Ferndale Reads Spotlight: Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut and Dr. Gregory Sumner - Part 1

I look back (and forward) on my "Journey" through Kurt Vonnegut's Life and Novels - inspired by local author and U-D Professor Gregory Sumner's new book and by our FERNDALE READS Community Reading Event.

I've heard some music in the works of Kurt Vonnegut... 

In. Out.

Perspective altered. That was Vonnegut.

One word: Resonant.

One (further) superfluous word: succinct.

Whatever it was, Kurt Vonnegut struck it; whatever it wasn’t, Kurt Vonnegut found a way to say it.

"What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time." -Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, (Chapter 5)

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is this year’s Ferndale Reads book - which FPL is encouraging everyone in Ferndale to read this March... Click here for a schedule of special Ferndale-Reads Events. This year’s keynote speech will feature local Ferndale resident and author, Gregory Sumner. His recent publication,Unstuck in Time is a journey through Kurt Vonnegut’s life and work. Sumner will speak about Slaughterhouse-five’s popularity and sign copies of his book.

Survivor's Tale / "Responding to Time..."

Vonnegut’s voice resonated with me immediately. I was fourteen years old and I'd plucked his book, Slaughterhouse-Five, from a list of 50 titles xeroxed-and-passed-out to my Sophomore English class. The 50 Greatest Books of All-Time, read the heading. I zeroed-in on the most provocative-sounding title.

This unassuming author's voice, dry yet zippy, purred and wheezed with refreshing frankness. It honked and slunk along like a trumpet, bleating and blaring at key points and then sliding, somberly, throughout; sleepy eyed yet still stung with caffeine.

His voice was like an old-time radio show beamed down from a stratospheric wormhole, heaving these indelible melodies that could always hook you as they wafted their way into the backrooms of Great Literature’s cozily lamp-lit lounge. Fuzzed with a charming grumpiness and warmed by a disarming, if quirkily-toned fawn of empathy. His voice wrung with a wisdom that wobbled into facetious winks but never minced words.

He approaches you and blurts and his words fall like timeless turquoise tomes on oak tables, sonorous and succinct and echoing up into prophetic, neon-blazed plumes of dust.    

My first favorite author. 

Likely, still.

And I've learned so much more about him, through such an engaging and refreshingly unconventional study, by reading Unstuck In Time: A Journey through Kurt Vonnegut's Life and Novels by Gregory Sumner, a metro-area based author and Professor of History at U-D Mercy. 

Obviously, I'm a fan. Sumner, however, far surpasses my ardent appreciation, indeed, having attained a much more scholarly surveyance of Vonnegut's whole essence, in life and in literature. 

Sumner calls Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut's "...survivor's mission," transcribed piece by piece over a difficult 20-year-long writing process. "Here's a man who lived through the apocalypse," said Sumner, speaking of SH5's autobiographical elements tied to Vonnegut's experiences during WWII and his firsthand account of the Dresden bombings.

Says Sumner: "He survived by accident and it came to be his report on, just, what he had seen. It took him almost 25 years just to figure out the language and how to convey the disorientation of a soldier's experience." 

"The artist's job," said Sumner, paraphrasing Vonnegut, "is to respond to his time." 

And time is a big factor when it comes to SH5. It's main character, Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck... 

"Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren't necessarily fun..." ...

And I'll leave it right there. Tune in, two weeks from now, for the proper interview with Gregory Sumner. Check our calendar of scheduled events for FERNDALE READS 2013, here. 


Stay tuned for further installments in my special Vonnegut/Sumner series, including an extended interview with the author. 

Mark your calendars: 
Wed. March 27 – Gregory Sumner, Professor of History, University of Detroit Mercy will speak on the life and writings of Kurt Vonnegut – Ferndale Library – 7:00 pm 

Cindy Conover Dashnaw February 17, 2013 at 05:44 PM
I love your description of Vonnegut's writing style. I discovered him late in my life and deplore the years I missed out on his wit and insight. I've also read Sumner's "Unstuck in Time" and highly recommend it. Wish I could be in Ferndale in March to hear his presentation!


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