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Review of “Catch-22,” by Joseph Heller

This book is easy and difficult to review. First, I want to say that it took eight years to write; started in 1953 and published in 1961, it became a bestseller in 1962, then a movie of the same name in 1970. I mention how long it took to write because the book reads as if it had several authors, who shared notes but had different writing styles. The first writer wrote enigmatically, with references to events not presented; the second discovered the beauty of metaphors, filling mundane scenes with dashing clouds, spitting oceans, and other sophomoric phrases; the third author forgot about metaphors, moving on to run-on sentences with prepositions spitting from the typewriter like confetti.

Amid all of this jumble, Heller wraps up most of the complicated threads he started at the beginning. Of course, many of them had nothing to do with the anti-war theme of the story. And they are wrapped up as if he was going down a checklist.

The plot involves the men who flew in medium bombers (B-25s) over Italy in the later stages of WW II. This was dangerous because they had to fly low to hit tactical targets, rather than the famous B-17 flights over Germany. Instead of fighters, they deal with antiaircraft guns, which apparently were very accurate, and losses among the characters in the book are high. The story doesn’t gloss over the violence in the air. The central theme is that everyone, not just the aircrews, in the bomb wing is crazy. Detailed biographies of unimportant characters are given along with insight into the entire staff, right up to the general in charge of the air group.

The long writing period may partly explain the inexplicable insertion of flashbacks (actually jumps back and forth in the story line), which usually occur in mid-sentence on unrelated topics. It was very confusing because it was the standard, not the exception. Back and forth, back and forth… Dizzying.

The mixture of comic-book characters and situations, black humor, overshadowed by a sense of hopelessness by the main character, Captain John Yossarian, is irregular, adding to the confusion. The resulting jumble can be explained as intentional but I think it was the result of poor writing, albeit with good notes. The story really is remarkably consistent in its own way. Critics call stories like this “satires” and “scathing” and other ad-hoc adjectives that never occurred to the author. I note that in the preface, Joseph Heller makes no such claims of deep hatred of war, but simply that it took a long time to write and became a big success. Timing is everything.

I guess I have to say something in conclusion.  I can’t recommend Catch-22 for casual reading. I read this book as part of my reading comprehension program, and it was a good choice. However, if you like complex stories that come together like a mystery (albeit without a purpose), it isn’t that bad. The reviewers either liked it or hated it. It’s that kind of book.

As a bonus, I have a few words to say about the movie version of Catch-22, released in 1970. I just read a summary of its reception and it’s obvious that the screenplay by Buck Henry wasn’t appreciated for its greatest accomplishment. Working with the director, Mike Nichols, he turned a jumbled mess into a coherent movie, which incorporated every major scene from the book. The movie explained a lot that didn’t make sense when read word-by-word. Some of the more-ridiculous antics from the book are omitted, but not many. As a spoiler, if you recall the famous scene with Yossarian rowing away at the end in a yellow life raft. Never happened. The author settled down and gave the book a reasonable ending (maybe the fourth version of Joseph Heller?).

Jumbled, confusing book but a good movie.

Why Not?

Nona opened the mailbox, found it empty except for a letter from DMV addressed to her husband. She certainly wasn’t going to pay the license renewal for Leonard’s truck. If he wanted to drive that beat-up pickup, he’d have to do register it himself. He’d been gone for close to six months, without a letter. No phone calls. Not even a personal message or text. Nothing. Finally out of the scorching August heat, she was tempted to throw the letter in the trashcan on the front porch. She unlocked the door and entered the house, dropped her bag and Leonard’s mail on the table in the foyer, and fell on the sofa to give her tired feet a rest, after eight hours behind the cash register at Walmart.

She heard a sound at the back of the house and, suddenly alert, jumped up, her aching feet forgotten. Slipping into the kitchen, searching the drawers for Leonard’s revolver, finding it under the fancy napkins. Holding it in front of her, she crept into the hall to confront the burglar. Following the sounds of someone scrabbling around in the laundry room, she caught a man with his back towards her.

“Don’t move or I’ll shoot!”

Hands went up and the short, stocky man slowly turned to face her. “Hello Nona. How’ve you been?”

“Look what the cat drug in,” she said, lowering the gun.

Leonard turned back to his task and, starting the machine, took the revolver from Nona’s hand. “You know this isn’t loaded.”

She followed him to the kitchen and sat down at the table. Leonard got a beer from the refrigerator and joined her. She hadn’t bought any beer. Didn’t drink. “What’s going on, Leonard?”

He shrugged. “I’ve got a month until the next job, in Ecuador.”

“Why didn’t you call?”

He shrugged. “You knew where I was. I knew you were okay because of your Facebook posts. What was there to talk about? I kept up with the kids too. They’re fine.”

“You could have died. I wouldn’t have known.”

“Peeshaw.  The company wouldn’t have kept depositing my paychecks in our bank account if I’d died. They’re too greedy. And I think they would have gotten around to sending you a letter. Eventually.”

Nona was fed up with Leonard’s nonchalant attitude about their marriage. He’d been doing this for almost twenty years. Leaving her to raise their two children by herself, showing up between jobs, never on holidays or birthdays. “I can’t live like this anymore. You either stay put or I want a divorce.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why can’t you live like this anymore? Our house is paid off and we’ve got close to four-hundred-thousand dollars in our retirement account. I don’t want to live on social security when I retire. If it still exists.”

He didn’t get it. “I have to make it to retirement, Leonard. I lay awake at night, wondering if you’re dead or shacked up with some Mexican girl, with another family, whatever. I don’t want to live like this.”

He shrugged. “Don’t make sense to me, Nona. The hard part’s over, the kids grown up and gone to college. All paid for by my job. No college loans. They’ll have the same clean slate we did when we got married. Why do you want to ruin it all now?”

It drove Nona crazy, Leonard’s indifference to her feelings. He had become an asshole. “You didn’t answer my question?”

“Which one?”

“Have you been shacking up with women? I mean ever.”

“Why would I do that? I’m married in case you didn’t notice. I’ve been working twelve hours a day, seven days a week to make a good life for us, a good retirement. I’m tired after work. Always have been.”

It bothered Nona that mentioning divorce hadn’t gotten a rise from him. Only a question she couldn’t answer. She wanted to hate him for the years left alone with the children, nothing to do, making excuses at church where everybody thought Leonard was a derelict. She looked around the kitchen, feeling at home, having friends and family, a husband, a good life. Why she couldn’t answer any of his stupid questions?

“Are you going to stay home from now on? You can get a local job making almost as much as you do now. It costs a lot to live in a foreign country. I read about it.”

“Peeshaw!” He finished his beer, got another from the refrigerator, sat down, opened it and said, “Ain’t no job pays what I’m making. Not in the U.S. You know full what I spend, Nona. Two-hundred a month in Mexico. That’s what it costs to live in a decent room and eat good meals. Can’t even own a car for that here. Can’t you leave well enough alone?”

She wanted an answer, not a question. “Well?”

“Well what?”

Frustration drove Nona to her feet, made her put her hands on her hips, gave her a sudden headache. “Do you want a divorce, or do you want to move back home?”

“Why not?”

Dead of Night

Franklin pushes the handle of the mop submerged in the suddenly heavy mop bucket filled with water and floor cleaner past the nurses station into the emergency room, feeling like sitting down in one of the plastic seats. He doesn’t do it because he’s a little behind schedule after spending fifteen minutes in the custodian room at the beginning of his shift, recovering from the ten-minute walk from the bus station to the hospital. Arriving at his destination in the vending area, he begins to mop the floor stained and sticky from coffee and soda as the emergency room explodes into activity.

Several gurneys are wheeled in by orderlies with doctors and nurses appearing suddenly to attend to the half-dozen men and women suffering from gunshot wounds during a gunfight less than a block from the hospital. He’s seen this enough that he keeps working, until he recognizes one of the victims’ pleading voice as his son’s. He drops the mop and hurries after the group that has gathered around Joseph, sixteen-years old and a good student, who isn’t involved with gangs.

“He’s my son,” Franklin tells the nurse as she tries to prevent his entering the room where Joseph is being moved from the gurney to the bed by two orderlies, a nurse, and a doctor. He is pushed away from his son’s bed by the sheer volume of the doctors and nurses trying to save Joseph’s life. He resigns himself to waiting in the hall and continues mopping the floor, which is better than the large group gathering in the waiting room, some of them covered in blood. He doesn’t like the look of some of the young men he notices as he takes his bucket and mop to continue his work in another corridor. He’s accustomed to changing his mopping schedule in the inner-city hospital where people seem to find ways to injure themselves, even without guns, in the middle of the night.

Franklin forgets to call his wife and tell her about Joseph’s arrival at the ER because he’s distracted by the pain in his chest and his arm. “It doesn’t matter,” he tells himself. “There’s nothing she can do for Joseph and I’ll call her with the good news when Joseph is recovering.” Thus consoled, he finds that mopping the floor keeps his mind from wandering to the room where Joseph is lying unconscious, so he forgets about the nightmare he is experiencing. When he finishes mopping the floors in the rooms connected to the corridor, it’s time to replace the antibacterial mixture in his bucket. He’s dreading retracing his steps back to the custodial closet, past Joseph lying in a bed, and past the noisy group still gathering in the ER waiting room.

He enters the ER and goes to see how Joseph is doing. He has no problem now that there aren’t so many nurses and doctors getting him stabilized but when he looks behind the curtain, Franklin discovers that a young girl has replaced his son on the bed. She has tubes connected to her arm and an oxygen mask, but none of the machines is making a disconcerting sound, so he quietly slips out and goes to the nurses station, where Mary greets him with a worried expression.

“I guess Joseph is out of danger and in a regular room now,” he says with relief.

Mary shakes her head imperceptibly and, with tears filling her eyes, says, “I’m sorry, Franklin…I’m so sorry. I can’t believe it…I just can’t believe it…”

Franklin stumbles backwards and falls to his knees but doesn’t collapse from the pain in his chest. Mary rushes around the counter and asks him if he’s feeling ill and, as she helps him back to his feet, he stammers, “It’s such a shock to lose Joseph… I have to call my wife and tell her about it. I’m going to do that now.”

Mary watches Franklin ponderously push his mop bucket past the waiting area as the noise of the crowd suddenly increases in ferocity. Franklin is awakened from the stupor brought on by guilt and pain and looks up as several male voices make challenging and even threatening statements, which are answered by shrieks and profanity from the people closest to a young man who suddenly pulls a large pistol from his pocket and points it at an older man standing in front of him.

Without thinking, Franklin pulls the mop out of the bucket and ignores the pain in his chest as he raises it over his head and rushes forward. The heavy, wet mop sends the gun crashing to the floor as Franklin falls in a heap to the linoleum tile. He smiles as the gunman is knocked down by the force of the crowd.

Review of “The Koran,” translated by N. J. Dawood

I read this book as part of my political philosophy reading, so this review is not a commentary on Islam, which uses The Koran as its sacred scripture. First, let me say that the Penguin Classics version was recommended as the best translation, and it is very good. It is written in prose with excellent grammar and punctuation (I wish mine were as good as the translator’s) and is very easy to read. It also has brief footnotes for some vague references in the text. I got the impression that the footnotes were taken from early non-Koranic documents that were contemporaneous with the Koran. There is also a nice introduction that explains how The Koran was written about twenty years after Muhammad introduced the first chapter, which was to be recited after the oral tradition of the Arabs. Unfortunately, the chapters are not arranged in chronological order but from longest to shortest, although there are a few that are out of order.

It is apparent that the chapters were meant to be orally transmitted. Many of the paragraphs contain (or end with) phrases like, “In God let the trusting put their trust,” as if they’re intended as memory aids. Furthermore, the chapters are repetitive and most of the content is presented in the first chapter (32 pages), and then repeated selectively in subsequent shorter chapters.  The text explicitly states that the words were given to Muhammad by God, so the text is written as if by God; however, the third person (both singular and plural) tense is used almost exclusively. The translator did a good job with the dialogue, however, so it’s easy to understand who’s talking most of the time.

This book belongs on a political philosophy reading list because it is obvious (at least to me) that it was intended as an exhortation to political action. It could be treated as a primer on how to motivate a group of people to unite and improve their political situation. The first objective, which is a recurring theme, is to fit The Koran into the lineage of the Torah and Gospel, thus legitimizing it as a continuation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Stories from the Torah (first five books of Old Testament) are told from a unique perspective that would be understood by the original audience. A second objective is to delegitimize other religions, which is done by pointing out doctrinal errors made by the Jews and Christians and the egregious misunderstanding of the idolatrous Arabs (who apparently had a pantheon of gods). A third political objective is to use a carrot-and-stick approach: a heaven filled with physical pleasures is promised to true believers; while eternal fire (and many other explicitly described tortures) is promised to those who don’t believe that The Koran was given to Muhammad by God (the angel Gabriel was God’s intermediary) and do as Muhammad instructs. These three political objectives are woven into a convincing narrative that doesn’t demand perfect behavior (God is compassionate and forgiving), but only belief.

The explicit message of The Koran is peaceful. For example, believers are exhorted to be patient and tolerant of unbelievers and not argue with them, after sharing the warnings contained within The Koran because the unbelievers will pay for their misdeeds on the day of judgement; however, it sends a mixed message. There is one reference to cutting off the heads of unbelievers; and several battles are referred to (but not described) between the Muslims and the unbelievers (the people who lived in Mecca exiled Muhammad and then fought several battles with the Muslims). It is easy to imagine how a strong political leader (like Muhammad) could convince his followers that they were the “hand of God.” In fact, there are many references to who can legitimately avoid joining battle and who cannot. These “rules of engagement” address the fourth objective of The Koran – to show what must be done to achieve the overall goal of uniting the Arabs under one political authority. That the narrative spans twenty years, by which time the Muslims had already established control over (and forcibly converted) the population of Mecca, indicates that The Koran is a political guide for future generations to follow rather than simply a spiritual record of the origins of Islam.

The Koran is a masterpiece of political philosophy that has proven itself as a practical guide to unifying disparate peoples across great distances. In the space of twenty years, Muhammad transformed the Arabian Peninsula into a unified territory and, after his death, the Arabs created an Islamic empire that stretched from Spain to India and transformed the world. There aren’t very many political philosophies that can make that claim. For example, Islam rose from a small sect of believers following a madman (from The Koran) to reach its golden age (during the Abbasid Caliphate) in less than two centuries, whereas Christianity required three centuries just to be accepted within the Roman Empire and another four centuries to convert Europeans to its beliefs. I mention this only to illustrate the effectiveness of The Koran as a political tool, whereas older scriptures like the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospel had to be seriously compromised to serve political purposes (e.g. the Crusades).

I will finish this review with a personal observation. While I was reading The Koran I felt myself enthralled by the tempo of the text as it interwove exhortations to believe, threats (and promises) of the resurrection, and the carefully retold biblical stories I was familiar with from my childhood. This book is a remarkable merging of what I see as a powerful group indoctrination technique (The Koran was and still is shared orally in public spaces) and a simple and fair (for its day) code of personal conduct.

This is a powerful book with a very spiritual message, but I can’t recommend it unless you want to get a sense of what it means to be a Muslim.

Review of “Post Office,” by Charles Bukowski

First, the mundane stuff; this book is written in a crisp style reminiscent of a walk down memory lane years after events, but it isn’t a very pleasant stroll – more like a drunken stagger. Numerous grammatical errors (like missing verbs, etc.) can be distracting but it is easy to read.

This review is short because the book is more like a novella than a novel. In fact, it seems that the author wrote the most memorable part (I can believe that from the story) first, so this is the middle portion of the entire story. I remained curious but I wasn’t turning pages as fast as I could either, nor was I dreading my daily reading. It isn’t humorous but the tongue-in-cheek writing style and the bizarre situations the protagonist finds himself in do elicit a chuckle now and then. I don’t know if it’s autobiographical or not and I don’t care. It is a fictional story.

At any rate, one of my complaints is that the author either assumes that (or doesn’t care if) the reader is familiar with how mail is processed and distributed. These details figure prominently throughout the book but there is no description of what they are; including the places where the character worked, the equipment he used, how he got around. Nothing, until a focus on “schemes” used to sort mail (before machines took over that mundane task), and that was brief.

I did feel that I understood the central character to some degree through the many experiences he had during the eleven or twelve-year period covered in the story. The story line is somewhat episodic, mostly centered on romantic relationships, but succeeds with very few words to convey the sense of desperation and meaninglessness of his career and life. The author managed to take a mundane person with no outstanding personal qualities and show that he was just like the rest of us (albeit with a passion for drinking too much and horse tracks). One key element was missing, however; I really didn’t learn what made Henry Chinaski tick, even after I’d finished the book. He was simply rehashing every day (and every year) over and over. Maybe that’s explained in one of the other two books.

I won’t be reading the rest of the story but, if you find Post Office laying around and don’t have to buy a copy and wait for it to arrive, it’s worth a read.

Review of “Las Cosas Que Perdimos en el Fuego,” by Mariana Enriquez

This is the latest in my Spanish reading. The English translation is “The Things We Lost in the Fire.” This is a collection of short stories by an Argentinian author. My first comment is that Spanish in Argentina drops a lot more pronouns than what I’ve read before. I had to read the entire sentence and glean every hint from word endings to know who was doing what to whom. And lots of slang that Google Translate only guessed about half the time. I’ve been listening to an audio lecture series on language and I’m beginning to suspect that written fictional Spanish follows spoken language standards rather than the written (i.e., formal) style. It’s a free for all.

The stories are all set in Argentina in the last thirty or so years, focusing on the seamier side of life for average Argentinians rather than criminals – people struggling with day-to-day life in a nation with extreme income inequality and entire cities of homeless people. There’s also some black magic and gruesome child abuse. The characters are all seriously disturbed but not enough to be institutionalized and the stories are thus real downers (especially when read carefully to try and understand them). I would add that none of the stories have endings; the reader is left hanging with no conclusion –  like the cliffhanger season finale of a popular TV show. The depiction of what people are thinking and dealing with on a daily basis is very well portrayed, however, especially when read in the native language of the region. Every story left me with a combination of sympathy and disgust for the plight of any rational person who might find themselves living under the circumstances portrayed in this book.

In general, I don’t like stories like those contained in this book, but I didn’t read it for entertainment. This is a gritty, realistic depiction of life in a developing country where frustration, superstition, inequality, and death are daily events. Just don’t read it if you want some kind of closure.

A Review of “Until I Find You,” by John Irving

I’ve been stalling to write this review. The author is world renowned and this book was a New York Times bestseller. The rave reviews (printed in a special preface entitled “Praise for…”) filled four pages. I must be a Martian. I don’t know how all of those reviewers could have read the entire book, which is 820 pages; after all, this novel takes several days to read and they don’t get paid by the hour. I actually read the entire book at my usual slow pace and I understand it as well as anyone (without using literary jargon meant to confuse and obfuscate). I’m not going to pretend to know what the author was thinking when he wrote it; I’m only going to throw my two-cents-worth into the pot.

The book is grammatically well written and the copy editor did a good job. I only found a few typos and punctuation errors. The style (at first) leans heavily on interjections introduced through parenthetical sentences and even paragraphs, but then the style changes to less-evocative prose. That isn’t my main complaint, however; this book is nothing more than a thin treatment of childhood sexual abuse drowned by irrelevant details. The author was bored with the story before he finished it, and simply threw an ending together. (I don’t blame him.) (BTW these parenthetical sentences are examples of the style used in the first part of the book.)

If you want to learn about tattooing and the (sometimes real) people in the industry; acoustic organs; nineteenth century organ music; the geography of Scandinavian cities; the (imaginary?) life of a small boy in an all-girls school; wrestling; and a bizarre twist of several (imaginary) books and screenplays written by characters in the novel – this book is for you.

The plot got lost in the details and even the author apparently lost track because, when the central character finally found his estranged father (they’d never met), there was absolutely no explanation of what caused a deeply religious man, tattooed from neck to foot, to abandon his son, and (when he got older) to play the acoustic organ in a church before removing his clothes and exposing himself in public. To make the ending even less plausible, the central character (Jack Burns) is suddenly cured of years of sexual child abuse by people he trusted (not his family) and accepts his estranged biological father’s behavior as normal.

This book strains incredulity beyond the breaking point. It read like a never-ending Saturday Night Live skit and not one of the humorous ones. I think I laughed twice while reading it, but I can’t remember when because most of the book was filled with mind-numbing details about topics I couldn’t care less about, especially when presented in such excruciating detail. This book was published before social influencers had taken over, but I don’t think it matters. I’ve read several recent books that were recommended by the news media and they were just as bad as Until I Find You. Nothing has changed, only the medium.

Even if I didn’t have a policy of not reading more than one book by an author, I will never read ANYTHING by John Irving again; I can only speculate that screenplays based on his books (e.g., The World According to Garp and The Cypress House Rules) bore little resemblance to the books.

In summary, this book was as hard to read as The Divine Comedy, except it wasn’t written 700 year ago. I prayed for the ending, which was as much of a let-down as the entire book.

A review of “El Principe de la Niebla,” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The English translation of the title is, “The Prince of the Fog.” I read this book as part of my Spanish lessons. I’m surveying a range of genres and authors to expand my vocabulary. I’ve learned that each book has a unique vocabulary, with certain words used repeatedly by individual authors. This is a short book which would probably be more correctly called a novella. It’s intended audience is probably junior high but it was challenging for me. The author is a well-known Spanish writer, so this gave me an opportunity to see how different he writes from the Latin American translations of English books I’ve read before. (I’ve recently started reading books written in Spanish to avoid translation issues.) I’m not going to review this as a children’s book, but as a general-purpose novel, which was suggested by the author himself in the foreward.

I enjoyed the story, even though I don’t generally read horror stories, because Zafon develops characters well with minimal words and reveals nuanced relationships between the characters. His descriptions of scenes and thoughts are very good but limited because of the brevity of the story. I don’t know how common it is for non-English authors to locate their stories in England; at first, I assumed the setting was the Spanish coast of the English Channel but it seems to have been set on the southeast coast of England but – to be honest – he never explicitly states the location (there are references to workers coming from London). I couldn’t help imagining Spanish characters, probably because of the language and the general culture described in the text. The Spanish was a little different from the Latino Spanish translations of English books I read before but it wasn’t difficult.

I got the impression that it was originally going to be a short story but the author realized it was getting too long because he was doing a thorough job introducing the setting and characters, so he turned it into a novel; however, since his target audience was children (who don’t generally read long books), he cut it short once the story got to the action. Nevertheless, the action scenes, culminating with a dramatic ending during a huge storm, were very exciting and easy to imagine from the descriptions. What was lacking was a sense of why any of it occurred. Instead of revealing the evil creature through the experiences of several character, the author had one of them relate what he knew about what was happening. Ultimately, I was unsatisfied with the explanation but I guess pre-teens wouldn’t be expecting too much. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the ending, which was definitely not a happy ending for everyone. I think that’s a message the target age group should learn from books before it happens to them in real life. Overall, I liked the book and would recommend it to anyone learning Spanish and looking for moderately difficult books to read.

Next up: I’m now reading a book written by a young Argentine woman using a lot of slang and vernacular…and it is very hard to read. See you next time!

 

Review of “The Divine Comedy.”

I’m not sure how to review this book. It was written around 1306 by Dante Alighieri, who was a respected Italian (before there was a nation called Italy) poet in the  Middle Ages in Florence. So I’m not going to be too hard on it. It’s a very long poem (693 pages) that doesn’t rhyme because of the translation to English, so it’s very difficult to read. It was translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1858, who was a poet himself, not that it mattered because of the aforementioned problem. Sometimes, I tried to get in a poetic rhythm while reading it and other times I just read the sentences (it has normal English punctuation) and ignored the lines and stanzas. Neither method helped.

Okay. Now to the content. I would call this a work of science fiction/fantasy if it were written today. Of course, it was written as a religious poem and in fact has been treated almost as sacred by the Catholic Church. The main character is Dante, who is led through a series of ever-descending (and more disturbing) levels by Virgil (a Roman poet), where we meet people Dante knew from Florence. I have to digress a moment and say that Dante had been exiled from Florence in a dispute between two different groups supporting different Popes. Dante picked the losing side and never returned to Florence.

Hell is filled with people he doesn’t like, most of whom are repentant although there are a few who tell him to get lost. I guess he really didn’t like those guys. There are detailed descriptions of people being devoured by lizards, disemboweled, beheaded, drowning in mud and water, burned by flaming balls falling from the sky, walking through flames, and even more fun stuff. Spoiler alert: Satan is at the bottom of Hell chewing on – you guessed it – Judas Iscariot in a frozen lake! I guess that’s where the phrase “cold as hell” originated. I always wondered about that, but now I know the origin of the phrase.

Then Dante and Virgil begin climbing a mountain through Purgatory, where he meets more people he doesn’t like (but who he didn’t perceive as evil) and some erstwhile allies from Florence. They climb the mountain and angels arrive intermittently to inform residents that they’ve waited long enough. There’s a lot of wailing and moaning here but no physical punishment. They’re joined by an old friend of Dante’s, who’s been promoted to a higher level of purgatory.

To be honest, I couldn’t keep track of how many levels there were in any of the realms he visited; for example, Hell had both levels and some kind of ditches within levels. There may have been nine levels with three sub-levels in Hell (the text is rather difficult to understand on one reading) and I was so confused by the time he exited Purgatory to enter Heaven that I didn’t even try to count after that. The friend from Purgatory wasn’t ready to go to Heaven yet, and Virgil couldn’t because he was a pagan (Virgil lived before Christianity was the official religion of Rome.), so Dante is met by his new guide who turns out to be (no surprise) a woman he’d always wanted to have an affair with but hadn’t been able to pull off.

Heaven is presented as a series of rings filled with spirits who sing a lot in Latin and the whole theme of the story becomes more philosophical, mostly on religious topics. There are lectures by saints (including St. Peter) and other notables on the corruption of the Papacy (remember that Dantes’ choice for Pope lost the religious war), including some friends of his. He goes up this stairway through ever-brightening circles of saints and angels and other luminaries (literally) – by the way, I’m certain that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is based on this image – to finally be overcome with joy and incessant singing at the ninth (or maybe the tenth) ring. We never meet God. I guess that would have been considered sacrilegious.

My overall impression is hard to put into words. This story would make a great movie. There’s plenty of action as Dante travels through Hell and Purgatory and lots of dialogue, which addresses many topics that were of great interest to people during the Middle Ages, which has been referred to as the “Age of Faith.”  There is a very natural progression in the action and the dialogue, as well as Dante’s growing sense of his own human weakness, during his journey.

I was going to keep this review short and just say I hated the story but, as I thought about it while writing this review, I got over my initial bad impression (based on the poem format and clumsy language used by the translator) and recognized the imagination and thought that had gone into the work, especially considering when it was written. Bottom line: It’s a good story but should not be read in the intellectually punishing format I suffered through. It would be much better in prose since it has practically no resemblance to a poem in the English translation, and without the poetic English that was favored (apparently) by Longfellow. I mean, really, if you’re going to translate from ancient Italian to English, why take a detour through Old English? Let the story stand on its own merits, which aren’t that bad.

Review of “El Libro de los Americanos Desconocidos,” by Christina Henriquez

I’ve been reading Spanish language novels recently and this is my third. This book was simultaneously published in English (the original language) and Spanish. Thus, my review should be taken as applicable to either version. However, this book is best read in Spanish because all of the characters are Hispanic and almost every word in it should be understood in Spanish. I read it to improve my reading comprehension. Nevertheless, it is a good exploration of the way many Americans (some of the characters are naturalized citizens) live.

The main story is about a Mexican family who came to the U.S. to seek special education for their daughter who had suffered a brain injury in an accident. All of the characters find themselves in a run-down apartment complex in Delaware, where they interact around the central theme. The author does a very good job presenting this disparate group of immigrants, so much in fact that I didn’t like any of them. I should add that many of them are only introduced in short chapters that summarize their stories, but I don’t see how she could have avoided that problem. Nevertheless, there was a sense of abruptness to their stories, which had very little to do with the main story. It probably should have been longer.

I especially appreciated how the author thoughtfully revealed the mental anguish (and personal behavior) of the central character, who I found myself disliking as I learned more about her. Don’t get me wrong. Creating and developing a character who isn’t evil and does nothing unethical that a reader learns to dislike is very difficult. Still, this woman is responsible, through what I would call her fundamental stupidity, for everything bad that happens to her family. This part, which is key to the entire story, is very well written.

The ending seemed a little contrived but it works because of the focus on the main character; however, I would have enjoyed some follow-through on the secondary romantic story line. It didn’t happen. I think the author didn’t want (or know how) to bring all of these separate themes together. Had she done that, it would have been a great book. As it is, it’s a good book and I would recommend it to anyone who wants an inside look into the fate of immigrants from Latin America.