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Memory's Last Breath
Cover of Memory's Last Breath
Memory's Last Breath
Field Notes on My Dementia
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"For anyone facing dementia, [Saunders'] words are truly enlightening.... Inspiring lessons about living and thriving with dementia."—-Maria Shriver, NBC's Today Show

A "courageous and singular book" (Andrew Solomon), Memory's Last Breath is an unsparing, beautifully written memoir—"an intimate, revealing account of living with dementia" (Shelf Awareness).
Based on the "field notes" she keeps in her journal, Memory's Last Breath is Gerda Saunders' astonishing window into a life distorted by dementia. She writes about shopping trips cut short by unintentional shoplifting, car journeys derailed when she loses her bearings, and the embarrassment of forgetting what she has just said to a room of colleagues. Coping with the complications of losing short-term memory, Saunders, a former university professor, nonetheless embarks on a personal investigation of the brain and its mysteries, examining science and literature, and immersing herself in vivid memories of her childhood in South Africa.
"For anyone facing dementia, [Saunders'] words are truly enlightening.... Inspiring lessons about living and thriving with dementia."—-Maria Shriver, NBC's Today Show

A "courageous and singular book" (Andrew Solomon), Memory's Last Breath is an unsparing, beautifully written memoir—"an intimate, revealing account of living with dementia" (Shelf Awareness).
Based on the "field notes" she keeps in her journal, Memory's Last Breath is Gerda Saunders' astonishing window into a life distorted by dementia. She writes about shopping trips cut short by unintentional shoplifting, car journeys derailed when she loses her bearings, and the embarrassment of forgetting what she has just said to a room of colleagues. Coping with the complications of losing short-term memory, Saunders, a former university professor, nonetheless embarks on a personal investigation of the brain and its mysteries, examining science and literature, and immersing herself in vivid memories of her childhood in South Africa.
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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.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 27, 2017
    Saunders (Blessings on the Sheep Dog) writes bravely about her early-onset dementia diagnosis, and nicely bridges the intensely personal experience of her failing mind with examinations of neurological science. Saunders, who emigrated to the U.S. from South Africa in 1984, includes “Dementia Field Notes” sidebars throughout the book that record ever-worsening daily struggles. These stand in contrast with the main text, in which she explores the essence of self, identity, and memories. Her evocative writing shows her to be a researcher and craftswoman, and to the reader her faculties seem undiminished. Saunders reflects on more than 60 years as a life-affirming dividual, an anthropology term that acknowledges that deep connections come from communal bonds continually established throughout a lifetime. She writes about her loving family life in her formative years as a white South African during apartheid, the cross-cultural experience of a new life in the U.S., and the challenges of parenting and academic life. Saunders draws on all of these experiences to guide readers through a primer on neuroscience, the unreliability of memory, and even the place of humans in the cosmos. Her discussion of whether and when to pursue assisted suicide is smart and does not diminish the hopeful voice of a self-described “Doña Quixote” as she fights her mental descent with dignity.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from April 15, 2017
    A former gender studies professor's memoir about living and remembering her life in the face of dementia.Before 2010, when doctors told her that she had microvascular disease, one of the leading causes of dementia, Saunders had it all: a successful career and a thriving, multigenerational family. She retired from the University of Utah two years later with "no whimpering, no whining, no despair," fully aware that hers had been a fortunate existence. Hoping to offer something that "could be actually useful in the world," Saunders began keeping a journal about her "lurch into that 'strange Country' " of memory loss. She started by recalling everything she could about an early life that had begun in the rural Transvaal region of South Africa. By "flesh[ing] out [her] shrinking self with former selves," the author would become "Dona Quijote," the madwoman questing for truth. Drawing on literature, scientific research, her family's collective memory, and her own experiences, Saunders crafts an eloquent, often lyrical book that, in its fragmentation, becomes increasingly affecting over the course of the narrative. As she speaks about growing older and wearing clothes that express "the way I feel rather than look," for example, she intersperses her reflections with "Dementia Field Notes" journal entries that bluntly address all the difficulties she must face on a daily basis due to her condition. The author's candor is especially evident in the way she addresses the way her dementia has and will continue to dehumanize her the longer she lives with it. Not wishing to be relegated into a zombielike "neither-dead-nor-alive" status, Saunders discusses the plans she and her family have made to help her die with dignity when her quality of life has dwindled too far. 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 magisterial of a mind, the grant of an interval to sound the ordinances of a world without being." A courageous, richly textured, and unsparing memoir.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Kirkus Reviews (starred review) 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.
  • Booklist (starred review) [A] deeply emotional and humbling memoir...a work of breathtaking defiance.
  • Andrew Solomon, National Book Award-winning author of The Noonday Demon and Far from the Tree 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Honor Moore, author of The Bishop's Daughter 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.
  • Ann Neumann, author of The Good Death 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.
  • Publishers Weekly 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.
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Field Notes on My Dementia
Gerda Saunders
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