To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. Here’s what I read in March:
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller: I hadn’t read this book in high school or college, so while filling a ThriftBooks binge I decided to give Catch-22 a go. I knew that it was a novel about World War II and that it’s often referenced alongside Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which I read one summer in high school and didn’t entirely understand.
Catch-22 is based on Heller’s actual experiences in the war, but it’s a satirical piece of fiction about an Air Force squadron based on an island off the Italian coast. The novel pulls different perspectives from different members of the squadron, but it’s focalized through one pilot named Yossarian. Yossarian and his fellow soldiers continually find themselves in incredibly dangerous missions that they are required to execute, and the number of missions they have to fly continues to rise and rise because of bureaucratic tension and power trips. Yossarian soon finds himself in what the military calls a Catch-22. (Now that I’ve read the book, I feel like the cultural usage of catch-22 means that most people who use the term either haven’t read the book or missed the point.)
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 would have 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. 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.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
As you can see by the passage above, this book also employs incredibly dark humor as a way of de-romanticizing war and dying for one’s country. At many moments, the dark humor intensifies the horror of men dying, men profiting from war, the body politics and emotional emptiness. In some ways it reminded me of the humor of Good Omens, and the premise and the soldiers’ collective experiences reminded me of this past season of the Serial podcast. While I’m glad I read Catch-22 and appreciated Heller’s choices in structure and language, reading it made me sad that someone could come up with a satire that doesn’t seem to be really all that far from the truth.
All The Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister: I found out about this book when I went to a live recording of Call Your Girlfriend, a podcast I listen to, and was so excited to read it I went home and immediately ordered it on Amazon. I devoured it in about four days over the course of my trip to Seattle. I’m so glad I bought a copy for myself, because it is a book I can feel myself returning to.
Throughout the book, Traister traces the history of the American single woman. In today’s culture, more and more women are waiting to get married or just not getting married at all. That has extensive social and political ramifications, and also says a lot about the social structures that make up our culture. However, this isn’t the first time that the American single woman has wielded this power. For the first part of the book, Traister explains how historically women could do other things besides marriage, and that resulted in incredible social change for abolition, education and more. This book is not screwing around — it has first-person accounts from women across all walks of life, extensive statistics and deeply reported historical background. One of my favorite parts was a quote at the end of the book:
But the growth of a massive population of women who are living outside those dependent circumstances puts new pressures on the government: to remake conditions in a way that will be more hospitable to female independence, to a citizenry now made up of plenty of women living economically, professionally, sexually, and socially liberated lives.
We have to rebuild not just our internalized assumptions about individual freedoms and life paths; we also must revise our social and economic structures to account for, acknowledge, and support women in the same way in which we have supported men for centuries.
I feel like I’ve finally found a book that has articulated and validated everything I feel about being a single woman in the United States, which is a powerful feeling. Traister has written a classic, and I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who is even remotely interested in social politics, history and feminism.
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante: All I have ever heard or read about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel cycle is that it is too good to put down, and that you’ll want to buy all four books at once. After reading the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, I can confirm that both of those things are 1000 percent true.
The entire series is about two women from Naples, named Elena and Lila, in the decades after World War II. My Brilliant Friend‘s timeline begins when they are both young girls, and ends when they are teenagers. They are best friends who repeatedly find their lives both intertwined and converging as they grow up in a poor neighborhood, and both look for ways to create identities outside their bubble. Elena narrates the first book as an older woman looking back at the past, giving the audience direct access to her private thoughts about her own youth as well as her perspective of Lila’s life.
What I loved about this book was how rich the story and characters are, in terms of detail and emotional depth. While there are moments that fall to the tropes of a romance novel, it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Both Elena and Lila are beautiful but deeply flawed characters, and Ferrante has given them rich personalities that make you simultaneously love and disdain both women. While it’s a book about friendship and growing up, it’s also a novel about love, violence, gender and class set during a time of incredible social change. It’s a contemporary cousin to something like Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights, which is also probably why I liked it.
I’m the kind of person who looks up the summary of the movie before she’s about to see it, and I refrained from looking anything up about this series because I wanted to see if it lived up to the hype. It does — the last half of My Brilliant Friend is dynamite, and I gasped at the ending. I have a few other books to read, but the next novel in this series is high on my to-read list.
What have you been reading lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.