Book Review: Catch-22

Catch-22

Catch-22 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

So I celebrated Independence Day my own way by finishing Catch-22, a novel which examines the real meaning of patriotism. I know that this is a popular read among you fellow book bloggers, so let’s jump right into it!

Catch-22, published in 1961, was based on author Joseph Heller’s experience as an Air Force bombardier during World War II. But this is certainly not a “war novel,” in the classic sense of the term, given the fact that the war itself is merely the backdrop for the interpersonal relationships and hierarchies among the men in the military.

It was interesting to see Germany, Italy, and the Pacific only mentioned in passing, without any discussion of the people (Roosevelt, Churchill, Mussolini, Hitler) that have become synonymous with the war.

Instead, the book focuses on the people who surround Yossarian, a Assyrian with a fictionalized Armenian surname. The story begins on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa with one of Yossarian’s many attempts of avoiding warfare by faking an illness–a common avoidance maneuver that even the doctors are in on.

And it’s a good thing that the doctors indulge these soldiers, since the commanding officers have made the possibility of discharge futile. Every time the men are close to completing their designated number of missions, the colonels raise the bar so that none of them can go home.

“Catch-22” explains the circular logic that keeps Yossarian and his comrades captive: a soldier may only be discharged if he proves insane, but the very act of declaring insanity proves that he is indeed sane, and thus he must continue flying.

But while the subject matter is very serious, Heller does an exquisite job bringing his satire to life. He expresses all the frustration with a refreshing combination of sophisticated wit and masculine brashness. Sure, Yossarian is risking his life every day, frequently losing men he cares about, but he manages to mock his superiors and womanize his nurses with a sense of humor that is often laugh-out-loud funny.

However, I feel that I would have appreciated Catch-22 more if I had read it in an academic setting. This novel is well-outlined and surprisingly intellectual; each character represents something deeper, from the treacherously capitalistic mess officer Milo to the nameless soldier in white, wrapped head to toe in bandages so that no one can recognize him.

Heller’s outline for Catch-22. Wow!

Unfortunately, the middle of the novel is bogged down with so many secondary characters that I found at times it was difficult to stay engaged. Without trying to give too much away, the pace picked up toward the end, as I enjoyed the psychotic aftermath of Nately, his lover, and Yossarian’s determination to defect.

The ending was not what I anticipated, but readers should be aware that there is a belated sequel called Closing Time (1994). I’d love to hear from anyone who has read this follow-up, considering how generation after generation has gained insight from Catch-22.

People expect criticism of the Vietnam War or the current wars in the Middle East, so for Heller to speak out negatively against American forces during a historically glorified event has made it so Catch-22 has lasted the test of time.

I believe that readers appreciate Heller’s honesty and vulnerability, sharing the fears of someone in combat. Yossarian is the classic anti-hero, desperately trying to live forever, even if he dies trying. Although the deaths of his friends have traumatized him, he makes sure he looks out for himself, since no one else will.

My biggest takeaway from this novel is that whether in times of great chaos or the everyday grind, it’s important to question authority and define your own morality. Some may call Yossarian cowardly and blasphemous when he forsakes his country and faith respectively, but I respect him for refusing to live as a sheep, taking orders without seeking the answers behind them.

So next time you find that everyone is calling you crazy, remember that insanity is always in the eye of the beholder.

Favorite Quote: “The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.” (Ch. 39)

Masterpiece Monday: 5 Classics I Really Want to Read

So if you’re like me, for some reason (boredom, intrigue, shame over your reality show obsessions like “America’s Next Top Model”), you’ve Googled “best books of all time.” I love reading the classics, and every now and then I like to spice up my reading with some intellect. Usually after a string of chick-lit novels, I’m craving a challenge.

Right now I’m enjoying Francesca Segal’s The Innocents, but often find myself feeling nostalgic for its inspiration: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. This, of course, makes me look forward to reading another Wharton novel waiting for me on my bookshelf: The House of Mirth.

Thus, I thought that I would share with you my list of the five classics that I really want to read soon, starting with The House of Mirth.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905): The title is derived from Ecclesiastes 7:4, which states, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” That little tidbit of info alone tells me that this story is going to be dramatically tragic, and hopefully in the best possible way. When it comes to the struggles of upper-class women in the Gilded Age, Wharton is queen, and I am her humble reading servant.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877): This tale covers two goals on my reading list–experience another great ‘fallen woman’ story and finally read a Russian author. I’ve been recommended this novel by a few of you guys, and I trust your judgment. Plus, I seriously can’t get enough of 19th-century women pushing the boundaries of femininity and morality. It’s like literary crack to me!

Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945): This is a story which I already know a lot about, since I watched the film adaptation in my high school European History class, and I routinely reference it as an example of allegory to my students. And frankly, I’m tired of mentioning a book that I still haven’t actually read. I fell head over heels in love with 1984, so there’s little chance that I’ll dislike Animal Farm. Why I continue to put off good reading, I’ll never know!

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961): I feel that if you’re going to use “catch-22” regularly in conversation, you might as well read the book which originated the term. I don’t actively seek out war stories, but it sounds like Catch-22 is much more than that. I’m a big fan of satire and anything chock-full of mentally stimulating themes and allusions, so I’m pretty sure this fits the bill.

The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925): I already love Kafka after reading his amazing shorter works, such as “A Hunger Artist” and “The Metamorphosis.” His writing is unique: bizarre, existential, and humorously morbid. Even though he died before he could finish writing it, I don’t want to die before I can finish reading it!

So what are the classics that you haven’t gotten around to yet, but you definitely want to read? Share your picks, and offer your opinions on mine!

And check back next week, because I’ll be discussing the five classics that I NEVER want to read. Any guesses???

Masterpiece Monday: Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” (Tribute to Catch-22)

Catch-22

Image via Wikipedia

Rating: 5 out of 5

Today’s the 50th anniversary of the publication of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, but because I haven’t read it yet, I unfortunately can’t blog about it for Masterpiece Monday. However, I thought I would pay tribute to that classic by discussing another story representing a “catch-22.”

The definition of the term (thanks Google!) is “A dilemma from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.” In the original novel, it described the fighter pilot protagonist’s inability to escape combat by requesting a pysch evaluation to determine if he is unfit to fly–the very request would prove he’s sane enough to fly.

I chose to discuss Franz Kafka’s short story “A Hunger Artist,” because Kafka is also king of writing about lose-lose situations. Published in 1922, it narrates the life of a nameless hunger artist, a person whose circus act is starving himself for his fans. He was extremely popular at first, with many viewers surrounding his cage to get a good look at him. But over time, fasting lost its appeal, and the hunger artist struggles to continue his craft despite his irrelevance.

The catch-22 in this story is that the longer he starves, the higher his personal record (a feat essential to him, given that his boss originally placed a 40-day limit to his fasting). However, the longer he starves, the closer he gets to dying and thus officially loses the audience he so desperately wants to impress. Food is both his problem and his solution.

I love Kafka’s work, because he manages to make morbid, serious subjects like starving or turning into an insect and make them humorous. You pity the hunger artist for his situation, but you also are proud of his determination to succeed no matter what. Kafka’s calm, detached writing style combined with powerful imagery is why his stories deserve to be called masterpieces.

If you’ve read Catch-22, please share your thoughts on its anniversary today. I’d love to know if you’d recommend it! In exchange, if you haven’t read any Kafka, you should! I’m sure both authors will influence generations of readers for years and years to come!

Favorite Quote: “Forgive me everything,” whispered the hunger artist. Only the supervisor, who was pressing his ear up against the cage, understood him. “Certainly,” said the supervisor, tapping his forehead with his finger in order to indicate to the staff the state the hunger artist was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I had to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist.