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Memory's Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia Hardcover – June 13, 2017
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"Ali: A Life" by Jonathan Eig
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"The book is remarkable not only for its fiercely honest, sometimes-poetic portrayal of mental decline, but also for the way the author effectively celebrates 'the magisteria of a mind'.... A courageous, richly textured, and unsparing memoir."―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"[A] deeply emotional and humbling memoir...a work of breathtaking defiance."―Booklist (starred review)
"This courageous and singular book describes both the indignities inscribed in the erosion of memory and the surprising grace to be found in that experience. At once observer and subject, Gerda Saunders demonstrates how a powerful intellect can remain undiminished even as other mental capacities are compromised. Her book's lessons in dignity will be invaluable to anyone facing the complex meanings of dementia."―Andrew Solomon, National Book Award-winning author of The Noonday Demon and Far from the Tree
"The abrupt loss of everyday memory due to brain injury is swiftly and seriously unsettling. Its slower, subtle decline, the hallmark of dementia, provides time for introspection on its troubling trajectory. Gerda Saunders has given us a window into that chilling, yet poignant, psychological reality. Memory's Last Breath is personal, lucid, and inspiring."―Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, Director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience
"Navigating the onset of her own dementia with intelligence and charm, Gerda Saunders has written an engaging mélange of reflection, family history and quest. Memory's Last Breath is a surprising and subtly triumphant contribution to the literature of recollection."―Honor Moore, author of The Bishop's Daughter
"Gerda Saunders' Memory's Last Breath is not only a how-to manual for navigating the emotional and physiological terrain of dementia--an illness that effects the daily lives and hopes of millions--but a highly compelling account of the life of the mind, its developments, repetitions, omissions, and flourishes. Through eloquent, unwavering prose, Saunders guides us through the horrors and humors of an illness that is slowly erasing her mental and physical memory; her insights are lessons in longevity. Above all things, Memory's Last Breath is indelible--a testament to the capacity of language both in a writer's life and a reader's."
―Ann Neumann, author of The Good Death
"Saunders...writes bravely about her early-onset dementia diagnosis, and nicely bridges the intensely personal experience of her failing mind with examinations of neurological science.... Her evocative writing shows her to be a researcher and craftswoman."―Publishers Weekly
"The book (with its astonishing subtitle: 'Field Notes on My Dementia') is a literary achievement ... blend[ing] meditations on memory and identity with brain science, rooted by the writer's anthropologic jottings of daily misadventures."―Salt Lake Tribune
"An intimate, revealing account of living with dementia.... Saunders approaches some of the most difficult questions a human being can face with clarity and wisdom."―Shelf Awareness
"Melodious.... The last chapter is stunning in both senses of the word, gorgeous and shocking... A graceful, innovative writer.... Saunders's awareness of her own mortality has turned her into an omniscient eye."―Jennifer Senior, New York Times
"Memory's Last Breath: Field Notes on Dementia is a testament to perseverance, a weaving together of past and present experiences and an exploration of a changing identity. Memory's Last Breath shows that there can be life, joy and accomplishments after a dementia diagnosis."―Alzheimers.net
"Extraordinary ... an unflinching self-portrayal by a woman losing the key markers of her identity."―Winnipeg Free Press
"[A] fascinating look at the diminishing lifestyle of a person with Dementia.... Gerda Saunders has given us a window into her inspiring and courageous journey of life."―Portland Book Review
About the Author
Gerda Saunders emigrated to the United States from South Africa in 1984. In 1996 she received a PhD in English from the University of Utah, where she later served as associate director of the Gender Studies Program. Saunders is the author of the short story collection Blessings on the Sheep Dog. She has spoken with the BBC and The Huffington Post about living with dementia, and is the subject of a series of short films being produced by VideoWest and featured on Slate.
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” And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life.”
--Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
A now retired scientist, Gerda Saunders was 61 when she was diagnosed with early onset dementia, specifically, micro-vascular disease. This memoir is her thoughts, fears, frustrations over the following years, the affect it had on her, her husband, her children, and daily life. From forgetting to include “necessary” garments to struggling with minor to more major concerns. When to give up driving. When to say “no more.”
As the author is a scientist, it shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise that this has a more clinical approach than other books I’ve read on this subject, the majority being fiction, but not all. I was hoping for a bit more of a personally involved perspective, but this has a bit more of a detached, clinical approach than what I was hoping for. She does talk about how everything affects her in a clinical sense, she just doesn’t talk about how that makes her feel, even her stepping into areas of frustration seem removed and aloof. I understand that as a person, but as a reader it kept me from feeling connected. This is the one thing that didn’t work as well for me. For me – that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. This is really a very well balanced book in terms of showing you both the scientific aspect and the more human side of life, when that life is fraught with unpredictable lapses of memory, of understanding, of those moments of panic that set in when we feel trapped by something and can’t figure out way out.
Saunders memoir covers quite a bit of territory and includes a blend of research studies further clarified in terms of how it affects someone on a daily basis, along with the memories of her youth, growing up in South Africa, amazing stories including their move from South Africa to Utah. I loved reading about her quest to determine which telling of a story was the most accurate one, which sibling, or parent, neighbor, etc. remembered the accurate numbers and who did what. These areas are where this book really was lovely, a blend of real-life to focus on a real person instead of the academic nature of research. There is some discussion of her literature, Iris Murdoch, Shakespeare.
”Murdoch’s own relation to words, speech, writing, stands testament to her conviction that there is no self without language, no route to ‘ultimate divinity’ without the mediating power of words.”
There are heartbreaking moments in this, as clinical as these thoughts are at times, sometimes she lowers the protective field and lets the reader see those moments when she clings to these moments when life is still good. When a hug from a grandchild is enough to remember reasons why life still has its “good enough” moments.
Also included are her “Field Notes.” Among these are notes on the frustrations of the day.
”Dementia Field Notes, 7-26-2014: The other day I put my bra on over my pajama T-shirt.”
Through these you can sense a bit of the day-to-day struggle she lives with and how they range from a simple frustration to frightening ones.
The fears of becoming one of those physically alive but mentally no longer involved are examined, with inclusions of thoughts of others, authors, scientists, quotes from Song of Solomon to Jonathan Franzen. Research into the field of Physician Assisted Dying, much like I read about in Deborah Ziegler’s “Wild and Precious Life.”
David Shenk, author of “The Forgetting: Understanding Alzheimer’s” shares a thought “the unique curse of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is that it ravages several victims for every brain it infects.” This is a truth too often overlooked. It is usually avoided as a thought until it is unavoidable. No one wants to think of this happening to someone they love. No one wants to think of this happening to someone in their own family. It’s a life changing disease for everyone involved.
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“Our family’s experience in comparing individual memories is congruent to my finding that the brain refreshes the ‘truth’ every time you retell.Read more