“Still Alice:” Book Review

FIRST: This is a positive review of a well-plotted and paced novel which reads addictively. It reminded me in some ways of Agatha Christie immersed in a lab and not a country house…and with the most difficult problem…I chose this title because it is “set in a university”… Alice is about the most brilliant person in the world and has a jet-setting academic life–the kind where you get a grant to read a “paper” at a conference in Venice, New Orleans, London, the Biltmore. Alice’s life is a whirl of sabbaticals in Scotland; speeches in Sweden; meetings in Monaco; conventions in Colorado ski resorts. I can attest to this: this is the lifestyle of the American professor you want to subsidize in many ways. I’ve seen it in several places.This is an odd review of a book—going off on a rant—but it’s oddly consistent with STILL ALICE by Lisa Genova.

The books pricks in many places. The haunting specters of cognitive losses is panic inducing and why does your character have to be the most brilliant professor at Harvard? Why can’t she be a waitress in Kentucky and matter as much? So I approach this book in a combative mood. But I was with Alice from the start. And Genova gives her brilliance so that Alice will know, will tell us what she knows because she’s a specialist in the languages and patterns of neural transmitters and each little portion of the brain with its functions. So this strategy of Alice being able to know—until she doesn’t—why and how her decline is going–the very specific map—down to street names—allows Genova to explain the of nuances of dementia gracefully and readably. She shows us the details of the descent: from having a couple of little “blips” to public and private humiliations and awareness of it.The upshot is that she is still Alice–the person she was as a child. And don’t we all still identify with and remember the children we were? And isn’t it true that we have not changed in our essence? Alzheimer’s will bite away at that essence to the final crumb.And what about the people in your life? Who will embrace you? Who will flee? And are you entitled to make friends if you know you are not dealing with a full deck? You know you have “moderate” decline. Do you dare to call a friend? Won’t the friend run away? Genova reveals the panic and self-doubt of the stigmatized.

Routine is my enemy….

I was lucky that I found a job that (mostly) involved few routines.   Yes, there was a calendar and things went along in a steady sort of way but a few times a year they picked themselves up, put themselves away, and started differently–different people, different books, (even if Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 appeared where some might say it did not belong–I could fit it into a class on the 19th or 20th century novel).  I don’t like routine; I recoil from the tyranny of a list.  I am not precisely a free spirit:  I must begin my day by feeding and cats and steeping strong tea.  But I am a dud when it comes to challenges, patterns, commitments, steadiness, sturdiness, and repeating on Tuesday what I did on Monday.  If I were an Olympian (ridiculous thought), I would be a quick sprinter rather than a marathoner.  And thus we arrive at one of the reasons why I like to read poetry so much.  I can sprint into the world and dash out with celerity.   While I don’t think I have ADHD (I’ve read The Tales,  The Faerie Queen, PL, The Prelude, The Ring and the Book) I do think a little dab of reading will do me for many purposes.  Just as some people need oatmeal or The Today Show to set them up for the day, I need to get out of my own little geriatric mind.   Of course, as a professed enemy of habit, I don’t do it the same way every day.

More and more I come to appreciate the value of quotations from those other than poets.   I have a little book of quotes by Henry James.  And there’s no way I will ever read it methodically, but turning to some of its pages, I find much of delight.  The editor, a well-known James scholar, Michael Gorra, has made some superb selections:

“He saw more in his face, and he liked it the better for its not telling its whole story in the first three minutes.  That story came out as one read, in short instalments.”  From “The Lesson of the Master,” 1892.

“Will she understand?  She has everything in the world but one,” he added.  “But that’s half.”…”What is it?”…”A sense of humor.” The Awkward Age, 1899.

“When Milly smiled it was a public event–when she didn’t it was a chapter of history.” The Wings of the Dove,  1903

“She was as undomestic as a shop-front and as out of tune as a parrot.”  “The Marriages,” 1892.

What delightful ideas, figures of speech, and wit these quotations provide.   Gorra wrote a superb book called Portrait of a Novel:  Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece.  If I could recommend a quatrain of books to you right now, it would be Gorra’s two books, The Portrait of a Lady, and John Banville’s Mrs. Osmond.  

While I cannot hew to routine, I admire those who follow a schedule such as Henry James and Anthony Trollope.


Grief is the Thing with Feathers


This is a remarkable book, the first by Max Porter.   It’s bound to appeal to all sorts of readers without being facile or treacly or academic.   The poetic story ranges into all sorts of diction.

A woman has died.  She’s left her two sons, the brothers, and her husband.  The books is divided into short segments in which we hear the voices of the brothers, the husband, and the Crow, who has come over from the book by Ted Hughes to talk this family through—as advisor and savant and a “doctor or a ghost”.   The father/widower is writing a book on Hughes, and the parallel story of Hughes  and his two children losing Sylvia Plath pervades the text as a diatonic underscore that never seizes control of the main dirge.  The book is entitled Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch:  A Wild Analysis.

As the mourners have left, the main speaker, the “Dad” is left alone with his mourning.  But the crow comes to call:  “There was a rich small of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast”.   The Crow tells Dad that “I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore.”

The brothers try hard to be cleaner and nicer.  But sometimes they are overwhelmed with the impulse towards bad behavior.  “We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test.”  “We used to think we would both die at the same age she had.”  They fear that their Dad will die.

“The one son went for drawing, furiously concentrating like a little waist-high fresco painter scrabbling hands and knees on the scaffold. Thirty-seven taped-together sheets of A4 paper and the full rainbow of crayons, pencils and pens, his front teeth biting down on his lower lip. Heavy nasal sighing as he adjusted the eyes, scrapped them, started again, working his way down, happy with the hands, happy with the legs.

The second son went for assemblage, a model of the woman made from cutlery, ribbons, stationery, toys, buttons and books, manically adjusting – leaping up, lying down – like a mechanic in the pits. Clicking and tutting as he worked his way around the mosaic mum, happy with the face, happy with the height.”

Crow himself has known grief:  “I lost a wife once, and once is as many timas as a crow can lose a wife….He flew a genuflection Tintagel-Carlyle cross Morecambe-Orford, wonky, trying to poison himself with forbidden berries and pretty churches, but England’s litter saves him.  Ley lines flung him cross-country with no time for grief, power cables catapulted loose bouquets of tar-black gone and feather and other crows rained down from the sky, a dead crow storm, a tor top burnt bird bath…Blackberry, redcurrant, loganberry, sloe.  Damson, plum-pear, crab-apple, bruises.  Clots, phlegm, tumours and quince.”

As a grief counselor, Crow lets Dad know that there is no “moving on.”  “Any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project.”

At a spare 115 pages, this book reads like both a prose poem and a riveting thriller.

I don’t know if the references to Hughes and Plath are essential.  I don’t know Hughes’s crow, nor did I feel I needed to.

Porter has added a fresh, original voice to the literature of death and grief.  The book is generated, in part, by his own experience of losing his father when he was a 6 year old and of his fascination with Hughes and Emily Dickinson.  I recommend it highly and know I will reread it.

Recent Book Reviews: Brookner, Waters, Trollope


Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner is a fine book.  It introduces us to the world of the seemingly repressed but actually seething Edith Hope who writes successful  romance novels under a nom de plume – “a more thrusting name”.  Brookner’s writing is a joy to read for its clean lines and wonderful vocabulary.  Its character descriptions are delightful.   There’s nobody to fall in love with here, although one can sympathize more and more with Edith as the plot progresses.  Edith had elderly female relatives who used to cry out “Schrecklich!  Ach, du Schreck!” (dreadful!) and her life too has become dreadful to her.  She’s in love with a married man who cares little for her.  She is tired of carefully being in the background.  When she attempts to marry somebody else, she realizes that she cannot go through with it and does not arrive at the wedding.  She is self-reliant and independent, but still would love a marriage.

I enjoyed her literary allusions:  as she is being driven  to the airport she writes in a letter “A cold coming I had of it”

Described variously as looking like Virginia Woolf or Princess Anne (now the Princess Royal), Edith is spending some time at the Hotel du Lac, a family hotel in Switzerland that is simply a retreat – it is really a hotel.  But the atmosphere conjured up a sort of Magic Mountain where the disease is narcissism and various degrees of stupidity.  Edith comes to the point of making a demonic pact – but stops short of the Full Faust.

“Fiction, the time-honoured resource of the ill-at-ease, would have to come to her aid,”

I simply do not know anyone who has a lifestyle. What does it mean? It implies that everything you own was bought at exactly the same time, about five years ago, at the most. – Pp. 26-27

― Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac


Affinity by Sarah Waters

This darkly sinister novel is a repository of information about women’s prisons, the spiritualism that became quite a fad in the mid to late Victorian period (See Robert Browning’s “Mr. Sludge, the Medium”), and the dark confinement of women in general and in particular women in mourning. The Victorians had to a large extent “domesticated” death and post-mortem photographs and mourning rings and mourning clothing were customary.

In this novel we meet an upper-class lady who lives on Cheyne Walk, no less, named Margaret Prior who, after a probable nervous breakdown relating to the death of her father, decided to find some activity. There’s little for an upper-class or upper-middle class unmarried lady to do, so she becomes a “lady visitor” at the Millbank Prison. The prison is as dankly miserable as you might imagine. Although the women are closeted in their cells, affinities are bound to occur.

Selina Dawes, a medium, who has been used by a spirit named Peter Quick (I kept thinking of “The Turn of the Screw” and Peter Quint) is in jail for fraud and being involved in the murder, by Peter Quick, the spirit, of her patroness. We meet also the women jailers such as Mrs. Jelf (I kept thinking Miss Jessel from “Turn of the Screw”) who have a demanding job. They may get to go home after their long day’s work, but do they have any money?

Finally, the novel engages in so many turns of its screw and so many potential “affinities” that it’s difficult to unravel the truth from a strong invitation to suspend our disbelief and know the power of an “affinity”.

It’s difficult to write a review because to go far is to spoil. My only criticism of the book is that it takes a while to gain momentum. Once it does, it’s difficult to put down



_The Claverings_, one of the later works by my besten, Anthony Trollope, is similar to a late Shakespeare play: full of problems that defy categorization. It might be easy for the Trollope reader to overlook this novel because it’s not in either of his superb series, the Pallisers or the Barchester series, nor has there been a mini-series made.

The novel looks closely at civil engineering. Sorry–it really does not, but one character studies that profession. It also looks at about 8 or 9 “love” relationships and tries to answer the question of what might constitute a successful marriage. How best to court a potential partner? What kind of past might ruin a person’s chances? What happens if one is attracted to two people at the same time (not an uncommon quandary). What do you do if you don’t have enough money? Does it take money to achieve happiness?

We see marriages based on money, religious faith, true companionship, titles, and children. Many marriages are unhappy but the mid-Victorian period does not permit divorce. The stakes are high.

And just as in a problem play, one must consider: Are we really happy when the Duke announces his impending marriage to Isabella in “Measure for Measure”? What about the chance of future happiness for Leontes and Hermione in “A Winter’s Tale?” What about Paulina’s life as a widow (her husband was last seen pursued by a bear)? What about Bertram and Helena in “All’s Well That End’s Well?” Do you think that they can be happy?

Finally we are invited to have a mature response to people who vacillate and who make mistakes. They are not condemned out of hand and Trollope, with his usual generosity, seems to understand that characters can be legitimately torn in two directions.


“Faithful and Virtuous Night” by Louise by Louise Glück

Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glückfaithfulandvirtuousnight

This book of connected poems is a real tour de force.  The title comes from a book that the speaker’s brother is reading when they are young.  Perhaps the title refers to “knight” but the speaker takes it to be “night” and remembers the title of the book.  It is apt, for indeed the many nights of the speaker’s life turn out to be at least somewhat faithful and somewhat virtuous in that rich dreams populate the night, which faithfully arrives.

The cycle of poems tells a story but it is not always chronological nor is it always evident in which ways each poem might fit into the overarching chronicle—that of a painter (or his he/she a poet?) coming to terms with death—not only one’s own death, but the many deaths that end up strewn across the landscapes of our lives.

The first poem in the collection, “Parable,” begins with the question of purpose:

“First divesting ourselves of worldly good, as St. Francis teaches,

in order that our souls not be distracted

by gain and loss, and in order also

that our bodies be free to move

easily at the mountain passes…..”


is a call to travel along with the speaker/poet as


“we had changed although

we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling

from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed

in a strange way miraculous.  And those who believed we should have a purpose

believed this was the purpose, and those we felt we must remain free

in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.”


After this opening parable, the language becomes much more specific as we learn in “An Adventure” and in “The Past” that the speaker may be dying but also that the past is vivid with memories of the speaker’s dead mother, whose voice can make no sound as it passes through “nothing”.   As a child, the speaker apparently has lost his parents and his sister in a car accident.   The speaker is evidently a painter as an adult and his consciousness is pervaded with memories of his dead dear ones.
He thinks, as he lies in bed:



“It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided

into those who wish to move forward

and those who wish to go back.

Or you could say, those who wish to keep moving

and those who want to be stopped in their tracks

as by the blazing sword.”



And I think it is true that as we grow into mourning and then our own old age we are torn between the past and the future.  At one point the telephone rings in the middle of the night and “I lay in bed, trying to analyze / the ring.  It had / my mother’s persistence and my father’s  /

pained embarrassment.”   The line is dead.  Or, as he asks himself, “was the phone working and the caller dead?”


The book continues to reflect upon life, death, where we are and where we are going.


“I think here I will leave you. It has come to seem

there is no perfect ending.

Indeed, there are infinite endings.

Or perhaps, once one begins,

there are only endings.”


There are many characters who appear—the fortune teller, the old woman in the park, the house in Cornwall,  the analyst, the first flautist, the elderly writer, the “melancholy assistant,” Harry, the gentle boy.


Here is one of the several brief prose poems that are a part of the story, scattered through the volume:

“Long, long ago, before I was a tormented artist, afflicted with longing yet incapable of forming durable attachments, long before this, I was a glorious ruler uniting all of a divided country—so I was told by the fortune-teller who examined my palm. Great things, she said, are ahead of you, or perhaps behind you; it is difficult to be sure. And yet, she added, what is the difference? Right now you are a child holding hands with a fortune-teller. All the rest is hypothesis and dream.”


These stories within the larger story of the poem provide more parables in which the central themes—love, loss, death, and what happens in between—are examined.


“A word drops into the mist

like a child’s ball into high grass

where it remains seductively

flashing and glinting until

the gold bursts are revealed to be

simply field buttercups.


Word/mist, word/mist: thus it was with me.”


I found the volume fascinating.  I have read it three times already and it will stand much more reading.   Some readers may not like a certain indeterminacy and a certain melancholy.  But this is Glück for us—she is never simple or easy and almost always deep and fascinating.


This collection reminds me a little bit of a Proust volume reduced to 60 pages:  memory, thought, desire are mixed and mingled into an at times chillingly vivid meditation on the ordinary losses that we face as we march through life.   People come and go.


I recommend this volume especially to older readers and  to readers who resist sentimentality.  If you know that poetry does not come with a specific map and indices and if you can comprehend loss, your reading will be richly rewarded.


Typically I love the little horse and pony shows of rhyme, alliteration, and exciting metre, but Glück can get by on simply savvy brilliance and insight.


“The Couple in the Park”

A man walks alone in the park and beside him a woman walks, also alone.

How does one know? It is as though a line exists between them, like a line on

a playing field. And yet, in a photograph they might appear a married cou-

ple, weary of each other and of the many winters they have endured togeth-

  1. At another time, they might be strangers about to meet by accident. She

drops her book; stooping to pick it up, she touches, by accident, his hand and

her heart springs open like a child’s music box. And out of the box comes

a little ballerina made of wood. I have created this, the man thinks; though

she can only whirl in place, still she is a dancer of some kind, not simply a

block of wood. This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.”


This final prose poem hearkens back to the divisions, or lines, between the graves of the speaker’s parents.   I think this is Glück’s offering to us:  a dancer made of wood whirling in place in the puzzling music coming from the trees.




Note:  Poetry Reading Challenge, http://savvyverseandwit.com


Shareatea Challenge:  I drank a lot of Saint Isaac’s Blend when I read this book and wrote the review.


The Late George Apley: Review

The Late George Apley is a nicely nuanced and sophisticated novel of social criticism which uses a microscope rather than a bludgeon.  Written by John P. Marquand in 1937 and winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1938, I would certainly call it a minor-major American classic.  Or possible a major-minor American classic.



In fiction I like well-wrought characterization much more than eventful plot lines.  I like the plot failures to be things like an unsuccessfully brewed cup of tea and the triumphs to be the sighting of an unusual bird.  The Late George Apley is a chronological biography/memoir.  The novel’s subtitle is “A Novel in the Form of a Memoir.”   George Apley is born to an extremely patrician Boston family in 1866 and dies in 1933, having resided in Beacon Hill on Mount Vernon Street.  Isn’t that where Silas Lapham lived?   Certainly the Apley family (who are entirely fictional) would have snubbed the Laphams.

According to an article in The New Yorker called “Martini-Age Victorian,” the great American firebrand, Upton Sinclair wrote of Apley that “I began to catch what I thought was a twinkle in the author’s eye…”  And indeed there is although it might take you some pages to find the twinkle after the dutiful list of the great achievements of the Apley family.  Their manners and money have proceeded in an orderly way for centuries.  They relax by belonging to the correct clubs.  George Apley is a bird-watcher, a collector of bronzes, and a lover of ceremony and charity of the right sorts.  He worries about the squirrels who live in his attic but he does not want to kill them.

Stylistically, Marquand’s style here reminds me of Edith Wharton, who almost always had her tongue firmly in cheek. He is Anthony Trollope’s American cousin.   His humor is subtle, however.  Here is George Apley quoting the lessons from his mother about reading:  “Distrust the book which reads too easily because such writing appeals more to the senses than to the intellect.  Hard reading exercises the mind.”

Apley has two sisters.  One, Jane, is “wrong”—and we don’t know why.  Is she too feisty?  Is she deranged?  Is she a rebel?  She is kept offstage with only rare mentions in the novel—perhaps a “madwoman in the attic”.  Apley marries decorously and has a son and a daughter.  Apley gives fifteen thousand dollars a year to the Waif’s Society and his eleemosynary instincts are broad.  Yet at home, he lives modestly.  He writes to his son:  “It is the small things in life which count the most.   There is nothing which pains me more than your jesting about small sums of money.  I learned their importance very early from your Great-Uncle William.  You must learn that there is a zest and genuine satisfaction in spending money properly as your Uncle William spent his.  There is not much place in this world for personal gratification, nor is this particularly becoming to people of our position.”

On the other hand, his wife “has been collecting butter knives and she now has one of the best collections in the country.”  “Quite remarkable,” Apley adds.

And yet—Apley marries not the young woman he loves, but a young woman from one of the best Back Bay families.  Yet he is not quite as imperious as his own parents and barely protests when his son marries a divorcée and his daughter marries a journalist—from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

When Apley’s son is an infant, his own father writes in praise:  “He has everyone of your grandfather’s features and his manner of holding himself in his bassinet needs no comment from an unprejudiced observer.”

As George Apley makes his decorous progress through middle age, I found I liked him.  He wore his stuffed shirt rumpled a bit and Marquand’s prose rolls about majestically with touches of humor.  Apley, near death, writes to his son:

“Values shift elusively.  When everything is totaled up we have evolved a fine variety of flushing toilets but not a very good world.”

Apley does read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and is impressed with its literary quality, but locks it away in a safe so his daughter will not see it.

I enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to   those who like gentle humor, those who like character studies, those who like a finely nuanced dissection of society, those who like good writing.  If you like Trollope, Edith Wharton, Barbara Pym, John Cheever, or Anne Tyler you might also enjoy this novel.  If you like to read about a way of life that now seems remote or if you like to read about Boston, this will be a fine choice for you.  I read this as part of the Classics Club Spin, but it had been on my list of Pulitzer Winners for some time.lategeorgeapley