Wednesday, September 18, 2013

BANNED! Book Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes


Title: Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace & World
Publication Date: March 1966
Source: won in a giveaway from giraffedays.com

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Flowers for Algernon is the beloved, classic story of a mentally disabled man whose experimental quest for intelligence mirrors that of Algernon, an extraordinary lab mouse. In poignant diary entries, Charlie tells how a brain operation increases his IQ and changes his life. As the experimental procedure takes effect, Charlie's intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. The experiment seems to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance--until Algernon begins his sudden, unexpected deterioration. Will the same happen to Charlie?

My Review:

As promised, today I am reviewing Flowers for Algernon in honor of Banned Book Week!  Sheila over at Book Journey hosts a Banned Book Week event each year, and last year it was one of the first blog "events" that I participated in after I opened up shop here.  I loved reviewing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey last year, and I knew I wanted to jump on the "banned" wagon again this time around.


Lucky for me, I won a giveaway from Shannon @ Giraffe Days during last year's celebrations, and I got a copy of Flowers for Algernon as a result.  So what better time to put it to use??

Anyway: the book.  The one word that kept ringing in my head as I read it was "heartbreaking".  Even in Charlie's happiest of times, I was filled with sadness either by the way others were treating him, or by the dread of what I knew was to come.  Much of the emotional nature of this novel is a direct result of the perspective that is used.  The entire story is told through Charlie's personal diary entries, so you get the full effect of his intellectual and emotional changes throughout the novel.

It feels overly obvious for me to point this out, but the book is also heartbreaking in the way that it illustrates the treatment of people who are mentally disabled.  Charlie begins the novel with an IQ of 70, before skyrocketing upwards on the intelligence scales, past even what his doctors had predicted.  This may sound wonderful for him, but in addition to all of the book-learning he gains, he also begins to see that the seemingly innocent or funny actions of his "friends" in the past were really jokes at his expense.  In a world where bullying is such a hot topic in schools, I can think of no better novel that could make an adolescent think through their hurtful words before doling them out.

Why is this book important to read, even though it's one of the top 100 banned books (according to the ALA)?  Many of the attempted bans on Flowers for Algernon are based around its sexual content.  Charlie's intellectual advances don't automatically equate to emotional advances, so as he gets smarter, he also finds that he has a whole world of sexual desires to attempt to understand.  There are several scenes that handle this topic, but I would hardly call them "filthy and immoral" (as some protesters have done).  Instead, they highlight one of the central themes of the novel: that emotional and IQ intelligence are not the same thing, and that different capacities are needed in order to reach happiness in each area.  Without these scenes, Charlie's character would be incomplete, and the full impact of the novel would never be felt.

You want happy and uplifting?  Flowers for Algernon is not for you.  But if you want an emotional read with a unique perspective that is sure to tug at your heart strings, you need to jump into Charlie's story ASAP.

Have you read Flowers for Algernon?  If not, what's one of your favorite books that often makes the "banned" list?

26 comments:

  1. I really like this book, too, and read it again fairly recently as an adult after reading it a long time ago when I was young. It stuck with me all those years as being so powerful and even though I already knew the story, when I read it again, it was just as good.

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    1. I never had the chance to read this when I was younger, but I feel like it would have left quite an impression if I'd been exposed to it in middle/high school.

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  2. I haven't read Flower for Algernon and I'm not sure I will. I don't often read books that will make me sad, even though obviously there can be value in doing so. Read the list you linked to makes me so glad books don't stay banned! There are enough on there that I like that I'd have a hard time picking a favorite!

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    1. Yeah, you definitely can't go into this one expecting anything other than sadness! And it is definitely tough to pick a fave banned book. It makes me happy to look at the list and see so many that I've read :)

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  3. Fantastic post. A book I have not read and honestly knew nothing about but your post has made me want to read this book. Thanks Kelly!

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  4. Sounds like a book I would love. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. I haven't read this book yet, but it sounds really good. I think most of my favorite books are "banned/challenged." The Bell Jar, The Handmaid's Tale, Slaughterhouse-Five... This year for Banned Books Week I'm going to read Beloved by Toni Morrison for the first time!

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    1. Ooooh yes, I LOVE The Bell Jar. Enjoy Beloved! I had to read it for my senior year English class, which honestly kind of ruined it for me (anything that has to be overanalyzed for a month kind of loses it's flavor, for me at least). I think if I had read it on my own as an adult, I may have enjoyed it more.

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  6. Lovely review, I completely agree with both your comments on how heartbreaking it is and on the difference between IQ and intelligence. Really Charlie didn't gain any intelligence, he just had a whole load of knowledge thrust at him. The treatment of his didn't even change, he went from being a joke at the bakery to an experiment at with the psychologists - he was dehumanised by almost all the other characters.

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    1. Very true about intelligence vs knowledge...he started to retain a lot of facts, but never really learned to process them in a constructive way with others.

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  7. I remember very little of this book, having read it almost 40 years ago, but I do remember it having an incredible impact on me at the time. I'm grateful the school district I was in wasn't cowardly enough to bow to anyone's petty complaints.

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    1. I am grateful for that as well! I see many of the books from my high school reading list on the banned list...makes me glad that I was exposed to them at that age, because many of them did have such a lasting impact.

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  8. I read this for the first time last year and I almost lost my mind with sadness. O.M.G. It broke my heart in a million pieces. It was SO good. Fab review lady :D

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    1. Definitely one of those books that is worth reading, despite the constant onslaught of SAD!

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  9. I have never read it, and I should, and you've told me why right here. I'm not sure if I've read a banned book, I probably have but wouldn't have noticed. Maybe Harry Potter? Or Judy Blume's 'Margaret.

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    1. I definitely think Harry Potter is on the list, as well as Are You There God...a lot of childhood faves!

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  10. My son, an 8th grader, recently read this and talked with me about it. I read it in school and could only remember something about a mouse, and it being very sad. Your thoughtful review will give me some more good things to talk about with my son. I'm glad it wasn't banned here!

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    1. Glad I could help! And I think it's great that your son was exposed to this book in middle school. Such a great time for kids to delve into it.

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  11. I read this one last year, and it's so sad. A really clever, well done novels - and absolutely nothing dirty about it! Even when he's incredibly intelligent, Charlie is still emotionally a child - and it kind of makes social interaction even more difficult than before.

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    1. I agree, such a well-done book, it's a shame that some people couldn't see past a few (important!) scenes to see the book for what it really is!

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  12. I honestly can't believe that I haven't read this one! Especially given the short length and the fact that it's been sitting on my shelf for years! You've convinced me I need to read it much sooner than later.

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    1. It's definitely a quick read (quicker than I expected). Hope you get a chance to read it soon!

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  13. I LOVE this book. I read it last year. What a powerful piece of art. Can't believe it was ever banned. Good for you for reading and reviewing it for this week.

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    1. Glad to hear you're another fan! I'm happy that I had the chance to read it for this week as well.

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