August 18, 2011
How do you review/critique a conversation?
I guess, if I am honest with my self, I judge conversations all the time. Nodding intently while thinking; “Man this person is boring/annoying or interesting/funny.”
If I was to use this rating system of boring versus interesting to review Like Shaking Hands with God; a transcript of two question and answer sessions starring Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer that took place in the late nineties, the judgement would have to fall more on the side of interesting.
Kurt Vonnegut’s writing style was always very conversational. I think it was one of the things that appealed most to me at the height of my Vonnegut devouring. I was lucky enough to find him in high school. While English teachers were asking you to slog through William Faulkner and Richard Wright, Vonnegut would tell you how his book ended in the first sentence and throughout the book draw a bunch of funny pictures in between tall tales of strange characters. In the end, though, he would break your heart with that very same sentence he warned you about in the beginning. His books gleefully broke every rule those dense, over-serious required reading books were built on. Reading a Vonnegut book was like sitting down with a friend and forgetting how a normal conversation works because all you need is the short hand of your relationship to understand everything that needs to be said.
Interestingly enough, excerpts from both authors’ works are read at the Q and A in Like Shaking Hands with God. In one section read from Timequake, Vonnegut compares writing to a date, telling his students in his writing classes to “…be good dates on blind dates…” Well, this book is, in a few ways, a good blind date.
One blind date aspect is the combination of the two authors. Not that the authors are unfamiliar with each other; Vonnegut was a whole-hearted proponent of Lee Stringer in his early career, and Stringer lists Vonnegut among his own top shelf of writers. The odds, however, of a reader being an expert on both seems unlikely. Chances are this book would be an introduction for the reader to one of these authors, with the smart money on Stringer being the new guy.
I, personally, had not heard of Lee Stringer, but he makes for interesting conversation. The story of his twelve years of homelessness and subsequent writing career, and his views on both situations are worth your time. He isn’t as composed and quick with a fun, or funny, maxim as Vonnegut is, but it is precisely this lack of composition that plays so interestingly. You get the impression that Stringer is of the Kerouac school of “I had nothing to offer anybody but my own confusion.” He started writing almost by accident and now his life has taken him from the gutter to published author. This is not to say that he hasn’t earned it, but to say that maybe Stringer doesn’t fully understand that he has earned it.
It was a struggle to rate this book. I was always aware of the price ($9.95) and the relative slimness of the book, and while it is a good conversation, it remains a conversation in book form none-the-less, with very little structure and no more art than is in a really nice exchange of ideas over drinks. And while I chafe at paying ten bucks for an interview that people in New York at a bookstore got for free, it is a nice little volume from Seven Stories. Is it going to offer new insight to the well-read Vonnegut fan? No, but it will entertain you, make you think a little, and leave you with some very nice quotes about life and writing, and when has any ten buck blind date ever done that much?