If you've never read any Kurt Vonnegut, and don't know much about his life or work, Cat's Cradle is a great way in, but some context is probably necessary. A native of Indiana, Vonnegut studied biochemistry at Cornell University, but was interested early in journalism and writing. He enlisted in the Army on April 6th, 1943, staying on through the end of World War II.
Like many of his generation, especially veterans, Vonnegut's life was profoundly affected by the events of the War. He was captured on December 19th, 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned in Dresden, Germany. While a prisoner, Vonnegut witnessed the firebombing of Dresden in February of 1945, which destroyed most of the city, killing an estimated 25,000 people. Vonnegut was amongst a fairly small group of US military personnel who survived the bombing, and was later liberated by the Red Army in May of 1945. This event is referred to in several of Vonnegut's works, most notably in his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five, which was published in 1969 to great acclaim. Another significant event — the suicide of Vonnegut's mother — happened while he was in the war.
The effect of these events on Vonnegut's life and work is impossible to overstate, and they form the best background perspective to begin reading Cat's Cradle, which explores, often absurdly, similar themes. The novel, which is really about a faux religion called Bokononism, whose major tenet is "Live by the foma (roughly, lie) that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy."