August 28, 2009

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey

This book is one of the classics that I had somehow missed reading up until now, and after reading a discussion of it on The Book Mine Set, I decided that I had to read it.

For others out there like me, who have not read this book before, the book takes place a particular ward of an unnamed psychiatric hospital in the 1960s, where Electro-Convulsive Therapy and Lobotomies were still commonplace (though fading from fashion). It centers around a battle of wills between a new resident who comes across as determined to overthrow the system, and the nurse in charge of the ward who is determined to run her ward with unwavering inflexibility.

One of the things that I enjoyed about this book is it's ambiguity. As it is set entirely in a psychiatric institution amongst the "inmates"; and the narrator himself is a resident thought by all to be deaf and mute; you never quite know what the truth is, and what actually happened. I can almost picture the book being re-written with alternating chapters written by "Chief", the actual narrator of the book, and the "Big Nurse" who comes across as the antagonist when the story is told from the point of view of the residents. It could then be a novel of perspectives.

I know that this book is a favourite amongst English teachers, and I don't have to think very hard about it to see themes that would make great essay-writing topics for a class full of students - The Tragic Hero; The Underdog fighting the system... I know that one of my sisters ended up studying this book in high school, but I somehow missed it. I'm glad that I have read it; and also that I don't have to write an essay on it!

The Outlander - Gil Adamson

This book first came to my attention last year when it was a contender for CBC radio's Canada Reads competition, championed by actor Nicholas Campbell. With all of the coverage of the competition last winter, I heard Gil Adamson interviewed about her book, and it sounded intriguing.

A 19-year old widow, who has murdered her husband, escapes across the prairies and into the mountains, pursued by her husband's brothers. An adventure survival story. It was a good read, but I found it a bit clunky at times, and the whole ending a bit unbelievable, given everything that the reader knows about the main character.

And another thing that annoyed me was the historical incongruence. The story is set in Canada in 1903 and is told in the present tense, but occasionally the narrator slips in a much more modern reference (and unfortunately, I can't find an example just right now). As it was always with the narrator that I noticed it, and never in the dialogue, I don't know if it was a deliberate writing technique or if it was just accidental, but it did spoil my enjoyment of the book.

The book is well paced and interesting, but never seemed real to me. I probably won't go back to re-read this book in the future.

This book was read as part of The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult

So I didn't just read non-fiction on my holiday - I also indulged in some fluff. I've never read anything by Jodi Picoult before, though I had definitely seen her books at the bookstore. The topic of this one intrigued me (I love anything to do with medical ethics!). A child develops leukemia, so the parents use genetic engineering to give birth to another child who is a perfect genetic match and can be an organ donor. What starts out as a donation of cord blood becomes blood transfusions; a bone marrow transplant; and at the point where the story begins, she is being "asked" to donate a kidney to her sister.

I guess on a superficial level, there are some ethical issues - parents divided between what is best for one child vs. the other vs. the family as a whole - but the whole situation seemed implausible the whole time. What do you mean, they never thought to ask the second child what she felt? The story revolves around a lawsuit initiated by the younger child seeking medical emancipation, and as I said before, it was a little far-fetched. And I don't really see the ethical debate - in the case of an organ donation, it must be voluntary, and the best interests of the donor have to come ahead of the recipient. Or to put it more coarsely, if the donation goes ahead, the donor will likely face life-long restrictions to her health and activity level, and the recipient will probably die soon anyways due to the underlying condition. So since I didn't buy into the ethical debate, the book seemed rather shallow, and built on a flimsy foundation.

But having said that, it was a light, fluffy, holiday read that kept me reading until the end. But it too didn't make it back to Canada - I left it with a Tanzanian high school student who likes to read novels. I don't see it presenting any challenges to someone for whom English is her third language!

The Orange Trees of Baghdad - Leilah Nadir

This is a book that I started reading more than a year ago. I heard Leilah Nadir interviewed by Shelagh Rogers on CBC and sat transfixed in my car when I got to my destination, unable to leave the radio until the interview was over. I think that I went out either that same day or the next day and bought the book. Then I started it, and for some reason didn't finish it. I can't tell you why, as I don't remember. I probably ended up picking up another book, and it got set aside until this summer.

Leilah Nadir is a Canadian writer born to an English mother and an Iraqi father. When the war in Iraq broke out in 2003, she became interested in researching her Iraqi roots, and ended up contacting relatives in Baghdad. The book jumps around a bit - it includes her father's story of growing up in Iraq and how he came to England; how her mother and father met, married, and ended up in Canada; and also the story of the present day and how her family in Iraq is coping with the American invasion.

I really enjoyed this book as it puts a personal face on everything that I have heard on the news, and there are some very vivid descriptions in the book. Quite amazing in places, as the writer has never been to Iraq. It is a compelling story too - as I mentioned before, I read about half of the book last year, and the second half this year - well, as soon as I finished the second half, I went back and re-read the first half again!

My one criticism of the book is that it does jump around a bit too much - from the past to the present to the past again - which made it a bit difficult to keep track of the characters. I found myself flipping back and forwards, reminding myself of who was who.

Tomorrow, I will be meeting Leilah Nadir at the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival!

This book was read for The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

Our Life Together - Jean Vanier

OK - now I've settled back in at home, it's time for me to start catching up this blog with all of the books I've read this summer. Well, maybe not all - I'll skip the re-reads I think.

I've known about Jean Vanier and L'Arche for about 8 or 9 years now. I first remember hearing about L'Arche on a CBC radio holiday special - it was Good Friday, either 2000 or 2001 - and I remember thinking what an amazing concept it sounds like. People with disabilities and their helpers, living together in community.

My next encounter with Jean Vanier came a few years later when I was living in Tanzania, and a friend sent me the cassettes of Becoming Human, the Massey Lecture series that he had given. 5 hours of bliss, listening to him explain his theology, and the importance of community, relationships, and "the least of these".

So I was excited to hear him interviewed on the CBC by Shelagh Rogers, oh, it must have been almost 2 years ago, and to hear that his letters were going to be published in a volume entitled Our Life Together.

These are the letters that he wrote to the supporters of L'Arche, the network of communities around the world of people with and without disabilities living together in community. L'Arche started in the 1960s with a single home in France and since that time has spread around the world. Well into his 70s now, Jean Vanier still travels the world but considers L'Arche to be his home.

I did enjoy reading them, and his faith and dedication are inspiring, but unfortunately I found them a bit tedious at times. I don't think that all of the letters were included in this volume, but they probably could have stood a bit more editing. As the book went on, I found myself skimming more and more. A bit of a "been there, read that" attitude. Which is unfortunate, because some of the best insights came towards the end of the book, and I'm a bit afraid that I may have missed something.

But the book has found a good home - I took it with me when I travelled back to Tanzania this summer, and left it with my friend Bridget who works in a Community Based Rehab program, and is also a fan of Jean Vanier. She was also the recipient of Becoming Human after I had listened to all of the tapes!

This book was read as part of The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.