Jan. 11th, 2010

tispity: (Book pile)
I'm going to try to keep this up for a second year, so I'm glad to be kicking it off with a couple of really memorable ones.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

'Does it work? Are they happier dead?'
'Sometimes. Mostly, no. It's like the people who believe they'll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn't work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. If you see what I mean.'

Barry bought me this one for Christmas and I'm glad he did. While this doesn't reach out and grab you by the throat like Gaiman's American Gods, which is one of my all time favourite novels, it is nonetheless well plotted with some engaging characters and the central idea, to "write something a lot like The Jungle Book and set it in a graveyard" is an excellent one. The novel tells the story of Bod, Nobody Owens, a human child who grows up in the graveyard raised by the spirits who rescued him when the rest of his family were murdered. As in Kipling's classic, each chapter of the novel stands alone as a short story but they combine together to chronicle Bod's life and his path towards maturity. For those people who know The Jungle Book primarily through the musical Disney cartoon, Gaiman's work serves as a timely reminder of the oft-forgotten depth and darkness of Kipling's book and in his afterword Gaiman urges readers to revisit The Jungle Book, something that I may just do myself in the not too distant future! I think my favourite aspect of the The Graveyard Book was Gaiman's handling of the discrepancy between Bod's education in the graveyard, where most of the inmates were buried in Victorian times or earlier, and his experiences in the modern world outside, such as ghosts' well-meaning but often hopelessly outdated advice when he attempts to go to school.

I think some of the chapters work better than others, with the most complete and satisfying perhaps being the one that introduces Liza the witch. [livejournal.com profile] davidnm has also recently blogged about this book and I would agree with him that some loose ends aren't tied up as clearly as they could be, particularly those surrounding Bod's special guardian, Silas, about whom I still have some lingering questions. Overall though, this is a wonderfully atmospheric little book with a very moving ending. It's far from being Gaiman's best but that doesn't mean it isn't still well worth a read!

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

Harding drank and watched and shook his head. "It isn't happening. It's all a collaboration of Kafka and Mark Twain and Martini."

Huge thanks to [livejournal.com profile] janeymouse for inspiring me to pick up this one which has to be one of the most powerful and moving - and certainly the angriest - book I've read for a long time. I've not seen the film of this either so I came to the story almost completely cold and quickly found myself captivated. Set in a mental institution, the story deals with a dramatic power struggle between the tyrannical ward nurse Ratched and spirited new inmate Randle McMurphy, a fun-loving, hard-drinking, gambling, womaniser who becomes determined to break her vice-like grip over all the ward inmates and even the other staff members. Each section narrates a different episode in this struggle for power which comes to represent so much more than the politics of one troubled hospital ward. The story is told from the perspective of "Chief" Bromden, a half Indian giant of a man who is commonly believed to be deaf and dumb. This is a genius stroke in my opinion since Chief's perceived condition allows him to be simultaneously part of the ward and detached from it. Frequently, staff members do not censor their conversations around him because they believe he cannot hear them. But he's also an unreliable narrator since his own inner demons and memories of his troubled childhood as a member of a dwindling and persecuted race necessarily impact on his self-esteem and ability to perceive the world. It's tremendously satisfying to observe how Chief's narrative tone and perceptions change as McMurphy gradually succeeds in empowering him and the other men.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ends in a way that is both heart-breaking and uplifting and I think the final scenes are going to stay with me for a very long time to come. The almost irrepressible McMurphy has to be one of the greatest characters in literature, he does use the men on the ward and is constantly pumping them for money, but what he gives back to them - namely the confidence to begin to face up to the system that has been repressing and victimising them - is worth so much more than that. And despite the anger that permeates every page of this book there are many scenes of almost unbearable tenderness, not to mention laugh out loud humour (such as when McMurphy "dirties up" the toilets he's supposed to be cleaning by leaving rude messages to the nurse gummed under the rim in backwards writing so she'll see them when she inspects with her mirror). Highly, highly recommended.


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