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.

The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan…..

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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.)

A friend gave me this book to read because I am also in the Middle Place – as are so many of my friends – that place where you are still someone’s child and yet someone’s parent. Other people have said that this book is about Kelly’s journey with cancer. I am not so sure about that. She certainly talks about her discovery, diagnosis, and treatment but the focus of this book seems to be more about her role as daughter. Her father’s daughter.

Nearly everything in the book rolls back to a connection with her dad. Which in many ways is lovely. I have a rock star dad and never want to lose my identity as his daughter. However, I was surprised that when her father was diagnosed with cancer she quit, for the most part, telling her own story of her own battle with her own cancer and adopted his. We hear about his doctor’s visits and his pain and his ability to fight his battle. And, oh by the way, Kelly seems to be doing fine – she becomes a subplot. She tosses aside the role of protagonist in her own story. There is even a point in the book where she is discussing treatment options for her father with her own doctor right before surgery. Her husband does point out that this is actually her surgery not her dad’s. No kidding.

Her father is surely a larger-than-life character with charm and charisma and he very obviously had a tremendous impact on how Kelly sees the world and rotates in it. He gives her strength that she cannot fully explain and love that she knows will never be taken away. He gives her the gift that I hope I am giving my children – acceptance.

There are several flashbacks in the book that don’t seem to relate to the thread of her life with cancer or to her life as a child and a parent. But they are snapshots of her life as a daughter. Certainly her experiences with her dad shaped the way she handles her own cancer but we miss some of the stories of the impact cancer must have had on her life and her family’s life. And, to be fair, part of that might be Kelly’s practical approach to “it is what it is”. She doesn’t seem to wallow in self pity or really even ask why cancer happened to her. She seems to just do what it takes to move forward – sometimes with a beer in hand.

She talks about her role as a mother and a wife and the role of being the daughter of a mother – which is, funny enough, different from being the daughter of a father.

Kelly has a sense of humor and does not take herself too seriously. Gotta love that. She is an optimist for sure. When she finds out she has cancer, she sends out an invitation to a party a year in the future that will be celebration of all that is behind them. And she is not afraid to admit her mistakes.

Best of all, Kelly has a wonderful way of saying things. When talking about gaining weight, she simply says, “before college added things to my body that laziness has created a permanent home for.” Now that does sound more poetic than “I am fatter than I used to be” or “wow, my jeans just must have shrunk in the dryer”. So her voice is engaging and entertaining.

All in all it was a good book. I finished it in 2 days which means it is a super easy read because I am not a fast reader at all. There were funny parts and sad parts. I am not sure she shared all the raw emotions that she felt – and maybe that made it easier to read because it was never gut-wrenchingly sad.

I am not sure Middle Place was the best title. Maybe “My Father’s Daughter” would have been better.

Maybe she didn’t focus as much on her role as a wife and a mother because there wasn’t the same urgency there. Her children and her husband were healthy and available and by her side. Her mother and her brothers seemed predictable and present – but please don’t read that as boring.

Her father battled cancer once before when Kelly was younger and living out of the country. Her family kept the news from her so that she wouldn’t end her adventure early. Maybe she wanted to reclaim possession of her presence in his life and treatment this time. Her father was battling for his life at the same time Kelly was and that must have been a scary place, whether it was in the middle or not.

And I guess everyone, every where is in some sort of Middle Place. We are all trying to figure out where we fit in the world and it’s often between opposites – student or teacher, parent or child, patient or caregiver, success or failure – and why can’t we simply be all of them at once? Why do we ever have to choose?