Sunday, July 26, 2009

This 'n That

I've read so many books over the past 10 days that I scarcely know where to begin. On the plane going up to Massachusetts it was my latest offering from Library Journal, Philip Roth's The Humbling. You know, of course, that I can't say anything about it til the review which I sent in Weds. is printed in LJ. Suffice it to say, I read it between here and Charlotte!
Here I had thought I had made the big time when I received Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic (which I also can't tell you about yet, or then I'd have to kill you!)

On the return flight it was Still Alice by Lisa Genova which so many of our customers had recommended. Readers sure are gluttons for punishment, aren't we? That was one of the most terrifying books I've ever delved into. If you know me, and now even if you didn't, I can tell you that I could be prone to massive hypochondria. So, did I really need to read this book about a 50 year old neurologist who begins to detect problems with her memory (she gets lost jogging home in Cambridge) and motor skills?

With access to the best that Harvard has to offer, since she and her husband John teach there, it isn't long before Alice is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. The disturbing part for me was that I didn't fare much better than Alice did on the tests used to determine the extent of advancement of her disease!

This is an absolutely devastating book on so many levels and yet, as seems to happen in literature and life, Alice's children, especially her daughter Lydia with whom she had a testy relationship, dig deep, becoming better, more compassionate and loving people than they might have. Alice's background and education (similar to the author's by the way) help her cope for a while as she devises clever ways to outsmart the disease and fool co-workers and friends.
Realistic and admirable was her plan to stockpile sleeping pills and create a simple memory test for herself so she would be able to accomplish a clean suicide before the ability was taken from her hands.

Still Alice is a beautifully written, realistic look at what happens to a family when faced with unexpected, overwhelming obstacles. How a person faces death says so much about them. My dad taught me that. But, when death is slow to arrive and one loses their mental faculties along the way, the road becomes so much more complicated for the family. In one heartbreaking scene, Alice and her husband, who I think keeps trying to convince himself that if he just ignores this it will all go away, have decided to spend the summer at their beach house on the Cape, hoping the change of scene would be healing. With Alzheimer's that isn't the case and Alice, unable to remember where the bathroom is, panics and simply wets her pants in the living room. A Harvard professor of neurology, fifty years old, is humiliated and broken when least expecting it - as I said, a terrifying book.

To keep my mind off the sure knowledge that I likely have Alzheimer's too, I also took along a cd book for the one hour ride from the airport to the cottage in the woods in Otis. Michael Connelly's Scarecrow was just the ticket! Nothing like perverted sexual mutilation and murder, not to mention identity theft and computer fraud, to help you forget what you forgot!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


As I pack to fly to Massachusetts for my stepmother's memorial service the thoughts of "home" and what it means to any one of us is pressing heavy on my mind. It's fitting that I've just finished reading Marilynne Robinson's follow up to her Pulitizer Prize winning Gilead. Ms. Robinson's books are unlike anything you'll find on the usual top 10 lists. They are quiet, pensive, cerebral novels with little action but a lot going on. They are exquisite pieces of literature and will tear your heart out.

Gilead and its set-piece, Home, take place in 1950's Iowa, where neighbors are in and out of eachother's lives and homes every day. It is still a time of patriarchal households and in Gilead readers are introduced to the letters of Rev. Ames, an aging preacher who is writing to his very young son of the family's stormy history and the schism between his own father and grandfather over the abolitionist movement. This little gem will become a clue in Home.

Simultaneously, in Home, Rev. Boughton, Ames's dear friend and neighbor, widowed and ill, has to rely on one of his eight children, 38 year old Glory, to leave her teaching career and return home to Gilead to care for him in his final days. Glory is a long-suffering kind of gal and, though she truly loves her father, there is an underlying sense of loss and resentment for her "real" life which is exacerbated when her brother Jack, the archtypal prodigal son, returns to Gilead after a years' long absence.

I've never really "gotten" the parable of the prodigal son. Back when my dad and I still went to church we used to laugh over the complete injustice done to the "good" son who stayed home with his parents and ran the farm while the wastral went out into the world and lived a life of debauchery only to return to the celebratory arms of his family. Don't get me wrong, I know how unhealthy it is for one's heart and soul to hold a grudge and I've never been one to do that but...jeez....fair is fair!

As the story unfolds we discover, and readers who read Gilead first would remember, that Jack's shame was impregnating a young woman in his youth and leaving town to avoid responsibility, causing a rift between the preachers Boughton and Ames. Jack was the golden boy and the favorite of his father. Jack's moral failures, drunkeness and thievery, took the soul out of Boughton and hung over the entire family like a pall. It is painful to watch Jack tip toe around his family, unable to ask for forgiveness or accept that he's worthy of it.
I know, you're thinking, why would anyone want to read this terribly depressing story? I suppose because it makes you think about the big issues in life; forgiveness, responsibility and redemption.

To keep some lightness in my step, I'm listening to some comfort food, Maeve Binchey's Heart and Soul. You can always count on her for improbably happy endings!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Thoughts on Independence Day

Today is my day off for the 4th of July. I've been writing in my head since about 4 AM - so many thoughts on so many themes from my latest readings that I scarcely know where to begin. I've never been one for the fireworks and flags thing - all I can ever see is someone blowing off an arm and inevitably, it happens every year. Jingoism makes me terribly uncomfortable. That said, I really missed not being in Chesapeake Beach with Don this year to watch the bay fireworks from the deck of his house, hand in hand. Vacation time is not endless and family commitments took up a chunk this year.

Instead, I exercised profusely and finished listening to Renegade, The Making of a President by Richard Wolffe. This Newsweek reporter spent two years on the road with the Obama campaign and, though it would have been impossible for him to disguise his admiration for the candidate, he also did an admirable job of attempting to remain neutral in his reportage of the ups and downs of the audacious run for the White House. For anyone who wants to understand how a relatively unknown senator raised the kind of money, made the quality of friends, and inspired the kind of trust that landed him the most powerful job in the country, this is the book. At the risk of sounding pie in the sky or drunk on the cool-aid as the distractors say, it does seem as though he was destined to this from a young age. As I watched the president and his family arriving in Moscow yesterday, I wondered if he felt that he had come full circle from that 20 year old Columbia student who wrote a magazine article on the need for nuclear disarmament at the height of the "cold war." See Sunday's New York Times.

To complete my patriotic weekend I watched the entire HBO movie series, John Adams, based upon David McCullough's biography of our second president. When one has been out of school for, dare I say it? 40 years! - one does forget or perhaps was never properly taught the little tidbits that make our history so fascinating. When I was in school we were taught to memorize significant dates but the stories that proved the humanity of our founding fathers were left to my mother to try to provide. Of course, we ignored her.

I recall vividly a family trip to Ft. Ticonderoga in New York state and my mother near tears at the very thought of the historical battle that once happened there. She was trying to describe for us kids what it must have been like. Brat that I was, I was mortified by her passion for her subject.

And so, John Adams, member of the first Continental Congress, believer in a revolution and a man, George Washington, to lead it, left his family alone for years at a time to forge a new government for a young country. Did the end justify the means? Well, of course, but the little details of his family's suffering remind us that this wasn't the age of Twitter. Months could elapse before Abigail, raising four kids, running their farm Peacefield, would hear from her husband and hard decisions had to made in his absence. While he was in France trying to raise money and naval support for the war against Britain, he was ridiculed as a low class country bumpkin disgusted by the debauchery of the Parisians and of his host, Bejamin Franklin, in particular.

What shouldn't be surprising to students of government is that, even then, the intrigue, back stabbing, and back room deals were as prevalent as they are now. Each representative of a colony had his own ax to grind and some, New York, Delaware, the Carolinas, were brought along into the "united states" kicking and screaming. The discussion of the creation of a national bank and the enmity between Alexander Hamilton and Adams were eye-opening to see, as was the friendship between Thomas Jefferson and Adams. It was Adams who initially recognized Jefferson as a man who said little but seemed to hold deep, complicated beliefs and it was Adams who invited Jefferson to pen the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, proof that the pen was mightier than the sword.

As Adams aged, the burdens of the presidency seemed to change him into a morose, hardened man, even as he fought to keep our fledgling country out of a war with France. He was dogged by bad publicity and private sorrows like the death of his son Charles from extreme alcoholism. The move from Philadelphia to the new capitol in Washington, DC, seemed to further alienate the Adamses from their advisors and friends until there were few they felt they could trust. Doesn't this seem to still be the case, over 200 years later?

I can't recommend this video series enough! I'll turn it in tomorrow so it's available for someone else. Now I've got to move from the keyboard and finish reading the next book I want to write about, Marilynne Robinson's Home.