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Book Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

March 6, 2017 4 comments

Book Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by SusannahSummary:
When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?

Review:
Written by a journalist, the reader soon discovers this memoir is a survivor’s tale of brain encephalitis. Divided into three parts, the first establishes Susannah’s life when she came down with the illness and the first appearance of symptoms. The second covers the time period of her illness that she actually can’t remember, and features her own investigative journalism into what happened during that time. The third part covers the first part of her recovery time in the first year or so after she recovers her memory.

The first two thirds of the book are quite strong for different reasons. In the first third, Susannah recalls with such clarity the feeling of is this really happening or am I losing my mind? Specifically, the first thing that happens is she’s sure she has bed bugs but other people (including the exterminator) see no evidence of them. To this day, no one knows if Susannah really had bed bugs or if hallucinating them was a first symptom of her illness.

The second third of the book highlights her skills as an investigative journalist. Since she herself doesn’t remember the worst of her sickness immediately prior to or during her hospitalization, she is able to take an impartial distance to the whole situation and report on how her divorced parents put aside their differences to care for her together, as well as look at how the medical system both cared for her but also almost missed her critical diagnosis. Susannah recognizes how lucky she was to have people on her side advocating with the hospital for her, as well as to be in a city with such high-quality and cutting edge medical care.

The last third where she talks about her years of recovery and her life now was the weakest. The level of insight and analysis found in the first two parts was absent. While Susannah clearly empathizes with those with mental illness, there’s a clear sense that she thinks that all mental illness is just an illness making you look mental and not actually maybe a different way of interacting with the world. A different kind of normal you’re just born with. I think Susannah fails to take into consideration what if she was just born seeing colors more brightly and seeing the walls breathe? What if that was just always her normal? That’s the reality for many with a mental illness, and she kind of just glosses over that and comes down on the it’s all just a physical illness side. I’m more of a believer that it’s ok for there to be different ways to be “normal” and maybe society should stop shoving us all into the same shaped peghole. While it’s true that situations like Susannah’s where your whole personality changes overnight are devastating, that’s not how all mental illness presents, and I think she misses that in her quest to find and diagnose those with a brain inflammation misdiagnosed.

Overall, this is an intensely readable book that leaves you questioning what is truly madness and what is just abnormality? And what makes us who we are? If a person is unable to remember what they are doing, does that mean they’re behaving as themselves authentically or as quite the opposite?

4 out of 5 stars

Source: ARC from publisher in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

January 4, 2016 2 comments

cover_birdboxSummary:
Malorie thought the hardest thing she was going to have to face was dealing with her pregnancy and impending single motherhood.  She thought the warnings about seeing something that makes you go crazy and become violent was just the news blowing things out of proportion, or at least just hysteria.  Her sister believed in it, but not herself.

But that was all years ago, and now Malorie is alone in a house with her two children. Children who have never been outside without blindfolds on. She only leaves the house blindfolded, tapping the ground with a stick to find the well.  But now it is time for her to be brave and to take a boat on the river, just she and her two children, blindfolded, in the hopes of finding salvation.

Review:
I was drawn to this book for two reasons.  First, the mere thought of a mother and two young children boating down a river blindfolded had me intrigued.  Second, it’s set in Michigan, which is where my husband is from, and honestly I can’t recall the last time I saw a book set in Michigan.  These two elements came together to tell me this book is probably unique.  So when I saw the kindle version on sale on Amazon, I snatched it up.  What I found was a chilling tale that could easily fit within the Lovecraft mythos.

The order the story is told in helps build the suspense and keeps it from being a same old apocalypse and survivors’ tale.  The book opens with Malorie and her two children living alone in the house.  It opens post-apocalyptic.  Through flashbacks we learn various things such as who used to live in the house with Malorie, why there are certain parts of the house she doesn’t like to go to, and why neither she nor the children leave the house without blindfolds on.  From here, the reader is then taken forward into Malorie’s action onto the river, going down it trying to find a safe haven of other survivors that she knows used to be there years ago.  It’s a nice combination of flashback and plot progression forward that keeps the suspense interesting.

It is no spoiler to say that what caused the apocalypse is something that causes people to go stark raving mad when they see it.  This is included in the official book blurb.  What was interesting to me was how Malerman kept this from being purely straight-forward. Some characters believe in the mysterious creatures right away, others don’t.  Some think that merely believing it will cause you to go crazy makes you go crazy.  Some think that some are affected and others aren’t.  Some wonder if animals are affected too, and no one knows where the creatures came from or, if you don’t believe in the creatures, how the phenomenon started.  The lack of clear-cut answers reflects reality.  In general, with large-scale catastrophes, it’s hard to know exactly what happened or what is going on.  This lack of knowing made the situation read as real, even if the exact situation is an absurd sounding one at first.

I was also struck by how well Malerman wrote a female version of experiencing the apocalypse.  Malorie is both focused on surviving for herself and her baby but also distracted from the apocalypse because she is having normal hormonal reactions to pregnancy.  Similarly, while some characters embrace her as a symbol of hope, others see her as a burden.  Malorie was a refreshing change from the young, virile, kick-ass heroine often seen in post-apocalyptic books.  She is strong, yes, but not in a kick-ass way.  She is strong in a she’s doing her best to be a good mom and still survive type way.  And that’s a nice thing to see in post-apocalyptic horror fiction.

The book naturally ends up pondering “madness” a lot.  The creatures drive any who see them into near-caricature depictions of madness. Sometimes the person becomes violent against others. Sometimes the person turns on themselves, killing themselves or self-injuring to the extent that they die.  There are a lot of questions about what the human mind can handle.  There is a lot of argument in the book for agency against all odds.

It’s better to face madness with a plan than to sit still and let it take you in pieces. (loc 4034)

On the one hand, I appreciate the argument for agency and fighting for your sanity and humanity.  On the other hand, I’m not sure how I feel about a metaphor where madness happens to people who just aren’t careful enough or don’t have enough of a plan.  While it’s valid that a mental illness must be fought every day and some have more natural resiliency than others, there’s a tone of blame to the theme that strikes me the wrong way.

*small spoiler*
At one point, it is postulated that perhaps the only ones immune to being driven mad by the creatures are those who are already mentally ill because they are already mad.  There is no science behind this thought.  There is simply a character who appears to have paranoid schizophrenia who firmly believes the creatures are not actually dangerous because he has seen them and is fine.  Yet he is a character who ends up instigating an incredibly violent scene.  While it is true that there are violent extremes of mental illness, there are also those that are not.  The book fails to bring out the subtleties and varieties of mental illness.  Imagine the power that could have been from a character who had, for instance, OCD and was able to see the creatures and interact with them without harming anyone and able to understand that others cannot see them safely.  Imagine if it was simply that seeing the world differently already, being abnormal, protected one from being driven truly mad by the creatures.  What an interesting direction that could have taken the story.
*end spoilers*

Thus, in general, while I appreciate the more unique and interesting things the book did, such as focusing on a pregnant woman and then a young mother as the main character and telling the plot in a non-linear way, ultimately the book did not push the boundaries or the ideas far enough to truly enrapture me.  Recommended to horror, Lovecraft, and post-apocalyptic fans looking for a read with a young mother as the focus.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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