August 25, 2012

Still Alice - Lisa Genova

This book was on my TBR stack for several years.  I picked up a copy, probably 2 years ago, and then it just sat there.  In the interim, various people kept asking me, "Have you read Still Alice yet?"  I don't know why I didn't pick it up until recently.  Maybe I was a little worried about the subject matter - Alzheimer's Disease - since that is something that I see often through work.  Maybe I was a little worried about the "Heather's Pick" sticker on the front cover - I had yet to read a "Heather's Pick" book that I actually enjoyed unreservedly.  Whatever the reason, I didn't pick it up until I threw it in my pack for the canoe trip earlier this summer when I was looking for paperbacks on my TBR stack to take with me.

What makes a good canoe trip book?  It should be entertaining (i.e. a good plot); not too challenging to read as I am usually too exhausted after a day of paddling and portaging to be able to focus on anything too tough; and easy enough to put down as my eyes drift shut in the tent, often before the sun has even set.  This book met those criteria.

If anyone hasn't heard of this book (unlikely, I know), Alice is a Harvard Psychology professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's Disease at the beginning of the book.  Actually - that was my only accuracy issue with this book - I had trouble accepting that the thought of Alzheimer's didn't even cross her mind (given that she is a Psychology professor and familiar with most of the cognitive tests that were administered) when she began noticing problems.

The book is not told in the first person, but it is definitely told from Alice's point of view.  Which made for interesting reading, because as time passes, Alice's memory and cognitive abilities deteriorate.  Alice's neurologist tells her early on that, "you may not be the most reliable source of what's been going on."  I know that in healthcare jargon (and I've been guilty of using the phrase as well), this is called an "unreliable historian."  Through the story, there are more and more holes that appear in the narrative as Alice's Alzheimer's progresses.

I mentioned in my last post that my friend's e-reader died part-way through our trip, so we both ended up reading both of the paper books that I had packed (Little Bee came home slightly soggy, but Still Alice is still in good condition!).  On discussing this book after we had both read it, we both agreed that Alice's husband was a bit of an a** in his dealings with Alice.  However on reflection, I wonder how much of this was Alice's poor memory.  It appears that he is springing a move from Boston to New York on her without consultation, but maybe there were hours of discussion prior to this but Alice doesn't remember them.  Her children, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly supportive, even when she doesn't remember that they are her children.

I'm sorry that I didn't read this book any sooner, and I'm glad that I packed it to take on this trip.  And I can no longer say that I haven't enjoyed any of "Heather's Picks"!  I plan on picking up the author's next book soon, entitled Left Neglected.  This one is about a woman who sustains a brain injury and ends up with left-sided neglect - also something that I see frequently at work.  I can't wait to see how she handles this neurological puzzle!

August 13, 2012

Little Bee - Chris Cleave

Still working on catching up with my reviews for books finished while canoeing last week.  We got wind-bound for a day which gave us both a chance to finish both paperbacks that I had packed.  LM (the friend that I was paddling with) had brought an e-reader which stopped working on day 5, so she was glad that I had packed a couple of real paper books!

Little Bee first came to my attention a year or so ago.  Two woman meet on a beach in Africa, only to re-connect when Little Bee shows up on Sarah's front step a few years later.  That was the extent of what I knew about this book.  But it is so much more than that.

First of all, I loved reading it.  It was easy enough reading and entertaining enough that it made great holiday reading (especially on a canoe trip where I am generally too exhausted after a day's paddling and portaging to be able to focus on anything more than a bit challenging).  And yet it brings up a lot of "issues", especially around immigration and refugee policies.

I hesitate to write too much here about the plot, because part of the pleasure of reading this book came in how slowly the plot and the past unfold through the chapters.  Let me just say that the original meeting of the two women on the beach was a lot more traumatic than I had originally thought.

The chapters are told in alternating voices - that of Sarah, an upper-middle class Englishwoman; and that of Little Bee, a refugee from Nigeria - and the author does a very good job of making the two voices and perspectives distinct without resorting to cheap tricks like changing the font (I'm looking at you, Jodi Picoult!).  And as I said in my last post, I admire male authors who can authentically capture a female voice.

I loved Little Bee (the character), despite her imperfections.  She has such a quirky sense of humour that I found myself quoting the book to LM in places (she may have been wondering why I was giggling out loud as I read in the tent in the evening - but then she had to share the parts that made her giggle when it was her turn to read).  Some of my favourite examples:

"I think I shall teach you the names of all of the English flowers," said Sarah.  "This is fuchsia, and this is a rose, and this is honeysuckle.  What?  What are you smiling about?"
"There are no goats.  That is why you have all these beautiful flowers."
"There were goats, in your village?"
"Yes, and they ate all the flowers."
"I'm sorry."
"Do not be sorry.  We at all the goats."


I (Little Bee) said to her, "I do not think you are wrong for living the life you were born in.  A dog must be a dog and a wolf must be a wolf, that is the proverb in my country."
"That's beautiful," said Sarah.
"Actually that is not the proverb in my country."
"No!  Why would we have a proverb with wolves in it?  We have two hundred proverbs about monkeys, three hundred about cassava.  We talk about what we know.  But I have noticed, in your country, I can say anything so long as I say that is the proverb in my country.  Then people will nod their heads and look very serious."

I'm not going to give any details about the ending of the book, other than to say that it was perfect.  I was hoping all along that everything wouldn't wrap up neatly in 266 pages because that isn't how things happen in real life.  The ending was perfect.

I'm glad that I read this book.  I know that there couldn't be a sequel to it without ruining that perfect ending, but I do plan on reading Chris Cleave's other books.  In fact, LM found a copy of his first book,  Incendiary, in the discount bin at a bookstore on her way home from the canoe trip; and she has promised to pass it along to me when she is finished!

August 8, 2012

Why Men Lie - Linden MacIntyre

Last week, on holidays, I finished 3 books and now it is time to get my reviews caught up to date.  (I spent a week canoeing in the backcountry with a good friend - no phones, no computers, no internet - bliss!)  I read this one in hardcover - I finished it before heading out paddling otherwise it would have been too heavy to make the pack cut.

I enjoyed reading The Bishop's Man a few years ago when it won the Giller Prize, so when I heard that Linden MacIntyre was writing a companion book featuring Fr. Duncan's sister Effie, I couldn't wait to read it.  It is only recently that I realized that The Bishop's Man was the 2nd in a trilogy that is completed by Why Men Lie - The Long Stretch was published in 1999 - I think that I have just added another book to my constantly expanding TBR list.  I had a vague feeling during The Bishop's Man that I was missing a bit of the back story, and that feeling was much stronger during Why Men Lie.  The existence of a previous book would explain that feeling!

I had mixed feelings as I read this book.  I enjoy MacIntyre's writing, so it was a pleasure to pick it up and read his well crafted prose.  My problem with the book was the story - there seemed to be no substance to it.  Fluff.  Effie, a 50 year old professor at the UofT spends the book anguishing over why a boy isn't calling her.  This could have been the ramblings of a 15-year-old high school student.  I very quickly ran out of patience with her.

I do think that MacIntyre did a good job, for a male writer, writing in a female voice.  Not quite as profound as Richard B. Wright managed in Clara Callen (I really must re-read that book at some point); but still I was able to forget for most of the book that the author was a man.  I wonder - is it easier for a female writer to write in a male voice, or for a male writer to write in a female voice?  As a female reader, I am amazed when a male writer manages to write a female voice in a believable manner.  Not being a male though, I can never tell if a female writer is accurate in portraying a male voice!

So I'm glad that I read this book, and I will be hunting up a copy of The Long Stretch.  I just wish that there had been more substance to the plot.  It was an easy read - perfect for reading on vacation - and pleasurable reading due to the quality of the writing.

I have entered myself in the 6th Annual Canadian Book Challenge, and this will be my first of 13 Canadian books read for the challenge.  I didn't manage to complete the challenge last year due to a combination of 2 factors - I decided to only count my Canadian re-reads; and with the reading for the Lay Worship Leader course that I am doing, it left less time for recreational reading.  Last year (July 1, 2011 - June 30, 2012) I finished 8 Canadian re-reads, but if I had counted all of my Canadian books, I would have easily finished the challenge with 22 Canadian books read.  The LWL course is going to last another year, so I'm going to go with the easier version of the challenge - to read 13 Canadian books without putting any limitations on myself!