Shelf Life Blog
“They’re not going to send a crazy man out to be killed, are they?”
“Who else will go?”
Yossarian is possibly the only sane man in the world. Thousands of people he’s never met keep trying to kill him. No one seems to understand his predicament, and no matter how much he refuses he is still forced to risk his own life over and over again. That would be because Yossarian is a bombardier stationed in a squadron off of Italy during World War II, and the people trying to kill him are German soldiers, although it sometimes seems more like it’s his superiors who want him dead.
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is in its own class as a novel. It has its own logic, structure, and rhythm. The plot sounds simple -- a man is afraid of going on combat missions because he might be killed -- but there is so much more to it than that. It’s funny, heart-breaking, silly, and meaningful. It is an elaborate critique of bureaucracy, showing the useless repetitions and absurd contradictions that bureaucracy creates, such as the eponymous Catch-22 that thwarts Yossarian: if a man is insane, then he is unfit for combat duty. However, if he requests to be removed from combat that proves he is in fact sane and has to continue fighting, because a sane man would want to protect his life, while only a crazy one would willingly going into combat.
Richard Wright’s Native Son is an exceptional example of dynamic, participatory literature. Rather than allowing the reader to effortlessly absorb the words on the page, Wright undermines the passivity and comfort we often expect when reading. Both the content of the novel and Wright’s literary style provoke and disturb, immersing the reader in a dense psychological terrain that is simultaneously intimate and larger-than-life.
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Native Son follows the life of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man living in squalor with his mother and siblings. Bigger’s mother holds him accountable for the welfare of the family, but his ability to work towards a stable life seems perpetually hindered. He can’t overcome his poverty because he can’t get a job that pays well, and he can’t get a decent job because of his lack of education and limited social mobility. He is also imprisoned by the sense that, as an African-American man, his mere existence has been criminalized: “There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life: he was black and had done wrong.”
Ever since Jacob’s childhood, Grandpa Portman has thrilled him with tales of a beautiful island that provided a safe haven during World War II. On the island was a home for children, populated by a mix of kids with strange abilities. There were even photos to corroborate these fantastical stories – bizarre pictures of a levitating girl, an invisible boy (so all you see is a floating suit), a boy who is a living beehive to a swarm of bees inside of him, and so on. But as he grew older, Jacob came to see these stories as only foolish fairy tales, and asked Grandpa Portman to stop telling them in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.
Now Jacob is sixteen, and a terrible family tragedy has mired him in a miasma of depression and uncontrollable fear. To try and reverse his disintegrating mental state, he decides to look for his grandfather’s mythical island, and travels with his father to a remote island off of the coast of Wales. There he finds the decaying ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – and a lot more that he didn’t anticipate: friendship, danger, love, and the pain of making irrevocable decisions.
This readalike is in response to a patron's book-match request. If you would like personalized reading recommendations, fill out the book-match form and a librarian will email suggested titles to you. Available for adults, teens, and kids. You can browse the book matches here.
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh: "Off the easternmost coast of India lies the immense archipelago of tiny islands known as the Sundarbans. Life here is precarious, ruled by the unforgiving tides and the constant threat of attacks by Bengal tigers. Into this place of vengeful beauty come two seekers from different worlds, whose lives collide with tragic consequences. The settlers of the remote Sundarbans believe that anyone without a pure heart who ventures into the watery island labyrinth will never return. With the arrival of two outsiders from the modern world, the delicate balance of small community life uneasily shifts. Piya Roy is a marine biologist, of Indian descent but stubbornly American, in search of a rare dolphin. Kanai Dutt is an urbane Delhi businessman, here to retrieve the journal of his uncle, who died mysteriously in a local political uprising. When Piya hires an illiterate but proud local fisherman to guide her through the crocodile-infested backwaters, Kanai becomes her translator. From this moment, the tide begins to turn."
If you enjoyed this novel's rich character development and attention to detail from the historical perspective, here are some other titles you may also enjoy:
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Set in Italy during World War II, this is the story of the incomparable, malingering bombardier, Yossarian, a hero who is furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. But his real problem is not the enemy-it is his own army, which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempt to excuse himself from the perilous missions he's assigned, he'll be in violation of Catch-22, a hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved. (amazon.com)
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
The highly original satire about Oedipa Maas, a woman who finds herself enmeshed in a worldwide conspiracy, meets some extremely interesting characters, and attains a not inconsiderable amount of self knowledge. (amazon.com)
“When hunger gnaws inside my belly, I tell myself that a future Pioneer has to repress cravings for such unimportant matters as food. Communism is just over the horizon; soon there will be plenty of food for everyone…I wonder what it’s like in the capitalist countries. I wouldn’t be surprised if children there had never even tasted a carrot.”
More than anything, 10-year-old Sasha Zaichik wants to be a member of the Young Soviet Pioneers in Breaking Stalin’s Nose, by Eugene Yelchin. Sasha can hardly wait for tomorrow’s Pioneer rally, when all of his dreams will be realized. However, as the big day gets close, things go terribly wrong for Sasha. First, his stalwart father is taken away by the State Security in the middle of the night. As Sasha’s mother had died under mysterious circumstances some time before, this leaves Sasha frighteningly alone. He is no longer welcome in the komunalka that he shares with 48 other citizens, so he is put out into deserted and icy streets in the middle of the night.
Jersey girl Stephanie Plum, the unlikely heroine of One for the Money by Janet Evanovich, is seriously down on her luck. She’s been downsized out of her job as a lingerie buyer for a department store, and is therefore out of money. Her precious Miata has been repossessed, and she’s having trouble fending off her meddling mother’s recommendations for future employment. Out of desperation Plum turns to her cousin Vinnie, who runs a bail-bond business. She blackmails him into giving her a $10,000 recovery job, and then she quickly realizes that she is in way over her head.
It is a year after the death of Sherlock Holmes when Watson again sets pen to paper to record another of his sensational investigations, a series of events so scandalous they could not be related earlier, as told in Anthony Horowitz’ The House of Silk.
When Edmund Carstairs believes he and his family are being threatened by a man in a flat cap, he turns to Holmes for help. It appears that the man has followed him from America seeking revenge. The pursuer’s murder does not solve the puzzle, but instead leads Holmes and Watson ever deeper into a dangerous London underworld of opium dens and worse with links to the most powerful and influential levels of British society. In this dark world, they hear whispers about the House of Silk. But inquiries lead to threats, and they are warned off the investigation in no uncertain terms by those in the highest levels of government. Soon Holmes finds himself in prison, accused of murder.
The Gospel According to Larry, by Janet Tashjian, is the story of what happens when anti-commercialism meets the world of blogging. Josh Swensen is a nature-loving, hyperactive, slightly ingenious seventeen-year-old boy who spends most of his time avoiding his classmates. Josh only has one friend, Beth, a young feminist in the making. The two have been friends since they were in elementary school.
Recently, Josh and Beth have been spending a lot of time following an anti-commercialism, semi-evangelistic blog by an unknown person with a code name of Larry. Larry is against the widespread commercialism that targets everyone, especially teenagers. He only has seventy-five possessions, which he photographs periodically to show his fans. He does this in order to show his lack of attachment to material goods. Larry sends out sermons that primarily target the faults of big-business marketing schemes.
Metro City’s very own superhero Captain Amazing is getting too old for his job, so he’s going to need some backup. Sidekicks is the journey of some die-hard hero wannabes who wish to join the captain for one very simple reason: They are his pets, and he hasn’t been paying them any attention lately.
To explain my reasoning for choosing to read What Should I Do with My Life? by Po Bronson, I must first explain a little about myself. I'm a senior in college and in the process of applying for graduate school. One day, while frantically exploring graduate programs at various schools across the U.S. and abroad, I started to worry: Will I choose the right program? What if I wasted my college years studying the wrong subjects? What am I suppose to do with my life? Well, during my craze I jokingly typed in Google, "What Should I Do with My Life?" Po Bronson's book was the first thing to pop up in my browser. I immediately searched the library's catalog to find out whether I could borrow the book, and I drove up to Porter branch that night to check it out. I never set out to review it since it was simply a pleasure read, but I feel as though others may benefit from some of the events portrayed in this book as well.