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.

Brave Girl Eating by Harriet Brown………..

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Imagine taking your deepest darkest secret that is tangled and seeping with fear and embarrassment  and criticism and compassion and misunderstanding and writing a book about it. Then put your name and your picture on the cover for all the world to see.

That is what Harriet Brown did in Brave Girl Eating. Her daughter “Kitty” is a smart, talented, successful young lady and a competitive gymnast who falls deep into the chasm of anorexia around the age of 14. Harriet chronicles their journey and sprinkles in a lot of scientific data (that can get a little thick if you are thankfully not looking for answers – but the statistics are absolutely gut-wrenching).

It’s a memoir but it also serves as a reminder to keep a watchful eye on our children and to not ignore the warning signs that are very easily shrugged off – not just for anorexia, but for everything.

Harriet’s approach to tackling the demon that is anorexia took her off the traditional treatment map where families are generally blamed in large part for the disease. Harriet understood that by the time families seek therapy, they are a mess, they are struggling, and they are scared. They also often feel like the are out of options and are quickly running out of time. It is at this point that most girls are removed from their families and sent away to residential treatment centers.

However, Harriet researched and then embraced Family Based Therapy (FBT) which kept her daughter at home with her and her husband. She fought with her daughter over nearly every morsel she ate, she lost her patience, she feared (probably fears) for her daughter’s life, she counted every single calorie, she cried, and she kept going. She didn’t always know what to do but she always did something.

All the while, Harriet has her own battles – as every parent in America does – she suffered panic attacks and was herself 30 pounds overweight. She struggled that Kitty struggled with not becoming her. That’s tough.

Her story dabbles in how Kitty’s anorexia affects the rest of the family but it does not focus on it. Kitty’s story consumes them all in different ways but does not afford them much opportunity to focus on anything else. The story reflects that.

Harriet talks about how anorexia immediately changes what you find acceptable – how it shatters your confidence in what you believe you know. Every fight with Kitty was about deciding what to give in on and what to stand firm on. She details realizing that there was the Kitty that she knew and loved and the Not Kitty who was a fighter and manipulative and scary in many ways – but also desperate and strong and not willing to go away easily.

Harriet explains the devastating impact of malnutrition not only on the body but also on the brain’s ability to reason. She chronicles how hard it was to feed Kitty enough so that she could gain weight – toward the end of the book, Kitty was eating nearly 4,000 calories a day and still not gaining weight. Because not only did Kitty not want to eat, she was growing taller – which constantly changed her target weight. And anorexia completely changed Kitty’s metabolism so that she needed so many more calories than the average teenaged girl – yet she remained under her target weight. As Harriet says, they were chasing a moving target and never really got close enough to touch it.

There were two things that stuck with me the most throughout the story. One was when Harriet tells of Kitty smelling sour because her body was digesting itself. That brought me to my knees. It was devastating to comprehend all of the realizations of just how deep in trouble Kitty really was that must of come with that.

The other was when Harriet ran into another mother at the grocery store who asked her how Kitty was doing. She had heard Kitty was sick. She hoped she was doing well. Oh, and by the way, she could have told Harriet that Kitty was sick. Harriet was furious – she really wanted to know why this friend hadn’t said anything.

That’s easy, right? We all know the answer to that. We all hold back our concerns when the stakes are the highest. Because we don’t want to overstep our bounds or pry. We are afraid to meddle. What if we are wrong? But I guess we need to start asking, what if we are right? We probably all know of a child who is in trouble or on the verge of trouble and we step back. We assume the parents know. And of course there is a danger in upsetting the parents. But there are dangers that are far graver than that.

This entire story was fascinating to me. I know with two daughters and a son, there will be a point when we are exposed in some way to eating disorders – whether it be through friends or girlfriends or (hopefully not) our own children. Even with my adult  friends and family – the potential exists. I pray that we never see anorexia’s ugly face up close in personal in our children’s lives but there is a good chance we will. This book gave me a chance to learn about it in a non-urgent way.

The book is not a “why me” story. It is filled with action and reaction but it is never a sob story in the sense of asking for pitying. It seems to really scream – you don’t want this to happen to you, but it if does, maybe this will help.

Harriet was careful not to share real numbers from Kitty’s experience because she feared that young women would use the book as a model, a how to guide. That was also one of Harriet’s biggest reasons for resisting entering Kitty into a residential program. She was afraid of Kitty learning too much from the experts – not the therapists – the patients.

All in all, it was well worth reading. If you have a child or a mother or a sister or even a friend, consider investing some time in this story.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett………..

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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 come to write this blog post just after reading the riot act to my own house staff. Right now, my family of five lives in India and we have the good fortune of having a driver, a cook, a house cleaner, a guard, and a laundress. But all of that “help” comes with some (major) unhelpfulness too. You find yourself trying to decide what is acceptable within your own house and what exactly you are responsible for in the lives of those who work for you. You have be very careful to be sure you are the one establishing the rules while maintaining compassion and understanding.

So, I would say that I read The Help from a different angle than most Americans would. I also grew up in the South (at least for the most part). So I totally “got” this book. It is set in Mississippi in the early 1960s. The main character is a recent graduate from Ole Miss and she returns home to find that life is pretty much as she left it. Her name is Skeeter.

One of the early conflicts in the story is that one of Skeeter’s friends has decided to make it her personal campaign that no maids should be allowed to use the bathroom facilities within the houses where they work. As a result of her friend’s campaign, another friend named Mrs. Leefolt decides to press her husband to build a maid’s bathroom in the garage – even though they cannot really afford it. She does not want her daughter using the same bathroom as her maid for “sanitary” reasons. Ironically, it is the maid’s bathroom that her daughter prefers and it is where her daughter learns to properly use the toilet.

Your initial reaction to this is probably very similar to mine – “that is absolutely ridiculous”. But then it didn’t take me long to put two and two together and remember the fact that my staff does not use the bathroom in our house either. Hmmmmm. Oh uh. Now the ugly is staring me right in the face.

I had to do a little self evaluation there – slightly painful – but necessary. (And that is what a great story should do – make you think a little.) So, ouch. But, it is a little different for me (did I just write that out loud ;-) ). Four of the five people who work for us are men and I have two younger daughters. We do have two proper bathrooms in the back of the house (in the staff quarters) that they are welcome to use any time. But dang it, as liberal minded as I like to think I am – my staff does not use the bathroom in our house and that is not likely to change anytime soon. It’s true – when you point your finger at someone – you get three staring right back attacha. Dang it.

But this isn’t about my life in India (I actually have a blog for that already A Reason To Write) – it is a book review so I should add here that I loved the story. It was surprising to learn that this is Kathryn Stockett’s first book. I felt completely connected to the characters. I wanted to know what would happen in their lives. I understood why they made the decisions that they made – even when I did not agree with them. I laughed and sympathized and stomped my foot. The book totally grabbed me and held me close. My friend Nancy summed it up nicely when she said, “I am going to miss those girls” after putting the book down for the last time.

A lot of discussions that I have had about this book focus on who is the best character. Honestly, they all bring something to the table. There is Skeeter whose mother desperately wants her to get married and to have straight hair. Skeeter desperately wants to live her own life and to just be accepted by her mother for who she is. Skeeter shakes things up quite a bit in the book and, with the help of Aibileen, brings a big dose of justice to the entire story. There is also Mrs. Hilly who is just a text book Southern belle snot. And Minny who takes no prisoners but really does have a soft spot in her heart.

Another major player is Constantine. She was Skeeter’s family maid who disappeared right before Skeeter returned home from college. Nobody was giving up any details, especially Skeeter’s mom, about where she went and why she left. Part of Skeeter’s growth through the novel comes from the slow revelation of where Constantine really went and why. The reality of what happened in many ways shaped Skeeter’s relationship with her own mother more than Skeeter’s own relationship with her mother did.

Mae Mobley is Mrs. Leefolt’s daughter. She is the apple of her maid’s eye. The relationship between Mae Mobley and Aibileen is fascinating and I would love to see a sequel to this book on Mae Mobley as an adult. She receives much more love and compassion from her maid than from her own mother. How that would manifest itself in Mae Mobley’s adult life would surely make for more good reading.

But my favorite of all is Celia. She married up and no one can understand how she managed to do it. She is so desperate to be perfect that she fails miserably at it – partly because she simply doesn’t even know what to do and partly because absolutely no one will give her a chance. She finally gets to attend the “party of all parties” as she sees it and ends up wearing a horrid dress and drinking so much she throws up. I think I enjoyed her character the most because she is the one who shows a real connection between the help and the family. Her maid is Minny – who is a mess in her own right. She just couldn’t manage to keep her sassy mouth shut. That sass of hers got her fired and kept her from getting another job – except with Celia – who didn’t rank high enough to get the full details on Celia.

Anyway, Celia is an outcast and her lifeline becomes Minny on several levels. She ends up saving her in a number of ways but then literally saves her life. They balance each other out so nicely. And they actually care about each other. Celia is caught between desperately wanting to fit in but feeling more comfortable with her staff. The relationships are sad and fascinating and mostly sincere.

This book is also about the roles women play in general as wives, mothers, friends, bosses, etc. They are universal roles no matter the generation or the date or the setting.  The role of the mother is the same no matter what your upbringing and a mother who loses a child feels that loss deeply no matter how big her wallet is. The characters in this book are full of life, love, trust, mistrust, and they are all looking for a purpose.

It is fantastic read and Nancy is right – you will miss these girls when you are done. Enjoy!

The great news is that if you are in DC you can meet Kathryn here:

Tuesday, September 21 – 8:00 PM
DC Area Fall for the Book Festival
Reston Center Stage Theater
2310 Colts Neck Road
Reston, VA 20191
http://fallforthebook.org/