Top 100 Novel Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey (1962)

An Infinite Amount to Think About.

Not only is their a dynamite narrative, the themes and competing ideas could fill a lifetime of consideration. 

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My Rating: cropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-star

I’ve had a run of books that forgo traditional story elements, like having a plot, meaningful narration, or development of characters (here’s looking at you “The Sun Also Rises” and “Falconer”). While they get heralded as artistic masterpieces, I find both books lacking teeth since they are not only unenjoyable to read, but they can’t coalesce to say anything due to being stripped of narrative devices.

In comes my savior: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” 

Not only does this book have an immensely intriguing story, showing the power struggle between a Head Nurse and an Asylum patient who are both egomaniacs, it has as many themes as you can consider. Like an infinite ball of string, you are free to pull and unwind from any angle as long as your heart desires.

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Top 100 Novel Review: Falconer by John Cheever (1977)

The Point Eludes Me.

Too many competing thoughts drown out the powerful writing of John Cheever. 

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My Rating: cropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-star

I’m glad I read this book, though. Using his short-story prowess, Cheever puts lots of vignettes in this novella via the individual characters and there are a few powerful ones to be found here. They just don’t coalesce into a solid message or theme, and with many of the outcomes seemingly contradictory, I’m left not knowing what to feel about this novel.

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Top 100 Novel Review: Red Harvest, Danshiell Hammet (1929)

Hardboiled Pulp.

Popularizer of the genre, Hammett’s detective story is a  solid mystery with plenty of quick wit.

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My Rating: cropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-star

I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff.

I love mysteries, and even more, I love detective mysteries that are set pre-1960s. I grew up on Earl Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, another pulp fiction mystery series. Where Red Harvest is different is there is more grit to it — everything is or will be corrupted in this book, even the main character.

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Top 100 Book Review: The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)

Resignation, Cynicism and Meh.

Heralded for being interesting due to its lack of traditional story-telling and relying on the craft of writing — I just don’t see it. 

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My Rating: smooth-star

This was one of those books that had me running to the internet to reconcile my experience. What did I miss?

The answer that I found was nothing: my interpretation of the book was on solid ground as it was supposed to lack conflict, background, and intrigue. Hemingway was ushering in this new style of writing, a representation of the “Lost Generation” complete with the cynicism that their dreams would never be realized. His grand accomplishment was to eschew traditional story elements while still fulfilling the reader’s desire to continue to read.

I can’t help but think this is another example of avant-garde projection, propping up a frail and barebones narrative, ecstatically claiming how unique it is.

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Top 100 Book Review: Ubik – Philip K. Dick (1969)

Unbalancing Thriller That Makes You Question

Science fiction at its best: taking advantage of temporal-spatial qualities to take advantage of our intuitions. 

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My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

I really think science fiction, the genre as a whole, is under appreciated. There is some really good writing out there, and just because the settings might be geeky, futuristic, or entail allusions to higher level math, it gets disregarded. The format allows authors to explore things that just wouldn’t otherwise be possible; when you don’t have to worry about what is plausible, you are free to explore the human condition unabated without typical restraints.

Where this can go awry is that things can get too zany when authors get drunk off the power of not having to tell a tightly-knit story. This can be a delicate thing to balance, using the unconstrained conventions of the genre but still having to tell a coherent narrative that can be appreciated.

Fortunately, Ubik does both of these well and gets the most out of both sides.

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The Top 100 Book Review: A Death in the Family – James Agee (1957)

Beautiful Writing, Tepid Story

“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

Rating: smooth-starsmooth-star

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I almost hate myself for doing this: a book that is so beautifully written with descriptions of life that burst from the page getting only two stars. There were times I put the book down and really took a moment to live the words. That’s how good this writing is. Take a moment to take in this excerpt below:

“Before long the city thinned out into the darkened evidences of the kind of flea-bitten semi-rurality which always peculiarly depressed him: mean little homes, and other inexplicably new and substantial, set too close together for any satisfying rural privacy or use, too far, too shapelessly apart to have adherences as any kind of community; mean little pieces of ill-cultivated land behind them, and alongside the road, between them, trash and slash and broken sheds and rained-out billboards: he passed a late, late streetcar, no passengers abroad, far out near the end of its run.”

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Top 100 Book Review: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers (1940)

“It was funny, too,how lonesome a person could be in a crowded house.” Mick.
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Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

It’s always the books about the human spirit that endure. There is no need to worry about setting or plot as the things people dealt with then are the same things we deal with now. It’s like when James Baldwin said “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”

Carson McCuller wrote “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” at the age of 23. It was an immediate hit and was the first of many of her works to focus on loneliness and isolation. She herself was not in good health and would die at the age of 50 after living a life of strokes and health complications. It’s hard not to think that these personal, life experiences weren’t the catalyst for many of her novels.

This book checks off many of my personal-taste preferences: vignette chapters from each character’s perspective, the setting of a small town  in the rural south and a focus on characters and not necessarily plot. While this might not move the needle for other readers, there is plenty to love about the temporary world McCuller builds in small-town Georgia.

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