Tuesday, June 12, 2012


I've been reading books lately like I'm at Old Country Buffet--some of this, some of that, finish this, but leave that. Many flavors and textures piled together on the plate. There's no savoring of one well-made dish. When the plate is empty, or even when one corner of the plate is empty, I go back for more.

I've ripped through a couple novels--Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" and Rachel Kushner's "Telex from Cuba." Franzen's book has strong bones and muscular writing. He writes with firm energy, like a kid with an active mind whose math notes are surrounded by drawings of supermen, drawings that push the pencil deeply into the paper. There's a triangle in "Freedom," and while it's the woman's actions that upset the men's lives, the men seem to have more volition than the woman. She loves, not enough or too much, because of her need. They love (and consumate that love) as an expression of their individuality. Or so it could be argued, I guess.

"Telex from Cuba" tells of expatriates in Cuba during Castro's Communist revolution. They are recognizable people--teens, parents, bosses and workers--in an exotic situation. There are non-American characters as well, including Battista (the dictator overthrown by Fidel) and an international weapons dealer. They're all scraping after power and the security they want from that power. Almost nobody gets the life they expect.

Reading category number two is Alzheimer's memoirs. This is a depressing genre, why go there? I'm traveling deliberately, kind of a slow sight-seeing trip. I've written a few chapters of my own in this category that I"m not sure what to do with. I've got three books going. The first, "Keeper: One House, Three Generations, and a Journey into Alzheimer's," by Andrea Gillies. She and her husband thought that the caregiving solution to the challenge presented by his demented mother and chair-bound elderly father was to buy a large house in rural Scotland for three generations to share--running a B&B on the side, to help pay the mortgage. It doesn't turn out well. "Nancy," the mother-in-law, is constantly struggling against her disease, her environment and her caregivers, and they struggle back. Everyone's expectations seem too high. Scene after scene moves toward the point where a frustrated caregiver explains things to Nancy, which is, of course, pointless.

I've also got "Iris and Her Friends," a memoir by John Bayley, husband of novelist Iris Murdoch, an Alzheimer's sufferer (as the English would say, instead of "victim"). There's surrender in this book, to sadness and to joy; Bayley is a devoted spouse, who has always lived the life of the mind. It's easier for him, because he is not trying to be a multi-tasking middle-age Wonder Woman. The third book is "Alzheimer's from the Inside Out," a collection of essays from a psychologist with early onset AD, sharing his experience of his mind's deterioration.

All three books contain ruminations on what is mind and what is memory and who are we with these things and who are we without them. It's an inevitable question. I can still invoke it just by turning my head to the right and imagining Lon, my demented husband, beside me. Which Lon fills my memory? The one I met and romanced and married, had children with? The one who took me to the movies, who ate my cooking, who made the house boom with colorful conversation? Or the silent angry man, with the taut, skinny arms who was haunted by things we couldn't see, who kicked the dog and threatened the children with wordless clenched fists?

It was an exotic situation. Freedom? Choices? Struggle, or surrender? There are many things contained within one person, one character. What holds them together?

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