Brain on Fire- Susannah Cahalan

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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:

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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.

February Book of the Month – A.A Gill is Further Away: Helping with Enquiries

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Everyone was shocked. It was unexpected, especially since A.A.Gill had only recently revealed his cancer. His death has shaken literary world; now there is a gaping hole where his columns used to be, ever opinionated and witty. Unfortunately, the newly employed writers are floundering to fill it: reading over their thoughts of the mango soufflé suddenly appear (whereas it most certainly hadn’t before,) trivial. Of course those journalist can’t help it, but how can you fill the page in place of one of the best journalists of our time and not appear feeble in comparison?

I decided to read A.A.Gill is Further Away because his death had inspired me to look what he had achieved and created. It contains a remarkable selection of short essays- the book is roughly split into two: the first half is composed of essays which he had written about his experiences in England, and for the latter each essay is about a foreign country. The remarkable thing about Gill’s writing is that the subject is almost regardless. His essays about bantam chickens are as compelling as those reflecting on his trip to Haiti. Every topic felt fresh and were explored with such a zest and enthusiasm towards the subject that is difficult to find elsewhere. You can tell that Gill enjoyed his job, that he felt satisfaction from diving into corners of the English language to extract the most precise metaphor, or adjective, or obscure yet oddly accurate imagery. The descriptions are vivid and quite literary for essays, which I enjoyed because often I find that non-fiction books can be stale in that respect.

The variety of subjects were in itself a relief: each essay is roughly 10 pages long and detailed enough to make one feel (if somewhat briefly) immersed in the location, but because Gill’s writing is incredibly intense, not so long that one loses concentration or interest. Gill has a unique voice, one which is blatantly unafraid to point out the faults in a country or to highlight the triumphs in the ordinary. This is wonderful. So often people are timid to say something that not only defies public opinion, but in fact is disparaging, simply because of fear. There’s none of that here! And those readers who think that this type of writing, or as it has been labelled ‘complaining’, is dull, well it isn’t. Gill writes about, for example, his Madagascan tribal culinary experience with such humorous distaste that it’s impossible not only to sympathise with him, but to laugh.

I thought that A.A.Gill is Further Away was a fantastic collection of essays and contained some of the best pieces of travel writing that I’ve come across. If you’re looking for an escape, not necessarily to another world as the cliché goes, but at least to another country, then look no further.

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The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan

It’s January. People are looking at gym leaflets, trying again to stick to the resolutions they made in vain last year. Trying as best possible to hide from last year’s events, (whether it was political, or that Dinner Party at Fred’s which no one dares mention,) using the new shiny ‘2017’ as a shield. It is at this time of year that most people try and avoid history, in whatever form. However, we shouldn’t shun history. It should not be cast aside. Instead, it should be utilised, and used to our advantage. (So, note to self, never attempt to serve Baked Alaska near the Victorian curtains again.) The Uses and Abuses of History illustrates people who have done exactly that (no, not served Baked Alaska and then set the house on fire,)  but have used history to their advantage. Although there may be situations you will never find yourself in, there are many examples that can be related to, and the book will start to answer the common question: What can you even do with history?

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The Uses and Abuses of History is a thorough review of the way history has been manipulated and used as a tool in order to achieve certain goals. It shows us what the consequences are when history is taken into the wrong hands, and how this can in turn affect us in the present. To tell the truth, there wasn’t exactly a balance of uses and abuses of history, as Macmillian mainly looked at the more negative side to the way the past has been used, but it was nevertheless an interesting collection of essays.

For a non-fiction essay based book, it is surprisingly readable and full of interesting and understandable examples, which makes this book stand out from the hundreds of others similar in theme, crammed with illegible text and unfathomable references. A great example from the book was the Communist Chinese’s’ use of history; they tried to eradicate every single piece evidence of a time before communism in the country, including priceless artefacts, and rewrite the past to be used for their own means. Many people brought up in the Chinese education system have never once questioned their textbooks, the history of their country that had been fabricated from someone’s mind in an office. The words from their teachers that settled like dust in their minds after a long day at school were, and still are, taken as complete truth. The Uses and Abuses of History teaches you that rewriting the past to suit your own means is easier than you think, and more common in our lives than you’d expect, whether in terms of a politician vying to elevate their popularity, or a simple blunder made by an uninformed amateur historian.

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Not exactly a fast-paced action novel, nor one bursting with intricate characters (although the public figures referred to here are illustrious,) but if you’re willing to read a book about history, then this may as well be this one. After all, what is the point in history?

Have you read this book- what did you think of it? What’s your favourite historical novel? How close to the truth  do you think historical novels should be? Comment your thoughts below!