Monday, October 20, 2008


Joseph Heller, 562 pp.

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, that specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of the clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle."

Although the last two novels I read were both outstandingly successful, Catch-22 is the most highly acclaimed work I have had the pleasure of experiencing. With such prestigious acknowledgements as #11 on BBC's Big Read, I had high expectations -- which were immediately blown away. If the published acknowledgements weren't enough, I also empirically observed a lot of positive recognition of the novel. Three times on the bus commuting to class I was approached because I had said book in my hand, and two of the proponents of the novel indicated that they had read it twice. But, I digress.

The foremost thing to be said is that
Catch-22 need not be compared with other novels, it is in a league of its own. The first unique aspect of this work is the setting; an island off the coast of Italy called 'Pianosa', which exists but is fictional in the sense that it was not used in World War II. One could classify this novel as historical fiction (although I really think it claims its own genre) , and subsequently the setting is crucial. The majority of the story takes place in Pianosa and Rome, at the end of World War II. The intricate plot deals with the trials and tribulations of a group of verifiably insane American Bombardiers currently stationed in Pianosa. While the progression of the story is not always completely linear, Heller gracefully portrays the seemingly constant struggle of Captain Yossarian to be relieved of his duties.

On one hand, this novel is absolutely hilarious. During
Catch-22, you will frequently find yourself re-reading the last sentence, merely based on its abject absurdity. Heller introduces characters that are very strange, as well as characters with very strange names (usually both). Early on in the novel you will become acquainted with Major Major Major, who is as strange as his name, and is fittingly promoted to the rank of Major. If you haven't made the connection already, this unfortunate character is the namesake of one of this blog's contributors. Milo Minderbinder and Colonel Korn also soon join the cast, and the reader will be introduced to personages simply referred to as 'The Chaplain', 'Nately's whore', and 'Nately's whore's kid sister'. An important note is that while these names and characters are doubtlessly ridiculous, they do not detract from the intensity of the story at all.

On the other hand, this novel is extremely serious and emotionally capturing. One of
Yossarian's overarching qualms is the 'dead man in [his] tent'. This 'dead man' is not physically dead in the tent, but rather had just entered the encampment and had been killed in a flight so immediately that he was not registered. Subsequently, his belongings remained in Yossarian's tent, and to Yossarian that was having a dead man in his tent. Such neuroses are common to the colorful characters of the novel, and the angst that Heller creates will feel very real. Joseph Heller's ability to descend from the extreme of riotous hilarity to utter depression abruptly, yet gracefully, is an art form which I had not experienced until I came across Catch-22.

One thing to note about Catch-22 is that it is not acceptable for all audiences. To say that the Bombardiers at Pianosa are lewd is an understatement. Yossarian and his comrades are very promiscuous and he samples quite a range of girls, from one of his nurses (that tends to him during his excessively long hospital stays) to the prostitutes he finds in Rome on leave. While the sexuality present in this novel is at times raunchy, Heller's excellent characterization would be incomplete without it. Irregardless of the circular conversations that illustrate the apparent insanity of the personages  in the novel, some may find that the story takes a while to take shape. If the insanity of the early dialogues frustrates you, this may not be the book for you, although you are in the minority. As indicated on lists such as Big Read and personal testimonials you will hear, Heller's ability to infuse meaning into a humorous and ridiculous story is enjoyable to say the least.

As addressed earlier, even though this work is set in World War II, I wouldn't read it under the presumption that it is a World War II novel. While Heller vividly describes the internal aspects of a bomber plane, the battle content is limited. The story more centrally features the psychological and behavioral implications of the combat in addition to the physical ailments (both real and feigned) that the increasing number of missions bestow upon the men stationed at Pianosa. An interesting aspect of the story is observing the increasing number of missions required from both the enforcers and the victims. The thought processes of Colonel Catchcart as he perpetuates Yossarian's continuous struggle are made evident by his self-reassuring conversations with Colonel Korn. 

In summary, Catch-22 really holds all the cards. Although the circular conversations and nonsensical behaviors may deceive you, this book will be a profound read. Most likely, you will see characteristics of those around you in the characters of this story, but hopefully they are less exaggerated in your own life. In conclusion, if Catch-22 doesn't appeal to you, I think you would be crazy enough to be sent home from Pianosa without flying your 80 missions.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Castle of Otranto

This reviewer would first like to apologize for her woefully tardy first literary analysis. Seeing as she is in fact the sixth and only female member of an organization with the tagline “Five guys. One book club,” it would seem that she is already barely holding on to her position as a contributor to this blog. After receiving texts, late night phone calls, internet threats, and a rat carcass in the mail from as certain impatient Mr. Darcy, she has decided to finally get her act together, buckle down, and write something.

This review concerns a short novel called The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole. You most likely have not heard of this great novel, or the ingenious man who was its creator. That is because this book kind of blows. Hailed as the first truly “Gothic” novel, it started a genre of literature that depended on ghosts and bad suspense to carry on a plotline. When Walpole first had his short novel published, he claimed that it was actually a recently uncovered Italian manuscript from the early 1500’s. After his novel was shockingly well-received by the public, however, he decided that he might as well go ahead and actually take credit for it, revealing that it was really written in the mid-18th century, and that there was in fact no excuse for the novel's bad writing and convoluted plot.

One thing The Castle of Otranto cannot be denied the is its incredibly fast-paced albeit ridiculous story line. Within the first few pages, Conrad, the son of Prince Manfred of the Castle of Otranto, is literally squished to death when a huge metal helmet falls on him from the sky. I kid you not. Not only is he killed in this ridiculously hilarious manner, but the day he is smushed by a helmet also happens to be both his wedding day and birthday.

So Conrad’s dead. Naturally his father, like any good Dad suffering through an emotional mourning period, decides that since his son is dead, it’s time to make a move on the girl Conrad was supposed to marry. Shockingly enough, Isabella, the girl in question, is slightly opposed to the idea of marrying the father of her dead almost-husband, and ends up running away from him through the castle, and hiding out in the gloomy basement. Meanwhile, Prince Manfred scurries around the castle in a blind rage, and sends his guards to find her. While all of this is happening, Hippolita, Manfred’s current wife, is busy crying her eyes out for her lost son, and the servants are scampering around shrieking about seeing giant body parts, people moving in their portraits, and grisly ghosts.

Although The Castle of Otranto definitely doesn’t qualify as a great or even classic novel, there is something to be said for the fact that it’s the first of a totally new genre, which gives it some scrap of importance in its own right. If you’re looking for a convoluted story, pedophilia, ghosts, and damsels in distress, then this could just be the book for you. If not..steer clear.

Tobacco Road

Erskine Caldwell, 184 pp.

Well first, I'm going to apologize for not posting about this book sooner. Had nothing to do with that I was busy or that sort, but It was because I could not think of what I wanted to say about the book. Coming out in 1995, I bought the book in 2004 and let it sit in my bookcase until just a few weeks ago. Picked it up, read it (very quick and easy read) and then I put it back. Nothing had changed, nothing was impacted, nothing was affected.

Well that remained the case until I let it soak in a few days, then got the itch to reread it. This time I started to pick up on themes and imagery I previously fell blind to and I also felt a tie to the main character, Jeeter. I then decided to reread certain passages one last time and now I think this is one of the best stories told. Dealing with only a short period in an area struck hard by the Depression in Central Georgia, the family described goes through drastic changes that to my eyes and most likely every reader's eyes, seem very story-esqe and fiction, but with hints of reality. Yes, that's a mouthful and probably in virtually non understandable except to me, so I will explain myself.

The events in the story seem like actions that are not characteristic of humans. In one particular scene, the family, instead of helping a family member that was just hit by a car, leave them in the road to rot. To me, it made me sick to my stomach but it get the dog eat dog world that was around during the depression. That theme of survival at all cost is apparent in the whole story and makes you really think about it after the book slaps you in the face with it multiple times. While the description of the scene where the family member (NO HINTS SORRY) was hit by the car was disturbing, the imagery in the rest of the story was fantastic. The description of the landscape, tobacco road near their home, the hovel they lived in, and the whole world they lived in was sad and yet amazingly descriptive to the point you could almost remember being there at one point in your life.

I know for once i have a lot to say about this book, but to me it hit right at home. While none of my family were similar in anyway to the personalities of the characters in the story, my family did have to live in a poor shack during the depression as sharecroppers. Some of the scenery described in the book reminds me of looking over family picture albums sitting in my living room as a child. Other than that I can't really say if the book was great or not. I defiantly enjoyed the book, but many people would probably not. I recommend it, and FYI: I got it used for only 4 dollars, so definitely cheap.

***If you do end up reading this, another book that I would recommend to go with it is "All Over But the Shoutin'" by Rick Bragg. Both are in the same time era and describe the lives during that time.***

-Maj. MajorMajorMajor

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines, 282 pp.

“God, what does a person do who knows there is only one more hour to live?”

Grant Wiggins, a black-school teacher in the 1940’s South, ponders this question while considering the fate of his young friend in A Lesson Before Dying. Mr. Wiggins has done more than wonder about this young man, Jefferson, from afar; in fact Mr. Wiggins has frequently visited Jefferson over the past several months in an effort to improve a seemingly unsalvageable situation.

The time Mr. Wiggins invests, however, cannot change the reality that his friend faces: Jefferson, in the opening chapter of the book, was condemned to death by electrocution after an unfair trial for a crime he was an innocent bystander to. In two senses then Jefferson was in the wrong place at the wrong time: He was at the scene of an armed liquor store robbery, but more damningly, he was a black man on trial in a racist town during 1940’s America.

Such is background for Ernest J. Gaines emotionally compelling story that explores the many psychological hurdles Jefferson, his family and his mentor Mr. Wiggins grapple with following the sentencing. Although the most egregious part of the trial was the decision made by an all white-jury to recommend the death penalty, other shocking problems for Jefferson similarly find their origin at that “sick joke” of a trial. Most notably scarring was the argument made by Jefferson’s defense attorney, who was evidently attempting to convey to the jury in a rather undank manner that it would be inhumane to put Jefferson to death. The attorney asks the jury,

“Do you see a man sitting here? …Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand—look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence? ….Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”

Thus, although fiction, one of the more apparent themes in A Lesson Before Dying is that it confronts the reader with the reality of racism. In 2008, a year honoring the 40th year since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., it is possible to both commend and be comfortable with the progress of race relations in the United States. The unfair trial Jefferson received in the novel would never occur today and such a fact indicates progress.

Racism and racial prejudices still are clearly issues in 21st century America however, and unfortunately in much more detrimental ways than assuming that our Asian friends can help us with our math homework. Sentencing statistics between different races presently are dissimilar to a statistically significant degree, as seen for instance when comparing the same crime committed by a first-time black offender to that crime committed by a first-time white offender.

Moreover, it is difficult to go a week on a college campus without hearing a racially derogatory remark made in a malicious rather than the more acceptable “humorous” manner. In a currently relevant example, the way in which Americans vote in the upcoming presidential elections may well highlight various preexisting racial prejudices among particularly the nation’s white and black racial demographics. Gaines’ defining novel then was thus a particularly appropriate read for me as a college student, as it helped me consider the implications of being part of a generation with both the opportunities and responsibilities that accompany living during a time with the best race relations in our 230 year history.

Lastly! And this was quite easily what was the most influential aspect of A Lesson Before Dying for your boy Prometheus. In my humble opinion (imho) it was the humanity that Gaines conveyed to the character of Jefferson as he awaited his death sentence. Although Jefferson is unrealistic in the sense that never in our judicial history have we intentionally condemned an innocent man to death, the fact that criminals face the same “waiting game” Jefferson did was eye-opening.

Despite his clout stemming from his prominence in the literary world, Gaines is known to be an impressively unassuming man. (If you think that’s an oxymoron, ya done.) Rather than using his fame as a platform to express his political views in press conferences and the like, Gaines resists the standard of egotistical Hollywood Liberals and remains characteristically humble. Case and point: In a literature forum, when asked whether he was against the death penalty, Gaines stood up, respectfully replied “yes,” and then sat back down. Pwned.

Gaines, in addition to having a last name that ends in an s (which makes it impossible to use his name in the possessive because I don't have a clue how to use apostrophes for names like that) uses his fiction to convey his ideas. The entirety of Chapter 29 for instance is Jefferson’s journal while incarcerated. For those who cry during Bambi, this chapter would certainly be classified as a tear jerker.*

This journal, all flippancy aside, truly exemplifies Gaines’ capability of being an emotionally gripping writer. At the end of the journal, Jefferson writes of the horror in the early morning of his execution day. The sleepless Jefferson notes as the sun begins to rise, “its quite quite an I can yer my teefs hittin. I can yer my hart.”

In conclusion, I would recommend reading A Lesson Before Dying if you are looking for something a little more serious than this review has been. It’s not an overly philosophical book; it concretely relates to “real life stuff.” It’s not exclusively about Jefferson and Mr. Wiggins; there are some other characters in there I figured I’d let surprise you. It’s not just about the Lesson; there are some subplots like a romance and a bar fight etc. (where some dude gets gged, no re’ed.) You evidently already have a good taste in what you read as is seen by the fact you’re reading our blog. Thus, as the virtuoso Gwen Stefani inquires of us all, “What are you waiting for chief?”

*The reviewer of this book in fact has not yet cried during Bambi.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

World Without End

Ken Follet, 1014 pp.

World Without End was one of (if not the most) anticipated novels of 2007. It is a sequel to Ken Follett's extremely popular novel, The Pillars of the Earth, debuting in 1989. After greedily flipping through all 1014 pages, I can truly say that this masterpiece was worth the wait. The suspenseful plot of this book revolves primarily around the lives of four characters, first united as children. The children are first adjoined when they witness the pursuit of a knight in the forest, which subsequently results in a bloody altercation and the disclosure of the location of a secret letter to one of the children. From there, the plot takes off as all four of the characters pursue different walks of life in Ken Follett's epic portrayal of 14th century England.

Although all aspects of the novel were superb, the paramount strength is Follett's characterization. Naturally, a reader would expect to know the characters very well in such a lengthy novel, but Follett takes it a step further. By the midpoint of the novel you have such an intimate connection with the characters that you find yourself feeling as though you can foretell their responses and sentiments towards the plot unravelling around them. This intense characterization will also grip your emotions as the characters you love endure hardship and triumph. The bond resulting from Follet's extremely in-depth characterization is what makes a thousand-page novel revolving around a fictional town with a cathedral in it so absorbing that you will surely lose sleep.

One draw of World Without End, relative to its predecessor, is that it incorporates a historical and medical phenomenon; the black plague. The inclusion of the plague appealed to me as a pre-medical student, and I suspect would also attract readers who enjoy the historical fiction genre. An important struggle in the treatment of the disease is the practical application of medicine vs. the scholarly aspect of medicine which focuses on humors and bleeding the patients. Additionally, the reader is exposed to the feudal system, and all the exploitive abilities of those near the top of the hierarchy. Another feature of the novel is the intense romantic scenes that Follett depicts. He has a way of expressing intimacy that would be graphic if it were not so utterly elegant. Through his inclusion of intimate scenes, he paints a full picture of loving encounters in addition to sexual exploitation and the status quo of gender roles.  The bottom line is that the setting alone is reason enough to indulge in World Without End.

Coming from a science fiction background did not hinder my enjoyment of this novel in any respect. Science fiction is most enjoyable to me because it takes you to a different and fascinating place. In that respect, I draw many similarities between a well developed piece of historical fiction such as World Without End and a depictive work of science fiction. The commonality is the manner in which they both take the reader to a place with unique regulating factors and let a story unfold. Although the novel is principally set in a town with politics revolving around a cathedral, the rivalry for power, political manipulation, scandal, and treachery will satiate your inner savage.

As far as I'm concerned, World Without End is a must read. Enjoying this novel is not contingent on having read The Pillars of the Earth, but when you have finished, I guarantee you will want to. Do not let the 1014 pages daunt you, there is absolutely nothing mundane about this work. Whether you waited 18 years for it or not, you will not want World Without End to end.


Monday, September 8, 2008


Gunter Grass, 234 pp.


This one word best describes the atrocity that was passed off as a book. Okay wait, lets bring it back a second and let me clarify.

Crabwalk was written by 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Gunter Grass in 2002. The book itself is not bad at all, in fact the story line is fantastic. The story starts out with a journalist, just know to us as the Narrator, and his understanding of his coming of being through a website he found on the Internet. As we soon find out he was born just after a terrific crash of the "Strength Through Joy", a German classless cruise liner created and named after Wilhelm Gustloff. As he learns more of the crash and his past from the fanatic website he soon realizes that the site is run by his estranged son.

The story deals with many issues such as Neo-Nazism and the importance of martyrs to ideals. On whole, if I was able to read German there would be little to criticize on the story. Yes, I said read German. This story had to be translated into English for reading here in the States.

For a Nobel Prize winner, you would expect to have an excellent translator to transpose your writing style. Instead he must have gotten the cheapest translator out there to completely obliterate his work. The writing style has been turned to a dry, non-flowing style that is almost incomprehensible. Also there were instances where there were in three lines five different timeline changes, without any way of knowing the timeline was moved under your feet except you becoming quickly lost in a matter of a paragraph. Constant rereading is all you can do.

If you speak German, you are lucky as hell to be able to fully enjoy this story. Reading German media reviews online show that the non translated version was a fantastic hit epically displaying the characters and the story in the way a Nobel Prize winner would be expected to. If the only German you know is "Volkswagen" (or if you did not even know that Volkswagen is German) then either learn German or do not waste your time.

And Gunter, if you ever read this: Fire whoever translated it. I will pay for a new one.

-Maj. MajorMajorMajor

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The White Man's Burden

William Easterly, 436 pp.

I should begin by mentioning that I did not read The White Man’s Burden all at once. At one low point in my life (last summer), I thought the extra inch it added to my embarrassingly thin bookshelf was more valuable than any benefit I might have gotten from continuing to read. For this reason, my memory of the first portion of the book is not great. I’ll talk about it anyway.

In The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly offers a scathing critique of Western attempts at international aid. The subtitle alone—Why the West’s Effort to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good—gives pause to most of us, who read regularly about international summits and conventions on international aid and poverty. Easterly does not hesitate to cast aspersions on a number of major players in the international aid community, including Bono, George W. Bush, and, most notably, his NYU colleague Jeffrey Sachs. Despite at times being long-winded, Easterly presents a fearless analysis of the foreign aid system in the West.

Early in the book, Easterly introduces the notion of Planners and Searchers. A Planner is a person who seeks to implement aid from the top down. Due to limited accountability, the Planners’ goals are often vague utopian ideals. A Searcher, on the other hand, is one who searches for bottom-up and generally market-based reforms for which there is consumer feedback. The Searchers’ goals are more modest and thus more attainable. This distinction feels natural, particularly considering the sheer number of aid (and AIDS) concerts and international summits since the turn of the century. His points are good, but Easterly tends to be long-winded, hammering home the same points for pages. Despite this shortcoming that led to my yearlong break, the first section of the book is valuable, as it lays the groundwork for Easterly’s arguments throughout the remainder of the book.

I decided to give Easterly a second chance while in a post-Joose induced stupor one morning this summer. My frail mind, not in a state to bear any heavy literary loads, would not have been able to take anything less than a thrilling read. And a thrilling read it was. Easterly illustrates the failings of utopian schemes and Western intervention through both anecdotal and statistical evidence. His breadth of knowledge is impressive and his attacks are pointed. Despite all of his cautionary tales about the IMF and World Bank, Easterly is an Economist at heart. He ends one paragraph halfway through the book with the question, “But is [$1200] too high to justify giving a person another year of life?” Such questions are uncomfortable and difficult to answer, but that doesn’t stop Easterly from making a well-founded point. He goes on to describe children with “intestinal worms, which spill out from [their] noses” whose parents ”in desperation [to save their children] pour kerosene down the children’s throats.” These children aren’t getting the extremely inexpensive treatment that would save them because AIDS is in vogue in the aid community. The cost-benefit analysis is not so cold and lifeless in Easterly’s hands. At many points throughout the book, skepticism about aid comes across in a more humorous light. Easterly sums up the silver lining of the American intervention in Ethiopia against Somalia in the following Onion-like passage:

“Live Aid concert to help Ethiopia in 1985 gave valuable experience to Live 8 musicians to help Africa twenty years later.”

The examples of how the West has failed, and in many cases, flat out wronged “the Rest” are abundant, and serve to bolster the case against top-down reform in the new age of Imperialism.

I recently spoke with the father of one of my co-authors-to-be about William Easterly and The White Man’s Burden. He said that many of Easterly’s points are good, but that he is too extreme in his criticism of Economics. As I see it, however, this book is a testimonial to the value of economic theory and analysis, not a condemnation of it. The fundamental criticism that Easterly offers is that humanitarian aid is not true to economic principles. Rather, aid comes from a paternalistic and myopic West that refuses feedback and does not embrace the market. And herein lies the fundamental irony. We live in a society that bends over backwards to promote democracy and capitalism, all while we are investing billions and billions of dollars in a system that is the foreign aid equivalent to the Soviet Union—Lenin style.

An online review of The White Man’s Burden suggests that Easterly is not constructive in his criticism of the aid community. The last section of the book, however, addresses this issue directly. Easterly acknowledges that nobody, not even he, has one simple answer, because it does not exist. He goes on to offer a number of examples of reforms to the aid system that have succeeded. My personal favorite is a website designed by a husband and wife in DC. They have created a market-based system—much like eBay—for international aid. I won’t attempt to do justice to what they have accomplished here, but you can see it for yourself at

In summary, I would highly recommend this book to pretty much anybody. Bear with the first hundred pages—at times it’s slow, but it’s a price well worth paying. I learned a great deal, and my perspective on the IMF, international aid and U2 has been greatly altered (although I never held U2 in particularly high regard in the first place).

-F. Darcy

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

When Science Goes Wrong

Simon LeVay, 272 pp.

I guess it's time to get the party started... (cept some DICK took the first post!)

To start off, I just recently finished reading a nonfiction account of mishaps in many different fields of science called When Science Goes Wrong, by Simon LeVay. Initially my impressions were slightly off base. With the first reading of the title, in my mind I imagined similar TV title spoofs such as, "When Animals Attacks", or "When Buildings Collapse" and other such montages with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture resounding in my skull. To my suprise, I was entertained with the 12 featured stories as well as I would have been if I watched any of the TV montages.

These stories take place in a variety of scientific feilds, such as Microbiology, Geology, Meteorology, and Nuerosciences. Each story has some distiguished or talented individual that in performing seemingly routine tasks and studies for their profession encounter a slight hiccup and pay for it dearly. The great thing about this book is not only does it tell the story of people dieing in Volcano Eruptions, or from a leak at a nuclear plant, but it also shows the scientific side to each story, showing the exact thought process to get to the climax, while not confusing you with scientific jaron.

Basically, it all comes down to this. If you like a book that will rip your attention and stimulate your mind, then this book would be perfect for you. If you are looking for non fiction short stories that have a slight gruesome side, you could do better, but this book will still satisfy. If you are looking for technical detail describing the mishaps of each story or lookin for fiction, you best find another book.

-Maj. MajorMajorMajor