Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Lisa Genova”

ElCicco #CBR4 Review#45: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Read it! One of my friends recommended this book to me and it was a NewYork Times best seller. The main character,  Alice Howland, is a distinguished professor of linguistics at Harvard. Language and its construction are her stock in trade. She has published extensively, lectured widely and earned a reputation as a star in her field. As she is about to turn 50, Alice realizes that she is forgetting things — not just where the keys are, but where her house is, the subject of her lecture, how to make the dessert that she learned from her mother and knew by heart. Recognizing that these are not the typical symptoms of menopause, she consults a neurologist and learns she has Early Onset Alzheimers Disease.

The novel follows Alice over the next two years as the disease altars not only her mind but her relationships with her family. Her husband John, a fellow Harvard professor studying cancer, initially denies that his wife has Alzheimers, then throws himself into the research on the disease, desperately trying to save Alice. As the disease progresses, it sometimes seems as if John is distancing himself from Alice and leaving her out of important decisions. Their son (a doctor) and older daughter (lawyer) also seem to be in denial at first and are very uncomfortable acknowledging their mother’s illness. The youngest child and black sheep Lydia, who has eschewed academia for a life in theater, has had an antagonistic relationship with Alice but is the one member of the family who saw the symptoms early on and demonstrates compassion and acceptance from the start. Alice, who forever hounded Lydia about going back to school, comes to appreciate the plays her daughter performs in and her daughter’s ability to communicate without words.

Genova does an amazing job getting inside Alice’s head and showing the disintegration of Alice’s memories. It is frightening for Alice and in the early days of her diagnosis, she tries various ways to fight the disease — diet, physical exercise, daily mind exercises and ultimately creating her “butterfly file.” The butterfly file would be a great topic of conversation for a book group. In the early days, Alice still has periods of “normal” functioning and can recognize when the Alzheimers is kicking in. She tries to prepare for her future and she realizes that she will be cast out — from Harvard, her field, all the places and endeavors that formed her identity. She wishes she had cancer instead, because people with cancer are seen as courageous and get community support. People with mental issues do not. In one particularly poignant passage, Alice sits at the beach and watches the waves, a metaphor for Alzheimers: “Alice watched the tide coming in, erasing footprints, demolishing an elaborate sand castle decorated with shells, filling in a hole dug earlier that day with plastic shovels, ridding the shore of its daily history. She envied the beautiful homes behind the seawalls.”

While for the reader, watching Alice atrophy is terribly sad, Genova shows that her life is still worthwhile, not something useless or to be wished away. Alice as she declines is no longer as aware of all that she has lost and can find pleasure and happiness in the world she inhabits — a world where she no longer remembers her children’s names or that they are her children, but recognizes that they are loving people who care for her and whom she likes to be with. I sort of dreaded reading this book knowing the subject matter, but I loved it and would recommend it for its compassionate and knowledgeable portrayal of Alzheimers and its complex, human, realistic characters.

DragonDreamsJen’s #CBR4 Review #13 Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still Alice had been sitting on my bedside table for a few weeks, loaned to me by a friend.  Last night I was restless, so I decided to settle down and open its pages at last.  This haunting first novel is both beautiful and tragic.  It describes a fictional Harvard psychology professor’s discovery that she has early onset Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 50 and the terrifying deterioration of her memory as this incurable illness takes hold.

While Lisa Genova was a first-time novelist when she wrote this book, she holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard and writes online columns for the National Alzheimer’s Association.  Her prose is evocative, descriptive and informative as well as compassionate.  The gripping story, while told in the third person through the eyes of the main character, Alice Howland, is so powerful and intimate that I almost felt that I was living the story along with her in a first person narrative.  Sometimes, through truly brilliant repetition of text or dialogue, I had a glimmer of what it might actually be like to live with the disease as a portion repeated itself.  So vivid are the descriptions in some scenes, I actually lived Alice’s confusion along with her until she figured out what she was looking for or how to spatially interpret data.  I could literally feel my stomach clenching with anxiety as I tried to figure out what was going on, just like the main character.

Still Alice was not a comfortable book to read.  I am only a few years younger than the main character and have had those moments of sheer panic as I hunt for misplaced keys, glasses, cellphone or iPod touch.  I’ve had to retrace steps to figure out what I was going to do next.  Each time, I wonder if it is a sign of something serious, but so far it has turned out to be nothing more than my brain and body telling me I’ve taken on too much.

This book portrays Alice’s attempt to cope with the disease with beauty, dignity and even gentle humour.  The story also deals with the struggles and challenges of the people around her as well as other difficult issues faced by those challenged by Alzheimer’s, without ever giving in to total despair.  The uplifting chapters at the end of the book are a true triumph of sorts, even though the progression of Alice’s disease remains unchecked.  Even if you’ve never known anyone with Alzheimer’s, this brilliantly crafted tale is worth reading in a book club for discussion or on your own.

Paperback format, 292 pages, Self-Published in 2007,  published in 2009 by Gallery Books (a division of Simon and Schuster)

Akhirnya’s #CBR4 Reads #1-3: Still Alice by Lisa Genova, Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson, and Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

First posts for the new CBR and I’m already several reviews behind.  Ah, well!  Once more into the fray..

Still Alice by Lisa Genova (292p.)  (5 Stars)

This is a haunting fictional memoir of an early-onset Alzheimer’s patient.  In her early 50s, Alice is at the top of her career: a star professor at Harvard University at the pinnacle of her research career, a wife to another professor, and mother of three grown children. Initially thinking that her symptoms might be a sign of menopause, she goes to the doctor for a check up only to find out that it’s something much worse.   The rest of the novel deals with Alice’s experience as her disease progressively destroys more and more of her memory.

This was beautifully written.  As the book unfolds, it becomes so much more obvious how Alice is unable to stand as a truthful narrator.  Through her interactions with others, we can see not only her view on how the disease has effected her, but also how it has impacted her family and friends, who experience many more of Alice’s symptoms than Alice is capable of remembering herself.  Alice’s growing inability to communicate, despite largely understanding the implications of the conversations around her, is heart breaking.

I don’t want to spoil anything by getting too detailed in the things that Alice and her caretakers experience, but Genova seems to touch on as many major experiences that a sufferers or caretakers have happen to them as possible.

I can be pretty persnickety when it comes to books and as much as I would love to nitpick Still Alice, I’m not going to.  This book stayed with me for days, constantly jogged to mind whenever a friend or family member would randomly display one of the many symptoms (which are simple as forgetting something).  A must read in general, but a definite must-read if you’ve personal experience with the disease.


Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson (368p.) (2 Stars)

This novel also deals with the issues of memory and the mind, with the protagonist both an amnesiac unable to recall her past in full and suffering from an inability to process and remember new memories.  Christine lives from day to day, never remembering her past, and always forgetting what happens the day before with her sleep cycle ‘resetting’ her brain.

Unlike Still Alice, this novel isn’t meant to be a treatise on patient experience and the ins and outs of memory loss.  Christine has a mystery to solve as she tries to secretly undergo treatment and understand that past that she can’t remember with the help of her husband, Ben.  The plot thickens, as they say, and the story becomes more and more sinister as Christine realizes that people aren’t telling her the truth and she has to figure out who she can trust, if anyone, she can trust.  Given her condition, she can’t even trust herself.

If you’re going to read this book expecting something of Memento–like  proportions, you are going to be crushed and disappointed.  It’s not at that level.  The evil and dastardly plot is implausible, loopholes abound, and you’ll probably see the surprise ending coming from a mile away.   However, it worked for me as a fun, if trashy read and would only recommend it as such (but even then, I’m not sure it’d be at the top of my list).

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (320p.) (1 Star)

The difficulty with memoirs is that, no matter how well written they might be, it really comes down to how you feel about the person in question.  I’ve heard about this book for some time, but Hamilton’s name didn’t spark any recognition for me, which is hardly surprising considering I’m not a NYC foodie.

There is something to be said for Hamilton, who very likely gave an unbelievably accurate portrait of herself.  And that portrait was far from pretty.   Her writing is soaked with bitterness and anger; she does not portray herself in a positive light at all.  Considering that the author is far from old and that she has a business relying on her name, it certainly took a great deal of bravado to paint such a negative portrait of herself.  And there is something to be said for that.  However, I just couldn’t really give a damn about her as a consequence.

Although parts of this book deal with the ‘chef’ aspect of Hamilton’s life, great chunks of it are taken up with her family history and current relationships.  I don’t really feel that the title is false advertising, because after all, education has many meanings and can more broadly cover all of her life experiences.  But if you’re working for a memoir solely about life in restaurants or the kitchen, then this isn’t recommended as the focus upon that is really minimal.

Not recommended.

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