Monday, February 29, 2016

My First Real Book

I'm not sure but I think I was 10 or  11 when I picked up a copy of the autobiography of Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans.

It covers his childhood, his stay in a home for JD's where he learned to play trumpet, and then up to the time he was hired by Joe Oliver to play in a band in Chicago.

I think what drew me in was that it was about a kid about my age, growing up in different circumstances than me but surrounded by lots of vivid personalities as I was too.

Armstrong wrote it himself and it was subjected to only a little prissy editing so it has an extraordinary integrity about it, you really heard his voice, his zest for life. I'd read it again.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Mount TBR #8

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film – Ruth Barton

Ruth Barton recounts the life, inventions, passions, and troubles of Hedy Lamarr. Barton is a lecturer in film studies at Trinity College in Dublin and has already published several books on cinema history. But here she focuses on Lamarr, considered by many fans and critics alike the most beautiful woman in classic Hollywood.

In our age of social media snark, I was thankful that Barton brings to this project insight and patience towards her subject. Lamarr was a contradictory and distressed person. She wondered if people were drawn by her looks or her self. This insecurity made her act in contradictory, difficult, and strange ways. What can we make of stories like this?

A few years later, when Zsa Zsa Gabor and George Sanders were married, Hedy called on them. Their daughter Francesca, who was three, was on her way to bed. Hedy volunteered to say good-night to her, since it was the nanny’s night off. Then as an afterthought, she asked, “Does Francesca know the facts of life yet?” Perturbed, Gabor shook her head. “The next morning Francesca came downstairs with a balloon stuck inside the front of her dress and informed me that she was pregnant. Hedy Lamarr had told my three-year-old daughter the facts of life. I was livid.”

Who wouldn’t be irate? But we feel a bewildered compassion too – what kind of broken person would think it appropriate treat a child and anger parents in such a way?

Hedy’s personal life was an ongoing turmoil.  She married six times and had children and failed to have a satisfactory relationship with any of them. She and her adopted son were estranged when Hedy, in a fit of displeasure, just broke off relations.  Near the end of her life, Hedy was a shoplifter, notorious in department stores but Barton doesn’t ask any shrinks as to the origins of this behavior.

So, with such a hard to subject to like, the story that Barton tells is not a simple "star bio" because Hedy was not an actress though she may have become a fine comedienne if Hollywood, notorious waster of talent, had been smarter in judging what she could do persuasively. Because she sure couldn’t act, never was able to overcome a wooden, remote, icy quality that was more overpowering than likable. Unfortunately, her first appearance in film created preconceptions. Hedy stripped naked on camera for the very first time in the history of mainstream film (a European – of course – movie called Ecstasy in 1933). Like Paris Hilton found out after the sex tape, success came with both benefits and hazards.

Barton did not interview any art critics to give us readers a sense of how skillful an abstract painter Hedy was. Barton does describe a little bit of Hedy’s technological achievements. With composer George Antheil she patented an innovative modulation system for encoding information to be transmitted on radio frequencies. Its discovery had repercussions in technology, such as with the encryption systems used for mobile phones. Another upside is that Barton provides the insight that Hedy was an √©migr√© – she had to leave Austria because of her Jewish background (which she never talked about). Forced out of her native country, Hedy never felt as if she were home in California, New York City, or Florida. It must be a grim feeling to never feel at home.

Barton's book persuades us that Lamarr's life  was a tangle of unique adventures, appetites, escapes and episodes more or less bleak. On the other hand, it is the same old story, told yet again, of a person who can’t tolerate great gifts. Like, the Donald was born to wealth and power; he couldn’t tolerate so much money, authority, and fame so he turned into an ogre. Hedy was born beautiful beyond belief, gifted with intelligence. And she acted like a person, mercifully rare, who feels most alive when fussin' and fightin', embroiled in constant arguments, suits, and feuds.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Mount TBR #7

Silent Thunder – Loren D. Estleman

This is the ninth mystery to star the series hero Amos Walker. In the hard-boiled manner of Raymond Chandler’s Phil Marlowe, Walker drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney, shoots straight as an arrow, and cracks as wise as … an owl?

Walker is hired as a freelancer by a large security firm. The behemoth assigns him to investigate Doyle Thayer Junior. His widow Constance has admitted to killing Junior but claims his history of abusing her drove her to plug him fatally in self-defense. Building an argument for self-defense, her lawyer wants Walker to dig up dirt on the dead husband so that the jury will be grateful to the widow for removing such a menace to society. Inarguably, Thayer Junior was a threat to himself and others because he collected enough weapons to stock an arsenal and he partied like it was 1989. Alcohol, clubbing, testosterone, and negligent firearms safety practices were as volatile a mix then as it is nowadays.

Walker’s investigation takes him to the market in illegal guns. His nearly paid-for Chevy is raked by M-16 fire by a hooded quartet. After getting bonked on the head by a knuckle-walker, Walker is comforted by the widow. Not just with iodine.

The language is rough, various scenes feature gun violence. The grim attitudes reflect the noir fallacy that the world is more dangerous than it really is. The reveal centers around a villain whose plot is as grandiose as any Bond-movie megalomaniac.

But Estleman's hard-boiled mystery never fails to entertain. Walker, like Lew Archer, has soul and quick wit, though realistic and tough. The references to SE Michigan and uses of local lingo such as “up north” will appeal to Downriver born and bred readers like me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mount TBR #6

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

From the Sahara to Samarkand: Selected Travel Writings of Rosita Forbes 1919-1937

Between the wars was the golden age of travel writing. Freya Stark, English travel writer, and Ella Maillart, Swiss journalist, are the two women best-remembered nowadays for their narratives of journeys in the Middle East and Central Asia. Forgotten, however, is Rosita Forbes, but this collection of her best pieces will remedy that.

Forbes wrote for magazines so in plain language she gets across the thrill of accomplishing of difficult feats such as finding the way where roads don’t exist and local guides aren’t used to be 20 miles away from their native village. In the typical English way, she gets through travel ordeals with humor. However, without bragging, she also conveys that overcoming harrowing experiences takes bravery, intelligence, and the stoic’s ability to keep a cool head when faced with situations in the desert that are utterly out of one’s control. The feeling the reader gets from her tales is that she never hesitated even when safety and caution might have been bywords.

Also like other travel writers like Peter Fleming, she carries her knowledge of  geography and history  lightly. She deftly weaves expositions about the local cultures and current events with stories of travel. She has sincere pro-imperialist views and she doesn’t kid herself about objective about, say, the British in Iraq. In fact, she admired anybody that thought and felt independently.

Strongly recommended.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mount TBR #5

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Johnny Underground – Patricia Moyes

The British mystery writer Patricia Moyes created Detective Chief Superintendent Henry Tibbet and his Emmy. Her 19 mysteries appeared between 1959 and 1993.

Johnny Underground is based on Moyes’ WWII Royal Air Force experience where she served as a radar operator and flight officer.  Set in 1966, the opening takes Emmy to a reunion of officers served at an airbase in England during the war. Scandal around the sudden demise of a long-dead colleague re-surfaces. When one of the reunited officers ends up murdered, Emmy becomes a prime suspect. All the old comrades in arms, who may or may not have something sinister to hide, turn on Emmy to protect themselves. One thing about these old-timey English mystery writers – they sometimes had a stoical view of the roads to hell people take with their eyes wide open. Kind of grim, but kind of real.

In fact, though, the appeal of Moyes’ Henry and Emmy series offers various attractions. For one, the characters are very English. As an example of the deep English respect for privacy, Emmy realizes that she didn’t even know the name of the boy she loved because everybody during the war used nicknames or last names. For another, their marriage represents a stability in personal relationships that readers like to see. Of course, Henry’s job reassures us that most murders won’t going running around doing in folks like us.

Finally, this mystery lays down smart clues to follow for readers that like puzzles but also turns out as novel of manners with a genuine literary sensibility a la the work of Margery Allingham.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Top 5 Must-read Nonfiction

1. Ethics, Aesthetics: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Pirsig

2. War: With the Old Breed at Peliliu and Okinawa - Eugene Sledge. Best WW2 memoir ever

3. Laughter: My Life and Hard Times - James Thurber

4. Scholarship, Love of Family, Friends, and Colleagues: Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary - K.M. Elizabeth Murray

5. Travel, History: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon - Rebecca West

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Classic #5

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

Born a slave, Frederick Douglass (1818 - 1895) escaped in 1838 and became a key figure in the Abolitionist movement. This book was his third memoir, written in 1881 and revised in 1892. I have no reservation recommending this book to readers with an interest in antebellum America, race-based chattel slavery, the Abolitionist movement, post- Civil War reform in the US, or memoirs of great Americans.

In the first third of the book, Douglass paints a picture of the absence of law, of civil society, in slave states: “That plantation is a little nation of its own, having its own language, its own rules, regulations and customs. The laws and institutions of the state, apparently touched it nowhere.” Slavery also had a bad effect on slave owners and their families:

The poor slave, on his hard pine plank, scantily covered with his thin blanket, slept more soundly than the feverish voluptuary who reclined upon his downy pillow. Food to the indolent is poison, not sustenance. Lurking beneath the rich and tempting viands were invisible spirits of evil, which filled the self-deluded gormandizer with aches and pains, passions uncontrollable, fierce tempers, dyspepsia, rheumatism, lumbago, and gout, and of these the Lloyds had a full share.

Douglass takes jabs at the work ethic that was undermined by slavery. Farms are shabby, workmanship shoddy. For all the talk of refinement and genteel manners, slave-holders and the hired help are careless, stupid, ill-informed, angry, short-tempered, lacking in foresight, paranoid, and never seeing anybody outside a narrow world of uncouth stressed relatives and impatient vulgar cronies. Not to mention the whole system has to be propped up with an army of thugs such as overseers and hired kidnappers. Ashley Wilkes - my red Indian ass.

The great thing about Douglass is that he names names. The book is filled with telling anecdotes like this one:

No stronger contrast between two men could well be presented than the one exhibited on this day between President Lincoln and Vice-President Johnson. Mr. Lincoln was like one who was treading the hard and thorny path of duty and self-denial; Mr. Johnson was like one just from a drunken debauch. The face of the one was full of manly humility, although at the topmost height of power and pride; that of the other was full of pomp and swaggering vanity. The fact was, though it was yet early in the day, Mr. Johnson was drunk.

After the Civil War, the Republican party turned its back on ideals and black people and became the party of money that it is in our present day. The Republicans' walking away from Reconstruction and leaving blacks defenseless against the former slave-owning, slave-beating, slave-driving, slave-catching class filled Douglass with sadness:

Clinging in hope to the Republican party, thinking it would cease its backsliding and resume its old character as the party of progress, justice and freedom, I regretted its defeat and shared in some measure the painful apprehension and distress felt by my people at the South from the return to power of the old Democratic and slavery party. To many of them it seemed that they were left naked to their enemies; in fact, lost; that Mr. Cleveland's election meant the revival of the slave power, and that they would now be again reduced to slavery and the lash. The misery brought to the South by this widespread alarm can hardly be described or measured. The wail of despair from the late bondsmen was for a time deep, bitter and heartrending. Illiterate and unable to learn to read or to learn of any limit to the power of the party now in the ascendant, their fears were unmitigated and intolerable, and their outcry of alarm was like the cry of dismay uttered by an army when its champion has fallen and no one appears to take his place. It was well for the poor people in this condition that Mr. Cleveland himself kindly sent word South to allay their fears and to remove their agony. In this trepidation of the unlettered negro something is apparent aside from his ignorance. If he knew nothing of letters, he knew something of events and of the history of parties to them. He knew that the Republican party was the party hated by the old master class, and that the Democratic party was the party beloved of the old master class.

Anyway, this review grows too long. In his day, Douglass critics argued if he was a better orator or a better writer. This book shows his powerful writing style. I hope these long quotations give a sense of that.

PS: I moderate comments to this blog. If I get any  trash, nonsense, or bilge I will, without remorse, trash them. 

I promise.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Fave Foreign Mysteries

Simenon's Maigret mysteries. My only quibble is sometimes the settings are really sleazy.

For the real exotic try mysteries from the 1960s by Gavin Black, especially the ones with his series hero Paul Harris like Suddenly At Singapore and You Want to Die Johnny. The books will bring to mind Eric Ambler: smart, lots of action, not nihilistic but not preachy either with a reliable ethical compass.

Another good writer who sets stories in East Asia in the 1980s is Williiam Marshall. I’ve got the the first one in the Yellowthread Street series on my shelf. Setting is wild and wacky Hong Kong is the last days of the British. Cops are both British and Chinese and the culture clashes are pretty funny.

Honorable mentions: Andrea Camalleri and Alan Furst for European settings.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Good Travel Books

1. Paris to the Moon - Adam Gopnik: contemporary and smart and well written but kind of fluffy

2. Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens - Sofka Zinovieff: follows her spouse to live in Greece. Very good more as an expatriate memoir but works as travel too.

3. Irish Journal - Heinrich Boll: early 1950s trip to Emerald isle before it became a destination. Worth reading

4. Journey to the Vanished City - Tudor Parfitt. To southern Africa investigating claims of  Black Jews

5. Looking for the Lost - Alan Booth: Classic accounts of walks in rural Japan in the early 1990s

5. Pagan Holidays - Tony Perrottet: Travels around the Med in footsteps of ancient tourists. Light on the level of a Discovery Channel doc, a big disappointment

6. From Heaven Lake - Vikram Seth: Travel journals so unpolished but a unique trip and it’s nice not to read a UK or US travel writer for once.

7. The Sea and The Jungle - H.M. Tomlinson: Classic between the wars travel writing. Tramp steamer up a river in Brazil Highly literary. Amazing.

8. Colossus of Maroussi - Henry Miller: Class Account of trip to Greece in 1939. Readable only if you like Miller.

9. I Have Seen the World Begin - Carsten Jensen: A Dane travels in SE Asia. Very readable and interesting though some of the anthropology and sociology is dubious.

10. Tracks - Robyn Davidson: doughty Australian woman hoofs in the Australian desert accompanied by four camels. If you like travel writing by women, this is a must.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Snappy Sayings for Bookish People

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."  and "I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book."  Groucho Marx

"Never judge a book by its movie." -J. W. Eagan

"If you have never said 'Excuse me' to a parking meter or bashed your shins on a fireplug, you are probably wasting too much valuable reading time." Sherri Chasin Calvo

"To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time." - P.G. Wodehouse

Bookish Young Man: Do you like Kipling?

Demure Sweetie: I don't know, you naughty boy,  I've never kipled.

From Punch, a British humor mag of days gone by

"If you've only ever read one book in your life, then I strongly suggest you keep your mouth shut." Simon Munnery

"This novel is not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force." Dorothy Parker

"You can't judge an apple by lookin' at the tree

You can't judge honey by lookin' at the bee

You can't judge a daughter by lookin' at the mother

You can't judge a book by lookin' at the cover!"

Bo Diddley

"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." Mark Twain (attributed)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Collins on Dickens

I like novelists' criticism of other writers. Here is Wilkie Collins on Chas. Dickens, with some of my comments included.

Of Oliver Twist - "The one defect in that wonderful book is the helplessly bad construction of the story. The character of Nancy is the finest he ever did...That the same man who could create Nancy created the second Mrs Dombey is the most incomprehensible anomaly that I know of in literature."

Me: I agree abot the plot of Oliver Twist, but I can't imagine what Collins is thinking here - Nancy a more finely-drawn character than  Bucket, Pecksniff, Mrs. Gamp, Steerforth, Heep, Weller, Mr. Mantalini? Puh-leeze.

Of  Barnaby Rudge - "...the weakest book that Dickens ever wrote."

Me: I couldn't get through more than about 150 pages of Rudge.

Of Martin Chuzzlewit - "Chuzzlewit (in some respects the finest novel he ever wrote) delighted his readers and so led to a large sale of the next book, Dombey [and Son]."

Me: Dickens himself thought Chuzzlewit was his best novel. I liked it a lot, but for kind of a mean reason: because it is such a scorching criticism of a 19th century Americans who very complacently tolerated race-based chattel slavery and had the gall to take umbrage at anybody who criticized the vile institution or its supporters. This novel mightily pissed off Americans of the time, to which I say, "Good job, Mr. Dickens."

Of Dombey and Son - "...the latter half of Dombey no intelligent person can have read without astonishment at the badness of it."

Me: This, from the author who wrote the bad The Dead Secret. Oh well everybody's got a right to an opinion. And all writers give up goals that they'd like to have back.

Of David Copperfield - "incomparably superior to Dombey [and Son]"

Me: Copperfield is a great novel, the one I'd recommend.

Of Edwin Drood - "...cruel to compare Dickens in the radiant prime of his genius with Dickens's last laboured effort, the melancholy work of a worn out brain."

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mount TBR #4

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Pew Group – Anthony Oliver

This genial whodunit was the 1980 debut novel of an art historian who was an expert in pottery. Oliver literally wrote the book on Staffordshire Pottery: The Tribal Art of England. Before his early death in the late Eighties, he wrote four mysteries, in which he used his insight into the business and obsession of collecting antique pottery.

More lust and bawdy couplings than is usual in a cozy mystery do lead to lapses in taste. However, far outweighing this quibble is that this is a genuinely British comic mystery. That is, it features eccentric characters in the English village of Flaxfield, an irrepressible Welshwoman, and a scamp of an Irish tinker. Other funny characters in the Dickensy tradition include a vicar that does spend awful lot of time in conversations with the Almighty; a randy spinster; a widow who got that way through murder; gay partners in an antique shop, one of whom, James Trottwood, is nicknamed "Betsey;" and an American millionaire who's mad about a fabulously valuable Staffordshire figurine called The Pew Group.

The Pew Group goes missing during a wake, which in my English is the feasting and drinking held after the funeral and burial, not the vigil held at the bedside of somebody who has died. Inspector Webber, born in Flaxfield, has returned there for a rest cure and a vacation from a marriage which as boiled down to an "irritable acquaintanceship." He teams up with Mrs. Thomas, the incorrigible woman from Cardiff, to identify the thief.

In the first quarter or so of the book the tone is a little more tetchy and acerbic than I like. The waspishness brought to my mind Robert Barnard, whom I don’t read anymore because his parodies of the conventions of the cozy mystery just seem mean-spirited. However, to my relief, Oliver’s tone got more genial and affectionate as the book went on. It’s more in the English spirit to be nice.

Oliver is a clever, imaginative, and first-rate storyteller. I highly recommend this mystery.

Friday, February 5, 2016

European RC #1

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

The English:  A Portrait of a People – Jeremy Paxton

When I lived in Latvia (1994-97), I went to parties that mixed North Americans, Englishmen and –women, and Irishmen and –women. Drink flowed at the party but – so? -- many eye-opening conversations were to be had.  A British diplomat who was a Scotswoman raised my eyebrows with her plan to be the Scottish ambassador to Russia after Scotland gained its independence.

Another time a bank examiner from Louisiana was stunned to be informed by an Englishman that an American was not only a native or citizen of the United States but also a native or inhabitant of any of the countries of North, South, or Central America. The Louisianan looked at me in shock and exclaimed, “I never knew that” as if I, a bad English teacher, had neglected to tell her this through sheer incompetence.

Anyway, if I can’t travel or be an expatriate anymore, I can read books like this one to expand my horizons. It examines stereotypes, subjective assessments, historical myths, misconceptions, various phobias and criticisms related to England and its English inhabitants.  Be clear that the writer purposely focusses on only the English, not the Irish, Scots, or Welsh. He clearly distinguishes English (a people) from British (a nationality). He identifies the English national character as having “a quizzical detachment, tolerance, common sense, bloody-mindedness, willingness to compromise, [a] deeply political sense of themselves [and above all a] sense of 'I know my rights.’” He also grants what I always felt, “hard to know.”

Writing about national character is a dicey thing. Readers feel left out, claiming the writer is talking about a socio-economic class that does not include them. Some readers will see irony, humor and anti-Celt chauvinism between the lines, while others will not. Other readers will say the book – published in the late 1990s – is dated by now, that it does not help us understand the English since the world changed after 9/11 and protracted land wars in Asia, not to mention the 2008 global economic meltdown. Though he has read a lot, he does not use insights from sociology or economics. He doesn’t touch on the bane of the UK and US – prejudice about skin color. Recall Ellis in Orwell’s Burmese Days who “hated [blacks] with a bitter, restless loathing as of something evil or unclean.”

So, my advice is to read it for entertainment and in any case not as absolute truth. Paxton, by the way, is famous as a TV interviewer whose dogged style of getting after politicians to answer the goddamned question should be imitated by the lapdogs and lickspittles who work for US networks.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Classic #4

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

What I took away from reading this novel again: satire is funny but exhausting.

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Heller sets his classic satire on a small island off the coast of Italy during World War II. The characters – in fact, caricatures – make up a bomber squadron whose members have resigned themselves to being killed. The stats in fact were against them: the average length of service of a tail gunner or bombardier was about a month. The pathetic organization man of a CO keeps raising the minimum number of missions one must fly, so the airmen are essentially trapped until they are killed.

The action is told in episodes. The bitter jokes about the powerful exploiting the vulnerable never let up. Takers get the honey, givers sing the blues. Catch-22 is the paradox of life: life is tedious, bitter, meaningless, full of suffering and we’d do any deal to prolong it. Catch-22 is that bullies, cowards, sneaks, cynics, snobs, bigots, and hypocrites “have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” This novel is so relentless that I was unable to read it for more than 30 pages at a time. But the last 150 pages or so are riveting that I couldn’t tear myself away.

A guy told me once that serving in the Navy he felt was like being dipped in shit. But he was also chagrined that he was the only one of the radio guys in his group the CIA didn’t try to recruit. Heller wrote this book for irked guys like this, for whom the military could do no right even when it was correct in deciding not to hire a guy that would have been bored, unhappy, and cracked just doing what he was told and keeping his mouth shut. The whole novel is full of oxymora like this, which only remind us life is full of them, all the time.

The audience, I think, is readers who think that the squares deserve all the disrespect and contempt that they get. All the dumb, panicky, dangerous types that merit every thumb in the eye they get from condescending people who are sick of asking stupid-on-purpose know-nothings, “Where did you hear that? Why do you think that? Show me how that’s true.”

What makes it a classic is that it captures the impertinent and derisive attitude many people in our country started to feel about our leaders and their willing minions due to the Vietnam War and Watergate. This satirical novel doesn’t spare any target. It will stay a classic as long as ordinary people feel contempt for red tape, shabby patriotism, self-serving leaders, and bullies that enjoy making people they don’t like feel afraid. I would recommend this novel only to readers stoic enough to face Heller’s grim view of death, insanity, sex, competence, and obsession.

In a sense, this is a dangerous novel because it makes us readers feel pissed off about realities of life that we can do nothing to change. It’s cold comfort to feel upward contempt for leaders who think they have a real good bead on things, but they don’t really know squat. We can’t really control business, government, cops, spies, much less creeps that change our neighborhoods into shitholes, much less gasbags that text while they speed in massive SUVs. And let’s face it: we got responsibilities of our own, so who cares of the bastards thrive when we can’t do a thing to stop them? We already have ours to take care of.

What if everybody felt like that, asked Major Danby, then where would we be? Well then, says Yossarion, I’d be a damned fool to think any other way, wouldn’t I?

I grew up in a small white working class suburb in Downriver Detroit. In the mid-Sixties, most of the minors in the neighborhood were teenagers. Like lots of 10-year-olds I looked to teenagers as the taste-makers of fashion in language, dress, and media preferences. This novel was brought into my awareness by teenagers carrying it around, whether as pleasure or assigned reading, I don’t know.  It seems equally weird – so few teenagers like to read and what high school teacher would assign such a radical book full of dirty words?

The movie was released in 1970. Among my 14-year-old buds, the buzz caused much lurid hushed talk. Rated R, so howdayaa get in? Did Dave really sneak in? She, like, stands on a raft, wearing nuthin, you can see her front. And you can see everything. No chit?

I think I read it in high school, during a summer vacation, but I can’t recall any of my boyish opinions about it beyond I thought it was funny. The scenes I always remembered were the first combat scene where Yossarian is punching a puzzled Aarfy; Col Cathcart’s interview with the chaplain about the briefing prayer and firm ripe tomatoes; and the woman pummeling Yossarian because she doesn’t believe in Yoassarian’s inept JD God , but that in fact she doesn’t believe in her good, just God. Of course, as in the above reference to high pitch of incredible writing in the last third of the book, which to discuss would constitute a spoiler.

In late 1974, at Michigan State, 18 and game, I made sure one of the first things I did was see Catch-22, the movie. Later I took a 20th Century American Lit class with Dr. Clinton S. Burhans, Jr. who assigned this as a text. A deep reader in the days before Theory, he wrote Spindrift and the Sea: Structural Patterns and Unifying Elements in Catch-22 (Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 19, No. 4 [Oct., 1973], pp. 239-250). I seem to recall half the class liking the novel for its irreverence, half detesting it for its formlessness, tiresome skits, and length.

Monday, February 1, 2016

European Reading Challenge Sign-up Post

I will read these books for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

1/ The English - Jeremy Paxman

2/ The Devils of Loudon – Aldous Huxley

3/ Budapest Noir – Vilmos Kondor

4/ The Family Lie - Georges Simenon

5/ A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army - Vasily Grossman, Antony Beevor (Editor), Luba Vinogradova (Translator)

6/ Another Fool in the Balkans: In the Footsteps of Rebecca West – Tony White

7/ Little is the Light: Nostalgic Travels in the Mini-states of Europe – Vitali Vitaliev