Saturday, January 31, 2009

Still Alice

Months ago, Still Alice by Lisa Genova was featured in one of the Boston-focused magazines—Improper Bostonian, I think. I clipped the article and had been carrying it with me, haunting every bookstore in a 20-mile radius to try to get it. As I found out, this original version was self-published and not likely to be found on the shelves where I was looking. Happily, Simon and Schuster published this book, and it is now easily found everywhere.

Kirkus Reviews
First novel efficiently showcases the experience of developing early-onset Alzheimer's. In 24 months, 49-year-old Harvard psychology professor Alice Howland exchanges the role of high-achieving teacher, wife and mother of three for that of a disoriented, inarticulate, forgetful shell of her former self. Stricken much earlier than most by this progressive, degenerative disease for which there is no cure, Alice loses her profession, independence, clarity and contact with the world with shocking rapidity in a narrative that sometimes reads more like a dramatized documentary than three-dimensional fiction. Genova, an online columnist for the National Alzheimer's Association, has a brisk style and lays out the facts of the disease-statistics, tests, drugs, clinical trials-plainly, often rather technically. The responses to Alice of her three grown-up children, who are also at risk of the disease; the struggles of her equally high-flying husband, a Harvard biologist; and Alice's own emotional responses, including fear, suicidal thoughts, shame and panic, are offered in semi-educational fashion, sometimes movingly, sometimes mechanically. Alice's address to the Alzheimer's Association Annual Dementia Care Conference is an affecting final public statement before her descent into fog and the loving support of her children. Worthy, benign and readable, but not always lifelike.

Favorite Passages
Alice sums up how we feel about winter here in New England…
On the night of Eric Wellman’s holiday party, the sky felt low and thick, like it was going to snow. Alice hoped it would. Like most New Englanders, she’d never outgrown a childlike anticipation of the season’s first snow. Of course, also like most New Englanders, what she wished for in December she’d come to loathe by February, cursing her shovel and boots, desperate to replace the frigid, monochromatic tedium of winter with the milder pinks and yellow-greens of spring. But for tonight, snow would be lovely.

As we all do, Alice thought of the books she could get to later…
She looked at the rows of books and periodicals on her bookcase, the stack of final exams to be corrected on her desk, the emails in her inbox, the red, flashing voice-mail light on her phone. She thought about the books she’d always wanted to read, the ones adorning the top shelf in her bedroom, the ones she figured she’d have time for later.

A reflection on being at the beach…
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.

An image of shadows on a living room wall…
The late afternoon sun cast strange, Tim Burton shadows that slithered and undulated across the floor and up the walls.

And this of babies’ feet…
Alice imagined holding them in her arms, their warm bodies, their tiny, curled fingers and chunky, unused feet….

Reviews from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly pointed out Genova’s sometimes clinical and “clumsy” (Publishers Weekly) writing style. I might have approached Still Alice differently had I read these reviews first. However, I was immediately drawn into Alice’s shrinking world and appreciated all of the clinical information about Alzheimer’s and did not find it distracted from the text. I appreciated the “dramatized documentary” feel to the novel and thought the emotion of Alice’s story was well balanced with information about Alzheimer’s.

This mother/daughter exchange is something we mothers all would hope for, and is none the less hoped forl when the mother is descending into the isolation of Alzheimer’s:

“Okay, what do you feel?”
“I feel love. It’s about love.”
The actress squealed, rushed over to Alice, kissed her on the cheek, and smiled, every crease of her face delighted.
“Did I get it right?” asked Alice.
“You did, Mom. You got it exactly right.”

Finished on January 30, 2009
Rating: 4.5/5 (Fiction Scale)
Pages: 262
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Copyright: 2008
Format: Trade Paperback

Dedication: Iin Memory of Angie, For Alena

Epigraph: None

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Granddog!

This is Louie!

Relaxing with big brothers Trot and Frankie...

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Beach House

The Beach House by Mary Alice Monroe had been languishing on Mt. TBR for some time, and a bookmark at page 32 marked an earlier attempt to read about Caretta Rutledge and her coming of age story. I say coming of age because despite the main character age in years one immediately thinks of when a book is described as such, I think we can come of age at any time in our lives when we shed what came before and look ahead with renewed purpose.
From Publishers Weekly

After losing her high-powered advertising job in Chicago, Caretta Rutledge grudgingly returns to her low-country roots at her mother's behest. Cara has long resented her mother, who focused her maternal efforts more on looking after the annual loggerhead turtle spawn than on protecting herself and her children from their abusive father. But when Cara learns that her mother is ill, she must lay her bitterness aside and try to make amends. Cara starts by restoring her mother's small beach house and joining the same turtle brigade she resented while growing up. In the process, she reconnects with an old friend and finds love in the arms of a local boat owner and naturalist. This poignant read won't disappoint fans of so-called "Southern Fiction;” the South, which represents both poison and tonic, is eloquently portrayed here, and its healing properties inevitably come to the fore. Just enough information about the loggerhead turtles and their spawning cycle opens each chapter, swiftly engaging the reader from the outset, and all of the integral characters are richly developed. With its evocative, often beautiful prose and keen insights into family relationships, Monroe's latest (following The Four Seasons) is an exceptional and heartwarming work of fiction that is bound to please fans of women's fiction and romances alike.

I finished The Beach House this morning after we’ve been through a week of the coldest weather in years and as another six inches of snow was blanketing the yard; however, I felt the warmth of the South Carolina sun, felt the sand between my toes, and heard the steady and true sounds of the ocean. The book opens with this passage:

It was twilight and a brilliant red sun lazily made its hazy descent off the South Carolina coast. Lovie Rutledge stood alone on a small, rolling sand dune and watched as two young children with hair the same sandy color as the beach squealed and cavorted, playing the age-old game of tag with the sea. A shaky half smile lifted the corners of her mouth. The boy couldn’t have been more than four years of age yet he was aggressively charging the water, the stick in his hand pointing outward like a sword. Then, turning on his heel, he ran back up the beach chased by wave. Poor fellow was tagged more often than not. But the girl… Was she seven or eight? Now there was a skilled player. She danced on tiptoe, getting daringly close to the foamy wave, instinctively knowing the second to back away, taunting the water with her high laugh.

What memories that stirred up for me. Has it really been twenty-five years since I stood and watched my son and daughter playing the same game on a Cape Cod beach?

This book stirred up many memories not because my mother and I were ever at loggerheads, but because on these cold wintery days I have read how Cara learns not to fight what her mother is going through but to help her through it. As daughters, our first instinct to fight the inevitable and it does take strength to step outside ourselves to help. Even after many years have passed, a turn of phrase in a book of fiction can pop the top on the box safely stored in our hearts, and the raw emotions claw their way back.

My family life and circumstances are and were nothing like Cara’s, but the exploration of the mother-daughter bond, that most dynamic of relationships fraught with loggerhead moments, made this a standout reading experience for me.

Prologue EpigraphLoggerhead. 1. Latin: Caretta caretta. A tropical sea turtle with a hard shell and a large head. 2. A stupid fellow; blockhead. 3. At loggerheads; in disagreement; in a quarrel.

DedicationThis book is dedicated to my fellow members of the Isle of Palms/Sullivan’s Island Turtle Team [list of names] and to all Turtle Volunteers here and elsewhere who walk the beaches every morning to help our beloved loggerheads.

EpigraphPerchance you have worried, despaired of the world, meditated the end of life, and all things seem rushing to destruction; but nature has steadily and serenely advanced with the turtle’s pace. The young turtle spends its infancy within its shell. It gets experience and learns the way of the world through that wall. While it rests warily on the edge of its hole, rash schemes are undertaken by men and fail. French empires rise or fall, but the turtle is developed only so fast. What’s a summer? Time for a turtle’s egg to hatch. So is the turtle developed, fitted to endure, for he outlives twenty French dynasties. One turtle knows several Napoleons. They have no worries, have no cares, yet has not the great world existed for them as much as for you?

-Henry David Thoreau Journal August 28, 1856

Finished January 18, 2009
Rating: 4 of 5 (General Fiction)
Pages: 477
Publisher: Mira
Copyright: 2002
Format: Trade Paperback

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Tis The Season

Library Journal
Landvik's first holiday novel features her signature sense of humor and quirky characters. Young socialite Caroline Dixon gets out of rehab and attempts to live a more stable life. Having alienated everyone she knows, she goes into hiding and tries to reach out to people from her past.

Based on reviews on other blogs, I downloaded Tis the Season by Lorna Landvik in the early morning hours of Jaunary 1. While I like the format of the book (epistolary) and thought that some of the gosspi column snippets were clever, I was disappointed in this book. I enjoyed the epistolary format but think that this particular plot and the characters needed more development that the epistolary format allowed.

Finished on 1/2/2009
Rating: 3 of 5 (Romance Scale)
Pages: 240
Publisher: Ballantine
Copyright: 2008
Format: Kindle

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A New Year, A Blank Page, and Promises to Keep

Again, we are at the convergence of looking back and hoping forward. I did (for me) do a lot of reading in 2008 but for a number of reasons didn't keep things up to date here at Owlsfeathers. So, I begin anew.

My basic reading goal is the same as ever: To read what I want when I want. That said, I do feel the need (after trying to reconstruct my 2008 reading) to pay a little closer attention to what I am reading and have read during the year. There are many reading challenges out there on various blogs, and I've informally lised them in my pen and paper reading journal just to see where the books will land as they fall open to me.

OK...sounds like a plan.

Happy New Year!