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review 2017-10-16 02:32
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ★★★☆☆
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: 50th Anniversary Edition - Ken Kesey,John C. O'Reilly

I can see why some people praise this book so highly, and I can see how it was such a hit at the time it was published, even without the iconic movie starring the always-crazy Jack Nicholson. The imagery is compelling, as is the unreliable voice of the (?) paranoid schizophrenic narrator through which we experience the events. It works well as a rather heavy-handed political/social allegory, but I found myself unable to get past the unapologetic racism and misogyny presented as a fun way to break from societal norms and expectations.

 

I was much more interested in the audio “extra” at the end of the story: an NPR interview by Terry Gross of the author, who explains the origins of the story, his first-hand experiences as a subject of the CIA’s LSD experiments conducted on students in the 1960’s and as an aide in a psychiatric hospital.

 

Audiobook via Audible. The author’s unpolished reading of his own work really fits the story.

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review 2017-10-12 22:05
The Best of Saki
The Best of Saki - Saki

I picked up this book after reading “The Open Window” online; the strong writing and clever twist made me curious to read more from Saki. These are bite-sized stories, only a few pages long, but this doesn’t prevent them from feeling complete and being quite engaging. Though their subjects are well-off Englishpeople at the turn of the twentieth century, they aren’t as tame as you might expect: common subjects include elaborate practical jokes and people (including small children) being killed by animals. A few even have an unexpected supernatural bent.

There appears to be more than one collection with the same title but slightly different tables of contents (stories cited by other reviewers here are absent from the volume I read), so I’m not sure if the book I will be describing is the same one you’re likely to read. But I have some doubts about whether the volume I read actually contains the “best” of Saki’s short stories: it includes a selection of 38 stories from five different collections, which improve markedly as the book progresses. The first three, very brief, stories are simply monologues from a clever and smug young man. After that the stories quickly develop tight plotting, which remains the case for the rest of the book. They are often quite clever, though emotionally cold; only in a few places in the collection does one character seem to genuinely care for another, and without the story making it ridiculous. A long stretch of stories feature the aloof, sardonic Clovis, a practical jokester with as much regard for others as your average sociopath. Toward the end the stories seem to be thawing a bit, as well as diversifying. Unfortunately, the author was killed in World War I, so we don’t know what he might have written next.

Overall, I enjoyed the collection: the stories are well-written, interesting and clever, although often darker than expected. And this particular grouping allows the reader to see a writer’s development if nothing else. I would read more from Saki, but I would choose his later collections.

 

 

The table of contents from the version I read:

Reginald
Reginald at the Theatre
Reginald on House-Parties
Reginald’s Drama

Reginald in Russia
The Reticence of Lady Anne
Gabriel-Ernest
Cross-Currents
The Mouse

The Chronicles of Clovis
Esme
The Match-Maker

Tobermory
The Background
The Unrest-Cure
The Jesting of Arlington Stringham
Sredni Vashtar
The Quest
The Easter Egg
The Peace of Mowsle Barton
The Talking-Out of Tarrington
The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope

Beasts and Super-Beasts
The She-Wolf
The Boar-Pig
The Brogue
The Open Window
The Schartz-Metterklume method
The Seventh Pullet
Clovis on Parental Responsibilities
A Holiday Task
The Stalled Ox
The Story-Teller
A Defensive Diamond
The Elk
The Lumber-Room

The Toys of Peace
Louise
The Guests
The Penance
Quail Seed
The Seven Cream Jugs
Hyacinth

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review 2017-10-12 17:34
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir - Sherman Alexie

This is an unusual book and not what I expected, so my rating may not predict yours (as readers so far have loved it wildly, it probably doesn’t). I hadn’t read anything by Alexie before and chose this over Part-Time Indian because I enjoy memoirs but not YA. But this is far from a typical memoir, which tells the story of the author’s life – usually focusing on a particular aspect or theme – in chronological chapters. The first chapter, which has 19 pages and focuses – despite various digressions – on a crucial event from the author’s childhood, fits into that pattern and had me enthralled. But this is in no way representative of the book as a whole. It consists of 156 chapters, ranging from short to extremely short (though the page count may appear long for a memoir, I’d guess the word count is in line with that of your typical 250- to 300-page book). Half of the chapters are poems. The prose chapters are sometimes only a paragraph long, more commonly 2-4 pages.

These brief essays and poems don’t exactly tell the story of Alexie’s life. He wrote the book while grieving for his mother, and much of it revolves around her, but much of it (especially the poetry) is about grief itself. Another big topic is a brain surgery he had a few months after his mother’s death. So much of the book comes across as the author reflecting on his life as it is now rather than telling the story of where he’s been. To the extent it’s about where he’s been, information about his childhood is scattered throughout the book, while everything after that is even more partial and fragmented. Or maybe it’s just that the information about his adult life didn’t answer the questions I had: he mentions only in passing that he struggled with alcoholism as a young adult, causing him to change colleges, but writes an entire chapter about how the laundry room in his current home was extremely cold until he finally bought some curtains for the basement.

Meanwhile, I have little appreciation for poetry, particularly free verse, which much of Alexie’s poetry is. If there’s something to be said for free verse, it’s that it is a recognized format in which to briefly encapsulate a moment, a thought or a feeling. But this is a large book; I didn’t want brief. And I didn’t want fragments. This book is made up of fragments, which is a deliberate and valid artistic choice: Alexie writes about how much of his history – personal, familial, and cultural – has been lost, and leaving holes is his way of representing that. For me though, the effect was to leave me disconnected from the work, which lessened the impact of the artistic choices.

All that said, this is in no way a bad book. It is well-written and engaging. It is raw and personal and feels emotionally honest. I zoomed through it in a few sittings, not only because bite-sized chapters are addictive but because it is so personal and emotionally intense. It certainly provides some cultural education for the non-native reader: the author grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation, where much of his family still lives, and writes about his Native American identity. Although it left me somewhat dissatisfied, I am glad I read this book and wouldn’t discourage others from reading it, particularly those who enjoy poetry.

(As an aside, a brief mention in this book alerted me to the danger of indoor radon, so who knows, Sherman Alexie may have saved my life.)

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review 2017-10-10 14:50
The Best of HP Lovecraft ★★★☆☆
The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre - H.P. Lovecraft,August Derleth,Robert Bloch

This is my first Lovecraft, so I can’t judge whether this particular collection has all his “best”. It did have the stories that were recommended to me as being representative of his work: The Dunwich Horror, The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and of course, The Call of Cthulhu. I enjoyed all of these. The quality of the other stories was variable.

 

Rather than trying to review the stories individually, I’ll just offer a few random thoughts. Yep, now that I’ve read the source material, the influence of Lovecraft on several of my favorite modern authors is pretty obvious, especially Stephen King. Lovecraft does seem to have a wide variance in style, with stories ranging from so floridly verbose that they’re almost unreadable (a la EA Poe) to more straightforward, but still atmospheric, little horror stories. I like his monsters, which seem to run from mundane creatures acting in supernatural ways, to crazy mixes of various creature parts, to creatures who aren’t even entirely corporeal. One common choice of style that I don’t care for is how they narrator always seems to be telling you a story of something that happened a while ago – this puts too much distance between the reader and the horror experienced, IMO.

 

Last, and specific to this edition, is the truly excellent foreword by Robert Bloch. I learned something about the author, who is interestingly defensive on the subject of moral hygiene and authors. I also learned a bit about the evolution of the horror genre.

 

Previous Updates:

Foreword 1/24/15 (yes I started this ages ago, then reshelved until this month)

Pg 33/406 10/4/17

Pg 98/406 10/4/17

 

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review 2017-10-06 12:19
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde ★★★☆☆
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson

The storytelling style, where everything is revealed through one character telling another about past events or explaining after the fact in a letter, turns an interesting concept into a tedious story to read. I suppose the meaning of what happened with the creation of Mr. Hyde and his subsequent acts could be read a lot of different ways, but I was mostly struck by how

Jekyll originally created him in order to rid himself of the last vestiges of (evil? decadence? personal indulgence? uncontrolled emotional expression?) that he was unable to suppress through sheer willpower, but found so much pleasure in the unrestrained expression of those very things in the person of Mr. Hyde that he eventually ceded control of both personalities.

(spoiler show)

 

I started this on audio, via Audible freebie with a very good performance by Scott Brick, but finished on ebook via public library on Libby, because the verbose writing style and retrospective storytelling style just didn’t work well on audio. My attention kept wandering to the baseball game, and I didn’t even care about either team that was playing.

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