Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller

Book Review
Catch-22 (1961)
 by Joseph Heller

  In recent months I've grown troubled by the number of 1960's classics that I've omitted from the 1001 Books project simply because I'd already read them.  The absences are really noticeable beginning in the 1960's, and beginning, in fact, with Catch-22, published in 1961 and almost certainly the first "adult" book I read as a 12 or 13 year old.   The title as used in the book refers to the idea that an American bomber crew member can't be relieved from flying missions unless he's crazy, but that any bomber crew member who doesn't want to fly anymore missions is sane.  

   Since publication and ensuing popularity, Catch-22 has expanded to mean any situation which is formally described as a "double bind."  Although set during World War II, the publication date and popularity with college students very much meant that Catch-22 was often discussed in terms of the Vietnam War.  Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which was published one year later, Catch-22 helped to define the anti-state critique of the 1960's counter culture.

  Both Cuckoo's Nest (the insane asylum) and Catch-22 (army) developed a critique of large institutions as dehumanizing and irrational. Both featured hero-protagonist's whose heroism came from their own rational/irrational resistance to the inhumanity of the institutional forces arrayed against them.  Less can be said for Joseph Heller, who has essentially wound up as a one-hit wonder and second tier talent.

  Still though, you can't take Catch-22 away for him.  It's a perennial on "top 100" book lists of the century.    

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Humboldt's Gift (1975) by Saul Bellow

Image result for young saul bellow
Did Saul Bellow ever look young?
Book Review
Humboldt's Gift (1975)
 by Saul Bellow

    Humboldt's Gift is the last of Bellow's seven titles on the first 1001 Books list from 2006.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1976, and was a component of Bellow being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975.  It is fictionalized roman a clef about Bellow(Charles Citrine in the book) and his mentor, famous poet-intellectual Delmore Schwartz(Von Humboldt Fleischer.)  Although written in the first person with Citrine as narrator, Humboldt's Gift skips back and forward through time.  It covers, in no specific order, Citrine's present as a washed-up though wealthy writer and public intellectual, beset on all sides by difficulties financial and emotional, Citrine's past, including the development of his relationship with Von Humboldt Fleischer and the experiences of Fleischer, focusing mostly on his descent into madness and penury.

  It is an intoxicating mix.  No wonder it was received with such adulation, and coming at the end of a string of critically and financially successful novels.  Humboldt's Gift has mostly been analyzed as a commentary on the tug of war between art and commerce, but in my reading I thought he had alot of say about celebrity culture, nascent in 1975, but fully established today.   Citrine, in the book, is a wealthy intellectual who is surviving on past achievements.  His obsession with sexual gratification and status symbols mirrors the obsessions of the last half century of celebrity culture.

  Like the films of the Coen brothers,   also functions as an off-the-cuff history lesson about the intellectual culture of the United States between the Great Depression and the early 1970's.  Humboldt/Schwartz is a classic forgotten intellectual hero, and most of the novel dealing directly with his experience focuses on the impact of an artist who has outlived his usefulness to the larger culture. 

The Collector (1963) by John Fowles

Book Review
The Collector  (1963)
by John Fowles

  Only now am I facing up to the fact that I need to go back and read the books in the 1001 Books project which I previously skipped because I'd already read them.   Sure, it's an abstract question, whether I can complete the 1001 Books project without rereading previously read books.  Before the 1960's it was an insignificant group of books, mostly books I'd read as school assignments.  However, once the 1960's started, I was in very familiar grounds.  There are perhaps 15-20 titles in the 1960's section which I'd not only read before, but were actual important books in my development.

  The Collector is the first book I've reread as part of this project where I was actually disturbed that my adolescent self found said book "important."  The story of The Collector is the now familiar tale of a suddenly wealthy middle aged man (via winning the weekly English football pool) who decides to kidnap a young, female art student who he has long obsessed over.  The story then alternates between his perspective and hers, hers being revealed in the form of a journal written during her captivity.

  The fact that Fowles omits the grosser sexual elements of a May/December kidnapping does little to mitigate the creepiness of The Collector.   Bearing in mind that my adolescent self really enjoyed reading The Collector, I ended up with a lesser opinion of that adolescent me.   

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