I’d never participated in Nonfiction November before because I tend to read at least 40% nonfiction anyway, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to put together some fiction and nonfiction pairings based on books I’ve read this year and last. (This week of the month-long challenge is posted by Sarah’s Book Shelves, a blog I love for its no-nonsense recommendations of what to read – and what not to read – from the recent U.S. releases.)
My primary example is two books that reveal what it’s really like to have Alzheimer’s disease. Mitchell’s, in particular, is a book that deserves more attention. When it came out earlier this year, it was billed as the first-ever “dementia memoir” (is that an oxymoron?) – except, actually, there had been one the previous year (whoops!): Memory’s Last Breath by Gerda Saunders, which I have on my Kindle and still intend to read. [See also Kate W.’s picks, which include a pair of books with a dementia theme.]
Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2007)
Genova’s writing, Jodi Picoult-like, keeps you turning the pages; I read 225+ pages in an afternoon. There’s true plotting skill to how Genova uses a close third-person perspective to track the mental decline of Harvard psychology professor Alice Howland, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. “Everything she did and loved, everything she was, required language,” yet her grasp of language becomes ever more slippery even as her thought life remains largely intact. I also particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Cambridge and its weather, and family meals and rituals. There’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required – Would the disease really progress this quickly? Would Alice really be able to miss certain abilities and experiences once they were gone? – and ultimately I preferred the 2014 movie version, but this would be a great book to thrust at any caregiver or family member who’s had to cope with dementia in someone close to them.
Other fictional takes on dementia that I can recommend: Unforgettable: Short Stories by Paulette Bates Alden, The Only Story by Julian Barnes, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson and Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante.
Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell with Anna Wharton (2018)
A remarkable insider’s look at the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Mitchell took several falls while running near her Yorkshire home, but it wasn’t until she had a minor stroke in 2012 that she and her doctors started taking her health problems seriously. In July 2014 she got the dementia diagnosis that finally explained her recurring brain fog. She was 58 years old, a single mother with two grown daughters and a 20-year career in NHS administration. Having prided herself on her good memory and her efficiency at everything from work scheduling to DIY, she was distressed that she couldn’t cope with a new computer system and was unlikely to recognize the faces or voices of colleagues she’d worked with for years. Less than a year after her diagnosis, she took early retirement – a decision that she feels was forced on her by a system that wasn’t willing to make accommodations for her.
The book, put together with the help of ghostwriter Anna Wharton, gives a clear sense of progression, of past versus present, and of the workarounds Mitchell uses to outwit her disease. The details and incidents are well chosen to present the everyday challenges of dementia. For instance, baking used to be one of Mitchell’s favorite hobbies, but in an early scene she’s making a cake for a homeless shelter and forgets she’s already added sugar; she weighs in the sugar twice, and the result is inedible. By the time the book ends, not only can she not prepare herself a meal; she can’t remember to eat unless she sets an alarm and barricades herself into the room so she won’t wander off partway through.
In occasional italicized passages Mitchell addresses her past self, running through bittersweet memories of all that she used to be able to do: “It amazes me now how you did it, because you didn’t have anyone to help you. You were Mum, Dad, taxi, chef, counsellor, gardener and housekeeper, all rolled into one.” Yet it’s also amazing how much she still manages to do as an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia Friends. She crisscrosses the country to give speeches, attend conferences, and advise universities; she writes a blog and has appeared on radio to promote this book. Like many retired people, she’s found she’s busier than ever, and her engagements help her to feel purposeful and like she’s giving a positive impression of early-stage dementia. No matter that she has to rely on dozens of reminders to self in the form of Post-It notes, iPad alarms and a wall of photographs.
The story lines of this and Still Alice are very similar in places – the incidents while running, the inability to keep baking, and so on. And in fact, Mitchell reviewed the film and attended its London premiere, where she met Julianne Moore. Her book is a quick and enjoyable read, and will be so valuable to people looking to understand the experience of dementia. She is such an inspiring woman. I thank her for her efforts, and wish her well. This is one of my personal favorites for the shortlist of next year’s Wellcome Book Prize for medical reads.
Additional pairings I would commend to you (all are books I have read and rated or above):
Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
- Celebrating the strength of female friendship, even in the face of life-threatening illness.
Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg
- Vivid portrayals of drug addiction.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg
This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich
- Armchair traveling in Greenland.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker
- Glimpses into the high-class world of fine dining – and fine wine.
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence is chock-full of recommendations and reading pairs. The Novel Cure is also good for this sort of thing, though it is (no surprise) overwhelmingly composed of fiction suggestions.
Five of the books I’ve read recently (most of them while traveling to and from the States) have shared an overarching theme of loss, with mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, and dogs as subsidiary topics running through two or more of them. I hadn’t deliberately chosen these books for their commonalities, so it was uncanny to see the same elements keep popping up. I wanted to come up with some kind of impressively complex Venn diagram to show off these unexpected connections but couldn’t quite manage it, so you’ll have to imagine it instead.
The Archivist by Martha Cooley
Matthias Lane is the archivist of the Mason Room, a university collection of rare books and literary papers. One of its treasures is a set of letters that passed between T.S. Eliot and his friend Emily Hale (held at Princeton in real life). Matt is haunted by memories of his late wife, Judith, a poet incarcerated in a mental hospital for over five years. A reckoning comes for Matt when he’s approached by Roberta Spire, a graduate student determined to view the Eliot–Hale letters even though they’re legally sealed until 2020. The more time Matt spends with Roberta, the more similarities start to arise between her and Judith; and between his situation and Eliot’s when the latter also put his wife away in a mental hospital. The novel asks what we owe the dead: whether we conform to their wishes or make our own decisions.
The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt
Thirty years on, poet Mia Fredricksen’s husband Boris asks her for a pause in their marriage so he can explore his feelings for his young French lab assistant. First things first: Mia goes crazy and ends up in a mental hospital for a short time. But then she sucks it up and goes back to her Minnesota hometown to teach poetry writing to teen girls for a summer, getting sucked into a bullying drama. This is a capable if not groundbreaking story of the shifts that occur in a long marriage and the strange things we all do as we face down the possibility of death. There are also wry comments about the unappreciated talents of the female artist. However, compared to the other two novels I’ve read from Hustvedt, this seemed feeble. Still, a quick and enjoyable enough read.
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
A delicious debut novel intellectual enough to bypass labels like ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘mystery’. One thing that sets it apart is how successfully Parkhurst writes from the perspective of a male narrator, Paul Iverson, who’s been knocked for six by the sudden death of his wife Lexy, a mask designer. While he was at the university where he teaches linguistics, she climbed to the top of the apple tree in their backyard and – what? fell? or jumped? The only ‘witness’ was their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Lorelei; in his grief Paul uses his sabbatical to research efforts to teach dogs to communicate, hoping one day Lorelei might tell all. Woven through are scenes from Paul and Lexy’s courtship and marriage; though Lexy occasionally struggled with her mental health, their dialogue is fun and zippy, like you might hear on The Gilmore Girls.
The Archivist by Martha Cooley & The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
A classic memoir that conjures up all the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of Africa on the cusp of a colonial to postcolonial transition. Fuller’s family were struggling tobacco and cattle farmers in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Malawi and Zambia. She had absorbed the notion that white people were there to benevolently shepherd the natives, but came to question it when she met Africans for herself. While giving a sense of the continent’s political shifts, she mostly focuses on her own family: the four-person circus that was Bobo (that’s her), Van (older sister Vanessa), Dad, and Mum (an occasionally hospitalized manic-depressive alcoholic who lost three children) – not to mention an ever-changing menagerie of horses, dogs and other pets. This really takes you away to another place and time, as the best memoirs do, and the plentiful black-and-white photos are a great addition.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
If you loved Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, pick this up immediately. It’s a similar story of best friends: one who dies and one who survives. Caldwell’s best friend was Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story, among other nonfiction), whom she met via puppy ownership in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were both single and childless, full-time authors with a history of alcoholism. Besides long walks with their dogs, they loved swimming and rowing together. In 2002 Caroline was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, inoperable and already metastasized. Despite all their proactive optimism, she was dead a matter of weeks later. In this moving and accessible short memoir, Caldwell drifts through her past, their friendship, Caroline’s illness, and the years of grief that followed the loss of Caroline and then her beloved Samoyed, Clementine, sharing what she learned about bereavement.
The Dogs of Babel, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight & Let’s Take the Long Way Home