you just go and read it for yourself.
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on 27 April 2017
Astonishing tour de force of despair really. It is about life and death at a very profound level, but written in such a simple way. The Dresden firestorm in WWII is described deadpan, and thus so much more effectively than with drama. The central character is Everyman, stuck in an impossible situation where he seems helpless to escape - and yet he does, either in a dream or in reality, when he is abducted by aliens. I would never call this science fiction. It is much more the study of one man's psychology, his escape and his denial of his reality, which ranges from utterly banal to absolute horror. Vonnegut himself seems to have been the most compassionate of men, and this sings through. I have to say, soon after I finished reading it, I saw a glorious pair of silver boots in a sale reduced from £120 to £7 and bought them, so influenced was my mind by Slaughterhouse Five.
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 December 2016
The narrator, having survived WW2, intends to write a book about the bombing of Dresden, but can't seem to think of anything to say. He visits an army buddy to share memories in a bid to get himself started, but his buddy's wife is angry, thinking he will write yet another book glorifying war. He promises he won't – and then he begins to tell the fable of Billy Pilgrim.

Billy Pilgrim is gifted, or cursed, with the ability to time-travel backwards and forwards through his life. He was given this gift by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who abducted him and put him on display in a zoo on their planet. They also taught him that, in a life where time-travel is real, no-one can truly be said to die, since they will still be alive in their own past and can be visited there. We first meet Billy years after the war has finished, when he has become a successful optometrist. But as we travel back with him through his past, we learn about his war experiences. Like the narrator, he was a survivor of Dresden and we gradually learn of the horrors he witnessed there.

Written during the height of the Vietnam War, Vonnegut uses his own experiences of an earlier war to produce a powerful protest novel, one that concentrates on the effects of war at the human, individual level. I've always thought this book was a sci-fi novel, and indeed that is how it tends to be classified, but in fact it's nothing of the sort. Billy's time-travel experiences and his meeting with the aliens arise clearly from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder – they are his way of coping with the death and destruction he has witnessed.

The main story is of Billy's time as a POW in Germany when he was sent to work in Dresden just before the fire-bombing which destroyed that city and killed many thousands of civilians in the space of a few nights. There is a terrible anger in it, but it's hidden beneath a kind of laconic manner of telling – a déjà vu, que sera, sera, feeling, summed up by the constant refrain of 'So it goes' every time a death is mentioned – as if the narrator is saying that anger is pointless in face of the inevitability of war. Frequently a sentence or paragraph is devastating in its perceptiveness and the cruelty of its clarity. Vonnegut never dwells mawkishly on the horrors, simply tells them and moves on. But, like the anger, sympathy and empathy are both bubbling beneath the surface, making this a profoundly emotional read despite its brevity and understatement. It manages the difficult balancing act of being simultaneously brutal and deeply humane, both bleak and blackly funny.

Vonnegut uses the time-travelling aspects brilliantly to show how Billy's mind sets up defences to deal with the memories it can't handle. It also allows him to create some wonderfully powerful imagery, such as when Billy finds himself watching war movies that are running in reverse.

Vonnegut also touches on Christianity, on questions of free will and predestination, and gives a pretty excoriating picture of an America obsessed with wealth and celebrity, leaving the vast majority of people who never achieve those things feeling like failures. He seems to be suggesting that religion won’t truly touch these people unless we look differently at how we perceive the idea of Christ, as ordinary rather than exceptional. While intriguing, I wasn’t at all clear where he really intended to go with this argument, and was ultimately unconvinced that it was much more than a clever conceit. But it’s a minor part of the book, so didn’t detract from the greater anti-war message.

Overall, I thought this was pretty stunning. The understated style of the writing, the use of the time-travelling to let us see the effects of war at a very human level and to allow Vonnegut to do some philosophising on what humanity means, the imagery, and even the black humour, all add power to this brief novel, so that it achieves a depth that many much longer novels never reach. One that fully deserves its status as a classic.
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on 24 September 2015

Billy Pilgrim is not your average character in a work of fiction.

This is one of those books that has eluded me for some time. Every time I’ve thought of getting round to reading it, something else has cropped up to take priority or I’ve developed a guilt complex over reading too many male authors. But this time, I was determined to get round to getting stuck into what is a relatively short work. If, like me, you like to know a tiny bit about a book before reading it, you will know that Slaughterhouse 5 is an anti-war book.

Upon reading the first chapter, I was rather wrong-footed. It is the first chapter and doesn’t come with a heading of ‘introduction’ or ‘foreword’ yet it is written wholly in the first person, who is evidently the author, talking about the book that is to follow. In it, he states that while the names have been changed, vignettes of the book remain true to his own experience. In particular focus is the fire bombing of Dresden during the Second World War. I had to wonder then if this really was a semi-biographical work or whether the introduction itself was a work of fiction, much like the introductions of “found footage” films like The Blair Witch Project.

Billy Pilgrim is our central character, around whom the entire narrative is devoted and around whom all the characters come and go like waves on a beach. He is what the author describes as being ‘dislocated in time’. He doesn’t have a vessel in which to travel back and forth, he just closes his eyes in one period and wakes up in another, entirely out of his control. It removes the sense of ‘now’ from the novel, as in all times he speaks in the present tense. At one time he is a soldier, a prisoner of war, a veteran and a man about to die. He is also a person who has been abducted by aliens (called Trafalmadorians) who sit outside of time.

The main thought that went through my head as I read was the similarity in style and aim to that of Catch 22; a book that I have long hated as it’s a fantastic idea but very poorly executed. Here, there isn’t anything quite as strong in the ideas department but while Heller is a decidedly mediocre writer with an over-inflated reputation, Konnegut is a much better writer.

The other thought was “where is Dresden?” Not in the geographical sense, but in the fact that the book only makes a few references to it and it is not until right at the end that Billy finds himself in that city during the firebombing, as a prisoner of war who survives, unlike the many thousands of civilians who were murdered in what was probably the worst war crime the United Kingdom ever committed, yet like later war crimes, such as the war against Iraq, the United Kingdom was never prosecuted.

The whole sideline of the aliens I found a little distracting. They were never properly fleshed out and just drifted in and out of the story, which would have progressed (if that is the right word for a book with a non-linear timeline) just fine without them. What we are left with is a book that seems to be intentionally fractured. There are moments of sharp cynicism interspersed with periods of mundaneness, but even these are interesting and well-written. Do I regret having put off reading it for so long? I can’t say it blew me away like Love In The Time Cholera did, but I’m certainly glad I did read it and would recommend it to you if you’ve not read it already.

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention; the work ends with an onomatopoeic bird song: Poo-tee-weet.
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on 23 December 2017
I've been meaning to read this for years, decades even, but somehow never got round to it. But I'm glad I did. It's completely different to a typical "war novel", because the Second World War is always happening on the outskirts of the story. Even when it's directly covering the Dresden bombing, which is (kind of) the central theme of the book, it does so in a sideways fashion.

I don't think everyone will love it. It plays with time in a way that could annoy people who like to go from the start of a story to its end, and some of it is surreal. But I'd place it as one of the great war novels, covering a topic that's so difficult to address - when you're on the winning side, how do you discuss what might otherwise be considered atrocities?

You'll also discover why people are so fond of writing "so it goes".
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on 5 September 2013
Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of novel, became a sort of cult figure in American popular culture, and it's not difficult to see why. Slaughterhouse-five is a war novel with a twist. It rather cleverly, and in a deliberately obvious, self-conscious manner, disguises itself as a science-fiction piece about time travel and aliens. Framed by a narrator who is a war veteran, he embarks on writing an account of his experiences in WW2 when he was a POW in Dresden, Germany.

The novel that he writes turns out to be about Billy Pilgrim, a war vet like himself, but Dresden becomes just an episode within his narrative about his experiences as a time-traveller. The shift of focus suggests that the brutality of the war experience is too harsh and horrific to be addressed head-on and that it needs to be looked at sideways, mediated by a layered narrative.

Seemingly farcical, born-loser Billy is something of a joke in the army, and his position is non-combat and perfunctory. Death recurs in the novel, and as a way of cushioning the blow, the narrator always appends any mention of it with "and so it goes".

Vonnegut has a distinctive style of writing that is disjointed and episodic, which is filmic in quality, akin to the way a scene fades out to the next. Perhaps this style is also in keeping with the story of a man who becomes "unstuck in time" and begins to view life not as a continuum, and death not as an end, but rather as moments which, when chronology is taken away, causes the finality of circumstances to lose their significance, which also takes away the sting of hopeless events in one's life.

Humorous despite the gravity of the issues dealt with in the novel, Vonnegut manages to adopt an authorial perspective that is neither prescriptive nor heavy-handed, allowing him to speak truthfully about the pain of human suffering without the melodrama.
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on 18 September 2014
When reviewing books, I'm usually careful not to reveal too much of the plot – after all, while I might want to encourage people to read a book, I don't want to spoil it for them.

For those who like to avoid spoilers, feel free to stop reading after this paragraph. I'll simply say that this is one of those 'must-read' books. I enjoyed it from beginning to end, though it wasn't anything like I expected in any way. I was certainly more than a little sorry that this is a book discovered later in life, as I expect to return to it more than once.

It's said that we judge a book by its cover, but I've always felt that was wrong. Perhaps we might buy a book based on its cover, but judging any book on such scant information – a title and picture – is seldom right. Never more so than with Slaughterhouse-Five, which for years I'd suspected is set in the future (it isn't) and centres around a place of grim violence (it doesn't). Why it's called Slaughterhouse-Five is something I'll hold back as a joy for you to discover, should you deem to read it.

Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim's life, framed around his time in the Second World War – more specifically, the terrible bombing of Dresden, of which he is, was and will be a survivor. I say is, was and will be partly because the book is written in snatches – small chunks of Billy's life from seemingly random points. I also say this partly because that's how Billy experiences time – for him, it's not linear.

It's a story not told by Billy, but by someone who knows him. The author has promised himself – and many others – that he will write something about the bombing of Dresden; something that brings a kind of meaning to the events there. But he can't. He struggles to recall it and friends he was with do the same, or are reluctant to speak of it. It almost falls into being a story about Billy, while at the same time becomes a story about Dresden. It also is, perhaps more than anything else, a story about death.

Death pervades almost every part of this book, sewn into its every paragraph like stitches that hold the piece together. And yet it's not the death that we might expect. It's not a brooding or violent death, more an essay in how to put death into the story of life. It talks about death as not something to mourn or fear, but more an inevitable part of a greater whole – life and existence – that is to be celebrated. So it goes. (I won't spoil what that little phrase means, either.)

The writing style is welcoming – open, honest and conversational snippets that convey far more than posturing prose ever could. It's an easy read. As Billy travels through life – and time – his story unfolds. Yet much of the writing is achingly beautiful, despite the apparent simplicity of the prose. It's both philosophical and poetic; it's never condescending or pretentious. And it's also not a book about time-travel: this is not The Time-Traveller's Wife. Time-travel is not a plot device, it's a means of unfolding the story, and a way in which both life and death can be put into context.

This is also part of Billy's journey – how he must convey to others what he knows is the truth of life, time and death. It's a mission he undertakes late in life – and involves him revealing to others something about himself (with disarming honesty) that can, for many, only serve to fundamentally undermine the integrity of his viewpoint. I won't spoil this for you either, but this key point is written so deftly that you're never sure if it's a delusion or fact. Not that this matters. Billy can't convey his philosophy without revealing how it came about – and why he knows his philosophy to be fact. It's part of a whole – and the whole has to be accepted for any part of it to make sense.

In many ways, it's a highly unusual novel. As the book itself says of war (and perhaps of itself): "There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick or so much the listless playthings of enormous forces."

Slaughterhouse-Five is both casual and epic. It's an easy tale with a deep, deep message, wrapped into a tale of life, woven into a story of war.

And war is enormous – yet we sometimes lose perspective. We think of the bombing of Hiroshima as one of the Second World War's biggest events, where 71,379 people died. Yet on a single night, 5 March 1945, Americans dropped high explosives and incendiary bombs on Tokyo – killing 83,793 people. And Dresden? Around 130,000 people were killed in one night. So it goes.

Billy survived Dresden by ironic chance of the place in which he was held prisoner – and went on to explain to others that it was neither something that had to be done nor could have been avoided, it 'just was'. If you have war, you have death. If you have life, you have death.

I doubt that any book could make sense of (let alone give meaning to) something as awful as the bombing of Dresden, or part of any war – or indeed war itself. But death is part of war as death is part of life and Slaughterhouse-Five gets as close to raising our awareness of where death fits into life as any book I've read. A truly excellent book and one that is easily worthy of its reputation of being a modern masterpiece.
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on 15 June 2014
I was prompted to read this book because Kurt Vonnegut's name has for some reason been cropping up a lot lately; I didn't choose Slaughterhouse Five because of the genre or because I thought the story would appeal to me in anyway, I simply wanted to know what the fuss was all about. It's everything it promises to be; a bazaar anti war novel depicting the futility and inevitability of war,filled with satire towards human nature it also seems to depict a surrender and the acceptability of the lack of free will prominent through out the novel...what will be will be, 'so it goes'... accept it, focus on the good moments and get on with it...

I didn't particularly like the structure of the book although its merit towards portraying Vonnegut's message is undeniably very effective, even necessary. Right from the beginning you know how the story will end, just like the personal and individual outcomes of war, this story on a personal character level has no surprises, no winners; Vonnegut writes that '[t]here are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most he people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.' Pilgrim's time travel often reads as a series of dreams, dreams or escapes that punctuate his horrific wartime experiences, they leech the power from those atrocities by enabling the reader, and Pilgrim himself, to distance themselves from the immediacy of Pilgrim's situation and allowing the reader to reflect on the messages in the book. Vonnegut's text is disturbing, sometimes entertaining but fundamentally entertainment doesn't seem to be the object of this book. Although I can't say I enjoyed the story it is a book that I keep returning to, thinking about random passages and ideas while reflecting on Vonnegut's ability to mingle the serious with the absurd without diluting the severity of his message or the facts of the war. I'm glad I've read this book but am not convinced I will be reading any of his others; there is a lot of power in this little book and although Vonnegut's ideologies in places reflect my own, I found this book's insistent urging to challenge and question the way I see the world quite disturbing...so it goes...
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on 30 December 2013
Told by the straightforward case of unreliable narrator (Leon Trotsky Trout, a ghost of a soldier who "died" of syphilis), "Galápagos" the book is a lot of fun with a hint of sci-fi. Okay, it's a bit repetitive and drags on occasionally, but it is full of all things that is Kurt Vonnegut - sarcasm, cynicism, scorn, nihilism and pessimism and ultimate believe in the best which is yet to come. An absurd plot, crazy ideas, and yet, and still, good-hearted humour.

"Galapagos" starts with the financial crisis of 1986 and ends with human species, devolved, lying down side by side, seals-like, furry and fingerless, with much lesser brains (and a lot less problems) on the volcanic shores of Galapagos exactly a million years later. Are you interested in Vonnegut's answer to Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species? - look no further.

I imagine "Galápagos" has to be re-read to catch up on all the little details and enjoy all dark humour. It is back on my reading list.
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VINE VOICETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 January 2015
Slow starting but laced with genius, Slaughterhouse 5 is an eye opener to brilliant writing and a mockery of modern human actions. We follow the life of Billy Pilgrim, a prisoner of war that for the rest of his life suffers from a sort of unsaid post traumatic stress, who in his mind visits an alternate world of incredibly clever other world beings. They've worked out humans unanswerable questions - what happens to the world, when do we all die, why we are here, and what the other dimensions mean. It's a conformist man's account of war as he humbles through it, stumbling through life with questions thrown at him, not asking so many himself.

Like with many books, the second half is much better than the first, but fight through the contextual beginnings and the good stuff will definitely glow from the pile. If nothing else, read chapter 5. Not much is as satirical and intelligent as that in modern writing.
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