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.]

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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.

Historical accuracy on fire

Warning: Contains massive spoilers!

While Season One of Masterpiece Theatre’s World on Fire, about the first year of WWII, isn’t nearly as egregiously anachronistic as Anne with an E, it nevertheless has much to answer for. I’m so tired of people defending historical characters with Current Year values as just “ahead of their time,” “not the kind of characters you’re used to seeing,” and “looking back on the past, not portraying it.”

I’ve zero problem with hist-fic including things like interracial couples, gay characters, single moms, assertive women, and people questioning the status quo. All those things obviously did happen in the past, even if they weren’t socially acceptable or legal. The key is in portraying them in a historically accurate way.

And what does that mean?

People being very discreet, only confiding in extremely trusted people they know to be fellow black sheep, keeping secrets, facing negative consequences.

Instead of recapping the entire season, I’m going to focus on everything wrong with it. There are plenty of other places you can find full reviews of each episode and Season One as a whole.

1. Those familiar with historical weaponry have said the guns and tanks are anachronistic.

2. The term “dumb-ass” did not exist in 1940, unless I’m very much mistaken!

3. Posh, wealthy Robina is a cold, unfeeling antagonist. Not only is she one of the few well-rounded characters, she’s just acting like anyone in her position would. Being rich doesn’t make one an automatic villain.

4. The interracial gay couple in Paris seems to have been included just to tick boxes. This storyline doesn’t feel well-integrated with the others, with far less screentime. The lovers are also a bit too out and indiscreet for their era. Even if you’re in a progressive, Bohemian bubble, the outside world still exists.

5. Nancy would’ve been an extreme rarity, a female investigative journalist and news reporter, yet we don’t see her facing any sexism.

6. We’re supposed to believe someone of Nancy’s age (forties or fifties) has never heard of eugenics or Social Darwinism before? It was hugely popular in the U.S., not just Nazi Germany!

7. Nancy’s incessant meddling and refusal to leave well enough alone leads to a huge tragedy with her neighbors the Rosslers. I predict her causing a similar situation when she’s in the USSR in Season Two.

8. How was Nancy not arrested after her anti-Nazi broadcasts?! She has no concept of the danger loose lips cause in totalitarian countries. (And egads, Helen Hunt’s mask-like facelift is so creepy and distracting!)

9. We’re supposed to believe Nancy and Hr. Rossler disposed of a dead body without anyone seeing anything? Also love the comment “She’s a dead Nazi, and that’s good enough for me.” Did the writers intend a parallel with the modern “Punch a Nazi” slogan, where anyone to the right of Antifa is deemed a Nazi and therefore deserving of violence?

Polish national shero Emilia Gierczak (1925–1945), killed in action at Kołobrzeg

10. Kasia’s surname should be Tomaszeska, not Tomaszeski! Polish surnames have grammatical gender.

11. It seems highly unlikely a Wehrmacht soldier would’ve killed an unarmed civilian so early in the war, even if she spat at him. It smacks of yet another convenient plot development.

12. How is Harry able to take Kasia’s little brother Jan back to England without papers? He could’ve only brought Kasia, his wife (who elects to stay behind and be a freedom-fighter with no apparent awareness of what danger she constantly puts herself into).

13. How did two Polish guys get all the way to freaking Dunkirk?! Huge plot holes! And of course they just happen to end up on the same boat as Harry.

14. And of course Kasia’s brother Grzegorz just happens to end up in a hospital close to Jan’s new home with Robina!

15. Why is Harry sent back to Poland to smuggle out Resistance fighters? Wouldn’t England be more concerned about resupplying them to enable them to continue fighting on their native turf, and wouldn’t a member of the Polish Free Forces be chosen in lieu of an Englishman?

16. How convenient Harry just happens to parachute into the area where Kasia’s stationed!

17. Also convenient how a bomb explodes just as Kasia is being led to the gallows before this, enabling her to escape.

18. And how convenient only Harry and Kasia are left alive after the Nazis attack their outpost!

19. Who the bloody hell leisurely, matter-of-factly wanders around in the middle of a warzone or behind enemy lines?

20. I have so much to say on the beyond-historically-inaccurate depiction of Lois’s out of wedlock pregnancy, I’m saving it for its own post on Wednesday!

21. Robina claims the Nazis didn’t bomb Paris. That’s sure news to me, after I read articles about the June 1940 bombing of Paris!

WeWriWa—War is over

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. Because we just celebrated the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, this week’s snippet comes from near the end of Chapter 85, “Bittersweet Reunion,” of Journey Through a Dark Forest.

Here, in the penultimate section of the chapter, four of the Kalvik sisters, the two oldest Sheltsova sisters, and their friends Vasilisa and Inga joyously arrive at the big victory parade. Zhenya and Marina are the older sisters of Bogdana from my most recent series of snippets.

Mireena, Milena, Inga, Zhenya, Marina, Vasilisa, Ilme, and Viivela rush off the subway and stream into Times Square. The Great White Way is thronged with crowds, everyone cheering and screaming, as ticker tape rains down like manna from heaven. Already so much ticker tape has accumulated, they have to wade through it. In addition to ticker tape, the air is also full of playing cards, old telephone books, scrap paper, and bolts of cloth. Besides all the screaming and cheering, the air is also filled with car horns and boat whistles. Zhenya, Vasilisa, and Marina smile at the servicemen in the parade, and feel gnawing jealousy at the servicewomen.

“It’s a crying shame President Roosevelt couldn’t live to see this day.” Vasilisa gazes at a flag at half-staff. “This news would’ve made him so happy.”

Meet some of the people in my alternative history, Part III

Here are a few of the other real people who appear as characters in my alternative history, whom I haven’t already featured. Not everyone is from the Russian Imperial Family!

Captain Aleksandr Aronovich Pecherskiy (22 February 1909–19 January 1990) was born in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, and grew up in Rostov-na-Donu. He earned a diploma in literature and music, and worked as an accountant and manager of an amateur musicians’ school, and as an electrician at a train repair plant. He served in the army from 1931–33.

The day the war began, he was drafted as a junior lieutenant, and served with the 596th Howitzer Artillery Regiment. In autumn 1941, he saved his wounded commander from capture, but didn’t get any medals for his bravery.

He was captured in October 1941, and suffered with typhus for seven months. He and four other POWs escaped, but were recaptured that same day. They went to a penal camp and then a POW camp, where it was discovered he was circumcised. He admitted he was Jewish, knowing he’d be whipped for lying.

Severe punishments and several other POW camps followed. He ended up in Sobibór, where he organized and led the revolt and mass escape of 14 October 1943. After serving with two partisan groups, he reunited with the Red Army, and was promoted to Captain. He was wounded in Latvia in August 1944.

During the last years of Stalin’s reign, he lost his job, was briefly arrested, and was unable to find new employment. The Soviet government prevented him from testifying at several trials of Nazi war criminals abroad.

For his courage, he has received four medals (two posthumous), and many other awards and honors.

In my alternative history, Captain Pecherskiy and 50 other Jewish partisans, mostly escapees from camps and ghettoes, arrive at the Aleksandr Palace in September 1944 to petition Aleksey and Arkadiya to create all-Jewish regiments in the Imperial Russian Army. He becomes commander of an eponymous infantry regiment, and receives many medals and honors after the war.

King Mihai (Michael) of Romania (25 October 1921–5 December 2017) was the last king of Romania, and the last true surviving WWII head of state. He was the son of the repulsive King Carol II and Queen Mother Elena (née Princess Eleni of Greece and Denmark); grandson of King Konstantinos I of Greece and King Ferdinand and Queen Marie of Romania; great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria and Tsar Aleksandr II; great-great-great-grandson of Tsar Nicholas I.

Soon after Mihai’s birth, his sleazy father was embroiled in yet another scandalous relationship, and renounced his claim to the throne. Mihai became king in 1927, after Ferdinand’s death, with a regency including his uncle Nicolae.

Carol returned to Romania in 1930, and refused to reconcile with his wife. He forced her out of the country and only let her see Mihai a few months a year, on his own terms. After Carol abdicated in September 1940, Mihai became king again.

Mihai frequently suffered bouts of depression, feeling he were too young and inexperienced to be king, and upset at being treated like a pathetic figurehead by the ruling fascists and Germans passing through. His mother provided teachers to shape him into a strong, active king, and urged him to depose the fascist Prime Minister Ion Antonescu.

She also made him to understand he had to take a stand against Jewish deportations, or risk going down in history as King Mihai the Wicked. He listened to his mother (who posthumously was honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations).

In June 1944, Mihai began secret talks with members of the opposition, to discuss overthrowing Antonescu. His successful coup in August turned Romania to the Allies and shortened the war by as much as six months. Sadly, the Soviets forced him to abdicate in December 1947.

In 1948, Mihai married Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma, with whom he had five daughters and enjoyed 68 years of marriage.

In my alternative history, Mihai and Nicolae secretly come to Russia in June 1944 to discuss the planned defection and overthrow of Antonescu. He returns in August for the belated baptism of Aleksey and Arkadiya’s surprise fifth child Shura and their nephew Oleg. It means a lot to him that Aleksey, who also came into a throne at a very young age, says he believes in him. Good kings are gradually made, not instantly created.

Vintage soldier photos with a twist

Due to my move and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, I’ll once again only be posting on Sunday and Monday of this week. To mark Memorial Day, here are some vintage photos of soldiers you may not have seen before.

A U.S. Army medic in WWII takes some time to help civilian children.

A U.S. Army medic (45th Infantry Division) and a captured Wehrmacht medic work together on a wounded Wehrmacht soldier, Anzio, Italy, 6 February 1944

U.S. Army medic treating a wounded Waffen SS soldier, 1944

1 July 1944, U.S. Army medics helping a wounded dog found in the rubble of Carentan, France

Some medics (like my character Yuriy Yeltsin-Tsvetkov of the Canadian Army) were trained as vets instead of people doctors, so why shouldn’t some human doctors sometimes switch their focus too?

1944, medics’ station

1943, wounded soldiers being evacuated sans ambulance

A Wehrmacht soldier with a soft spot for kittens

A cat hissing at a Wehrmacht soldier

A little boy saying goodbye to his father during WWII

WWI medics helping a wounded dog

He was caught and relieved of his post shortly afterwards, his ultimate fate unknown. It’s hard to believe the Berlin Wall really existed in my own lifetime and that there used to be two Germanys, since there’s been one unified Germany for 75% of my life so far!