Brain on Fire: Emotionally Disturbing in All the Right Ways

Brain on Fire

“We are, in the end, a sum of our parts, and when the body fails, all the virtues we hold dear, go with it.”

I have been blessed throughout my life with reasonably good health. It’s not a blessing I take lightly or take for granted. I have seen, especially through my parents, how quickly health can be ripped away – it only takes one small disaster. Susannah Cahalan, a young journalist for the New York Post, met such a disaster as she unexpectedly faced an onslaught of health emergencies and lost her grip on reality. Her memoir, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, captures the terror and helplessness of that time, even while acknowledging that she is one of the lucky ones. I found this book emotionally disturbing in all the right ways. This could easily have been me or someone I love. Her crisis came on fast, with no explanation or diagnosis for seemingly endless weeks, with little hope of remedy. Susannah went from a capable, outgoing, ambitious woman to a victim of her own body almost overnight.

“The girl in the video is a reminder about how fragile our hold on sanity and health is and how much we are at the utter whim of our Brutus bodies, which will inevitable, on day, turn on us for good. I am a prisoner, as we all are. And with that realization comes an aching sense of vulnerability.”

The above quote is as about as melodramatic as Cahalan gets as a writer. Although deemed a memoir, she definitely takes a journalist’s approach to writing, laying out the facts in a fairly bare-bones manner. Partially, this is because she has few internal memories of the events in this book. She relies on interviews and research she did later, but still tells the story as a first-person narrative. It’s a tricky balance but she does an outstanding job. Most of the book is taken up with her mysterious symptoms and quest for a diagnosis, which she feels lucky to have finally received. After diagnosis and treatment, it’s more of a reflection of how lucky she feels that she had her family to advocate on her behalf, the random interest of a top doctor, and insurance and money enough to afford treatment. (Again, these are not blessings to be taken lightly.) All together captivating and terrifying. Highly recommend. Read-alikes: The Madness of George III (the play upon which the film The Madness of King George is based) Still Alice Unless We Need to Talk About Kevin (just in the “in could be me” sense of terror)

#100HappyDays: Days 21-30

#100happydays began as an Instagram exercise in gratitude, a challenge to take a moment to be purposefully thankful for the many happy moments that make up my days.

Because this is an Instagram project, I am limiting myself to something I can photograph. Likewise, I use very few words to describe these images. I read that many people who started this project gave up somewhere in the 20s, so I’m feeling pretty happy that I’m still going strong.

21Day 21: S’mores on the deck last night with loved ones.

22Day 22: Happy to be reminded of my theater days and all the wonderful, talented, hilarious people I’ve known. #shrubtown #circletheatre

23Day 23: Just being surrounded by so many books makes me happy. @TheBookTableOP — at The Book Table

 

24Day 24: On my deck at 5:15. Ahhh.#perfect

25Day 25: Making school uniform shopping a little more fun. #icecream

26Day 26: So blessed to have wonderful ladies on my life. This is my gorgeous niece @meghawk2 — at Palmer House.

 

27Day 27: I love that our weekend breakfast options include both fresh tortillas from Masa Uno and bakery from Vesecky’s #whyberwyn

28Day 28: Reading @nytimesbooks. Now an even bigger fan of @AmyBloomBooks. The sunshine & Fiore bakery definitely don’t hurt either.

Day 29: Connor’s been working on his flips off the diving board. Yesterday he really got full rotation. (This was an Instagram video, which I’m having trouble linking to my blog – sorry.)
30Day 30: Always happy to get a fresh pedi, but happier for quality time with Bethanny.

 

 

 

How about you? How do you practice gratitude?

All the images in this post are my own. Please don’t use them as yours.

W…W…W…Wednesday: Books read, reading and to read

Hooray, it’s Wednesday — one of my favorite blogging days of the week as I get to share what everyone’s reading. I’m pretty pleased with my list this week.

Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for inspiring so many of us to get involved in WWW Wednesdays. It’s always a great way to connect.

www_wednesdays44

I’d love to know what everyone is reading.  To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…(or post a link to your blog.)

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

 

Brain on FireWhat are you currently reading?  I’m almost finished with my book club title, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. This is an incredibly disturbing and captivating read. I haven’t wanted to set the book down for the past couple days, even though I’m alternatingly fascinated and terrified by this young woman’s true story. Highly recommend. On audio, I’m starting The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman. I was a big fan of The Imperfectionists and I’m already finding some of that same dark humor in disk 1; however, I’m not a huge fan of the narrator’s voice and I’m wondering if I need to switch to the print edition.

The Dead in their Vaulted ArchesWhat did you recently finish reading? I am very sad to have completed the audio version of The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, as it is the last in Bradley’s 6-book Flavia de Luce series. Rumor (aka the internet) has it that he’s writing a new Flavia series, but it won’t necessarily contain all the places and characters I’ve come to love from Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey. I have adored each  installment in the series. This is the only one, however, that I don’t think would stand alone without reading the preceeding novels. This finale ties together many outstanding questions left from the 5 murders Flavia has “solved” in her 11th year. Also finished Shotgun Lovesongs (reviewed here) and We Were Liars, which definitely deserves a review that I have not yet written.

Fourth of July CreekWhat do you think you’ll read next?  I was surprised and thrilled to find a copy of Fourth of July Creek on the New Release shelf at the library. I’ve heard such great things about it. Even though it’s almost 500 pages, I’m going to sneak it in before my next non-fiction, A Curious Man, and my classic, 1984 (which my 13 year-old is HATING by the way). No shortage of books to read this month.

Happy reading everyone!

 

*All book covers are images saved from Goodreads

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles? Please feel free to share a link to your own W…W…W…Wednesday posts or share your reading plans in the comments.

 

Shotgun Lovesongs: The Comfort of a Good Book

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

Sometimes you begin reading a book and it immediately feels comfortable, like slipping into an old sweater on a cool day. That’s what I felt reading Nickolas Butler. Even though I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and not small-town Wisconsin, I knew the Midwestern feel of this novel down to my bones. I knew the speech patterns, the sense of both belongingness and isolation. I knew these people.

“These men, these men who have known one another their entire lives. These men who were all born in the same hospital, delivered by the same obstetrician. These men who grew up together, who ate the same food, sang in the same choirs, dated the same girls, breathed he same air. They move around one another with their own language, their own set of invisible signals, like wild animals.”

Occasionally I still see my childhood friends, groups like these, pictured on Facebook. I marvel at how these packs of boys have maintained that closeness, that tribe mentality, well into adulthood. They still live in the same town, drink in the same bars, run with the same crowd. They leave and they come back. That’s not how my life evolved, but I get it.

“Henry’s voice — the voice of an old friend — like finding a wall to orient you in some strange, dark hotel room.”

So all of that is to say that I had no trouble believing the backdrop of Kip, Henry, Ronny, Lee and Beth in Little Wing, Wisconsin. They are facing their 30s, all reunited in their small town, with varying degrees of professional, relationship and personal success. There are the jealousies, secrets and broken hearts you might expect from such a small-town novel, mostly predictable, but no less interesting just because I could guess where it was going.

The story is told in alternating chapters from each of the main characters’ perspectives, allowing us a glimpse into their inner-thoughts and back stories. The strategy worked to keep me invested in each person, but perhaps sacrificed the momentum of the plot, which does pick up dramatically in the second half.

I can’t say this is a great story or brilliant writing, but I can say I enjoyed reading this book. I like reading about people, groups, places I know.

“Sometimes that is what forgiveness is anyway — a deep sigh.”

Read-alikes:

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Midnight Champagne by A. Manette Mansay

What other Midwestern family dramas should I be reading? I’m open to suggestions.

July Reading Wrap Up

Summer hours and a week-long getaway made for a great month of reading for me. New releases and many titles that had been lingering on my to-read for far too long are finally finished.

July Reads

By the numbers: 13 books, 13 reviews on Goodreads, 5 reviews on alenaslife, 4 oldies from my shelf – #dustingoffmybookshelf, 2 from my 2014 personal challenge (set in a foreign locale & a classic), 1 audio

From most to least favorite:
The Painter, Peter Heller  Reviewed

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan Reviewed

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, Chris Bohjalian Reviewed

The Girl You Left Behind, Jojo Moyes  Reviewed

Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan Mayhew Bergman

This outstanding collection of short stories has been on my to-read shelf for years just waiting for my discovery. I fell hard for these brilliant, quirky, animal inspired stories. All are about survival despite the odds. They inspired me and entertained me. Bergman is definitely an author I’ll watch for.

“I wished for things to stay the same. I wished for stillness everywhere, but I opened up the rest of the bedroom windows and let the world in.”

The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd Reviewed

Bellweather Rhapsody, Kate Racculia

Another book that defies any easy description. Mix together temperamental artists, teen angst, middle-ages loneliness, and a mystery. Then plop all of it in a crumbling Shining-style grand hotel and you’ll get a feel for this novel. High drama and high stakes vs. ruin and decay. Really enjoyed reading it, even if I couldn’t swallow the actual story line.

“Maybe that’s what he reminds her of: they are both full of dark corners, odd places, possibly ghosts.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

A very difficult read for me for two reasons. 1) All of the dialog is in heavy dialect so I had to pick apart the language, especially in the first half. 2) I have a hard time not applying my modern values/standards to what I read — which is really unfair given the early 20th century, black community setting of this book. I sometimes wanted to shake the main character Janie, but ultimately, I’m really glad I read this book. It will stick with me.

“The years took the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul…But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods — come and gone with the sun.”

Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick

Engrossing and enjoyable read despite the heavy mental illness subject matter. Even though I didn’t see the movie I was heavily influenced by its stars in visualizing this book as I read.

“I am practicing being kind over being right.”

Emotionally Weird, Kate Atkinson

This novel has so much confusion — stories within stories, mysterious characters coming and going, multiple fonts, unreliable narrator(s) — all purposeful. I was often lost, but never frustrated or disinterested because it also has Atkinson’s wit, humor and beautiful writing. I suppose there’s a plot — mother and daughter on a decaying Scottish island trying to tell their personal truths, claim identity. It’s all rather circular and a little bit beside the point (although, true to Atkinson’s other works, there are multi-layered connections among characters and everything gets tied together well.)

“Memory is a capricious thing, of course, belonging not in the world of reason and logic, but in the realms of dreams and photographs — places where truth and reality are tantalizingly out of reach.”

The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, Diane Chamberlain

This book is much more made-for-tv-movie than my usual reading choices, but I had no trouble getting caught up in CeeCee’s story. It’s fast paced and engaging, even if I don’t want to believe any woman (even a 16 year-old) would be gullible enough to fall for the lines that ensnared CeeCee.

“You got dealt some crappy cards. But you’re the one who has to decide how to play them.”

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A carry over from June, I struggled to make my way through this book, which I truly wanted to love. I liked the first part and the last part (up until he final 2 pages), but the 300+ pages in the middle left me unmoved, even a little bored. There were some things I loved. I love the blog posts that show up in the novel. These were the most enlightening, passionate, personal moments in the novel, I loved learning about Nigeria and Nigerian culture. Certainly my eyes were opened to the many ways in which Americans (myself included) are blind to racism and cultural identity.

“And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping it’s wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.”

The Wife, The Maid and the Mistress, Ariel Lawhon on audio

This historic fiction is based on the real-life disappearance of New York State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Creighter in 1930s. Lawhon does a great job of evoking the era, filled with politicians, gangsters and corruption and sets up some delicious characters as the title implies. I wasn’t crazy about the mystery itself. The plot developments felt a little forced and overall, it moved too slowly to make it thrilling. (I probably would have preferred to read the print instead of listening to the audio over the course of a month.)

“His hand left a trail of shame across her skin.”

My July Photo Collage is comprised of book covers provided by Goodreads.

W…W…W…Wednesday: Books read, reading and to read

I missed all of my fellow WWW-ers last week, but I decided I would not spend a day of my family vacation glued to WordPress. Instead, I was reading!!!! More books than I’ll even mention in this post, but reviews and wrap-up are rolling out on the blog this week.

Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for inspiring so many of us to get involved in WWW Wednesdays. It’s always so great to see what everyone is reading.

www_wednesdays44

I’d love to know what everyone is reading.  To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…(or post a link to your blog.)

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

 

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

What are you currently reading?  Just starting a short story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise that has been on my shelf for a couple years. I needed something completely different in style to sort of clear my mind and this does the trick. Really strong writing and interesting characters, which are key to successful short stories. On audio, I’m back into The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the 6th installment in the Flavia de Luce mysteries. I just adore Flavia and I appreciate how Bradley is bringing together the previous stories and mysteries in this one (which I hope is not his last).

 

 

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

What did you recently finish reading? So many books! Most recently I read a classic (another of my personal 2014 goals). Their Eyes Were Watching God was a very difficult read for me for two reasons. 1) All of the dialog is in heavy dialect so I had to pick apart the language, especially in the first half. 2) I have a hard time not applying my modern values/standards to what I read — which is really unfair given the early 20th century, black community setting of this book. I sometimes wanted to shake the main character Janie, but ultimately, I’m really glad I read this book. It will stick with me.

 

 

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

What do you think you’ll read next?  I have a lot of reading goals for August, including two non-fiction books, Brain on Fire and A Curious Man, and another classic, 1984, but first up a fiction book recommended by a friend, Shotgun Lovesongs. I love a good small town drama.

Happy reading everyone!

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles? Please feel free to share a link to your own W…W…W…Wednesday posts or share your reading plans in the comments.

 

Peter Heller’s The Painter — just, wow

I know it’s sexist to categorize books as either masculine or feminine, but I do it anyway. Don’t’ get me wrong, I read both. Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite writers and his dark, gritty, violent books definitely fall in my definition of masculine. Toni Morrison, on the other hand, with her magic and poetry and search for identity, belong in my (again, sexist) definition of literature.

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

What is rare is to find an author who so fully embodies both sides of the spectrum, but that’s the only way I can think to describe Peter Heller and his current book, The Painter.

My immediate reaction after turning the final page was simply, Wow.

The story-line is surprisingly violent (like in a Clint Eastwood way), but the language of the novel is thoughtful and thought-provoking, making the book’s appeal both powerful and gentle. The protagonist, Jim Stegner, is not easy to like. He’s an alcoholic artists with a troubled past and a violent temper, searching for peace and beauty.

“I almost cannot contain — the rage and the tenderness together like boiling weather front.”

Heller writes him so vividly that he does almost seem to boil on the page. His actions are despicable, but his conscience (soul?) runs deep with guilt which comes out through his artwork. Art, particularly Jim’s painting his own conscience, plays a huge role in this story. Again, Heller finds a brilliant way of combining almost poetic language with the gritty realities of what it means to be a working artist.

“The reason people are so moved by art and why artists tend to take it all so seriously is that if they are real and true they come to the painting with everything they know and feel and live, and all the things they don’t know, and some of the things they hope, and they are honest about them all and put them on the canvas. What can be more serious?”

This is my first experience reading Heller and I now must move The Dog Stars up to the top of my To-Read shelf. I think I’m about to become a superfan.

“We can proceed in our lives just as easily from love to love as from loss to loss. A good thing to remember in the middle of the night when you’re not sure how you will get through the next three breaths.”