Monday, January 31, 2011

Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2007)

This book was recommended by my aunt, and since she just turned 70 I find it very brave of her to have read this, as it is the story of a woman who discovers she is suffering from Alzheimer’s and it is at times very frightening to read. But at the same time it is fascinating and moving and I simply couldn’t put it down.

Alice is 50 years old and a professor at Harvard when she begins to notice that she has difficulty remembering things. At first she puts it down to menopause, but when she gets inexplicably lost in her own neighborhood one day, she decides to see her doctor, where she receives the devastating diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s.

This was extremely painful to read about – Alice is an intelligent woman with a busy life who also runs and takes good care of herself, and is only 6 years older than me and the same age as some of my good friends – I could really relate to her!

The author wrote the book from Alice’s perspective all the way to the end, and so the reader feels the frustration, disorientation and confusion right along with Alice as her life slowly but steadily shrinks down. It is very scary to feel what Alzheimer’s does to your mind, especially in the beginning when Alice is desperately trying to contain the damage and still function in her daily life. It is easy to understand her when she says she would gladly trade Alzheimer’s for cancer, and when she makes suicide plans. This book feels incredibly authentic as to what might go on in the mind of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s and it is eye-opening to be in Alice’s head. It is incredible to realize how much we rely on our memory for all the miniscule details in our lives and how devastating it is to lose it.

One of the saddest things for me was how Alice eventually had to give up her running…the one thing that she turned to to keep herself feeling good was eventually no longer possible, even with someone running with her. It makes you realize how lucky you are to be able to go and do as you please and having your body and mind cooperate with everything, without you even being aware of it. Quite an eye opener.

The book is also very informative and contains a great deal of scientific information about the disease. The reactions of Alice’s family, colleagues and friends are very realistically presented, as well as the life of an academic. Everything in the book is so realistic and tragic, and yet, there is a note of hope at the end. In spite of that this is definitely a book where you will need a box of kleenex.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Age of Orphans, by Laleh Khadivi (2009)

An unexpected find on the shelves of our library...

Laleh Khadivi, the author, was born in Esfahan, Iran, in 1977, to a Kurdish father and an Esfahani mother. Her family fled Iran after the revolution there, and they lived in many places (including Belgium) before settling in North America. Khadivi is a filmmaker and this is her first novel.

The story begins with a small Kurdish boy who lives in a remote area of what is now Iran, in a tiny village with his mother and father at the beginning of the 1920's. He is soon taken by his father and all the other male villagers to a valley where he undergoes the traditional ritual that makes him a man. At the age of 9 or 10, along with all the other Kurdish men, he sets off to defend their territory against the nationbuilding that is going on in the name of the Shah of Iran. They are crushed by the Iranian army and the boy, orphaned, is brought up in the Iranian military, as the captain's pet at first, and then later as a talented soldier.

He is given an Iranian name, Reza, and takes on an Iranian identity, foresaking his Kurd roots as much as he can, in spite of his tell-tale green eyes. He eventually makes his way to the capital city, Tehran, where he finds a young wife in the Iranian middle class. His superiors, pleased with they way he has developed into the ideal Iranian soldier, decide to send him back as a captain to the Kurd region where they expect he will have special talent in dealing with the local population, as he understands the language and the customs.

Back in the landscape that evokes his childhood, Reza's facade slowly begins to crack, as he loses control over his wife, who after bearing seven children will die in tragic circumstances, leaving the children to flutter away from their father and the father to end his days in the place he started it.

The story is a commentary on identity, on minorities, on poverty, and on the unique position of the nationless in this world. It explains a small part of the situation of the Kurdish people and why they struggle on without their own nation to this day. It is also a shocking look into the cruel life of a boy taken from his mother, the only love he knew, and thrown into an army and forced to be brutal and deny anything that ever defined him. At times I was really in awe of the author's ability to get inside this man's head.

This is not an upbeat, uplifting book but it is certainly thought-provoking and will stay with you long after you have finished it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Perfect Match by Jodi Picoult (2002)

Whenever I am in the mood for an easy read that grabs me by the scruff of the neck and won't let me go til I get to the last page, but at the same time is sure to be topical, deal with tough moral dilemmas and peopled by characters I feel like I know, then I can't go wrong with a book by Jodi Picoult.

I was at the library and decided to pick up one of her books I hadn't read yet (still waiting for "House Rules" to be turned in) and sure enough, I started reading it last night and just couldn't put it down and finished it this afternoon.

"Perfect Match" is definitely topical - it deals with a young boy that has been sexually abused by a priest - and also includes a terrible moral dilemma - is it right for the mother of that boy to take the law into her own hands, when she herself is a District Attorney, and dish out her own version of justice? And what are the unforeseen consequences when she does?

I am still not sure what side of the fence I am on after reading this book. Being a mother myself it was easy to understand what drove the main character to do something so desperate but still, didn't we all learn in grade school that two wrongs don't make a right? And the thing that kept going through my mind, again as a mother, was what example was she setting for her son? Ultimately we want our kids to be good people. Wanting to protect them from every single bad thing is simply not possible even though we would like to think otherwise. In this way, I think the mother in this book, while very intelligent, was missing some basic insight.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2009)

I've been wanting to read this book for a long time after hearing rave reviews from many of the readers I respect the most (mainly my mom) and I finally got the chance while staying in Texas over the holidays and after a visit to my mom's library.

This book, the story of black maids and the white women they work for in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960's, is a wonderful, funny, sad story and it had me from the first page. The words of Aibileen and Minny, the two black women, and Skeeter, the young white woman, are so authentic and real, as a reader you immediately have sympathy for them and their friends and family. When they set out to undertake writing a book of interviews of maids in their town, I was excited and scared right along with them.

This is a story that shows us what is was like for both black and white women in those days in the South, but it also explores friendship, loyalty, and family. It is wonderfully written and kept me turning the page, desperate to find out what happened at the end. I finished it today on the roof top patio of a hotel in San Antonio TX, sitting in the sun and trying not to cry, so happy to have finally had a chance to read this wonderful first novel and completely satisfied by the ending. Thank you, Ms. Stockett.