One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoos NestTitle: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest24-book challenge
Author: Ken Kesey
Publication date: 1962
Genre: Fiction

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestWhat’s it about?

Randle Patrick McMurphy – loud, swaggering, and rebellious – arrives on the ward of a mental hospital and almost instantly locks horns with the ‘Big Nurse’, Miss Ratched. But what begins as sport soon develops into out-and-out war between the two, as they vie for superiority and control.

Narrated by Chief Bromden, one of the ward’s long-term residents, the story follow McMurphy’s struggles against authority and his attempts to understand and make a difference to the lives of the other inmates. We come up against questions of personal freedom, self sacrifice, and the point at which individuality and insanity intersect – and there are no easy answers.

As McMurphy becomes more and more embroiled in his battle of wits with the Big Nurse, we realise it cannot be long before catastrophe strikes. And so – after many arguments, confrontations, and escapades – it does. But, running in parallel to the inevitable tragedy, we also see, in the Chief’s own narrative, a glimmer of hope. McMurphy’s actions have not been in vain.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I finally got an account set up in my local university library, and got the book out of there. I just need to remember to take it back, as I don’t have any visits planned before the due date; so I’ll need to make a special trip… or renew it!

What did I learn from it?

I learned that I find this subject fascinating! My work is based in and around medical research, so anything with a medical setting tends to grab my interest. Also, as someone who’s quit the 9-5 in order to work freelance, I’m drawn to any writing that deals with issues of personal freedom / being different / opting out of ‘the system’. So this book ticked both boxes.

As with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I learned a little about medical practices of days gone by. In this case, however, it was intriguing to see a different twist on issues of privacy and consent: not a factual account of the abuse of trust, but a fictional one – which meant that the author could go much further, and dig much deeper into the possible consequences of such actions.

How did it make me see the world differently?

In terms of the value placed on freedom and individuality, the book spoke to feelings I already possess. I have a huge thing about not getting caught in what Kesey refers to as ‘The Combine’: the abstract authority that governs society and wants to put people in neat little boxes and keep them there, the better to control them. So I was half expecting the book to give me a ‘courage boost’ for thumbing my nose to social convention, speaking my mind in the company of those who would seek to squash me, and being loud and proud about being different.

But then, the more I read of McMurphy, the more I started to question whether the loud approach is the right way for me. I’m a massive introvert – I hate drawing attention to myself, not because I’m scared of what people might think, but because it’s so exhausting to have to fend off the inevitable questions and criticisms. I don’t know that I’m self-sacrificing enough to make a big noise purely so that others can find inspiration, if it ultimately means that I get noticed, worn down, and potentially squashed for good.

That doesn’t feel like a particularly admirable thing to realise about myself, but I take comfort in the fact that it is in the story of the Chief that we introverts can find motivation. The Chief is the quintessential image of a quiet type: believed to be deaf and dumb for the majority of his time in the hospital, he nevertheless finds the courage to recover his sense of self, take a stand when it truly matters, and eventually strike out on his own.

I need to remind myself that it’s OK to be quiet.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I think that the best way forward for me is just to keep on trying to do what I want to do. Not shouting about my rights to freedom, but showing by example that it is possible to lead a life that is different to the one everyone expects you to lead.

In my case, that means more writing. Specifically, my supernatural novel. I’ve been juggling ideas around in my head for months now, without making any progress beyond the fiddly little details of my imaginary world – and the time has come to get a move on and start writing.

So, my contribution towards a world where we can all be free to be ourselves is to commit myself, not to an institution, but to the act of writing. Pen on paper; fingers on keyboard; however it manifests itself. I will not tell myself I can’t do it, that there is no point, that it will be rubbish. There are too many people in the world who are quite capable of doing that for me – and I refuse to join their ranks.

Rather than try to lead others to freedom, I will simply continue tracing my own path – and hope that this simple act will enable others to follow the trail too.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks24 book challengeTitle: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Publication date: 2010
Genre: Non fiction; Memoir

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksWhat’s it about?

This is the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer, whose cervical cancer cells were taken without her knowledge. Known as HeLa, the cells have been vital for a huge number of scientific advances, yet Henrietta’s family remained ignorant of this work for many years.

The book is both a tale of the experiences of real people and a history of scientific development, covering such issues as racism, patient confidentiality, and informed consent.

Read a full description on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I already owned it. I think I’d received it as a ‘prize’ at a local book group but had never got round to reading it.

What did I learn from it?

I learned a lot about the medical practices of past decades and how they do/don’t differ from what we’re used to today. There are some things we take for granted that simply weren’t the case back then! And I discovered more about the background to several major scientific developments, such as the polio vaccine.

I also learned about the typical life experiences of poor, black, Southern tobacco farmers in the 1950s, which is a world I obviously have no personal knowledge of. The book features many quotes directly from characters in the story, so there’s a real sense that you’re getting a first-hand description of their experiences.

How did it make me see the world differently?

I realised that it’s impossible to have a concept of how some people live until it’s thrust in front of us. We can think, in theory, that we’re open-minded and aware of difference, but it’s only when we have shocking facts pointed out to us that we realise we don’t really know anything at all.

The book also gave me a better understanding of scientific progress. Although I am aware that it’s a hard slog and not just about the exciting breakthroughs, it was fascinating to read about developments over the course of several decades. The steps backwards, as well as forwards, all contribute to the understanding we gain of an area and, ultimately, help us figure out what we shouldn’t be doing as well as what is possible.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I’ll continue to read more books about people from completely different walks of life, as a means of discovering more about the world. Indeed, that’s what this whole blogging challenge is about!

I’ll also apply a new-found enthusiasm for my work! I am a freelance information specialist for medical communications agencies, and one of the jobs I do is to check scientific manuscripts against the author instructions for different medical journals, to ensure that they’ve followed best practice and legal requirements regarding patient consent, confidentiality etc. Whilst this can sometimes feel like a purely administrative matter, a box-ticking exercise, this book has reminded me that these procedures affect real people with real lives.

So I will continue in my work with renewed gratitude for the recognition these issues have received over the years – thanks, in no small part, to the experiences of Henrietta Lacks and her family.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!