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In the annals of depressing books, Still Alice by Lisa Genova ranks pretty high up there. It's about Alice, a fifty year-old cognitive science professor at Harvard who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. The book tracks her first moments of memory loss and confusion and the inevitable, steady descent into dementia that follows in a shockingly short period of time. The book is told from Alice's point of view, so the reader is able to understand, in horrific detail, the extent to which Alice loses her cognitive abilities, as well as her professional and personal identities. It is a sad, sad book.
But I am very glad I read it. Alzheimer's is such a presence in our society, with so many lives affected by this disease, whether as sufferers or caregivers or family members. The author, Lisa Genova, is a neuroscientist, and she clearly shares Alice's analytical, scientific mind. Her writing is clear and compelling, and she delivers a lot of information about the disease without compromising Still Alice's structure or flow as a novel.
I put off reading Still Alice for a long time. It has a penciled $3.50 price tag on the inside cover, so I must have picked it up at a used book sale somewhere. It has been sitting in my TBR pile - I just couldn't bring myself to pick it up. But I eventually did, and as I mentioned earlier, I am so grateful for having read it. This book will stay with me - haunt me, even - for a long time, which I think is the point. I now have a much better understanding of the experience of having Alzheimer's - not just the stark facts about the disease.
I just checked Goodreads, and there are over 27,000 ratings of Still Alice, with an average rating of 4.23 stars (out of 5). I am clearly not alone in my admiration for this book.
What is it with books about disappearing kids? This is such a common theme among fiction writers - it seems like there are endless books on the shelves about kids, big and little, who disappear, and the aftermath left by their absence. I read a post recently (which I can't find now) that said that it's a good theme for a book because it's so rich - it's every parent's worst nightmare, and there is so much rich emotional material to mine.
A few years ago, I picked up one of these disappearing kids novels in a used bookstore - The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond - and it has sat on my TBR pile ever since. But I found the audio at the library a few weeks ago and decided to give it a try.
Abby is a thirtysomething photographer living in San Francisco who is engaged to Jake, a high school teacher with a six-year old daughter named Emma. When the book opens, Abby and Emma are walking on a foggy beach at the western end of the city. Abby is momentarily distracted by a dead seal on the beach, which she is moved to photograph, and when she looks up, Emma is gone. The rest of the book is about Jake and Abby's search for Emma, and is told from Abby's perspective. Richmond explores what Abby and Jake go through after Emma's disappearance - the search, the impact on their relationship, the people they turn to for comfort, and, of course, the mystery surrounding what happened to Emma.
The Year of Fog is very readable, and the suspense of the mystery propelled me along. I think Richmond is a good writer; in addition to just telling a suspenseful tale, she explores the nature of memory and photography, and how they can each trick people in believing different things and shaping their perspectives on life. I also loved the San Francisco setting - lots of detail and description about a place I love.
In retrospect, though, I don't think The Year of Fog is a perfect book, nor close to it. There are almost 350 pages between Emma's disappearance and the resolution of what happened to her, which is way too many. Abby's search for Emma is repetitive and monotonous, for sure, but that could have been communicated in a less repetitive and monotonous way. Abby's relationship with men is also sort of weird - there are lots of men floating around who are interested in her, but she doesn't seem to know how to deal with them, nor does she communicate particularly well with Jake. And then there are little factual details that didn't make sense, and which bothered me - like Emma sitting in the front seat of Abby's car (kids aren't allowed to ride in the front) and people using actual film in 2008 and Emma doing or saying things that six year-olds are really too young for.
I would have preferred less time spent on the year of fog, and more time spent talking about what happened when the fog lifted. There was so much buildup and backstory that the actual denouement felt rushed and skimpy on detail.
I listed to the first half of The Year of Fog on audio, and read the second half. The audio was fine - totally adequate. I eventually got impatient with the audio because I think I was impatient with the story - reading is so much faster than listening so I opted for the faster option.
Again, this is a compelling story, and there are some flashes of powerful, writing throughout, especially when Richmond talks about memory and how we process what has happened in our lives. I just would have liked some editing in the middle and some slower pacing at the end.
Fathermucker is about Josh Lansky, a thirtysomething Brooklyn transplant living in New Paltz, NY with his wife and their two children - Roland (5), who has Asperger's, and Maude (3). New Paltz is an ultra-liberal suburb (Olear describes nearby towns where "church attendance is higher, Republican sympathy stronger, mean household income lower, college degrees rarer, gun ownership more common, and NASCAR interest more acute, than they are in New Paltz"). Everyone in New Paltz drives a liberal bumper-sticker emblazoned Subaru or minivan and is "outpoken about their contempt of chain [stores] of any kind."
Josh is a stay-at-home dad (SAHD), and Fathermucker takes place over the course of a single day - a Friday - during which he attends a playdate with his daughter, goes with his son on a class field trip to the pumpkin patch, and learns from another parent that his wife may be having an affair. She, meanwhile, has been gone all week on a business trip, only exacerbating Josh's exhaustion and desperation. Roland is a handful, with the quirks of an Asberger's child, and Olear doesn't shy away from the reality of raising a child "on the spectrum".
Fathermucker is funny, yes, but it is also a poignant book. It's incredibly honest about the challenges and rewards of parenthood - and specifically stay-at-home parenthood - and the isolation and erosion of self-esteem that often accompany it. In addition, Fathermucker is chock full of pop culture (Josh is addicted to US Weekly), music references (Olear brilliantly weaves song lyrics through his prose), and incredibly sharp social satire. What more could you want?
My one complaint -I really don't like books that take place over a single day. I find them exhausting and unrealistic, in that it's hard to believe that so much can actually be taking place in one day. Then again, Josh's life is exhausting, which is part of Olear's point about parenthood. It can be draining and seemingly endless, and sometimes you look back and can't believe you're still living the same day.
I highly recommend Fathermucker - it's a great read. Thanks to Harper Paperbacks for the review copy (hi there FTC!). 2012 is starting off strong - Olear just set a high bar for future reads.
The Buddha in the Attic is about picture brides who came to the U.S. from Japan in the early 1900s in search of promising futures with young, handsome men whose pictures they carried with them on the long trip over. Most of the women were met by men who looked very different (older, shorter) and were significantly less wealthy than they had promised in their letters. On arrival, these women were forced into lives of sharecropping, farming, laundering, cleaning houses, or other physical labor - a far cry from the luxurious existences they had expected.
The Buddha in the Attic isn't a linear story; instead, it's like diary entries from a hundred women compressed into a mosaic. The book is grouped loosely into chapters covering the trip to the U.S.; the first night with their new husbands; the reality of their new lives; the babies they had; the Pearl Harbor attack; and (as described in much more detail in When the Emperor was Divine) the Japanese internment in which most of the women lost their homes, their jobs and sometimes their husbands. Some people may not be fans of this almost poetic approach, but I liked it a lot. Otsuka wrote in the first person plural, kind of like a Greek chorus. I loved the breadth of the women's experiences, and how she took a single defining event, such as the first night of marriage or the trip over on the boat, and showed how different women experienced it.
The Buddha in the Attic was a finalist for the National Book Award, and I can see why. It's fresh and different and moving. I think between the two novels, I slightly preferred When the Emperor was Divine. It was a little more satisfying because it followed one (admittedly nameless) family. But I liked The Buddha in the Attic a lot too. These women led such difficult and painful lives, and Otsuka really captured them, poignantly, in great detail.
Happy New Year's Eve, EDIWTB readers! I hope you all have a wonderful celebration tonight and a great year in 2012. I know it will be a big year on this end, with a new addition coming in June.
Last year, Books on the Nightstand issued a challenge: read 11 more books in 2011 than you read in 2010. I took that challenge on, and am happy to report that I far surpassed it. I read 54 books in 2011, compared to 33 books in 2010. I'm happy about that number. I credit audiobooks, which allowed me to layer more books in during a month, despite my short commute. BOTN's challenge for 2012 isn't to add ANOTHER 12 to the 2011 count, but to choose 12 selected books - 12 non-fiction, 12 classics, etc. Or just 12x12=144 books (!). I'd love to repeat this year's number, but I have a feeling that will be hard.
The theme of the year was: depressing subjects. The books I read spanned the following: the siege of Leningrad, war veterans and families, the horrors of life in Afghanistan and Pakistan, suicide, a Rapture-esque dystopia, kidnapping, unnamed diseases, autism, polygamy, bigamy, anti-Semitism, madness in the Amazon, adultery, amnesia, giving up children with Down syndrome, 9/11, slavery in America, child estrangement, missing parents, ghosts, picture brides and Japanese internment. Sheesh.
45 fiction, 9 non-fiction
4 repeat authors during 2011: Katie Crouch, Khaled Hosseini, Tom Perotta, Julie Otsuka
Last month, Julie Otsuka was a finalist for the National Book Award for her book The Buddha in the Attic. I hadn't heard of her before, but was intrigued by both that book and her first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, which is about Japanese internment camps during WWII. When the Emperor was Divine is told from the point of view of four members of a Japanese family living in Berkeley in 1942 - the mother, who receives orders to pack up her family and move from their home; her daughter, who describes the long, dusty train ride to Utah, where they lived for 3 years; her son, who talks about the monotonous life they lived in the camp; and finally the father, who was sent for four years to prison on suspicion of being a dangerous Japanese loyalist.
When the Emperor was Divine is short but packed with evocative, powerful prose. Otsuka never gives her characters names; their anonymity only heightens the process of deracination and loss of ownership they went through in the camp. It's such a sad, embarrassing episode in our history, and Otsuka doesn't dramatize it - she lets the details and facts tell the story dispassionately. At one point, she simply lists all that the son remembers about her father - "He loved pistachio nuts. He liked to doodle. He wore beautiful suits and did not yell at waiters. Whenever the boy knocked on his door his father would look up and smile and put down whatever it was that he was doing. He was extremely polite." etc. No flowery emotion here, but none needed - you can tell how the boy feels about his father just by this list.
I read a comment on Amazon that said that at an author event, Otskuka revealed that while researching her book, she didn't interview people who had been interned at the camps (and who are dying off), but instead relied on books that have been written about the period. I was disappointed to hear that. There is a lot of detail in When the Emperor was Divine that I'd assumed had come from primary sources, not necessarily from her imagination or from a book. But knowing this didn't lessen the impact of the book for me, which was strong. I liked this book a lot and look forward to starting The Buddha in the Attic.
Hey, FTC! How was your holiday? Oh, mine was great, thanks. In fact, this book was a Hanukah gift - nice, huh? So you don't have to worry about the undue influence of a free review copy here.
The Secret Lives of the Four Wives by Lola Shoneyin explores polygamy in modern Nigeria. Bolanle, an educated young Nigerian woman, makes the inexplicable (to her parents, anyway) decision to become the fourth wife of a wealthy older Nigerian man, Baba Segi. The Secret Lives of the Four Wives is about what happens to Baba Segi's household, and his wives, once Bolanle joins the household.
The first three wives are less than hospitable to Bolanle, with two of them actually plotting her demise. Meanwhile, Bolanle is still childless after two years of marriage, to Baba Segi's great consternation. When he decides to seek medical intervention to determine why, the book starts to explore why the other three wives resent Bolanle so much, as well as the secrets that they have each kept to keep their husband - and their household - a happy one. What once seemed black and white gets a lot more complicated, with shades of gray now permeating the characters.
I enjoyed The Secret Lives of the Four Wives a lot. Shoneyin's writing is crisp and sparse, and her unspooling of the family's secrets is satisfying and well-paced. I also enjoyed learning about how dificult modern Nigerian culture can be for women. I get a little provincial in my reading at times - lots of contemporary American settings in the books I choose - so this was a great change of pace, though I could have used even more detail about Nigeria.
Overall, a good read. Thanks to William Morrow for the review copy (Hi FTC!) - I think that's how this one ended up on my TBR. Give this one a try if the plot sounds appealing - you won't be disappointed.
Keeping the House, by Ellen Baker, is a large, meaty family saga about a small town in Wisconsin mostly during and after World War II. There are two parallel stories going at once - first, that of the Mickelson family and their supposedly cursed house, the largest in town; and second, that of Dolly Magnuson, a newlywed in her early 20s who moves to that same small town and becomes obsessed with the Mickelsons and their family history.
Keeping the House is one of those books that makes me really grateful to be born when I did. Two of the main characters are frustrated housewives whose lives are unfulfilling, to say the least. They are homemakers and mothers (or trying to get pregnant), and they are restless and resentful. Most of the women in the book are either married to, involved with, or mother to soldiers/vets/men killed in action, and Keeping the House is also about the brutality of war for both those who fight it and those left behind.
Keeping the House has a lot of things I like in a book - historical American setting, family domestic drama and detailed, observant writing. For me, the book took a bit of a turn toward the end, when it started bordering on melodrama. Too many little plot twists that were unlikely (such as women getting pregnant the first and only time they were with the wrong man), too many secrets, too much focus on one unstable character and his abhorrent (yet always excused) behavior. I was of course too deeply involved with the book to give up at that point, but I did start to roll my eyes a bit.
Keeping the House is a long book, and despite its faults, I am glad I read it. I ceratinly got wrapped up in it, and I liked the setting and subject matter. I listened to this one mostly on audio, and the audio version is just OK. The narrator sounds like she is smiling the whole time she is reading, and she (like the book) is a bit overdramatic. 13 discs of that voice is a lot.
I think I requested this book from Random House when it came out in 2007, so a belated thank you to Random House for the review copy!