Archive | Political Works RSS feed for this section

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

10 Jul

It seems like any time this book gets brought up in conversation, it’s that book everyone “has always meant to read.” OK, so maybe this entire blog sort of works that way, but still. Catch-22 is a hilarious gem that can be read over and over again, and is great if you’re looking for a laugh this summer.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Published: 1961

Difficulty: The style of writing is easy to read, though the jumping around to different narrators can, at times, be difficult to deal with.

Quick Read?: Given the fragmented nature of the book, and it’s length, it is not quick, but at times it will feel quick.

Synopsis: Catch-22 opens to the protagonist Yossarian in a military hospital in 1944. World War II is raging on but Yossarian is in the hospital for an ailment they don’t understand and can’t heal though he feels perfectly fine. But this is OK by him–he wants nothing to do with the war, with fighting, with missions, with authority, with anything. He’s not a rebel or bad person at all, just lazy, and irritating to those around him. The book follows his silly antics, ridiculous pranks, and brilliant twists of logic throughout wartime, especially towards his loatheful superior officers, switching between narrators and time periods from chapter to chapter (including characters named Major Major, constantly changing soldier requirements that are impossible to meet, and whores who are more manly than the soldiers themselves). As Yossarian refuses to go on any missions or do any work, no one can stop him but no one can motivate him either. Each character is more absurd and dysfunctional than the next, to the point that even the delinquent Yossarian seems fully functional. The entire book is extremely satirical of the American militant mindset, World War II, and American obedience. It is laugh out loud funny, and truly unforgettable.

What makes this book awesome?: Heller really does write a book that will have you giggling to yourself aloud, even if you find that sort of thing humiliating. I always hated when teachers would say a classic book had timeless humor, because that usually meant it was cheesy, which is not at all the case with Catch-22. It is genuinely funny, and because of that, its moments of seriousness are incredibly moving. It’s a classic book that doesn’t feel like a burden to read, because in all the seriousness of war, we are reminded of the lightheartedness of being human.

Also, considering the war(s?) we are still involved in today, the satire of the military and American government is something refreshing to read today. It may not be the same sort of satire you might see on Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, but it is very smart humor that hits a nerve with you.

Look at Joseph Heller. Clearly a troublemaker with a cause, am I right?

Some neat-o facts: 

  • Yossarian is a bombardier, as was Heller. However, unlike Yossarian, Heller claims to never have had bad experiences with his superior officers. Yeah, OK Heller, sure.
  • Note that there are definite subtle and not-so-subtle stabs at McCarthyism and the other ill side-effects that World War II brought on the U.S. during the 1950’s, when Heller himself wrote the novel.
  • The title, as is explained in the book (not a spoiler), is a reference to having to fulfill or achieve something that can never actually be fulfilled or achieved, which is very much a stab at war itself.
If you like this, try: “M*A*S*H,” All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov

30 Jun

I’ll be sure to post more Nabokov profiles on here shortly, but since this is the one I read most recently, I wanted to be sure to write about it while it is still fresh in my mind.

Published: 1935-6 (Was originally a serial)

Invitation to a Beheading by Nabokov

Genre: Fiction (political, existential)

Difficulty: Not really difficult.

Quick Read: Yes.

Synopsis: Cinncinnatus C. has been convicted of a crime known to everyone but him (the crime is “gnostical turpitude,” a term that has no definition whatsoever), and is sentenced to death by beheading. The only trouble is, he also does not know when his execution will take place. As he is held in an often absurd fortress under the ridiculous rules of the prison guards, with visits from his wanton wife, alienating in-laws, a brave but misguided young girl, and others, it seems that the only way out of the hell that is his life is his imminent death.

We only see Cinncinnatus’ true feelings when we as an audience are privy to his writings, where he displays a deep fear, sense of confusion, and the need to make the most of his life, despite the many ways he was wronged in the past. Yet, magically, when Cinncinatus is about to be executed, he realizes just how much power he had within the situation the whole time.

What makes this book awesome? A number of things make Invitation awesome. For one thing, though Lolita is probably Nabokov’s best known work and it is quite different from Invitation, Nabokov’s voice remains so unique and strong that you can tell it’s him. So, for fans of Lolita, for me personally, it made the book even more enjoyable.

It’s also got a really interesting political and intellectual edge to it regarding prisons, power dynamics, restriction of the mind and body, and other themes. I could imagine that for anyone with an interest in crime, punishment, and the penal system, this could be a really fascinating read. The ending contributes to that, and gives it a really distinct feel from any other sort of political fiction that I’ve ever read.

Some neat-o things to know:

  • Though everyone likens this book to Kafka’s works, Nabokov “alleges” he wasn’t familiar with Kafka at all when he wrote this. Riiiiiight, OK, Vlad.
  • According to Wikipedia (are you noticing a pattern, folks?), out of all his works he held this one in the “highest esteem.” I guess that’s significant? Hint hint, it’s significant.

Nabokov needed fresh air too sometimes, clearly. Too bad Cinncinnatus couldn't get any.

If you like this, try: KAFKA KAFKA KAFKA, Lolita by Nabokov, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, Waiting for Godot or Endgame by Samuel Beckett, Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro