Still Alice by Lisa Genova

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My mother was a geriatric nurse for most of her career. When I was in my late teens I had a summer job working at the nursing home where she was head nurse. Many of the patients had dementia and I remember one lady in particular, Annie. She was sweet and over the summer we became friends…except she never remembered who I was from one day to the next.

Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, renowned Harvard professor, mother of three, happily married to John, also a Harvard prof. After seeing her doctor because she’s suffering from strange lapses in her memory, Alice is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. She is 50.

The novel traces Alice’s diagnosis and subsequent decline. At first she merely struggles to find words (and I don’t do this, but sometimes I start a story and totally forget what I was going to say!) but then her lapses in memory become more pronounced: she gets lost walking a familiar route, she forgets people who were introduced to her only moments before, she mistakes a mat on the floor for a black hole.

Still Alice isn’t literature. Okay, yes, it tells a story, but often times I felt like the author was trying to convey information. Alice says to her neurologist:

“You should also tell them about DASNI. It’s the Dementia Advocacy and Support Network International.”

There are several other instances of this sort of writing, places where I felt Genova had an agenda and she was writing to fulfill it. Somehow it lessens the emotional impact of the story because as a reader I was more interested in Alice and her life than I was in hearing about clinical trials.

I can only imagine that being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is the worst torture imaginable. The disconnect between your life and the lives of the people you love would be beyond horrific. The thought of losing the ability to read (I can’t even imagine my life without books!), to watch a movie, to do simple tasks, or to recognize the faces of my children fills me with dread. Yet near the end of the novel, Alice still has the wherewithal to stand up in front of the delegates of a Dementia Care Conference and give an impassioned lecture about how, despite her symptoms, she is still a person worthy of note.

“Please don’t look at our scarlet A’s and write us off. Look us in the eye, talk directly to us. Don’t panic or take it personally if we make mistakes, because we will.”

The whole lecture seemed like  authorial commentary…and it didn’t work for me. Strangely, the part that I found most moving in the novel was when Alice attends the graduation of her last grad student, Dan. Even though we’ve seen very little of their relationship and hardly anything of Dan in the novel, his post-graduation moment with Alice is very touching.

People will love Still Alice. My feeling about it is that it’s a timely topic written without artifice.

The Moment You Were Gone by Nicci Gerrard

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Nicci Gerrard writes terrific psychological suspense thrillers with her husband Sean French. As Nicci French they have written a few books I have enjoyed immensely, particularly Killing Me Softly. On her own, Gerrard is a thoughtful and talented writer, generally concerned with the minutia of  daily life and the relationships which both trouble and sustain us.

So I’m going to blame the fact that I didn’t love Nicci Gerrard’s third novel The Moment You Were Gone on the fact that August was a bit of a bust for me reading-wise. Perhaps it was the spectacular weather, but this was the third novel I’ve started in the last couple of weeks (and the only one I finished).

The Moment You Were Gone is the story of Nancy and Gaby, childhood friends. We see them as children, as young adults and then we meet Gaby  again as she’s dropping her only son, Ethan, off at university.  At this point in the story, she and Nancy have been estranged for almost 20 years, although Gaby has an inkling of where her old friend is.  Instead of going home after leaving Ethan, Gaby decides to revisit her past and hops a train to Cornwall where she tracks Nancy down. It is this reconnection which sets off a chain of events which you can see coming a mile off. What you might not see coming, however, is the way these  revelations change and shape the people involved.

This is a novel about friendship, certainly, but is also a novel about love:  the love between siblings and families, between husbands and wives and between friends. As Gaby’s life begins to unravel, Ethan’s life begins to flourish. We watch him navigate those first few weeks away from home and we watch him fall in love with his best mate’s girl.

Despite the secret that is central to this novel, there are no bad guys here. Everyone makes the choices they think are the best for the right reasons. Watching Gaby deal with the fall out from her discovery is more like watching a fender bender than a train wreck, but I think I actually mean that as a compliment. Although I didn’t necessarily warm to Gaby, I did admire the way she moved forward despite the fact that her world had been tipped over.

The last third of this book is a thoughtful meditation on what happens when you reach a certain point in your life.  From this vantage point you can look back.

She asked herself  what point there was in the frantic emotions of the past few weeks if in the end she was just a pinprick on a dot in a galaxy that was itself negligible. All the scrabbling around, the desperate search for happiness, meaning and union – while around us the millions of stars shine on, implacably distant and remote…. How strange, to care so passionately and yet to mean so little and to die alone and go where no one can follow. (362)

It would be impossible not to relate to some aspect of this book and I can’t fault either the story or the writer for the fact that I didn’t love it. Just reader’s fatigue, I guess.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Several months ago Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog was chosen as the book for the bookstore reading group I lead. We have a sort of willy nilly way of choosing our books and this novel ended up on the top of the heap. When we came together to discuss it a month later, other than the woman who had thrown it into the pile, no one else had finished the book- including me. I got about halfway through…and I just really didn’t like the book at all. So imagine my dismay when the novel was chosen by my longstanding book club as our first novel for our new reading year! I had no choice but to finish the book.

So, I started again. And strangely, this time around, I didn’t find the book so grating. That’s not to say that I found it all that plausible, either. Still, I did manage to get through it.

Barbery’s novel tells the story of Renee, a concierge at an elegant apartment building in Paris.

I am short, ugly and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet and insignificant. (19)

Renee has, despite what she considers her considerable flaws, a deep and abiding love for literature, art and music. Seriously, the novel opens with a rumination on Marx – which is perhaps the reason why I didn’t groove to the novel straight away the first time around: I know nothing about Marx.

Paloma lives in the building with her parents and older sister. At twelve, Paloma is already sick of the world and everyone in it.

My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore rich….Despite all that, despite all this good fortune and all this wealth, I have known for a long time that the final destination is the goldfish bowl. How do I know? Well, the fact is that I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent. (23)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about appearances. Renee is forever fearful about giving away her love of the finer things; after all, she’s just a concierge. Paloma,  is keeping a journal of profound thoughts and plotting her own death. And then into their lives comes a Japanese gentleman named Kakuro Ozu. He sees straight through these women, into their very heart of hearts and changes them in ways they might have never imagined.

This novel was a sensation in France. As with any translation, it’s important to remember that you are not reading it in its original form; something is bound to be lost in the translation no matter how good it is.

I have a feeling that when we discuss this novel tomorrow night, most everyone will have loved it. I didn’t love it (in fact I didn’t like the ending at all!), but I did see the novel’s charms- even though I often found the novel pretentious (all these mini-lessons on art and literature) and perhaps just a tad contrived.

Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore

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The events of Helen Dunmore’s beautifully written novel Talking to the Dead take place during a blazing summer on the Cornwall coast. Nina has come to spend time with her sister, Isabelle, who has just given birth to Antony. It is a difficult labour and delivery and Isabelle is having a slow recovery.

You don’t look very alike, Susan said yesterday. I wouldn’t have guessed you were sisters. (29)

Susan has been hired to care for Antony while Isabelle recovers from the complications of Antony’s birth. Although the sisters are, as Susan notes,  unalike physically, they share the bond of family: an emotionally distant mother who worked as a potter, a drunkard father and the crib-death of their little brother, Colin.

They also share knowledge, perhaps suppressed, about the death of their little brother. It is during the hot days that follow that a family secret is revealed and Nina begins an illicit affair that sends shrapnel through the house Isabelle and her husband, Richard, have leased for the summer.

I’m a Dunmore fan. She’s a beautiful writer and much of the prose in this slim volume is breathtaking. So I am going to attribute the fact that I didn’t tear through this  novel (only 214 pages!) to the fact that I’ve had a serious case of book lethargy over the last few weeks. After all, like all of the Dunmore novels I’ve read – as literary as they are – this one has an element of psychological suspense. The pace isn’t fast though; information is revealed slowly, like veils pulled back one at a time. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem for me…like I say, I was in a bit of a slump.

If you haven’t yet read Dunmore, you really should.  She’s quite remarkable.

Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon

I was so excited to be given this book which had arrived at the bookstore where I used to work. The manager there knew I was a huge fan of McMahon’s novel Promise Not to Tell, and so she passed this along. Dismantled is the story of the Compassionate Dismantlers, four art students: Tess, Henry, Winnie and the charismatic Suz. The Compassionate Dismantlers believe that “to understand the nature of a thing you have to take it apart.” What they really believe, it seems, is that you can ruin someone’s career and set fires and manipulate lives for your own personal gain. At the end of their post-graduation summer in a cabin by the lake, Suz is dead and the remaining Dismantlers go their separate ways. Flash forward ten years. Henry and Tess are unhappily married and have a 10 year old daughter, Emma. Winnie has had her own struggles with mental illness. A simple act by Emma sets off a chain of events with far reaching consequences.

Dismantled was a big disappointment for me and it truly pains me to say that because I loved Promise Not To Tell and encouraged everyone I know to read it. For me, there was just too much going on. Was Dismantled a novel about a failing marriage, infidelity, the nature of art, childhood fears, imaginary friends, ghosts – real and imagined? Was it a mystery? Was it a ghost story? Was it a novel about revenge?

Honestly, I really struggled to finish Dismantled and only kept going because I thought maybe the end would justify the rest.  I didn’t like any of the characters and worse, I didn’t care about any of them.

Read Promise Not to Tell instead.

Thoughts for book clubs…

I recently answered questions for BookJourney, who is featuring book clubs in a Q and A at her blog.  I’ve been in my current book club for 11 years now and they’re a great group so it was fun to think about how my group works…and why it does. It also reminded me that I put together a little book club primer for people who wanted to start a book club, but weren’t sure how to get going. I thought I’d share it here with you.

Some thoughts for book clubs…

Book clubs work best if everyone is on the same page…so if you have two or three members who just want to get out of the house, never read the book, are more interested in talking about the last movie they saw than the book – maybe they’re in the wrong group…or maybe you are.  So once you have a group of like-minded readers, you’re good to go.

The keys to a successful book club are:

  1. Having a venue conducive to talking
  2. Having a designated leader or system for discussing the book.
  3. Choosing a great book- which doesn’t necessarily mean reading War and Peace

There are all sorts of ways to choose books for your book club and you have to find a way that works the best for your group. One piece of advice I have heard from other clubs, though, is to choose a book that is unknown to you- that is, if it’s your pick don’t choose your favourite book of all time because there are bound to be hurt feelings when someone in your group doesn’t like it.

Some of the ways to choose a book include:

Everyone come to the first meeting of the year with a couple of choices and put all of the choices into a hat and pick randomly. The group can decide out of all the picks what they want to read.

Everyone gets one pick per year. That person is then responsible for hosting the meeting (whatever that means for your book club). In our group it means the person who chose the book hosts at their house, provides the nibblies (or, as is often the case in our group a three course meal!) and leads the discussion.

Leading the discussion can take many forms…and again, there’s many ways to do it depending on your group. We have 11 really chatty women so the leader has to be a bit of a tyrant in order for everyone to have the opportunity to speak. Usually she’s prepared with a list of questions…but we’ve also done it other ways, for example, inviting everyone to make up their own question about the book, putting the questions in a dish and allowing everyone to answer one question and then, if anyone wants to add thoughts, they can.

Vigorous discussion comes from well-thought out questions and a little bit of planning on the part of the hostess. The questions need not necessarily be related to the book, either. Or at least not directly.

Here are my questions for the novel The Myth of You and Me – which was my choice, only mediocre, imho, but we had a great chat about it.
1. When Ruth and Cameron start to pack Oliver’s things up Cameron remarks: “It’s astonishing what a single life accumulates. These things we endow with a certain life- the possibilty that we might use them, the memory we attach to them- and then, when we die, they become just things again.”

What things do you save and what meaning do they have for you? Do you ever purge? What is something you own that is likely meaningless without the weight of your attached memory.

2. When we finally discover what ended the friendship- what is your reaction? How does it change your feelings about Cameron and Sonia? Is it enough of a reason to sever the ties between them?

3. While Cameron searches for Sonia she meets Suzette again and remarks: “All at once it strikes me that as well as I know Sonia, I only know one version of her- that all you know of a life are the places where it touches your own.” Do you think it’s true that we offer people different versions of ourselves? Why? Who has the clearest picture of you?

4. Oliver’s second letter to Cameron reveals the truth about his life and his story and, for me at least, offers the book’s most important lesson. Why do you think he waits to tell Cameron the story of Billie, the story of his life?

5. If you could track down one person from your past who would it be and why?

How do you choose your next book?

The Internet makes it easy to do research…but how do you find titles?

Some great blogs:

ReadySteadyBook

Bookgirl’s Nightstand

A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook

SavidgeReads

(generally if you find a blog you like, it’s easy to follow that person’s links to other similar blogs- trust me, there’s a HUGE network out there)

 

There’s a whole raft of book communities

Chapters/Indigo

Shelfari

Fantastic Fiction – info on over 300,000 books!

There are also lots of useful sites if you are looking for ways to keep your book club thriving…try this one:

I am always happy to talk bookclubs…and answer questions if you have them!

(Originally posted August 3, 2009)

Testimony by Anita Shreve

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Explosive… Shreve flawlessly weaves a tale that is mesmerizing, hypnotic and compulsive. No one walks away unscathed, and that includes the reader. Highly recommended. – Betty-Lee Fox, Library Journal

Pretty much everyone has raved about Shreve’s latest novel, Testimony. I’ve been a Shreve fan since Eden Close, so I was looking forward to reading this book. The novel opens when Mike Bordwin, headmaster of Avery Academy, a private New England boarding school, views a tape depicting three of the school’s top basketball players having sex with  a female student who is clearly underage. While the story opens with Mike’s point of view, the novel flips back and forth allowing us to see how this event and its aftermath affects everyone concerned: the so-called victim, the three boys, their families and even members of the press called upon to report the event once the story is leaked from the school’s hallowed halls.

Shreve is  a talented writer and she manages to make individual characters come alive in this novel by employing third, first and even second person points of view. When the young girl speaks, she seems every bit like a fourteen year old, both naive and culpable. One  boy’s mother speaks in the 2nd person – perhaps to distance herself from the news that her son has done something reprehensible, inexplicable.

It may seem odd that the story’s inciting action is revealed in the novel’s opening pages, but as it turns out, the story unravels to reveal another event which contributes to at least one of the boy’s bad decisions. Silas’s story is heartbreaking and, for me at least, he  carried much of the story’s emotional weight on his shoulders.

We had an excellent discussion about this novel at Indigo’s book club. The ripple effect this event sends through the school and community- upsetting lives and relationships- was immensely powerful. In less confident hands, the novel might have slipped into tabloid sensationalism. Not for Shreve; she’s far too good a writer and Testimony is far too good a book.

The Woods by Harlan Coben

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So, I know there are loads of Harlan Coben fans out there. I get why people like him. He’s a straight-up writer, lots of dialogue and characters and plot threads to keep you busy. Coben’s the sort of writer you read when you’re looking for something fast-paced and, dare I say it, fluffy.

The Woods has a convoluted plot that concerns Paul Copeland, County Prosecutor. Twenty years ago his sister, Camille, went missing (presumed dead) along with three of her friends while they were all at a camp for teens. When one of the presumed dead turns up dead (again) twenty years later, it cracks open a door to a past that Paul knows nothing about.

I liked Paul’s character. He’s a smart-mouthed lawyer who isn’t afraid to look the bad guy in the eye. His chief investigator, Muse, is the female equivalent of Paul and they make a fine team.

For me, though, The Woods was just too busy and, at the end of the day, the secrets buried in the woods just weren’t enough to hang 400 pages on.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

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I taught The Pearl at summer school this year. Although I have read a couple other Steinbeck novels, I’d never read this one. It’s a great little novella to teach because of its simplicity and easily recognizable themes of greed and hope.

Kino and his wife Juana lead a simple life in La Paz, Mexico around 1900. Kino is a pearl diver, depending on the canoe passed down through the generations and his own work ethic.  He’s a man content with his lot in life because he appreciates what he has. When his infant son, Coyotito, is stung by a scorpion it sets off a chain of events that not only ruins Kino, but upsets the delicate balance of the natural world (if only metaphorically) and the community in which Kino had so happily lived.

The Pearl is an accessible novel. It gave us lots to talk about – do you need money and possessions to make you happy? Should you judge a man by the clothes he wears or his character? Is violence ever justified? Today’s teens often do think that money buys happiness and if ever there was a novel to disprove this assumption, The Pearl might well be it.

If I were just reading it for pleasure, though, I might have been disappointed. I’m not a gigantic fan of Steinbeck’s writing at the best of times (although he certainly deserves his place in that list of great American writers). The Pearl is simplistic and at times unrealistic (which likely has to do with the fact that it’s a parable which comes from the oral tradition of storytelling). As it teacher it offered me lots to work with; as a reader it was less enchanting.

The Kindness of Strangers by Katrina Kittle

Man, this was a hard book to read and, strangely enough, a hard book to put down. Katrina Kittle’s novel tells the story of widowed, Sarah, and her two sons, Danny, 10, and Nate, 16. Like many other novels these days, Kittle employs alternating viewpoints, allowing the story to be told (mainly) from Sarah and Nate’s points of view. And Jordan’s.

In fact, this is Jordan’s story. He’s a classmate of Danny’s. One day Sarah sees him walking along the road in the pouring rain and she stops to pick him up. He seems ill, more than ill and when he asks to stop at a service station port-a-potty to be sick, she does. Her mother senses are jangling like crazy and when she goes to check on him, she discovers that he’s collapsed with a hypodermic needle jabbed in his neck.

Jordan’s mother, Courtney, is Sarah’s best friend, but Jordan’s desperate act opens a dark door into his life and this story asks Sarah and the reader to step through it. The Kindness of Strangers is about the worst kind of abuse and it doesn’t shy away from the topic.  Sarah and her sons are barely recovered from the death of their husband and father when they are called upon to help Jordan. In some ways the social network depicted in this novel seems like a best-case scenario; Jordan has some caring adults in his corner, but to live in today’s world is to know that that is often just fiction.

Kittle does a terrific job of getting us into Sarah’s headspace: her horror over what her best friend has been accused of, her horror over what Jordan has suffered, her struggle to balance her own issues with the day to day business of running a house and business and looking after two sons.  She was equally adept at letting us see what motivates Nate, a character who is both flippant and incredibly mature. Finally, Jordan’s voice is heartbreaking; the mother in me nearly wept every time he spoke.

The main story of The Kindness of Strangers is bracketed with chapters from Danny.  I think I understand why his is the first and last voices we hear, but I don’t think losing those two chapters would have harmed the book in anyway.

Not everyone will be able to stomach this novel’s subject matter, but if you think you can, it’s a fantastic book about a very serious topic.