“Still Alice” (Alzheimer’s disease) and beyond

Originally an email written on Aug. 2, 2011:


Though I’m not sure whether you enjoy reading or have as much time as I do, I’d like to recommend a novel (from US) that I’ve just finished reading. I think of you mainly because of the main subject of the novel, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) (or dementia in general). We’ve had a lot of discussion in this subject (because of my Mom). It’s “Still Alice” written by Lisa Genova (who has a PhD in neuroscience).

There’s no colossal emotional undulation in this novel but the readers easily empathize with and feel emotionally attached to the protagonist, Alice (a 50 years old Harvard Prof. of Psychology). Though it’s a novel, I’ve learnt a lot about early-onset Alzheimer’s disease both medically and emotionally. Through the point of view of Alice, we learn about her steady decline in her memory and cognitive status. It’s probably especially hard for an intelligent individual to lose all of their superior capabilities. I find some comfort to see that Alice got closer to her youngest daughter Lydia after her disease was disclosed. The husband, John, may represent the painful reality and he seems to place more importance to his work than his wife. At times, we feel that he still loved his wife but more often he seemed very selfish even though he’s reasonable and cared for his wife. We probably need a novel narrated from his (caregiver’s) point of view. Alice’s children are the ones who seem to show her the most love and real support.

At the end, one doesn’t feel too sad nor depressive even though the reality is harsh to deal with. It’s not a book that tries to make you cry but the readers may have all the empathy in the world for Alice (a lovable person).

Since my Mom apparently is suffering from AD (early stage), at times I wondered whether AD has genetic linkage. But somehow, I’ve never bothered to google before I read this book ! From this novel, it’s clearly a “yes”, esp. for early-onset AD. APP, PS1 and PS2 were mentioned in the book. Among Alice’s children, different from her sister/brother, Lydia chose not to want to know (check) whether she had those genetic mutations. I understand that genetic mutations don’t always lead to AD … So, to know or not to know …. hmm … hmm …

Genova doesn’t go deep into neuroscience at all and the description is mostly “psychological”. I guess this may be closer to you (as a psychiatrist). This reminds me of the non-fiction book “Delusions Of Gender” by the psychologist Cordelia Fine that I read in May. I got a strong psychology vs neuroscience reality check. Though Fine’s purpose is to show that sex itself doesn’t necessarily lead to certain preferences that people think are due to sex. She’s also convinced me that (quoting my own review) “the brain was still too complicated for the present science and technologies to disentangle comprehensively.” Yes, we know too little to say anything definitely.

Another (non-fiction) book that I read (a month ago) about memory is “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer. Starting as a new journalist doing investigation, he (after a year) became the US Memory Champion in 2006 ! I read this book with a partial intention to see how one may improve one’s memory that I may even teach myself and my Mom ! … But at the end, I learnt that one needed to work hard in order to memorize things better (though “image” does help memorizing).

In recent years, I often feel that I tend to enjoy a novel more if it’s written by a scientist (or even an engineer). Immediate examples on top of my head are people like 蔡智恒 (civil engineer) and 侯文詠 (doctor) in Taiwan and 張系國 (who has been) in US. All these people have PhD’s in their professions (and write Chinese novels). I often feel that I apparently understand what they write better. Though I’m emotional, I somehow am able to grasp some rationalism and sensibleness in all their novels even though it may be a romantic novel.

An auxiliary feature or consequence of scientist-turned writer is that, eg. Genova doesn’t use too many fancy/sophisticated vocabularies nor slang. The only slang that I’ve come across and remembered is “playing hooky” on (p.115). There are some medical terms, sometimes even not related to AD such as preeclampsia (p.31) and episiotomies (p.32), but they’re manageable.

And another important factor (for my liking this category of writers) is probably that I (too) often dream of myself as a novelist and reading their novels may be like some valuable lessons for me. Just about a hundred thousand words or two hundred something pages …. The only major barrier is probably lack of “creativity” … hahaha.

Google-ing a bit, I realize that Genova doesn’t seem to be in academia (not any more). Though she’s got PhD from Harvard in neuroscience, she’s also Meisner-trained in acting ! And (of course) she’s got no training in writing (as she said). In this aspect, writing is so “cheap” … and everybody can write but just not too many people would read !! Interestingly, Genova originally self-published this novel in 2007 and only afterwards when it became popular, it’s re-published by “Pocket Books” in 2009. I remember 林詠琛 in Hong Kong also “self-published” her first novel …

At times, I often “wish” that the Tea-Party would take over the US govt. and they’d probably cut our budgets deep or even close Dept. of Energy (Sarah Palin had suggested that ) and eventually we’ll all be fired. Maybe then, I could be as “free” as Genova to write a novel …

Nevertheless, I’ve tried my best not to make a living having to put too much effort to please other people. But writing a novel and trying to publish it has the inherent element to “please” other people so much that they’d buy your book ! …. It’s sort of completely against my temperament. Hahaha …Too bad.

So, at least for now, one can’t quit one’s day job …



About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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