Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
It’s the lose-lose situation. There’s no way around it. Yossarian is stuck in a war he doesn’t want to fight, but he can’t get out of the war because he is sane enough to think he wants to live. His only responsibility is to fly in missions, and the number of missions required to complete his service is continually raised by a crazy Colonel who will do anything to get published in The Saturday Evening Post. People have to be crazy to fly in missions, and showing that you are insane is the only way to get you disqualified from service. However, you cannot make this request of a doctor, because asking to be grounded from missions in order to remove yourself from danger is obviously the process of a sane mind. Therefore, you are sane and must fly interminable missions. Catch-22.

Catch-22 also applies to every other situation in the book. From a dead tent-mate that was never officially recorded, so he can never officially be moved out, to a permanently high fever and a non-existent liver condition that qualify Yossarian for a stay in the hospital whenever he wants to get away from it all, nothing has a simple solution. Throughout the book, we learn about all the friends in his squadron who, by the end of the book, have all been killed in some fashion or another, and about the harebrained Generals and Colonels who are only following their personal obsessions and their orders from higher up. Then there’s also the guy in charge of the mess hall, who serves gourmet meals with products he runs on the black market. The whole operation spans all across Europe and down into northern Africa, and he plans everything at the expense of government money. He runs all the products, and then he sells everything to himself from a different location at a loss, but somehow manages to make a profit for everyone involved because everyone has a share of the syndicate. Catch-22.

Nothing makes sense, but there is nothing anybody can do about it because every argument is made with such infallible illogic that there is no reasonable comeback. The most compelling argument of all? Why not? This is the second time I’ve read Catch-22 and it only got better. Heller’s word play isn’t quite as lyrical as Nabokov, and his satire isn’t quite as sharp as Vonnegut, but when you combine those two with the inevitable “why not?” you come out with one of the best books since…sliced bread. The world of Catch-22 is a little difficult to keep track of, which is kind of the point. Each new chapter tells the reader about a different character, and overall we learn a little more about what has happened to Yossarian each time we meet someone new. The story circles around on itself, so it is hard to remember what happened in what order and which characters you should keep track of, but eventually it mostly makes sense. It is also an excellent lesson in SAT and GRE words. You must read this book. If I had to rank my favorite books ever (Harry Potter aside to give others a fair chance), Catch-22 would probably come in first. I love it, so you must as well.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Girls Who Went Away

The Girls Who Went Away – Ann Fessler
The subtitle of The Girls Who Went Away is something like “The hidden history of women who surrendered their children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade.” This book is a collection of oral histories of women who had no choice but to surrender their children for adoption because of the social mores during the 1950s and 60s. Most of the women who were interviewed were in their teens or early twenties when they became pregnant, and for one reason or another, marriage was not an option, so the girls “went away,” as the title suggests. Most of them went to maternity homes (I can’t remember the exact term) where they spent the last few months of their pregnancy until they went into labor. Some lived with family members in another state, and some were sent away to families who were willing to host pregnant girls. Wherever they went, they were not allowed to stay home because in the era of the mobile middle class, unmarried mothers were a significant blight on the reputation of a family.
Certain aspects of the book were rather shocking. It was disturbing to see how unsupportive families were of daughters who found themselves “in trouble,” and how the girl was always held accountable, while nothing ever happened to the boy and his family. Multiple times, Fessler brings up the point that in trying to prevent society from being mean to their pregnant daughters, parents often treated them the exact way they did not want others to do. The other shocking aspect was the complete lack of information. The 50s and 60s were an entire different time than the 90s and 2000s in which I grew up, but I cannot fathom a time when a girl could get pregnant and not know what would happened during the birth process. Access to birth control and condoms was about as available as accurate information about sex. Overall, nobody talked about anything, and secrets were sometimes kept until family members died.

I thought this book was very well-written. A lifetime ago, I took a research methods class, so I know a little bit about what a good oral history is supposed to look like. The author provides her standpoint and perspective on the issue by disclosing her personal experience with being adopted and searching for her birth mother. She has strong research support about the era, and mixes her information with personal statements and stories from women who surrendered children for adoption. She admits that her study is limited by class and race, and speculates that it might be how she went about recruiting women to interview, and differences in relationships and socioeconomic standing. I think this book is great because it talks about an issue that most people never even think about. The only thing I would change about the book is the subtitle. The women interviewed were talking about their unacknowledged grief over being forced to surrender a child for adoption, not that they wished they could have had an abortion. Granted, with the passing of Roe v. Wade, public opinion on pregnancy shifted so that women had more options available to them, but the women interviewed did not want to lose their children. I don’t think Roe v. Wade was a determining factor in their stories. Excellently written, interesting topic, moving personal stories, highly recommended.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Neverending Story

The Neverending Story – Michael Ende
The entire story of the land of Fantastica exists in a book that is being written while simultaneously being lived by all the inhabitants of the land. The catch with Fantastica is that its existence also depends on the human world, and when humans forget about Fantastica, Fantastica begins to lose its reality. Every so often, Fantastica needs a human to visit and rename everything to continue the story of the land. Bastian Balthazar Bux finds himself reading the story of Fantastica before he is summoned to come to Fantastica and rename everything so the cycle of existence can continue. As the he joins in the simultaneous telling/living of the story of Fantastica, he finds himself caught up in unbelievable adventures. As the “Great Knower,” he has the power to name everything, and his slightest wish brings anything into being. He tells the story that he lives, so he decides what happens. Unfortunately, Bastian forgets the consequences and responsibilities of power, and he starts making decisions that lead him away from his friends into a land of uncertainty and apathy. Just as it seems hopeless for Bastian to recover from senseless and misguided wishes, he discovers his true wish: to learn to love. With this new knowledge, he returns to his friends, who show him how to return to his own home so he can remind everyone else about the wonders of Fantastica.
Although this book was recommended to me by someone who ardently adores it, I was less than thrilled with The Neverending Story. I grew up with Harry Potter, so anything that can’t compare to the fantasy of Hogwarts doesn’t even register on my scale. Had I read this book when I was younger, I’m sure I would have been tickled at the idea – I’m reading a book about a book that actually turns into reality. The reader becomes part of the story in this wonderful fantasy land, what could be better, especially for a booklover? Sorry, but I’m still waiting for my owl to get here and tell me I’ll be attending Hogwarts in the fall. It seems to have a hard time finding me. (My endorsement check from all things Harry Potter also seems to have gotten lost in the mail.) Maybe because I’m in Samoa…
However, I do award this book high points for aesthetics. The size and weight of the book are very satisfactory. It’s one of those hardback books that stays open on the page you’re reading when you lay it flat on the table. Also, it is printed in two different colors (also part of the book within a book within reality deal), which makes for visually pleasing reading.  Overall, if you don’t already love the story (or the movie – I saw one of the Neverending Story movies, but I can’t remember which one, and unfortunately it also came after the age of Harry Potter) then I wouldn’t bother with reading it. Each new chapter brings so many different ideas, stories, histories, characters, twists and turns, adventures, etc. etc, forever, that it really felt like a never-ending story.

Man's Search For Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl is a psychiatrist (or maybe psychologist – he’s some kind of doctor, I can’t remember) who was a prisoner in the concentration camps during WWII. The first half of his book is a scientific analysis of the behaviors and reactions of prisoners in the concentration camps. Obviously, he mainly draws on his own experience, but in attempting to make a scientific analysis, he tries to remove himself from the situation and observe without feeling. From his perspective, we learn how prisoners found or lost hope within a bleak setting that offered more to the prisoners than anyone outside the camp could possibly imagine. At one point, he recalls explaining a picture in the news of the concentration camps to a friend several years after the war. The picture showed men lying down, and Frankl explained that far from feeling lost and hopeless, most men in that situation would have felt relieved and thankful because their illness had qualified them for a day of rest. Personally, concentration camps are the last place I can think of in which to find hope, but Frankl explains that sometimes it is through unavoidable suffering that people find meaning in their lives.
The second half of his book is dedicated to a brief explanation of his approach to therapy. He argues for logotherapy, a practice which searches for meaning in life. Rather than assuming all people are searching for pleasure, or seeking merely to avoid suffering, logotherapy assumes people have a will to meaning (I think that is the phrase he uses). From the perspective of logotherapy, meaning can be found in one of three ways: by dedicating your life to the work you are passionate about, by finding and sharing love with another person, and by enduring unavoidable suffering. The important thing to remember is that the suffering must be unavoidable – if the source of suffering can be removed, then it should be, otherwise, as Frankl says, it is masochistic to needlessly endure suffering.
I don’t know enough of Frankl’s background to know whether he studied logotherapy before or after his experience in the concentration camp, but his book clearly shows how effective logotherapy can be. By beginning with his personal experience in the concentration camp, detached as he tries to make it for a scientific analysis, he gains the sympathy and trust of the reader (although it’s beyond me if anyone can read a story of such suffering and not be moved) before he goes into the logistics of searching for meaning. The entire book inspires hope and optimism for finding some feeling of control over our lives and that greater purpose that gives meaning to an otherwise chaotic existence. I highly recommend reading the foreword, the introduction, and the afterword because they all contribute something to the story.