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If you are like me, you are tempted by autobiographies of writers whose work you love. You hope to get that extra bit of insight that will expand your appreciation of their writing. Usually, these hints come from long passages about writing and inspiration concerning those works. In Now and Then, Mr. Heller is more laconic about that sort of information than many writers are. On the other hand, he is very generous in explaining his personal psychology, demons, work habits, and writing blocks. You will come to appreciate that Mr. Heller is a man beset by some important demons who overcomes them with wry wit that delights almost everyone. The book's weakness is that you will perhaps get more knowledge about Coney Island in the 1930s than you had counted on. If you are from Coney Island, on the other hand, you will revel in all of the myriad details and will want to give this book more than five stars.
Mr. Heller takes great pleasure in his success, his career, his recognition, and his accomplishments. He takes equal delight in his ability to use language with precision and erudition. The autobiography allows him plenty of opportunities to focus on all of these pleasing elements. To make this self-indulgence more palatable to the reader, he pokes a bit of fun at himself with gentle irony.
But all of this seeming self-indulgence is really procrastination to delay dealing with the painful parts of his life story. His father's death while he was young, and later exposure to the horrors of war in World War II left a deep stamp on his emotional make-up. The book describes an important catharsis as Mr. Heller identifies what he learned from psychoanalysis and the pscyhological testing that his employers applied. His self-descriptions perfectly mirror his characterization of what happened in a typical psychoanalysis session. He would tell witty stories, jokes, and did everything possible to please the analyst . . . so he would not have to focus on the problems that faced him that day. And so the book does the same.
I came away with a new appreciation for Mr. Heller after coming to see how much of his great writing and humor serve as his defense against deep emotional wounds. I hope that we can all learn how to cope as well.
After you finish this book, think about where you procrastinate. What is it that you are trying to avoid facing about yourself?
Tell the truth . . . and make it interesting if you want to help others! You may also help youself.
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on December 10, 2000
Marguerite Oswald, the loquacious and vaguely lunatic mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, once announced her intention to write a memoir with the title "This and That," a title suggestive of the scattered contents of her always-busy mind.
Now, Joseph Heller is no Mother Oswald -- thank heaven for that -- but reading his memoir, "Now and Then," I couldn't help thinking that he should have filched Oswald's unused title for his own. For Heller, the author of the bitterly funny "Catch-22" and several other less winsome novels, has filled the pages of this somewhat disorderly memoir with a collection of remembrances that have no more logic to them than a dream.
Still, Heller is Heller, and even the most jumbled segments of this generally affable memoir have their share of insightful observations and amusing asides. Heller's memories of his Coney Island childhood are laced with sardonic humor and bathed in a warm glow of nostalgia. He tells of his first (and last) ride on the Cyclone at Luna Park (as a returning Air Force airman with 60 missions under his belt); of street games of "punchball" (a sort of stickball without the stick); of swims out to the bell buoy at Coney Island Beach -- which he only now recognizes were exceedingly dangerous ventures.
Most of this memoir deals with Heller's childhood, his stint in the Air Force and his years as a young adult. Aside from relating his early struggles to get into print (one of which involved a story called "Did You Ever Fall In Love With a Midget Weighing Thirty-eight Pounds?"), Heller provides few insights into his career as a writer.
But the crumbs he gives are intriguing enough. He notes that over the years his memories of wartime incidents have gotten so intermingled with his fictional versions of them he can't always tell them apart. But there are some things he'll never forget. Like most writers, Heller is unable to forgive a bad review, including one rather unkindly review of "Catch-22" from the New Yorker, which declared that the novel didn't "even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper." Heller restrains himself from gloating over the book's triumph over its early critics, but, as he notes with blunt honesty, "What restrains me is the knowledge that the lashings still smart, even after so many years, and if I ever pretend to be a good sport about them, I am only pretending."
An eclectically myriad view of and by the author of Catch-22.
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on March 22, 2001
As a person who also grew up in Coney Island all be it some thirty years after Mr. Heller did, I found this book to be a delight. It was really something to read about some of the people that I knew and some that my parents had told me about, as well. I totally disagree with the premise of some of the other reviewers about Heller not giving insight into how he came about to write such a classic as, "Catch 22". Actually it is in fact the environment, ethnicity and characters of Coney Island of that era that gave him his wonderful wit. I should know I have plenty of them in my immediate family. It was also nice to know that I am not the only one who felt the way that he did about swimming out to the bell buoy. All that aside, the book is very interesting and profound, and definately gives us all an insight into the heart, mind and life experiences of one of Americas great satirical authors.
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on August 12, 2002
I bought this book solely on my admiration of Heller's great book Catch-22, and I wanted to find out more background on the guy who wrote this strange and cynical bit of humor. But once I started reading, I got pulled into another realm, the world of Coney Island during the depression, where a fatherless Jewish family struggled to make ends meet while living in the shadows of this wonderland boardwalk and amusement park area. I live near Coney Island, and always wonder about its past, the demographic that lived there and made it mighty, and then watched it coast back down to what it is today. Heller's book is such a wonderful and detailed display of this childhood, that after fifty pages, I didn't even care about what happened to him in the war. This is covered a bit, and he does lay down some interesting facts about how some people and events in Catch-22 really happened. But he doesn't spend that much time on the war, and instead drifts into how his writing career got started, how he worked the chump jobs and waited for the magazines to pay him $10 a story, until he really made it. The book is a bit anticlimactic in the end, especially when you realize Heller is gone now and this is the end of the road. But despite his habit of jumping forward and backward in time (A lot like Catch') I'd call this book a success, although maybe in an area that wasn't as advertized by the jacket or publicity.
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on March 26, 1999
I enjoyed this autobiography immensely. Mr. Heller is warm, kind,and affectionate of the people in his life- half-brother and half-sister and many friends. His memories of Coney Island before WWII are well drawn and memorable. The immediate pre-war period and air force experiences are also well written and engaging. Mr. Heller's voice here is casual, friendly, amusing, and sometimes very funny. This is a wonderful book, totally enjoyable and I encourage Mr. Heller to do another book covering parts of his life not included here.
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on July 15, 1998
Life in Coney Island in the 30's and 40's is an interesting topic, but you would think that the man who wrote Catch-22, and other best sellers, studied abroad, taught college, and is a friend of people like Mario Puzo and Mel Brooks would cover some other ground. Heller barely, and semingly grudgingly does so. He reveals a little bit about the actual war time people and experiences he used for Catch-22, but I wanted more. More on the war, more on his celebrity friends, and more on anything but Coney Island.
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on July 25, 1999
Many years ago I picked up a copy of 'Catch 22' and found myself totally engrossed for a whole weekend. The book was funny, original and unlike anything I have read before or since. I have read this novel no less than 5 times and have been recommending it to people for years.
I picked up Heller's memoir expecting the same witty bizarre writing as that in C22 but alas it was not to be. Quite a lot of Heller's memoir is based around growing up in Coney Island. I would suggest that this section of the memoir would be of interest to people either live or have lived in or around that locale.
What I was hoping for was more detail into the events which shaped Heller's views and eventually gave rise to C22. There is some detail of his wartime exploits but it is very quickly skirted over and dosen't leave one any wiser as to how/why Heller developed his bizarre comical view of the world and war as depicted so clearly in C22.
Perhaps I do him an injustice with the inevitable comparison but there is little evidence of the witty, clever writing so abundant in C22. In fairness though Heller seems to have been more interested in writing a frank succinct account of his life and times, particularly growing up in Coney Island. Notwithstanding these criticisms Heller does bare his soul here and discusses openly very personal details of his life. There is some sadness . The Father he never knew is an aspect of his life he discusses in great detail. The memoir however ends on a positive note as he reflects on his health, his achievements and his general outlook on life.
One is left with the impression of a fundamentally decent guy. Someone whom it would be nice to know and maybe share a beer with.
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VINE VOICEon July 6, 2009
In this book, which is categorized as a biography (autobiography), Joseph Heller recounts his life. Though it is a biography, much of the focus strays from the author. For example, while a good portion of the book focuses on the era of his youth, most of the pages focus on changes in Coney Island and the people in the neighborhood. Heller's family life is discussed, but it almost seems as though Heller is avoiding some aspects of it intentionally. Admittedly, discussion of his father's death was avoided in the family. The reader may wonder what other things Heller did not want to talk about.

Most people know of Joseph Heller because of "Catch-22". Heller does reveal some interesting details about the book including people from his war experience on which characters were based. Because Heller shies away from the spotlight, many of these details were first published in "Now and Then". For aspiring writers, Heller docuemts the long, hard road he took to getting published. Aside from the war, Heller worked to magazines and other odd job trying on his road to success.

While there were some amusing and revealing points to the book, there was not enough about the author. The book had a lot of potential in its embryonic stages, but the editor neglected to have Heller focus on the reason people would buy the book. People want to read about Joseph Heller not the interesting people he met in his life.
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on November 17, 2005
not like his novels, because this book is less edited--irrelevancies, parenthetical comments, asides, which slow down narrative. Masterful description of sights and sounds still there--characteristic of other New York writers, such as Breslin and Puzo-- but without ominousness of "Closing Time." Descriptions of Coney Island are superb; if he had grown up anywhere else, he and his life would have been very different. Has difficulty reading character in real life; describes one classmate as "an idealist;" T.S. Eliot told Donald Hall the same fellow was a shameless careerist for hounding widow Yeats for her husband's literary papers. Turns his contemporaties into rivals, unnecessarily.Subjects he avoids demonstrate Victorian propriety. Dislikes being an icon, despite seeking fame and writing for money. A romantic with a mystical streak who becomes nihilistic from disappointment--perfect for a post-war icon and truthful as far as it goes, which isn't far enough. Enough truth here to be worth reading. All criticism diminishes him, for example, even from people he detests. What writer would argue with that?
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on November 30, 2005
not like his novels, because this book is less edited--irrelevancies, parenthetical comments, asides, which slow down narrative. Masterful description of sights and sounds still there--characteristic of other New York writers, such as Breslin and Puzo-- but without ominousness of "Closing Time." Descriptions of Coney Island are superb; if he had grown up anywhere else, he and his life would have been very different. Has difficulty reading character in real life; describes one classmate as "an idealist;" T.S. Eliot told Donald Hall the same fellow was a shameless careerist for hounding widow Yeats for her husband's literary papers. Turns his contemporaties into rivals, unnecessarily.Subjects he avoids demonstrate Victorian propriety. Dislikes being an icon, despite seeking fame and writing for money. A romantic with a mystical streak who becomes nihilistic from disappointment--perfect for a post-war icon and truthful as far as it goes, which isn't far enough. Enough truth here to be worth reading. All criticism diminishes him, for example, even from people he detests. What writer would argue with that?
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