There is scarcely a conversation with friends around my age (55-85, let’s say) who don’t either have memory loss themselves, have a family member or had a family member with memory loss, or greatly fear memory loss. I fit in all those categories myself, so have been searching out books that are insightful, honest, and speak scientifically to this topic. The reason I can remember their titles is because I have been keeping a book journal for 40 years, and refer to it often. A key for dealing with memory loss: write down what you need to remember! Here are some of my favorite reads on the subject.
The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa
Absolutely unique and charming, this short novel about a Japanese housekeeper and the former math professor she assists takes unexpected turns without throwing the reader out of the car, so to speak. Both central characters are unnamed, yet we become intimately acquainted with them as the housekeeper tries everything she can to deal with the professor’s dementia and improve his quality of life. Aid comes partly from her son, a latchkey child whom the professor convinces to come to his house after school. They form a curious attachment, as the professor tries to help him with his math homework and the boy renews the professor’s love of baseball. The effect of the professor’s love of math, his ability to engage both mother and son in its mystery and beauty in spite if his significant dementia, made for a story both delicate and heroic.
In the Shadow of Memory, by Floyd Skloot
A friend recently recommended this older (2002) and unknown title to me, and all I can say is–wow! Skloot, a well-known author and father of also-well-known writer Rebecca Skloot, lost significant memory when in his early 40′s, due to a serious viral infection. Unusually eloquent, the book was compiled from a series of essays Skloot wrote and published after his illness, describing the process of “reforming” memories, learning to accept those that he will never have back, and simplifying his life significantly to cope on a daily basis with the physical effects of memory loss. He also discusses the effect that early childhood trauma can play in later memory loss and dementia, due to compromised immune systems. Poetically beautiful and absolutely engaging, I am marking it in my journal as one of my most prized reads this year.
Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
Another charmer, and definitely better-known, is this novel of a woman professor who starts discovering her own memory loss when she cannot find her way home from a routine run. She teaches cognitive psychology at Harvard, is in her early 50′s, but is soon diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. What I found particularly fascinating was the point of view of Alice, who both watches and comments on her progressive loss as the disease advances. Many have commented that the book was a heartbreaker, and it was, but it was so compassionate and honest that I could not help come away better informed, more fascinated with the workings of the mind, and even uplifted by this amazing story. Recommended reading for everyone, as I believe we are all touched by severe memory loss at some point in our lives.
Another slant on memory loss, this new debut novel combines the story of Maud, a woman in her 80′s with quite severe dementia, with a mystery, family love story, and humor. Healey’s novel uniquely combines all three genres, and it kept me turning pages well into the night. Maud’s challenge is that she has found a small keepsake in her garden that she believes belongs to her friend Elizabeth. However, as many times as she calls and visits Elizabeth’s home, to the extreme frustration of her daughter and care givers, she cannot find Elizabeth. Believing that something is wrong, yet unable to communicate this to those around her, provides both humor and heartbreak. And, the beautifully rendered portrait of the seesaw between caring and worrying vs. independence for an elderly family member was what gave the story special depth and meaning for me.
Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words, by Kate Whouley
Author Whouley wrote an earlier book that I loved (Cottage for Sale, Must be Moved); she picks topics that prick my curiosity. Having lost my Mom just over a year ago to age-related dementia, I needed to read someone’s else’s view of the sad, frustrating and funny experiences that come with it. Whouley had it a lot harder than I–she was an only child, and on a good day her Mom was only slightly demanding with her daughter. Their relationship was prickly, and soon after Whouley’s first book was published, she realized that something was wrong, and that her Mom could no longer live alone and care for herself and her cat. The story of her mother’s last years struck a deep cord with me–Whouley finally got to experience her mother as a deeply flawed and loving human being. There was a kind of healing that happens when a parent forgets so much of the recent past and can only deal with the immediate present.
Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer
Here is a very different book about memory–in this case, how to expand it and even win a contest for developing exceptional memory! Author Foer took an interest in a very unique subculture of competitive memorizers, and put himself under the tutelage of a former winner of the U.S. Memory Championships to learn how to improve memory (and why one would want to!) Along the way he explores the latest in memory research, the tricks of the memory trade, and his often-hilarious experiences preparing for the memory competition. His story provided me with a unique view of how historical inventions, such as the printed book and of course technology, have caused humans to lose memory, and the ability to remember (much as unused muscles atrophy). A happy counterpoint to the many books on memory loss that I have been reading. Here’s hoping I can improve my own memory, or look upon memory loss as a DRAM too full that needs to be upgraded or erased!