Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Reaching Midnight

My mother has dementia.  It is all too easy to say she suffers from Alzheimer's disease, but I have learned that there is no way to diagnose Alzheimer's until after death when an autopsy reveals the pitted and shrunken brain of a true victim of the disease.  So, I say she has dementia.

It started slowly.   My father died four and a half years ago, and at first, my brother and sisters and I thought that she was grieving, suffering from depression.  Forgetfulness can be a sign of depression, as can changes in habits and interests.  My mother didn't read anymore.  She was a constant reader, the flint to my reading fire.  Now reading was hard and required focus, which she lacked.  She was moody and terse, quick to anger.  When friends called, she dismissed them.  Too tired, too much hassle, no, no, no.  And of course, she forgot.  First, she forgot that she had already told me who called and what they said.  Then she forgot she had appointments.  She forgot that she had just bought two bags  of groceries and went to the store again.  And again.  She bought three bags of groceries.  She still bought more.  Mom forgot how to have fun with her grandchildren.  They were afraid of her.  She forgot to take her medicine.  She forgot she already took her medicine.  She forgot what day it was.   Mom forgot my birthday. She forgot she had already given the granddaughters their Christmas gifts and yelled at them for snooping and prying. She forgot to be rational and use logic.  Why shouldn't she drive?  If she wrecked the car, she would die -so what?  But what about the other car that you crash into, Mom?  And what about the baby in the backseat...?

She knows who we are.  There has not been a moment yet that she has seen her loved ones and not known who we are.  I am so grateful for that.  I am frustrated by her lapses now, but I know that the worst is yet to come.  I ask her questions now, and I prod her for stories.  On Halloween, I pick her up to take her to my sister's house.  Her hair is wind-blown, and she wears an old coat.  The silver white hair is her greatest feature, and now it suffers from lack of affection.  My mother wore lipstick and slacks to the grocery.  Her wardrobe is haphazard and monotonous these days.   "Do you remember how you always brought us trick-or-treating?  Dad was always in the fields, so it was just you?  Do you remember?" I ask her in the car.  And maybe she remembers, and maybe not.  But she tells that story to everyone the rest of the night, including me.

"Ask Grandma about the blood pit in Murrayville," I urge my daughter.  She does, but Grandma doesn't know.  "Yes, you do, Mom," I say.  "It was behind the funeral home where your grandparents worked.  It was where all the blood went - remember, Mom?"  And she nods her head, and tells me about her grandparents and the legendary Murrayville, Illinois where she spent so much of her childhood.  Those moments are golden.  She still knows who we are and more importantly, who she was.  Watching her realize that she was someone else once is really the hardest part of this disease.

Memory is such a tenuous thing, really.  It floats around in the mind like cirrus clouds- those thin and insubstantial ones that can be gone in a minute.  When I read Terry Pratchett's final book in the Tiffany Aching series, I was awe struck by the profound and moving passages it contained about memory, especially since I knew that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  In an interview he recalled his favorite memory - the night his daughter was born.  His words are not unique or new.  It is the simplicity of what he says that captures the reader:
 "...the elation – I mean, nothing could’ve gone wrong that night.

“I think I’d hate to lose that memory.”

It is the feeling that accompany the memories that really make them worthwhile - whether it be elation or sorrow.  That is why we store memories despite their transparency.  When  I read I Shall Wear Midnight by Pratchett, I felt like the book was just for me.  The characters and their conflicts reflected my problems.  I felt known.  The memory I have of the book was a memory itself as the the village witch tends to the dying Baron.  The old man speaks:

"The hare runs into the fire.
The hare runs into the fire.
The fire, it takes her, she is not burned.
The fire, it loves her, she is not burned.
The hare runs into the fire.
The fire, it loves her, she is free....
It all comes back to me!  How could I ever forget it!  How did I dare to forget it?  I told 
myself I would remember it forever, but time goes on and the world fills up with things to 
remember, things to do, calls on your time calls on your memory.  And you
forget the things that were important, the real things."
And then, despite his nurse's dismay, the Baron tells Tiffany about the September day and the little boy in the tweed jacket and how his father sang.  The fields burned and the animals ran before it.  One hare looked at him - directly in the eyes- and then turned and jumped into the fire.  His father told him the hare song.  It was a day of elation for the child baron.  And it was the memory he took with him to his death soon after he shares it with Tiffany.

I am not quite sure who I held closest when Pratchett told me that story in I Shall Wear Midnight.  It might have been my dad who I had already lost, or my mother who I am still losing bit by bit.  I do know, however, that I ache where my heart is and a lump forms in my throat.  I do know that he is telling his own story as much as he is telling my story, or anyone else's for that matter.  For now, the world still turns and we find and forget, we create and we destroy.  But one thing is ephemeral.  Not memory - but those feelings that accompany them.  

We beg and beg and beg, and finally Mom says okay.  We gather around the kitchen table and she quickly reads to us from The Wizard of Oz.  Around us are the signs of cleaning and housework, but for now, she is ours.  I feel special and loved there at her knee.  The story comes off the page, and her precise and practiced voice brings us all to a different world, if just for a minute in time, if just for this one perfect moment.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Home Alone

It seems to be a trend in today's YA literature to include parents that just don't care. Take, for example, the two top-selling teen books on the market:  Twilight and The Hunger Games.  Bella had one parent who lived in a different state and showed up in emails or phone calls.  Her father was a bumbling, embarrassed man who managed to allow his only child to spend too much time with her possessive boyfriend while he fished and patrolled Forks.  Neither parent seemed to bother to keep track of what his/her moody, sullen teenage daughter was doing - whether sleeping with a vampire or riding motorcycles.  Katniss seemed to have one parent who was on top of the situation - her father - but he was dead.  That left Mom, who was terribly wounded by the loss of her husband and allowed her teen daughter to be the pillar of strength in the family.  In short, Katniss ran the show.  

  As a parent, there is no way I want my sons or daughter doing either of these things.  I am, perhaps, too overprotective.  When my sons were 11 and 10, I got mad at my sister because she let them walk down the street alone to get ice cream.  I still check the yard (3 acres) periodically to make sure the boys (now 15 and 14) have not been abducted and I am panicky if my 10 year old daughter wanders to a neighboring store in the mall without me.  The thought of them driving or riding in a car with another teen is downright alarming to me.  All of this may indicate that I need to cut the apron strings, but I can't help it.  I love them.

Teens want to read about teens who don't have overprotective parents, I suppose.  Twilight would not be quite the same if Charlie had checked Bella's bedroom just once and discovered her undead boyfriend freezing up the place. If Katniss had to take her mother with her, Peeta might have been less forward.  Scads of other teen novels fail to make parents accountable, but it's all part of the selling plan.  I guess I want some sexy romance too, and that's hard to manage if parents are hovering around. (It's also hard to accomplish with kids around.)  The book reviewed below, Starters by Lissa Price, gets rid of all parents.  Doesn't help the book much in my opinion, but I guess it's what teens want... 

Callie Woodland is a Starter, a person under the age of 20 who has survived the Spore War's deadly onslaught.  Unfortunately, Callie's parents and all other adults ages 20-60 did not survive the war, leaving hundreds of homeless orphans to fend for themselves.  The Enders are not much help.  Ranging from the age of 60 to 200, most of the silver-haired citizens are more concerned with themselves and wealth than with the starving children left by the deadly bio-agent released during the conflict.  Callie must find a way to take care of her younger brother Tyler, who is ill.  Prime Destination seems to be the only way she can earn money, even if it is illegal.  Specializing in making Enders young again, the agency promises Callie a hefty sum if she will allow her body to be rented by Enders who want to feel and look like a teen again.  Reluctantly, Callie agrees and falls into an unconcious state while various elderly people use her body to experience youth once again.  On the third time, however, something goes wrong.  What is supposed to be a month-long rental ends abruptly, and Callie finds herself living the life of a wealthy Ender named Helena who speaks to Callie inside her mind.  The voice warns her to stay away from Prime Destinations, and then leads Callie into a plot to expose the agency's owner, known only as the Old Man, and his dark vision for the future.  Along the way, Callie meets Blake, the attractive great-grandson of a senator involved in Prime Destination's plot.  She is instantly drawn to him, but is torn as she must choose between exposing the senator and making Blake trust her.  The  evil presence  of the Old Man threatens Callie, and her quest becomes more than just putting a stop to his plan.  Instead, Caliie must save her brother and reveal the identity of the Old Man before he ruins the lives of thousands of teens in a war-scarred society.
This post-apocalyptic tale is different than most others, and leaves a funtctioning society in place.  However, the disapperance of all parents leaves the plot wide open for teens to do as they please when they please.  Like many YA novels, Startersfeatures a main character who is driven by desperation, and has no adult resources to rely on or to guide her.  While many other YA books seem to make adults invisible or ignorant, Price's book eliminates them altogether.  The absence of adults is a plus for young readers who certainly have enough adult "guidance" in their own lives.  It is troubling, however, that many YA novels seem to avoid writing strong, helpful and postive adult characters altogether.
The book does parallel many other books of this genre, and will satisfy readers who are searching for another book like the popular Hunger Games series.  However, the parallels may be   too close for some readers' enjoyment, and they may find  themselves creating a mental list to be checked everytime a plot element occurs that is similar to the popular series:  both girls make a sacrifice to save a sibling, both girls have extreme makeovers, both girls find themselves torn between two romantic interests, both girls become the "face" of a movement, and both girls experience the loss of a younger child that haunts them.  At the end of the book, a twist may encourage readers to search for the second book. Some unanswered questions remain, as well, regarding the war and its aftermath.    However, many of the book's resolutions may cause readers to feel as if there is no real suspense to carry them over from the first book to the second.   
 Teen readers will enjoy the book, and those hungry for post-apocalyptic fiction will snag the title quickly.  Readers in grade 7-12 will find Starters appealing, as long as they aren't expecting any plots or characters that are fresh or new.  It is an optional purchase for school libraries.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Finally, satisfaction.

 I was pretty excited when the email came to let me know that I was approved for the NetGalley copy of The Wicked and the Just.  I had read the description on Goodreads, and it instantly appealed to me.  Not long after I added it to my to-read list, I got a friend request from the author, J. Coats.  All seemed pretty coincidental...

My review follows and I think you will find that this is the best I have read in a while.  My Goodread's review is after the NetGalley review.  Finally, satisfaction.

It has been quite a while since I have read historical fiction as good as The Wicked and the Just.  J. Anderson Coats has certainly done her research for this tale of Wales in  the 13th century.  Conquered by Britain, and ruled by a distant king, the people of Wales are little more than slaves to the British men King Henry has sent to manage his new land.  Cecily and her father arrive in Caernarvon, a newly built walled city in Wales, where he will serve as a burgess appointed by the king.  Cecily is less than happy to be in Wales, and longs for the day when she can return to to a home that no longer belongs to her or her father.  Spiteful and bitter, Cecily's anger finds an easy target: the incompetent servant Gwynhwyfar.  Gwinny is easy for Cecily to despise-  she is Welsh.  It is not long after her arrival, however, that Cecily begins to understand that there are not clear boundaries between the wicked and the just, or the British and the Welsh.  Told alternately in both the voices of Cecily and Gwynhwyfar, readers will find their sympathies changing as the characters reveal more of their pasts and learn more about each other.  While full of fascinating history about a lilttle known part of Great Britain's timeline, The Wicked and the Just is anything but dry.   It is, rather, an exploration of the human heart as it is molded, stomped and stabbed by the circumstances of human nature.  The story of two young women from different backgrounds is compelling and honest, and readers will read late into the night to find the resolution that must come for two who seem so different, yet are really much the same.  Coats' novel is a masterpiece for young adult readers, but will appeal to adults as well.  It is highly recommended. 


I loved this book for so many reasons. I loved the history of Wales and the masterful way that the hatred, mistrust, and misunderstanding of Brits and Welsh was portrayed through the eyes of two young women who were more alike than they knew. I loved the title. Who is sure of what is wicked and what is just? Within pages, my sympathies changed from one character to another. I loved that this was real, never subtle, always honest in what life brings. I loved the ending, and I love thinking about the new Caernarvon Cecily and Gwinny built. A must- read book for 2012, and a Printz contender in my mind.