Saturday, February 21, 2015

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief – Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson doesn’t quite fit in at school. ADHD, dyslexia, and a record of being kicked out have him certain that his future holds more of the same. All of that changes in the summer after 6th grade. After losing his mother during encounter with a Minotaur, Percy finds himself at Camp Half-Blood, the residential camp for children with one mortal parent and one Olympian parent. Shortly after arriving, Poseidon claims Percy as his son and sends him on a quest. Storms, and the possibility of war, have been brewing over the past several months because Zeus’ master lightning bolt had been stolen, and time is running out. In a matter of days, Percy sets out on a cross-country adventure to find and return the master bolt with help from his friends Grover, a satyr, and Annabeth, daughter of Athena and rival of Poseidon. Together, they defeat monsters and assist gods while traveling from New York to Los Angeles to uncover the mystery of the missing bolt. With no time to spare, Percy returns the master bolt to Olympus, but uncovers a much more sinister and powerful conspiracy to upset the temporary calm.

“Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” is the first in a young-adult fantasy series by Rick Riordan chronicling the adventures of half-blood children. Perhaps the strongest aspect of Riordan’s writing is how he aptly matches his characters with his target audience. Riordan creates in Percy a flawed and relatable hero, bringing together the contradictions in human behavior, ability, and relationships with others. Percy does not excel in school, but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn. He struggles to come to terms with his relationship with his father, but still seeks to make peace with the arrangement. Riordan also pays tribute to the desire to bring fictional world to life. Early in the first chapter, Riordan acknowledges Percy’s belief that he had been normal, ostensibly suggesting that other young adult readers might one day find themselves at Camp Half-Blood as well. Contained within the boundaries of the camp and the time frame of the summer, the alternate reality of Camp Half-Blood invites adventure, danger, and excitement. Everything about the story seems to be perfectly feasible, and a perfect escape.

First, kudos to Riordan for conveying such a thorough knowledge of Greek gods and goddesses in such an exciting story. The combination of education and entertainment sets the book apart from others in the young adult fantasy genre. However, in his quest to thrill readers, I felt that the plot moved along so quickly nothing else mattered. It jumped from one adventure to the next with minimal reflection and integration into a deeper story line. This called for an unavoidable comparison with Harry Potter. I remember certain big events in the first Harry Potter, but don’t recall the entire first novel being a continuous series of life-threatening situations. Overall, though, it was a very enjoyable novel. I’ll probably read the second one. Eventually.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey

After years of watching patients come and go, though most come and stay, Chief Bromden understands and relies on the routines of the psychiatric hospital that also serves as his home. He keeps to himself, sweeping the hallways and struggling constantly against the Combine, the machinery that Nurse Ratched uses to run the psychiatric ward and slowly turn patients into automatons. This steady system is suddenly and irreversibly upset with the appearance of McMurphy, a man who lives excessively and earned his spot in the psychiatric ward for fighting in a prison work camp. McMurphy immediately sets to disrupting the hospital routines, intentionally provoking Nurse Ratched, and imbuing the patients with an unexpected vitality. After years of constant struggle against the Combine, Chief Bromden finds himself more engaged with the world than even he thought possible. However, McMurphy’s behavior lands him locked in a power struggle with Nurse Ratched. Although he is aware of the extent of her power, he continues to try to thwart the system, threatening her carefully procured routines, systems, and appearances. While Nurse Ratched holds ultimate authority on the ward, McMurphy’s raucous approach to life proves insidious and pervasive, undermining Nurse Ratched even as she seems to have won.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey is a powerful, challenging, and all-around disruptive story of life on a psychiatric ward. Kesey’s choice of Chief Bromden as the narrator provides a dual perspective of life on the ward because he speaks as both an observer and a participant. Throughout most of the novel, as in most of Bromden’s life, the reader loses awareness of Bromden as a primary character, only to be surprised by his independence during lucid moments in which he is free from the influence of the Combine. Bromden’s schizophrenic reality offers an exaggerated yet incisive critique of society, which can be both safely condoned and safely discarded because he is a patient on a psychiatric ward. In the character of McMurphy, Kesey creates neither a hero nor an anti-hero, but an opposition to Nurse Ratched and everything good and bad in the system of the psychiatric ward. For every bold play by McMurphy, Nurse Ratched exerts her authority with an equally powerful yet restrained response. The novel is imbued with complexities, nuances, and strong yet subtle challenges to conventional thinking.

I love this story. Well, I love parts of this story. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is uncomfortable and unsettling because it operates in shades of grey. No single character or plotline in the book is entirely good or right, and neither is there anything that is entirely bad or wrong. Kesey brings in countless significant themes that require thorough contemplation before coming to any kind of conclusion, which, at best, results in more shades of grey. Mental illness, institutionalization, self-determination, stigma, violence. This novel has a lot of heavy stuff to wrestle with, which makes for fabulous reading. I feel like I could analyze this book for days.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Continual Condition

The Continual Condition – Charles Bukowski

I’m going to add poetry to the short (and apparently growing) list of writing that I don’t know how to review so I’m not even going to try. So I’ll keep this short. In this collection of poems, Bukowski writes with a cynical realism, reflecting on his excesses with gambling, drinking, and sex. He seems to have a distaste for life, but finds satisfaction among the problems, hardships, and frustrations. Less appealing than the world, though, are the people that inhabit it. Whatever his interactions indicate, his thoughts reveal an impatient apathy for how other people try to participate in his life. Again, he offers this up for reflection and scrutiny, accepting it for what it is without passing judgment, dwelling, or disregarding the unfavorable aspects. Take that with a grain of salt, though. The bigger reason why I don’t know how to review poetry is because I’m not quite sure how to read poetry. Bukowski certainly has some gems throughout the collection, and certain pieces made me stop and think twice (or three or four times), but I often found myself asking “what was the point?” The good thing about his poetry is that it comes in bite-sized pieces, so the length, if not always the content, is accessible.