To ma’am, with love

Unlike journalist, veterinarian and inventor of self-cleaning bathrooms, teacher was never on my short list of potential careers. For one, I don’t particularly like children, and I certainly don’t enjoy talking to people who are, by definition, stupider than me. One might argue that my undeniable lack of compassion for others wouldn’t have made for a very good teacher anyhow, but I like to think the choice was all mine.

So it’s always been with some degree of awe that I regard the teaching profession. That some people in this world are willing to get up at the crack of dawn to impart knowledge of algebra, American history or biology to generally unreceptive adolescents is enough for me to swallow; that still others actually enjoy this endeavor is almost outside my comprehension.

“Ms. Hempel Chronicles” documents the generally mundane adventures of one such brave soul: a young and relatively inexperienced English teacher. A blurb from the Washington Post refers to the book as a novel, but “Hempel” is really a collection of stories, many of which appeared on their own in various literary magazines. The themes and characters are the same throughout–indeed, these are the ties that bind the stories together–but the book is absent the sort of beginning/middle/end structure that I would typically consider necessary for noveldom.Similarly misleading (as was pointed out to me by a friend, who also read “Hempel”) is the book’s cover, which if taken literally, seems to indicate a woman 50 feet tall teaching a sea of students who are all the same height, dress like the Amish and have an unnatural affinity for clogs. Even figuratively, the cover’s message is off: For one, “Hempel” is set in modern times; one story even discusses Ms. Hempel’s unconscious adaptation of her students’ slang.

Continue reading “To ma’am, with love”

Well, that was easy

Four days. A new Sorry Television record.

I was unquestionably aided in this week’s reading endeavor by the Thanksgiving holiday, which right now means I wish I had brought an extra pair of stretchy pants but a day or so ago meant hours of uninterrupted reading time, thwarted only occasionally by my mother’s well-intentioned attempts to initiate conversation–attempts I rebuffed by grunting monosyllabic replies from behind my paperback. Because aren’t endless solitary hours of quiet reading time what Thanksgiving is really all about?

And certainly, I had the right book in hand. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has plenty of simultaneous compelling plots (to the point that after what was arguably the book’s major reveal, I was surprised to find there were still another 100 pages of denouement) and manages to cover the familiar crime-fiction territory of murder and intrigue without seeming stale. The book follows main character Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative reporter and magazine editor who early on is charged with libel and consequently resigns his magazine post to spend a year in self-imposed exile, writing a family history for affable Swedish captain of industry Henrik Vanger, who has given Blomkvist the simultaneous (and more important) task of finding out what happened to a female family member that disappeared 30 years earlier.  Along the way Mikael joins forces with Lisbeth Salander, a 20-something hacker and the famed owner of said dragon tattoo.

For a crime novel, “Dragon Tattoo” gets off to a slow start, which in retrospect I think has something to do with Larsson having written and submitted all three novels at once–200 pages of exposition seems less excessive in the context of three 700-page paperbacks than one. But the relationships so thoroughly established in the beginning–between Blomkvist and his colleague/longtime lover Erika Berger, between Salander and her employer, between Henrik Vanger and Blomkvist–prove relevant in the rest of the story, and in a way the time devoted to each person’s character makes the plot’s “whodunit” elements that much more compelling. Still, I would say the story truly picks up a little before the halfway point, and the last 100 pages have as much excitement as the first 400 combined.

Continue reading “Well, that was easy”

Up in smoke

Well I made it through the weekend without crying on the floor of any bathroom, and finished my addiction memoir to boot. It may or may not have been karma that I read the last 50 pages while nursing a severe hangover on my couch, but a mission accomplished is a mission accomplished.

There’s something I want to say before going into the book itself, which was as heartbreaking and poignant as I expected it to be. Because in order to really, I think, appreciate Beautiful Boy, you have to step back and put the family’s story in context. Not the context of addiction itself, though that too is important, but the context of being young, of being at an age where drugs aren’t hard to come by and more importantly, aren’t unusual to do.

See, in my opinion at least, there is a pervasive sentiment among teenagers and 20-somethings that the majority of drugs are basically okay. This isn’t, as adults like to believe, simply a product of drug use at some point in youth becoming “cool,” nor is preventing drug use simply a matter of eliminating or tampering peer pressure. Many teenagers do drugs for the same reason addicts do—because they want to get high. Marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms, acid—I could tell many of my friends that I had done any of the above without raising eyebrows. And I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions. Heroin, crack and meth (the latter is the focal point of Beautiful Boy) are the triumvirate of what I’d consider untouchables, but that’s three out of many. It stands to reason that cultural acceptance (however age-based) of the many is likely to make the few seem decidedly less unsafe.

It’s problematic, to say the least. I don’t know why, or when, drugs cease to become a real threat (which isn’t to say that people don’t develop addiction later in life). It may be a physical change; it may be a mental one; maybe it simply becomes unfathomable to call up a drug dealer past the age of 35. But what’s important is that between, say, ages 15 and 25, the ten years during which drugs seem most prevalent, they are also the least frowned-upon.

Continue reading “Up in smoke”

Yossarian lives

This week at work, I was looking over a reporter’s story, about the recent death of the inventor of the MetroCard, and stumbled across this: “15 cents of every fare dollar collected goes to collecting that fare.” Huh? I asked him to change the line, for the sake of all that isn’t meta about business reporting, but it stuck with me, as this is how pretty much all of Catch-22 is written.

Keeping that in mind, you can imagine the nerves I’ve had this week over finishing what is only the third book in my endeavor–so I’ll take my pats on the back now for having done it. The truth is, Catch-22 was the perfect type of book for this project—entertaining and compelling but without being a page-turner, the kind of title that in another time (i.e a month ago) would have languished on my shelf after the first 100 pages, just because.

There’s a lot to say about this book, which it seems most people I talked to have either never read or can’t remember because they haven’t picked it up since high school. I’m pleased to report that, for me at least, Catch-22 lived up to the hype that comes with picking a modern classic. I can see why the book has its reputation, which isn’t something I can say for every equally reputable thing I’ve ever read.

So, I would take this time to pause and outline the plot, except…there really isn’t one. Catch-22 primarily follows Yossarian, a World War II bombardier stationed off of Italy, as well as a dozen other reappearing characters. There’s the colonel who keeps increasing the number of missions his squadron needs to complete to be discharged, so as to impress the higher-ups and potentially earn a mention in The Saturday Evening Post. There’s the mess hall operator who starts what’s essentially an international cartel of fine foods and military equipment, whose business acumen goes so far afoul of his patriotic duty that he is at one point paid to bomb his own men. There’s the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, killed during a mission before he even reported for duty (a sitcom-level fluke) and subsequently reported by officers to have never reported for duty at all, lest they take the blame for his demise. And so on — the cast is utterly absurd, and the way the book is written highlights that absurdity perfectly. Sort of like an endless loop of that “Who’s on first, What’s on Second” baseball skit.

Indeed, what you come away with after Catch-22 is the sheer absurdity of war itself, which is I imagine what made it so subversive in 1955. The details with which history concerns itself–the enemy, the battles, the victories–are almost wholly absent from this book. It could be any war, anywhere, fought by anyone. The men involved in the military are more caught up in the politics of success, posing for photo ops and vying for the possibility of promotion, than they are concerned with victory over the Germans. And Yossarian, who is painted by the other characters as a loose cannon with potentially crazy ideas about war and patriotic duty, is in many ways the sanest one. One exchange, between Yossarian and another soldier about Colonel Cathcart’s yet again increasing the number of missions needed for discharge, sums this up perfectly:

“You know very well that I don’t approve of Colonel Cathcart any more than you do.” Clevinger paused for emphasis, his mouth quivering, and then beat his fist down softly against his sleeping bag. “But it’s not for us to determine what targets must be destroyed or who’s to destroy them or—“
“Or who gets killed doing it? And why?”
“Yes, even that. We have no right to question—“
“You’re insane!”
“—no right to question—“
“Do you really mean that it’s not my business how or why I get killed and that it is Colonel Cathcart’s? Do you really mean that?”
“Yes, I do,” Clevinger insisted, seeming unsure. “There are men entrusted with winning the war who are in a much better position than we are to decide what targets have to be bombed.”
“We are talking about two different things,” Yossarian answered with exaggerated weariness. “You are talking about the relationship of the Air Corps to the infantry, and I am talking about the relationship of me to Colonel Cathcart. You are talking about winning the war, and I am talking about winning the war and keeping alive.”
“Exactly,” Clevinger snapped smugly. “And which do you think is more important?”
“To whom?” Yossarian shot back. “Open your eyes Clevinger. It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.”
Clevinger sat for a moment as though he’d been slapped. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed bitterly, the thinnest milk-white line enclosing his lips tightly in a bloodless, squeezing ring. “I can’t think of another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy.”
“The enemy,” retorted Yossarian with weighted precision,” is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.”

Coincidentally, Clevinger dies.

There is only one downside to reading Catch-22, and that would be that the type of war highlighted in this book is somewhat anachronistic in 2010. The central message–that the men behind American military strategy are besieged by the same petty bullshit that the rest of the world is, they just happen to be playing with life and death–still resonates, but the specific circumstances of planes and bombings and a war in which America is playing the part of backup support, is a little removed from the wars we’re fighting today. I’m not sure what Joseph Heller would write if he could re-imagine Catch-22 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but some part of me very much wishes he could (he died in 1999). Given the news last week about our use of third-party security companies, I think it would be something about the irony of a war fought out of (essentially) revenge and greed, yet executed by a very impersonal and inefficiently complex network of hired guns. In any case, just a thought.


Catch-22 is timeless, as the topics of war and authority are wont to be. The length is somewhat intimidating, even if you’re not trying to get it knocked out in a week, but I’d say the payoff is there. Having not spent an inordinate amount of time considering the mindset of men at war (which I’m also not entirely sure is the same today as during wars of the 1940s) Catch-22 was incredibly thought provoking for me.

Even though there are literally dozens of quotes I could share, I’ll leave you with one, from a conversation between an old Italian man and Nately, a young American officer; because in between all the scenes of painfully dark comic relief in this story, are the kinds of truly poignant moments that make a book great.

Nately was instantly up in arms again. “There is nothing so absurd about risking your life for your country!” he declared.
“Isn’t there?” asked the old man. “What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”
“Anything worth living for,” said Nately,” is worth dying for.”
“And anything worth dying for,” answered the sacrilegious old man, “is certainly worth living for.”

TITLE: Catch-22
AUTHOR: Joseph Heller
PAGES: 463 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Closing Time, Picture This
SORTA LIKE: Fahrenheit 451 meets Stripes
FIRST LINE: ”It was love at first sight.”

Oscar wow

I waited way too long to read this book. I know it doesn’t really matter, since books are timeless, etc., but had I known how easily I would have flown through this, I probably would have picked it up back in 2007, in hardcover. So I guess I can just chalk it up to a 30% discount. Go me.

Some things you should know, without really giving anything away.

1. This book is far less literary than I anticipated. And I don’t mean that in the inevitably negative way it’s going to come out. But I think, having not read much about it when it was popular and being persistently unenthused by the back-cover plot summary (seriously, it’s still not compelling and now I’ve read the book) I based a lot of my assumptions about Wao on the fact that it won the Pulitzer, among approximately seven jillion other awards. Because of this, I assumed it would be a dense read, something I’d have to put my back into to get through. In that sense, I was woefully wrong. Wao is incredibly readable and engrossing, without at any point sacrificing sophistication of prose for ease of consumption, or vice versa. That’s a hard thing to pull off.

2. Book’s got mad Spanish. Most of it is written in an English-heavy version of Spanglish, with Spanish slang terms thrown in willy-nilly, and minimal effort is made to qualify or translate them. As a former Spanish major and current resident of Brooklyn, I found myself keeping pace with most of the terminology, though I definitely missed some stuff. I decided not to look anything up and instead absorb the words through context/phonetics. It would have felt wrong to stop reading every five minutes to bust out my now-ancient Spanish-English dictionary. (Also, I didn’t want to look for it. ..Mostly that).

3. You know these people. Whether or not you love Jonathan Franzen, one thing most people seem able to agree on is his ability to create complex and believable characters. Having finished Freedom just a few weeks before embarking on this adventure (and thank God, because I could not have finished that 700-page monster in a week), I have to say I agree, with the caveat that Franzen’s characters, like so many in literature, are complex and seem believable, but don’t always seem real. They don’t seem like people I know. By contrast, Wao is chock full of people I’ve seen on the street, in school, at the bar—Díaz doesn’t need to spend a ton of time explaining motives or describing the thought patterns of his characters; the few bold strokes he paints of each are enough to have you anticipating their emotions and motivations, because you feel you know them. That, as an author, is an incredible feat.

Continue reading “Oscar wow”