Friday, 23 September 2011

Book #39

Madeleine by Kate McCann

Kate McCann's personal account of the disappearance and continuing search for her daughter.

I'd like to begin by saying I am not used to reading or reviewing non-fiction. I don't read a great deal of it as it doesn't let me escape in the same way as fiction does. This book in particular is awful to use as a tool for escapism, of course. I have also never truly had a proper opinion on this case until this book was given to me, and I was urged to read it.

I can't possibly begin to review this book in the same way I would a normal work of fiction. It was no literary miracle; I cringed at some of the grammar and sentence structure employed. But that isn't what this one is about, so I suppose all I can comment on is the situation.

The whole point of this book is to keep Madeleine's name, face, and story in the minds of the public in the hope that someone will bring the McCanns some sort of deliverance. The whole thing is eye-opening - Kate holds nothing back, and it's interesting and aggravating to see how they were treated at the lowest point in their lives. She is honest to the point of over-justification, which I didn't think necessary.

There is a lot of criticism of other parties, such as the Portuguese police force, which is obviously incredibly one-sided. This certainly does elicit great sympathy for the McCanns, however it did lead me to wonder how the criticised parties would defend themselves when faced with such observations. A great deal came across to me as sheer retaliation, which I suppose is fair enough.

There are lots of things going on in this book and I found it difficult to keep track of names, places and occurrences. I was frequently lost.

I have always maintained an indifferent attitude towards this case; however this book has tugged at my heartstrings somewhat. I cannot imagine the pain and frustration this has caused the McCanns. As Kate says herself in the book, the not knowing must be the worst part.

The book is very dark, dismal, and emotional. The ordeal the McCanns have gone through is something not to be wished on a worst enemy, and no doubt the writing of this book opened up painful wounds. I respect this as it's all in aid of finding Madeleine since there is no police body looking for her anymore. It's heartbreaking.

Fingers crossed the funds raised from this book, or the wide reach it has had, will prompt some sort of breakthrough in this investigation. It has left me feeling strangely empty, and I am reverting back to my imaginary land of fiction.

39 / 72 books. 54% done!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Book #38

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

An inmate of a mental institution tries to find the freedom and independence denied him in the outside world.

I'd like to begin by mentioning that this is the first time I have read this novel, and I have never seen the film. I loved everything about it.

One flew east, one flew west. One flew over the cuckoo's nest. This rhyme alone is referring to being insane and being very far from home. I think even the title of the book in reference to this nursery rhyme lets you know exactly what you are in for.

Our narrator, Chief Bromden, is one of the most unreliable narrators I have come across. He is a paranoid hallucinating schizophrenic, so the narrative comes across as disjointed and, let’s face it, completely cuckoo. Despite these flaws, I fell in love with him. He comes across in the beginning as so weak and consumed by a fog he constantly believes to be there. By the end of the novel he has had such a journey that he is a completely different person. He often imagined the hospital itself to be controlled by an array of different machines and electronics - I loved this contrast with his past lifestyle, which was completely centred on earth, hunting and raw living. Chuck Palahniuk also made a comment about the novel which mirrors Chief Bromden's view of the hospital as mechanistic. He said the novel "focuses on the modern paradox of trying to be human in the well-oiled machine of a capitalist democracy." That's something worth considering.

Although Bromden was my favourite character, much has to be said about McMurphy. When he arrives in the ward, he is a spark of light in a depressing environment. He clashes considerably with the air of oppression, instead exhibiting symbols of freedom, sexuality, violence, and self-confidence. He immediately engages the head nurse (the source of the oppression) into a power struggle, and by doing so rallies the other patients into coming alive to help him in this war of wills.

Using McMurphy's booming character, Kesey really sends a message to us about the power of enjoyment and laughter. When McMurphy enters the ward for the first time, his laugh is the first real laugh that has occurred in the ward since anyone can remember. As the novel progresses, and McMurphy's influence becomes stronger, the men on the ward learn to laugh, and it seems through this they are able to grow stronger.

It is interesting to note that this novel was born from Ken Kesey's experiences of working night-shift in a mental health facility. No doubt he witnessed first-hand some of the events and situations in the novel. I find that incredibly intriguing, and his disturbing little sketches which were peppered throughout the novel did a lot to add to this appeal.

The tragic ending was awful, and almost an anti-climax as it didn't seem to enforce the message the book was trying to relate to us. However, such is life. Solutions do not always present themselves, and often, because of this, we are left with tragic endings. Despite this, the symbol of freedom from hopeless, trapped situations such as these transcends the tragedy, and makes the reader consider morality and human spirit.

Many have been heard to suggest that this is best American novel of all time. I have only just finished it an hour ago and I am severely inclined to agree with them. I could not recommend this novel enough.

38 / 72 books. 53% done!

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Book #37

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Described as a "tragedy of sorrows," this story tells of a girl uprooted from a secure and innocent childhood. Cast into a world where evil takes many shapes, little Nell meets the stunted, lecherous Quilp, whose demonic energy dominates the book. Sometimes fairytale and sometimes myth, this is Victorian life at its most bleak.

This has been my first real brush with Dickens, other than dabbling in A Christmas Carol last December. It has taken me around a month to read the novel, which is a long time for me. I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing out on anything, and as a result I have come away from it with a lovely feeling of satisfaction.

The characters were simply wonderful, my favourites being Whiskers the pony, or the lovely Dick Swiveller (his name throwing me into fits of giggles upon the first reading). I did notice that the characters were quite polarised - the good characters were intrinsically and impossibly good, the evil characters intrinsically evil, but the inbetweeners, the supporting characters, had good, evil, and a thousand other grey shades within their personalities. Dick was one of these characters, not entirely moral, slightly selfish and a mild alcoholic. However, by the end of the novel he was kind, gentle and entirely moralistic. Whiskers was a highlight due to his inability to follow orders, dragging his master’s cart wherever he thought suitable, and in his final act, kicking the doctor who had been hired to make him better.

The plot centres around a journey, which I found exciting as Nell and her grandfather fall in with all sort of characters, circus people and a travelling waxwork museum. It was quite eccentric and animated, and alluded greatly to how people of high class entertained themselves in these times.

I enjoy reading about 19th century Britain in the general, and here Dickens makes several social comments on inequality of class.

I particularly enjoyed "Chapter The Last" which served as a "What are they all doing now?" chapter. This was a wonderful finale, and filled me with satisfaction. It's lovely at the end of a novel to know that the good are living well, and the evil ones have had what they deserve.

I was also interested to read the following information on Wikipedia: "In 2007, many newspapers claimed the excitement at the release of the last volume of 'The Old Curiosity Shop' was the only historical comparison that could be made to the excitement at the release of the last Harry Potter novel .... Dickens fans were reported to storm the piers of New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who may have read the last installment in the United Kingdom), 'Is Little Nell alive?'" (Source)

I'd definitely recommend this one. It's not entirely plot-driven, which is why I think it took me so long to read, but is more a series of little stories about each of the characters. If you bear this in mind, you'll enjoy the novel.

37 / 72 books. 51% done!