Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s

Favorite Memoirs of 2015

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Memoirs really grabbed me this year. There was something about reading real lives, real reactions, real people that got under my skin in 2015. It didn’t help that NPR’s Fresh Air show often features memoirs (I have many on my TBR list). Here are some memoirs that sucked me in!


Cheryl StrayedWild

by Cheryl Strayed

I finally got around to reading this book in January of 2015. I had a disastrous time with the audiobook, but loved the film. It’s worth the time to read Wild. Strayed doesn’t romanticize her mother (in fact, she admits the reasons she could hate her mother, too). She doesn’t over-exaggerate her hiking accomplishments (Strayed admits she’d been lucky for most of her journey, that she was helped by many, and that saying she was ill-prepared is a massive understatement; she always seemed inches away from being another Christopher McCandless).

Wild also isn’t a heavy reflection; sections about her mother are smoothly transitioned into the story, so the focus is on the hike, but the motives for the hike are not lost. Though she thought she would spend the 1,100 miles thinking about Bobbi, Bobbi’s death, and the resulting poor choices, Strayed admits she thought little about those things. Instead, she is physically and emotionally broken down and rebuilt by the inclines and declines of the mountains, predators (man, animal, and weather), and the literature she reads and writes.

Read the full review here!


cover chastCan’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

by Roz Chast

Roz Chast’s graphic novel examines the dying process (my choice of words, not the author’s) of Chast’s extremely old parents, George and Elizabeth. George and Elizabeth were born a few days apart in 1912 and only a few blocks apart in Harlem. Their parents were Russian immigrants who came to the U.S. with nothing but misery.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a moving memoir from the perspective of an aging daughter who details what it’s like to deal with parents who are so very elderly, and also so very stubborn. Chast is honest in her portrayals, including how she abandoned most of her parents’ belongings for the super of the apartment to deal with, and how using money to house her parents in assisted living was cutting into her inheritance, which did and did not concern her. This graphic novel also takes a realistic, deep look at anxiety and the effects parents have on their children.

Read the full review here!


letpretendthisneverhappened11

Hamlet von Schnitzel, actual taxidermy mouse the author owns.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened & Furiously Happy

by Jenny Lawson

Lawson grew up in a tiny town in Texas with her younger sister, lunch lady mother, and taxidermist father. Living in relative poverty and having a father who constantly brings home animals, both dead and alive, makes for an influential childhood. Then, Lawson meets a college student in a book store named Victor, who is from a wealthy family, and the two marry. After much heartbreak, Victor and Lawson have a child named Hailey, and they live happily ever after in Texas. The end…sort of!

I found myself eager to return to Lawson’s life, and I appreciated that she kept the focus of the book on her. As soon as she had a baby, I worried the memoir would turn into one of those books about how funny moms think their kids are. It didn’t.

Read the full review here!

furiously-happyWith Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson spent ten years composing a single memoir. With Furiously Happy, she got it down to somewhere around three. As a result, the stories are contemporary and do make reference to current cultural markers. Again, Lawson include fights with head-shaking husband Victor (I’m so glad they didn’t divorce; I was sure they would), and there are mentions of daughter Hailey, but Lawson respects her child’s privacy and mostly leaves Hailey out of it. Furiously Happy is a much more introspective book.

Read the full review here!


cover fun homeFun Home

by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel focuses on her father, a man who obsesses over appearances, including that of his house, children, and personal clothing. The house looks like something out of a Victorian novel. He also forces his children to look nice, encouraging–and then belittling for not obeying–the author for not adding feminine touches, like pearls, to what he considers a dowdy outfit. Alison Bechdel confesses that she would rather dress like a boy, and readers discover that her father would rather dress like a girl (and has). The two exchange clothing advice in a surreptitious fashion for years, living vicariously through the other.

If you’re up for a bit of a challenge, you’ll love Fun Home. The weaving of past and present, psychology and action, is complex and reveals a person who has extracted meaning from a complicated, lonely childhood. Even better, the images as all professional looking–no cartoony images, no bright colors, no squiggly-doodly pictures.

Read the full review here!


Tomboy CoverTomboy

by Liz Prince (read our interview here)

31-year-old comic artist Liz Prince shares her history as a tomboy. All through elementary and middle school, Prince is tormented. No one wants to play with her, she hates all things girly, and classmates begin to question her sexuality. High school is a huge problem area until Prince finds a group of friends who are more open-minded. Tomboy is a graphic memoir that will have readers nodding along in recognition as Prince analyzes what it means to be a tomboy in a society that tells men and women how to be from birth.

If you read this book, you may find yourself experiencing some intense emotions you hoped you’d forgotten upon high school graduation. Yet, the analysis Liz Prince includes will help you think about why children were so cruel, perhaps why you were cruel, and that we all share a universal terrible time in grade school (even the popular kids are hiding something awful). Tomboy is a powerful memoir.

Read the full review here!


Sarah leavittTangles

by Sarah Leavitt

This graphic memoir that recounts 8 years of turmoil in her life beginning with when she suspects something is wrong with her mother, Midge, and ends with Midge’s death. Leavitt’s father, Rob, cares for Midge at home for as long as he can. Meanwhile, Leavitt, her younger sister, Hannah, and Midge’s sisters, Debbie and Sukey, help Rob support and care for Midge while her brain deteriorates from Alzheimer’s disease. Tangles refers both to the complicated relationships in the family caused by the disease and the very curly hair that both Leavitt and her mother possess.

Tangles really would be impossible to finish if Leavitt didn’t balance the challenges of Alzheimer’s with small moments that Leavitt and her family treasure.

Read the full review here!


In 2016, the first memoir I plan on reading is a book I picked up at a conference called PHD to PhD.: How Education Saved My Life by Elaine Richardson. The cover explains that PHD stands for “Po H# on Dope.” Published in 2013 by Parlor Press, the synopsis of this book reminds me of why I went into teaching. Here’s the description from the publisher:

“There was a time when Elaine Richardson was one of ‘the Negroes everybody pointed to as the Negroes you didn’t want to become.’ The title of this book is no metaphor or allusion, but a literal shorthand for a remarkable, unpredictable journey. She inherits a plain way of talking about horrific pain from a mother who seemed impossible to shock. The way too fast way she grew up was and is too common, but her will to remap her destiny is uncommon indeed. To call her story inspiring would be itself too plain a thing, hers is a heroic life.”–dream hampton (writer and filmmaker)

Po Ho on Dope

 

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

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Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

cover chastRoz Chast’s graphic novel Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014) examines the dying process (my choice of words, not the author’s) of Chast’s extremely old parents, George and Elizabeth. George and Elizabeth were born a few days apart in 1912 and only a few blocks apart in Harlem.

Their parents were Russian immigrants who came to the U.S. with nothing but misery. George and Elizabeth’s first baby dies shortly after birth. Roz Chast is an only child born to a mother and father who were 42 (somewhat odd today, practically scandalous at the time). The author knows all the stories of the miserable Russian immigrants and the dead baby. She knows her parents consider themselves soul mates who cannot be apart. soul matesHowever, as George and Elizabeth creep into their 90s, Chast must consider their imminent deaths and what to do with their possessions and remains. However, George and Elizabeth will not talk about death!

The guilt and anxiety that fill Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? jumps off the pages. Based on her grandparents’ history, Chast’s parents feel their daughter Roz can never understand misery. It becomes clear why the author seems like a unbalanced person trying to be a good person and often freezing up—she doesn’t even drive due to anxiety.

Chast carefully details her parents’ personalities to show where her own neurosis come from. For example, her father’s thought process while using a toaster: “Now, let’s see…You put the bread into one of these two compartments…How do you know which one? Do you put the bread in first?? Or do you press this little level down first???” Chast continues, “He was bad at opening packages, like cookies or cereal. You could tell which ones he’d tried to open, because they were always torn some strange way, as if a raccoon had tried to get into them.”

Chast’s mother is completely different from her father. Elizabeth’s images are often scary, angry portrayals. Elizabeth thinks she’s right all the time, which leads to her anger. Chast notes that her mother wanted to be a concert pianist, but said, “It came too easily to me,” so she didn’t pursue the dream. This example shows the mother as egotistical and having unrealistic expectations. She also loves to yell, “I gave him a blast from the Chast!” and “I’m going to blow my top!!!” Based on these two parental personalities—nearly helpless and aggressive—the author becomes an indecisive, meek, terrified person, which she clearly details in her images and descriptions of her parents.

blow my top

George Chast and Roz Chast shaking in terror over the looming, terrifying Elizabeth Chast

The most interesting detail about the author’s anxiety stems from the notion that her parents maybe never should have had her. George and Elizabeth were such a tight pair—soul mates—that having a child interrupted their duo. When Chast leaves for college, she feels her parents are happy that she isn’t around anymore. She notes, “I left for college when I was 16. I think we were all relieved.”

As her parents get older—late 80s, early 90s—Chast must think about her parents’ wishes for after they’ve passed. But they refuse to talk about death because they are “going to 100” (years that is). Something Chast points out that I remember from when my own great-grandmother passed is how much stuff a person leaves behind. After all of my grandma’s papers and other items were sorted through (the papers took forever because who knows what letter is important or unimportant and why), Later, I couldn’t look at my own things the same way. I began to get rid of old birthday cards and dried flowers and clothes I hadn’t worn in a long time and kitschy items I’d received for presents, things I clung to for fear of losing an item of sentimental value. When my great-grandma died, I realized these things did not equal love.

Chast makes the same point and even lists the sorts of things people keep in a massive list that effectively overwhelms the reader:

An ergonomic garlic press and throw pillows and those stupid sunflower dessert plates and seven travel alarm clocks and eight nail clippers and a colander and a flatiron and three old laptops and barbells and a set of FUCKING BOCCE BALLS, and patio furniture and an autoharp, for God’s sake, and your old flute from high school and a zillion books and towels and sheets and a wok you never used and a make your own stained glass kit you never opened, and martini glasses and a yoga mat and what is THIS??? A cuckoo clock????? And so many clothes and hats and shoes and then there’s all the KIDS old stuff and don’t forget the furniture and four cameras and ice skates and whose tap shoes are these? and all the crap in the drawers and…”

When it becomes obvious that her parents cannot live alone, they are moved to an assisted living facility. I’ll leave the details for those who choose to read the book (and I recommend you do), but immediately after Chast talks about the death of her father, she includes a page just for a black and white picture of him dancing with daughter Roz Chast with the dates March 23, 1912 – October 17, 2007. It’s not often you see photos in graphic novels, but this page really gave George Chast a moment of silence and an opportunity to show he was a loving father. The author identified with her father (but didn’t understand or often like her mother).

Roz Chast includes a few varieties of images: there are the cartoon images, black and white photographs, sketches of her mother in her last days, and color photos of some items left in George and Elizabeth’s apartment that the author didn’t want to keep (the photos were enough).chast death

Roz Chast illustration

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a moving memoir from the perspective of an aging daughter who details what it’s like to deal with parents who are so very elderly, and also so very stubborn. Chast is honest in her portrayals, including how she abandoned most of her parents’ belongings for the super of the apartment to deal with, and how using money to house her parents in assisted living was cutting into her inheritance, which did and did not concern her. This graphic novel also takes a realistic, deep look at anxiety and the effects parents have on their children.

Tangles

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TITLE: Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, & Me 
AUTHOR: Sarah Leavitt
PUBLISHER: Skyhorse Publishing
PUBLISHED: 2012 (Originally published by Freehand Books in 2010)
PROCUREMENT: Public library
RELATIONSHIP TO AUTHOR: None
VERDICT: Highly recommended

Tangles is Sarah Leavitt’s graphic memoir that recounts 8 years of turmoil in her life beginning with when she suspects something is wrong with her mother, Midge, and ends with Midge’s death. Leavitt’s father, Rob, cares for Midge at home for as long as he can. Meanwhile, Leavitt, her younger sister, Hannah, and Midge’s sisters, Debbie and Sukey, help Rob support and care for Midge while her brain deteriorates from Alzheimer’s disease. Tangles refers both to the complicated relationships in the family caused by the disease and the very curly hair that both Leavitt and her mother possess.

The introduction to Tangles reminds readers that this is only the perspective of the author, that she assembled this book from notes and sketches, and that the story would be different from other family members’ points of view. Her disclaimer allowed me to forgive some of the anger that I see poured onto certain family members, like Debbie and Hannah, who don’t look favorably in the memoir when they are bossy or demanding while appearing uninvolved and selfish. Leavitt also admits that she visited three times a year (she lives over 3,500 miles away) and was not with her family constantly, like Hannah and Rob. Leavitt’s acknowledgement that her sister and father may be more stressed out or impatient because they’re watching Midge fade away up close also let me forgive those characters who appear unlikeable. Clearly, they’re under more stress and live with the disease day-to-day. Due to the distance, she gets jealous, even of a cold-hearted cat that doesn’t respond to Midge that Midge mindless loves anyway, when she visits her mother.

The simple drawings afford the family, especially the mother, privacy during a time marked by frustration, problems with hygiene, and anger. The drawings also let Midge keep some of her “sweetness,” as she calls it. There are images in which you can tell it’s her from her curly hair in a pony tail and glasses, but the rest is nondescript. Then Leavitt gives her mom a smile, just a simple pencil line U-shaped smile. Midge’s hands are drawn (without fingers, like mittens, almost) clasped together in front of her chest, apparently a common pose for those with Alzheimer’s, but it makes her look hopeful and cheerful, like she’s thinkingmarvelous! Seeing the mother in detail would have made me unable to insert myself or my loved ones into the people depicted. After Midge falls and bruises and cuts her face, Leavitt can’t stop taking pictures, and it was in that moment that I realized I was grateful I couldn’t see the detail that photos or highly-detailed drawings would provide. I was shielded.


Despite the simple drawing style, Leavitt can draw well. She describes sitting with her mother and Debbie in Midge’s final days and drawing the two women. Those drawings are included in the book, and you can see the skill of the author. Because Alzheimer’s is such a hard disease to experience, either from the patient’s or the family’s point of view, these simple drawings provide a distance that allows us to peek into the lives of the Leavitt family and stick around until the end. I became so attached to Leavitt’s family that I don’t know if I could have finished the memoir if the drawings were more detailed. At one point I was crying; during the entire ending, my chest was tight with feelings of sadness and dread. Midge was a kindergarten teacher, a pioneer, a woman who didn’t have a TV, a person who protested injustice, one who encouraged creativity. Then, Midge changed.

During the 2 years that Rob and Midge pretend like nothing is wrong prior to a diagnosis is when they could have discussed Midge’s future and treatment (because she still would have had the cognition to do so). Leavitt recalls her aunt Debbie saying it was too late for Midge to decide to kill herself because she didn’t have the cognitive capacity by the time she was diagnosed. Later, Leavitt learns that a friend’s grandmother killed herself; the woman suspected she had Alzheimer’s, was immediately diagnosed, and did away with herself. Heavy moments like this made me wonder what I would want for my own parent or grandparent, or even myself, should I have such a debilitating disease, which is one of the highlights of Tangles: it opens the door to  end-of-life conversations that people in the Unites States don’t like to have. On the other hand, the hardest part didn’t appear to me to be what to do near Midge’s death, but accepting the fact that she wasn’t stressed, menopausal, or depressed; she had Alzheimer’s.

Tangles really would be impossible to finish if Leavitt didn’t balance the challenges of Alzheimer’s with small moments that Leavitt and her family treasure. When Leavitt and Hannah take their mother to a park to feed the deer, they are surprised by a sudden storm. Though the sisters drag their mother to refuge, Midge keeps leaning out into the rain and then begins to taste it. This small act makes the sisters realize that rain is not the worst thing, and they run home through the storm, laughing and jumping in puddles. In that moment, Midge seems healthy, and the story feels almost comforting despite all the sorrows it details.