‘Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s’

tanglesMore than 5 million American may have Alzheimer’s diseases, an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that steals memories, thinking skills and the ability to live life on a daily basis, according to the National Institute on Aging. Symptoms often first appear when a person is in his or her mid-60s, leaving someone else – a loved one or professional care provider – to look after the patient as the disease, the most common cause of dementia among older adults, progresses.

There is no cure, and the time to death can be as little as a few years in older patients to as long as 10 or more years if the person is younger. The disease is personal, affecting each patient – and caregiver – differently.

In “Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s,” Susan Cushman, a Jackson native who now calls Memphis home, shares blog entries spanning more than eight years as she deals with her mother’s progressive dementia and the feelings as an adult child becomes the parent figure.

Cushman shares what’s in her heart as she comes to grips with this incurable disease that’s stealing life from her mother, Effie Johnson, who lives in Jackson. The author realizes that as the mother forgets, the daughter must forgive. As memories die, Cushman learns that others live on, handed down to the next generation. Stories of growing up in Jackson; visiting her parents’ retail sports store, Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports; and eating Christmas fudge and divinity with her mom.

“Mom is second-generation Alzheimer’s,” Cushman wrote in her introduction. “Her mother died with the disease at age 86 – in the same nursing home where my mother lived.”

The collection is extremely personal, and each blog, starting with the first on Nov. 24, 2007, was written within a day or two of visiting her mom. Cushman writes about the simplest thing – misplaced glasses – to the hardest – end-of-life issues. Effie Watkins Johnson, 88, bedridden and speechless, died last year after eight years in a nursing home.

“I never had reservations about sharing these stories which began as blog posts, so they were ‘out there’ as they were happening,” Cushman said by email. “Writing them was therapeutic, of course, but the responses from people reading my blog became a greater impetus to continue writing and sharing the posts.”

The title not only refers to biological markers – amyloid protein plaques and tau proteins tangles seen in an Alzheimer patient’s brain, but also the tangles and scars of emotional and physical baggage. As the twisted fibers (tangles) build up inside the brain’s nerve cells and protein fragments (plaques) fill the spaces between those cells, Cushman’s mother is losing her memory, the very stories that make up the fabric of her life.

Cushman finds humor when possible, but turns to others – God, medical experts, friends and even her past – when the days are rough or cloudy. Her tone is more conversational than most accounts dealing with Alzheimer’s, and that’s what makes her writing so real – and raw. She doesn’t gloss over past problems she’s had with her mom or the hurtful things that a dementia person can unintentionally say or do. The author shares the strength she finds from forgiveness and letting go of the guilt of being a long-distance caregiver.

As the number of Alzheimer’s disease patients increases each year, so do the number of caregivers. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia, and that more that 15 million people are caring for those with dementia. Knowing that someone like Cushman has been where you may someday find yourself offers an extra dose of strength and dignity.

“Tangles and Plaques is not a ‘how to’ for caregivers of loved ones with Alzheimer’s,” Cushman said. “It’s not an academic work or a resource for caregivers.

“But,” she said, “the essays are full of real-life anecdotes, reflections, frustrations and things learned along the journey. I hope that readers who are caregivers will relate, will feel that they are not alone, and will even find places to laugh and to cry as they read our story.”

‘The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women ‘

the-radium-girlsTrials and tribulations are nothing new. We know that human struggles are as old as time. What a person does when he stumbles upon those rocky roads can either make or break the spirit.

Oftentimes people go out of their way to clear the path for others. They may do it for glory, fame or weather. But most times, in my opinion, they do it silently with a pure motive – to help others. That assistance can take many forms – justice, education, awareness, kindness – or just because it’s the right thing to do. Such is the message I’ve found in several memoirs that I’ve recently enjoyed.

A powerful historic accounting of trying to right a wrong can be found in “The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women.” The detail recounting by Kate Moore documents the struggle to establish rights for individual workers who contract occupational diseases. In this case, five women went through physical and mental hell to paint tiny numbers on clocks and such. “The Radium Girls,” published by Source Books, is the first historical narrative that fully explores the strength of extraordinary women in the face of almost impossible circumstances and the astonishing legacy they left behind.

What sets this narrative apart is the author’s depth of research and documentation. We see the women’s struggles; we feel their pain.

As early as 1917, radium was extracted to produce luminous paints. Plants in the United States and Canada hired thousands of workers, mostly women many just in their teens, to hand-paint numbers to fulfill lucrative defense contracts. They mixed glue, water and radium powder to apply the glowing paint to dials. The workers used their lips to keep the paintbrushes pointed, licking the tip as they met their individual quota of 250 dials a day. After work, they painted themselves with the luminous paint, including their faces, skin and even teeth.

While scientists and chemists used lead screens, masks and such to protect themselves from radium exposure, the dial painters were assured there were no dangers, no health risks and that radium might even make their hair and skin more lustrous. In fact, radiation leaking into their bodies was proving to be very unhealthy, causing anemia, bone fractures and cancer. Jaw bones frequently were rotting and breaking into pieces, leaving the women disfigured for life.

Even as co-workers began to get sick and die, the women were told not to worry. Anyone who complained was easily replaced. Economic times were tough, and the pay was good – nearly 2 cents a dial!

The medical community offered little help – or hope – for the women and their families. Efforts to diagnose and treat radium exposure did lead to new inventions, though, including one that measures exhaled radon. New ways of documenting health information were developed to track more than 2,403 cases and tolerance levels were established. Ultimately, radiation exposure became a recognized health hazard.

Early attempts at legal action failed against the predominant company U.S. Radium Corp., but finally five women were able to take their case to court.  Dubbed the “Radium Girls,” they didn’t want much – a bit of financial help with the astronomically high medical bills – but importantly, they wanted safety measures put in place and acknowledgment of the companies’ wrongdoings by hiding or lying about radium dangers.
Through their efforts, litigation and media publicity, legal precedent was set. These women, and all the silent workers impacted by poor working conditions, led the way for the enactment and enforcement of labor safety standards.

The women of “The Radium Girls” weren’t able to prevent their bodies from being poisoned, but their actions cleared the way for a healthier, safer working environment for generations to come. Their brave stance against corporate injustice and greed is a tale worth telling and a lesson worth learning.

ARC provided by NetGalley

‘Orphans of the Carnival’

orphansWhat a captivating novel! Seeing the world from the perspective of a carnival “freak” is a twist, especially when the heroine captivates the 19th century world with her uniqueness.

Julia Pastrana was billed as the hairiest woman, the ugliest human and more. This is the fictionalized accounting of a real person, a “hybrid” who rose to fame in the mid-1800s. Audiences across the world craved to see her dance and sing. On stage, she’ was cheered. In life, she was shunned. Through it all, the thing she wanted most – to be loved and accepted – remained just beyond her grasp.

Carol Birch has done a fine job re-creating a past era and its social standards. The end result is a fascinating piece of historic fiction. Her focus is a look at humanity not as a curiosity, but what it means to be human.

ARC provided by NetGalley

‘How May I Help You? An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage’

how-may-i-helpI don’t know what I expected with this memoir. Whatever it was, I came away with much more when I turned the last page of “How May I Help You? An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage.”

Deepak Singh brought me into his world – a world of struggles not in a desperate country, but one of desperation to fit into the American dream. A MBA does him no good as he’s forced to start at the bottom in a new country. It’s not just a new job, but a new life that he faces, one where he has to take new steps each day to learn the culture, the language, social customs and more.

He opened this reader’s eyes to look beyond the name badge and see the person standing there. This should be required reading for all new managers with international staffs. Good job, Deepak Singh!

ARC provided by NetGalley

‘Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life With a Very Large Dog’

gizelleIt’s true – dogs are man’s best companion, or in this case, a woman’s best friend.

Lauren Watt captures every dog owner’s heart with her experience of love and adventure with Gizelle, a 160-pound English Mastiff. This is a true story that will make you cry, chuckle and hug your pet – all at the same time.

When the author, a professional travel writer, learns her longtime companion had bone cancer, she makes a bucket list of things to do while Gizelle was still able. Things like eating ice cream, chomping on doughnuts, people watching and even a canoe ride.

“Travel is a huge passion of mine, and Gizelle was a big motivation to go on new adventures with her while I still could,” Watt said in a BuzzFeed interview.

The day before Gizelle died, they sat together by the ocean and Maine and watched the snow fall. “I knew she would live on through my experiences, and that I gave her the best life I could. And that to me was infinitely healing,” according to an essay Watt wrote for Yahoo Travel.

After all, the gentle giant had been by her side through turbulent times, rough break-ups, her mom’s addictions and a move to a strange city, just to name a few of their adventures together.

As Watt illustrates with words, a dog’s love is unconditional – and it should be returned in kind by its human.

P.S. When “Gizelle’s Bucket List” comes out on the big screen, take tissues – lots of tissues.

ARC provided by NetGalley

‘The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett’

lizzieAuthor Chelsea Sedoti must have hated her teenage years. The angst of wanting to fit in is the primary message in “The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett,” but the conversation gets as messed up as a teenager’s room.

First, misfit Hawthorn Creely doesn’t have many friends, so she fixates on the seemingly perfect life of Lizzie Lovett, a recent high school graduate and former cheerleader. When Lizzie goes missing, Hawthorn is determined to find her. All this is the making of a good novel.

What sends this novel off its tracks, though, is its unbelievability – parents who don’t question where she goes; long days and nights spent in the apartment of a guy in his mid-20s; and a belief Lizzie became a werewolf. Oh, don’t forget the gypsy/hippies who live behind the Lovett home for months with no interference by city officials.

I read the novel until its end hoping that I’d gain some hidden, deep message about teenagers. I didn’t.

ARC provided by NetGalley

‘Always a Bridesmaid (for Hire): Stories on Growing Up, Looking for Love, and Walking Down the Aisle for Complete Strangers’

bridesmaidJen Glantz has led quite the unconventional life, and she’s got the stories to prove it.

This hilarious memoir relates her search for the right Jewish man while she tries to make a living – as a bridesmaid for hire. Dating sites aren’t working, and neither are her mom’s matchmaking friends. Throw in the obligation to make a total stranger’s wedding into a storybook ceremony, and you’ve got instant hilarity.

While you might think that all Glantz gets out of her bridesmaid travels are a few bucks and a bunch of ugly dresses, you’d be wrong. She doesn’t always leave with the bouquet, but she leaves a happy bride (often the bride is the only one who knows Glantz is hired) and a bit more insight into her own crazy life.

ARC provided by NetGalley