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)

Book Review: Pop Kids

Image via Scene Point Blank

Rating: 2 out of 5

BEWARE: SPOILER ALERT!

I’ve been dreading writing this review as much as I was excited to read the book. I even blogged my ode to Davey Havok just to ensure the skeptics that I’m still a devoted fan of his.

But Pop Kids definitely tested that devotion.

Why you ask? Let’s sweat the small stuff first, then build up to the real issues, shall we?

1. Grammar Nazis, get out your red pens. Rumor has it that Pop Kids is self-published behind a vanity press. You all know how I feel about that, but I’m not about to dwell on whether it’s true.

However, I can see why this assumption holds weight. Now don’t chuck your books at me, but perhaps it’s because the majority of self-published books lack the amount of talent that it takes to compete in the industry. But even if there were many professionals involved in the editing and publishing process, I’d be surprised, because there were too many typos for Pop Kids to pass inspection. Miley Sirus? Vanessa Hudgins? Come on, if you’re going to write a novel about society’s obsession with pop culture, at least spell celebrities’ names correctly! That’s just lazy.

I know, Molly Ringwald. I’ll never look at “The Breakfast Club” the same way again either.

2. This book is 95% pornography. And not in a good way. Pop Kids is 320 pages and 70 chapters, and only a handful of chapters don’t contain any sexual behavior. That fact itself wouldn’t bother me if this book had been marketed as erotica. It shouldn’t, however, because erotica implies sex with substance. The whole plot revolves around Michael “Score” (short for Scorsese) Massi as he channels his passion for cinema by hosting Premiere parties in an abandoned hotel for his closest friends, whom he dubs the “Filmgreats.”

It starts off innocent with a showing of “The Breakfast Club,” but you know how it goes when you’re “watching a movie.” The parties rapidly devolve into full-blown orgies, topped off with plenty of drinking and drug use. Eventually, Score exchanges his cult classics for the latest Jenna Jameson and Sasha Grey skin flicks. Word starts traveling through the high school grapevine, and more people crash in on the craziness.

I’m no prude, but there’s nothing sexy about these scenes. Everyone is so wasted that in one chapter a girl freaks out when she gets a bloody nose after snorting too much coke. Clearly, under such intoxication, consent isn’t as enthusiastic as it could be. After so much objectification, you just come away from the book feeling dirty. And talk about monotonous! Pop Kids could have been half as long and the point, however pointless, could still have been made.

I’m sure Johnny Marr would disapprove!

3. There’s very few redeeming qualities to this story. I understand that liking the protagonist is not a requirement for good writing, so I’m okay with the fact that Score is a self-absorbed, obnoxious, pretentious waste of oxygen. He worships Morrissey but doesn’t know who Johnny Marr is. He cares way too much about designers and brands, to the point where I wondered whether San Pellegrino paid Davey for all the references.

It’s easy to say that Score’s just a teenager and excuse his overblown sense of importance. However, I find Score and his equally annoying friends disconcerting because their hypocrisy is actually dangerous. Score goes around burning churches, thus breaking the law, destroying property, and giving atheists a bad rep. He touts a straight-edge lifestyle, refusing to drink or do drugs, but he has no problem with substance abuse if it gets girls to take their clothes off. The Filmgreats engage in a ton of sexual activity, but won’t wear condoms because it’s “so ’90s.” What?! Oh sure, it’s all fun and games until someone gets pregnant. Not joking, two of the girls did.

I’m disgusted by how nonchalant all these people are when it comes to really serious issues. At one Premiere party, a teacher invites himself to the festivities, and at another a boy is supposedly murdered. Any of these disasters would cause a normal person to cease and desist, but what’s Score’s actual final straw before he burns down the venue of  debauchery? His crush was not as pure as she said she was. Boo flippin’ hoo.

Fahrenheit 451: The satire for the recovering pyromaniac!

4.  Satire is not a get-out-of-bad-writing free card. I know that there’s plenty of people out there who want to scream in my face, “You don’t GET it! It’s SATIRE!!!

To those defenders, first off, pump the brakes, cool your jets, slow your roll, and any other calm-down-cliche. I know that it’s satire. I majored in literature, so I’m not stupid. I’m a book nerd, not a book n00b.

But it’s not good satire. Writing satire does not give you the liberty to ignore the essential elements of storytelling. Characters must be multidimensional, plots need the right sense of pacing, and the criticism excels when it is nuanced rather than over-the-top.

Aristophanes, Voltaire, Pope, Twain, Swift–these are a few of the greatest satirists because their mockery provided a call-to-action; their works packed so much intellectual impact that they incited societal change.

“A Modest Proposal” took the gruesome concept of eating infants to grab England’s attention toward Irish poverty. The dystopian classics Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and 1984 created outrageously oppressive governments to address political corruption and societal apathy.

I could go on about better comparisons, but I feel that the reason that they’re such powerful satires is that they can stand alone from satire. Without considering any deeper meanings, they’re–at their very core–examples of fantastic writing.

Despite its attempt with flowery prose, Pop Kids isn’t deep, although it gives off the impression that it’s trying so hard to be. And even if you’re purposely looking for a light read, it’s superficial and sad, not sexy and fun.

I’m not the only one posting a negative book review, but I’m prepared for the backlash from fans. Heck, I idolized Davey so much that I thought that I would love this book no matter what.

But you know what? I didn’t. If we’re being totally honest here, my adoration of Davey is the only reason that Pop Kids managed to get two whole stars out of me. But just like I can complain about my government and still be a damn proud American, I can be disappointed by a book and still love its author. 

So bring on the hate mail if you must. Scathing comments aren’t going to hurt more than falling off the pedestal on which I put this novel. Supposedly, it’s part one of a trilogy, and now I’m facing the dilemma of deciding whether reading the sequels would be the actions of a die-hard fan or a delusional masochist.

In the meantime, I’ll be psyching myself up by listening to AFI and reminding myself that Davey is capable of pure poetry.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

“I was too touched to see you clearly, far too young to realize, I had loved so dearly, you whose world I had designed, but the sweet smoke came with mirrors, and it brought tears to my wide eyes.”