The Reflective Cynic

Floundering in a sea of reflective cynicism….come on, dive in

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Book: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
1st Year Published
: 1959

OK, Flowers for Algernon has become my favourite book, of ALL time. In fact, until now I don’t think I have been able to say what my favourite book was. It’s knocked my socks off, thrown me in the corner and left me a crumbling, emotional wreck. I can’t fault it, the character and story development, the writing, the way in which it stirs the emotions and its sheer humanity have all hit the right spot. It’s a winner of both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award and is part of the SF Masterworks series and quite deservedly so.

The book tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a 32 year old who is ‘retarded’ (a word I dislike but this is 1959 and a language of its time) with an IQ of 68. Charlie is recruited into an experiment which aims to increase his intelligence to that of a genius. The ‘Algernon’ named in the title, and whom the flowers are for, is a white mouse who has undergone the experiment prior to Charlie.

M is for mouse...

The story is told from Charlies’ perspective in the form of ‘Progress Reports’. He has to complete these as part of the experiment in order that any changes in his intellectual development are documented and evidenced. An exerpt of the first progress report shows us where Charlie begins the experiment;

“progris riport 1 martch 3
My name is Charlie Gordon I werk in Donners bakery where Mr Donner gives me 11 dollers a week and bred or cake if I want. I am 32 yeres old and next munth is my brithday. I tolld Dr Strauss and perfesser Nemur I cant rite good but he says it dont matter he says I shud rite like I talk…..Dr Strauss says to rite a lot evrything I think and everything that happins to me but I can’t think anymor because I have nothing to rite so I will close for today….” (p.1).

Over the months, we become privy to his observations and deepest thoughts and emotions as he looks back on his childhood and recent life with an ever-changing outlook and increasing intelligence.  Situations, events, family and friends are all seen through new eyes and at times these observations are incredibly moving.  As the reports progress, we witness not only his spelling and grammar improve, but also his thought processes and observations;

“Progress Report 13
….I have thought about death often in recent weeks, but not really about God. My mother took me to church occasionally – but I don’t recall ever connecting that up with the thought of God. She mentioned Him quite often, and I had to pray to Him at night, but I never thought much about it. I remember Him as a distant uncle with a long beard on a throne (like Santa Claus in the department store on his big chair…) (p.93).

In Charlie Gordon, the author has managed to develop a character who demands and receives our empathy, understanding and affection. Even at his most obnoxious (his emotional intellect does not progress at the same rate nor as favourably as his intelligence), the writing is such that we always seek to understand Charlie’s motivations and reasoning for speaking and behaving as he does.  I believe that the book is more about the way in which society views, or, more accurately, has viewed, a person with a learning disability through the eyes of that person. It is also an emotional study into how a person may react to the possibility of the onset of dementia and how he perceives those around him.

If you have never been interested in the science fiction genre, please don’t let the tag put you off. Yes, Flowers for Algernon has won awards for science fiction and yes it is in the SF Masterworks list but, ultimately, it is a story of humanity and a person struggling to gain acceptance from others for who he really is and not for who others want him to be.

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The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Category: Young Adult/Mystery/Horror
Rating:  

I start the review with a disclaimer! Please bear in mind the following points when you read my review as these no doubt have an influence on any concluding thoughts on the book which I present here.

  • My mum gave me the book a couple of years ago.
  • I would not have bought it myself.
  • The ‘Young Adult’ genre is not something I usually read, well, not for many years.
  • I do like mystery and horror genres though.
  • I just wouldn’t have bought it myself.

So, we need to keep these points in mind as I continue. The Prince of Mist is the debut novel for Carlos Ruiz Zafon who has since developed an extremely successful writing career. The book is primarily classed as ‘young adult genre’ but Zafon hopes that adults of any age will enjoy the book.

The story is set in 1943 and follows 13 year old Max and his family as his father moves them from their home in the city (we are never told where in the world this is) and out to a picturesque coastal village primarily as a perceived threat of war approaches.  In his new home Max is confronted by anticipation, fear and wonder as mysterious happenings start to arise. These are linked to the story of the previous home owners, a strange walled garden filled with unusual statues (for Doctor Who fans think ‘Blink’) and the spooky shipwreck of The Orpheus which Max gets the opportunity to visit with his older sister Alicia who is 15 and his new friend Roland.

The Weeping Angels, Dr Who…..

Zafon writes extremely well in that he has created an easy to read, captivating book with a wonderfully chilling and mysterious atmosphere. I would say that the strength in his writing lies in this development of atmosphere and scenery. However,  I found the character and plot development to be a little ‘thin’ at times. Whilst I found the book to be a page turner, in that it was so easy to read and had great atmosphere, there were elements of it that did niggle to the extent where I didn’t really care about the characters and thus I wasn’t really bothered about what the outcome would be.

Max, the main character, is 13 and, without wishing to go too far into the story to provide spoilers, he and the other young characters seem to have almost superhuman strength, power and emotions.  I do realise that this is fantasy and so need to suspend an element of my disbelief, however, as odd as it sounds, I do like some of my fantasy to follow a certain logic, particularly when it comes to human nature and ability. If the characters portrayed here were muted to be superheroes then all would be fine but they are not. They are young teenagers and we are led to believe that they would do certain things which command superhuman powers.

Max is 13, he has been uprooted from his family home and all that he has known to a strange place. He and his family go on to suffer an incident early on in the book which lead to his parents having to leave him and his 15 year old sister alone for a few days in these unfamiliar surroundings. Again, without wanting to give too much away, I can understand the reason for his parents absence however, both? at the same time? for a number of days? With a war on? Max and his sister seemed nonplussed at this and we have very little discussion between them about the matter which appears to be of no consequence to them so I guess I should just take this as read. I do find it odd that I can easily believe in the creepy happenings in the story but not in the characters who I feel are ‘thinly’ drawn and almost comic book in style. Maybe this was the intention. To create role models and super heroes, characters that young adults reading the book can relate to and want to be.  Unfortunately, for me, this just detracted from the enjoyment of the book.

Oh dear. I feel I am being way too critical and analytical about this. If I was more used to the young adult genre then maybe I would think differently and I would be giving 4 or 5 stars which a large number of the reviews do give.  Ultimately, I can’t help wondering if it is more of a personality clash between me and the book. We didn’t really see eye to eye on a lot of the points and I just don’t get some of it.  As with personality clashes, other people can, do and will get on famously with him, it’s just that it wasn’t to be for me and The Prince of Mist.

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