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Book review: <i>Mother Night</i> by Kurt Vonnegut

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the cover of the book

Howard W Campbell Jr. sits in an Israeli jail, an American-born German national waiting to be tried as a Nazi war criminal in 1961. This is his story.

The story

Howard Campbell moved to Germany as a child, grew up there, and became a renown playwright and author. He married one of the actresses in the theatre troupe who performed his pieces, and the two of them lived and loved as a nation of two, completely self contained and wrapped up in each other to the exclusion of politics and external forces. They lived in relative affluence, even after the beginning of the war.

When war broke out, Campbell was propositioned by some high-up Nazi officials, thanks to his playwriting eloquence, to host a radio show championing the Nazi cause. So successful was his show that neo-Nazis in the years after the war all over the world rated Campbell as a their one hero, a sane man in a world gone mad. How Campbell managed to be such a man, and what kind of a man his is now, becomes revealed as the story progresses.

The style

Kurt Vonnegut is, without a doubt, one of the best authors of the twentieth century. (I would say of all time, but I haven't read enough to make that proclamation.) His way with words is untouchable; he is immediately identifiable by his style, and as soon as I start reading something by him I get a stupid smile on my face because he's JUST SO GOOD. His style is defined by his trademark direct address of the reader, his first person narration, and his blurring of fiction with fact. His writing is important. It deals with morality, the human condition, the American dream. It talks more honestly about what men will do in war and what war means than any other author I've read. Vonnegut's writing is deceptively simple; it feels like you're breezing through the story, but if you aren't careful he'll catch your breath and lead you somewhere that makes you not like yourself. I don't feel like I can do Vonnegut justice even in a review, but what I will do is give you some of my favourite quotes from the book, so you can see just how clever he is:

”The women on the cover had breasts like cantaloupes, hips like horse collars, and their rags were the pathetic remains of nightgowns by Schiaparelli. The women in the photograph were as pretty as catfish wrapped in mattress ticking.”

”From some other chamber in the cellar, partly soundproofed, came the idiotically monotonous banging of target practice.”

”Jones wasn't completely crazy. The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teen that are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined.”

Who is this book for?

For the love of God, everybody should read Vonnegut. In a time where war is a constant reality (even though for those of us lucky enough to be in the western world, it's far away), reading about war and the human condition written by a man who survived Dresden is a huge privilege and an enriching life experience. A warning, though: my significant other went on a Vonnegut binge and after reading the fourth book in a row got really depressed. So read Vonnegut, then read something happy.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Breakfast of Champions? Cat's Cradle? Bagombo Snuff Box? This list goes on.

In short

Title: Mother Night
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback
ISBN: 978-0385334143
Year published: 1999 (reprint edition)
Pages: 288
Genre(s): War, Contemporary literature
Review Type: