Friday, January 7, 2011

Still Alice

Still Alice
by Lisa Genova

This is a fictional story is about a woman who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease. It's a topic that has interested me as the daughter and caregiver of a woman who likely had Alzheimer's. But lucky for my mother, she lived a long life and accomplished many things before she was disabled by the disease late in life.

The story is told through the eyes of Alice. She is just 50, a highly respected professor and scientist at Harvard. She begins to be aware of instances where she can't find the words she wants, misplaces things or becomes temporarily disoriented. At first she suspects menopause and makes an appointment with her doctor to confirm her suspicions. Her doctor thinks it is more than just menopause and sends her to a neurologist who suspects Alzheimer's. (The author admits that a quick diagnosis is not usual for early onset Alzheimer's disease. For the sake of the story she cut through the potential months and years of looking for the diagnosis.)

Alice's husband is a biologist and she is a psychologist with emphasis on linguistics. Through their Harvard connections they research treatments, medications and clinical trials. Unfortunately, there is not much hope for Alzheimer's victims. Alice develops routines and processes to help herself navigate her way through her days. She contemplates suicide and creates a plan to carry it out when the disease has stolen too much from her. Written in the first person, we feel not only her frustration as she stumbles through obstacles that never were before, but also horror as we realize how much more the disease has affected her than she does.

The story hit emotionally close to home for me. I have issues with my own memory, I have as far back as I can remember, so I don't know how concerned I really need be. But to know that I am not too young for Alzheimer's is a terrifying thought. Having cared for my mother as her life escaped her memory of it really allowed me to feel what Alice was experiencing as I read it. The story moved me to tears more than once. Alice eventually forgets that she was a world renown psychologist and very bright. Similarly, my mother forgot that she earned a veterinary degree in the days when most women who attended college became either teachers or home ec majors.

Alzheimer's not only steals your precious memories, but interferes with immediate memory, too. Listening to people speak is unbearably hard when you can't decipher the meanings of the words quickly enough to follow what is being said. Reading a book is impossible as well as watching TV or a movie. The Alzheimer's victim becomes a silent observer of people and things she feels no relation or connection to. Never mind that it's her own family.

Alice struggles with her relationship with her husband and although I felt he still loved her, he couldn't bear losing her while she was still there. Her children responded differently and although in different processes, all rallied around her, and at least one mother/daughter relationship was better than it had been prior to the onset of the disease. I found this very plausible having experienced a similar thing with my own mother.

I loved this book and felt it gave me a lot of insight to what my mother experienced the last few years of her life and also made me even happier that she came to live with us and I could be with her. I think Lisa Genova did a wonderful and sensitive job of bringing a face and personality to a disease that cripples so many elderly people and even more horrifically, many younger people as well. I wish I had read this book while my mother was still living.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Gunn's Golden Rules

Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making it Work
by Tim Gunn

Sadly, as much as I adore Tim Gunn, I am not finding this book very inspirational.

He writes like the editor never gave it back and said "let's re-work this part." It rambles in different directions shamelessly. And I really believe that although he's saying one thing in the book, the anecdotes he's sharing actually say something else. I still adore his TV personality but I am feeling like he is a person that was stabbed with hundreds of little pins & needles throughout his life and has yet to forgive or forget a single one of them. He's all about "taking the high road." To me that means really letting go and moving on. I'm just finding that disappointing.

I felt the writing did get better the further I read and either he seemed to stay on track a bit better or I grew accustomed to his style of writing and developed a sense of how to follow him.

The book is of course, by title, Tim Gunn's rules for life. I think it's important to keep that in perspective because his rules fit him. It's not a one size fits all book of rules to live by. That said, I think he imparts many good lessons in the value of manners and etiquette. Actually, upon reviewing the titles of all his chapters, I can't disagree with any of his rules. I suppose my disagreement comes in their interpretations. One anecdote that sticks clearly in my mind involves showing up at a party with an uninvited/unexpected guest in tow. Yes, this would absolutely be verboten, particularly for a sit down dinner party. But in Tim's anecdote he was a guest, not the host, and he chose to jump up and relinquish his place at the party and go home!!

This particular story really disturbed me. I thought about the host, how he/she must feel to have Tim insist on leaving as the result of another guest's poor decision. I think it would put a negative feeling on the entire evening that could have been avoided if handled differently. I also would have wondered why he even chose to accept the invitation if he were so willing to give it up. I know I am putting a lot of my own feelings into the anecdote, but I think the polite thing to do would have been to allow the host and the guest/non-guest involved to "make it work."

There were other examples where I felt Tim was saying one thing and writing about acting another way. Perhaps I just don't find a gossipy "tell-all" book the right venue for "Ms. Manners."

I am sure I will continue to love Tim on Project Runway and other venues he surfaces in, but I may have a tiny bit less respect for him. Or not. After all, as with all of us, he's only human.