Friday, September 11, 2015

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? - succinct, but disappointingly slim

book review

Book: If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young
Author: Kurt Vonnegut

After the massive success of his best-selling novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), American satirist Kurt Vonnegut was frequently invited to give speeches, lectures, and addresses around his country. The writer became one of the most popular graduation speakers of his time, and If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young illustrates just why he was such a sought after speaker. This posthumous compilation of some of his commencement speeches offers unique advice to graduating students from the author whose stories have been taught in high school classes and have won him recognition all over the world.

Nine of his speeches appear in this 2013 compilation that puts together the writer’s candid messages to graduates which are often laced with wry humour and always leave readers with much to think about.

The humourist, who was known for his morbidly comical social commentary, makes several astute observations about the human condition as he shares his thoughts and ideas with students. He emphasizes the importance of kindness, urges youngsters to embrace forgiveness instead of seeking revenge, sheds light on dealing with loneliness and boredom, highlights the need of serving one’s community, and advises his audience to get more people in their lives and create extended families instead of opting for a small, “terribly vulnerable survival unit”.

Vonnegut also blends historical references into his talks, referencing things as varied as the Code of Hammurabi and the Sermon on the Mount (for which he shows great admiration). The writer - who dropped out of university, enlisted in the army, was deployed in World War II, captured by Germans and taken a prisoner of war, then returned home to marry his high school sweetheart, had three children with her, and adopted his sister’s three sons upon her death from cancer two days after her husband’s death in a train accident - clearly lived a remarkable, eventful life, and his personal experiences as well as reminiscences from his past often come up in these speeches. If you aren’t familiar with his background, then you might benefit from reading about Vonnegut before you delve into this book so that you can fully appreciate his viewpoints by understanding where the author is coming from.

Many of his observations are straightforward. Some might even seem blunt. The book certainly isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and you might not agree with everything the writer says, but his words will definitely give you something to mull over.

The book, however, is almost disappointingly slim and it’s such a quick read that it leaves you wishing it had been longer. Plus, while all the speeches are different, there is some repetition in their content. Among the subjects he revisits multiple times are the importance of marking the passage from childhood to becoming “officially full-grown” adults, and, what appears to be his favourite topic: acknowledging happiness. He recounts how his uncle, Alex Vonnegut, taught him what a waste it is to be happy and not notice it, and that it is important to acknowledge simple moments of happiness by saying out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

It is highly unlikely that the commencement speech at your graduation will be anything like Vonnegut’s addresses, and if you think you could benefit from some engaging, frank, memorable advice from one of the most celebrated authors of recent times, then you might want to give this book a read.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 11th September, 2015 *

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