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Book Nook - 09-03-2015

Monday, March 09, 2015
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]

The Maze of Memory
After the release of the film, Still Alice, that fetched Julianne Moore a richly deserved Oscar, there has been renewed interest in Lisa Genova’s debut novel.

The book was first self-published in 2007, and sold by the author out of the trunk of her car, before it was picked up by Simon & Schuster and went on to become a bestseller.

Genova is a neuroscientist herself, so her book about a woman who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, is very detailed and informative.

Alice Howland and her husband, John, both professors at Harvard, are in a happy and stable marriage. Their daughter Anna is a corporate lawyer trying to get pregnant; son Tom is in medical school and the youngest, Lydia, is an aspiring actress and the black sheep in the mind of her mother, who would rather she went to college and got a proper education.

Alice is a popular professor and much in demand speaker; the first hint of trouble comes when in the midst of a lecture, she forgets a word. Then, while running on her usual route, she gets lost. She forgets to go to a conference where she was scheduled to speak. Believing that her increasing forgetfulness is a symptom of menopause, she goes to see her doctor and is put through tests that indicate Alzheimer’s Disease. She is just fifty, fit and healthy, so the first reaction is disbelief and then denial.

There is no cure for this mental ailment, medication can just slow down the cognitive impairment caused by the disease, it cannot be halted. Alice’s decline is rapid and she is disturbed to note that her friends and colleagues start treating her like a pariah, because of their fear of mental illness. She can only rage against her misfortune—in a heart-breaking scene, she smashes dozens of eggs in frustration, as she cannot remember the recipe of the Christmas pudding she makes for her family every year.

Alzheimer’s Disease is tough on the family and the caregivers too, as a lot of patience is required to deal with the patient’s memory loss and resultant mood swings and tantrums.  It is rare in the ‘me-myself’ American society, but the Howland family rallies together, going so far as to vehemently oppose John’s decision to move to New York for the sake of career growth.

 While she still has moments of lucidity, Alice is able to repair her relationship with Lydia, who comes across as sympathetic and willing to make sacrifices to care for her mother.   Early testing shows that Anna has inherited the mutated gene that causes the disease, but she goes ahead with her plans to start a family and is relieved that her kids are clear. The hope is that by the time her symptoms shows, medical science would have found a way to deal with it.

Genova spares the reader the full impact of the trauma caused to Alice and her family, by ending the story before she is completely wrecked. In one of the novel’s highs, she addresses the Annual Dementia Care Conference. “Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is like being branded with a scarlet A,” she says, “but I am not what I say or what I do or what I remember. I am fundamentally more than that… Please don’t look at our scarlet A’s and write us off.”

The book moves the reader by its compassion, though is a depressing read. Ultimately, the disease is such that there is no hope, only the slow stretching of the tragedy over a period of time, till the patient is reduced to a hollow shell, empty of life-affirming memory.

Still Alice
By Lisa Genova
Publisher: Gallery Books
Pages: 352

Excerpt: Still Alice
She spotted her running shoes on the floor next to the back door. A run would make her feel better. That was what she needed.

Ideally, she ran every day. For many years now, she treated running like eating or sleeping, as a vital daily necessity, and she’d been known to squeeze in a jog at midnight or in the middle of a blinding snowstorm. But she’d neglected this basic need over the last several months. She’d been so busy. As she laced her shoes, she told herself she hadn’t bothered bringing them with her to California because she’d known she wouldn’t have the time. In truth, she’d simply forgotten to pack them.

When starting from her house on Poplar Street, she invariably followed the same route—down Massachusetts Avenue, through Harvard Square to Memorial Drive, along the Charles River to the Harvard Bridge over by MIT, and back—a little over five miles, a forty-five minute round trip. She had long been attracted to the idea of running in the Boston Marathon but each year decided that she realistically didn’t have the time to train for that kind of distance. Maybe some day she would. In excellent physical condition for a woman her age, she imagined running strong well into her sixties.

Clustered pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks and intermittent negotiations with car traffic in street intersections littered the first part of her run down Massachusetts Avenue and through Harvard Square. It was crowded and ripe with anticipation at that time of day on a Saturday, with crowds forming and milling around on street corners waiting for walk signals, outside restaurants waiting for tables, in movie theater lines waiting for tickets, and in double-parked cars, waiting for an unlikely opening in a metered space. The first ten minutes of her run required a good deal of conscious external concentration to navigate through it all, but once she crossed Memorial Drive to the Charles River, she was free to run in full stride and completely in the zone.

A comfortable and cloudless evening invited a lot of activity along the Charles, yet it felt less congested than the streets of Cambridge. Despite a steady stream of joggers, dogs and their owners, walkers, rollerbladers, cyclists, and women pushing babies in jogger strollers, like an experienced driver on a regularly traveled stretch of road, Alice only retained a vague sense for what went on around her now. As she ran along the river, she became mindful of nothing but the sounds of her Nikes hitting the pavement in syncopated rhythm with the pace of her breath. She didn’t replay her argument with Lydia. She didn’t acknowledge her growling stomach. She didn’t think about John. She just ran.

As was her routine, she stopped running once she made it back to the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Park, a pocket of manicured lawns abutting Memorial Drive. Her head cleared, her body relaxed and rejuvenated, she began walking home. The JFK Park funneled into Harvard Square through a pleasant, bench-lined corridor between the Charles Hotel and the Kennedy School of Government.

Through the corridor, she stood at the intersection of Eliot Street and Brattle, ready to cross, when a woman grabbed her forearm with startling force and said, “Have you thought about heaven today?”

The woman fixed Alice with a penetrating, unwavering stare. She had long hair the color and texture of a teased Brillo pad and wore a hand-made placard hung over her chest that read AMERICA REPENT, TURN TO JESUS FROM SIN. There was always someone selling God in Harvard Square, but Alice had never been singled out so directly and intimately before.

“Sorry,” said Alice, and, noticing a break in the flow of traffic, she escaped to the other side of the street.

She wanted to continue walking but stood frozen instead. She didn’t know where she was. She looked back across the street. The Brillo-haired woman pursued another sinner down the corridor. The corridor, the hotel, the stores, the illogically meandering streets. She knew she was in Harvard Square, but she didn’t know which way was home.

She tried again, more specifically. The Harvard Hotel, Eastern Mountain Sports, Dickson Brothers Hardware, Mount Auburn Street. She knew all of these places—this square had been her stomping ground for over twenty-five years—but they somehow didn’t fit into a mental map that told her where she lived relative to them. A black and white circular “T” sign directly in front of her marked an entrance to the Red Line trains and buses underground, but there were four such entrances in Harvard Square, and she couldn’t piece together which one of the four this one was.

Her heart began to race. She started sweating. She told herself that an accelerated heart rate and perspiration were part of an orchestrated and appropriate response to running. But standing still on the sidewalk, it felt like panic.

Contemporary Crime in Indian Society
The book titled Contemporary Crime in Indian Society is a selection of papers presented by the  Research Committee on ‘Sociology of Crime and Deviance’ under the Indian Sociological Society (established in Mumbai in 1951). The papers in the collection, with a congratulatory note by the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, are comprehensive, scholarly works on various kinds of crime, and covering all aspects, with facts, statistics, tables, graphs and pie-charts.

Violence against Women, Corruption, Gender Discrimination, Female Criminality, Human Trafficking, Juvenile Delinquency, Domestic Violence, Urban Poverty, Slums and Crime, Cyber Crime, White- Collar Crimes are all covered in a lucid and interesting manner.

The papers are by professors, and  research scholars from all over the country; the introductory chapter on Violence Against Women is by Professor Makwana himself, who is working in the post graduate Department of Sociology at Sardar Patel University, Vallabh Vidyanagar, Gujarat, an award winner and authors of eighteen books.

The book may not be for the lay reader, but it would prove to be an asset for researchers, social scientists, lawyers, journalists, NGOs, law enforcemenr agencies, legal policy makers and perhaps anybody interested in the subject.
Contemporary Crime in Indian Society
Edited by Ramesh H. Makwana
Publisher: Gyan Publishing House
Pages: 352

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