“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.

“Coyote, with Mange”

coyotewithmange

We must avert our eyes; this image is too sickening.  It takes a strong poetic voice to humanize it and a magician to make it loveable.  Mark Wunderlich has written a magnificent poem about a coyote like this one.

 

“Coyote, with Mange”
Oh, Unreadable One, why
have you done this to your dumb creature?
Why have you chosen to punish the coyote
rummaging for chicken bones in the dung heap,
shucked the fur from his tail
and fashioned it into a scabby cane?
Why have you denuded his face,
tufted it, so that when he turns he looks
like a slow child unhinging his face in a smile?
The coyote shambles, crow-hops, keeps his head low,
and without fur, his now visible pizzle
is a sad red protuberance,
his hind legs the backward image
of a bandy-legged grandfather, stripped.
Why have you unhoused this wretch
from his one aesthetic virtue,
taken from him that which kept him
from burning in the sun like a man?
Why have you pushed him from his world into mine,
stopped him there and turned his ear
toward my warning shout?
Source: Poetry (March 2009)
The poem is a series of five piercing questions addressed to the “Unreadable one” who may be our vision of a God, of the crass apathy of Nature, or the untaggable sense that somehow manages things.  The poem has a Thomas Hardyesque unblenching acceptance that disaster and cruelty can strike anywhere.
Mark Wunderlich takes unflinching and realistic snapshots of animals in many of his poems and then he moves on to make the ugly endearing without sentimentalizing or moralizing or trying to serve us a platitudinous finale as a kind of dessert for entertaining the image of the coyote with mange.   Wunderlich makes me feel a deep well of compassion where I might have turned away in disgust.  He shows us the coyote as a “slow child,” a ” a “bandy-legged grandfather,” and a member of our world.  True, he only has one aesthetic virtue:  his fut that has been denuded by the mange.   The fur that protects him from the rays of the sun and keeps his “pizzle” dignified is his house.
Wunderlich has three published books all worthy of purchase.  His topics are numerous and his poems about animals
This is what poetry is for, for me:  to make me look at something in a new and significant way.  Now I see the coyote as a kinsman needing, like me, some sort of house.  I can see making a minute observation of the coyote and seeing the ways in which some outside force has failed him:  not simply the scourge of mange but the indifference of the “Unreadable one.”