Brain on Fire- Susannah Cahalan

maxresdefault

A month of being somebody else. A month of confusion. A month of paranoia.

It might sound like the premise for a murder mystery involving stolen identity, however when renowned journalist, Cahalan, was overtaken with a mysterious illness, that is precisely what ensued. It started with seizures, rapidly, suddenly, then strange fleeting moments of outer-body experiences, thrilling highs and bursts of tears. Nobody understood what was going on. For the rest of her life, Cahalan was an ordinary person. Throughout the onset of her symptoms, she was diagnosed with everything from excessive alcohol consumption to bipolar disorder. The severity of these symptoms soon rose though, and she was confined to a hospital for a month, leaver her with only the vaguest of memories from that time: videos revealed her psychotic nature, doctors reports highlighting her inadequacy at even speaking. This breathtaking book takes  us through Cahalan’s shocking journey, revealing every aspect from her family’s grit and support, to the doctor who saved her life when many had abandoned her.

The style and fluency of this is outstanding. The way Cahalan illustrates the finer details is truly absorbing, with the balance between detail and factuality struck ideally. Of course, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as she is a journalist, but still you shouldn’t take eloquence for granted.

I am avid fan of neurology books, as frequent readers may have ascertained, and this book pleased me thoroughly. Due to the nature of Cahalan’s illness, it was unusually troublesome to pinpoint, so to read about all the various tests she had to take, such as memory recall (and how that deteriorated to an overwhelming extent) and the extract of spinal fluid both interested me. Can you believe, for example, that when Cahalan was asked to draw an ordinary clock, she drew this:

tumblr_mdhveeXvnT1qd9dz2o1_1280.jpg

People should read this book. Not because they might care about the science or even the tale of survival of a bright young woman. After all, in my opinion there was a distinctive lack of in-depth scientific knowledge- it would have been more interesting if there could have been a little more knowledge relating to her condition. No, people should read it because it will crush their complacency. Today we live in a push button society- you already know this. Change your appearance? Trip to the plastic surgeons and you’ll be fine. Change country, climate, job, life. All possible. What cannot be manipulated to such an extent is your health: there are still a lot of things that scientists and doctors simply do not know. There a thousands of illnesses with no cure. Some people claim bizarre diets work for them, others religion. But the truth of the matter is that for most people, once that disease is contracted there is nothing to be done; as a species we have much further to go before we can be satisfied with ourselves medically. We must never forget it might be us next- nobody grew up expecting to be that person falling ill.

This concept is conveyed expertly: multiple doctors gave her wildly inaccurate diagnoses. Many refused to treat her or gave up. One such thrilling element in the book are the red herrings, the missed clues and painstaking search to find a name for her condition, to identify it.

One notable issue is that there is no baseline character, so that when Cahalan does descend into a psychotic state, although things are clearly not as they ought to be, we don’t have a clear cut idea of the behavioural changes that been undertaken. Also, Cahalan has quite a forceful character, with this showing prominently in her writing and the episodes she describes. If you don’t enjoy people with that behavioural trait, it will make reading this slightly tougher as you lose a large proportion of the sympathy you would have had for her.

Generally, a great insight into a rare illness (Dalmau’s disease), that reveals that our brains are much more complex than anyone can fully comprehend.

Advertisements

Dear Lupin by Roger and Charlie Mortimer

302879_770_preview
The book has also been turned into a play, which had a successful run at the Apollo Theatre

 

Dear readers,

Some say the message is medium: Dear Lupin is a collection of letters that span nearly 25 years, and through this form offer the most intimate insight into the Mortimers’ lives. If intimate is the right word- it seems like multiple opportunities to be delighted at the sheer hilarity of it is more suitable.

Letters. Seems dated now, doesn’t it? Something you only tend to at Christmas out of obligation, not because the simple act offers any sort of satisfaction. (I bet many people have said the same about over-indulging in mince pies, but there you go.) Here, it conveys admirably parental despair. In reality, nothing in our modern day with the prevalent technology could genuinely reveal to the same depth any relationship. Imagine being a historian, sifting through the one line texts. There’s no detail behind what we communicate now, because who has time to go into the neighbour’s health? Why bother? It’s this offhand thinking that not makes it difficult not only for people in the future to discern who we really are, but it makes life clouded for ourselves when we can’t even engage with each other. What does anything mean to us?

Roger Mortimer typically humoured the pages with self-deprecation or painstaking accurate remarks. “Doubtless you regard me as monumental bore, tolerated only at times because I fork out some cash, but senile as I am I probably know a bit more about you and your friends than you seem to realise” Hm. Bet a lot of parents today would be much more success in talking to their children if they realised in themselves these words.

Anyway, it is rather clear to see that although Charlie entertained a school career at Eton, it wasn’t exactly the most successful, as he was constantly reminded to try and get through a term “without a chorus of disapproval and despair from the unfortunate masters who have to try and teach you something.” Joyfully Charlie moves through life though, and it’s almost bizarre, like watching a time-lapse of a plant, to see the style and tone of the letters change. One moment it’s from a reprimanding father, another it’s from a more- well, still reprimanding father, but with a rather letter edge to the words.

“Dear Charles,                                                                                                                                        I am very impulsive. Your mother is also very impulsive. That is quite enough for one family. Let us have a little… deliberation from you. So to start with, get rid of that motorbike. I did not give you £40 for that, as you well know!”

But, like everything, things start to break down and crumble, and although the earlier letters were cheerful and lighthearted, punctuated with concerns, the hilarity seeps away towards the end of the collection, where above all Roger voices his fears of ageing, of dying. It is poignant and raw- often a gruff acceptance of fate that retells all our own fears. This is a book which will not only inspire you to laughter and morose reflection, but to start writing letters again yourself.

Best wishes,

Melrose

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (July Book of the Month)

gaimanpratchettheader

A darkly hilarious and witty novel exploring the day the world will end.

In a typical science fiction style, there is a concept, widely known- such as the end of the world- but through the lens of literature is spun around and examined deeply. Here, the embodiment of Good, Aziraphale an angel and Evil, Crowley a demon (formerly Crawley the snake from the garden of Eden) battle over who can manipulate the Antichirst into siding with them, so that when the fateful Judgement day arrives with the expected war, the child would launch a particular side to victory.  Not that the pair wanted a war. Both the angel and demon rather enjoyed being on Earth, having gotten used to human schisms in the way that their compatriots hadn’t. In fact, the Crowley and Aziraphale have a close friendship: not only have they known each other centuries, but they realised that they actually had more in common that anyone could imagine. Yet thanks to a mishap in the baby-swap securing the Antichrist, the forces shadowed and prodded the wrong child for over a decade, meaning that instead of bursting with virtues or spewing threats, the 11 year old antichrist Adam was just a defiant country boy, and an ordinary boy Warlock had been wrongly harassed by demons and angels his entire life. That’s where the trouble started.

When two of the funniest, most renowned authors in their field join to write a novel, it will produce something glorious. There are a wide range of characters, from Metatron (the voice of God) to KGB agents who feed ducks. The hilarity, but not obtuseness, that pervades this novel is astounding, and is guaranteed to provoke reactions from even the sternest of readers. (It even says in the Afternote that all the pair were trying to do was to make each other laugh.)

It started off as a parody of the Just William books, where William was the Antichrist, but soon evolved into something much smarter and engaging: after all, on the Judgement Day there are Four Horsemen, although as it’s modern day, it’s now Bikers. Famine, for one, sells diet books and invented nouvelle cuisine, whilst War was a war-correspondent, who somehow always managed to be in areas of conflict before they even started (the other two Bikers can be a surprise for you to find out). All said, it’s amazing. Even better is Anathema Device, a self-procclamed occultist with a book from her ancestor- The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter- that predicts correctly the future. (As it was so accurate, nobody bought it.) This supernatural element is counter-balanced by Newt Pulsifer though, who is a begrudging member of the Witchfinder’s Army, and has the awkward history of his ancestor burning alive Agnes, making the union between the two incredibly interesting.

The highlight of this book for me was undoubtedly the intricate footnotes. Apparently Gaiman and Pratchett would write footnotes for each other’s work, resulting in quips  bursting with puns, which always lightened the mood. On the other hand, the subplots added a great twist to the story, helpfully giving the reader a refreshed perspective of the main plot as they often added useful background information. But occasionally they were spasmodically inserted and felt random, being often obscure and hard to follow, and felt like sometimes they were only there so that a few jokes could be made.

I would recommend this novel to fans of fantasy, science-fiction, or anyone who is vaguely interested in the works of either author. It’s a fantastic reading experience!