Ahhhhhhh….and we’re back to fiction.
I love fiction. One of my daughters is in the hospital with pneumonia right now, poor chicki. She is on the mend, though, so don’t worry. In fact, I expect that she will be out today or tomorrow! My mother-in-law got hospitalized as well, because the virus (which my entire family contracted) targets the lungs and is dangerous for asthmatics.
I believe it, because I have no history of asthma, but as I am writing this, my chest is tight. Uggggh.
Anyway, the one little tiny good thing in all this is that it has allowed for more than usual time to read. I love love love reading. So today I want to recommend to you a book that you can add to your reading list for the next time YOU have a sick day or some free time.
The past week on Betty’s Battleground has been all about mental health treatment…which is kind of ironic, because I am now being reminded how drastically different the treatment of physical ailments can be. I wrote about my experiences in the psych ward, and a few days later hosted an excellent guest post by Sheila O’Donnell about trauma informed care.
The book I am choosing as “book of the weeks” for this next set of weeks is all about life within a psych ward. It is one of my favorite books, and if you haven’t read it yet, that is a PROBLEM which you need to remedy ASAP.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
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“One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest” is a modern classic. It is one of those rare books that has managed to maintain it’s cool-book, cult status, while also earning its spot in the “Great Old White Guy’s Cannon.”
If you’re not familiar with Ken Kesey, another book you should check out is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. It’s all about Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters, who were a group of acidheads who rode around on a bus in the 60s playing pranks, causing mayhem, and living free. They actually still exist, even though Kesey is long lost in the universal ether. I saw their bus when I spent a year in Eugene, OR; Ken Kesey’s stomping grounds. I almost got on the bus…almost…but almost doesn’t count because you’re either on the bus, or you’re off bus.
Anyway! Back to “Cuckoos Nest.”
If you haven’t already read this book, you have probably at least heard the title, because it was adapted into a 1975 Academy Award winning film starring Jack Nicholson. The film is great. It deserved those Oscars.
The book is better.
Ken Kesey is a master with language. He is a fiction writer with a poet’s heart, which is my favorite kind of writer to read. Don’t worry, though: All that means is his descriptions are lush, vivid, and evocative, and that the story uses poetic grace and lyricism to bear the weird truth of life in an asylum using the narrative vessel. It isn’t convoluted or difficult to read by any standard.
“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is set in a psychiatric hospital. Before writing this book and launching his career as a professional writer and prankster, Kesey worked as a janitor in a psych hospital. He was able to see the life of mental patients first hand. This was in the 60s, when practices like electro-shock therapy and lobotamization were still common, so if you were at all disturbed by what I wrote about in my article on staying in a psych ward in 2016, you will be shocked by Kesey’s book.
Keep in mind: “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is fiction. But Ken Kesey is a great writer, and all great writers are able to transmute the truth they know while using the creative tools of fiction and storytelling.
With this book, Kesey does just that. The story focuses on Randle McMurphy, who is played by Jack Nicholson in the film adaptation. McMurphy doesn’t really belong in a psych ward. He is a provocative free-thinker, whose identity probably borrowed some characteristics from Kesey himself. He wrangled his way out of prison time by getting himself declared incompetent, believing that the mental institution would be easier than the Big House.
He wasn’t counting on Nurse Ratched. Nurse Ratched is the ultimate authority figure. She rules the ward without compromise, and often without practicing sound medicine either. She represents everything McMurphy hates; control, authority, and closed-mindedness. They naturally bump heads, and she becomes the biggest source of conflict within the book.
For those who have seen the film, the biggest difference is that the story is narrated by the Chief. In the film, the Chief is a hulking and completely silent patient whom McMurphy befriends after initially kind of just using him. This dynamic is intact in the book as well, but we are granted private insight into the Chief’s thoughts. Kesey captures the unique mind of a mental patient with the narration in “Cuckoo’s Nest.” Even with all of the film’s very real assets, it will never compare to the book because of this single, incredible aspect. Reading the Chief’s thoughts-Ken Kesey’s impeccable exploration of the mind of a non-verbal mental patient-is a reason to read this book alone.
Then there is the plot, the host of eccentric characters, their dynamic, and, of course, the battle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but do prepare to get your heart completely shattered at the end of the book.
It’s worth the heartbreak, however; this book is so good that you will want to suffer that heartbreak again and again just for the pleasure of reading Kesey’s language and uniquely acute insight into the 1960’s American mental health system.
I will admit something here that will probably be considered blasphemy in some of my social circles: I haven’t been able to finish another book by Kesey. I plan to. Don’t worry, I am going to try again! But when I first tried to read, for example, “Sometimes A Great Notion” (which many people laud as Kesey’s best work) I found it too dense and meandering. Granted, I was strung out at the time, so it is definitely on my list of books to revisit sober. HOWEVER: the reason I bring this up is because I truly believe that “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is a book that everyone should read at least once. Even if you didn’t like other works by Kesey, try this one. It is unique, and amazing, and one of the greatest books ever written.
I recommend “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” to anyone over the age of thirteen who is able to read, and especially to those who are interested in mental-health related themes. Why wait? Buy it now…
Have you read “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest?” Have you seen the film? What are your thoughts on the book vs the film? What other books would you recommend to someone who loves “Cuckoo’s Nest?” Tell me in the comments!
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