The controversial ending(s) of Still Alice.

The controversial ending(s) of Still Alice

I added Lisa Genova’s Still Alice to my TBR list last year, but didn’t read it until a few weeks ago. My free Oyster trial gave me the nudge I needed to read it now instead of someday.

I was hesitant to read this novel, which has been described uncannily realistic: the novel tells the story of Alice Howland, a 50-year-old Harvard professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Because of my family’s history with Alzheimer’s disease, I was afraid it would hit too close to home and be horribly depressing.

(I had similar fears about The Sweetness of Forgetting and The Geography of Memory, both of which I loved. That helped.)

Still Alice wasn’t depressing. Terrifying, yes, but not depressing, and surprisingly beautiful. In fact, the book ends on a hopeful note.

But there’s controversy surrounding that hopeful ending.

The story begins with the book’s path to publication. Still Alice almost didn’t get published. Genova, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, was advised not to write the novel at all, or at least not to publish it. Her colleagues said writing fiction would be career suicide.

Genova completed her novel anyway, then spent a year shopping it to literary agents and editors, who all told her it wouldn’t sell. She didn’t believe them: she self-published Still Alice in 2007, and set out to find her market.

Genova was inspired to write Still Alice because of her grandmother’s experience with Alzheimer’s; she was convinced the story would resonate with the millions touched by the disease. She reached out to the National Alzheimer’s Association, who loved it, endorsed it, shared it on their website, and asked Genova to blog for them. In the meantime, Lisa started her own blog and took to social media.

The controversial ending(s) of Still Alice

Lisa Genova and Julianne Moore at the Sony Pictures Classics dinner the night before the Oscars (photo source)

The book sold. Not even a year later, Genova signed with Simon and Schuster. The book was released on January 6, 2009, with an initial print run of 250,000 copies. (That’s a lot.) In 2014, the book became a major motion picture; Julianne Moore just won an Oscar for her portrayal of Alice.

The book was ready to go; Genova had been selling her self-published edition for over a year. But before she inked her deal, Genova was asked to do one thing: write a new ending.

(If you want to remain 100% spoiler-free, stop right here—though it’s not much of a spoiler, given the topic.)

Genova describes it like this:

In the self-published edition, the book ends with John in the coffee shop. Before I signed with my literary agent, she asked me to write a new ending. I wrote what is now the epilogue, and I love it. I’m so grateful she asked me to do this, and the book got this sort of second chance at having the right ending.

Readers vehemently disagree about which is the “right” ending. Some prefer the original ending with John sitting in the coffee shop, tears running down his face as he reads about the failed trial of Alice’s Alzheimer’s medication. They claim the new, hopeful ending is false: she shouldn’t have been asked to inject hope into a hopeless disease.

Some prefer the revised ending, as I do. I don’t think it’s false: I’m reminded again of The Geography of Memory, whose opening line is “I wrote this book because I believe the news about Alzheimer’s is more hopeful than what we hear on the street.”

Make no mistake: Still Alice is devastating. But Genova’s epilogue—a mere 1200 words or so—gently altered the novel’s portrayal of Alice’s quality of life, and shifted its themes from from despair to love.

Some readers applaud the shift. Some readers still think it’s a mistake.

Now you know the story: decide for yourself. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, especially if you’ve read Still Alice

A big tip of the hat to Heatherly, whose comments sent me down this rabbit trail.

Seeking intriguing (and odd) mysteries, well-developed characters, and a strong sense of place.

matchmaking field notes

The details on this ongoing project, and the factors I’m taking to heart.

Readers told me 3 books they loved, 1 book they hated, and what they’re reading right now. In turn, I’m recommending 3 books for each reader. (Or more, if I can’t help myself.)

This week we’re choosing books for Erica, whose books are:

Love: Something Red by Douglas Nicholas; White Fire by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child; The Tale of Hilltop Farm by Susan Wittig Albert.
Hate: Size 12 is Not Fat by Meg Cabot
Recently: Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization by Paul Kriwaczek

Erica’s favorites are diverse, but they share common threads: they have a strong sense of place, interesting settings, and well-developed characters. (I suspect this is why she didn’t like Size 12 is Not Fat, even though she likes mysteries.)

She appreciates touches of realism (even in a fantasy novel like Something Red) and poetic writing, even though the latter isn’t required. I suspect Erica notices and appreciates the details in what she’s reading.

My picks: 

On the bestseller list: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Charming British classic: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Mystery favorites: Watership Down by Richard Adams and A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Popular history: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

I’m recommending Station Eleven for its strong atmosphere, air of mystery, and poetic writing. Its band of itinerant performers also reminded me of the characters in Something RedAll Creatures Great and Small likewise reminds me of The Tale of Hilltop Farm‘s setting and strong characters.

Watership Down satisfies all of Erica’s criteria, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a must-read for any mystery buff, especially because he made an appearance in Erica’s pick White Fire.

And finally, I chose the exceptional popular history The Professor and the Madman for its interesting setting, intriguing (and odd) mystery, and fascinating characters.

Please share YOUR recommendations for Erica in comments. Thank you!

View all the literary matchmaking posts here.

Why I recommend books that use the f-word.

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I get emails and blog comments all the time that ask: Is that book clean? (Occasional variants on this email: Why did you recommended that dirty book? or Is this book appropriate for my x-year-old?)

I can’t answer this question with an easy “yes” or “no,” because even readers who care deeply about reading “clean” books don’t agree on what that looks like.

How do you define “clean?”

It might mean not too many f-bombs, or none at all, or no profanity of any kind. It might mean that no sex is hinted at, or no sex is described in detail, or no infidelity takes place. To some it means no violence, or no alcohol abuse, or no alcohol; no bullying, or kids who don’t obey their parents.

(When I asked this question on facebook and twitter, some readers defined “clean” negatively, saying a clean book is one that isn’t challenging, that’s been artificially sanitized.)

By any of these standards, I read many books that wouldn’t be considered “clean.”

Profanity in fiction

Despite this, I’m choosy about what I read. I don’t usually rule out books because of the language, although I’m unlikely to read a book that has heaps of it. (There are exceptions: Eleanor & Park, The Likeness.)

In the hands of a lesser writer, profanity is a shortcut—an easy way to provoke a reaction from the reader. In To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout picks up a few curse words at school, she busts out with “Pass the damn ham, please” at the dinner table. That’s shock value profanity, not a strategic use of language, and that’s exactly what too many authors do. (Scout’s uncle Jack sets her straight, saying words like “damn” and “hell” are only for instances of extreme provocation.)

When an author drops an f-bomb, I don’t shut the book. Instead, I want to know why the author chose that language.What’s the emotional content of the passage? Is she using profanity strategically or for shock value? (The former, I’ll keep reading. The latter, I might not.)

I remember the first time a teacher swore in the classroom. It was 9th grade English. Our teacher—a sweet and gentle woman about my grandmother’s age—was reading To Kill a Mockingbird aloud. It’s Halloween night, Scout and Jem were just attacked, Sheriff Tate is telling Atticus that “Bob Ewell fell on his knife.” Atticus doesn’t understand; he thinks Tate is trying to protect Jem—it never occurs to him Boo Radley could have done it—and he’s not having it. My fellow students, seeing the curse words coming up in the text, shoot nervous glances at each other, wondering will-she-or-won’t-she? 

She kept reading (which surprised us, even in public school) and it made a deep impression on us all—not just about our teacher, but about an author’s work. Harper Lee wasn’t messing around when she chose her words: she told a hard story, but she told it respectfully, and realistically. She chose her words carefully, and her story supported their weight.

Sex and violence in fiction

I don’t necessarily rule out books because of sexual content or violence (like Outlander), though I can handle more of the former than the latter. If I don’t shut the book forever, I often skim—sometimes at lightning speed—through disturbing content. (Massive disclaimer here: I’m an HSP, and very sensitive about graphic content.)

If given a second chance, I would skip some books entirely, like In the Woods. (More on that here.) There are books that I loved but had a single short scene I wish I could scrub from my mind, and wasn’t truly necessary to the plot. (The Thirteenth Tale). There are books that profoundly disturbed me but whose messages have lingered, in a good way, maybe even a life-changing one. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being).

There are books I enjoyed but skipped giant chunks of—like, ten pages at a time—because I couldn’t handle the violence or didn’t want to read the racy stuff. (Outlander.) There was one short but awful scene in Americanah (which I loved) that made me sick to my stomach, but the plot turned on that scene. The author didn’t include it for shock value; she included it because it was essential to the story.

(I’ve also read books that would be considered “clean” by many readers’ standards, but that were nearly unreadable for me because of the gritty, emotional content. I just abandoned Bloodroot for this reason.)

Conflict drives the plot forward

In fiction, conflict moves the plot forward: characters are plunged into messy situations of (to borrow Uncle Jack’s term) extreme provocation and forced to find a way out (or sometimes not).

Books with lots of profanity, (or sex, or violence) are outside my comfort zone. This includes Tana French and Outlander, and also Crime and Punishment and Tom Sawyer. (To see some seriously disturbing fiction, try the original Snow White or Cinderella, which I had to read in college. In German.)

Good fiction challenges you; it pushes your boundaries. A great book pushes you outside your comfort zone and forces you to re-think your assumptions.

I can’t set your boundaries for you, but I can try to give you the information you need to decide which books are the right books for you.

This is a conversation starter, not the final word. I’d love to hear your thoughts, your personal guidelines for choosing books, and the best books you’ve read that have pushed your boundaries.

A trick to save big on audiobooks.

A simple trick to save big on audiobooks. I am kicking myself for not figuring out how to use this service sooner!

I love audiobooks, and Audible is my favorite way to listen to them.

I’ve finally figured out how to use a great service that makes it even easier—and cheaper—to listen to audiobooks with Audible. I’m kicking myself for not figuring it out sooner (it’s been around for a couple of years), so I wanted to make amends by filling you in as soon as possible. It’s called Whispersync for Voice, and it allows you to switch back and forth between reading the Kindle book and listening to the audio version without losing your place.

Last fall when I raced through the Outlander books, I switched back and forth between the Kindle and audio versions so I could get through the books faster. But I didn’t use Whispersync—I didn’t know it existed—and I spent a lot of time trying to find my place. (For most of the books, it wasn’t too hard to stop at a chapter break. But some of the later books stopped at seemingly random one-hour intervals, and it drove me crazy.)

(Giant disclaimer here: read the reviews before you start the Outlander books.)

I wish I’d known how to use the service then. I could have spent more time reading, instead of searching for my place. I also would have saved a ton of money.

The finances of Whispersync

It doesn’t make sense, but it’s true: even if you have no intention of reading the ebook, sometimes buying the Kindle book plus the audio saves you serious money.

Let’s go back to Outlander. Right now, Outlander #1 is on sale for $1.99 for Kindle. If you buy the ebook, you can add the Audible audiobook for $3.99. That makes your total purchase $5.98.

Compare this to the $14.95 I paid per credit for the audiobook alone with my Audible membership.

Here’s what Audible’s memberships look like right now:

Gold: 1 credit/month — $14.95 per credit (my old plan)
Gold Annual: 12 credits at once — $12.46 per credit (my current plan)
Platinum: 2 credits/month —$11.48/credit
Platinum Annual: 24 credits at once — $9.56 per credit

If I can beat $12.46/credit, it’s worth buying the ebook and audiobook together, even if I’m not planning on ever reading the ebook.

Once I figured out how this Whispersync thing worked, I went searching for great deals. Not every book is Whispersync-enabled, and not all of those are good deals. Many audio companions cost $12.99; many ebooks cost in the double digits. But there are lots of good deals to be found.

A simple trick to save big on audiobooks. I am kicking myself for not figuring out how to use this service sooner!

How to get started

The first audio companion I bought at a big discount was Pride and Prejudice. I was getting ready to spend an Audible credit for this because my kids are ready to give it a try. (!!!) I downloaded the public domain ebook for free, and added the unabridged audio companion for $.99. On Amazon’s website that looks like this:

A simple trick to save big on audiobooks. I am kicking myself for not figuring out how to use this service sooner!

The “Whispersync for Voice-ready” in search results means an audio companion is available. On the book’s sales page, click “add Audible narration” to purchase the audiobook companion.

To listen to a sample of the audiobook companion before you buy, click on the book’s title under “add Audible narration.” That will open a page that looks like this:

A simple trick to save big on audiobooks. I am kicking myself for not figuring out how to use this service sooner!

Click “play sample” to hear an excerpt from the recording.

For further instructions that are specific to your device, head here.

How to find out which of your ebooks have audio companions

If you own any Kindle books—even free ones—it’s easy to see which have audio companions available.

A simple trick to save big on audiobooks. I am kicking myself for not figuring out how to use this service sooner!

Go to Amazon’s Whispersync home page, click on “view audio companions for your Kindle books.” (See the orange arrow above.) Enter your account information. Amazon will generate a list of available audio companions for your Kindle books. It looks like this:

A simple trick to save big on audiobooks. I am kicking myself for not figuring out how to use this service sooner!

Great Whispersync deals available now

Prices on Kindle books change all the time. Prices on audio companions are more stable. I scoured Amazon to give you an idea of what’s available, and for how much, to give you a feel of what kind of deals you can get with this service.

These are a few books on my reading list:

• The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. The ebook is $11.19; add the Audible narration for $3.99. I think $11 is a lot for an ebook, but if you catch this on sale (like it was recently) this will be a great deal.

• Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Buy the ebook for $1.99 (sale price); add the Audible narration for $3.95.

• The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls., The ebook is $9.99; add the Audible narration for $3.95.

• Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl is $4.65; add the Audible narration (by Selma Blair) for $3.95

Books I’ve enjoyed and recommend:

• Cinder by Marissa Mayer. The ebook is $2.99; add the Audible narration for $3.95. I love this YA series.

• The Martian by Andy Weir. The ebook is $7.99; add the Audible narration for $2.99. That’s not a great ebook price (although it was recently on sale for $3), but combined with the audio it’s still a great deal. (I really enjoyed this. So did my husband, which is saying something. There’s some language.)

• Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The ebook is $4.99; add the Audible narration for $3.95. This is intense but such a good read.

• Holes by Louis Sachar. The ebook is on sale for $3.99; add the Audible narration for $3.95.

• Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty. The ebook is $3.99 right now; add the Audible narration for $12.99. $12.99 isn’t a great deal, but it’s a good example of how you can still get Audible membership prices if you buy both. Sensitive subject matter; I think Moriarty handled it well.

Books that have been highly recommended:

• Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe. The Kindle book is $9.99; add the Audible narration for $3.95.

• Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. The ebook is $6.99; add the narration for $3.95.

(Did you notice $3.95 is a popular price for audiobook companions? View the current list of $3.95 audiobooks here.)

There are abundant fabulous deals available for the classics. This is a tiny sampling:

• Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The ebook is FREE. Add the Audible narration for FREE.

• Little Women by Louise May Alcott. The ebook is FREE. Add the Audible narration for $9.49.

• The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The ebook is FREE. Add the Audible narration for $.99.

• Persuasion by Jane Austen. The ebook is FREE. Add the Audible narration for $2.99.

View Amazon’s list of bargain classics that are Whispersync-enabled here.

A note about Kindle sales

I share great Kindle deals daily, updating the page every morning. Some sales last for weeks; some last for hours. If you snag a book on a great sale, that can make for some killer audiobook deals. Starting today with the new sales, I’ll state on the deals page if a book has an audio companion available. (Note: you don’t have to buy the Kindle book and the audio companion at the same time in order to get the reduced rate.)

Have you tried Whispersync, and if so, what do you think? Any tips for us? What else do you want to know?

P.S. The MMD Great Big Guide to Audiobooks, 40 favorite audiobooks, and 40 favorite audiobooks for kids.