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Booklist Backlist: Tales of Dementia [in Booklist]

Gerda Saunders, who wrote Memory’s Last Breath (2017), an exquisitely bittersweet record chronicling her experiences with dementia, is one of my most beloved friends. We have books in common, in that we find great solace and escape in the (well-)written word. Inspired by our last visit together, here’s a list of illuminating memoirs and novels, in prose and graphic works, about the mysteries of dementia.

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast. 2014. Bloomsbury.

Cartoonist Chast’s 93-year-old mother falls from a ladder, and the rest becomes graphic history. Chast’s father sinks into dementia without his anchor, leaving Chast to navigate the resulting “sheer lunacy.” Chast runs the gamut of emotions and reactions from guilt to rage, weeping to advocating, mourning to celebrating.

Goodbye, Vitamin. By Rachel Khong. 2017. Holt.

Since the ex-boyfriend’s family home isn’t a holiday option anymore, untethered Ruth goes home to L.A. for Christmas. Her mother asks her to stay – for a year! – because her father’s forgetful, out-of-character behavior can’t be ignored anymore. His care grows into an all-family challenge in Khong’s gently comical, glorious debut.

Little Josephine: Memory in Pieces. By Valérie Villieu. Art by Raphaël Sarfati. Tr. by Nanette McGuinness. 2020. Humanoids.

Nurse Villieu meets isolated octogenarian Josephine, who eventually shares memories, sings, dances, talks politics, dresses up, and charms until her decline proves inevitable. Artist Sarfati elevates Villieu’s narrative into an irresistible graphic homage to a beguiling, “amazingly alive” woman inevitably lost to dementia.

Shadow Life. By Hiromi Goto. Art by Ann Xu. 2021. First Second.

Novelist/poet Goto makes her stupendous graphic debut in splendid artistic synchronization with Ignatz-nominated Xu. Septuagenarian widow Kumiko sneaks out of an assisted-living facility and moves into a tiny studio to spend her days exactly as she pleases, ignoring her increasingly worried daughters. When death attacks her, she insists “I’m not ready YET!” and impressively eludes its shadow until forgetting, falling, and losing her way inspire her to make meaningful reconnections.

Stars Are Not Yet Bells. By Hannah Lillith Assadi. 2022. Riverhead.

Assadi’s elegiac second novel unspools through the scattering memories of an aging woman facing dementia. Once upon a time, Elle was madly in love with drifter Gabriel, but her father promised her to Manhattan heir Simon. The new couple relocate to Lyra Island, off Georgia’s coast, where Simon spends a half-century seeking the source of the offshore “shimmering blue.” As Elle’s future dims, bits and pieces of her past erratically sparkle to reveal her elusive history.

Still Alice. By Lisa Genova. 2008. Pocket.

Before Julianne Moore’s lauded performance in the movie adaption, Genova’s debut novel introduced renowned Harvard professor Alice living a near-perfect life and celebrating her 50th birthday. Just months later, she’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Inevitable debilitation looms: “My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment.”

Swimmers. By Julie Otsuka. 2022. Knopf.

Award-winning Otsuka presents a stupendous collage of small moments that result in an extraordinary examination of the fragility of quotidian human relationships. When a neighborhood pool closes, some never swim again, most notably Alice, “a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia.” In Otsuka’s elegiac, devastating masterpiece, Alice’s surprising story becomes a polyphonic reveal through lingering memories.

Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me. By Sarah Leavitt. 2012. Skyhorse.

Leavitt memorializes her mother’s Alzheimer’s-induced decline “to record what was happening to her and to our family.” The resulting graphic debut achingly bears witness to the painful consequences of the disease, not only on Leavitt’s beloved mother, but also on the author’s father, her sister, her mother’s older sisters, and herself.

Turn of Mind. By Alice LaPlante. 2011. Atlantic Monthly.

On the kitchen wall is taped a large sign: “My name is Dr. Jennifer White. I am sixty-four years old. I have dementia.” Dr. White was a renowned hand surgeon before she retired. She keeps a notebook in which she records her memories; other family and friends also contribute to the pages. And then her best friend is found dead. What can Dr. White possibly recall?

Wrinkles. By Paco Roca. Tr. by Eric Mena. 2016. Fantagraphics.

Assisted-living homes provide alternatives when caring for aging parents becomes too much for adult children. Emilio begrudgingly lands in such a facility where his roommate, Miguel, an expert manipulator, becomes Emilio’s guide, enabler, and even his caretaker as his dementia quickly progresses. Wondrous (and weepful), Roca’s graphic title both disturbs and comforts.

Published: “Feature: Booklist Backlist: Tales of Dementia,” Booklist, February 15, 2022


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