Friday, March 09, 2012

Still Alice, Lisa Genova

I freely admit that a large part of my identity is defined by my not inconsiderable smarts.  When I was in elementary school, I was the stereotypical teacher's pet.  I easily comprehended the lessons, I always finished my work before everyone else, and I frequently had my nose buried in a book.  This caused me to be teased by the other students quite a bit (fourth grade was particularly brutal), and I was often alone.  In my moments of hurt and anger, I often comforted myself by telling myself that the other kids might be bigger and meaner, but I was smarter!  That defense mechanism from elementary school has lasted into adulthood.  No one is picking on me for being smart and loving to read and learn, but the ability to do all of those things has remained central to my own perception of who I am.

But imagine that the intelligence and knowledge that has become such a central part of my identity were suddenly fading, not because of old age or a freak accident, but slowly and inexorably due to early-onset Alzheimer's Disease.  This is exactly the fate that befalls the main character in the novel Still Alice by Lisa Genova.  Alice Howland is a 50ish Harvard psychology professor, ironically an expert in linguistics and the acquisition of language, when she begins having lapses in memory.  She chalks it up to stress and overwork-until the day that she gets lost three blocks from home.  She consults a neurologist, who gives the stunning and completely unexpected diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's disease.  Alice is completely taken aback-what will become of her teaching, her research, her speaking engagements?  As she and her family struggle to make sense of her diagnosis, she designs a daily test for herself.  She will ask herself five questions, and the day that she has trouble remembering the answers will be the day that she ends her life.  But with her memory fading fast and her family taking care of her, will she be able to keep her dignity and make her own choice?

Genova did a good job creating the character of Alice.  Using first person narrative allowed the reader to go along on the journey with her, and frankly it was terrifying.  Alice goes through the stereotypical stages of grief-denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance-and at each stage I was able to imagine myself in her shoes.  The way that Alice is written evoke empathy and not just sympathy in the reader, which in this particular kind of story is more important than a cerebral analysis. 

Genova also used Alice and her situation to highlight certain issues releated to Alzheimer's disease.  She makes a point to bring forward the genetic nature of the disease, and in fact Alice and her children are tested for the defective gene, only to discover that her daughter Anne, currently in her late 20s, is sure to develop the disease.  Alice, released from her responsilibities at Harvard and at a loss for what to do next, realizes there is a need for a support group not just for the caregivers of people with Alzheimer's, but for the sufferers themselves.  She even makes an impassioned speech at an Alzheimer's conference about remembering the humanity of the person behind the symptoms.

While this book packed a great deal of emotional punch, it is not exactly subtle in its theme-people who have Alzheimers are still people, and they know what is happening to them (at least for a while), and they should be treated in such a way that their dignity and pride is preserved.  Alice's suicide plan creates an interesting point for discussion, which makes it a decent book club selection.  That said, when I finished reading I felt a little bit like, "All that build-up for THAT!"  I was not a fan of the ending, but that didn't really take away from my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.  If you don't mind being sad on your vacation, this would actually make a decent spring break or summer read-it's easy and fast, but still has substance.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Fall of Giants, or How to Fit an Entire War in 1000 Pages

One of the reasons that I love historical fiction is that, when well researched and written, it allows me to learn something without actually have to read a history book.  I guarantee that reading the Little House books by Laura Ingals Wilder in elementary school taught me more about pioneer life than anything in my social studies book.  Same with Tudor England-almost anything I know about Henry VIII, his wives, and the various Thomases in his life is the result of the many, many fictional narratives I have read through the years.  It may not be "hard, academic" fact, but then is any history hard academic fact?  After all, it tends to be written by the victors, as they say.

Ken Follet is the master of the sweeping historical novel.  In Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, he showed us the world of 12th and 13th century England in detail both large and small.  World events intermingle with the day to day lives of the people to create a rich tapestry of story and feeling.  As such, I picked up the audiobook of Fall of Giants knowing that I was going to get a great story with interesting characters, and that I would learn an awful lot in the process. (Plus, it is 30 hours long-30 HOURS!  Talk about getting your money's worth for an audiobook)

Fall of Giants tells the story of World War I through the eyes of characters from various places in the social and political hierarchies.  There is Lord Fitzherbert, a wealthy aristocrat and his sister Maud, a feminist and suffragist.  There is Ethel, Fitzherbert's maid, and her brother Billy, who enters the coal mines at age 13.  In Russia we have Grigori and Lev Peshkov, brothers who are trying to escape the tyranny of the czar and find a better life in America.  There is the German Walter Von Ulrich, a friend of Fitz's from school, and Gus Dewar, an American working in Wilson's White House.  As the characters wend their way through events great and small, connections are made and people are drawn into situations both triumphant and tragic.

Follett obviously researched his little heart out for this book, which comes in at a staggering 985 pages.  As in his other books, he related important world events through the eyes of his major characters, of whom there are many.  And as usual, he created compelling personal stories for each character, heroes and villains alike.  He uses Earl Fitzherbert to show the conservatism and entrenched sense of privilege in the English noble class.  He uses Maud and Ethel to showcase the cause of first wave feminism and the suffrage movement.  Grigori and Lev live in a Russia that is cruel and repressive-and about to change the course of the world through the Bolshevik Revolution.  Gus Dewar represents the rising power of the United States in world affairs.  And Walter Von Ulrich is anything but a villain, though he is the "enemy"-he is handled with the most nuanced care by Follett, representing a younger, more progressive Germany fighting against the old guard in the cause of peace, even as he fights as a soldier on the front lines.

If that sounds like a lot to keep up with, it is.  And this is supposed to be just the first in a trilogy!  There is enough information in this book to make a trilogy of its own.  And that length is my only complaint.  I am not afraid of lengthy books-Under the Dome by Stephen King was one of my favorites last year-but the sheer amount of detail in this novel is at times slightly overwhelming.  While the personal stories of the characters are fairly easy to keep straight, I sometimes found my mind drifting through the the pages and pages of minute detail about specific battles and political machinations.  In fact, listening to it rather than reading it is likely the main reason I finished it.  I suspect that fatigue would have set in, and I would have put it aside to read something else, sure I would get back to it-which is something I rarely manage to do.  That said, I am glad that I stuck with it on my daily commute.  I fell in love with some of the characters as much as I despise others, and I am looking forward to seeing where their lives go, and where the fate of the world goes, in the next (I'm sure, hefty) installment.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

When Prose Imitates Opera

While opera is not one of my favorite musical styles to actually partake of (unless you are a 20th centruy rock opera-Rent, I'm looking at you!), I have an enormous amount of respect for the history of the genre and the amount of hard work and dedication that it takes to do it right.  My wife, in fact, is studying opera and has herself performed in The Mikado and The Magic Flute, to name a few.  And while the operatic voice is not necessarily as beautiful to my ear as other voices (except my wife, of course, who has the voice of an angel), the thing that I love about opera is the over-the-top, completely unbelievable story-lines.  It's as though the word melodrama was invented just to describe classic opera.  Impossible love triangles, terrible tragedies, moments of silliness completely unlike anything in reality-opera is a place where literally anything can happen in the span of a three-hour performance and the audience just soaks it all up.

It is the storytelling at the heart of opera that Anne Patchett manages to convey so beautifully in her novel, Bel Canto.  Bel Canto tells the story of a group of foreign businessmen and diplomats taken hostage during a failed attempt to kidnap the president of a small South American country.  Along with the 59 male hostages is one woman, Roxanne Coss, a world-famous opera singer who was flown in specially to sing for the birthday of a wealthy businessman from Japan.  Once the hostages and their captors have settled in for a long siege, new relationships begin to form, friendships blossom, and talent emerges from the most unlikely of places.

While the premise for the book comes from a real event-the taking of the Japanese embassy in Peru by a group of separatist guerrillas-Patchett admits that the story of what actually happened inside the embassy is known only to those that were there.  Her story is all her own.  The house where the hostages are kept becomes an island of timelessness in a sea of reality.  While those outside the walls continue to think about the future and how the drama will end, everyone inside the house eventually sees it a their only world.  The line between hostage and hostage taker gets pretty blurry, even from the beginning, when it becomes clear that the young people that the "generals" recruited for their cause had no real idea what they are getting into.  Everyone is equally trapped, and eventually the boundaries between adversaries break down.

Perhaps the most important character is Gen (pronounced with a hard G), a translator who came to the party at the side of his employer Mr. Hosakawa.  It is for Mr. Hosakawa that Ms. Coss was brought to the country-he is a great fan of opera, almost to the point of obsession.  After the initial take-over by the rebels, Gen becomes the only person who can speak the languages of all of the parties present.  Through Gen and his translating activities, we are able to access the conversations of characters who would otherwise be silent-Russian and Japanese and French and Dutch all translated in Gen's unemotional style.  But as time goes on, Gen begins to realize that while he is fluent in so many languages, he rarely uses any language, including his own, to share his own feelings and desires.  Pretty soon most of the characters have found other was to communicate, and this I think is one of the themes of the book-the universality of the human experience.

What is really remarkable about this book is the way that the narrative structure reads like an opera.  Once you have it in your mind that the story is operatic, you can pick out passages that would be arias, passages that are duets, places where the librettist felt that there needed to be a bit of "comic" relief.  Long, long paragraphs spanning more than a page, which would feel awkward and rambling in another context, take on the air of a passionate solo performed with a great depth of emotion.  Apparently, the average reader is not the only one who appreciates the operatic nature of the writing-the Lyric Opera of Chicago will be premiering the adaptation of the novel in its 2015-2016 season.

In the end the story is a tragedy, as so many operas are.  As the reader you understand that there is really only one way that this story could end-the only way that any story like this ends.  But still you hope for something to happen, some deus ex machina to come along and pluck the characters you care about from their inevitable destruction.  But just like opera, when the lights go down on this novel much of the audience is left weeping from the beauty and sadness of it all.