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New books like Tom Roston's The Writer's Crusade, Ginger Strand's The Brothers Vonnegut and next year's Vonnegut centenary, provide a welcome chance to debate Kurt Vonnegut's acclaimed Slaughterhouse Five. Second Read is a BPL Presents series that reevaluates canonical classic and contemporary work and encourages lively debate around books and reading.

In The Writer's Crusade we find the story of Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five, an enduring masterpiece on trauma and memory. Kurt Vonnegut was twenty years old when he enlisted in the United States Army. Less than two years later, he was captured by the Germans in the single deadliest US engagement of the war, the Battle of the Bulge. He was taken to a POW camp, then transferred to a work camp near Dresden, and held in a slaughterhouse called Schlachthof Fünf where he survived the horrific firebombing that killed thousands and destroyed the city.

To the millions of fans of Vonnegut’s great novel Slaughterhouse-Five, these details are familiar. They’re told by the book’s author/narrator, and experienced by his enduring character Billy Pilgrim, a war veteran who “has come unstuck in time.” Writing during the tumultuous days of the Vietnam conflict, with the novel, Vonnegut had, after more than two decades of struggle, taken trauma and created a work of art, one that still resonates today. 

In The Writer’s Crusade, author Tom Roston examines the connection between Vonnegut’s life and Slaughterhouse-Five. Did Vonnegut suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Did Billy Pilgrim? Roston probes Vonnegut’s work, his personal history, and discarded drafts of the novel, as well as original interviews with the writer’s family, friends, scholars, psychologists, and other novelists including Karl Marlantes, Kevin Powers, and Tim O’Brien. The Writer's Crusade is a literary and biographical journey that asks fundamental questions about trauma, creativity, and the power of storytelling. 

Dan Simon at Seven Stories is one of Kurt Vonnegut's three key editors (others were Seymour Lawrence at Delacorte, and Faith Sale of Putnam/Penguin). Dan edited Vonnegut's last major work, A Man without a Country, as well as a number of other titles before and after Vonnegut's death in 2007, including Complete Stories and If This Isn't Nice, What Is?, Pity the Reader, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, and, with Lee Stringer, Like Shaking Hands with God. Simon is the Founder and Publisher of Seven Stories Press, and writes long form essays for The Nation. He is the co-author of a biography of Abbie Hoffman, Run Run Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman, and translator of Van Gogh: Self Portraits by Pascal Bonafoux.

Ginger Strand is the author of one novel, two opera librettos, and three books of narrative nonfiction, most recently The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic. The Brothers Vonnegut, about Kurt and his scientist brother Bernard, was called "a quantum leap forward in Kurt Vonnegut studies" by Jerome Klinkowitz (review in American Literary History) and "the only good book written about Kurt Vonnegut" by Dan Wakefield. (This was, of course, was before Roston's The Writer's Crusade came out!) She has published essays in a wide range of places, including Harpers, The New Yorker, The Believer, Tin House, and Orion. In addition to writing frequently about the collisions between nature, culture, science, and the arts, she frequently collaborates with photographers, and has contributed essays to photography projects by Lisa Kereszi, Joshua Dudley Greer, and the Magnum Agency's Postcards from America.

Before The Writer's Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five, Tom Roston previously spent three years researching, reporting and writing The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World. Roston has been writing and editing stories about culture, food and life in New York City  for more than 20 years. He has profiled a long list of dynamic subjects, from documentarian Ken Burns to actor Tom Cruise, from chef Jose Andres to Judge Judy. He drove across Montana with Viggo Mortensen, got tattoos (not matching) with Angelina Jolie in Montreal, drank whiskey with Jane Goodall and translated Khmer words into English for Kurt Vonnegut himself. In The Quantum Prophets, he sought to uncover what lies beneath the intellectual battle between Richard Dawkins and Deepak Chopra. In I Lost It At The Video Store: A Filmmakers' Oral History of a Vanished Era, he constructed a  narrative chronicle of a creative movement from interviews with filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell and Allison Anders.

Adrienne Westenfeld is an editor at Esquire, where she writes about books and culture, commissions and edits fiction, and curates the Esquire Book Club. Her work has appeared in EsquireTown & Country, and Elle, among other places.

Greenlight Bookstore is our bookseller for this event. You can purchase/preorder the book here.

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