The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is this: 'All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.
Have you read Cat's Cradle? Have you re-read it? My first read was when I was 14 or 15, but reading it again now was like "Ohhhh most of this went way over my head." The book was published in 1963 - a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the midst of the Cold War - and looks at how people and societies deal with something as big and uncontrollable as the threat of nuclear war. It's critical of religion, but in a somewhat affectionate way. It's quite critical of science as well, particularly of the idea that scientific research exists outside any moral implications.
The book is told through the eyes of a journalist named John who, through the course of his work, becomes acquainted with the children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, a physicist who helped develop the atom bomb. Inspired solely by scientific curiosity and without any concern for potential repercussions, Dr. Hoenikker also developed a substance called ice-nine, an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature and freezes any molecules it comes into contact with.
Much of the book takes place on the island of San Lorenzo, where the narrator goes on assignment to meet with the oldest son of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, accompanied by the other two Hoenikker siblings and a whole zany cast of characters. Life in San Lorenzo is extremely difficult - the people are poor, the ruler is a cruel dictator, and the land is inhospitable. The residents deal with their lot in life by believing fervently in a new religion called Bokononism, created by an exiled saint who once ruled the island. The Books of Bokonon are a balm to the suffering on the island, an example of religion as something purely functional to help a people or society through difficulty. Similarly, Kurt Vonnegut uses humor throughout the book to help readers through the nihilistic and oftentimes hopeless circumstances he describes. And it is hella funny.
The only thing I didn't wholeheartedly enjoy about the book was that its treatment of some of the characters of color and women felt two dimensional. It was written in the 1960s so a lot of the attitudes are just outdated, but in particular I cringed at the character of Mona Aamons. Mona is a sex symbol on San Lorenzo, the adopted daughter of the island's dictator. We see her through the eyes of the besotted narrator who objectifies and overly eroticizes her. It's a bummer, especially because I would have liked to learn more about her character outside of that extremely flattening lens.
But I still love this book and would definitely recommend it. It has a lot of interesting things to say that still feel super relevant. And honestly it feels weird writing this review, when I can't do much justice to the things Vonnegut says really well. So here are some excellent quotes that I particularly enjoyed:
"God leaned close to mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. "What is the purpose of all this?" he asked politely. "Everything must have a purpose?" asked God. "Certainly," said man. "Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this," said God. And He went away.”
"He had a dazzling talent for spending millions without increasing mankind's stores of anything but chagrin." (sounds like a certain POS currently occupying the White House).
"I could carve a better man out of a banana."
“Maturity...is knowing what your limitations are...Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything.”
“Live by the foma* that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.
"See the cat? See the cradle?"
cover design notes
It was tough to think of something new for the cover design, since there are so many nice existing covers for this book. I liked the idea of having the apostrophe in "Cat's" be a crystal of ice-nine that froze the title. And I also wanted to have a yarn cat's cradle binding the two C's. The lettering style and color choices are whimsical to reflect the tone of the book.