Sunday, April 5, 2015

This Book Will Mess With Your Head

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

A few months ago, Jeremy was invited to join a book group. I'm glad that Jeremy enjoys book group. But it turns out that there's also something in it for me. That something is a steady infusion of new books. The book group selects a different book every month. Jeremy reads the book. If it strikes my fancy, I read it when he's finished.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova struck my fancy.

It was lying around the apartment. I read the description on the back cover. I kept asking Jeremy if he was finished yet. I bothered him about it. As soon as he was done reading that book I grabbed it.

The book is about a woman named Alice who develops early onset Alzheimer's disease. That's it in a nutshell.

If you've already seen the movie Still Alice, then you might want to skip this review, scroll to the bottom, and read some of the other book reviews I've written there. I haven't seen the movie yet, in spite of loving the book. I've been extremely busy. I'll see it at my first opportunity because I've heard it's excellent and I love the acting of Julianne Moore.

If you haven't seen the movie or read the book you can decide to read it or not based on my experience. I meant to write this post earlier, before the movie came out. Like I said earlier, I've been busy.

Lisa Genova knows her stuff. She's a neuroscientist. But she's also a gifted writer and a true storyteller. If you're anything like me, you will not be able to put the book down.

In my case, I found every excuse imaginable to read the book. On an extremely crowded rush hour subway, I had it suspended above my head, using the same hand I used to hold the pole to prop the book open. I read it while eating. I read it at night until I couldn't keep my eyes open. I used the book as a reward for completing unsavory tasks. All of the time I would have been on Facebook and Twitter I spent reading the book instead.

As a result of this binge reading behavior I finished the book about 24 hours after I started it. For me, the hook was that it was the combination of a great narrative with elements of a thriller, and a relatable main character that's fictional but so vividly drawn that she seems real.

I loved getting to know Alice. She's a brilliant Harvard Professor, a wife and mother. I found out what it is like to be smarter than I am.

I'm a big believer in multiple intelligences. When I say that Alice is smarter than me, I mean that in an IQ way. Pre-Alzheimer's she's extremely gifted at learning information quickly, imprinting it and accessing that information and learning immediately when needed.

Alice isn't smarter than me when it comes to emotional intelligence, social skills or creativity. She has some qualities that get her into hot water. It isn't the Alzheimer's. It's Alice. She's a fully formed character with foibles. If she were a real person and I were her friend, I'd have some things to say about her interpersonal skills.

I'm IQ smart. The difference between Alice and me is that I need what I call scaffolding. I have lists. I need more exposures to new information, in more than one modality. I need prompts to find the information. I have always been this way. The thing that makes me smarter than I used to be is anticipating what I need. Once I have these things, I'm golden.

I could tell from reading the book and reading between the lines of the book that Alice didn't need any of this before the onset of her disease.

One of the classic themes this story is mining is the idea of falling from a precipice. In this case, tumbling down from a tall ivory tower.

Here’s the part that messed with my head. At first I thought it was just me. I'm empathic, and apparently this feeling extends to people in books.

Then Jeremy told me that it messed with a lot of people's heads at book group.

Alice is realistic. She's my age. The forgetting she does at the beginning of the book is reminiscent of things that have happened to everyone. Then, slowly, and then more quickly things take a turn.

Because things are subtle at first I became hyper aware of any forgetfulness, inattention, stupid thoughts, misplaced items and my lifelong poor sense of direction. Things that usually pass by unnoticed were front and center for a few days.

This was really uncomfortable.

What saved this book from being just a sad sack and sorry tale was its complexity. Obviously, what is happening to Alice and a lot of real people is tragic. I've read articles and memoirs by caregivers in the Alzheimer's community. But I've never read anything where I got such a clear sense of what It could be like to have this disease from the inside. The person with the disease.

Most things get worse. But a few things get better. It allows you to think about what makes you you. Intelligence is a lot. For some people it can seem like almost everything. But memory isn't everything. Being independent isn't everything.

Things happen in this book that are amazingly touching and accommodating. It stretches the idea of what people can accommodate within themselves. It stretches the idea of what other people can accommodate.

Even if it's painful, even as it made me feel paranoid for a few days, even as I was sad for Alice and her family, for me, learning more about other people and their experience always trumps all of this. There is a richness and a humanity to this story that keeps me engaged. Greater understanding of other people always feels worthwhile. The book inspired this understanding exceptionally well.

The book allowed me to walk in Alice's shoes in a way that was tactile and emotional. Still Alice made me experience the urgency of what needs to be done. It raised my personal awareness. That sounds like a cliché because the word awareness is used in so many contexts. It's not an ice bucket challenge. It’s a really-engrossing-story challenge. This book may just be the start of something big. I hope so.

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