Archive for May, 2011

Book Review: Catch-22. Dark-humored, Cynical, Yet rather touching


Probably the main reason I touched upon this novel was because it was for school reading.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Catch-22 is one of the most “quirky” and intriguing novels I’ve ever read.  Though, that’s not really saying much, considering my aversion to reading complex novels.  Compared to the Scarlet Letter or Huckleberry Finn, it’s set a lot closer to our time.  And it’s not a novel that’s only interesting because of Sparknotes and other analyzing sites.    While it’s still about sixty years off, the ideas and themes conveyed are still very powerful.  Joseph Heller’s most well known novel drew attention away from his other works, but it’s not without good reason.

The protagonist, or “hero” of the novel is the Air Force Bombardier Captain Yossarian.  His primary motivation through the course of the story is self-preservation.  And who could blame him?  There seems to be little motivation for risking lives other than to show an example of heroic sacrifice.  His main opposition is the ambitious Colonel Cathcart.  In order to impress his superiors, he continually raises missions which only prolong the pain that Yossarian and the other officers of his squadron endure.  Since the events in the novel are in anachronistic order, we get glimpses of the present and past events.  Yossarian is revealed to be more brave in earlier parts of his combat duty before a gruesome event changed his life.  There are a great deal of characters, but only a few get much development.  Or focus that covers more than one chapter.  We see the multiple motivations, forces, and decisions at work; profits, military power, idealistic future lifestyles, etc.    For example, Yossarian’s close friend Milo Minderbinder may seem nice, but his drive for making profits has repercussions for others.  Meanwhile, Yossarian’s absentminded friend Orr irritates and endears Yosarrian and seems to consider him his only friend.  The idealistic Nately, the fun-seeking Dunbar, parading Lieutenant Schieskopff, innocent Chaplain, and many others serve as the “ragtag group” that we come to love, or despise.

Yossarian is selfish but relatable, and compared to many other characters, a moral center.  He’s aware of the atrocities that the war creates and eventually develops deeper reasons to pursue his self-preservation.  Even though the war is near its end, the fighting is still very much a reality; soldiers are losing their lives relatively easily while manipulative officers remained unharmed and concerned for their own reputation.

In a sense, the novel’s setting is like 1984.  Military officers continually strive for more power.  The main rule of the story that controls everything is Catch-22, a ludicrous, horrific, indescribable policy that allows officers to have their way.  The first example is the method of  getting taken off combat duty.  To quote the novel, “You have to be insane to be taken off of combat duty.  You can’t be taken off the missions unless you ask.  But If you ask, it proves that you’re sane, thus ineligible for being grounded”.  But even though the antagonists are only human, there’s nothing that can be done.  Because Catch-22 isn’t set in a futuristic(relatively speaking) dystopia, it’s arguably even more frustrating and cruel.  There’s some deliberate exposition that’s voiced in a humorous fashion, or points are reiterated.  Deja vu to be exact.  Things that may initially come across as humorous take a darker tone in later parts of the novel.  It is admittedly a fairly long novel, with events scattered all over.  It will probably take a second reading or a deeper discussion to truly appreciated Catch-22.


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Run for a decade, laugh for a lifetime…with a tiger by your side

Even fifteen years after its conclusion, Calvin and Hobbes remains one of my favorite comics of all time.  I remember first coming across it first grade.  My sister had bought three of them from a book fair at school.  Yet it took me several years before I could actually appreciate its humor.  While I tended to read Garfield more often, maturity made me see how profound the childhood comic was.  Eventually, I began to appreciate the slapstick, sarcasm, variety, and exploration of childhood adventures.  Whether it’s from the far-fetched imagination of Calvin, the mundane aspects of school, to the father’s dry commentary on life, I always finding myself, at the very least, smiling at what I read.  Year after year, Garfield employs some of the same “Act like a jerk, torture my owner and other animals, talk about food, etc.  Calvin and Hobbes employed newer ideas and issues in order to keep things interesting, while keeping the characters with their iconic traits.  While I often wonder why Bill Watterson would end the series after only ten years, i realize that it was a decision that was inevitable.  People move on to other interests and it was fun while it lasted.  If Calvin had continued his adventures, we would take it for granted as just some kid performing his shenanigans.  If it continued, we might grow to hate it as a franchise zombie.

Calvin and Hobbes really incorporates so many different ideas;  it is as much about adult struggles as it is about a child going through certain stages in life.  It is a commentary of American culture at the time, with some not-so-subtle criticism.  For example, there is a strip that depicts a office man being killed by a group of anthropomorphic deer.  Calvin pokes fun at the fact that humans justify hunting as “population regulation.”  Bill Watterson clearly puts in a lot of thought, effort and insight, but it’s important to remember that he’s mainly expressing his own opinions.  And as such, though we may disagree with him, we cannot necessarily criticize him for expressing his opinion.

Surprisingly (or not), I can relate to Calvin, despite the fact he never ages.  While he does have lots of destructive tendencies, he’s a surprisingly insightful boy who may be encouraged or tormented by the society that he lives in.  It makes him an endearing protagonist despite his outright sadistic nature in certain instances.  Various instances show he truly is intelligent, but by the system’s standards, he’s dumb.  Even less developed characters like Mrs. Wormwood are fairly sympathetic; strict as she is, Wormwood is just a teacher whose trying to do her job.  The parents in the strip initially come off as designated villains, but despite Watterson’s insistence that they’re just Calvin’s parents, they’re surprisingly complex.  No adult is truly free of their inner child, and sometimes they’re not much different than the kids they try to discipline.  Calvin’s Dad enjoys riding his bike, and considers it a possible alternative to his job.  Meanwhile, his mother is implied to have been just as much of a hassle as Calvin in her youth

And of course, we cannot forget the other titular character, Hobbes.  Tigers are also among my favorite animals, but that’s not the only reason he’s awesome.  He provides an interesting foil to Calvin, while also keeping a similar destructive nature.  Quite deliberately, he can be the most intelligent character in serious moments, yet feral in the next.  The deliberately ambiguous nature of Hobbes’ existence is a source of contention among fans, but I like it that way.  You could argue that he represents Calvin’s sensible side, or that he really is a talking tiger.  It’s a comic, so there really are infinite possibilities.

It’s this kind of series that elicits so many emotions.  It’s quirky, imaginative, and immortal.  To quote several people I respect but cannot think of at the moment, it’s the kind of series where you finish it, forget about it, only to rediscover and experience another plethora of emotions.

“It’s a magical world, ol’ buddy!”

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