One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

It’s hard to miss this book. It comes up in discussions often and on lists like All Time 100 Best Novels From 1923-2005. It’s a shame that I hadn’t read this book all these years and I decided to take things into hand and finally get down to reading it.

The book is set in a mental asylum in Oregon which is run by a tyrannical nurse “Big Nurse” Miss. Ratched who manages the asylum and the patients according to her whims and fancies. She tacitly threatens the inmates – “The Acutes”, first level of insanes – with shock therapy and lobotomy which will make them “The Chronics”, who are in a vegetative state. The patients are naturally tormented by her but lack the courage to stand up and speak against her. A new patient, MacMurphy, makes an entry into the asylum faking insanity to escape a jail sentence. He gets into tiffs with the nurse and upsets the routine and questions her actions. This leads to a constant power struggle between McMurphy and the nurse.

The helpless condition of the inmates and the way the staff take advantage of their helplessness tugs at your heart. While most of this might be true about mental asylums, you still hope that these things exist only in the fictional world. Refusing medication and administering medication to induce sleep so that the staff can get away with their amorous activities and stealing, giving electric shocks for breaking a rule, not caring for hygiene and letting the inmates rot their in their own pee – this book is not for the faint of heart. McMurphy tries to bring in laughter to the asylum and constantly reminds the inmates to stand for their rights and makes them wonder whether they are really insane. He places a bet with the inmates that he can lift a heavy shower control panel and when he fails to do so, he says, “Atleast I tried”, which inspires the inmates. Several incidents like this make the inmates slowly take charge of their own lives and resist the unquestionable control of the nurse. It makes me wonder how many times I have let someone run over me and stood watching helplessly. I wish I could say ‘Atleast I tried’.

McMurphy and the nurse’s character are strong and opposing. While McMurphy makes you feel warm and energetic, the mention of Big Nurse makes you cower. The narrator Chief is another inmate in the asylum who pretends to be deaf and dumb and is hence privy to many dark secrets of the asylum. The other characters in the book – the stuttering Billy Bibbit, the strong Harding, the germaphobic George, the doctor, the black orderlies add variety. The language is smooth and easy. The story and the narration keeps your interest perked up. What takes the cake is the ending. While it’s not hard to predict what was coming, you can’t help getting emotional when you read the climax.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest borrows its title from a nursery rhyme.

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest

Cuckoo here refers to a mentally disturbed person and cuckoo’s nest is the asylum. McMurphy can be seen as the one who flew over the cuckoo’s nest because he went against the rules and disturbed the nest. Chief, the narrator, can also be the one because he frees himself from the clutches of the asylum.

The book was made into a film which went on to win many awards. Jack Nicholson won the best actor award for playing the role of McMurphy and Lousie Fletcher won the best actress award for playing Nurse Ratched. The film also won awards for Best Picture and Best Director. More details on wiki. I don’t have the courage to watch the movie. If you have, let me know how you find it. If you also read the book, then which one do you prefer – the book or the movie?

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows is about a mole, a water rat, a badger and a toad who has a penchant for expensive cars. Sounds interesting? You bet! It can be termed as a children's book, but it is for everybody who is a child at heart. There is something very 'cute' about the book - the innocent characters, the simple story line, the language they speak and the simple, everyday things that the characters take great pleasure in.

When I saw that this book appears on BBC's The Big Read - 'Top 100' and 30 books to read before you turn 30, I set really high expectations on this book. I had the memories of The Secret Garden fresh in my mind and I was hoping this book too is as likeable as the first one. While The Wind in the Willows is a good book, I don't understand what the hype is all about. The book definitely does not deserve to be part of any 'must read' lists. The Secret Garden is a totally different book - it revolves around humans and the story is something that one could easily relate to. There is a very strong presence of nature in it which makes it even more charming. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy animated characters and animals dressed up and leading a more human life, but Willows just didn't work for me. If I can relate to Calvin and Hobbes where the stuffed tiger lives only in the child's imagination, I should be able to appreciate any animal character, right? But the rat or the mole or the toad just didn't stir any feelings in me. All that stuff about the toad ordering expensive cars and wasting away his life and money, the rat and the mole being such good buddies and helping the toad find his goal in life - I could not digest all this.

Just a few words about this book can't be called a review, but I am still blogging this because I need to air my views somewhere. Please do not be discouraged by my view of this book. I am known to dislike books which others just love. In fact, you should mark a book as a 'have-to-read-it-no-matter-what' if I give it a bad review. Told you, I am insane!

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

After thoroughly enjoying the first in the Millennium series The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I knew I will be reading the next book pretty soon and so I did! We meet the same characters Lisbeth Salander, the one with the tattoo and who apparently plays with the fire in this book and our hero Mikhael Blomkvist and a bunch of other supporting characters.

This time around, we have Salander in the hotspot - she is accused of triple murders and it is upto her friend Blomkvist to help her out in this difficult decision. The author takes immense pleasure in hanging the sword above Salander's head and letting the readers wonder 'Did she? Didn't she?' A journalist who is writing a book about sex trafficking, his girl friend who is writing a thesis on the same subject, a mysterious incident in Salander's life which she calls "All The Evil" - add all these and you have a page tuner in your hands - literally! Just like the first book, Larsson creates an air of mystery around Salander's so called evil incident and the reader is dying to know what the heck that is. Salander gets a few more layers to her - Larsson beautifully develops her character. Half the world thinks she is a psychopath and is dangerous to the society whereas the other half thinks she is the best thing ever that happened to mankind.

Larsson seems to be obsessed with the physical form of love. While the first book revolved completely around that and violence, Larsson could have easily avoided mentioning these in his second book, still he does. A more-than-necessary importance to lesbians and this really put me off. The author has an interesting plot on hands which will make the book sell like hot cakes, he need not resort to such cheap tactics just to increase the book's sales!

Larsson's writing is nothing great. As it happens with most murder mysteries, the importance is given to the plot, its twists and turns rather than the language and style and this book is no different. And I am totally fine with it. If I want to read good English and beautiful style, I will read some other book. When I read a mystery, I want to be given an interesting plot and so many twists and turns that I feel dizzy and Larsson's books fulfill these criteria. But there is a limit to how much shabby writing one can put up with. Larsson gets so descriptive in every scene (why do I care how many Billy Pan Pizza did Salander buy) that it gets really irritating (are you sure she folded her right leg over her left one and not the other way around? Who cares?). Still, I enjoyed this book just like how I enjoy a Govinda movie any day! You might not recall anything in this book after you close it, but you will enjoy it as long as you read it.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

After being impressed by my first Atwood novel, The Handmaid's Tale, I picked up The Blind Assassin with a lot of expectations. If I have to sum up my opinion about this book in one word, it would be 'indifference'.

The Blind Assassin is about two sisters, Iris and Laura. The book moves back and forth in time - Iris is narrating her present life as an old, depressed woman who is separated from her granddaughter and she often visits her past where she tells us about her with her parents and her sister. Within this main story, there is another story going on, which is a book written by Laura and within this book is another story written by the protagonist of Laura's book. Confusing? It was, for me. With three different threads going on, it was very confusing to me and difficult to keep track of what I was reading.

I can't tell you anything more about the story unless I flag it as a spoiler. The narrator, Iris, seemed so hollow to me. I felt a strong urge to give her a nice shake to bring her out of her reverie and scream in her ears 'Show some emotion'. Laura, on the other hand, is interesting. As a child, especially, where she takes things literally that one can't jest with her and say 'Go jump in a well'. The way she takes things which we term as completely normal and the way she questions ("Does God lie?") makes her character very interesting. The other characters just exist to fill in the blanks in the sister's lives. Oh, one character which caught my attention is Reenie, Iris's caretaker - she was the most interesting in the book.

When it is Atwood, I don't really need to say anything about her writing. Beautiful words, thought provoking analogies, lovely flow.
I was sand, I was snow — written on, rewritten, smoothed over.

Mother might be resting, or doing good deeds elsewhere, but Reenie was always there. She’d scoop us up and sit us on the white enamel kitchen table, alongside the pie dough she was rolling out or the chicken she was cutting up or the fish she was gutting, and give us a lump of brown sugar to get us to close our mouths. Tell me where it hurts, she’d say. Stop howling. Just calm down and show me where. But some people can’t tell where it hurts. They can’t calm down. They can’t ever stop howling.

A hot wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water.

Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the blind shadow cast by its absence.

You can read more quotes from this book on goodreads.

The book was enjoyable as long as I read it, but it has nothing memorable in it. I loved the language as long as it lasted. It's not a book that I would ask someone not to read, but I wouldn't highly recommend it either. I am indifferent towards this book, so it's left to you.

This book is on 1001 books to read before you die and Time's All Time 100 Novels. It won the Booker Prize in 2000.

Roots by Alex Haley

My aunt had been asking me to read this book since ages. Considering that our literary tastes are not very similar, I was apprehensive about reading it. But when she asked me for the nth time if I got a chance to read that book, I figured I better read it and be done with it before she points a gun at me and screams, 'Read it now'.

Roots is about an African man, Kunta Kinte, who is forcefully brought to America to work as a slave. The book is about his early life in Juffure (now in Gambia), his eventual capture, his horrific travel to America and his life as a slave. The initial part where the author describes the native African life is very interesting. The book gives us a preview of the customs, beliefs of Africans and it is very intriguing. When Kinte is captured by whites to be brought to the US to work as a slave, the book takes a U-turn and the tragedy strikes. The part about Kinte's journey from Africa to America is lengthy and horrific. The state the slaves were kept in the ship, the way they were treated, the way women were used and abused - this needs a strong heart (and gut)! Kunta, who is in denial mode initially, finds himself accepting his fate and settling down in a foreign country. He gets married and has a daughter. The story continues about the daughter being sold to another American and what happens thereafter and this goes on for seven generations until Alex Haley, the author of this book, is born. The book is a mirror to the sufferings the African slaves were put through before they were accepted in the society as equals.

It is heart-warming to see that the author took the effort to trace down his ancestors and write a book about it, but one wonders how much of this is really true. Haley says his book is primarily a work of fiction, but also says that his ancestor is Kunta Kinte. He is said to have traveled to Jufure and talked to an elderly person there who vouched for the existence of Kunta Kinte, who was later captured and taken away. However, certain historians have challenged this claim. In fact, the elderly person from Juffure is said to have been 'coached' to lie about Kunta Kinte. When I finished reading the book, I was particularly impressed with Halley because he went to great lengths to unearth his ancestral lines, but when I read these allegations against his claim, I feel deceived. Why would one want to make up their ancestors? To make their book a bestseller? To gain sympathy from the world? As you can see, I am enraged!

As if these allegations were not enough to make me regret reading this book, Halley was even charged with plagiarism. Some of the portions of this book were directly picked from another book, which he denied initially, but later admitted it in writing. I wasted a part of my life, no matter how small, in reading a book which is completely unoriginal - both in content and in language.

Zero Percentile: Missed IIT, Kissed Russia by Neeraj Chhibba

When Neeraj Chhibba, the author of this book, contacted me to ask if I can review his book, I was not sure about it. It didn’t look like a book which I would pick up on my own. Still, since I didn’t have any compelling reason to decline his request, I agreed to review his book. The very first thing I noticed about the book is its striking similarity to Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone. For the records, I haven’t read Bhagat’s book and don’t plan to do so. Without reading it, I know I am not going to like it. This was not a great way to start Chhibba’s book, but I tried to be as unbiased and unprejudiced as possible.

Zero Percentile is about Pankaj, a young lad who is like any other typical boy. The book starts with his birth and gives us a detailed view of how his life turns out. The story of his birth is amusing. The author tries to turn the story into a humor cum sarcastic one, but it just didn’t work. Pankaj is the apple of the eye back home and gets a special treatment by being sent to a public school whereas his sisters have to be satisfied with going to government school. He is bright, intelligent and does well in school. He tells us about his best friends – Priya and Motu, who are with him through thick and thin. His fights in school, crush on teachers and friends, studies, election as a Head Boy and so on. His aim in life is to get into IIT and he works hard towards it. An accident quashes his hopes and he has to console himself with something else. His Dad decides to send him to Russia to study engineering. This is the reason for the title ‘Missed IIT, Kissed Russia’. The book goes on to tell us his experience in Russia, his financial struggle and his love life.

The writing is simple and straight. The book actually reads like a diary of a young man. Since the book is in first person POV, this is quite acceptable, but Chhibba could have added some more style to his writing. There are quite a few errors, as pointed by many other readers. Not only print errors, there are a few places where Pankaj contradicts himself. When he is traveling to Russia, he is clearly a non-vegetarian, but he mentions about converting from vegetarian to non-vegetarian after landing in Russia.

The characters are all shallow. You don’t feel anything towards them – be it the protagonist or his friends or his parents. Pankaj himself comes across as a two dimensional character. If you don’t bond with the protagonist, there is very little chance that you will like the book.

The book reads like a last minute attempt in writing something down and getting it published. Or more like take someone’s diary and publish it. The story appears disconnected and things are introduced just to create drama. Nitin’s HIV episode, Pankaj’s stint as a salesman and so on. At one point of time, Pankaj is struggling to get hold of a few hundreds dollars whereas after his salesman days, he is suddenly playing with millions. A little hard to digest, isn’t it?

In the end, it all boils down to what I took back from the book. No inspiration from the story, no memorable characters, no contemplating moments – in the end, there is nothing that I gained from this book. Chhibba’s debut book might not strike a chord with book lovers, so he has try harder next time.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Reading intellectually stimulating books is one thing, but there is nothing like reading a crime thriller. The former is like watching a documentary on Vietnam war. You need to be attentive, lest you miss some minor point. The latter, on the other hand, is like watching a thriller movie in which it is okay if you missed the initial few scenes because the most important thing is the climax fight or the chase. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a crime thriller but you would not want to miss any part of the book because there is not a single, dull moment in the book.

This book was originally written in Swedish and was named 'Män som hatar kvinnor', literal translation means 'Men who hate women'. What a lame title! Thank Heavens someone had the brains to change the title of the English version, otherwise I would definitely not have picked this book to read. This book is part of a trilogy called Millennium trilogy. The author had an unexpected death just before his work was published. His books went on to become best-sellers and he did not live to see it!

The first book in the trilogy is about Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, who is a freak in the social world. She keeps to herself and behaves in a way for the others to think she is mentally unwell. What the world does not know is that she is an investigator and a hacker par excellence. Mikhael Blomkvist loses his money and credibility in a libel case. When he decides to take a break from his role as publisher of the magazine, he gets hired for an unexpected but interesting task by Henrik Vanger. His assignment is to crack the murder mystery of Vanger's niece Harriet which occurred some forty years back. Harriet disappears one fine day and nobody has any trace of her after that day. Vanger is sure someone killed her and to mock him, the murderer sends him a birthday gift every year. Vanger's only aim in life is to track the murderer and make him pay for it. The book is about how Mikhael, along with Lisbeth, solves this mystery. The plot is set in a fictional place in Sweden.

The book has a very promising start. With the first word, you are bang in the middle of all the action. The plot is interesting, to say the least. The author builds up an air of mystery around Harriet's disappearance and the reader so badly wants to know what on earth really happened to that girl. The main characters are believable, the most mysterious and interesting being Lisbeth. She comes across as innocent, yet shrewd. Her thoughts about how the world functions and her way of getting things she wants and how relationships work makes a very good read. You can't help but want to reach out and give her a hug. Blomkvist, according to me, comes across as plain. The protagonist of murder mysteries is usually a handsome hunk, who every living woman finds attractive and falls for, but not Blomkvist, atleast I didn't fall for him.

Though the book is quite big, it moves really fast. The story is quick paced and the eagerness to solve the mystery will make you finish the book in one sitting. The plot, the way the mystery is solved and the twists involved are all great, but the reason for the crime is lame. Somehow, in the end when the mystery is solved, you will ask yourself 'What the heck!'. Larsson has a great story to tell but he should have made his murderer more believable. The motive is not strong enough. Nevertheless, a great book and a perfect one to pick up when you are done with something heavy and need a filler.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is a well known author in the non-fiction book world. When his first book, The Tipping Point, came out in 2000, it took the world by surprise. Every book reader was reading and discussing this book. Blink was an even bigger influence on the book lovers. I read it to see what the big deal was and I remember that I wasn't all that impressed with it. When my brother recommended Outliers to me, I was skeptical. I didn't want to say no to him, but also wasn't eager to read this book. It was lying on my bookshelf all these days, patiently waiting for me to pick it up and the time finally came last week. On a whim, I just opened it and read the first page and I liked what I read so much that the current book went on the backburner and I started on Outliers right away.

If you are new to Gladwell, the first thing you notice is the bookcover. There is something captivating about the simple white background and bold, black letters. The bookcover tempts you to read the book. Isn't that what a bookcover should do? Allison J. Warner, is the cover artist, if you want to appreciate the effort.

Outliers looks at successful people and some not-so-successful people and analyzes them. Gladwell compares two individuals who have similar talent, similar IQ but one of them is successful while the other one is not and argues that the different is chance or opportunity. While one of them was given an opportunity, the other was not. Gladwell supports his theory by a lot of examples. These case studies make an interesting read. Gladwell tries to answer the question why Asians are good at math. His theory is interesting, to say the least. Not only does Gladwell talk about raw intelligence or IQ, he even says social skills - convincing and arguing ability are also important for success.

In one chapter, he quotes a study which involved a set of kids from mixed background. It was observed that the kids from rich household were better at studies than the poorer ones. Gladwell talks about a special school for poor kids to train them and make them equal to their richer counterparts. He outlines a typical day in the life of a student in that school and it is disturbing to see that the kid doesn't have even a minute to play. All she does is wake up, run to school, study, get back home, do her homework and go to bed. Agreed that this is for her benefit so that she doesn't miss out on opportunities for being poor, but let the kids be kids, right? Let her play and enjoy her life. She might not score better grades, but she definitely will have a better life. And since when did grades start affecting success? Isn't success subjective? Anyways, this was a chapter which I found very disturbing. I sat there and imagined that little girl who has to go this special school and sacrifice her childhood for better grades and I felt like screaming at the top of my voice, "Are you freaking crazy?"

The rest of the book is great. The chapter on Bill Gates and how hard work is an integral part of the path to success is conveyed very well. In the end, just talent and opportunities are not enough. One should utilize those opportunities and work hard.

An interesting and thought-provoking book. A must read if you are even vaguely interested in this kind of non-fiction work.