Short Takes

Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

December 15, 2012 

"All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments" by Alex Witchel.

Nonfiction

All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments

Alex Witchel, Riverhead, 214 pages

“All Gone,” by Alex Witchel, a writer for The New York Times Magazine known for her snappy celebrity profiles, tells how her mother, born Barbara Goldfein, taught her that “getting to the bottom of things was a worthy pursuit.” Another of her mother’s admirable qualities, Witchel recalls, was that she “gets on with it.”

Until her dementia was diagnosed, Barbara was a demon at getting on with it. After earning her doctorate in the 1960s she became a psychology professor. All the while she remained an efficient homemaker who specialized in the kind of Jewish comfort food that is no longer in vogue: meatloaf, paprika potatoes, tuna and salmon salad, kreplach, roast chicken and latkes. “In our house, it was always the old days.”

Dementia turns this wonder woman into a stranger. But even as she free falls, in a rare sentient moment she consoles her daughter with words that no child of aging parents wants to hear: “There’s nothing you can do, because it’s not up to you.”

Once Mom has receded, too much time is spent touring through Witchel’s fabulous New York life. Fortunately this Good Daughter recovers sufficiently to provide a satisfying ending at the dinner table, where she serves her husband Mom’s roast chicken.

New York Times

The End of Your Life Book Club

Will Schwalbe, Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pages

In 2007 former publishing executive Will Schwalbe learned that his mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, had pancreatic cancer. Doctors predicted she would live for six months; mother and son started their own book club. He remarks that tackling long books at the end of your life can be consoling: “You had to have a lot of time left if you were going to start reading Bolano, or Thomas, or Halberstam.” And here he is confessing to his mother that he has never read “Crossing to Safety,” even though for years he misled his colleagues: “There’s a difference between casually fibbing to a bookseller and lying to your 73-year-old mother when you are accompanying her for treatments to slow the growth of a cancer that had already spread from her pancreas to her liver by the time it was diagnosed.”

Mary Anne Schwalbe was director of admissions at Harvard and worked for various organizations helping refugees. She traveled to Afghanistan and other dangerous places all over the world many times. Schwalbe portrays her as kind, generous and wise.

At moments Schwalbe’s description of his mother’s virtue – and the golden aura surrounding the whole Schwalbe family – becomes almost too much to bear. Such sentimentality is forgivable, though, partly because he also provides so many great lines about books. “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing,” he writes, “it’s the opposite of dying.”

New York Times

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