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[730] Still Alice – Lisa Genova

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” Is the part of my brain that’s responsible for my unique ‘me-ness’ vulnerable to this disease? Or is my identity something that transcends neurons, proteins, and defective molecules of DNA? Is my soul and spirit immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s? I believe it is. “

Alice Howland, at 50, has it all. She’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a word-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she begins to have memory lapses—a loose sense of what she wants to say in lecture, disorientation during a jog in Harvard Square—the tragic diagnosis of an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease changes her life. Alice’s smarts and self-reliance are a point of pride. They are how she coped after her alcoholic father killed her mother and sister in a car accident.

She’d always been addressed with great respect. If her mental prowess became increasingly replaced with mental illness, what would replace the great respect? Pity? Condescension? Embarrassment? (96)

So when her hyperlucidity goes, when the distance begins to lengthen between she she thinks and the words that express it, the question hangs: Will Alice, at the end of this degeneration, still exist? Still Alice is neither melodramatic nor emotionally manipulative, but is a deeply moving psychological portrait of a woman’s deteriorating mind and how this gradually affects her relationships with the people around her. It’s an honest account of an intelligent woman suddenly finding that she can no longer rely on her mind, and she tries everyday to hold onto her memories, her sense of understanding. It’s a terrifying journey into what it must be like to know one is slowly losing pieces of himself day by day.

My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. (293)

Her husband John, a cancer research scientist, is loving and supportive at first, but becomes more concerned with his career as his wife’s symptoms worsen. He’s rather a dull man who doesn’t know how to cope. Alice, over time, does come to understand and reconcile with her youngest daughter Lydia, who breaks from family tradition by skipping college to become an actress. She is thinking like an actress, as well as a daughter, when she presses her mother for a view of Alzheimer’s from the inside.

The book conveys a sense of hopelessness, since all one can do is sit around and wait for the mind to deteriorate. I’m not aware that Genova holds a Harvard PhD in neuroscience until I finish the book, but there is a surety and confidence in her scientific explanations of the disease. The book can be frightening on a biological and psychological level. Alzheimer’s doesn’t make one forget memories, it goes in and completely destroys memories, as if they were never there. The book is sad but it does leave reader with a glimpse of light in the darkness too. When memories of one’s life go, one relies on love. Love provides that lost context.

336 pp. Simon & Schuster. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[729] Peril at End House – Agatha Christie

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” It has happened. In spite of everything—in spite of my precautions, it has happened. ” (Ch.8, The Fatal Shawl, p.77)

Peril at End House is one of Christie’s cleverest books and yet not as known as, say, Murder on the Orient Express. It’s set in Cornwall, where Poirot is on holiday with the narrator, Captain Hastings, whose dry comment on the case to follow often balances the Belgian investigator’s self-satisfaction. While Poirot is happy to be in retirement, his ego is indeed still thriving.

Then he meets Nick Buckley who tells of her three “accident brushes with death.” When the small neat hole found on Nick’s bonnet is found to be made by a bullet, Poirot knows peril is very close at hand, even though she treats it all as a joke. Indeed it seems as though Poirot is right, and in spite of all his precautions, murder happens, right outside the Peril House. The alleged curse that the house is haunted and only evil can come out of it is more than alive. Nick’s cousin, Maggie, who was wearing Nick’s shawl, was shot.

Poirot sets off to investigate everyone’s motive—and he suspects everyone around Nick. There’s the housekeeper Ellen who seemed very surprised Maggie was the victim; the mysterious and affected Frederica; the cousin Charlie, who will inherit Peril House in the event of Nick’s death; the art collector Lazarus; and the old Australian couple who rented out the lodge house from Nick. The interesting thing about this mystery is that Poirot has been wrong, and his ego badly hurt. But quickly he redeems himself and discovers what he has overlooked.

Peril at End House has many twists and turns as usual with an Agatha Christie plot and everyone is not what they seem to be. Though money is the ulterior motive, identity plays a crucial role in this rather convoluted mystery. The whole atmosphere of the old derelict house is fantastic. The solution has crossed my mind, but not as a real option. It’s an overlooked but clever mystery, and rare that the actual murder doesn’t happen until about a third of the way.

226 pp. William Morrow. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[728] Claude and Camille – Stephanie Cowell

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” When will people ever see that good art is living and real, intimate, and grand? That real beauty is in ordinary life? Not in a place built to the great grandeur of France and her immortal emperor, I’m afraid. ” (Part 2, p.73)

Claude and Camille is a diverting fiction representation of the Impressionist maverick Claude Monet and his first wife, who died at the age of 32. The bulk of the book is about the relationship between the struggling young painter and Camille Doncieux. Though Monet had glimpsed Camille as a child, briefly, at the train station on his way to army conscript, it isn’t until a chance encounter in her uncle’s bookshop in Paris that the artist and his muse finally meet. Both are in defiance of their family’s wishes for them to take up the life of a tradesman and society lady, respectively.

Why they all had to paint, why they must paint. No one discussed what it was like when they no longer wanted to do it, when the intimacy of it was gone and left you with nothing . . . This thing I loved so has become nothing for me but a canvas worth selling. (Part 4, p.189)

Because of Monet’s poverty, Camille’s disapproving parents, and the existence of a proper fiance, their courtship is difficult, even after Monet receives acclaim for The Woman in the Green Dress, a portrait of Camille accepted into the famous Salon of French Artists. Despite these obstacles, Camille commits to the artist. Her imminent pregnancy is a difficult situation given that Monet’s critical acclaim has not brought financial rewards, at least not until after the war with Prussia, during which they fled to London. Monet’s obsessive passion and erratic income put a lot of strain on his marriage; and Camille, often given to whims, slowly realizes with dismay what she has given up by marrying Monet, who in turn struggles to keep her happy while trying to make a living through his art.

Over the past few years they also had been drifting into their old habit of not telling each other their difficulties, and slowly the unspoken words lay within him until sometimes the things he wanted to say got trapped between the things he did not. (Part 6, p.261)

As the tight implies, the book focuses more on Monet’s private life than his career. It’s difficult to write with rising interest in a narrative full of ups and downs of a relationship. But the strain is relieved by the description of life in late 19th century Paris, rendered in great detail, in the comradeship between Monet and his group of fellow Impressionists—Bazille, Renoir, Pissarro, Manet. They support one other ceaselessly, not only financially but emotionally as well. When Cowell does delve in the paintings, the description is impeccable, if not with the actual tools and instruction, the techniques and explanations of the new ideas on color and light. It’s a lighter book if you want to know about Monet’s life.

340 pp. Broadway Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Grandpa

“He missed her; there was a silence in the studio that he seldom had minded before, but that evening he counted the hours until she would come again.” (Part 2, circa 1866-67, p.71, Claude and Camille by Stephenie Cowell)

The short paragraph describes Monet’s longing for Camille Doncieux, who modeled for him in Fotainbleau and eventually, in defiance of her parents’ wishes, married him. In me this sentence evokes a whole different picture—that of my grandfather.

It must have been a summer in mid 80s, I was in fourth or fifth grade. My grandfather came down with cancer and he had maybe months to live. My parents thought it would cheer up my grandfather, who was still capable of walking and taking care of himself, for me to go stay with him for a week. Grandpa was himself: with me he played chess, watched TV, and read. But in the fringe of my mind, haunting me, was this cancer business. Not so much I feared cancer might renege and claim my grandpa earlier than the doctor said but the idea of cancer’s insidiousness. It’s quietly working underneath the skin, in the midst of the body. Cancer was in the house, thriving silently as the clock ticked away in the dark silence, literally and figuratively. I would have counted the hours until my aunt would come again in the morning with groceries and flowers.

I share this because this is the perfect example of reading’s associative power. Reading often evokes a distant time and transports me back to a different station in my life. I felt I was a fourth grader all over again.

Irish Reads

Some Irish reads in observance of St. Patrick’s Day.

Ulysses by James Joyce
The novel chronicles the passage of Leopold Bloom through Dublin during an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. It epitomizes Modernist literature and I seriously have to sit down, re-read, and give it my undivided attention.

The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
This is the only published novel by Oscar Wilde. The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian’s beauty and becomes infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art.

Amongst Women by John McGahern
This one has been on my shelf forever. It tells the story of Michael Moran, a bitter, aging Irish Republican Army (IRA) veteran, and his tyranny over his wife and children, who both love and fear him. It is considered McGahern’s masterpiece.

At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien
Flann O’Brien is the pseudonym of Irish author Brian O’Nolan. The book is widely considered to be one of the most sophisticated examples of meta-fiction.

The Book of Evidence by John Banville
My favorite modern Irish author! The book is narrated by Freddie Montgomery, a 38-year-old scientist, who murders a servant girl during an attempt to steal a painting from a neighbor. Freddie is an aimless drifter, and though he is a perceptive observer of himself and his surroundings, he is largely amoral.

Strumpet City by James Plunkett
This is a historical novel by James Plunkett set in Dublin at the time of the Dublin Lock-out. The novel is an epic, tracing the lives of a dozen characters as they are swept up in the tumultuous events that affected Dublin between 1907 and 1914.

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien
This was the first novel written by Irish author Edna O’Brien. It was released in 1960, and later made into a movie. It tell the story of Kate and Baba who have spent their childhood together. As they leave the safety of their convent school in search of life and love in the big city, they struggle to maintain their somewhat tumultuous relationship.

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen
I didn’t known she’s Irish until recently! It’s the portrait of a young woman’s coming of age in a brutalized time and place, where the ordinariness of life floats like music over the impending doom of history.

[727] So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell

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” What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. ” (III, p.27)

It’s 1921 in a small farm town in Illinois called Lincoln. The anonymous narrator, then a 10-year-old boy, plays on the scaffolding of a new house, which belongs to his father,a widower who is building a new home after his second wedding. In Cletus Smith he finds friendship that satisfies his yearning. Playing in the sketelal building they bond with the tacit, unquestioning camaraderie of kids sharing a game. Cletus Smith is a welcoming distraction for the narrator, who in inconsolable grief and loneliness clings to the memory of his dead mother.

There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self. And to go on feeling guilty about something that happened so long ago is hardly reasonable. I do feel guilty, even so. A little. And always will, perhaps, whenever I think about him. (IX, p.135)

The tenuous friendship comes to an abrupt end after a murder of which the perpetrator is Cletus’s father. Clarence Smith has shot and mutilated a tenant farmer named Llyod Wilson. Two weeks later deputies drag Clarence’s body from the bottom of a nearby gravel pit, where he fell after shooting himself in the head. Cletus’s mother had been having an affair with Wilson, but in a divorce proceeding the judge grants her a decree of divorce against Clarence, on the grounds of extreme and repeated cruelty.

As an older man, the narrator reflects on the blows of grief, incomprehension, confusion, reproach, and violence sustained by his then 13-year-old friend. In the face of such tremendous deprivation—of family, of normal life befit a child, of stability, what is to become of a boy? The inquiry leads him to re-examine his childhood, to imagine the betrayal and infidelity that precipitated the murder-suicide and Cletus’s life amid it all.

The bulk of So Long, See You Tomorrow is a juxtaposition of experience and recollection, abound with visceral childhood memories excavated by an adult consciousness. Instead of a suspenseful linear plot with reconstructed events leading to the murder, the narrator finds himself revisiting the same subject from different angles, trying to fill in the emotional terrain that vanished at the margins of his boyish incomprehension. The book is contemplative and quiet; the cumulative effect is a delicate rendering of ineffable loss.

135 pp. Harvill Press UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[726] The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

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” For years I’d been wallowing in a hothouse of wasteful sorrow: Pippa Pippa Pippa, exhilaration and despair, it was never-ending, incidents of virtually no significance threw me to the stars or plunged me into speechless depressions . . . Worse, my love for Pippa was muddied up below the waterline with my mother, with my mother’s death, with losing my mother and not being able to get her back. ” (Ch.10, ii, p.632)

The Goldfinch is a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind. At 962 pages in paperback, the size could be stalling. It revolves around Theo Decker, a 13-year-old boy whose life is blown apart, in a very literal sense. He miraculously survives an explosion in a gallery he’s visiting with his devoted, angelic mother. She dies; he escapes with minor injuries and carrying a priceless painting from 1654 called The Goldfinch, a token of his memory, and which later becomes the object of barter of criminals and collectors. He’s taken the masterpiece because a dying old man who ended up beside him after the blast told him to save it. This man, Welty, also gave him a signet ring that leads the boy to the house of a charming furniture restorer named James Hobart, a place that becomes a safe haven as Theo tries to comes to terms with his loss.

Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of good furniture . . . He was a good teacher and very soon, by walking me through the process of examination and comparison, he’d taught me how to identify a reproduction. (Ch.4, xii, p.207)

If Hobie is the father figure who has a better sense of the boy and treats him as a companion and conversationalist in his own right, Theo’s own father is the unreliable knucklehead who is steeped in substance abuse. Trying to cheat Theo’s education fund, his father is as much a rogue as Hobie as the anchor.

Despite his checkered fate, Theo is an admirably unlikable character. He’s flawed, selfish, and does very silly things. To save Hobie’s struggling antiques store he sells masterful reproductions as originals. He is drenched in nostalgia of the past, in this ruthless loop of searching. He epitomizes the pathetic “good person” who makes all the wrong decisions. All the ridiculous convolutions hinge on his keeping the painting which is classified as a crime. But Tartt imparts in him a strong sense of decency underneath it all and surrounds him with some lovable creations. Hobie is a fine gent; Boris is his partners in crime while in Las Vegas. They show us how one can never draw a sharp line between good and bad. Neither has a point to exist without the other.

The book probes into questions of human achievement and the human soul. But at times Tartt can be heavy-handed and indulgent in theorizing and philosophizing. The harangue of an explanation tacked on at the end is necessary, but could have been done more lightly. That all said, The Goldfinch is a rewarding journey that teaches the moral about outward appearance versus inward significance. It does offer a glimpse of hope at the end as Theo awakens to the truth that there is no such thing as perfection and pulchritude. It has the addictive quality of a Victorian novel—it reminds me of Dickens, but with its air of mystery, intrigue and escapades it also evokes of Wilkie Collins. It’s a book of epic scale in terms of its ambitious theme: art may addict, but art also saves one from the sadness of human beings pushing and struggling to live.

962 pp. Little Brown and Company. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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