Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

The News Out of Chapel Hill (Review of Still Alice, by Lisa Genova)

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Phil Ford and Coach Smith From KeepingitHeel.org

Phil Ford and Coach Smith
From KeepingitHeel.org

Hard news came out of Chapel Hill last week:  three murders quick as three fatal shots, and one death long in coming.

On the latter:  Coach Dean Smith was a part of my childhood more than any other “celebrity” I can remember, though I think he would have hated that term.  I don’t remember ever not being a Carolina fan, growing up in Raleigh, the child of an alum.  My Dad went to Carolina in the 60s and always talked about Coach Smith in reverent terms, especially his commitment to civil rights and his players.  My Dad took Carolina basketball seriously, and so did I:  we sometimes had to walk away from a game on TV if it got too close at the end.  My love affair with Carolina basketball only continued in grad school and law school (my future husband held a coveted position as ticket distributor for the men’s basketball games, and this didn’t hurt his chances).  It has made me cry to hear Coach Smith’s players talk about him in ways that can only be described as love.

Very little attention has been given in the news stories to Coach Smith’s dementia in the last 5 years of his life.  That is possibly as it should be.  But it has occurred to me that it is a strange kind of silence as well.  There is no shame in what he experienced, and why should one pretend that this phase of his life didn’t happen?  It does not diminish the man.  It is simply a part of his story.

This silence, and his death, made me pick up a book I’ve had in my stack:  Still Alice, by Lisa Genova.  My Mom read it and passed it along to my Dad, who then passed it along to me.  (Don’t you love the journeys some books make?)  I am overwhelmed by the wisdom, grief, and life-affirming qualities of this beautiful novel, written by a woman who has a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard.

Unknown-4It is the story of Alice Rowling, a Harvard professor who at the age of 50 learns that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Her husband, also a Harvard professor, does not respond well; he devotes himself to researching promising new cures but not to appreciating what is left of their life together.  Their grown children struggle to figure out new roles while friends and colleagues fall by the wayside.  Alice’s worst nightmare comes true: she does lose who she was, almost completely.  But other things are found.

Genova made a bold move in self-publishing this book originally.  When she had completed the manuscript – motivated by a desire to help convey some of the truth about Alzheimer’s and demystify it for early stage sufferers and for caregivers – she sent it to the Alzheimer’s Association.  They liked it so much that they wanted her to write a blog for them when they launched their nationwide “Voice Open Move” campaign within the month.  They said they would give the book their stamp of approval.  Genova knew that finding a traditional publisher could take months if not years, so she decided to self-publish, a riskier path.  It was a good call.  Still Alice is now a New York Times bestseller (published by the eminent Simon & Schuster) and has been made into a movie starring Julianne Moore (in theaters now, if one could get to a theater).

“Before Still Alice was even published, it seemed to me that I’d created a story that, although fictional, was in fact a truthful and respectful depiction of life with Alzheimer’s,” writes Genova. “And it was unique in that it presented this depiction from the point of view of the person with Alzheimer’s, rather than the caregiver.“  Still Alice does put me in mind of two other reads.  Like The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa (see Guest Post by Joel Bezaire), it clearly has an educational component.  It reminds me far more of a grade school classic,“Flowers for Algernon,” a story I hope I’ll never forget.

16 Comments

  1. Jennifer, thanks for sharing. Sounds like a great read. I hope that you are all safe and warm!

    • Lawrence, I think you would enjoy it very much. We’re staying warm – and staying put – here; I hope and trust all is well with you! I’m always so glad to know you’re just around the corner.

  2. Jennifer, thank you for sharing this. Three of my four grandparents went through this difficult stage of life.

    Are you familiar with Louise Penny? She’s a Canadian author who is a present-day Agatha Christie, in my opinion, and her husband Michael was recently diagnosed with dementia. She writes lovingly of her time with him and how he is constantly “in the moment”. You may enjoy reading her website.

  3. Love this. I’m sending to my mom today!

  4. Jen, such a good point that we have so much silence around the things we fear, whether it’s the end of life or dementia. America does not tolerate weakness…or maybe we lack the language to speak of it. Cowboy ethic, maybe? I want to read this. And as for Chapel Hill…it’s been a sad time here with recent events, overall. But good memories of a good man!

    • Lyn, I think you would love this book. I’ve thought of you often in the last 10 days as everything has unfolded in Chapel Hill. I hope you get your snow today – but not the ice that has Nashville utterly paralyzed!

  5. For anyone who has not yet read Louise Penny and the Chief Inspector Gamache series, you should! Her latest book is amazing, but you should start at the beginning to appreciate the trajectory of the stories. They are much more than detective/mystery novels.

  6. Dear Jennifer, What a wonderful column and wonderful responses! I didn’t know much about Dean Smith but I became an instant admirer when I read about his opposition to segregation when he was an assistant coach with no fan base and not clout. Writing from Pennsylvania, I am not a fan of Joe Paterno, although I believe he did deserve to have his wins restored. The always outspoken Howard Cosell called Paterno “the pope of Happy Valley” who knew everything that happened in town or on campus. I suppose reverence for coaches and players is always a slippery slope. All the best.

  7. All the best to you as well, Karl! I always love your thoughtful comments! Thank you so much.

  8. As always, I enjoyed your post this am. Dean Smith and his teams were highly revered in our house also. Think it was in the Bodenheimer genes. I affectionately remember being expected to leave the room where the TV was if they started getting behind though I can’t remember why it was ME that caused them bad luck. He truly was a gentleman ahead of his time.
    Definitely want to read Still Alice.

    • Aunt Paula, I’m laughing! It was best to leave the room when Carolina was down!! I’m so happy to hear from you, always. I’d love to know what you think of the book! Thank you so much for your comment. Love to you and Uncle Chip.

  9. Thank you for the beautiful words about Coach Dean Smith. Believe it or not, my (not then yet) husband and I arrived in Chapel Hill in 1991 and had never heard his name before. Neither did we know who Michael Jordan was. Two years later we stood screaming in the Carolina Brewery and were going crazy when Chris Webber called that timeout. You couldn’t have found more stout Dean Smith fans than us by that time. So much history, and such an upstanding man. I didn’t even know about his civil rights record then – that was the gravy on top.

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