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on 26 September 2008
`Granted I am the inmate of a mental asylum': the famous opening words of Oscar Matzerath in The Tin Drum could equally be applied to pretend-deaf and dumb Chief Bromden who narrates Ken Kesey's dark and sombre satire on the heavy-handed treatment of mental illness in modern America. Set in the golden days of electro-shock therapy, psychedelic drugs and frontal-lobe lobotomies, the giant half-Indian, tells the story of Pendleton Mental Institution, Oregon, ruled with an iron fist by Big Nurse, an allegorical Big Brother, and her carefully hand-picked team who control the soul-crushing routine of the brow-beaten inmates, cynically divided into Acutes, Chronics, Vegetables and Disturbed. However, the balance of power is sent into a tailspin by the arrival of Randle McMurphy, a hard-drinking, hard-living Irish-American, who takes up the cudgel on behalf of his oppressed companions as he attempts to break the hold of Big Nurse and, by extension, the all-powerful authorities. The charismatic McMurphy, who has faked insanity to escape a prison sentence, bears a close resemblance to the almost Christ-like Cool Hand Luke who similarly takes on the prison authorities in the eponymous film made five years after this novel was published. Like Luke, McMurphy is at times exasperated by the way that his colleagues so often fail to support him and leave him to fight back single-handed, but he retains a touching devotion to them nevertheless.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest can be read on many levels. Though essentially a satirical critique on mental institutions and their methods, it also demonstrates the oppressive role that authorities play in controlling and manipulating the lives of individuals in different circumstances, and is a sharp comment on the blurred distinction between sanity and insanity. Boisterous and brutal, it remains one of the iconic works of America's 1960s counter-culture and one of that country's most original and brilliant novels.
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on 18 August 1999
This has planted itself firmly in my favourite books of all time. The narrative comes from the perspective of a patient on the ward of a mental asylum and offers the perspective of someone whose experience is often tinged by fear and delusion. This adds to what is a wonderful parable about life and conformity in society. The book is incredibly sad, but yet offers something of an optimistic message at the end. I can't recommend this book hearily enough. Inevitably many people might say 'I've seen the film'. The film was great in its own right but just reflected what is an astonishing book.
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VINE VOICEon 26 March 2007
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' by Ken Keesy is one of the most prominent examples of American fiction in the 20th century. The novel is based, almost entirely on the interactions he had with mental patients while he was working at a mental institution. While Ken Keesy experimented exstensively with LSD, he became very interested in studying perception. This led to the production of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'.

'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' is the intense story of a group of mentally ill patients and their over bearing nurse. This Nurse has complete control over the hospital ward, and the patients are entirely beaten down and do not question her authority. McMurphy arrives - and everything changes. A rogue, gambling, criminal who subverts all authority. He challenges the Nurse's power, first as a game, then as a desperate attempt to prove to the patients that life is worth living. He lives with men, who feel that their lives are over, as they helplessly conform to the Nurse's whim. McMurphy, brings laughter, adventure, women and booze to the small hospital world; most importantly, he provides these men with a hero. They idolise him as a saviour and through their devotion force him to become one, as he gives his life in their defence. Keesy's novel is powerful, and uplifting, yet with a fatalistic note. We know it can not end happily as the Nurse is a symbol for the whole system of government and McMurphy is only one man. However, the whole novel resonates with power, despite the nihalistic undertones.
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on 24 August 2007
This is a amazing novel. The central character, McMurphy, has been sent from prison to a mental institution - as he initially sees it, a big step up. No more working in the fields; he now has a cushy life sitting on a hospital ward. Until he realises that the straightforward rules of 'serve your time and be released' no longer apply: he is now imprisoned even further and is at the mercy of hospital government in the form of the Big Nurse.

Although Kesey's novel is intended as a metaphor for the government's control of people's lives, the reason it works so well for me is because the characterisation is equally interesting in its own right. McMurphy's tense, carefully fought and long drawn out battle with the Big Nurse shows us a lot about his character and shows his growing sense of responsibility towards the other men. The freedom he tries so hard to give them is heavily undermined when he learns that they have entered the hospital voluntarily: his own sense of self worth has become closely tied to his efforts to increase theirs. To learn that the other "prisoners" are in fact there seemingly of their own free will is shocking to McMurphy, who cannot understand them.

McMurphy is the outcast, the rebel, the top dog of his own world, who initially starts by actively embracing the hospital, and ends by loathing it yet not quite managing to leave (despite opportunities). He cannot comprehend why the other men are there voluntarily, yet his desire to help them prevents him from leaving and makes him one of them.
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on 11 May 2012
This was a reading group choice, otherwise I am not sure I would have picked it off the shelves. The story, of Randall McMurphy's tussle with Nurse Ratched in the Oregon State Mental hospital, is well known from the film, and from what I can remember, the film stuck closely to the book.

The book starts slowly and I found it quite hard to get inot. While ultimately, I am pleased I read the book, I am not sure I would `got' it so easily if I hadn't had the film memories to fall back on. It took me a long time to read this and that is always a sign I am struggling with the story.

Other reviewers have obviously noticed deeper themes in the story than I did. I saw it as a battle of wills between McMurphy and the nurse, where you are rooting for the `naughty boy', while not really knowing if he is flouting the rules just to be awkward or whether he really is trying to make things better for himself and the inmates.

The book is narrated by a patient, an Indian, who is believed to be deaf and dumb. You wonder why he is in there at all until he starts describing the things he sees and experiences, the fog which envelopes the ward and his dreams. No one pays him much attention which is how he comes to see and hear so much.

I felt I had a better understanding of mental illness at the end of the book, and a certain admiration for McMurphy, although I couldn't really work out why he pushed the nurse so hard, to the point where there had to be an overall winner (and loser). All through the book I kept thinking that he must have realised his actions would have negative consequences for himself and the others, but he carried on anyway, so maybe he was a little insane after all.

I would think this would be enjoyed by people who like literary fiction, as there are a lot of themes to consider in the book. HOwever, if I wanted to recommend a book which makes you think about mental illness, I think I would recommend K-Pax.
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VINE VOICEon 6 September 2004
This book is brilliant. A true modern classic. The story of the inmates of a mental insitution is gripping and incredibly moving. The use of the apparently deaf and dumb "Chief" as narrator is a stroke of genius in my view. It means that you see the story through both the eyes of an inmate, but someone who is also removed through most of the book, and so provides a wonderful perspective on the other characters. All of the characters are very well written and it is easy to empathise with them all.
The book describes wonderfully the way in which one man can make a difference in their own world and changes the lives of those around them if only they are prepared to stand up and be counted. However, it also describes humanity wonderfully because in the end the lone voice is cut down as so often happens. The book, overall, is a very astute study of mankind and the way we relate to each other. A must read!
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on 30 November 2009
This is an outstanding book - truly inspiring and beautifully written. Every sentence is important. The book as a whole is full of pithy observations, brilliant characterisation and a chilling portrayal of how much individual human beings are held in thrall to a powerful and seemingly unstoppable 'machine' and imprisoned by the very system that is supposedly taking care of them. But the machine is made up of other people; our own equals, and the main thing, as Kesey points out so eloquently, is to maintain and cherish our individuality and always to think for ourselves.

This book is moving, funny, heart-wrenching, enraging, terrifying and consoling all at once. In my view it stands as a towering achievement in literature and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants a good read, a great story and a book that will really make you think.
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The story is well known. Patients and staff in a mental institution live under the controlling regime of Nurse Ratched. Into this stable but joyless society is thrown Lord of Misrule, McMurphy. Initially he sees being in a mental institution as being an easy option compared to incarceration on a work farm, but as the book goes on he rebels in inreasingly extreme fashion against Nurse Ratched and against his fellow patients' retreat from life.

My copy had a quote from the New York Times Review of Books on the cover "A glittering parable of good and evil" which struck me as a very strange description. Yes Nurse Ratched is a figure of evil, particularly in her manipulation of Billy, but is McMurphy good? I would describe it as a parable of power, about the clash between Ratched's controlling power and McMurphy's anarchic, charismatic power. It is a parable of manipulation, both McMurphy and Nurse Ratched are in their own ways manipulative. It is a parable of rebellion and revolution. McMurphy is a revolutionary striving to overturn Ratched's totalitarian state, but would anybody seriously want to live in a world run by McMurphy. He is James Dean "What are you rebelling against?" "What have you got".

Fundamentally though this is a novel which speaks greatly about America today which in so many ways is the product of the 60s. This is a novel of a counter culture which was not so much about overturning American life, but about reaffirming it. McMurphy is all about liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He is about individuality, not about collectivism. Just maybe the excesses of Wall St today are the society established by Mc Murphy.

Enormously thought provoking - recommended
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on 10 April 2003
One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest is a truly fascinating book that kept me gripped all the way through. Set in a mental home, the patients take it upon themsleves to uprise and rebel with the help of their new friend Randle P McMurphy. It is written from the viewpoint of Chief Bromden, and Indian patient at the home.. A truly moving tale, by a masterful writer.
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on 11 October 2011
Although there is a serious side to this book, namely the miss treatment of the clinically insane in institutions of the mid 1900s, Ken Kesey has written this in such away that this historical aspect can be held in the background, allowing the reader to enjoy the conflict and humour in his larger than life characters. The novel has the main theme of confict between a new patient (Randal Mc Murphy) and the controlling Big Nurse Ratched, who abuses clinical treatment to maintain control. The story is narrated by another patient, a North American indian, Chief Broom. The story bristles with conflict and humour, and there are two great passages, the fishing trip and the ward party, which are the best I have read anywhere. The dialogue in parts reminded me of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and also I could not help myself from making comparisons with Lehane's Shutter Island. All three sit side by side in my collection as well worthy of re-reads, books that withstand the test of time. Magnificent piece of work.
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