The Wilder Aisles 

Janice Wilder has been a legend of Sydney bookselling for over 40 years.

September 2018

 - Monday, September 03, 2018
When I was sharing a house with my daughter, Gabriel, she frowned on me for watching medical shows. She couldn’t understand why I was so interested. I don’t quite know why myself—it’s certainly not the surgery, because I keep my eyes firmly closed when they show gory details. I think it’s the investigation, the searching for clues, and of course, the happy feelings all around when things go well—so I guess medical shows are rather like reading a crime novel for me—and the books I am writing about this month are all medical stories by neuroscientist, Lisa Genova. Although written as fiction, her stories are all based on real people. Genova is probably best known for her book, Still Alice, which is about a Harvard cognitive psychology and linguistics professor who is stricken by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The titular Alice is fifty years old, married with three children. When things start going wrong, Alice dismisses them—blaming the stress of her busy life, but as they get worse, she has to face the truth. Similarly, her husband at first refuses to accept that there may be a serious problem. He is a scientist, and stays engrossed in his work until the day when Alice can’t find her way home from the campus, and he is forced to address the situation. Both sad and frightening, the book has some lighter moments that are funny in a strange kind of way. And, as you all know, Julianne Moore won the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of Alice in the movie.

Next on my Genova binge is Inside the O’Briens. This is the story of Joe O’Brien—a policeman, who when getting ready to go to work one morning, can’t find his gun. Immediately and unreasonably, he blames his wife for continually moving things about. His wife and kids all deny this—the gun is always locked away in the bedside cupboard. Joe then loses control, lashing out verbally at his wide-eyed and silent family, finally picking up the frying pan and hurling it across the room. When he eventually calms down, he goes to the bathroom, and staring into the mirror he sees his mother’s eyes. Things get steadily worse and Joe, like Alice, has to face the fact that something is terribly wrong. That something turns out to be Huntington’s Disease—an inherited neurodegenerative disease which causes loss of voluntary motor control and the increase of involuntary movements. As the disease progresses, Joe has to face the prospect of leaving his family forever. How his wife and kids, friends and fellow officers react and cope with Joe’s terrible mood swings and violent outbursts makes for a story that is again sad, but heartwarming—seeing all the love and care that surrounds Joe in his terrible illness.

And now for the latest by Genova—and I think my favourite. Released in April this year, Every Note Played tells of Richard, a renowned concert pianist who is often away from home on tour, fêted by his adoring public. He is married to the Polish Karina—also a pianist. They live in Boston. While on tour around the world Richard has never remained faithful to Karina. He has had many encounters with women, all of which Karina is aware. Richard and Karina have a daughter, Grace. When Richard tells Karina he is leaving her, and Grace announces that she is also going away, a deserted Karina is left to ponder what her life alone will be like. Richard, meanwhile, has a major concert lined up in Chicago—a very important event. However, he has to cancel due to what he at first thinks is tendonitis—but turns out to be ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This is another motor neuron disease which results in the gradual loss of voluntary muscle control leading to paralysis. When first diagnosed Richard (of course) refuses to accept it—telling the doctors they’ve got it wrong—it’s Lyme Disease, or a pinched nerve. But when he finally accepts what is happening to him, he realises he needs all the help he can get. Although they are divorced, Karina forces herself to visit him when she hears of his predicament. Not knowing what to expect, she takes a bottle of wine, thinking they’ll have a meal together—but the visit doesn’t go well. Richard can’t bear Karina seeing him so compromised, and losing his temper, smashes the bottle of wine. Despite this, as he deteriorates, Karina moves in with him to help his carer with his day and night needs. How the family resolve their differences, including Grace who has been estranged from her father, makes a for great story of love, redemption and forgiveness—and also how Karina finds a great new life after all the turmoil. Janice Wilder