Tag Archives: First Reads

Book Review: The Geography of Memory by Jeanne Murray Walker (3/5). Advice on how to deal with Alzheimers from 1,000 miles away.

6 Jun

I’ m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to read this book. I received it as part of a Goodreads giveaway at the end of last year and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. One of the main characters of my NaNo has Alzheimer’s, which is the focus of Walker’s memoir, so I thought this would be a great way to inspire me to keep writing my NaNo. I think it’s worked because I’ve been able to point out some flaws in my book based on hearing about Jeanne’s mom’s disease.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

The Geography of Memory by Jeanne Murray Walker

Jeanne never anticipated the day she’d have to take care of her mother. Wasn’t it a parent’s job to take care of their children, not the other way around? When Jeanne’s mother started showing signs of Alzheimer’s and Dementia, she and her sister took action. It was a long process to get their mother the treatment and care she needed. Their mother herself resisted along the way, insisting at times that she could take care of herself and didn’t need to help of her daughters. Jeanne lived in far away Pennsylvania and felt at times helpless to assist her sister with their mother’s care in Texas. Jeanne ended up fighting not only her mother’s illness, but with her inner demons of obligation and duty.

I’m really glad I read this book for my research. I could see the stead slip that Walker’s mother took into the disease and the ways it affected her communication. She does a wonderful job of comparing the stages of the disease and lets the reader know how sever the degradation is. As I read my NaNoWriMo draft about a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, I’m struck at how quick and jerky my character’s progression is and how I’ve inaccurately portrayed the important steps in Alzheimer’s progression. As research is discouraged during NaNo, I’m not surprised and I’m glad I have Walker’s story to provide some guidance.

I think Walker wrote about her mother in a very loving way. When someone around you is going through a trying medical condition, it can be easy to become angry; misplacing fear and frustration with the disease on the person him or herself. Maybe hindsight is 20-20 but Walker was very kind with her mother and her patience is commendable.

I liked the portrayal of Walker’s sister, Julie, who served as a primary caregiver due to her proximity to where their mother lived. I enjoyed reading about the struggle the sisters faced in their mother’s illness and how they were able to use it to strengthen their relationship. I admired Julie’s courage and strength to care for her mother and maintain her family obligations and job. She is a very strong woman.

I related to the character’s struggle a bit. When I was in middle school, my mom was in a bicycle accident and my brother and I had to help out a lot more than a 12- and 10-year-old would normally be expected to. I understood Walker’s initial confusion and disorientation about needing to care for the person who’s always cared for you. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to have both my parents with me and it looks like they’ll be around for a long time. I hope not to go through what she experienced for a long time.

Jeanne Murray Walker

Jeanne Murray Walker

Walker peppered the books with small flashbacks to her childhood that helped illustrate the stark differences between her mother of years before and the deteriorating woman she saw daily. These helped me see the change more strongly and I think helped her convey the change without hitting the reader over the head with it.

Reading about Walker’s mother moving was very difficult. It was obvious that part of what kept her centered was being in a place she recognized, but that was becoming impossible with her care needs. It was really hard to read about the emotional turmoil she went through to see her things in another space. I felt like her condition worsened more quickly at this point and it made me sad to read.

I felt a lot of hope in Walker’s book. She gave a message that even when we’re losing someone, there’s still a way to hold on to the person he or she used to be. I live far away from my grandparents and it’s hard to hear about their declining health (they’re in their 90s!). I know that even as they get older, their younger selves are still inside and will continue to thrive long past when they’re gone.

Writer’s Takeaway: Walker is a poet if one can believe the cover flap, and her prose had a lot of that poetic feel. I liked the emotional feel of this novel and I think that as a non-poet, it helped me feel more confident to use poetic license in prose. If something as factual as a memoir can be poetic, why can’t my Historical Fiction Young Adult novel?

I really enjoyed this book, but it didn’t grip me. I found the beginning a bit slow and kept finding myself reading something else. The ending was tight and well constructed and kept my attention. Three out of five stars.

This book fulfilled ‘Texas’ for my Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
the geography of memory | Melissa Reeser Poulin
Bearing witness to hope when memory fails | Adele Gallogly

Book Review: The Absent Lord by Jason Beacon

28 Oct

I read this book after receiving it through the Goodreads First Reads program. The description reminded me of The Princess Bride and I was intrigued and was a lucky winner.

Cover Image from Goodreads.com

Cover Image from Goodreads.com

The Absent Lord by Jason Beacon

Beacon describes this book as ‘not quite a novel’ and I’m guessing it’s because of the length.  While 192 pages, the book itself is physically small and would amount to a much thinner book if printed in a more traditional publishing size. I liked the small book, it was refreshing after the 900 page Harry Potter I’m working on. It’s set up as a story-within-a-story. While I’ve seen a few plays and movies in this format, I had yet to read a book in the style.

The outer story is of a man named Marcus who suddenly loses his job . Marcus takes the news badly and his girlfriend, Elizabeth, recommends he see Dr. Ummond, a non-traditional psychiatrist.  Marcus finds Dr. Ummond unbearable and after a brief session says he will not return.  Nonetheless, he is back days later and Ummond says that he can help solve Marcus’s problems if he will agree to listen to the story of the Absent Lord. If Marcus is not changed by the end, he does not have to pay for the sessions.  Marcus agrees.

The Absent Lord is the story of a great lord who agrees to join with the other lords and royalty of his kingdom to go on a quest to find an island of great riches. He leaves his home in the care of his servants and departs, expecting to be gone for a year, two at most. As soon as he is out of the castle, his servants begin breaking into his library and acquiring all of the knowledge therein. Having become so educated, they are beyond their household duties and spend their days with friends who are also well educated and the house falls into disrepair.

Ten years later, the Lord has not returned and the cook begins to reminisce about the good old days. She finds a stranger in the road who has lost his memory and agrees to take him in to help around the house now that the servants are either drunk, having panic attacks, or too intellectual to help. The former beast-tender has started becoming a philanderer and a woman he snubs brings her castle to the Lord’s castle to attack it. In their misery, the servants are all longing for the Lord to come back.  The cook starts to suspect that the stranger is their Absent Lord and is able to trick him into remembering how to write and shows the stranger that his handwriting matches that of the Absent Lord. The Lord’s memory comes flooding back and he recalls that he has given the cook a key to his top-floor study which she produces. He goes to the tower and lights one of his hand-crafted candles, letting the Princess in the neighboring castle, his true love, know that he has returned.

The story moves Marcus in ways he cannot understand. He begins to ask about others well-being and focus on his relationship with his girlfriend rather than his joblessness. He cannot articulate that he is changed and does not have to pay Ummond’s fee but leaves a changed man.

The Absent Lord was a cute little novel.  Using the story-within-a-story technique made what would have been a child-like fairy tale something that adults could relate to. I’ll admit that I was more of a fan of the internal story than the external story and I almost feel that I should review them separately. Like Marcus couldn’t understand his changes, as the reader I was also unsure of how the story connected to his change in mood. I saw the parallelism between the story’s message to look out for those around you and Marcus’ change to be sensitive to other’s needs, but I didn’t see how the story caused this change.

A very prevalent motif in the book was a lit candle. The lit candle tracked the time Marcus and Ummond spent together, it tracked the time the Lord was away from his home, and in the end, it was able to open a door. The motif even went so far that Beacon included a tea candle in the package when he sent me his book. I could even go on to call it a symbol and extrapolate on the meaning, but I could be way off. My best guess would be the light is insight burning inside of Marcus.

Beacon was making a point about being unselfish and thinking of the welfare of those worse off than oneself. I didn’t see Marcus as particularly selfish leading up to his transformation, so it was somewhat hard for me to see him as changed at the end. The transformation of the servants in the inner story was more obvious to me, especially the cook, who was my favorite character by far.

Writer’s Takeaway: Beacon’s technique of using a story-within-a-story allows him to use something usually associated with children, a fairy tale, and make it applicable to adults by giving the outer characters very mature problems. It’s something I’d never considered before.

There were a few things in the story that detracted from my enjoyment of it. Specifically the tendency to refer to someone in dialogue as ‘the other.’ It wasn’t incorrect, but unusual enough to make me stop and think. There were a few times I thought the text contradicted itself (Elizabeth described as both plain and beautiful for example) and I was confused about what I was supposed to think at the end. I wasn’t completely sure Marcus was cured (and how bad of a situation his relationship had been in in the first place) and how the inner and outer stories connected. The names of the inner story characters showed up surrounding Dr. Ummond in the end and I think I was supposed to think the story was real, but instead I thought the inner story author stole names from Ummond’s friends. I think adding a little more detail to the outer story would have helped to connect the inner and outer stories and made the novella seem more cohesive as a whole. While as writers we are told to value brevity, I feel we can sometimes be too brief and could benefit from more backstory.

Three out of five stars, a nice short read.

Until next time, write on.

Goodreads First Reads

11 Oct

If you’re not already aware of Goodreads’ First Reads program, I’m here to inform you.  If you are, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

To summarize, First Reads is a platform for authors to give away copies of their books to a user who requests it.  They author (or publisher) can put as many copies as they like available for giveaway and set an end date at which time winners are selected.  Sometimes it’s to raise awareness and other times to try to get reviews at a launch.

I’ve been lucky enough to win four books off of first reads in only two weeks.  As my To-Read shelf is increasing exponentially, I’ve decided to stop and give other readers a chance to win.  I talked about two of the books I won, the first being The Almond Tree.  I received this book in the mail only a few days later and it’s nestled safely on my bookshelf.  The next I hope to get is The Tilted World which I blogged about on Wednesday.  I was really excited to see this book in a bookstore I went to Tuesday night.  I felt like I was cheating because I had it being sent to my house!

I want to take this opportunity to tell you about the other two books I’m anxiously awaiting.  The first is called The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s by Jeanne Murray Walker.  I entered to win this because my NaNo WIP has a character who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  The novel follows Walker as she takes care of her mother during her journey with Alzheimer’s.  I think this book will be a good place to draw from for some of the details of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient.

The second book I want to tell you about is called The Absent Lord by Jason Beacon.  There are only a limited number of copies of this book available and it will be released November 1.  It’s the story of a man forced into couples counseling.  To keep his relationship alive, he agrees to hear the story of the Absent Lord and is forever changed.  I entered to win this book because it sounded like The Princess Bride which I’ll admit I haven’t read, but loved the movie.  I was surprised to see I’d won and even had a personal message from the author in my Goodreads inbox!  I’m very anxious to get this book read and add my review to its page before the book even comes out.

So there you have it: my First Reads experience.  What has been your First Reads experience?  Have you read all your books from it?  Have you used it to promote your own book?  Please let me know in a comment, I’d love to hear from you.