For Christmas I begged for John Thorndike’s memoir, The Last of His Mind: A Year in the Shadow of Alzheimer’s. Naturally it was under the tree. The subject of Alzheimer's doesn’t resonate with me, thank God - I asked for the book because I love Thorndike’s other books - but there is truly something for everybody here.
Thorndike leaves his farm, writing, and life in Athens, Ohio, to live with his 91-year-old father in Cape Cod when it becomes clear Joe can no longer live alone. This insightful memoir documents Joe's deterioration from Alzheimer's and Thorndike's own struggle to keep on an even keel. In addition to the daily record of painful observations of his father’s regression, depression, and confusion about simple tasks like dressing and going to the bathroom, Thorndike attempts--too late, as he says--to learn the story of Joe’s marriage to John’s mother, Virginia, a beautiful, successful doctor who committed suicide years after the divorce. Joe, an editor at Life and the founder of Horizon and American Heritage, was emotionally cold and withholding. Virginia left him for another man, who then deserted her.
"I lie in my room, with the notes spread out on the bed, and wonder about it. Maybe she'd have wandered anyway--but maybe not, if my father had been more affectionate and playful. Instead, he kept his distance. He folded his arms, he sat upright on the couch or leaned faintly away from her, he never reached over and took a bit of food off her plate. At night he slept in his single bed. I never heard him tell my mohter how good she looked or smelled or felt."
Thorndike's musings about his upper-class, emotionally-deprived childhood are devastating. If you're like me, you know one, two, or, let's face it, several men who had this same relationship with their fathers. Thorndike is nice--almost too nice about it--but also tries to understand his anger, the misery over the deprivation of touch as an adolescent, and envy of his father's power.
Fortunately, he found refuge in the hippie culture of the '60s and leads a life that is the complete opposite of his father's ambitious choices. He writes, farms, builds houses, and raised a son, Janir, on his own. He compares his affectionate relationship with his adult son to that of himself and his father.
The writing is very clear, but muted--I hope he gets back to the novel he abandoned to care for his father--and this book will undoubtedly mean a great deal to anyone with an aging parent with Alzheimer's.
WHAT YOU WANT: What do you want for Christmas, now that Christmas is over? And why weren’t these books published BEFORE Christmas?
1. Gail Godwin’s new novel, Unfinished Desires. I’ve enjoyed most of this intelligent, lively Southern writer’s novels. In the ‘70s I fell in love with her novel, The Odd Woman, which I discovered after reading Gissing’s 19th-century classic, The Odd Women--well, I was bound to enjoy a novel about a midwestern college professor who likes 19th century novels, and it was recommended by a 19th-century lit professor. It broadened my horizons, as I read very little modern stuff back then, making exceptions only for Godwin, John Cheever, and Michael Moorcock.
2. Anne Tyler’s new novel, Noah's Compass. She’s a consistently good, solid, humorous writer: Iif you like one of her witty, whimsical novels, you’ll probably like them all. My favorite was Morgan’s Passing--something with puppeteers--but I also loved The Accidental Tourist. But she is not to everyone's taste: one of my professors called her "the most overrated writer in America."
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