Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reading Log - February and March

The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler

Published in 1985, this book is the story of Macon Leary, a travel guide writer who, ironically, hates to travel. Macon and his wife, Sarah, lost their only son, twelve-year-old Ethan, in a shooting at a fast-food restaurant. Blaming their marital problems on this emotional crisis, their marriage quickly crumbles. After they separate, Macon takes a bad fall and goes to stay with his sister and two brothers, who live in the family home, to recuperate.

The author skillfully and cleverly moves the story forward using the progress of the obedience training of Edward, the corgi, who had been Macon’s son’s pet.

Although the book deals with serious issues, the eccentricities of the Leary family put a humorous spin on much of the drama. Before long, Macon finds himself in an unexpected relationship with his quirky young dog-trainer and her sickly son, and is forced to face some realities about his own personality and to make some difficult decisions about his future.

Two Books with Similar Themes:

For some reason I chose two fictional stories with very similar themes last month. One of them I found touching, thought-provoking, full of impact; the other didn't make those emotional connections.

Still Alice, Lisa Genova

A respected, intelligent 50-year old, Alice is a professor of psychology at Harvard, a guest lecturer, serving on an exam committee for a thesis defense at Princeton, traveling to psychology conferences all over the world, and married to an equally successful Harvard scientist. They have raised three children, who are all on their own now, although the youngest daughter, Lydia, who is seeking an acting career, still needs financial support from home. Her choice, not to go to college, is a bone of contention between Alice and her husband, John. Alice feels Lydia is throwing away her opportunity at a secure future, while John is more supportive of her dreams.

This story is told completely from the perspective of, and in the voice of, Alice. When she first starts noticing that she is becoming forgetful, she chalks it up to her hectic pace, her multi-tasking, even menopause. But one day, when she finds herself confused and disoriented in Harvard Yard, a place she has frequented for many years, she suspects that something more serious may be happening. Without telling anyone, she seeks medical advice which leads to a devastating diagnosis - early onset Alzheimer's! Out of fear, shame, and a number of other emotions, she chooses to keep this heartbreaking news to herself for as long as she can. But the progression of the disease is steady and sure, and she soon must disclose it to her family. The novel is a month-by-month journey down the road of Alzheimer's, that gives a respectful face and a voice to Alice and others afflicted with this disease.

I marveled at the author's dedication to telling the story from Alice's point of view, despite her worsening condition and her confused perceptions. It really made the story more powerful, and I was completely absorbed by it. I was able to feel Alice's terror right along with her. My heart broke, as Alice lost her identity and her self-worth, as she struggled to remember her own husband and children. And I was touched by the new-found mutual love and respect that developed between Alice and Lydia, whom she no longer knew as her daughter, but only as "the actress."

This book has been endorsed by the National Alzheimer's Association, which is a high honor. I recommend it, first, for anyone who is struggling with Alzheimer's in their family, but also for anyone who wishes to read about the valiant fight of a brave soul against great odds.

The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa

In 1975 the brilliant mathematics professor was in a car accident that left him with brain damage. It was an interesting premise for the book, because the result of this tragic accident was that the professor's short-term memory was, from that point on, limited to a span of 80 minutes. Although he had perfect recollection of his life before 1975, everything since then, with the exception of the ever-changing preceding 80 minutes, was a void. The professor's coping mechanism is a rag-tag collection of notes that he keeps clipped to his clothing, including one note that says, "My memory only lasts 80 minutes."

The story revolves around the housekeeper, and her 10 year old son, who come every day to his cottage, to care for the professor. Each morning, when they arrive, they must reintroduce themselves to the professor, who, over the span of the nighttime hours, has forgotten of their very existence. No names are given to the characters in the book, except for a nickname that the professor gives to the boy - "Root," because the boy's flat-top hair reminds the professor, each time they meet, of the square root symbol.

Despite its potential, I could not connect, emotionally, with the characters, and found many of the situations contrived and unrealistic. The professor's love of mathematics, which he constantly shares with the housekeeper and "Root", was the vehicle intended to move this story along, but, for me, it ran out of gas.

The book was a best seller in it's native Japan, and was made into a popular movie there.

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

He was born in 1968, to Indian parents Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, who were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His great-grandmother, who was near death, was to give the baby his name, as she had done for her other six great-grandchildren. However, the letter from his great-grandmother had not yet arrived when the time came to take the baby home from the hospital. Their culture dictated that a child have an official “good name,” by which he would be called by those outside his family and closest friends; and a “pet name” by which he would be known to those close to him. His parents, therefore, put the “pet name” – Gogol – on his birth certificate, intending to have the name changed, later, once his “good name” arrived from India. Not long after his birth, his great-grandmother died, and, since the letter never arrived in America, she took knowledge of his “good name” to the grave with her.

The story of Gogol's life seems forever tied to his name and his identity. It is a coming of age story. It is the story of the tensions created by the contrasting emotions, shame and pride, over living a life divided by two cultures. It is the story of the revelation of a secret behind Gogol's name. And it is the story of a son's evolving admiration for the father who gave him that name.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reviews. I almost checked out "The Housekeeper and the Professor" and now I'm glad I didn't. Thanks, Kathy C.

Linda said...

Hi Kathy, don't let me stop you! Maybe you'll get more out of it than I did.