Friday, January 28, 2011

Review: Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry by Rachel Hadas

Reviewed by Ingrid

[I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.]

Published: anticipated for February 2011

It's about: Rachel Hadas is a literary scholar and professor of English at Rutgers University. This is a memoir about how she has dealt with her husband's dementia through reading and writing. It is interspersed with Hadas' own poems as well as quotes and thoughts from/about other literature. She says in her introduction:
There were books toward which our situation steered me that I wouldn't read otherwise ... a very different group included books and stories I had read years before and that I know say in a new light ... though many of them are certainly beautiful, these works of literature didn't soothe or console or lull me with their beauty. On the contrary, they made me sit up and pay attention. Each in its own way, they helped me by telling me the truth, or rather a truth, about the almost overwhelming situation in which I found myself. I learned what isn't always obvious under such circumstances: I wasn't alone. Other people, these works reminded me, had experienced, if not precisely my dilemma, then their own, equally hard or harder. Those people had found the courage to face and describe situations which might easily have reduced them to silence. If silence was the enemy, literature was my best friend. No matter how lonely, frightened, confused, or angry I felt, some writer had captured the sensation.
Her memoir shows that literature has a way of pulling us through hard times and reminding us that there can somehow be beauty even in the boring and banal, even if it's simply in recognizing that others have been there too.

I thought: This book moved me deeply, perhaps partly because my grandmother also has a similar form of dementia which has been difficult emotionally for me family. I also very much connected with Hadas' personal feelings about literature and writing. I loved learning about Hadas' beautiful poetry in the context of her life and personal experiences. One part I particularly liked, concerning the act of rereading: "What I was reading wasn't new; the context was, and that new context informed the reading." Then she quotes Allegra Goodman (I just love this:)
I think unfolding is what rereading is about. Like pleated fabric, the text reveals different parts of its pattern at different times. And yet every time the text unfolds, in the library or in bed, or upon the grass, the reader adds new wrinkles. Memory and experience press themselves into reading so that each encoutner informs the next. 
Isn't that a beautiful thought? I loved how Hadas was able to capture her reading experience through quotes like these.

I absolutely loved this book and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who has found that literature and reading have become an inexplicable part of their personal life.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf. 

Reading Recommendations: Forget about the fact that this is a memoir about dementia and aging. I promise that if you give it a chance, you'll find Hadas' experience beautiful, moving, and very relatable.

Warnings: none.

Favorite excerpts:
"What's going on in other people's minds is notoriously hard to fathom. Only in fiction, perhaps, is it possible to see into another person's mind, to comprehend them wholly--but possible only for the author, not the characters. Even in fiction, characters who think they understand other people are often groping in the mist. Fiction can give us a clear picture of the confusion that human beings so often experience when their assumptions turn out to be erroneous, when their expectations clash with reality. My reading of fiction and poetry was inevitably colored by living alongside George's illness; I was often startled to be reminded of some of my experiences by passages not only in memoirs about dementia but also in novels about very different topics." 
"In literature, says the article to which my gaze keeps sliding back and back as this inquisition continues, we are seldom fully aware of why it is we're moved. Oh, so we're fully aware of that in life? Well, sometimes we are. But it is not a consummation devoutly to be wished when a day, or a piece of a days, achieves as much clarity as this bright September forenoon bestows. I dreaded this time around the table; los and behold, it turns out to be dreadful. But finally it is over, and George slams angrily out on one of his many daily walks. The nurse finishes her tea, and she and I finish our talk. Perhaps, if I hurry, I can still get to the farmer's market before it closes."
What I'm reading next: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth