19 October 2007

The Catch-Up Part II

I wish I could say that with these three posted I’m up to date, but ... I can’t. Those reviews just keep piling up!

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Nurse Ratched has the mental patients on her ward cowed into obedience, all afraid of her needling questions which can put anyone in the wrong, and her power to send recalcitrant inmates to the Shock Shop. One of the few she can’t skewer with pointed questions in group sessions is Chief Bromden, who pretends to be deaf and dumb while observing all that happens on the ward. The humdrum routine is upset with the arrival of McMurphy, a fast-talking gambler who thought the indoor life better than the work farm. Soon he’[s taken charge of his fellow inmates, pushing them to stand up for themselves and doing whatever he can to make the stony facade of Nurse Ratched crack - without giving her cause for retaliation. Then one last plot concludes his schemes in a mixture of triumph and tragedy.

I spent most of the book vacillating. When it was showing McMurphy’s often comic impact on the ward, and the means he employed of getting around the staff, I enjoyed it. But when it stayed in the Chief’s head, tangled up in his memories and delusions, I wished it would get back to the story. It wasn’t until the very end that the reason became clear; the ending needed those delusions in order to make sense, and the Chief’s madness ensured that no other ending was possible. In a way it was sad, but in others it was a happy ending; the freedom and independence inspired in some of the other patients had me smiling. But for me, it took too long to get going, and too long for the two halves of the story to come together.

Rating: B-

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone For Harry Potter, an invitation to the Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a dream come true: a chance to get away from his odious aunt and uncle, not to mention his spoilt brat of a cousin. And Hogwart’s quickly proves to be the first place he’s been where he can make friends and feel at home, and make his mark in Quidditch, a game like nothing any Muggle ever played. But even Hogwart’s has its flaws. The Potions master seems to have it in for him. The evil Lord Voldemort, who killed both Harry’s parents, is gathering his strength for a comeback. And someone is about to attempt a brazen robbery from right under all three of Fluffy the watchdog’s noses.

It’s more than seven years since I last read this, and I enjoyed returning to it. I remember originally loving it from the first page, and I appreciate it just as much as an adult as I did in high school. It has comedy and mystery and drama and sadness, and a complete other world hidden away in the normal one - a world whose residents find the Muggles just as fascinating as the Muggles do them. I think one of the reasons it works so well is that there are things in there for the grown-ups, too: a connection to real-life history in Nicholas Flamel; a nod (or three) to Cerberus; and Mrs. Norris, the janitor’s much-loathed sneak of a cat who shares her name with the petty killjoy aunt of Mansfield Park. Another thing I love about it is Hermione Grainger. Sure she can be an overachieving know-it-all pain. But in a world where the Bratz dolls have a live-action movie (much-bandied-about quote: “Fashion is, like, your superpower”) how nice it is to read about a studious heroine who saves the day with books and brainpower. And it was fun to spot those parts which were translated to film verbatim (and those which were unfortunately cut, like the reason for Snape’s dislike of Harry).

Rating: A

Madam Crowl's Ghost and other stories by J. Sheridan le Fanu

R.I.P. II Challenge #3

Madam Crowl’s Ghost Madam Crowl wasn’t much fun even when alive. But it’s after her death that she really begins to terrify the poor housemaid, in the process revealing a decades-old secret. Elsewhere in the collection, a child disappears to a fate unknown; a bitter dispute between brothers is settled in unnerving fashion; a man’s premonition comes true in a way he never expected; and a haunted house gives new meaning to the term ‘hanging judge’. Two of the tales are in fact miniature collections, weaving a series of stories around a particularly haunted place.

Le Fanu is one of those authors I’ve been meaning vaguely to read for years, and now that I’ve finally done so I can say the tales are a match for anything by either ghost-story-writing James (Henry or M. R.). In fact, R.I.P. II is turning out to be about the best challenge of the year. (I just wish there could be a few more storms, for atmosphere.) The meandering Victorian style works well for ghost stories; the suspense takes its time to build. I was happy to discover that some of the tales actually had several stories in one; it was a kind of bonus. The only trouble I had with the book was that the dialect in the first story could be difficult to follow.

Rating: B+

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776