One-Minute Book Reviews

March 17, 2010

Paula Span’s ‘When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:07 am
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A journalist’s report on adult children and elderly parents who needed help

When Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions. Springboard, 276 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Ilze Earner spent weeks looking for a doctor who would accept Medicare after her elderly mother moved in with her in Claverack, New York, a hamlet in upstate New York. That may have been the easy part.

Earner’s mother, Milda Betins, later refused to take her arthritis medication, saying, “Medicine is poison.” She missed her Latvian-speaking friends back at her retirement community in New Jersey. And both women wondered how to deal with to Ilze’s father, who had dementia and lived in a nearby nursing home. When they visited, he called his wife “a whore” and said, “Leave me alone.” How should they respond to comments from a man who had severely impaired “executive functioning,” the ability to make decisions?

“Everyone reminds you that this is not your father talking, it’s the disease,” Ilze said. “But how do you separate the two …?”

Paula Span devotes more than 20 pages to the story of Ilze Earner and Milda Betins in When the Time Comes. And that’s typical of her approach in a book that follows several American families as elderly parents consider options that include home care, a nursing home, assisted living, and hospice. Books on caregiving often have bland and sanitized care studies by therapists that barely suggest the challenges involved. This one comes from a former staff writer for the Washington Post Magazine who brings a journalist’s eye for detail to stories that are complex, realistic and interesting.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

March 24, 2009

Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoir of Her Husband’s Traumatic Brain Injury

Filed under: Memorial Day,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:10 am
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Love and sex in the time of brain damage.

When someone’s personality is altered by a brain injury, has the person changed or has the incident brought out what was there all along? Alix Kates Shulman explores stimulating questions like these in To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 192 pp., $22), a memoir of her life with her husband after he fell nine feet to the floor from a sleeping loft and survived with limits resembling those of advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

Shulman tells how, in the months after Scott’s accident, she came to understand the Latin phrase amor fati, which means “to love what is” or “to love your fate.” She writes with insight of the physical and emotional complexities of her husband’s traumatic brain injury (TBI), including its effect on their sex life. And she describes the incompetent care her husband received from mental-health professionals at a good hospital and her amazement on learning that she could fire them. That section alone might surprise  relatives of physically ill people for whom doctors have prescribed psychiatric care that the patients will have to pay for if their insurers won’t. Shulman has posted a generous amount of material adapted from the book on her Psychology Today blog, Love and Dementia, and the first chapter appears on her publisher’s site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 19, 2009

John Bayley on Living With His Wife’s Alzheimer’s Disease, ‘Elegy for Iris’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:09 am
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Few people have written of Alzheimer’s disease as eloquently as John Bayley does in Elegy for Iris (Picador, 1999), his memoir of 45 years with the novelist Iris Murdoch, which inspired the film Iris. Among his observations:

“Our mode of communication seems like underwater sonar, each bouncing pulsations off the other, then listening for an echo.”

“Alzheimer’s is, in fact, like an insidious fog, barely noticeable until everything around has disappeared. After that, it is no longer possible to believe that a world outside fog exists.”

“The terror of being alone, of being cut off for even a few seconds from the familiar object, is a feature of Alzheimer’s. If Iris could climb inside my skin now, or enter me as if I had a pouch like a kangaroo, she would do so.”

Bayley also foreshadows Murdoch’s development of Alzheimer’s in describing the early years of their relationship:

“I was far too preoccupied at the time to think of such parallels, but it was like living in a fairy story – the kind with sinister overtones and not always a happy ending – in which a young man loves a beautiful maiden who returns his love but is always disappearing into some unknown and mysterious world, about which she will reveal nothing.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 2, 2009

Helen Garner’s ‘The Spare Room’ — Cancer Tests a Friendship in a Prize-Winning Australian Novel Written at a 9-Year-Old Reading Level

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:24 am
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A dying woman tests others’ patience when she takes the advice of quacks at a sham clinic

The Spare Room. By Helen Garner. Holt, 192 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

How should we treat terminally ill people who don’t accept that they are dying? Should we support the delusion that they will get better – on the premise that false hope is better than none – or tell the truth?

These questions underlie The Spare Room, a short novel about a friendship between two women in their 60s that is tested when one develops metastatic bowel cancer. After conventional treatments fail, Nicola moves in with Helen for three weeks in order to try the alternative therapies peddled by a sham clinic in Melbourne, Australia: Laetrile, coffee enemas, intravenous vitamin C, and an “ozone sauna” said to promote “sweating out the toxins.” Helen is initially solicitous but runs out of patience as she cares around-the-clock for Nicola, who at first rejects the few remaining medical options that might ease her pain, such as slow-release morphine capsules. Helen’s repressed fury leads to a confrontation in which she cruelly pelts her friend with accusations such as, “I wait on you hand and foot” and “Can’t you use your brains?”

Helen’s frustrations are understandable in the abstract and described in prose as smooth as glass. But The Spare Room never gets below the surface of its characters, perhaps in part because it is written at a 9-year-old reading level, according two widely used measures of readability. How could Helen turn so mean-spirited so fast? Garner would have you believe that the change grew out of the physical and emotional strains of nursing a difficult adult. That’s part of her point: Caring for the dying can turn us into people we don’t recognize.

But many people face such demands more gracefully, and Garner doesn’t make clear why Helen didn’t. The Spare Room works best when it sticks to describing the horrors of Nicola’s cancer: the pain, the night sweats, the crone-like posture. The most credible words in this novel will come as no surprise to anyone who has cared for a dying relative, or watched a World War II movie: “God bless morphine.”

Best line: The opening paragraph: “First, in my spare room, I swiveled the bed onto a north-south axis. Isn’t that supposed to align the sleeper with the planet’s positive energy flow, or something? She would think so. I made it up nicely with a fresh fitted sheet, the pale pink one, since she had a famous feel for color, and pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish.”

Worst line: A comment made Helen’s five-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, who has seen Saddam Hussein on television: “What did he do, Nanna, to make him a baddie?” The “Nanna” in midsentence is stilted. A 5-year-old would be more likely put it at the beginning. And the low reading makes many lines seem dumbed-down.

About the reading level: The Spare Room has a fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level, according to tests of pages 17–18 and pages 117–118 that used the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics and the Spache Readbility Formula.

Published: February 2009

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Spare Room was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 2, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this review.

About the author: Garner is a novelist and the author of the true-crime books The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, both bestsellers in her native Australia. Her Wikipedia entry lists some of her awards.

Garner talks about The Spare Room in an audio podcast.

One-Minute Book Reviews is the home of the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. A list of the ten 2009 finalists and passages from the books that helped them make the shortlist appeared last week.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

November 5, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – A Blog on Cancer That Begins Where Books Leave Off

Filed under: Blogging News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 pm
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Even the best books on cancer often have a built-in liability. It typically takes at least a year to write a book and another nine months or so for the finished manuscript to appear in print. The result? Good books may not reflect the latest research, a liability for anyone trying to make complex decisions about treatment.

So tonight I’d like to go off message and recommend a new blog on cancer by two good reporters — one a caregiver and the other a patient – both on staff at the Record in northern New Jersey. Leslie Brody has been helping her husband cope with pancreatic cancer since his diagnosis in 2006. My friend Lindy Washburn is a health-care writer for the Record who had surgery and radiation for breast cancer in 2007. Washburn is a two-time winner of the New Jersey Press Association Journalist of the Year Award and a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, who has also won the Investigative Reporters and Editors gold medal and was part of a team that won first-ever Grantham Prize for environmental reporting.

Brody and Washburn wrote a moving and series of articles about their experiences www.northjersey.com/specialreports/livingwithcancer.html. And it led to their Living With Cancer blog www.njmg.typepad.com/cancerblog/, which combines personal stories with up-to-date reporting and links to other good sources of information on cancer.

There are good blogs on cancer and good blogs by newspaper reporters, but Living With Cancer is both. If cancer has touched your life, this site is worth visiting.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 13, 2007

The ‘Tyranny of Positive Thinking’ and Cancer Patients — A Physician-Author Says That It’s Not Always Best to Tell People to ‘Be Optimistic’

Can you give too much encouragement to people who are ill?

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, I reviewed Betty Rollin’s Here’s the Bright Side and objected to its theme that all human suffering holds “a hidden prize waiting to be found.” I argued that some losses are so sad — the death of a child, say — that urging people to find their “bright side” is cruel.

Later I read some interesting, related comments by Jimmie Holland, chair of Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. They appeared in an article Leslie Brody wrote about caring for her husband, who has pancreatic cancer, for the New Jersey daily, The Record, on May 20, 2007.

“Think twice before telling the patient to ‘be positive,’” Brody wrote. She added:

“Dr. Jimmie C. Holland, author of The Human Side of Cancer and a pioneer in the psychological aspects of the illness, has written about the ‘tyranny of positive thinking.’ When people insist patients should ‘be optimistic,’ they imply that those who get sicker may be to blame for not trying hard enough to stay upbeat and conquer the disease.

“Holland says a patient’s mind-set might help him stick to a grueling chemo regimen, but it’s less clear whether attitudes and emotions in themselves can affect tumor growth or the body’s response. Patients — and their families — should feel free to vent depressing and anxious thoughts without being judged.

“Instead of saying ‘Chin up,’ or, ‘You’ll be fine,’ it’s better to say, ‘Hang in there,’ or ‘We’re thinking of you,’ or ‘We’re hoping for the best.’”

Links: To read the original review of Here’s the Bright Side, click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/21/. To read about The Human Side of Cancer, click here www.humansideofcancer.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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