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Monday, June 8, 2015

Still Alice

Still Alice : a novel 
“Still Alice” by Lisa Genova
 Reviewed by Gerti

Still Alice” by Dr. Lisa Genova is a fabulous book, well worth buying for your own library. It tells the story of Alice Howland, a Harvard psychology professor for whom being the smartest person in the room is very important. She has a husband and grown children, but they are all secondary to her career and status at the University at the outset of the story. Then it all starts to unravel.

As the book begins, Alice has been asked to speak at one of those conventions where professionals within a certain field get together to discuss innovations, slap each other on the back and drink too much. She loves public speaking. The first sign the reader has that something is wrong with Alice is when she forgets a word during her speech, and has to substitute “thingy.” A bit embarrassing, but which of us has not forgotten a word, especially in a stress-filled situation? This relatability makes it all the more terrifying what happens to Alice next.

She’s out on a jog, and forgets where she is just a few shorts blocks from home. Again, few of us have a perfect memory for places seldom seen. I often forget which exit to take off the highway to get to a rarely visited restaurant, or a store that I haven’t shopped at in a while, but I always know how to get home. This lapse bothers Alice enough that she heads to her family doctor, who sends her to a neurologist. And the diagnosis is devastating – Early Onset Alzheimer’s.

Her downward spiral now begins in earnest, although she handles the situation better than her spouse, who uses his scientific background to find the right combo of drugs to stave off her disintegration. By now, the reader sees that Alice’s perceptions are not entirely accurate, and as the book is written from her point of view, it makes us question whether we can trust her narrative voice.

The heart of the book is how people react to Alice. The daughter Alice understood the least, the one who decided to eschew her advice and forgo college for an acting career, is the one who takes care of Alice best. She is also the one who adjusts her plans to accommodate the deepening needs her mother has for a supportive caregiver. The husband, on the other hand, plans to plow on with his successful career, ready to head to NYC even against Alice’s wishes, saying that by the time they leave, she won’t even know where they are living. While it is true, it is also cruel, and shows his callousness in the face of this family tragedy.

Even though Alice’s thoughts and language skills regress, by the end of the book her understanding of nature and the true meaning of life grows, and she comes to know that her career was never as important as the people she loved. Her desire to live in the present is represented by her decision now to wear a butterfly necklace, something previously only worn on special occasions. She recognizes that every moment of life and every emotion that goes with it are precious. This is a story that will make you cry as well as question the meaning of your own life.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Charity Girl

Charity girl 
“Charity Girl” by Georgette Heyer 
Reviewed by Gerti

I have always respected Georgette Heyer, and read many of her books when I was younger. I also love the Regency period in England, as it was the setting of Jane Austen’s novels, in which I have a particular interest. Even with both of those factors coming into play, I have to say that I hated “Charity Girl,” and I’ll tell you why.

It wasn’t the setting, as I mentioned, because I love Regency England. It wasn’t the plot, which was a fairly typical setup of a girl under the influence of cruel and conniving relatives, who meets up with a hero under pressure by his relatives to marry. Finally, romance blooms where the hero least expects to find it. I liked the storyline, although I must admit I saw the “twist” coming a mile away. I even liked the characters, including protagonist Viscount Desford, called Des by his friends (and Ashley by his mother), who is intelligent, kind to his mother, and even tolerant to his cranky old dad. He’s so nice, he picks up a poor runaway on the side of the road and takes her to London, even though it imperils his reputation, and hers.

The girl in question is the “Charity Girl”, Ms. Charity Steane, who is running away from her cruel aunt’s house to find her grandfather, although he’s a renowned skinflint, and had earlier rejected her because her father married the wrong woman. Charity, who likes to call herself Cherry (internal cringe here), is of course a beautiful young woman with a passive, pleasing personality along the lines of Jane Austen’s Fanny Price. She looks younger than she is, due to the lack of food and age-appropriate clothing she received at her aunt’s house, where the aunt is more concerned about getting her own daughter’s married than about the needs of this little Cinderella.

Desford takes Charity to her grandfather’s house in London out of the goodness of his heart, but finds the house shut-up. No one there knows where the girl’s grandfather has gone, so Des makes it his mission to find out. However, he still needs to provide for the girl, as she can’t keep riding along with him, so he takes her to the home of his old gal pal, Henrietta Silverdale. Although their families had hoped they would marry, the pair have instead become best friends, and Hetta and Des work out a plot where Charity takes care of Hetta’s mother, who is a hypochondriac. This works well, as Charity just wants someone to appreciate her.

Desford has to travel all over England to solve the problem of what should happen to Charity, and of course has to deal with several bad characters along the way. Finally, one of Hetta’s old beaus takes a shine to Charity, and the problem is solved. Except I still haven’t told you what I disliked about this book, and what made it so painful to read.

It was the language! While Heyer is an unchallenged master of Regency slang, I think every page had about 10 instances of archaic language, and it made this book the verbal equivalent of the Tour de France. Every day’s read was a physical test of endurance, to see how many instances of “Turkish treatment,” “mifty, “skitterbrains” and “jackanapes” I could stand before I put the book down again to recover my sanity. It is so bad, I almost started making a list of all the wacky phrases she used, but I was too far in by that point to want to start reading it again. So, dear reader, only pick up this book if you want to feel as though you’ve been dropped into a foreign country where you don’t know the language. It will make you suffer!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Memory Keeper's Daughter

The memory keeper's daughter“The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” by Kim Edwards 
Reviewed by Gerti

Kim Edwards’ novel “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” is a strange book for me. I have been reading it compulsively, drawn in by the alternating narrators, who include a doctor named David Henry, his wife Norah, and his former nurse Caroline Gill, who has taken the couple’s Down’s syndrome daughter to be raised out of town. That fact is the heart of the story, but the wrinkles occur when you realize that the couple is on an unequal footing, because the Doctor told his wife that their daughter died at birth, and only the nurse knows that the baby girl survived. The couple also have a son, named Paul, who was the baby Phoebe’s twin. He grows into a moody, alienated teenager, abetted by his bitter mother.

Edwards’ writing is lyrical, almost poetic in places, and easy to read for the most part. But the problem for me is that I don’t like Norah, or her sister Bree, with whom the author seems most sympathetic. Norah creates a distance between herself and her husband over the death of their child, and then blames him for putting up a wall. Dr. Henry’s act stemmed from medical best practices back in the 1960s, and also because he saw how his sister’s death affected his mother when he was young. He doesn’t want the wife he loves to have to experience that grief. So he makes a choice.

It is only as the years go by that the enormity of that mistakes are seen. The doctor asked his nurse to take Phoebe to a local facility where children with Down’s Syndrome were cared for, but Caroline visits the facility and finds it wanting. In love with Dr. Henry, and having little else to stay in town for, she takes the infant and starts a new life in Pittsburgh. The doctor’s mistake is compounded by this act, whether selfish or not, because once he has seen the folly of his decision, he can’t bring Phoebe and her mother together, because he doesn’t know where the nurse has taken her.

The family reunites and attempts, decades later, to repair the damage that has been done. But by then, the Doctor himself is dead, and although he tries to repair his error over the years, Caroline has kept the child away from him, fearful that he would take her back. Dr. Henry has been sending money (when she provided a PO Box), and has set up a trust fund for the child, although the author doesn’t dwell on things like that. It seems that she, along with Norah, is eager to condemn Dr. Henry for his choice during a stressful moment, and all the actions on Norah’s side that divide the couple, like her careless affairs and catty behavior, are laid at his feet for making the initial breach of trust in the marriage.

The book gives me an understanding of how my birth parents could have made a choice that caused me so much pain, and yet seemed so reasonable to them. This book more than anything should be a lesson about not judging people, whether they are disabled or not, without walking a mile in their moccasins. It’s only the author’s prejudice toward Dr. Henry that ultimately mars the book for me.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Who the Hell is Pansy O'Hara?

Who the hell is Pansy O'Hara? : the fascinating stories behind 50 of the world's best-loved books"Who the Hell is Pansy O’Hara? The Fascinating Stories Behind 50 of the World’s Best-Loved Books" by Jenny Bond 

Reviewed by Gerti

This is a simple book that can be put down and picked up again easily, thanks to the clever design by Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy. While I would have preferred the book arranged by author, rather than “best-loved book”, it is nice to have the 50 divisions so you can read your favorite authors first, for example, before venturing into those you know less about. Which is exactly what I did, reading about Jane Austen (in the chapter titled “Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813”) and Helen Fielding, first.

Unfortunately, I had just finished a large-scale biography on Austen, so I was pretty well versed in her life and times. Of course, that biography was much more in-depth and accurate than the blurb found in this book. However, that said, I did find that the other 49 chapters were interesting and did give me many facts about authors that I did not know, even though I had been an English major at college, and an English teacher at the college level.

Because of the way my mind works, I find certain things fascinating, like how many of the authors of “the world’s best-loved books” were Scottish, or how many had a variety of occupations before finally finding success in writing. I liked that the format went forward in time, starting with Austen in 1813, and ending with Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” in 2003. I did NOT like that fiction and non-fiction were divided, because then the time clock reset itself, with Samuel Johnson’s “The English Dictionary” in 1755, and Stephen Hawkings “A Brief History of Time” in 1988. I understand why you’d start with fiction, since most readers are fans of that rather than non-fiction. But I have to say that I found the information on the history of encyclopedia’s every bit as engaging as that of any fictional work (and author). I also quibble with the inclusion of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” into the non-fiction section, because I think that can be arguable (as it seems, can Alex Haley’s “Roots”), but people will argue about anything, especially what constitutes truth!

In the end, despite not liking the book when I started reading, I bought myself a copy so that I could mark up facts on each author that I didn’t know, and could also dog-ear the pages on books I hadn’t read yet. So is “Pansy O’Hara” perfect? No. Just like Margaret Mitchell changed the heroine’s name in her novel “Gone With the Wind”, the authors of this text could have made changes that enhanced my enjoyment of it. But did I learn something from it? Yes, I did. And as a reference book, however flawed, I’m sure I’ll refer to it for years to come.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Prom and Prejudice

Prom & prejudiceProm and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg
Reviewed by Gerti

I wasn’t but a few lines into this book when I realized what a cute and clever sendup Elizabeth Eulberg had written. “Prom and Prejudice” is her riff on Jane Austen’s classic novel of British literature, “Pride and Prejudice”, and Eulberg treats her story as an honest tribute, with a good amount of humor and style.

Of course the main character remains Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bennet, and she still lives at Longbourn, but in this version it is Longbourn Academy, which is a Connecticut high school for mean girls who also happen to be trust-fund babies. Her best friend/roommate is a girl named Jane, unlike in Austen’s original novel, where Jane is her elder sister. Jane’s younger sister here is Lydia, who remains a trouble-making wench, just as Austen conceived her over a hundred years ago.

This book revolves around what to Longbourn Academy is the biggest social event of the year – the prom. And of course, Jane longs to be asked by her boyfriend, Charles Bingley. His evil sister Caroline, however, plots to separate the two of them, mainly because Charles’ friend, Will Darcy, has his eye on Jane’s friend Lizzie, even though she is just a scholarship student at Longbourn.

Like in the original, the struggle between rich and poor is evident here, with Lizzie and her fellow scholarship student Charlotte victims of naughty remarks and even nastier pranks by the rich girls at the Academy. Their snobbishness is shared by the kids from the neighboring single-sex boys school, Pemberley Academy. One exception seems to be George “Wick” Wickham, who befriends Lizzie at the coffee shop where she works. He was tossed out of Pemberley Academy, and claims it was because of Will Darcy. But as in Austen’s original, “Wick” is not being entirely truthful to Lizzie, and has been using his rich friends, girlfriends (and even their minor sisters!) in unsavory and sometimes illegal ways.

This version of “Pride and Prejudice” by Eulberg is a delight to read, as it is not bogged down by Austen’s sometime dense and intricate linguistic style. I like how Eulberg makes an effort to include most of Austen’s original characters, although she changes their relationship somewhat, if not their personalities. I don’t like the ending, as Darcy and Lizzie decide NOT to attend the prom after all, because that doesn’t jibe with the flavor of the original, where Lizzie and Darcy flaunt convention by disregarding their family money when making their love match, but still agree to marry and not just run off together, like the dishonorable Wickham and Lydia.

Still, this book will be a delight to read for any fan of Austen’s original novel, and I highly recommend it to teen readers and older. Readers of Eulberg’s other famous novel, “The Lonely Hearts Club,” may use this text to give them a leg-up on Austen’s classical plotline without bogging them down in antiquated language.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Pretend You Don't See Her

Pretend you don't see her : a novel 
Pretend You Don’t See Her by Mary Higgins Clark
Review by Gerti

By now, I’ve gotten used to Mary Higgins Clark writing books based on old songs, but this is one song I’ve yet to look up on YouTube. It seems an odd title, though, for the story of realtor Lacey Farrell who goes into witness protection after seeing a murder at a client’s condo in New York City.

There is more wrong with this novel than just the title, however. One of the things that stands out early is that the killer, who uses a false name to get Lacey to show him a NYC apartment, allegedly steals the key to the place from the front hallway table there in order to come back and kill the owner. But after the murder, when Lacey shuts him out by locking the door, he somehow can’t open it to get back in, even though he has the key. Big continuity flaw.

I also dislike how stupid Lacey is in the novel. Through the witness protection program, the authorities move her from NYC to Minneapolis after she sees the killer’s face and they figure out from his prints that he’s a wanted mobster they thought was dead. But Lacey can’t help telling her ditzy mom where she has been moved to, even though she knows it threatens her own safety. She also can’t keep away from the things she did in New York – working in real estate and going to health clubs. It seems that would be Witness Protection 101, try to do different things in your new location, so you’re not so easy to track down. But Lacey follows old patterns, and with her loose lips, it’s no wonder the murderous mobster finds his way to Minnesota to finish the job by killing her.

I also disliked how she felt unable to make new relationships in her new town, afraid that she was putting them in danger. It seems odd that she is unwilling to put strangers in danger, when she seems to go out of her way to put herself in harm’s way. The only sensible thing she does is choose a fake name – Alice Carroll – this is similar to her real name, so she can remember and respond to it.

The back story in this novel – that actress Heather Landi’s mother never believed she died in a car accident, but that she was murdered, and that elderly lady confides in Lacey and gives her Heather’s journal – is interesting. But all of it seems far-fetched and strains credibility. I always like Clark’s writing, but this seems like one of her early writing efforts which could have used a few more read-throughs by a conscientious editor. Now the only mystery is the song…

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Walking Dead: The Fall of the Governor - Part 1

The fall of the Governor, part oneThe Walking Dead: The Fall of the Governor – Part 1 by Jay Bonansinga
Review by Gerti

I love the television series “The Walking Dead” on AMC, but I don’t like reading graphic novels, so Jay Bonansinga’s novelized books about “The Walking Dead” with Robert Kirkman are a wonderful way to check in on my favorite characters and settings, as well as see some action the TV series ignores or changes to make it more palatable for a wide audience.

For example, in “The Walking Dead” on AMC, the treatment of the katana-wielding female character Michonne is very different than what happens to her in the graphic novels, and also here in “The FOTG – Part One”. I understand why, because the sex and violence in these books is way beyond what you could or would want to show on TV, given the wide age-range of the series’ fans. There are several protracted scenes here where the Governor, Philip Blake, takes revenge on Michonne after she, Rick and Glenn stumble into Woodbury. When she is finally freed by one of the Governor’s henchmen, instead of escaping, she sets out to find the Governor and gets her own perverse payback from him. It’s that kind of a world after the zombie apocalypse, but it’s definitely more “Fifty Shades of Gray” than the made-for-TV revenge viewers get on AMC.

This book also stays true to the graphic novel plot, where the Governor takes off one of Rick Grimes’ hands, which also does not happen on TV. In this book, Rick spends time in the infirmary with Dr. Stevens and nurse Alice, who show him that Woodbury is an evil place, and the Governor is a madman. Therefore when the opportunity to escape arises, the whole group follows Martinez, the Governor’s unhappy henchmen, out of the complex after rescuing Glenn and Michonne.

A character completely ignored by the TV series is Lilly Caul, who takes center stage in Bonansinga’s “Descent”, which shows Woodbury after the Governor. In this book, unlike others by Bonansinga, she is lulled into a false sense of security by the Governor, and spends her time sleeping with her boy toy, and getting pregnant. I’ll have to read “The FOTG – Part Two” to see why she isn’t pregnant in “Descent”. Here, however, she is not a likeable character at all, and could have been completely written out without me missing her.

The Fall of the Governor – Part One” is a terrific read, although like so many “part one’s” these days (Harry Potter and The Hobbit, for example), there is a sense of dissatisfaction when it ends. Bonansinga writes in a clear, exciting way, and I felt swept along with the action, although the graphic sex and violence are not for pre-teen or sensitive readers. I can’t wait to read “Part Two”, but still resent that what should have been one book was split into two parts, probably just to garner the authors more money. It’s a great storyline and they deserve to be paid for their creativity, but why rip off the audience?