Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

July 23, 2009 1001 Books, Reading Nook, Review 44

Catch-22Title: Catch-22
Author: Joseph Heller
Published: 1961 Pages: 463
Genre: Literature
Rating: 4.5/5

When I finished City of Thieves, I thought it would be fun for Scott to pick out my next book for me. YES this made me incredibly nervous, especially since I was afraid he’d pick a long book just to spite me. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised that he picked Catch-22, and despite every excuse I could think up to read it, I buckled down and had my go. It wasn’t an easy go, and I really don’t know how to write about this book, so I’m going to use the same type of format as I did for my Middlemarch review. It’ll be a long post, but the headers will hopefully help you skim. :)

Summary
Can we just skip this part? Please?? Fine. Catch-22 is about a group of pilots stationed in Italy during World War II. At the beginning of the novel, the men are close to flying all of their assigned missions, but the colonels keep raising the number of missions they must fly until it seems they will never be able to come back home alive. Much of the book is about the main character, Yossarian, and his struggle to cope with the constantly rising number of missions he must fly.

There is a wide cast of colorful characters (more on that later), and while the book is very much about the war, there isn’t actually a whole lot about the war in the story. Instead Catch-22 is about the soldiers’ experiences and thoughts, their day to day routines, the games they play (mental games), and when words begin to fail me–just plain shenanigans. The book is almost more a collection of anecdotes than a straightforward story with a simple plot. I suppose the best way to describe Catch-22 is to provide Heller’s own definition:

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which 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. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. ‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed” (47).

What I liked
This book is a perfect example of why I love reading so much–it challenged me, made me think, made me cry, made me laugh, made me grab my pencil to underline passages, makes me want to start re-reading it again right now. I’ll be very honest–I didn’t get everything in this book and it would take at least another reading for me to fully appreciate it. But while the book was a bit of work, it didn’t feel like work. The writing is surprisingly easy to digest, even though the logic is often circular as seen in the quote above, and sometimes felt like listening to a child who keeps asking “why” to every retort (or in other words, a little obnoxious).

But just when I would get the hang of the sarcasm and senselessness of the story, Heller would throw in a beautiful passage that would just make my heart want to break. A perfect example of this is in the last quarter of the book when Yossarian is roaming the streets of Rome after a pilot had been killed in flight–Chapter 39, The Eternal City. The writing in this chapter is incredibly absorbing and emotional and just plain superb. But then at the end of the chapter, one of the soldiers kills a woman and just when Yossarian thinks the police are coming to arrest the other man, they arrest him for being in Rome without a pass and you want to scream, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” Really, though, I can’t adequately explain why I love this book. I feel like I use the word “rich” a lot in my reviews, but when the shoe fits…

What I struggled with
For the entire first quarter of the book I had no idea what was going on. The story obviously wasn’t linear but I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. Each chapter focuses on a certain character, but I couldn’t keep them straight, couldn’t figure out the timeline of events, didn’t know if the book was supposed to be funny or just absurd. Going into the book I knew it was a war book, but I kind of thought it was set during Vietnam (impossible given the publication date), but I don’t remember any explanation of where the characters were or what they were doing. While by the end of the book I still didn’t have a strong grasp on the timeline or just exactly what had happened when and to who, I decided it wasn’t the point of the book for me to know and understand all of this. Afterall, war doesn’t make sense. The logic isn’t always perfect and more times than not it’s faulty or subjective. And to me, the way this book is written shows that very well.

The Characters
Oh my gosh. Too many characters. Like I said, each chapter focuses on a different character, and while I got to know some of them, the rest kind of blurred together for me. Milo is one of my favorites–he is the mess officer and sets up different trade routes all throughout Europe and at times has a direct affect on the market as well as certain battles during the war. The Chaplain was another of my favorites, and I think Heller used his character well to show the internal struggles of the war and also how one deals with the insensitivity all around him. Major Major Major just makes me laugh. And then Colonel Korn and Colonel Scheisskopf. And then of course the heart and soul of the story, Yossarian. I want to tell you more, I want to tell you all of the stories, but the delight in this book is experiencing it all for yourself.

Miscellaneous
I guess I don’t have much to add here. This review is long enough. But let me throw out a question. Were you assigned to read this? For what class and why do you think this was assigned reading? This is the type of book that I would have loved to read for class and be able to dissect all the little parts. It’s the type of book that we could come up with several different answers to the question of what this book is about.

In the end?
So glad I didn’t let myself talk myself out of reading this one. It’s been sitting on the shelf for years and probably would have stayed there for years longer if Scott hadn’t picked it out. I was just saying a few months ago how I didn’t have a strong desire to read this book. I know several people who have given up on it halfway through, and I can understand why. But in the end, I was incredibly satisfied. No, I didn’t get it all, which is why the demoted rating, but sometimes we don’t need to get it all. Please don’t let my “I didn’t get it” statements intimidate you and discourage you from reading this book. It is highly readable, but I think it takes a little bit of patience not to shoo away that pestering child when there isn’t always an answer for the question “why.”

Officially my longest review. Does that alone tell you how I felt? :)

**For a balance of opinions (let me know if I missed yours):
Bibliofreak (JT Oldfield)
Books ‘N Border Collies (Lezlie)
The Hidden Side of the Leaf (Dewey)
It’s All About Me (Joanna)

44 Responses to “Catch-22 – Joseph Heller”

  1. Melody

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book, Trish!

    I’m not sure if this is the book for me but you’ve definitely made me want to pick up this book and read it!

  2. Krystal A.

    Hey, Trish. So glad you shared what you struggled with while reading this one. So many times I find myself completely lost and confused by a book, so I give up. I’ll remember you when that happens and keep trudging along.

  3. Amanda

    I LOVE this book. I’ve read it 4 or 5 times since I first read it for my sophomore english class in college. I think having it for a class helped, because he was able to point out some of the finer thing. for example, not Vietnam, but WWII. The timeline is actually meant to be non-linear in the most literal sense possible – people have mapped it – Milo is actually going backwards in time while everyone goes forward, so that the chocolate-covered cotton happens when the soldiers are relatively young in the field. Etc. I don’t think I really got this book the first time, either, but there were things that stuck with me (“you’ve got flies in your eyes” and the whole crab-apples in your cheeks things, for example) that made me want to read it again. I love how Heller is able to take a horrible situation and bring it from funny to tragic in a moment, like when McWatt Oh-well-what-the-hell flies right into the mountain. I could say so much about this. I love it to pieces. Jason made me a winter pajama shirt that says “You’ve got flies in your eyes,” and my kids yell it at each other when they want to be insulting. Okay, my family is really nerdy, aren’t we? Anyway, so glad you enjoyed it! It’s a gem. It’s even better the 2nd, 3rd, 4th time around.

  4. Vivienne

    I have avoided reading this book as much as you have over the years. Hubby read it and tried to get me to read it, so did my brother and yet still I haven’t. I am unsure of what my reasons are for reading it, but after reading your review, I may have to give in and read it.

  5. Veens

    I have this one sitting on my shelves for some monts now! I wanted to read it..but something [ fear of not liking it] kept me from it. But for reasons you mention… I really want to get to this one!

    Long back I read your review of Silas Mariner.. and went and bought it too! I don’t know I never read it as well! I really nee dto get to that as well!

    I was NEVER assigned this one to read for any of the classes!

  6. christina

    Hey Trish -

    I was not as dedicated as you were! I tried reading this book (a couple of times) but could never get into it. I had no idea what was going on, couldn’t keep up, and kept asking myself, “Why does everyone think this book is so great?!”

    It has since been moved off of my bookshelves, perhaps donated to a used bookstore somewhere?

  7. Nicole (Linus's Blanket)

    I’m glad you persevered and that you enjoyed this one. I have to admit that I think it is one of my east favorite books. It’s the first that I think of when people ask about books I didn’t like. It was way too repetitive for me and I just felt like it belabored the point, which I did get.

  8. Jenny

    This is a great review! I had to read it in jr. high and I don’t remember it at all… I don’t think my understanding/maturity was anywhere near the level it needed to be to appreciate this book in jr. high!

  9. Lezlie

    Trish ~ It sounds like our experiences were similar with this one. I loved it, too, despite being very confused in the beginning. And I also really want to read it again. Thanks for th link! I’ve linked to you also.

    Lezlie

  10. Trish

    *Melody – I think this is the type of book that’s difficult to recommend to other people. You’ll either like it or not, but it’s definitely worth a shot!

    *Krystal – I know it probably seems weird to a lot of people, but the struggle is part of the experience for me. I don’t mind mindless reading now and then, but I love to be challenged (even though it IS a struggle). How are you doing by the way?

    *Amanda – A lot of the things you reference–the crab apples and the flies on the eyes happened earlier in the book when I still didn’t know what was going on. It would be interesting to read about those things about now that I have a better grasp. And yes, I think this one would be better with each read.

    *Scrap girl – Well, I didn’t have a big desire to read it either, and I thought up every excuse I could not to read it. :) But I knew hubby would give me a really hard time if I didn’t finish the one he picked for me (He didn’t even know what it was about! Chose it on the title alone).

    *Veens – I’d be interested in hearing what you thought of this one. I’m not sure if you’d like it or not? Silas Marner is a pretty short book and easier to read than Eliot’s other novels, so give that one a try!

    *Christina – When my friend found out I was reading this book she kept telling me how much she disliked it. :) I don’t think it’s one for everyone and I can see how you put it down for good. I was very unsure the entire first 100 pages!

    *Jenny – Man, if I read this in high school I probably would have hated it! I think I hated almost everything that I had to read for assigned reading. :) You should try it again.

    *Lezlie – when I first started the book I kept giving people the “ehhhh” when they asked how I was liking it. I had no idea what I was getting myself into! Do you have plans for re-reading it anytime soon?

  11. Trish

    *Nicole – Sorry I missed you… I can definitely see how this one could have easily gone the other way for me. I think if the entire book had been sarcastic then I wouldn’t have liked it as much, but there were little snippets that were just so well written. But I agree that much of it was really belabored.

  12. Paxton

    Mmmm-hmmmmm. So, your review is EXACTLY how I imagined I would feel while reading it. And after. I’m still not sure it’s for me, but I will read it, mainly because it was one of my Uncle’s favorites and I want to do it in his memory.

    Next question, are you going to read the sequel, Closing Time? You want to talk about controversial? Reviews on that book are all over the map.

  13. regularrumination

    Trish,

    Your review is pretty much spot on to how I felt when I read the book. All the things that drove me crazy I just thought of as intentional by the author, to highlight the absurdity of it all.

  14. Thoughts of Joy

    WOO! I’m so glad to see a 4.5/5! I picked this one up last year (or the year before), but some other book grabbed my attention more and I never went back to it. I don’t have time to read this one now, so I’m going to try to find the audio.

    I didn’t read your whole review (skimmed), but I am so thankful that you mentioned the first quarter of the book being confusing. That’s definitely enough to set it down, but I will persevere when I get to it. :)

  15. Melissa

    I’ve never read this book, but after reading your review I think I’m going to add it to my wish list. I need to read a book that gives me more of a challenge, I’ve been focusing on YA so much lately, along with other easy reads, that I think I’ve forgotten what it’s like to read a heavier/more difficult book.

  16. Alison

    Oh, Catch-22. This is also one of my favorite novels, though I read it long enough ago that I don’t remember much of the specifics. I tried to explain to my Scott about Major Major and I think I just made him confused. :)

    Speaking of confused… this was also a very hard book to read for me. I first picked it up sometime in high school, got about halfway through, and gave up on it. A year later I tried again and didn’t make it that far. But on the third time (maybe there is something to that old saw) I managed the whole thing and wondered why I hadn’t read it earlier! And now that I’ve got a fancy English degree, I’d probably like it (or at least understand it) even better.

  17. Care

    I read this a long time ago and liked it. Once I started blogging and saw how many bloggers DON’t like it at all fascinates me – I think I will take Amanda’s advice and read it again. I think I read Lord of the Flies about the same time. I was never assigned either of these to read in school.

  18. cj

    Wow, what a great review, Trish. My memories of this one are vague because I read it way back in HS (over 30 years ago) but I can remember feeling a lot like you did. Maybe I need to read it again.

    cjh

  19. Trish

    *Paxton – Without knowing just what kind of books you like, I’m not sure how you’ll like this one. It is a little tough, but worth it for me. I just picked up another Heller book used the other day. Not sure if it’s Closing Time or not–will have to check!

    *Regularrumination – Yup, I think all the word games and the ridiculous events in the book do show how absurd it was. It’s interesting because I would have expected this type of fiction to come from Vietnam rather than WWII!

    *Joy – This would be a really interesting one to listen to! Um, or annoying. :) Give it a try and let me know how it goes for you. A lot of the book is play on words or such stuff, so I wonder how taking this one in verbally would impact or highten the reading!

    *Melissa – This one will definitely make you think a little bit, but it’s also a lot of fun in a while. I laughed out loud several times. I hope you like it!

    *Alison – Major Major Major cracks me up. I was talking to hubby about it last night and he said that during Desert Storm there was a reporter whose first name was Major. Every time he got on the air he explained that Major was his first name, not his rank. But definitely try this one again!

    *Carol – I don’t think this book is for everyone, but it’s worth a try! I definitely didn’t feel like picking it up at the time either.

    *Care – I’m actually surprised at how little I’ve seen on the blogosphere about this one. Books like these make a lot of lists and such, but I wonder if that’s all that happens to them. Stay on a list instead of get read? Lord of the Flies is a good one, too! Although I didn’t read it when I was assigned to in school. :)

    *CJ – I would be really interested in hearing your perspective on this one! I think I’m going to pass it on to my dad and he read it while he was in high school as well. I would think that a reading with 30 years between would be very different!

  20. J.T. Oldfield

    Wikipedia has a whole entry on all of the characters, which I found helpful when writing my review.

    I think that the not knowing much about the war helped to really focus on the soldier’s experiences, and the idiocy of war. While there wasn’t an overt “we don’t even know why we are fighting” element, leaving out the big shifts in war (strategy/politics/etc) makes it more timeless, and completely in a grey area (no black vs white, good vs evil, which is all too common in books about WWII, arguably with good reason).

    Good review–I didn’t mind the length at all!

  21. Steph

    I haven’t read this one in ages (I first read it when I was in highschool), but I did buy myself a copy last year with the intention of re-reading it. I remember really enjoying it back in the day, finding it baffling but funny, and based on your review, I think it will be a rewarding re-read for me. I’m really glad you liked it. This is one of those books that I know some people really don’t like, but I have to be honest and say that I can’t understand why!

  22. Nymeth

    Just plain shenanigans sounds good to me :P

    Seriously now, I have been meaning to read this for so long that I had sort of forgotten why. Thank you for reminding me. Also, I will keep what you said about it being confusing at first in mind and persevere!

  23. Jeane

    I couldn’t read it. I tried, and it was so confusing, I don’t think I made it through ten pages. But I feel like I ought to try again…

  24. samantha.1020

    Sadly, I cannot remember if I’ve read this one or not. I do plan on reading it (or again) and your review made me want to do that sooner rather than later. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  25. Terri B.

    I absolutely LOVED this book and I read it also because my husband rather insisted that I would LOVE this book! Like you, I’m glad I did. You did a great job reviewing this insane book :o)

  26. Kim L

    Great review! I have not read this book, but my dad always talks about it, and of course the title has become such a part of popular culture, I feel like I should read it to feel educated.

    From the plot, it sounds like it might be similar to Slaughterhouse Five, which was one of my favorite reads ever. Thanks for the rec!

  27. Bookfool

    I feel a little relieved that you were lost during the first quarter of the book. I’ve never made it past about page 50. In fact, I tried at least 3 times and finally gave up. I got rid of my copy.

  28. Laura

    It sounds like I should have definitely pushed through those first 100 pages and kept going! I’m glad you liked this one so much! Now I regret selling my copy. Since it is the only book that I have started and never finished, I think it will probably bother me until I read the whole thing. We should have read it at the same time so you could have helped me understand what was going on a little better.

  29. Debi

    Oh Trish, what an incredible review! You’ve made me think that I need to give this another go. I didn’t dislike it at all, as I recall…but I think I was just to lazy to keep at it. This one was never assigned reading for me, but I kinda wish it had been.

  30. Joanne ♦ The Book Zombie

    Terrific review! This is one of those books that are on my shelf but I’m avoiding because I’m intimidated by it. I want to read it, and I know I should try but I just need the right time ya’know?
    Thanks for sharing all your thoughts, it’s helped to push me closer to eventually reading Catch-22 myself :)

  31. Trish

    *JT Oldfield – I really like what you say about leaving out the war makes this book more timeless. And I absolutely agree–this book is more about the experiences of the soldiers and what they’re going through and in many ways that’s timeless.

    *Steph – Oh I hope you get a chance to re-read this one soon! I can understand why some might not like this book, but there is so much to like when you think about it.

    *Nymeth – You’ve got to read this book! I’ve heard it compared to Slaughterhouse Five and I remember you saying you liked that one? Anyway, I do think you’ll like this one. too.

    *Jeane – It definitely took me more than 10 pages to get into the rhythm of the book. I was pretty much confused for the first 100! :) Not very encouraging, huh?

    *Samantha – I look forward to hearing what you think of this one! Do you think you might have read it for assigned reading in school?

    *Terri – Well, Scott hadn’t read the book and didn’t know very much about it when he picked it out for me. Just liked the title. :) But yes, this is such a great book–I think it’s one of those that the more I think about it the more I like it.

    *Kim – I had no idea that phrase Catch-22 actually came from this book–I think that’s so cool! I’ve heard others compare it to Slaughterhouse Five. I still need to read that one.

    *Bookfool – Oh no! Well, I can completely understand your frustration and getting rid of the book. I was bound and determined to finish mostly because if I didn’t I would never hear the end of it from Scott.

    *Laura – The tone stays the same throughout the book, but I think it got easier for me because I stopped trying to understand the book as a whole and just read. This would have been a great one for the book club, but I think the others would have been frustrated as well.

    *Debi – I really wish I had read this as assigned reading for a class. This is one of those that has so much going on it’s hard to get it all on your own. It does take patience to read, though!

    *Joanne – I was really intimidated by this book as well–and my print was really small. :) It isn’t necessarily a difficult book, but it does take some patience! I hope you’ll get to it.

    *Bookdevourer – I can understand! There were several times when I wanted to throw the book across the room. I hope you’ll keep at it!

  32. joanna

    I’ve been wondering what you’d make of this book! :-)

    I liked it when I read it too, but struggled with the same things you struggled with. I couldn’t keep the characters straight either! And I thought it was it long, it could have done without the last 100pp or so. But it was a great read and it’s definitely a classic and here to stay! It definitely made me think about how futile and ridiculous war is, so it got its message across.

  33. Heather J.

    I never had to read this one for school but it IS on my list for the LOST (tv show) Books Challenge. I honestly had no idea what it was about until I read your review – all I knew was that to be in a Catch 22 was a bad thing. And I know that is has something to do the LOST of course.

    I’m definitely going to read it, but probably not until next year sometime.

  34. damnedconjuror

    I think this might be my second favourite book. I haven’t read it in a couple of years so it might have changed.

    I loved the sheer absurdity of it, you’re meant to be bewildered and confused, that’s the whole point. Heller is saying that war isn’t a neat, orderly bunch of matches against two sides but about people, sometimes foolish, sometimes crazy, with different agendas, different ideas and with events that border on the ridiculous and the absurd happening around them.

    While it’s extremely funny, it’s also one of the best and insightful novels about war; even though it’s about WWII it can be about any war.

    You’ve made me want to read it again.

  35. Trish

    *Joanna – I didn’t necessarily thing it was too long–and I actually LOVED the last quarter of the book. But it took too long to get into for me.

    *Michelle – LOL–I hope you can get to it. I guess it is intimidating, but not as much as I thought it was or made it out to be in this review.

    *Heather J – I had no idea the phrase Catch-22 actually comes from this book. If that doesn’t scream “this is a classic!” I don’t know what does. Never watched Lost. :P Hope you can get to it; I think you’ll like it.

    *Damnedconjuror – Well, that begs the question–what is your FIRST favorite book?? :) I don’t think this will fall in the top 10 list for me, but it’s definitely one that I’ll remember again and again. And yes, I think it speaks to the classic nature of this book that the insights can really be transfered to *any* war. It really is a fantastic book, huh?

  36. damnedconjuror

    Yep, that’s one of the reasons it’s endured for so long.

    My favourite? That would have to be Lanark by Alasdair Gray. I have a mental list of favourite books which changes all the time; books go up or down, new books come in but Lanark has stayed consistently at number 1 for a long time now.

  37. Amanda

    I was assigned to read this in H.S. and I didn’t. Well, I read a chapter or two and then stopped. I just didn’t get it. But I’ve been wanting to read this now because I think I’ll understand it more now.

  38. Trish

    *Damnedconjuror – Wow–I haven’t heard of Lanark OR Alasdair Gray but I’ll have to check it out.

    *Amanda – I can’t imagine reading this one in high school either–I definitely would have given up. Try it again!

    *Anna – This would be a great one for WWII–probably not one people would immediately think of but gives a great perspective.

  39. Dani

    I’m so glad you persevered. This is my favourite book ever. I buy copies for people all the time, but I’m sure not many of them have been read!

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