Still Alice by Lisa Genova…………

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about a story not yet explored – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I truly enjoyed this book, even though it dealt with a difficult topic. Lisa Genova shares the fictional tale of Alice – a Harvard professor/researcher and wife/mother of three adult children – who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s just after turning 50.

The author put soft edges around her story so that we could learn about the disease and its impact without resistance and from a safe distance. And although there were times when I was sad and there were characters who impressed me less than others, I also chuckled throughout the story. Alice’s story starts off with unremarkable little events that could happen to any of us of the aging persuasion. Her story turns when she can no longer embrace those silly little annoyances as normal.

The book is about Alzheimer’s for sure and Lisa Genova is well versed in that field. But the book is about relationships as well – parents and children – husbands and wives – and friends with deep connections. The story teaches us that just because someone loves us dearly doesn’t mean that they can suffer by our side graciously at every turn. And that disagreements don’t mean that love isn’t profound and forgiving and genuine. And that new friends with a common thread can become a lifeline.

Luckily, there is very often time to find a new connection with someone that we have forced away with too much emotional tangling. We sometimes let conflicts rule our relationship because of differences that we focus too hard on. However, it is possible to find a  new way to celebrate a friendship or a family member – or to embrace a new person in our lives. But that time can be fleeting and it is always precious – whether Alzheimer’s overshadows the clock or not.

Alzheimer’s is certainly challenging for the patient but the family experiences every memory loss, every misstep just as deeply as they have been cut by the disease themselves. The author did a nice job of showing the challenges that come with Alzheimer’s from a number of vantage points. And how difficult it is when life changes so dramatically for one person in a family but flows into the future less interrupted for the rest of its members.

The message of the book is that people suffering from Alzheimer’s are not completely lost – they simply cannot find their map – or at least they don’t know how to use it – but they might very well understand that there is a map and they may know exactly where they want to be on it and with whom. Lisa Genova did an excellent job of sharing how it might have been for a real life Alice to sit in the room and not recognize faces or stories for large portions of conversations – even when those exact conversations centered around her and what would/could happen to her. How pronouns move too frequently and quickly in conversation and it can quickly become impossible to keep track of who is doing what. How her most beloveds would discuss her as if she was invisible. And how that slow realization could creep in that all the fuss was, in reality, about her – but she often realized that nugget too late for her to participate in the dialogue and ultimate decision-making.

We see that loved ones can take advantage of illnesses too. Alice’s husband makes a very tough decision at the end of the story and claims that she simply doesn’t remember participating in the discussions leading up to the final outcome. But Alice was still savvy enough to understand how convenient it was that he claimed that they had talked about everything – then he told her she simply didn’t remember. What would all allow ourselves to do if we knew that ultimately our actions would not be remembered? How closely would we align ourselves with someone who would soon appear to not know us – even if we had spent a lifetime building life together? What responsibilities would we neglect even if we know others are paying attention and can remember the nuances?

All in all, it was a safe look into a world that is largely not understood. The characters dance together in a lovely way and weave a story that you’ll be glad you shared with them.

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen……

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I was quite excited to find a copy of this book on the library’s “new release” shelf. You can only check it out for 14 days – no renewals. There was something energizing about having it in my hands. Yeah me.

Not to mention that Anna Quindlen is the author of five best selling novels – five. And she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her New York Times column. She is what we call accomplished.

And the writing in this book is good. The conversational pace makes it easy to read and the storyline makes it hard to put down. However, the entire tone of the book is sad and heavy. There are times when it is hard to breathe through the words. Even as the main character – Mary Beth – unfolds the story of her life, the tone is melancholy. Even as she tells about her family and their successes, the air is thick. Mary Beth’s family also faces some serious struggles – eating disorders, depression, and controlling boyfriends.

It seemed that her family’s successes and struggles carried the same weight and, really, were equally burdensome. Mary Beth could not seem to bask in good fortune or happiness. Every observance seemed to earn (or better, to be denied) the same level of  attention – a barely-just-scratched-the-surface level of attention. Mary Beth’s daughter stops eating for a while and loses a significant amount of weight. Mary Beth never really discloses how they discovered, dealt with, and recovered from that.

Mary Beth watches her children a lot from a distance and even says at one point that all the parents know their kids are drinking and having sex but they mostly  choose to look the other way. That was fascinating to hear and consider from her vantage point – especially because I have a teenager and two preteens. It really made me wonder what, as a parent, I will allow myself to ignore and what the consequences from that embraced ignorance will be. We learn toward the end of the story that Mary Beth carries with her quite a bit of guilt which allowed her to be inactive in many ways. In ways that cost her dearly.

The climax of this story is horrific and, I thought, unexpected. I am not sure that I would recommend reading this book because of just how awful the events in the story become. I was unbelievably sad from the climax until the end of the book with many of my own tears soiling the pages in between.

However, the storyline does make you think about the choices that you make and don’t make. About how decisions (and non-decisions) can guide us to a different future. Conversely, the story also gives us the opportunity to consider whether mental illness simply takes its own hold regardless of the circumstances. It allows us to believe that sometimes we just have no control over misfortune. Even so, toward the end of the story, Mary Beth allows herself to examine whether or not her decisions caused some of the events in the story to take place. But that is an extremely painful process and, once again, she barely scratches the surface of self evaluation.

This book also made me think about how I view my own life and family. Am I always adequately grateful for the blessings in my life? Probably not as much as I should be. And in that vein, it was worth every word and tear.