Monday, June 15, 2020

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/13/20

I had a birthday at the beginning of this month -- not a big milestone, just another step deeper into middle-age -- which meant there had to be a small celebration and a few presents to open. Since I am middle-aged, I've hit the point where I buy my own presents and let The Wife wrap them, which is oddly one of the most efficient ways to handle it. (Though not particularly surprising, obviously.)

Among those presents were these three books. They were both bought by me for me and given to me by someone else, which must be some kind of Schrodinger thingy, right?

Knickers in a Twist is a alphabetical compendium of British slang from 2006 by Jonathan Bernstein, who is himself Scottish but had been living for some time in Los Angeles at that point. (I have no idea where he lives know, or even if he lives now, and frankly the question is moot.) Obvious language changes and evolves, so there will be plenty of Internet or otherwise new terms that won't be in this book, but half the point of a book of words is to see whether you agree with the definitions for the words you do know, so that's not a big deal.

Early Riser is, I think, Jasper Fforde's latest novel, and his first for adults in a few years. I believe it is actually a standalone -- though I still have hopes his last "standalone," 2009's Shades of Grey, will lead to the sequels it promised at the time. As usual for Fforde, it's in the fantastic sector of literature without being part of any established genre: it's vaguely SF, set in a world (or at least a nation; Fforde is often British enough that the rest of the world is essentially superfluous) where the vast majority of the population hibernate through the winter each year. Our hero, though, is one of the few awake in the cold, dealing with various problems.

And last was Flaming Carrot Comics: Omnibus 1 by Bob Burden. I used to have a complete run of the comics -- well, not the super-rare appearances in Visions, and I'm not sure if I had the oversized one-shot from the late '70s -- before my 2011 flood, and it's sad to think there haven't been any new Bob Burden comics since then. The series was collected into trade paperbacks once, about twenty years ago, but I'm not sure if everything was included then, and I never managed to get all of those. This one is bigger than the old ones -- 400 pages -- but oddly collects issues 1,2, 4-11 and 25-27 -- which implies at least one more for the stuff in the middle and probably one for the later comics. I'm not enough of an optimist to assume I'll ever see either of those, but I grabbed this one.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes by Landis Blair

So I wanted to like The Envious Siblings. And I did, I guess, somewhat, but not to the level that I hoped. It's interesting and dark and well-drawn and has what I think of as the second-writer problem [1] -- there are good things about it, but I was left a bit flat.

Landis Blair is an illustrator and graphic novelist from Chicago; he seems to be a fairly young guy. This is, as far as I can tell, his first entirely-Blair book, though he did illustrate a couple of other people's books: The Hunting Accident and From Here to Eternity (not the one you're thinking of).

Envious Siblings is very much a second-writer book: it has eight semi-comics stories (full-page illos, text on the opposite page) in a crosshatched style, told in verse, about grinning children doing horrible, generally violent, things to each other and the world around them.

The first artist in this case is Edward Gorey, obviously. The cover makes that clear, and the rest of Blair's book leans into the comparison strongly. Blair is deliberately creating a Goreyesque collection here: he's not trying to hide his influences.

Blair is more bloodthirsty and perhaps less subtle than Gorey: the first story here, for example, is "The Malicious Playground," in which a group of fiendish youngsters gleefully maim each other while playing. And the title story is a Grand Guignol -- or maybe a traditional nasty fairy tale, since it feels like something that could have been collected by the Grimms in a particularly nasty German village -- in which two sisters progressively maim each other while grinning maniacally the whole while.

Here's the point where I don't want to spend all my time comparing Landis to Gorey, even though the book is begging for it. Blair is clearly reaching back further to the roots of fairy tales and nursery rhymes, while Gorey was more interested in late-Victorian and subsequent children's fiction, in adding back danger and fear to the deracinated latter-day products he saw. Blair has a heavier touch than Gorey, but I think that's entirely on purpose: he's not trying to be Gorey, but to take the Goreyesque format in a different, even more violent direction.

Blair's art is sprightly and amusing; his people grin unnervingly like no one else's. His monsters, especially in the wordless "The Awful Underground," are excellent. His verse rhymes and scans and supports his stories -- it's not great poetry, but it's not trying to be, and that would be entirely against his purpose anyway.

Envious Siblings is very bloody, in its inky splendor. Anyone who thinks Gorey sometimes went too far will want to avoid it. But if you found yourself wishing for a bit more bite in your darkly humorous rhyming stories about nasty children, take a look at Landis Blair.

[1] If you're the hundredth person to write a particular kind of book, you're in an established genre. If you're the second one, you're stealing from the first guy.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Reviewing The Mail: Week of May 30, 2020

Two books this week, both from the fine folks at Tachyon Publications and both in my hands in advance reader copy form. (I'd vaguely thought the Current Crisis would finally kill physical ARCs -- though I might have called them "bound galleys," to underline how old I am and how long it's been since I worked in trade publishing -- but, even if it's trying to, it hasn't managed yet.)

On the SF side, we have Sea Change by Nancy Kress, a short novel about biotechnology and the near future that begins with a woman being amused by a lost self-driving house in 2032. Intriguingly, it seems to be about an underground organization that is continuing research on GMOs after they were outlawed after a massive crisis the decade before. Sea Change is available in trade paperback (and several equivalent electronic formats) as of April 24th.

Over on the mystery end, there's Of Mice and Minestrone, a collection of short stories by Joe R. Lansdale about the early years of his most popular characters, Hap and Leonard. Inside are five stories, one of which appeared in Full Bleed 3 last year and the others of which appear to be originals, all of them with recipes included. There's also an introduction by bestselling crime writer Kathleen Kent and an afterword by Lansdale that explains the deal about the recipes. This one hit stores (physical and virtual) on May 14th.

In case I buried the lede above: both of these books are fully available out in the world already, in case you're interested in either or both of them. So go check 'em out.

Oh, and because the title of the Lansdale book reminds me of it, have a Fujiya & Miyagi song:

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown

One of the problems with reading fewer books is that you tend to concentrate on what you already know. And if, like me, you try to write something about those books as well, you could end up repeating yourself over and over, spamming links to your back catalog, and just generally digging yourself deep into the ground of your own obsessions.

In other news: I worry about the wrong things all the time, wasting brain-power on ridiculous thoughts and silly concerns.

This book, though, doesn't fall into my usual traps. I've read some Box Brown -- his book Andre the Giant, some other things here and there -- and I keep thinking I should read more of his stuff, but he's not one of my "favorites."

So I've just spent three paragraphs telling you about things that aren't relevant to this book and have nothing to do with it. Perhaps I'm out of practice with this blogging thing? (Or, maybe, I'm just bad at it.)

Brown has been making mostly non-fiction comics for about a decade now -- Tetris was his book after Andre the Giant, from 2016, but he's done three more books since then -- and they all seem to be about things loosely related to the media (child Hollywood stars, Andy Kaufmann, the history of the criminalization of marijuana). Other than that, there's no clear through-line: my guess is that he makes books about subjects that interest both him and his publishers (First Second, mostly)...which is not unlike a lot of other non-fiction writers outside of comics.

I don't think his name has any connection to the 19th century escaped slave and abolitionist speaker Henry Box Brown, but it can make him difficult to Google. His real first name is Brian, which seems to be creeping onto the covers of his most recent work.

Tetris is the story of the game, starting with Alexey Pajitnov and Vladimir Pokhilko at the Moscow Academy of Science in 1984 and rolling out through the years afterward, with a lot of game-company skulduggery and maneuvering over the rights, particularly in those early days. Brown tells it straight, starting with the creators just before they thought of the idea, and moving forward in time, introducing all of his other characters as they come into the narrative.

Brown's art is bright and crisp: mostly line art with an orange wash over the top of it. He has a lot of dialogue in this book, which is probably quoted from previous accounts (which were themselves probably paraphrased, since nobody was taping these conversations and half of them were in Russian). It's popular nonfiction about a popular thing, and Brown makes the twists and turns of the Atari-vs.-Nintendo plot interesting and differentiates all of his computer executives, Russian bureaucrats, and game programmers over the course of about 250 pages.

It made me want to play Tetris after reading it. I did play Tetris after reading it. I have to count that as success for a book.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Wallace Mystery by Rick Geary

I've written a lot about Rick Geary here over the years; I'll try not to repeat myself too much now. His comics work for the past couple of decades has been variously-titled series of graphic novels, generally in a slightly smaller physical format than a standard pamphlet comic, about famous historical murders of the last two hundred years, in the US and UK. (Or regions that are today parts of those nations, to be pedantic.)

There was the Treasury of Victorian Murder, the Treasury of XXth Century Murder (which may officially be ongoing), the Little Murder Library (which is definitely ongoing), and various one-offs and other things. The one thing they all had in common: murders that got a lot of media attention at the time, so they had enough primary and secondary sources for Geary to sift through to make his comics.

The most recent book in this long string is The Wallace Mystery; it's part of "Little Murder Library." Like the previous books in that series, Geary self-published it through his Home Town Press, and publicized and capitalized it through a pre-publication Kickstarter campaign. It's not yet available in his webstore -- and not available anywhere else that I can see -- but will probably be available through Geary eventually.

For now, you might have to settle for me telling you about it.

Geary's self-published books are a bit less "finished" than the ones he publishes through others (mostly NBM, the last twenty-five years or so). The front covers are simpler, there's less text on the back, and the spine is really minimalist. The art is comparable in style: one or two largeish panels, fully drawn with watercolors to add depth and tone. The text is typeset, though, in a square all-caps font  that is clean and readable but which I don't love that much. (And comics feel less like comics when the type is clearly set -- a good font-based-on-the-artist's-lettering can go a long way to avoid that.)

But they're otherwise pure Geary -- it's just Geary with less publishing support, obviously because he's doing just about all of the work himself.

Wallace Mystery tells the story of the 1931 murder of Julia Wallace of Liverpool, a 52-year-old married woman with no obvious enemies or problems. For the usual reasons, her husband William was the primary suspect, and ended up going to trial for the killing. Geary tells the story in his usual style: generally straightforward, but occasionally florid, with excursions into theory and unanswered questions, the product of a mind pulling on all of the strings at once.

Geary runs through the whole story, through the death of William and the other major characters. That's one of the benefits of his matter: you can end cleanly if everyone is dead, even if important facts (like actual proof of the murderer) are still in dispute.

Wallace Mystery is not one of Geary's major books: in general, my advice with Geary is to pick a murder case you've heard of and read that book first. Unless you're an expert on Liverduplian history, this will not be that. But it's another good entry in that string, and it's great to see him still doing his thing, dependably and well, this far along in his career.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

O Josephine! by Jason

I'm endlessly fascinated by the minutia of the commercial end of stories: how they are distributed and manufactured and repackaged for different markets. Think of the serial-versus-GN fight in American comics, or the way a Twitter feed can become a book. Sometimes I get fascinated about pieces of the process that are obscure or non-public, and turn to speculation.

So: I don't know that the four comics stories collected in Jason's 2019 book O Josephine! were originally published as separate albums in France. I suspect they were, at least some of them, though they're different lengths, which tends to argue against that. (An album is a tightly-formatted thing, generally -- though maybe O Josephine! takes the main stories of albums that had other small pieces to fill them out...I'm spitballing wildly here, on essentially no evidence.)

I've said before that if I were King of the World of Books, every book would be clear about the previous publication of its components. But I'm not, and it isn't. Especially here. O Josephine! says nothing about these four stories -- it has a minimal table of contents to tell us that there are four of them, and what pages they begin on, but that's it.

My assumptions: Jason (actual name: John Arne Sæterøy) is a Norwegian cartoonist long resident in France and generally first published in the French language, so I assume these stories all came out in some form in France. Possibly as standalones, maybe in collection with other works. Maybe even this exact package. This was before 2019, since time-travel is not a thing. I guess they were relatively recent -- from the past decade.

I could be wrong about several of those assumptions.

O Josephine!'s four stories are all Jasonian -- though some more than others -- but they have very little else in common. So, yes, they're all told in four-panel grids with anthropomorphic characters, generally in a deadpan tone. The two "non-fiction" stories have captions for narration; the two pieces that are purely fiction do not.

But "The Wicklow Way" is a memoir, the story of a walk on a famous path through Ireland (either a warm-up for or a follow-up to the journey Jason chronicled in On the Camino), where the interest is in spending a few days in Jason's head as he walks through the Irish countryside.

"L. Cohen: A Life" is a slightly fictionalized -- actually much less fictionalized than I first thought, since the man's life was deeply weird -- of the life and career of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.

"The Diamonds" is the story of two detectives surveilling a seemingly ordinary couple -- well, it starts there, but spreads outward in that Jason fashion, as unusual things and semi-related characters keep coming up in the narrative and the world spreads outward.

And last is the title story, the epic love story of Napoleon and Josephine. Josephine Baker, in that usual Jasonian screw-historical-accuracy fashion, where everything does take place in time, but all time is the same time. It's a tragedy, or a family story, or a love story, or a revenge story. Maybe more than one of those.

I don't know if these are as good as the best Jason stories -- I still think Hey, Wait and I Killed Adolph Hitler and Why Are You Doing This? are his best stories. (Or, today I think they're his best stories; I might have a slightly different list tomorrow.) But they're good, strong mature Jason stories, showing he do well what he does, and that other cartoonists generally don't. That might not be the place to start, if you haven't started, but it's a fine place to continue.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Is This How You See Me? by Jaime Hernandez

Two years later, here's a one-shot I Love (And Rockets) Monday -- because the Brothers Hernandez have kept making comics, and those comics do make their way into books eventually, and even more eventually I will read them.

Is This How You See Me? collects a Jaime story that ran from the end of the book-size annual New Stories into the beginning of the current magazine-sized Vol. IV comic. And I covered it, more or less, in the last post of the main run of I Love (And Rockets) Mondays.

The story? Maggie and Hopey, now pushing fifty (possibly from the other side) head back to Hoppers together for a punk reunion that neither one of them is all that enthusiastic about.

Well, Hopey is never enthusiastic in a positive way about anything: she was a ball of chaos in her youth, and has settled into a cynical sour middle age. Maggie is more mercurial, as usual, wanting to believe that things will be wonderful but continually remembering all of the other times she believed that things would be wonderful and they weren't.

So they both know that you can't go home again. And they don't live that far from home to begin with: they didn't get that far or do that much, all of their dreams of rock 'n' roll or prosolar mechanicdom to the contrary. We don't know what their old friends do for a living, exactly, but we suspect they're more successful: Terry has been making music all this time, at least successfully enough to have a career as a leader of various bands. And Daffy was never as punky as the rest, a girl from the nicer side of town who went off to college and seems to be solidly in the professional/managerial class. (Remembering that Maggie manages an apartment building and Hopey is a teacher's aide -- both jobs they fell into in mid-life when other things fell apart.)

None of that is text, but it's definitely subtext. Punk was one of the regular youth-fueled screams of rage and rebellion, giving voice to people who felt like their lives had no good options. And they were not wrong.

But we all have to live our lives, not just protest them. Punk bravado burns out, or starts looking silly. Maggie and Hopey are long past the point where punk attitude was relevant to their lives, so this is like any other reunion: wondering who will be there, whether any of it will be worth it, whether it can provide any of those moments of clarity we live for.

This reunion is scripted by Jaime Hernandez. So there will be moment of clarity, for us as readers if not for his characters. I'm afraid Jaime's central characters are cursed to never have clarity: that may the most central thing about Maggie and Hopey. They will never really understand themselves, or each other.

Well, I may be wrong. They're getting older, and they're getting better at seeing clearly.

This is the story of one weekend in about 2016, with flashbacks to 1979, when the two girls were young and fearless and something that passed for innocent and damaged in different ways than their middle-aged selves. I can't say if it will be as heartbreaking for people who can't remember 1979 -- who haven't lived fifty or so years themselves. I think so: I think Jaime is that good. But it has more punch the more of this connects with you personally, like any good art.

The more any of us live, the more regrets and what-ifs we accumulate. They can overwhelm us, I guess, if we let them. Is This How You See Me? is about wandering through those piles of regrets and what-ifs without actually talking about them, about seeing where you are this year and looking back in wonder and surprise and awe at who you were forty years ago.

It does not have the electric shock of The Love Bunglers. It's a quieter book, a middle-aged book. But it's just as strong, just as true, just as real. And Jaime Hernandez is still one of our best storytellers, working fearlessly in a form he's made his own.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

By Night, Vol. 1 by Allison, Larsen, and Stern

I am unabashedly a John Allison fan; I'll say that up front. I may not have been quite as much of a long-term Allison fan as some -- I discovered him around the time Scarygoround begat Bad Machinery, if I remember correctly -- but I've been reading his stuff for a decade or two and writing about it here for nearly as long.

So if I say that his new-ish series By Night, whose first volume I just read, is slightly disappointing, I want to be clear that I mean that I am not gushing about it in the manner I usually do for Allison projects. It's fun and zippy and quirky and interesting; it's a good comic. It's just not as Allisonian (at least to me) as I hoped.

So, now that I've just deflated the whole thing before I even started, what is this By Night comic, anyway?

Well, it's written by Allison, as I implied. Art is by Christine Larsen (probably best known for a stint on the Adventure Time comic; possessor of an awesome website with lots of excellent art) with colors by Sarah Stern (whose website is only very slightly less awesome). It began in mid-2018 and seems to have ended with issue #12.

It's about two young women, former friends from school who meet again in their dead-end town in their mid-twenties and go on a quirky supernatural adventure together, eventually pulling in a larger cast of oddballs from that town. So far, it sounds very Allisonian.

But the town in question in By Night is Spectrum, South Dakota, and Allison is exceptionally British. (One might even say quintessentially so.) There are other parts of By Night that made my editor's red-pen hand twitch, but the core of my uneasiness is that Allison's dialogue and phrasing here is often not quite American, while also not quite being as sprightly and clever as his usual. He is definitely aiming to write Americans, and it was a grand experiment...I just think that it doesn't play to his strengths.

Anyway, Jane Langstaff is the studious, serious one and Heather Meadows is the free-wheeling wild child (as we have seen often before in Allison's work). They meet up again in this dying town, and Heather convinces Jane to go along on her mad scheme to investigate the newly-unprotected Charleswood Estate, which was once the commercial heart of the town, back before its founder and driving force disappeared mysteriously. They go there, and discover a portal to an alternate world populated with fantasy creatures and various dangers, wandering in and out a couple of times, guided by a goofball local, and...well, that's about it in these four issues.

I assume there's a larger story about that mysterious founder, and probably Deep Secrets about the fantasy world, and these issues have plenty of plot, but it doesn't end up going in ways that makes much of a story. Things happen, then other things happen, and a few more people learn about the portal -- but what, if anything, any of that means isn't clear at this point.We also don't see much of the fantasy world; the story tends to cut away from it to go back to our world -- either because Allison is more interested in the real-world end, because he's setting up for a bigger reveal later, or just because, I can't say.

There's one more collection available, of the next four issues, and I expect a third will be forthcoming to finish it up. (Well, maybe I hope it will be forthcoming; from the publication schedule, I would have expected it last fall.) I plan to see where this goes; it's not a long story, and the creators are all doing good work. So I reserve the right to later say that I've changed my mind, and this is just as awesome as other Allison works. That would be a nice outcome, actually: I want to love things.

If you're less of an Allison fan than I am, I wouldn't pick this as your entry point. Giant Days or his webcomics (which have the advantage of being free) are much better for that. But if you want to see how he handles Americans: here you go.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Eye of Mongombo, Book One by Doug Gray

Serialization, the fans of floppy comics are fond of telling us, means that stories actually get told, since their creators can get paid while they're working. If a creator had to finish an entire story before publishing anything...well, that might take years, and clearly no one can live on nothing for years and so, ipso facto, Batman has to punch people every month or else comics won't exist at all.

(I may be horribly mangling their argument for my own purposes.)

But serialization just means that stories can start. Market forces, timing, and the creators' circumstances will affect that story once it's running -- no storytelling mechanism can avoid those things. And so a lot of serialized stories don't manage to end. They stop mid-way, for whatever reason, to be picked up later, quietly forgotten (Billy Nguyen), loudly forgotten (All-Star Batman and Robin), or stop-and-start for an extended period of time (Hepcats).

Which all brings us to Doug Gray and The Eye of Mongombo. It was a comic book from Fantagraphics, launched in 1989 and expected to run twelve issues, but the last issue was #7, in 1991. I read it at the time, enjoyed it a lot, and kept hoping it would come back -- I've mentioned it on this blog a few times, I think.

Spongebob Narrator Voice: twenty-eight years later

Doug Gray re-emerged last year with a Kickstarter and a plan to finally finish Eye of Mongombo and publish it as three album-format books. The campaign did not hit its funding target, but Gray decided to finish the story anyway, and the first book was published at the beginning of this year. So I got to read a big chunk of Eye of Mongombo for the first time in a few decades -- I did own the comics (until they were destroyed, with all of my other comics and most of my books, in the Flood of '11), but I don't think I'd pulled them out to read since maybe the mid-90s at best.

Eye is a goofy late-80s comic, from deep into the black-and-white boom, and it did set off to tell one story. A long, convoluted, silly story packed with reverses and incidents, yes -- one that could be told well in serialized form -- but a single story.

Our hero is two-fisted anthropologist Dr. Cliff Carlson, who begins the story by first being fired by one nemesis (department head Nuskle) and quickly afterward being turned into a duck by another nemesis (Jumballah, some kind of witch doctor). Cliff is smart and cunning and quick on his feet, so being duck-ified only momentarily slows him down: he's soon off to find the fabled treasure of the title along with his unworldly grad student Mick and his sexy girlfriend/fellow adventurer Raquel.

Unfortunately, Nuskle stole the map for the eye, so Cliff and friends are chasing "Numbskull" (and his dimwit brother-in-law). And there's at least one other group, some nefarious types who also seem to be among Cliff's many nemeses. All set off for South America, variously hiding from, stalking, and attempting to murder each other.

Gray went into animation after Eye's aborted first serialization, and his story has the energy and one-damn-thing-after-another pacing of a good cartoon. It manages to stay a silly adventure story rather than a parody, which is a tricky balancing act: Gray isn't making fun of his characters (well, not all of them), but using them to tell a story with funny parts.

The art looks pretty much like I remember the original Eye, but the Kickstarter page has multiple examples of improved panels compared to the originals. Clearly, my memory is faulty...or Gray got pretty good by the end of the first serialization, and that's what I'm remembering. Either way, it will be interesting to see what the back half of Eye looks like, once we get past the reworked early-90s stuff and get into entirely new pages.

Eye is not great literature. It's not a lost comics classics. But it's a great goofy adventure story, filled with oddball characters and drawn with verve. I liked it a lot in 1989, and I still like it a lot now. I really hope Gray manages to finish it this time and maybe, just maybe, goes on to do other stories as well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Jesus, I hope you're not expecting much today. Because there's no way I'm doing this book any justice.

I re-read Catch-22 over what turned into a six-month period -- started in late November, left to one side for vast stretches of time, finally finished May 3rd -- in part because I read Slaughterhouse-Five last year and wanted to return to that well, that mid-century yawp against the barbarity of war and pointlessness of everything. And partly because I've been having trouble getting motivated to read, and finding time to read, and finding places to read, this past year or so. I always love strong writing voices, and sometime really great books jump-start my enthusiasm for reading and books.

Not this time, obviously.

No one is born knowing anything, and everyone is ignorant of millions of things. So I shouldn't assume  all of you, or even any of you, know instinctively about Catch-22.

Joseph Heller was born in 1923, and went off to WW II in the Army Air Corps, where he flew 60 combat missions as the bombardier of a B-25 over Italy. He came back, went to college, got an MA in English from Columbia, went into advertising, wrote some stories. His first novel was Catch-22, in 1960, about the bombardier of a B-25 over Italy, in a group where the number of missions keeps going up.

He wrote other stuff later. Some of it is very good. None of it had the impact of Catch-22. Hardly anything has; it's generally considered one of the best books of the 20th Century, with various adjectives, depending on who's talking: American, by a man, about war, post-WW II, post-modern, etc.

Catch-22 is told in a nearly chaotic, circling fashion, with lots of chapters of varying length, which are not necessarily presented in chronological order. Yossarian, that bombardier, is at the center of the book, but he's surrounded by a large cast of oddballs, weirdos, and aggressive lunatics. It is amazingly funny on the surface and deeply heartbreaking when you stop to think for a second about any of it. More characters than you think will die horribly in the course of the book, and you may even laugh at the ways they die. It probably goes on a bit too long. It doesn't end as well as it could -- it has the kind of structure that's fiendishly hard to close out, and it takes a last-minute turn to break out of its core conceit to get to something that works as an ending and is not unhappy.

A novel is a long piece of writing with something wrong with it. A great novel is an electric long piece of writing with something wrong with it. Catch-22 throws off sparks almost continuously for nearly four hundred of its 450 pages, and has a Bruegelesque tour-de-force chapter of a chaotic, horrifying occupied Rome even after that point. So don't get the idea that I'm complaining.

If you know Catch-22, you know this next quote. If you don't, though, it explains everything.
There was only only catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that 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 he 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. 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.
Not everything about Catch-22. Everything. The 20th century. Modernity. The state of mankind. Life, the universe, and everything. That kind of deal. There is only one catch, but it's the best there is.

Catch-22 is a book about being trapped in an insane, irrational world, with insane, irrational people, doing insane, irrational things. Our world. Yossarian may be the only sane man. He may instead be insane in a slightly different, more self-centered way. And what's the difference, anyway?

So Catch-22 is a great book that is paradoxically easy to put down. Each chapter is nearly a separate short story. It's filled with great moments and quotable lines and intense personalities and the urgency of potentially imminent death. And I did put it down, repeatedly, before I finally got to the end.

This edition is the 50th Anniversary paperback -- there may also be a simpler version for the new TV series, but I don't know about any of that. It has a fawning, windy introduction by Christopher Buckley, which just delays actually getting into the book. But it also has an extensive collection of backmatter (over 60 pages!), which is interesting to publishing-nerds like me, with a potted history of the writing and publishing of Catch-22, a preface by Heller from 1994, and nine other critical/historical/explanatory pieces by various folks from the past fifty years. You can probably find a used copy cheaper if you're not interested in all that bumf, and, for your first time reading Catch-22, you probably won't want any of it.

But Catch-22 is a book that you should think about reading at least once. It has its flaws -- I mentioned the ending, and it also has very few women, and those even more caricatured than the men -- but it's a major book about modern life that is as true today as it was in 1960 or in the 1940s it depicts. It is funny and true and shocking in almost equal measure, and there is very little else like it.