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”

I’ve done it!

Against all odds, I have met my deadline in Week 1! I couldn’t be prouder than if I had actually spread all 300-some pages throughout the week, instead of buckling down and finishing two-thirds of The Fall yesterday. But hey, a deadline met is a deadline met. At the very least, I was fortunate to start with a page-turner, so I didn’t end up guzzling coffee all day Saturday while trying to pound through 200 pages of dense prose.  

Now, The Fall is the second in a series, so in a way it’s an awful title to start this project, sort of like beginning a comedy set with an inside joke. But since I’ve been waiting for this book for about a year, I had little choice but to begin it immediately after it was released. Don’t worry, I’ll fill you in.

The Fall, like its predecessor, is about vampires. Now wait. Before you get all huffy—”But Kira, I’m so sick of vampires!”—I’ll say that it really could be about any virus or plague or epidemic; just so happens vampires are an apt analogy (hence its immediate association for me with Max Brooks’ World War Z, which is as much “about zombies” as World War II was). Without giving away too much of the first book, The Strain, which I highly recommend and you would need to read before this one, let’s just say that an ancient virus comes to New York via plane, infects a bunch of people, and proceeds to take over the city. A ragtag cast of characters—the head of the Centers for Disease Control, a local exterminator, a pawn shop proprietor who knows a creepy amount about ancient curses and shit, etc.—come together through various means and begin hatching a plan to save the city, or at the very least themselves. Already you should be intrigued since, if you’re anything like me, your first move once the Vampire Apocalypse starts will be to hole up in a tanning salon (it’s the UV rays that get them, right?) or try hoofing it to the sunniest town in Florida. I am not a fighter.The Fall picks up where The Strain left off, which is to say the city is in shambles and our group of protagonists has moved on from assembling themselves to developing a game plan for defeating the select few behind the epidemic (and it is a plague born of malicious intent, believe you me). Though the suspenseful and altogether inconclusive ending of the first book meant I was waiting like a kid on Christmas in anticipation of The Fall, it’s worth noting that pretty much a year has passed since The Strain came out. I appreciate that this, the second book in the anticipated trilogy, puts us right back into the action, but at the same time it took me a few pages to remember everything from the inaugural title, and a good third of the book to truly recapture the suspense of The Strain.

Once I did, The Fall is an easy read: high-action, mixed in with sprinkling of select vampire lore. In this case: sun, silver, coffins – yes. Garlic, mirrors, capes – not so much.

There are some parts of The Fall that didn’t sit well with me, mostly to do with what I felt was a disparity between how New York City was reacting to the epidemic and how I personally think they would. Overall, it lacks consistency. (The police force has basically shut down, but trains are still running out of Penn Station? Trains barely run out of Penn Station when it rains.) Similarly, one of the characters apparently takes time to write a blog during the adventures, which frankly makes no sense and seems like a vague attempt to play up that this is happening in 2010. Additionally, although there’s plenty of action in the book, eventually it’s hard not to feel like “Well so OK, they’re vampires, got that. Now what?” Maybe it’s the two-hour time limit of natural disaster movies, but we’ve come to expect some resolution a little sooner than 900 collective pages in. One can only assume that will come in the third and final book, due out next year.

Of course, something I read 200 pages of in just a few hours can’t be all bad. The fighting scenes in The Fall are excellent, and perhaps more excellent are some of the pages devoted to the “ancient” vampires, who are in various ways behind the current state of affairs. Hogan and del Toro also make some interesting philosophical and/or moral arguments throughout the book, the kind of stuff that makes you wonder if in addition to global warming, mass genocide and other atrocities, man might also eventually be responsible for a vampire takeover of the world. If so, I now have several books to turn to for guidance.


For me at least, some of the novelty of the series wore off in the last 12 months (maybe because of the proliferation of vampire-related books/movies/shows in the meantime) and The Fall ends up feeling a lot like a placeholder between its introduction and inevitable conclusion. Character development is kind of an afterthought, I assume because the cast was introduced in the first book, but since so much time has passed, it would have been nice to reconnect with the group a little. That said, if you’re looking for some blood and guts and stingers and fairly excellent visuals that made me reconsider eating oatmeal while reading, then I say go for it.

TITLE: The Fall: Book Two of the Strain Trilogy
AUTHOR(S): Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
PAGES: 320 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: The Strain: Book One of the Strain Trilogy
SORTA LIKE: World War Z meets The Host
FIRST LINE: “It took the world just sixty days to end.”