One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

OFOTCN cover

“Papa says if you don’t watch it people will force you one way or the other, into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite out of spite.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an absolute cracker of a novel; a true work of art – although had you told me so at any point during the first thirty-odd pages, I wouldn’t have believed it. As was also the case with Mrs Dalloway, it took me a wee while to get into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to understand why it is regarded as a modern classic. And now, with the benefit of hindsight, I suspect my initial lack of appreciation had more to do with my mindset at the time than with the book itself.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is set on the psychiatric ward of a hospital in the US state of Oregon during the early 1960s. It is narrated by “Chief” Bromden, an exceptionally tall, half-American Red Indian patient, whom the staff believe to be deaf and mute. The novel is filled with his “crazy” observations on the ward and its inmates, which are divided into two distinct groups: the ‘Acutes’ (believed to be treatable) and the ‘Chronics’ (deemed to be beyond help).

The story doesn’t really get going until Randle McMurphy arrives on the ward. He is transferred to the hospital from a prison, and immediately upon his arrival locks horns with the head nurse, Nurse Ratched, a crotchety old megalomanic who has run the ward unopposed for decades. The way he manages, time and time again, to get the better of her is downright hilarious.

Kesey’s narrative in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is astounding, and I stand in awe of his turn of phrase. Through the musings of “Chief” Bromden and his interactions with the other patients, the reader gets to see the world of a ‘mental’ patient from a slightly different perspective, as well as learn about some of the horrors of early psychotherapeutic treatment.

I can’t wait to see the movie version, which stars Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito, and was realised in 1975. I did, however, make the mistake of looking up the actors who played the characters in the film adaptation while I was still reading the book, and from that moment on I couldn’t help but visualise Nicholson in the role of McMurphy–in the book the character is a burly red head (i.e. nothing like Nicholson).

Read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You won’t regret it!

UPDATE ON MY NOVEL: I have hit the 32,000-word mark on my second draft! Only 18,000 words to go.

 

Christmas reading!

Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

A true literary masterpiece! It takes a while to get used to Woolf’s way with words (her writing flits backwards and forwards in time and space, and alternates without warning between view points) but reading Mrs Dalloway is well worth the effort. Once I got used to her ‘stream of consciousness’ style of story telling, I couldn’t put the book down. The story takes place on a single day in Central London in the early 1920s. Clarissa Dalloway – a respectable lady in the twilight of her life – is preparing to host a party at her Westminster home. As we observe her preparations for the party, we learn about her life and meet a whole host of other characters. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Mrs Dalloway.

The Metamorphosis

 

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I bought my copy of The Metamorphosis at Kafka’s house in Prague when I was on a school trip way back in 1999 but only read it last week! I don’t know why it took me so long, as it is a tiny novella (about 100 pages). It is also incredibly easy to read. In a nutshell, The Metamorphosis tells the story of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman, who wakes one morning to find he has turned into a beetle. It becomes obvious quite quickly that the story is taking place in some sort of parallel universe, since his parents and sister, although disgusted by his transformation, accept what has happened with a fair degree of pragmatism, and try to accommodate Gregor in his new form by clearing out his bedroom to give him more space to manoeuvre his bulky body. Despite its slightly bizarre subject matter, I would definitely recommend The Metamorphosis.

Mr Pip

Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones

I bought Mr Pip at Whitcoulls just before Christmas, unaware that its author, Lloyd Jones, is a New Zealander and lives in Wellington! It was a fortuitous discovery, since I had been wanting to read more NZ literature for some time. Having said that, Mr Pip is not set in New Zealand; the story takes place on a small island in Papua New Guinea during the blockade of Bougainville in the early 1990s. The story is written in the first person, from the perspective of a young girl called Matilda, who, over the course of some 200 pages, describes a three- or four-year period from her childhood. Parts of Mr Pip are funny and charming; others are harrowing and immensely sad. A central theme of the book is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a novel that is read to Matilda and her class mates by their teacher, Mr Watts; the only white man on the island. It is very clever how Jones manages to weave Great Expectations into his own novel, and I would strongly recommend Mr Pip. The novel was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and has been made into a movie, starring Hugh Laurie.

 

UPDATE ON MY NOVEL:

I am now eight chapters into my second draft and I am feeling positive about the changes I have made so far. The feedback I received on my first draft has been really helpful and has enabled me to refocus. I am aiming to have my second draft finished by the end of the summer, ready for another edit!

My year without sugar

On 31 December 2013 I decided enough was enough.

When I arrived in NZ nearly six years ago I had a 33″ waist and weighed around 90kg. Yet within five years I had reached 102kg – and the expensive jeans I had bought way back in 2009 would no longer do up. I mean, I couldn’t even get them over my thighs!

In 2013 I went to the UK to celebrate my 30th birthday, and when I got home I saw the photos. Suffice it to say, I joined the gym straightaway. For once, I felt really motivated to lose some weight. And for the next six months I went to the gym at least three times a week – religiously! Alright, I didn’t exactly go nuts – I took a book with me – but it was more than I had been doing before (that is, nothing) and I thought my efforts would surely bear some fruit. I thought I would lose a kilo or two at least.

Well, no! I didn’t lose a gram. Not a measly gram! I was exactly the same weight, just $300 worse off for membership fees.

Then, while I was at work one day I happened to hear an interview on the radio with an Australian journalist called David Gillespie. He was plugging his new book Sweet Poison. My good friend Venessa saw how interested I was in what he had to say, so she very kindly bought me the book for Christmas.

In the book Gillespie stresses the point that he is not a scientist and that Sweet Poison is not a diet book. He doesn’t advise his readers to eat just carrots, or just soup, or to cut out every conceivable form of carbohydrate. Gillespie simply researched sugar and its effects on the body. And he presents his findings in a very interesting and informative way, and in so doing casts considerable doubt on some of the longstanding beliefs about ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food.

For example, he raises this very interesting point: why is it that human beings in the Western World have got so much fatter over the past forty years, despite the fact that we now go to the gym more and consume more ‘low-fat’ products. OK, I concede that we now lead more sedentary lives. But you wouldn’t expect us to be so much bigger. Surely we should be, if not slimmer, at least the same size as our grandparents’ generation? Yet, the fact is the rate of morbid obesity is skyrocketing. Why is this?

I won’t go into the whys and wherefores; Gillespie does this much more skillfully than I could. Instead, I will simply share with you my own personal experience. I think the facts (or kilos) speak for themselves.

On New Year’s Eve I decided that from 1 January 2014 I would only consume food with a sugar content of less than 5 percent. I don’t know why I chose 5 percent; it just seemed like a good number. In one fell swoop I wiped chocolate (even dark chocolate contains 30% sugar), cookies, cake and lollies from my diet. Note: I had mentally prepared for this.

What did surprise me, however, is the amount of food that contains more than 5 percent sugar that I had never even thought about. For example, even low-fat, ‘lite’ breakfast cereals, marketed as being healthy, contain 30% sugar. 30%! And those healthy yoghurts? Full of sugar!

Overnight I started looking at the labels on the backs of packets. If the sugar content in the per 100g column was greater than 5, I simply wouldn’t eat it. That meant giving up tomato ketchup, most salad dressings, fruit juice, chutneys, and a lot more. It is really amazing how many products have a high sugar content.

Was it difficult?

Not really. Yes, it took a bit of effort, but it certainly wasn’t difficult. In fact, I had expected it to be a lot harder. I used to eat a lot of chocolate, and I never turned down a piece of cake or a biscuit. Yet once I had resolved not to eat sugar, I found it was actually remarkably easy to do. That isn’t to say that I never think: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a piece of cake?”, but I haven’t once hard a hard-out craving for something sweet. I actually find it hard to believe I have managed to go nearly 12 months without sugar or sweets. It really doesn’t feel like that long.

Almost immediately I started to notice how much better I felt; and who cares whether it was psychosomatic or real? I had more energy, my bowel movements were a nutritionist’s dream, and, most importantly, the weight started to fall off! By the middle of the year, I was already down to around 94kg. I still went to the gym three times a week, and I still took my book with me. Basically, I didn’t change anything except cut out the sugar. I continued to eat hot chips, potato chips, real butter etc. And each month, when I had my weigh in, I was lighter.

Now, for those of you who are screaming at me: “It’s not healthy to cut out a food group” or “You should eat everything in moderation”, I say to you, “I do.” I eat vegetables, whole fruit, bread, meat, fish, dairy, nuts, seeds, etc. I limit my caffeine intake and I take fish oil supplements every day. I actually eat very healthily. The only thing I do is limit my sugar consumption. And as for alcohol, I drink that too. Happy days! Thankfully, Gillespie explains why beer and wine is OK.

Towards the end of October I reached by 90kg goal, and since then I have plateaued at about 90.5kg. I’m going to continue with my low sugar diet into the new year, mainly because it has been so easy, and the benefits have far outweighed (excuse the pun) any of the inconvenience. And, most importantly, I can now fit into my expensive jeans, and I can get the button done up! More happy days!

For those of you who are interested and want to know more, I recommend David Gillespie’s book Sweet Poison.

Sweet Poison book

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway

FWTBT cover

“Today is the only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”

What an amazing thought by Hemmingway!

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway is a fantastic read. In fact, it is the first book I have awarded five stars on Goodreads (FYI: there’s a link to my Goodreads account somewhere on this website).

I particularly enjoyed the story as it takes place during the Spanish Civil War – an event I previously knew nothing about. It does take a wee while to adjust to Hemmingway’s style of narrative, as he flits between perspectives, often in the same paragraph, and uses punctuation sparingly. However, once you get used to his style, For Whom the Bell Tolls is incredibly easy to read. There are also many instances where the protagonist, Robert Jordan, talks to/argues with himself, and Hemmingway writes these dialogues as single chunks of prose. As this is the first novel by Hemmingway I have read, I can’t tell you yet whether the style is characteristic of his work in general or just of For Whom the Bell Tolls. As soon as I have read another of his novels, I will let you know.

The story is set in the mountains of Spain during the Spanish Civil War and tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American citizen and former professor of Spanish, who is fighting with a group of left-wing guerrilla fighters against General Franco and his military dictatorship. Jordan arrives on the scene tasked with blowing up a key, strategic bridge in order to facilitate a planned offensive by the Russian-backed “Republic”. The story also includes a fabulous array of characters, including the shifty, former cell leader, Pablo, the matriach, Pilar, and Jordan’s beautiful but emotionally and physically – scarred lover, Maria.

I won’t give any more of the story away, as the novel is definitely worth reading and I wouldn’t want to spoil the enjoyment for anybody. The story was also adapted for the big screen in 1943, starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. One of these days I will watch the movie; however, I did watch the trailer on Apple TV on the weekend and it looks very dated. Still, mustn’t pre-judge!

I am now reading E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India. So far, so good!

UPDATE ON MY NOVEL:

I am now well underway with my second draft and, taking the suggestions from the editor into account, it is already sounding much better. I aim to have my second draft finished by the autumn. Perhaps by this time next year I’ll have something to show you all. Fingers crossed!

The Outs by Adam Goldman

The Outs

I stumbled across this little gem of a miniseries last week while I was browsing movie recommendations online. Tired of watching the same old repeats and advertisement-rich dross that airs on ‘normal’ TV, I thought I’d try my luck with some independent stuff.  There certainly is a lot of crap to sift through on YouTube! However, thankfully, I found The Outs.

The Outs is directed by, and stars, Adam Goldman. Wikipedia describes The Outs as “a 2012 miniseries with seven episodes, produced exclusively for Internet distribution.” And that’s essentially what it is. The Outs was entirely crowd-funded, and by the end of two campaigns Goldman had received enough money to make an end-of-series special as well. In 2013 The Outs was nominated in seven categories at the Indie Soap Awards.

The story is set in New York City and centres around Mitch, his best friend, Oona, and his ex-boyfriend, Jack. Over the course of six twenty-minute(ish) episodes, plus one special, Goldman chronicles the demise of Mitch and Jack’s relationship in a way that is both funny and touching.

Unlike many of the independent, gay-themed short movies/series that are out there in cyberspace, The Outs, has a great script, a quality cast, and a professionally produced feel. Plus, Jack’s new boyfriend, Paul (played by Tommy Heleringer) is pretty hot.

I’d highly recommend The Outs. FYI, on IMDb it rated 8.2/10.

You can watch The Outs on YouTube or here

Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd

sarum

Sarum is the third novel by Edward Rutherfurd I have read and, just like his other books London and Russka, it is pretty epic – 1,344 pages in total!

Rutherfurd has certainly stamped his own unique mark on the genre of historical fiction: each of his novels centres on a place rather than a person, covers at least a thousand years of history and is accompanied by an assortment of maps and a detailed genealogy of its characters. With each book covering many centuries, there are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of characters.

Sarum starts in 7,500BC with the story of Hwll and Akun, who leave the icy wastelands in the North and journey down the east coast of Britain and settle on the Salisbury Plains, and finishes some nine millennia later, having covered the Saxon, Roman, Viking and Norman invasions, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the rise of the British Empire and the loss of the American colonies, and much more.

I love the way Rutherfurd weaves fact with fiction to both entertain and educate his readers – even though his stories are made up, they include an array of famous people and events. What is more, although his novels are designed to be read from beginning to end (i.e. in chronological order), each chapter is essentially a self-contained short story and could easily be read in isolation or skipped entirely. I would recommend Sarum to anybody who has an interest in history but who doesn’t mind a bit of artistic licence.

I have amassed a small fortune in gems of ‘useless’ information through reading Rutherfurd’s novels. Here’s one from his novel London:

Where does the phrase ‘to tally up’ come from?

In the Middles Ages–I think. You’ll need to read London and check. It was a long time ago, in any case–when landowners came to Westminster to pay their taxes to the Crown the amount they were required to pay (their tax return, for all intents and purposes) was recorded on a ‘tally’ stick using a series of notches–each notch would represent a certain amount of money. The tally stick was then split from top to bottom, with the tax official keeping one half and the landowner taking the other away. When the sticks were placed together again–i.e. when it was time for the landowner to cough up the money–the notches were supposed to line up. If they did, the accounts were said to tally up.

UPDATE ON MY NOVEL:

So… I got the first draft back from the editor! She has given me lots of constructive feedback and has told me the areas I need to work on. She says the basic structure of my story is there but needs to be expanded, and the characters developed. I’m now super motivated to write my second draft. Watch this space!

PRIDE

rsz_the-pride-movie-poster

 

Last night I attended a private screening at the Lighthouse Cinema, Wellington, of the new British movie PRIDE. The event was organised in aid of next year’s Out In The Park festival in Wellington, which will take place in Waitangi Park on Valentine’s Day.

The movie was simply amazing! I would even go so far as to say it may just be the best British movie I have ever seen.

Boasting a stellar cast (Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West), the movie is both hilarious and incredibly moving. I left the theatre smiling from ear to ear, yet incredibly humbled.

PRIDE is set in 1984/85 and tells the true story of a London-based gay activist group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and its efforts to support the striking miners of South Wales.

The movie really brought home how incredibly fortunate I am to have grown up a generation later. The freedoms and acceptance I enjoy today were fought for by so many, many courageous individuals, all of whom I owe a debt of gratitude.

Even though the underlying storyline is anything but funny and the movie touches on some pretty grim topics (AIDS, the coal miners’ strikes of the early 1980s, homophobia), it is by no means depressing. The screenplay is so beautifully written and the acting so superb that if PRIDE doesn’t have you laughing out loud, then nothing will!

I cannot recommend watching this movie more strongly! 10/10. Five stars out of five. A+.

 

A Room with a View by E.M.Forster

A Room with a View cover

“Life,” wrote a friend of mine, “is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along.”

I absolutely love this analogy; mostly because it is so true!

When I first started reading E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View I wasn’t that impressed. I found the opening chapters slow-going and, to be honest, slightly dull; however, now that I have finished reading the novel in its entirety, I can appreciate that part one serves an important purpose: with it Forster lays the foundations of a simple but compelling love story.

FYI: The novel is divided into two parts: the first – and shorter of the two – is set in Florence, at a boarding house occupied mostly by middle-class English tourists, whilst the second part takes place in Surrey, in a sleepy village called Summer Street.

Like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, A Room with a View is quite short – just over 200 pages – and takes no time at all to read. I actually ended up really enjoying the second part of the novel, especially the dialogue and Forster’s depiction of Edwardian Middle England.

A quick Google search has revealed that the novel was adapted for the big screen in 1985, starring Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Daniel Day-Lewis and Judi Dench – some of my favourite actresses. I don’t normally like watching adaptations of books I’ve enjoyed reading; however, I’m keen to see this one. With such a stellar cast it’s surely got to be worth a squiz?

On that I’ll leave you with another quotation from the novel!

“…but if we act the truth, the people who really love us are sure to come back to us in the long run.”

 

UPDATE ON MY NOVEL: I finally finished the first draft and posted it off to be edited on Wednesday. Should have the report back by November, ready to start my second draft!

 

 

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five Novel Cover Slaughterhouse-Five: The Children’s Crusade is such a great little read. Written by Kurt Vonnegut and published in 1969, the short novel (just over 200 pages) tells the story of Billy Pilgrim and the bombing of Dresden during the final days of the Second World War. Billy Pilgrim is unique in that he has the ability to travel through time and to relive, at will, episodes from his life.

As Billy journeys backwards and forwards in time the reader learns about his experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war, his career as an optometrist in the fictitious town of Ilium, New York, and the terrible loss of civilian life which occurred during the final assault against Hitler and the Nazi regime. I, for one, never realised that significantly more people were killed in Dresden in a single night than by the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

Slaughterhouse-Five is similar to Sophie’s Choice by William Styron in that Vonnegut weaves together a series of subplots to create one, fluid narrative. It is impressive the way Vonnegut manages to keep the reader engaged while jumping backwards and forwards in time and place, from war-ravaged central Europe, through 1960s America and across the universe to the alien planet of Tralfamadore, where Pilgrim is supposedly kept captive in a zoo alongside a Californian adult movie star. The story certainly is unique!

The end of the novel also has a New Zealand flavour, which was a nice surprise:

“Billy found himself paired as a digger with a Maori who had been captured at Tobruk. The Maori was chocolate brown. He had whirlpools tattooed on his forehead and cheeks.”

I would definitely recommend Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s incredibly easy to read; it’s punchy and to the point; and above all it’s really entertaining.

 

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Sophie's Choice Novel Cover

Set in New York City in the summer of 1947 – just two years after the end of the Second World War – Sophie’s Choice tells the story of Stingo (an aspiring writer from the South who is renting a room in Brooklyn and is trying to pen his first literary masterpiece) and his friendship with a beautiful young woman who lives in the same building: Sophie. A Polish survivor of Auschwitz, Sophie has recently migrated to the US from a refugee centre in Sweden and as the story unfolds, snippet by snippet, we learn of the trauma she has suffered and the terrible secrets she keeps buried deep inside.

Sophie’s Choice is undoubtedly a masterpiece of modern American literature. The way the author, William Styron, has woven together the various strands of the story is impressive. Slowly, with each passing chapter, as if peeling back the layers of an onion, we learn more and more about the enigma that is Sophie and the harrowing ordeals she underwent in war-ravaged Poland.  Styron has so seamlessly joined fact with what I presume to be fiction that the story feels one hundred per cent authentic.

There is nothing phony about Sophie’s Choice. The way he recounts Stingo’s ‘coming of age’ is also downright hilarious in its believability. NOTE: Sophie’s Choice is not for the prudish!!! I read (on that trusty repository of wisdom that is Wikipedia) that in 2002 the novel was removed from a California school library for a period of time following complaints from parents. And I can see why parents would object: the novel is extremely graphic and I have to admit I was myself at times shocked! That they should object to their little darlings reading about Stingo’s throbbing member and his apprenticeship in the ways of fellatio and the sixty-nine position is understandable. However, it is the book’s unapologetic authenticity, its unashamedly realistic account of the pain of growing up, that earns it a place on the literary shelf.

I also learned, again via Wikipedia (God bless the Internet!), that the novel was adapted into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in 1982 and coined the phrase ‘to make a Sophie’s choice’: that is, to choose between two equally awful options. Actually, once I learned the meaning of this idiom I was able to predict the choice that Sophie would eventually have to make. I would definitely recommend Sophie’s Choice but not without the following caveat: not for the faint-hearted.