One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
By Ken Kesey (1962)
If the book were as good as the movie, I would have been happy. However, as is usually the case, the book includes dimensions that go beyond the film that earned five Oscars. Told from the point of view of “Chief,” a Native-American who pretends to be a deaf-mute, we get to see the arrival of Randle “R. P.” McMurphy, a new patient a little more bold and brash than most men at what is often commonly referred to as a “mental institution.” What sets McMurphy apart from other patients is that he had been sentenced to a prison work farm, thus he uses a series of radical behaviors to convince those in charge that he might be more crazy and less criminal. This is his attempt to be transfered from the harsher environment of prison life, but it doesn’t take long for him to realize – well, for us to realize – maybe he was better off in prison.
Running the ward in which Chief, McMurphy, and a dozen or so other men spend their days is Nurse Ratched, a strict, woman who seems to have more control over patients and procedures than the doctors. She’s not at all flexible and seems intent on rehabilitating McMurphy in order to get him in line with the ward’s mouse-like men, which include the “Acutes,” men who are deemed curable, and the “Chronics,” composed of some diagnosed as beyond curable and some in a vegetative state.
Kesey wrote the book after working as an orderly in a psychiatric institution where he not only interviewed patients and observed hospital operations but also willingly took psychoactive drugs including mescaline and LSD as part of a CIA mind-control program known as Project MKUltra.
As for the Chief, he’s there due to hallucinations following his time in World War II. He regularly refers to the “Combine,” or an inner-working system that drives, controls, and has influence on nearly everything and everything. If the Combine wants to use you in a certain way, it will do so at its whim. The Combine was also part of individuals, evidence of that to the Chief were the occasional wires and metal elements he could “see” behind walls and through someone’s skin. Because of the Combine, we have to consider the Chief as an unreliable narrator. He admits as such early on when he says that the story he’s about to tell might not have actually happened, but it is still the truth.
The guts of the story are seen in the small battles and the overall war between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy. It’s mainly through her actions against him and other men that McMurphy slowly realizes his fate is not at all in his own hands as he initially believed when he so successfully earned his transfer. As he starts to see who is really in control and just how much control Ratched possessed, McMurphy starts to question – but only internally – if he might have been better off staying on the work farm.
Most of you have seen the movie. All of you should read the book. If you have read the book but have seen the film, pick up a copy and read it. Then watch the film again to fully absorb the story.
Ur (a novella)
By Stephen King (2009)
Once again, we get a frustrated English teacher as the main character in a Stephen King story. Surprise. Wesley Smith has ideas, or partial ideas, but not once has he ever actually written one of his stories. He’s rather traditional in that he adheres to print and is reticent to join the Kindle or eReader bandwagon. When his girlfriend breaks up with him, partly because of his stubbornness, he buys a Kindle as a way of showing his girlfriend he’s willing to make an effort to advance.
Wesley orders a Kindle as a means to win back his ex-girlfriend who is away for several days after telling him not to contact her, give her time to think, and they’ll talk when she gets back. His Kindle arrives, but it’s pink instead of white like every other unit. As Wes explores its features, he finds an unusual menu that includes non-existent books from authors including Hemingway. He also finds news stories that greatly differ from known history, as least the known history in the current world. These Kindle news stories are coming from an alternate universe in which slight ripples have turned into world-changing waves.
One of the news stories he finds is about a tragic accident that kills a busload of students from his school. Through more intricate research, he finds the cause of the bus crash. However, if he messes with the past in order to change the future, what other ripples might escape and what other events will be upset? It seems like something we’ve seen before, and we did in King’s novel 11/22/63, about the Kennedy assassination. The biggest difference between the two stories is 11/22/63 was horribly long compared to this novella.
I wouldn’t call Ur worth reading, but it’s not so horrible that you can’t spend 21,000 words to find out. Slight warning – the ending is definitely not what I expected, but don’t translate that into “good.”
Apple Tree Yard
By Louise Doughty (2013)
Yvonne Carmichael is a geneticist in her 50’s and has done very little that most would consider “exciting.” That changes when, after speaking as an expert in her field, she is interrupted by a very persuasive but unnamed man who engages her in conversation while leading her away from wherever she was intending to go. Instead going home or her office or lunch (I seriously can’t recall), she ends up in what seems like a broom closet in the basement of a government building while Mr. Mysterious pulls her underwear down, pushes her dress up, and proceeds to introduce her to a whole new world of fun.
Thus begins an affair of several months that involves secret meetings in hidden apartments, special cell phones, and a kind of personal liberation that Yvonne inhales like a breath of fresh air in contrast to her husband, boringly named Guy and with a similarly boring but honorable profession. It all seems like good not-so-clean fun as long as nobody knows. Unfortunately, their torrid adultery is turned sideways when something horrible happens to Yvonne, horrible enough that Mr. Mysterious wants to get involved. However, to do so would threaten their secret relationship.
I won’t give away exactly the horrible event is, but I can say – spoiler free – that it puts both of them on trial. The reason that’s not a spoiler is because the book opens with Yvonne on the witness stand while Mr. Mysterious, whom we later learned is named Mark, watches her testimony. It’s a rather melodramatic way to begin a book, much like a made-for-TV movie or something on the Hallmark Channel or the Lifetime Network. Start at the end, interrupt just as she’s about to give startling testimony that causes her lover to hide his face in his hands, and then rewind back to the beginning until you eventually catch up to that same point. Rather cliché, if you ask me.
Although Apple Tree Yard felt exactly like a cross between a soap opera and the afore-mentioned made-for-TV movie, I was mildly enjoying it until one of the characters, if not both, made some stupid choices that I don’t think anyone in reality would ever make. Although there is an attempt to explain the bad choices, I didn’t buy it. Once they happened, and that wasn’t until maybe the last 90% of the story, I had lost interest and just wanted it to be over.
There are logistical problems too. For example, the story is annoyingly told in first-person POV and present tense, which for me is the absolute worst choice. But the story is also supposed to be a long document that Yvonne is typing on her computer and hiding from her husband. That means everything has already happened because, if the book is supposed to be the single document as proposed, it would mean that it had to be typed all at once. But that makes no sense if it’s typed in present tense. Also, by the end of the book, we learn that her original document had been deleted. So that means what we’re reading is a second document that she had to retype after the first one was deleted. Would anyone really retype 320 pages? No way. Included in those 320 pages are too many paragraphs devoted to useless descriptions of unimportant things that seemed to do little more than stretch the story out and prevent me from getting to the next book.
There are other reasons that make it illogical for the story to actually be her recollections, but that would give too much away. I’ll keep that. What I won’t keep is a copy of Apple Tree Yard, and I won’t keep you here any longer over a book that isn’t worth reading.
A Head Full of Ghosts
By Paul Tremblay (2015)
In the previous review, I wrote how useless details did little more than “prevent me from getting to the next book.” This is the next book. I didn’t get past the first chapter. It began with a girl entering an old house accompanied by a writer in order to do an interview in the home where something horrible happened to the girl’s family, specifically her sister. It was written in first person POV, present tense, just like the previous book and it’s what I absolutely abhor reading. In fairness, this could be a fabulous story. I’m not trashing it. I just don’t like those three elements: 1. first-person POV, 2. present tense, 3. start at the end. So I didn’t read it.
It began with the same melodrama of starting at the end, luring us into the idea of “Oooh! Something bad happened! Let’s find out what it is!” Sorry, but that seems like something I expect from a high school student, not from a published author. It did not take long before I had the urge to bail on the story. Once I was certain that the actual story had already happened and I was about to get the girl’s recollections of everything, I was done. Keep in mind that the girl telling the story was only 8-years old when all the bad things happen, so her recollections are not the most reliable.
However, from what I’ve read on Amazon, a girl seems to be either schizophrenic or possessed. The family contacts a priest to do an exorcism, and he contacts a production company to make a reality show about what’s going on. I know – it gets more high school-ish with each new detail. But there’s a funny story in all this.
As some of you know, I usually Tweet out what book I’m reading when I start something new. So I Tweeted this one and included the author’s name. Nice thing to do, right? Then a few hours later, when I bailed, I Tweeted something like “No way! Not another 1st person POV, present tense, melodrama that starts at the end, rewinds, and then tells the story!” Shortly after that, I noticed the author had “favorited” my first Tweet. I hope he didn’t see the second one. Oh well. In fairness, had I not just read a book that had those three elements I despise, I might have continued reading.
In the Tall Grass (a novella)
By Stephen King and Joe Hill (2012)
In a collaboration by King and his son, In the Tall Grass is a novella about a field of tall grass that seems to have a life of its own. When someone ventures into it, they’re not at all likely to come out again. If they do, they won’t be the same – not mentally and probably not physically either. The grass moves, it plays with reality, with your head, with your mind, and with your perceptions of your surroundings.
Twins Cal and Becky are on a cross-country road trip when they hear a boy’s voice calling for help. First, they were blasting the radio at the time, so they never would have heard the voice. Second, it doesn’t really matter. They pull over and call out to the boy, who is joined by the voice of his mother. She tells the boy to be quiet because “he” will hear him, and that will be bad. Cal and Becky try to talk to them, find out where they are, and want to help. It doesn’t work out well.
I found it boring. It seemed as if King and Hill said to themselves, “I wonder what other crazy thing we can throw in here?” Although the story eventually stops, there isn’t really an ending. Occasionally, that can work well, but it doesn’t in this story. I won’t explain that in case you decide to give it a shot. After reading it, I felt like I had just eaten a light lunch but was still hungry. Nothing more to say.
25 thoughts on “One-Minute Book Reviews, vol. 10”
Thanks for the reminder to read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” What is it with frustrated English teachers? 🙂
dunno, but they seem to be popular characters.
i guess it’s king’s way of honoring his previous profession.
i’m finding i have less and less patience for genre fiction as opposed to literary fiction. what kind of fiction do you prefer?
I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, Rich.
i like thrillers. don’t like “whodunits.”
Sounds like the “moving grass” is a play on the moving hedges that King used in the haunted hotel book. He went back and developed that “character”.
right, in The Shining. i hadn’t thought of that. thanks.
Don’t forget about He Who Walks Behind The Rows in CHILDREN OF THE CORN, too. This just sounds like a mix of SHINING, CHILDREN, and a fan’s perspective of THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
i’m not aware of He Who Walks Behind the Rows. i might have to look that up, but i’ll probably be disappointed. thanks.
also, i don’t like first person narration because it isn’t necessarily reliable. a person can lie to us without us knowing it. a third-person narrator is usually more reliable as being objective.
I admit I really enjoyed “the stand”
even the ending, which was one of the most “convenient” endings in any of his books? it’s literally the definition of the dreaded “deus ex machina.”
nothing wraps things up like a nuke – no loose ends ! 🙂
meh. too convenient to have the conflict resolved in such a way. it’s like king got tired of writing and wrapped it up as easily as possible.
it was pretty long as I recall, though I read it many many years ago.
I’d also like to thank you for the reminder to read CUCKOO. Sometimes we get wrapped up in our own stories and genres we forget to break from the norm and take our minds elsewhere. I am curious, though, why you don’t care for the first person pov/present tense combo. Have you never seen this successfully applied, or is it a matter of voice, or _____?
when i read something like “I open the door and scream when i see two headless bodies on the sidewalk.” it is not logical. nobody can tell me a story as it is happening. it’s as if someone is on the phone telling me the story or writing in a notebook as it happens. i realize i’m being picky, but it doesn’t make sense. i’m currently reading a story that involves flashbacks. however, both the forward and backwards parts of the story are written in present tense. that’s just not possible. you can’t have present tense in two different time periods. this also happened in “Water for Elephants.”
That sounds…I’ll say tedious. I admit, I don’t mind present tense so much–the stream of consciousness feel can allow for some messing with the reader (in a good way!) by having an unreliable narrator, and then realizing/learning things with the narrator. This, I’ve found, CAN help readers become more engrossed, but you have to do it right. I am trying to think of a title where this strategy was successful…and failing, sorry. Nothing like an argument without evidence! (sorry about that)
it’s nothing to be sorry about. it’s something to look forward to. in my next review, i’ll have more comments on this from the book i’m currently reading, Birdbox.
Good! As with many things, reading through the “bad” stuff helps us know what NOT to do in our own work. Of course everyone’s definition of “bad writing” is going to differ, but I can certainly attest that reading, say, the DIVERGENT series (yes, I admit it) I learned some extremely valuable lessons about voice, plot, and character.
i have not read that series as i’m a little tired of the YA dystopian stuff. i read the hunger games because my kid loved it and i wanted to be able to talk to her about it, but i wasn’t thrilled with that being first person-present tense from a girl who was running for her life. it’s not as if she were wired with a microphone to tell us everything that was happening in real time.
Oh yes. I remember being deeply impacted by THE GIVER, which I would consider MG instead of YA (I refuse to discuss the film’s existence), but now there’s just an extreme saturation of the setting and idea. While I wish there would be some fresh departures from the niche, I think I’d still have an easier time stomaching another dystopia than a “ugly duckling to swan” high school story.
technically, that’s what harry potter is – ugly duckling to swan. it’s no accident those stories are very popular and prevalent. many authors/publishers/agents are targeting that niche because that’s how a great deal of readers see themselves. many MG and YA readers are not the most socially adapted and spend a lot of time alone with few friends. so an ugly ducking story gives them some hope through identification. however, to address your point, yes. i’ll take the dystopian over the kid who thought he/she was nothing and then finds they’ve got some kind of hidden talent/beauty/ability or something that allows them to blossom.
Quite true about the publishers. I can’t fault writers completely for writing within a “safe” market, but come on–the plot elements are going to overlap. A lot. At least the dystopia MUST have some sense of originality, at least a touch. At least I hope so…