A hilarious anti-war novel

Book Review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller | Derrick's Blog

This was originally written for my old Angelfire site in 2003 or 2004. It’s surprisingly a lot shorter and more on-topic than most of the other book reviews I managed to save during frantic cache and archive searches. Most of the edits I’ve made relate to my ninth grade English teacher, whom I still had a chip on my shoulder regarding when I wrote this.

5 stars

This book was awesome! I can’t believe I waited so long to read it, after my ninth grade English teacher never got around to it (as well as several other classics we were supposed to read but never did). And now I know to avoid the movie, which is said to be very dissimilar to the book, such as cutting out important scenes and characters, putting undue importance on minor characters, and inventing scenes that never even took place. It also doesn’t hurt matters any that it was written by a nice Jewish boy and the hero of the novel is a nice Armenian boy!

[June 2021 note: I saw the film not that long after writing this, and it was every ounce as dreadful as I’d been warned about. Had I not read the book, I would’ve had a hard time figuring out what was going on. Terrible, insulting screen adaptation which bears almost no similarity to the source material.]

book cover catch 22 | Follow Desirée Dora Following Desirée Dora Unfollow Desirée Dora | Joseph heller, Book cover, Books

The title is the name of a military (in this case Air Force) rule that says you can’t get out of the service unless you’re crazy, but if you want to get out of service, you’re not crazy, because only a rational mind could come to the conclusion that it’s better to get out now while you’re still alive so you won’t possibly be killed on future missions. In other words, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The hero, Yossarian (we don’t get his first name), will do just about anything to get out of the military and go back home so he won’t have to fly any more missions and potentially get killed. He’s seen his friends and comrades die, such as Snowden (the flashbacks to whose death get longer and more graphic as the novel goes on), and the longer the war drags on and the more missions they’re ordered to fly, the more friends get killed in action.

To try to get out of flying more missions, he moves the bomb line on the map, constantly runs in and out of hospital with an alleged liver condition, turns back his flights on minor premises, such as not having a set of earphones, and goes on leave with his buddies to Rome. Unfortunately, Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions one must fly before going home, and eventually pushes them up to eighty.

A lot of this book gets lost in a film translation, like hilarious wordplay, nonsense of negatives, circular reasoning, and situations and sentences so absurd and ridiculous they’re funny. The characters are also outrageously funny, like the incompetent generals and colonels, Major Major (whose real name is Major Major Major and who was made a major just so people could call him Major Major Major Major), the chaplain who waffles back and forth on the very faith he’s supposed to be sharing with the young men in his outfit, Hungry Joe, Milo Minderbinder, Chief White Halfoat, Flume, and Doc Daneeka.

Reshuffles, Resignations and 'Catch 22' Politics | Ramblings of an Ordinary Man

One of the more absurdly funny parts of the book is when the powers that be in the bombing unit declare Daneeka to be dead because they think he was in a plane that drove into a mountain, even though he’s standing right there shouting at them that he’s not dead!

This is an anti-war novel as well as being satirical and funny. It doesn’t portray war as glamourous and heroic, but instead as Hell, something nobody wants to do, something the hero and most of his friends are trying to get out of every chance they can get. Even the generals and colonels at the top are portrayed as incompetent, absurd, and more concerned about things like parades and feathers in their caps than the lives of the young men they’re in charge of.

Even though it was written about the Italian theatre in WWII and came out in 1961, it’s held up very well and isn’t dated or boring. And I know the view I have of it now is probably vastly different than it would’ve been had I read the novel in ninth grade.

Senior year, Edwardian-style

Betsy and Joe (Betsy-Tacy, #8) by Maud Hart Lovelace

While it seems safe to say at this point that I’ll probably never join the small but committed group of stans for the Betsy-Tacy series, these books and characters have slowly but surely grown on me. One doesn’t have to be a diehard fan or the target audience to genuinely like a series. I just regard it in a different way.

The book opens in summer 1909, as Betsy’s family are on their annual holiday by Murmuring Lake (real-life Madison Lake in Minnesota). Betsy is very excited to get a letter from her longtime crush Joe Willard, who entrusts her with the secret that he’s covering a big land-swindle trial for The Courier News in Wells County, North Dakota.

Joe also invites her to regularly correspond with him, an offer she happily accepts.

Amazon.com: Betsy Was a Junior/Betsy and Joe (9780061794728): Lovelace, Maud Hart: Books

Betsy’s older sister Julia is away in Europe, and constantly sending letters home about her exciting adventures in places like London, Paris, Naples, the Azores, and Amsterdam. After summer ends, she’s due to spend a year in Berlin studying opera.

Though Julia is warmly accepted by a host family, her trunk doesn’t immediately arrive. Everyone keeps carrying on about how awful it is that she hasn’t any proper, new clothes to wear to important events or to impress people, as though there are zero department stores in Berlin or it’s impossible for anyone to lend her clothes.

Betsy and Joe (A Betsy-Tacy High School Story) by Maud Hart Lovelace (1948) Hardcover: Amazon.com: Books

Betsy, now a senior, once again has only a paltry four classes—physics, German (she dropped Latin), civics, and Shakespeare. I truly can’t wrap my brain around a high school even 100+ years ago only offering 4-5 classes to each grade! And to only require two years of math and science (with no trig, chemistry, or biology), and not have gym or electives like art, music, and creative writing!

I wish these books spent more time on Betsy’s academic life instead of being so heavily focused on her social life. E.g., how and why did she choose the classes she did? What kind of homework, papers, and tests did she have? If her parents think it’s so great she’s studying America’s then-unofficial second language her senior year, since so many people in town speak it, why didn’t they have that conversation when she started high school and steer her towards German instead of Latin from the jump? Did Betsy consider studying French? Does the school even offer French, or any of the other courses basic to 99.999% of all high schools?

I also wish there were more details about just what exactly Betsy is writing all these years. We’re told she’s writing novels and submitting stories to magazines, but we know little to nothing about any of these ventures. Only the fourth book explored her writing in any depth, and then her social life eclipsed her writing.

Senior year seems to start off promisingly, with Joe finally visiting the house and going on some dates with Betsy, but a love triangle soon emerges with Tony Markham, whom Betsy had an unrequited crush on in ninth grade. Now that Tony finally has feelings for her, she no longer likes him in that way. Betsy sees him more as a brother.

Because tradition of that era dictated a girl had to accept the first guy to ask her to a dance or other event, Betsy is roped into going out with Tony many times. She doesn’t have the heart to say she’s not interested, and Joe’s work commitments preclude him from asking first on most occasions. Joe also doesn’t let her explain the situation, assumes the worst, and immediately finds another girl to escort.

There’s a pointless subplot about a hot new boy in school, Maddox, joining the football team and becoming an object of ridicule on account of barely participating to protect his handsome face. After he’s publicly mocked in front of the whole school during a pep rally, he lets himself get battered during the last game of the season. I’m so glad modern football helmets protect the face!

Football team in the 1910s

It was jaw-dropping to see Betsy and Tib several times lamenting how Tacy will probably be an old maid because she still shows no interest in dating and boys at the ripe old age of seventeen. Tell me again how Betsy is such an unsung feminist icon of girls’ fiction?

And right on command, shortly after Tacy’s 18th birthday, we meet her future husband, who works with Betsy’s dad and is 27 years old. Mr. Kerr steals a photo of Tacy from Betsy’s photo album and announces he’s going to marry Tacy, no matter how long it takes. He also later sends several bouquets.

GROOMER!

Why would a well-adjusted adult man be interested in a high school girl who has absolutely no experience with men? Betsy’s dad even laughingly says Tacy had better watch out, since Mr. Kerr has a way of always getting what he wants!

Creepy, Wrong, Immature and Pathetic: Older Men Chasing After Much Younger Women – Christian Pundit

Anyway, Betsy grows more mature as the year wears on, and realises she has to be honest with Tony. If she makes it clear once and for all romance is off the table, she just might finally win her dream man.

Shallow high school hijinks, Edwardian-style, Part III

Amazon.com: Betsy Was a Junior (Betsy-Tacy) (9780064405478): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: Books

After struggling to find a connection to this series since the first book, I’m finally starting to come around. But it didn’t happen immediately in this the seventh volume, and there were still some things which bugged me. Still, I’m looking forward to the eighth book to see if my connection continues to improve. I plan to reread the entire series when I’m done with it. Some things are better the second time around.

Looking back, part of my difficulty may have been caused by how I heard almost nothing but good things about these books going in, instead of having a blank slate. When your expectations are raised so high, you often feel disappointment at whatever not living up to the hype more keenly. Perhaps I have been too hard on these books, though I remain annoyed at how unrealistically charmed these people’s lives are, without any serious problems.

Betsy Was a Junior (Betsy-Tacy, #7) by Maud Hart Lovelace

It’s now September 1908, and Betsy once again vows to do everything differently this year so she’ll do better in school, get the guy she likes, and improve herself overall. Much of the first chapter is given over to an infodumpy recap of the last two books, interspersed with Betsy’s resolutions.

Betsy gets a happy surprise near the end of her annual summer holiday at Murmuring Lake (real-life Madison Lake in Minnesota) when her old friend Tib (real name Thelma) arrives. When she last saw Tib over Christmas 1907, Tib revealed the secret that her family were seriously considering returning to Deep Valley (real-life Mankato), and that they’d never sold their old house.

Just as Betsy advised her, Tib has begun acting like a giggly ditz to attract male attention.

Betsy Was a Junior (Betsy-Tacy Books (Prebound)): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: 9780780790957: Amazon.com: Books

Tib is instantly popular with “The Crowd,” Betsy’s huge group of BFFs, despite not having known most of them prior. I so dislike the trope of the new kid being immediately, warmly accepted! That wasn’t my experience at all my junior year of high school. Most people are too busy getting it on with the BFFs they’ve known since kindergarten to care about newcomers.

Now that Betsy is an upperclasswoman, she’s taking five instead of four classes. (I have such a hard time picturing a real high school even 100+ years ago with such few class periods!) This year, she has Foundations of English Literature, modern U.S. history, botany, home ec (which her school pretentiously calls Domestic Science), and Cicero (i.e., Latin).

6218284

Betsy’s older sister Julia rushes home from university unexpectedly, awash in homesickness, and tells the family about sororities. Three different houses are wooing her, though first-year students aren’t allowed to join until the spring. Julia has her heart set on Epsilon Iota, and won’t hear of rushing any other sorority.

Mr. Ray sensibly thinks Greek life sounds really exclusionary and to the detriment of a university’s real purpose, but Mrs. Ray begins living vicariously through Julia and starts researching the school’s sororities. Later on, she visits campus and goes to all these parties, teas, and lunches alongside Julia. (Can we say helicopter parent?)

Betsy is so taken with the idea of sororities, she starts her own with seven friends, Okto Delta. Eventually, eight boys start the Omega Delta frat. And here Betsy’s troubles begin.

A few of her friends rightly feel excluded, causing strains in their relationships. And just as in the previous two years, Betsy’s attention to social life takes precedence over schoolwork. In particular, she, Tacy, and Tib put off their botany herbariums till almost the last moment.

Slowly, it begins dawning on Betsy that perhaps she’s being snobby and shallow, and that it might be time to put away childish things. I was glad to finally see pushback and real consequences. Hopefully this emotional growth won’t be undone in the last high school book!

Least-favorite Decameron stories, Part III

I’m reblogging this old post because I recently retitled it and added several new introductory paragraphs explaining my change of heart regarding this story. I am well and truly disgusted I ever came to see such an awful story as one of my favorites. The toxic influence of my ex was responsible.

Welcome to My Magick Theatre

May 2021 update: This post was originally published 7 January 2012 (though written a few years earlier on MySpace) and entitled “Favorite Decameron stories, Part VII.” I disavow everything I wrote, and can’t believe I wrote any of this with a straight face. I’m absolutely horrified I ever saw such a disturbing story in a positive light. It’s so obvious I only began thinking that way due to the toxic influence of my now-ex and our dysfunctional relationship.

Obviously, it’s not cool to lead anyone on, but two wrongs don’t make a right. It seems much more likely Elena just wanted rid of this creepy older guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer and thought he’d finally leave her alone and get the message after that night in the snow. What Rinieri does to her in return is much more cruel.

It’s absolutely bizarre how I thought this was…

View original post 1,209 more words

A pretty low bar for inspiration

When I think of inspiring, against the grain girls in classic children’s literature, I think of characters like Laura Ingalls, Caddie Woodlawn, Anne Shirley, Jo March, Arrietty Clock of The Borrowers series, and Pippi Longstocking. Yet in the foreword to the reissue of Betsy Was a Junior, the seventh book in the Betsy-Tacy series, Anna Quindlen argues that the rather conformist Betsy is a feminist icon.

And why might that be?

Because Betsy always wants to be a writer, and no one ever tells her she can’t. Oh, and she’s not a fairytale princess or presented as perfect.

WHAT!

Is the bar really set that low these days?

For historical perspective, the books are set from 1897–1917, during the First Wave of feminism. Many women in the First Wave did tend to be rather conservative in their aims; e.g., they didn’t think to question the Mrs. Husband’s Full Name convention, and frequently argued against African–Americans (men or women) getting the vote before white women.

But they lived in a much different world than we do today. Merely working for women’s suffrage, higher education, and employment was seen as radical in their era. Successful, longterm changes happen gradually, not overnight.

Ms. Quindlen claims Anne Shirley and Jo March “are implicitly made to pay in those books for the fact that they do not conform to feminine norms.” That implies their respective authors wanted to punish them and teach them a lesson for not being girly-girls and aspiring to a life beyond housewifery. When does that happen in either Little Women or the Anne series?

It smacks of classism to say Anne “never is permitted to forget that she must work for a living.” As compared to upper-middle-class Betsy, whose parents can afford to send on a freaking Grand Tour to inspire her writing, and who doesn’t have to attend university on scholarship or through her own earnings?

And if you subscribe to Third Wave “choosey-choice feminism,” why bewail how Jo March chooses to marry an unromantic, much-older man instead of the young, hot, rich guy who instead goes to her sister? Prof. Bhaer supports and encourages Jo in her writing, and not all strong marriages begin with nonstop fireworks and a superficial attraction.

From what I’ve read so far, Betsy is a lot more interesting in the first four books than she is in the high school books. Once she hits the teen years, she becomes very boring and shallow, caring more about a constant whirlwind of social life, parties, sports matches, boys, clothes, and hair than schoolwork. I’ll eat my hat if the fourth and final high school book goes down a totally different trajectory than the first three, wherein Betsy resolves to change herself to be more popular and get male attention, suffers in school, doesn’t get the outcome she wants, has everything blow up in her face in a big way near the end, and resolves to be truer to herself.

It obviously takes all types to fill our world, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a social butterfly with more passion for fashion, parties, and dating than intellectual pursuits, but that’s not the kind of character who strikes me as a feminist icon!

Also, while some people in Betsy’s era still didn’t take women’s writing seriously, it was nevertheless usually seen as a respectable profession. Would everyone have encouraged Betsy the same way if she’d always wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, politician, or professor?

To date, I’ve yet to see anything that could remotely be construed as First Wave feminist inclinations in these books—women’s suffrage, focusing on studies instead of social life and clothes, thinking about entering the workforce in addition to writing, the birth control movement, nothing. In fact, in the last book, Betsy and Tacy try to pressure Tib into marrying ASAP so she won’t be a pathetic spinster! At all of 25 years old!

Have I mostly enjoyed this series so far? Yes, despite my continued frustration with how everyone’s lives are just too idyllic and charmed. I also mostly like these characters. But to claim the protagonist is some kind of unsung feminist icon? I hope you stretched before that reach.