Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon is a remarkable story about taking a below average man and turning him into a genius within weeks. Charlie Gordon is a “mental retard”, using the vernacular of the time, who is able to maintain his own apartment and job with the assistance of his uncle’s long time friend. Charlie agrees to participate in an experiment where his intelligence should increase by at least 3x, which is what has happened to the only living participant to have undergone the treatment, a white mouse named Algernon. Even before the operation, Keyes makes clear that Charlie wants to be smart and he’s willing to work really hard at it. In testing, Charlie gets very frustrated that a mouse is smarter than him and hopes with the experiment that he will be able to beat the mouse. He has no greater understanding of potential complications or the societal impacts from the surgery. He has a simple understanding of his world and very little to no understanding of what the experiment might do to him.

The format of this novel are the diary entries that Charlie Gordon writes from the beginning of the experiment until the end. We witness the spelling and grammar changes as well as the comprehension and knowledge gains as time goes on. As Charlie’s intelligence increases he is able to recall scenes from his childhood and understand them from an outside and new perspective as to where his family is and how he ended up at a bakery working for his uncle’s friend. As his intelligence increases he slowly loses the life he had and gains new friends from the experiment. But as his intelligence surpasses those around him, Charlie becomes bitter and alone as he tries to unravel his past and use his new intelligence to protect his future.

This is a very modern look at the complications behind intelligence and for most of the novel I felt like this could have been written about today. Today we very rarely lock people in institutions, but when we look at someone who is mentally slow, do we see the person behind the blank stare? Or are they still treated like secondary citizens not worthy of our time and attention? Maybe we’re a little better than Charlie’s bakery friends and we don’t taunt and tease, but are we treating them humanely?

Very compelling story and made me question how I treat those who are not on the same level of intelligence. Just as Charlie treated the doctors when he was had a high IQ so he was treated when he had his low IQ. We should always look behind the eyes and see the person behind them and treat everyone with more empathy. Great novel and very thought provoking.

Read October 2013

The Shining

I have never seen nor read The Shining before now. The movie came before my time and somehow I missed it in the horror movie section. Even after moving to Oregon and visiting the Timberline Lodge where the movie’s exteriors were filmed, I never managed to come across or intentional watch the movie version of the Stephen King novel. So I came at this book with a fresh set of eyes reading it 30+ years after its original printing and the movie’s release.

I have to say that Stephen King is a terrifying genius. The way he intermingles a child’s foresight and stories of a father’s abuse, all to make Jack Torrance’s fall almost inevitable. We are hoping that Jack won’t succumb to The Overlook Hotel’s evil wishes, but from the beginning, with the foresight of 5 year old Danny, we think we know what will happen. The story of the Torrance family is not about what will happen, but about how Jack slowly loses his ability to think clearly about the needs of his wife and child. He is being haunted by the hotel’s past all while he believes he is standing strong and writing his great novel. Wendy is trying to fight her gut instincts about staying the winter abandoned at the Overlook so that she can believe she forgave Jack about his late nights, drinking escapades and the horrible night with a broken arm. She needs to believe in her husband so that she doesn’t relive her mother’s life. And poor Danny is haunted by the hotel like neither of his parents. His specialness is drawing out all the past spirits of the hotel.

The relationships of the 3 characters drives this novel. The horrors and the hauntings are background to the psychological thriller about how the 3 can withstand the loneliness of the Overlook Hotel for months without any outside stimulation or relief. Would you ever want to spend 3 months locked away with your family?

The movie was very different from the book and doesn’t delve into the family dynamics of the Torrance family. Its still a great horror movie and should be watched. But it is not the film version of the book. Stanley Kubrick added remarkable scenes to intensify the horror of the hotel. And for the movie it worked. Its just not in the book.

Highly recommend both the book and the movie! Both had me on the edge of my seat! The endings of the chapters were too frightening for me to end on them for the night. I always had to start the next chapter and read a couple of pages. King just kept building the suspense making it a little hard to sleep at night.

Read/Watched October 2013

The Debutante

At beginning The Debutante, I thought this book was all chick lit cliches, and in some respects it is. The basics of the love story between Cate and Jack are text book love story. She just ran away from a lover in New York and keeps everything about her recent past a secret, even from her beloved aunt. He, slightly older than Cate, was widowed and has developed a hard shell and organized life. Of course the beginning of their relationship is nothing but cantankerous with a little sexual tension. Again, very cliche.

But Tessaro mixes in an almost century old mystery of the beautiful debutante Baby Blythe whose sister lived in the home that Jack and Cate must inventory. Baby Blythe lived her formative years on the upper echelon of London society between the World Wars. She came from a humble background but after her mother’s remarriage, Baby Blythe’s life was filled with parties. That is, it was filled with parties until her mysterious disappearance.

During Cate’s burgeoning romance, Cate has found a hidden shoebox of someone’s personal effects, she believes to be Baby’s. All while dealing with her own past and current romance, Cate delves into the story of a beautiful, yet very misunderstood, lonely woman who lived a similar life as Cate.

It was a cute book. Not grand writing and I needed to get past my initial opinion of the triteness of the story to get to Baby Blyth’s life. Tessaro could have rid the story of the contemporary romance and only focused on the past and it would have made the book more interesting. The only characters that I liked were those that lived between the World Wars. That story was interesting and deserved more time.

Read October 2013

The Return of the Dancing Master

This is the first non-Kurt Wallander book that I’ve read by Henning Mankell. I was worried when I picked up this novel because I really loved Wallander and his style and dry humor while investigating crimes. But Mankell does not disappoint in The Return of the Dancing Master and shows that his creativity and skill are beyond an iconic character.

Stefan Lindman is a Police officer from Boras who is recently diagnosed with cancer and is put on medical leave. While Lindman is awaiting his diagnosis he learns that his former partner, Herbert Molin was brutally murdered in a scarcly populated area in the woods of Northern Sweden.

In an attempt to avoid his own life and problems, Lindman is drawn north in order to discover what little he knew of his old partner and why he was murdered. The only piece he brought with him was a memory of Molin’s fear that someone else was sneaking up on him in the woods while they were chasing a criminal years ago.

Lindman has to come to terms with his own mortatlity while trying to peice together Molin’s hidden life. A life filled with secrets. Secrets that many Swedes held during WWII and after. During the investigation, Lindman encounters his own family’s legacy of Nazism. Dealing with his own shame and horror, Lindman pieces together the crime and long sought after revenge.

Mankell’s straightforward style adds to the mystery of the crime and drags the reader down many wrong roads before finding the right one. It feels like a true police investigation with the mundaneness of the job between periods of intense activity. Lindman is not a hero like Nesbo’s Harry Hole. He’s not constantly putting himself in harms way. He’s a solid character that seeks the quiet rhythm of the investigation and slowly and surely finds his way to the murderer. He’s a very introspective character, perhaps because of the cancer diagnosis, but he makes an intriguing character to follow around the northern woods of Sweden.

Read September 2013

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection of fantastical short stories that take something that is known and warp it into something almost unrecognizable. In the first story, the vampires suck on lemons to ease their need for blood and are stagnating in a 600 year old relationship. But they’re hoping to keep going since they’re the only vampires they’ve ever met. Its a story of survival and loneliness.

In “Reeling for the Empire”, young girls believe they sign on to become a silk worker for the empire and have found a way to better themselves and their family circumstances, but really have been sold into slavery. When they arrive at their factory, they are imprisoned and must begin producing silk. They mutate into silk worms and are required to produce their own silk for the empire and their own comfort. This story is a creative fantasy of what factories once promised and how they slowly destroyed so many people.

Some of the other stories weren’t as compelling as these two, or maybe I just didn’t give them the time they needed. I wasn’t expecting a series of stories when I picked up the book and it was a little off putting. However, once I got over my own expectations, the style of the writing is great and the creativity shines through and some of the stories were a great read. I don’t think I devoted enough energy into some of the stories to really figure out what Russell was trying to accomplish, but these two stories really stuck with me.

Mid-reading, I heard an interview on NPR with the Karen Russell since she just won an award for her writing. She sounded so down to earth and normal, that its amazing that her mind created these different worlds for her characters to try to survive.

Read September 2013