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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Getting Back to Reading

[Our reception and book signing party yesterday afternoon was so wildly successful that I still have not recovered sufficiently to write about it this morning, so that story—with pictures!--will appear in a day or two. For today, here’s a report (written before the party) on the last three books I’ve read.]

Becoming a bit discouraged over a “Books Read” list that hadn’t seen a single addition since we left Florida, I resolved during the past week to remedy the situation. Laundry could wait. It did, and I was able to add three books to my list, all of them fiction this time around.

My first choice was a very short book, Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton, which is really like a long short story divided into chapters, and I think this book would have many more readers had its author given it a more appealing title. It’s fine to have the main character bear the name, but the story itself, riveting from the very beginning, needs something stronger, something to indicate the momentous upheaval that takes place in the character’s life, something to say to a bookstore or library browser, “Pick me up! Read me!” Any suggestions from anyone who’s read the book? If you haven’t read it, grab a copy somewhere. You can begin before dinner and finish before you fall asleep. Warning: the characters may haunt your dreams!

The next book on my list, of our time and much longer, was like Wharton’s tale in that it was another riveting story. The author of Still Alice, Lisa Genova, is a neuroscientist, and her novel chronicles the life changes experienced by a 50-year-old Harvard professor of cognitive psychology diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Here is a passage from an early chapter that struck me with its poignancy:
She thought about the books she’d always wanted to read, the ones adorning the top shelf in her bedroom, the ones she figured she’d have time for later. Moby-Dick. She had experiments to perform, papers to write, and lectures to give and attend. Everything she did and loved, everything she was, required language.
Alice’s story is told this way, from her perspective but in the third person, and as it proceeds we witness from inside her mind its deterioration. This is, undeniably, a story of irretrievable loss, but it also has encouraging aspects as Alice reaches into an inner core of strength to do as much as she can before she loses herself. One major accomplishment—and I don’t want to spoil anyone else’s reading by revealing what that is—provides an especially strong, high point late in the book. Changes in her relationship to her youngest child are another strong, positive thread. Still Alice would be a remarkable story even without its timeliness. But--
According to the report, there are 5.3 million Americans living with the disease and every 70 seconds someone in America develops Alzheimer’s disease.

Bruce brought Fran├žoise Sagan’s A Certain Smile back from his winter travels for me. (He’s as bad as I am, filling boxes wherever he goes!) This short novel captures the Paris of a certain time for a young woman at the Sorbonne of a certain temperament. The time and temperament of the author? One wonders. This is, intentionally, not “riveting” fiction. It is cerebral, distanced from life, and that, I think, is the place to focus in assessing the novel.

Dominique’s greatest fear is boredom; her response to being in love is nausea. I can’t help thinking that Paris was wasted on many of the young existentialists. Poor things! But am I harsh? Cold? Unsympathetic? No, I remember…that feeling that one is different from everyone else…the horror that one might not, after all, be different from everyone else…. The passage from adolescence into adulthood is fraught with emotional peril. Wonderful, glorious, agonizing, nightmarish! One might guess that the boredom Dominique professes to dread is self-defense, a barrier to passions that might otherwise overwhelm her. Such a psychological explanation would not, however, apply to Luc, her older lover. What does his boredom protect him from? The realization that he has not lived up to his potential, has not given himself whole-heartedly to anything, is drifting through life without being fully engaged? Negative side of existentialism: Meaninglessness; Positive side: Engagement. At the end of the book, we leave Dominique with the existential dilemma still unresolved.


Anonymous said...

Have you children read "Ethan Frome" and they will never want to go sledding again. I think of it every time I pass Braman Hill!

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you for searing into my brain an association between Ethan Frome's accident and Braman Hill!

Anonymous said...

Now you've ruined it for everyone, Pamela, by blowing the climax! :)

P. J. Grath said...

I don't think so. There are references to the accident very early on in the book, and it is prefigured several times. Details are EVERYTHING, and I'm not spilling those!