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‘Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness’ by Susannah Cahalan ****

I have wanted to read Susannah Cahalan’s memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness for such a long time, but have struggled to get my hands on a copy.  Thankfully it was added to my online library app, and I was able to borrow it straight away.  Unusually in this case, I actually watched the film before picking up the book, and thankfully found a memoir which has so much depth in both formats.

Brain on Fire is described as ‘the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture 13547180her identity’.  As a twenty four-year-old, Cahalan was establishing herself as a journalist in New York City, living in a studio apartment by herself, and working at the New York Post.  After having a series of strange symptoms for a number of weeks – the certainty that there were bedbugs in her apartment which were biting her, a sudden out of character jealousy which causes her to check her boyfriend’s emails, migraines, numbness in various parts of her body, and paranoia – she wakes alone in a hospital room, ‘strapped to her bed and unable to speak’, and with no memory of how she came to be there.  This previously astute and independent woman was labelled ‘violent, psychotic, a flight risk.’

Cahalan has vivid and terrifying hallucinations, and violent moodswings.  She loses her appetite, she forgets how to read, and she loses her ability to speak.  When she is first admitted to hospital, Cahalan writes: ‘This new me was physically different: skinny and pale, cheeks sunken in, and thighs whittled down to toothpicks.  My eyes were glazed over…  it was hard to maintain a conversation because I operated on a delay, responding to basic questions several seconds after they were posed.’

Cahalan spent weeks visiting different medical experts, with both her family and her boyfriend, in order to get to the bottom of her illness.  All of her tests and vital signs came back as normal, but her family pushed for answers.  Although she does eventually get an answer, many of the doctors whom she sought help from tried to convince her that her illness was all in her head, and originated only from a psychological source.  Cahalan believes that her illness may have been caused by a pathogen ‘that had invaded my body, a little germ that set everything in motion.’  She comments: ‘I would learn firsthand that this kind of illness often ebbs and flows, leaving the sufferer convinced that the worst is over, even when it’s only retreating for a moment…’.

Cahalan’s experiences are harrowing, and rather troubling to read about.  Her first seizure ‘marked the line between sanity and insanity.  Though I would have moments of lucidity over the coming weeks, I would never again be the same person.  This was the start of the dark period of my illness, as I began an existence in purgatory between the real world and a cloudy, fictitious realm made up of hallucinations and paranoia.’  She forgets huge chunks of time, and moves through various misdiagnoses, some of which are rather traumatic.

Along with her own experiences, Cahalan has woven in those of her divorced mother and father and their new partners, her boyfriend Stephen, and her brother, who was away at college and largely kept in the dark about her illness.  Cahalan also includes portions of the stream-of-consciousness journal which she kept whilst in hospital, and which in retrospect she does not recognise herself within.  Some of her patient notes also feature in Brain on Fire.  This, alongside her narrative, demonstrate how erratic her behaviour so quickly became, and the way in which she had no control whatsoever over her body.

Throughout, Cahalan is open and honest about all of her experiences, many of which must have been highly traumatic to recount.  The terror of her condition within Brain on Fire is almost tangible.  Of course, with a memoir or illness narrative dealing with such a strange and debilitating disease, parts of the book are rather difficult to read.  However, Cahalan charts her incredibly hard and harrowing journey, in a thoughtful and fascinating manner.  There is so much depth to Cahalan’s narrative, both scientifically and emotionally, and it feels like a privilege to finally be able to read Brain on Fire.

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Five Great Memoirs

I have always delighted in learning about the lives of others, and have tried to incorporate as many memoirs into my reading as is possible.  I enjoy reading about individuals, particularly women, whose lives are very different to my own, and always find this a highly enriching experience.  With this in mind, I have gathered together five wonderful memoirs of women which I have read of late, and which I would highly recommend.  There are illness narratives, translated books, works set during wartime, and quiet meditations in the list, and I dearly hope that you find something new to pick up.

34104392._sy475_1. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs *****
An exquisite memoir about how to live–and love–every day with “death in the room,” from poet Nina Riggs, mother of two young sons and the direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the tradition of When Breath Becomes Air.  Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, and married sixteen years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.  How does one live each day, “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty?  Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?  Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it’s about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying “this is what will be.”  Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.

2. When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew by Hendrika de Vries 45480725._sy475_****
Born in the Netherlands at a time when girls are to be housewives and mothers and nothing else, Hendrika de Vries is a “daddy’s girl” until her father is deported from Nazi-occupied Amsterdam to a POW camp in Germany and her mother joins the Resistance. In the aftermath of her father’s departure, Hendrika watches as freedoms formerly taken for granted are eroded with escalating brutality by men with swastika armbands who aim to exterminate those they deem “inferior” and those who do not obey.  As time goes on, Hendrika absorbs her mother’s strength and faith, and learns about moral choice and forced silence. She sees her hidden Jewish “stepsister” betrayed, and her mother interrogated at gunpoint. She and her mother suffer near starvation, and they narrowly escape death on the day of liberation. But they survive it all—and through these harrowing experiences, Hendrika discovers the woman she wants to become.

50403465._sy475_3. The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui ****
Award-winning journalist Delphine Minoui recounts the true story of a band of young rebels in a besieged Syrian town, who find hope and connection making an underground library from the rubble of war.  Day in, day out, bombs fall on Daraya, a town outside Damascus, the very spot where the Syrian Civil War began. In the midst of chaos and bloodshed, a group searching for survivors stumbles on a cache of books. They collect the books, then look for more. In a week they have six thousand volumes. In a month, fifteen thousand. A sanctuary is born: a library where the people of Daraya can explore beyond the blockade.  Long a site of peaceful resistance to the Assad regimes, Daraya was under siege for four years. No one entered or left, and international aid was blocked.  In 2015, French-Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui saw a post on Facebook about this secret library and tracked down one of its founders, twenty-three-year-old Ahmad, an aspiring photojournalist himself. Over WhatsApp and Facebook, Minoui learned about the young men who gathered in the library, exchanged ideas, learned English, and imagined how to shape the future, even as bombs fell above. They devoured a marvelous range of books–from American self-help like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to international bestsellers like The Alchemist, from Arabic poetry by Mahmoud Darwish to Shakespearean plays to stories of war in other times and places, such as the siege of Sarajevo. They also shared photos and stories of their lives before and during the war, planned how to build a democracy, and began to sustain a community in shell-shocked soil.  As these everyday heroes struggle to hold their ground, they become as much an inspiration as the books they read. And in the course of telling their stories, Delphine Minoui makes this far-off, complicated war immediate. In the vein of classic tales of the triumph of the human spirit–like All the Beautiful Forevers, A Long Way Gone, and Reading Lolita in TehranThe Book Collectors will inspire readers and encourage them to imagine the wider world.

4. These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards by Jean Sprackland **** 49569565._sy475_
Graveyards are oases: places of escape, of peace and reflection. Each is a garden or nature reserve, but also a site of commemoration, where the past is close enough to touch: a liminal place, at the border of the living world.  Jean Sprackland’s prize-winning book, Strands, brought to life the histories of objects found on a beach. These Silent Mansions is also an uncovering of individual stories: vivid, touching and intimately told. Sprackland travels back through her own life, revisiting graveyards in the ordinary towns and cities she has called home, seeking out others who lived, died and are remembered or forgotten there. With her poet’s eye, she makes chance discoveries among the stones and inscriptions: a notorious smuggler tucked up in a sleepy churchyard; ancient coins unearthed on a secret burial ground; a slow-worm basking in the sun.  These Silent Mansions is an elegant, exhilarating meditation on the relationship between the living and the dead, the nature of time and loss, and how – in this restless, accelerated world – we can connect the here with the elsewhere, the present with the past.

49114654._sx318_5. Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran N. Khan ****
For most Indians, Kabul is a city that is near, yet far-familiar, yet unknown. When Taran N. Khan arrived in Kabul in the spring of 2006, five years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, she was earnestly cautioned never to walk. Her instincts compelled her to do the opposite: to take that precarious first step and enter the life of the city with the unique, tactile intimacy that comes from being a walker. She didn’t stop until 2013, when she returned to India.  In Shadow City, Taran N. Khan paints a lyrical, personal, and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict and peace. As a Muslim woman raised in a small town in India, Taran discovered that she had access to parts of Kabul uncharted by travellers before her. The result reads like an elegiac prose map of the city, rich with surprises-from the glitter of wedding halls that shine like a bizarre version of Las Vegas; to the mental health hospital where women are abandoned and isolated but exist in a rare space of freedom and solitude; to the bookseller behind The Bookseller of Kabul, who sued Åsne Seierstad for her portrayal of him and then published the rebuttal which he displays proudly in his shop window.

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‘This Really Isn’t About You’ by Jean Hannah Edelstein ****

Olivia Laing calls Jean Hannah Edelstein, author of the memoir, This Really Isn’t About You, ‘one of the most brilliant writers of her generation.’  This, her second book, revolves around her father’s death from cancer, and discovering six months afterwards that she had inherited the gene for Lynch syndrome, which causes many different kinds of cancer to form.

9781509863785Edelstein, who was thirty-two at the time, moved back to the United States in 2014, when she was told her father was dying from lung cancer.  Up until this point, she had spent her entire adult life abroad, and was settled in London, where she worked as a freelance journalist, supplementing her passion for writing with temporary office jobs.  Six weeks after she arrives back at home, and almost simultaneous to her renting an apartment in New York City, her father passes away: ‘I was in Brooklyn looking for love on OKCupid when my father died.’

She goes on to reveal: ‘That night in February, I had a rare feeling of contentment, or something like it…  I was beginning to feel like it might be time to build my real life in America…  Maybe my life was almost under control.’  She reflects here on her father’s death in the family home in Baltimore: ‘My father tried to eat dinner, and then he told my mother that he was really not feeling well, and then he stood up from the easy chair where he had been spending most of his days for the last few weeks, and then he collapsed and died on the wooden floor in the space between the dining area and the family room.’

Edelstein begins her memoir by writing about her family history; she does this with humour and love.  She discusses, in part, her Jewish father’s relationship with his faith: ‘As far as I know, the ways in which my father was Jewish were mostly food ways: he ate briny fish and cold beet soup from jars.  Pumpernickel bagels, grainy dark breads.  My father drank little alcohol – Jews don’t really drink, he’d say, which was maybe less of a fact than a rumour – and he avoided pork products.  When pressed, he claimed it was less a fear of God than a fear of trichinosis.’  Amongst other elements, she talks of summer holidays spent with her Scottish grandmother in rainy Dumfries, moving to London for graduate school, and falling in and out of love.

Finding out that she had the gene for Lynch syndrome was, as one would expect, difficult to come to terms with. Her siblings and cousin, when they were tested, were found to be clear of the gene.  Edelstein is convinced, however, from the moment at which her father suggests that she goes to see her doctor, that she carries it: ‘… I had decided not to get tested while Dad was alive.  I couldn’t imagine telling him that I had the thing that was killing him.’  She goes on to explain: ‘My father had been dead for six months before I was brave enough to go and get the test.  I was no longer in a state of deepest grief.  I didn’t cry every day any more.  Just some of them.’

Lynch syndrome is a gene mutation, which around 1 in 400 people carry: ‘It’s found in all kinds of people, but in particular it’s found in people who can trace their origins to certain “founder populations”.  Folks who built families with people like them.  People from Finland.  People from Iceland.  French-Canadians.  The Amish.  Ashkenazi Jews.’   Following her own diagnosis, Edelstein was forced to confront some incredibly tough questions about both her present and her future: ‘How do we cope with grief?  How does living change when we realize we’re not invincible?’

This Really Isn’t About You has been variously described as heartbreaking, filled with hope, and ‘disarmingly funny’.  I found it to be all of these things; it is a rich memoir, full and quite revealing at times.  I enjoyed her brand of humour, which tends to be quite dry and sarcastic.  Edelstein’s authorial voice is consistently warm and candid, and a real pleasure to read, despite the more difficult scenes which she has described.  Her writing feels like a cathartic exercise; she has to come to terms with so much, and is open about it all to her audience.  Edelstein’s tone, and her intelligent and measured prose, coupled with the substance of the memoir, makes This Really Isn’t About You both an easy, and very difficult, book to read.

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‘Survival Lessons’ by Alice Hoffman ****

I purchased Alice Hoffman’s only non-fiction work to date, Survival Lessons, after spotting it on Goodreads.  I very much enjoy her fiction, and find her writing style both immersive and not at all taxing to read.  Survival Lessons is markedly different in its content to her novels; it charts her struggle with breast cancer, and the ensuing feeling which it left about trying to enjoy life in all of its splendour, as well as in heartbreak.

Its blurb says, ‘Wise, gentle, and wry, Alice Hoffman teaches all of us how to choose what matters most’.  I find this description a little disingenuous, sounding, as it does, as though Hoffman is trying to preach to her readers.  What I found in Survival Lessons is something quite different; it is a meditation on life, and all of the tiny pleasures which can be found in our days, despite the adversity we may face on a wider scale.

9781616203146Hoffman immediately begins with an introduction which describes her initial denial at the betrayal of her own body, and the later diagnosis of cancer.  This introduction, whilst brief, feels honest, and is insightful as to both her situation and reasoning.  Her plight gave her, with almost a decade and a half of retrospect added into the mix, the inspiration to write this slim volume: ‘When I found the lump I was convinced I had imagined it.  These things didn’t happen to me.’

At the time of her discovery, Hoffman’s mother was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and her sister-in-law had just passed away from brain cancer.  Of her own diagnosis, she speaks rather honestly of her previous position as caregiver: ‘I was not someone who got cancer.  In fact, I was the person who sat by bedsides, accompanied friends to doctor’s appointments, researched family members’ diseases until I became an expert, went to meetings with lawyers when divorce was the only option, found therapists for depressed teenagers, bought plots at cemeteries, arranged funerals, babysat children and pets.’

It took Hoffman a while to come to terms with her own disease; eventually, she came to recognise that ‘When it comes to sorrow, no one is immune.’  The writing process which Survival Lessons gave her was in itself a form of healing.  Unable to find such a book herself, she decided to put pen to paper in order to try and help others through similar situations, envisaging her work as a ‘guidebook’ or ‘manual’ for trauma survival.

Fifteen years ensued between her diagnosis and the publication of Survival Lessons.  Of the interim, Hoffman states: ‘It took all this time for me to figure out what I would have most wanted to hear when I was newly diagnosed, when I lost the people I loved, when I was deeply disappointed in myself and the turns my life had taken.  In many ways I wrote this book to remind myself of the beauty of life, something that’s all too easy to overlook during the crisis of illness or loss.’

Survival Lessons is varied in terms of its content.  Amongst other things, Hoffman writes about Anne Frank, her childhood hero; the notion of personal tragedy; her parents’ divorce; the loss of her mother; recipes; ageing; grief; and reading.  She urges her readers to ‘read the greats – they’re great for a reason.  They know how to chart the human soul.’  Survival Lessons is made up of a series of short essays and musings, and is therefore easy to dip in and out of.  There are quotes, extracts from poems, illustrations, and accompanying photographs, and this mixed media blends in a lovely and fitting way.  I read Survival Lessons merely because I was curious about its content, but I imagine that it will bring comfort to those in similar situations to Hoffman’s.  Regardless, it is a worthwhile read for everyone; it is so human in its approach, and not exclusive to those who are suffering with anything.  Survival Lessons is a really lovely little book, which I will definitely not be forgetting in a hurry.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Five)

The final part of this week’s Really Underrated Books brings with it a question – which is the book which has caught your attention the most this week?

1. The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger 253668
Tess Slesinger’s 1934 novel, The Unpossessed details the ins and outs and ups and downs of left-wing New York intellectual life and features a cast of litterateurs, layabouts, lotharios, academic activists, and fur-clad patrons of protest and the arts. This cutting comedy about hard times, bad jobs, lousy marriages, little magazines, high principles, and the morning after bears comparison with the best work of Dawn Powell and Mary McCarthy.

 

2. Postmortem: How Medical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths by Stefan Timmermans
As elected coroners were replaced by medical examiners with scientific training, the American public became fascinated with their work. From the grisly investigations showcased on highly rated television shows like CSI to the bestselling mysteries that revolve around forensic science, medical examiners have never been so visible—or compelling. They, and they alone, solve the riddle of suspicious death and the existential questions that come with it. Why did someone die? Could it have been prevented? Should someone be held accountable? What are the implications of ruling a death a suicide, a homicide, or an accident? Can medical examiners unmask the perfect crime?  Postmortem goes deep inside the world of medical examiners to uncover the intricate web of social, legal, and moral issues in which they operate. Stefan Timmermans spent years in a medical examiner’s office following cases, interviewing examiners, and watching autopsies. While he relates fascinating cases here, he is also more broadly interested in the cultural authority and responsibilities that come with being a medical examiner. How medical examiners speak to the living on behalf of the dead is Timmermans’s subject, revealed here in the day-to-day lives of the examiners themselves.

 

3. The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside 3057525
Once, on a winter’s night many years ago, after a heavy snow, the devil passed through the Scottish fishing town of Coldhaven, leaving a trail of dark hoofprints across the streets and roofs of the sleeping town.  Michael Gardiner has lived in Coldhaven all his life, but still feels like an outsider, a blow-in. When Moira Birnie decides that her abusive husband is the devil and then kills herself and her two young sons, a terrible chain of events begins. Michael’s infatuation with Moira’s teenage daughter takes him on a journey towards a defined fate, where he is forced to face his present and then, finally, his past…

 

4. Awake in the Dark by Shira Nayman
Bold and deeply affecting, “Awake in the Dark” is a provocative and haunting work of fiction about who we are and how we are formed by history. These luminous stories portray the contemporary lives of the children of Holocaust victims and perpetrators as they struggle with the legacy of their parents — their questions of identity, family, and faith. “Awake in the Dark” is peopled by characters embarking on journeys of self-discovery; they unearth the past and the secrets that shaped them. In “The House on Kronenstrasse,” a woman returns to Germany to find her childhood home; in “The Porcelain Monkey,” the shocking origins of an Orthodox Jewish woman’s faith are revealed; in “The Lamp,” the harrowing experiences of a young woman leave her with the perfect daughter and a strange light; and in “Dark Urgings of the Blood,” a patient is convinced that she shares a disturbing history with her psychiatrist.

 

5124915. Lucky in the Corner by Carol Anshaw
Nora and Fern’s relationship as mother and daughter is a tumble of love and distrust. To Nora, her daughter is an enigma — at the same time wonderful and unfindable. Fern sees her mother as treacherous — for busting up their family to move in with her lover, Jeanne. As their lives become complicated by the arrivals of a skateboarding boyfriend for Fern, a shadowy affair for Nora, a baby in need of a family, and by the failing health of Lucky, their beloved dog, this mother and daughter find their way onto a fresh footing with each other.

 

6. I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops by Hanan Al-Shaykh
At the intersection of tradition and modernity, East and West, childhood and adulthood, the characters in this book find their way through the shifting and ambiguous power relationships that change the landscape of the modern Arab world.

 

7. Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (one of my personal favourites!) 7516243
A single mother takes her two sons on a trip to the seaside. They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate, and go to the funfair. She wants to protect them from an uncaring and uncomprehending world. She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys.  Beside the Sea is a haunting and thought-provoking story about how a mother’s love for her children can be more dangerous than the dark world she is seeking to keep at bay. It’s a hypnotizing look at an unhinged mind and the cold society that produced it. With language as captivating as the story that unfolds, Véronique Olmi creates an intimate portrait of madness and despair that won’t soon be forgotten

 

8. Focus by Ingrid Ricks
In her powerful memoir, Ingrid Ricks delves into the shock of discovering at age thirty-seven that she was in the advanced stages of Retinitis Pigmentosa, a devastating degenerative eye disease that doctors said would eventually steal her remaining eyesight. Focus takes readers into Ingrid’s world as she faces the crippling fear of not being able to see her two young daughters grow up, of becoming a burden to her husband, of losing the career she loves, and of being robbed of the independence that defines her.  Ultimately, Focus is about Ingrid’s quest to fix her eyes that ends up fixing her life. Through an eight-year journey marked by a trip to South Africa to write about AIDS orphans, a four-day visit with a doctor who focuses on whole-body health, a relationship-changing confrontation with her husband and a life-changing lesson from her daughters, Ingrid learns to embrace the moment and see what counts—something no amount of vision loss can take from her.

 

831719. America’s Boy by Wade Rouse
‘Wade didn’t quite fit in. While schoolmates had crewcuts and wore Wrangler jeans, Wade styled his hair in imitation of Robbie Benson circa Ice Castles and shopped in the Sears husky section. Wade’s father insisted on calling everyone “honey”—even male gas station attendants. His mother punctuated her conversations with “WHAT?!” and constantly answered herself as though she was being cross-examined. He goes to school with a pack of kids called goat ropers who make the boys from Deliverance look like honor students. And he both loved and hated his perfect older brother.  While other families traveled to Florida and Hawaii for vacation, Wade’s family packed their clothes in garbage bags and drove to their log cabin on Sugar Creek in the Missouri Ozarks. And it is here that Wade found refuge from his everyday struggle to fit in—until a sudden, terrible accident on the Fourth of July took his brother’s life and changed everything.  Equally nostalgic, poignant, funny, and compelling, this is a story of what it is to be normal, what it means to fit in, and what it means to be yourself.’

 

10. The Debut by Anita Brookner
Since childhood Ruth Weiss has been escaping from life into books, and from the hothouse attentions of her tyrannical and eccentric parents into the gentler warmth of lovers and friends. Now Dr. Weiss, at forty, a quiet scholar devoted to the study of Balzac, is convinced that her life has been ruined by literature, and that once again she must make a new start in life.

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‘So Much for That’ by Lionel Shriver ****

“Shep Knacker has long saved for “the Afterlife,” an idyllic retreat in the Third World where his nest egg can last forever. Exasperated that his wife, Glynis, has concocted endless excuses why it’s never the right time to go, Shep finally announces he’s leaving for a Tanzanian island, with or without her. Yet Glynis has some news of her own: she’s deathly ill. Shep numbly puts his dream aside, while his nest egg is steadily devastated by staggering bills that their health insurance only partially covers. Astonishingly, illness not only strains their marriage but saves it.  From acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Lionel Shriver comes a searing, ruthlessly honest novel. Brimming with unexpected tenderness and dry humor, it presses the question: How much is one life worth?”

9780061458590There is much divided opinion about Shriver’s So Much for That.  As in her most well-known book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, the book’s prose is highly stylised, and one can spot her distinctive writing from the outset.  Within So Much for That, Shriver demonstrates just how versatile she is as an author; this effort is markedly different to the aforementioned, but it is just as compelling throughout.

Many issues of importance are tackled here, but the one which rises above everything else is the healthcare system in the United States.  It gives a fascinating insight into insurance policies and how much things actually cost, which I in the United Kingdom have been sheltered from with our fantastic NHS.

Intelligently written and realistically characterised, So Much for That is sharp, exquisite, and mindblowingly good.  It held my interest throughout, until I reached the last dozen or so pages.  They served to ruin the whole for me somewhat; I did not feel as though the epilogue which Shriver presents is necessary.  In fact, it was reminiscent of that awful ‘grown-up’ scene at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which still infuriates me.  Ugh.  I have consequently come away from the whole feeling a touch disappointed, but know that I will definitely have to read all of Shriver’s other books in future; she has such a talent, and I am determined to give one of her books a five-star rating.

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The Book Trail: From Breathing to Tea

We begin with a relatively recent favourite of mine for this edition of the Book Trail, and consequently come across some fantastic looking tomes related to it on Goodreads.

1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 9781847923677
What makes a virtuous and meaningful life? Paul Kalanithi believed that the answer lay in medicine’s most demanding specialization, neurosurgery. Here are patients at their life’s most critical moment. Here he worked in the most critical place for human identity, the brain. What is it like to do that every day; and what happens when life is catastrophically interrupted?  When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable reflection on the practice of medicine and the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

 

2. Wondering Who You Are: A Memoir by Sonya Lea
In the twenty-third year of their marriage, Sonya Lea’s husband, Richard, went in for surgery to treat a rare appendix cancer. When he came out, he had no recollection of their life together: how they met, their wedding day, the births of their two children. All of it was gone, along with the rockier parts of their past—her drinking, his anger. Richard could now hardly speak, emote, or create memories from moment to moment. Who he’d been no longer was.  Wondering Who You Are braids the story of Sonya and Richard’s relationship, those memories that he could no longer conjure, with an account of his fateful days in the hospital—the internal bleeding, the near-death experience, and the eventual traumatic brain injury. It follows the couple through his recovery as they struggle with his treatment, and through a marriage no longer grounded on decades of shared experience. As they build a fresh life together, as Richard develops a new personality, Sonya is forced to question her own assumptions, beliefs, and desires, her place in the marriage and her way of being in the world. With radical candor, Sonya Lea has written a memoir that is both a powerful look at perseverance in the face of trauma and a surprising exploration into what lies beyond our fragile identities.’

 

97811018733593. Lord Fear: A Memoir by Lucas Mann
Lucas Mann was only thirteen years old when his brother Josh—charismatic and ambitious, funny and sadistic, violent and vulnerable—died of a heroin overdose. Although his brief life is ultimately unknowable, Josh is both a presence and an absence in the author’s life that will not remain unclaimed. As Josh’s story is told in kaleidoscopic shards of memories assembled from interviews with his friends and family, as well as from the raw material of his journals, a revealing, startling portrait unfolds. At the same time, Mann pulls back to examine his own complicated feelings and motives for recovering memories of his brother’s life, searching for a balance between the tension of inevitability and the what ifs that beg to be asked. Through his investigation, Mann also comes to redefine his own place in a family whose narrative is bisected by the tragic loss.  Unstinting in its honesty, captivating in its form, and profound in its conclusions, Lord Fear more than confirms the promise of Mann’s earlier book, Class A; with it, he is poised to enter the ranks of the best young writers of his generation.

 

4. Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor
At 28, Jessica Fechtor was happily immersed in graduate school and her young marriage, and thinking about starting a family. Then one day, she went for a run and an aneurysm burst in her brain. She nearly died. She lost her sense of smell, the sight in her left eye, and was forced to the sidelines of the life she loved.  Jessica’s journey to recovery began in the kitchen as soon as she was able to stand at the stovetop and stir. There, she drew strength from the restorative power of cooking and baking. Written with intelligence, humor, and warmth, Stir is a heartfelt examination of what it means to nourish and be nourished.”   Woven throughout the narrative are 27 recipes for dishes that comfort and delight. For readers of M.F.K.Fisher, Molly Wizenberg, and Tamar Adler, as well as Oliver Sacks, Jill Bolte Taylor, and Susannah Cahalan, Stir is sure to inspire, and send you straight to the kitchen.

 

5. A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell 9780007412006
In today’s 24-hour consumer society, it is easy to get what we desire to eat. But do we know where these everyday recipes came from, who invented them, and using what techniques? This book provides a colourful and entertaining journey through the history of cuisine, celebrating the world’s greatest dishes.

 

6. The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat by Caroline Grant
Without mantras or manifestos, 29 writers serve up sharp, sweet, and candid memories; salty irreverence; and delicious original recipes. Food is so much more than what we eat. The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage is an anthology of original essays about how we learn (and relearn) to eat, and how pivotal food is beyond the table.

 

97802264940747. Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads by Sylvia Lovegren
Though the Roaring Twenties call to mind images of flappers dancing the Charleston and gangsters dispensing moonshine in back rooms, Sylvia Lovegren here playfully reminds us what these characters ate for dinner: Banana and Popcorn Salad. Like fashions and fads, food—even bad food—has a history, and Lovegren’s Fashionable Food is quite literally a cookbook of the American past.  Well researched and delightfully illustrated, this collection of faddish recipes from the 1920s to the 1990s is a decade-by-decade tour of a hungry American century. From the Three P’s Salad—that’s peas, pickles, and peanuts—of the post-World War I era to the Fruit Cocktail and Spam Buffet Party loaf—all the rage in the ultra-modern 1950s, when cooking from a can epitomized culinary sophistication—Fashionable Food details the origins of these curious delicacies. In two chapters devoted to “exotic foods of the East,” for example, Lovegren explores the long American love affair with Chinese food and the social status conferred upon anyone chic enough to eat pu-pu platters from Polynesia. Throughout, Lovegren supplements recipes—some mouth-watering, some appalling—from classic cookbooks and family magazines, with humorous anecdotes that chronicle how society and kitchen technology influenced the way we lived and how we ate.  Equal parts American and culinary history, Fashionable Food examines our collective past from the kitchen counter. Even if it’s been a while since you last had Tang Pie and your fondue set is collecting dust in the back of the cupboard, Fashionable Food will inspire, entertain, and inform.

 

8. Tea With Jane Austen by Kim Wilson
Who would not want to sit down with Jane Austen and join her in a cup of tea? This book shares the secrets of one of her favourite rituals. Each chapter includes a description of how tea was taken at a particular place or time of day, along with history, recipes, excerpts from Austen’s novels and letters and illustrations from the time.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which do you think I should attempt to get to first?

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‘Comfort: A Journey Through Grief’ by Ann Hood *****

I hadn’t heard a lot about Comfort: A Journey Through Grief before I decided to buy it; I did so because as far as retrospective illness narratives go, it was unlike anything I’d read before.  I have come across and loved a couple of accounts of women who sadly miscarry, and those who have lost adults (husbands or sisters, for instance) to terrible diseases, but I haven’t read anything about the loss of a child.  In Comfort, Hood writes about the death and its aftermath of her five-year-old daughter Grace, who passed away from a virulent form of strep throat.  In doing so, she also encompasses Grace’s short but worthy life; she writes of her daughter’s favourite activities, and the little quirks which were already such a part of her. 9780393336597

From the outset, I knew it would be honest and heartbreaking.  Hood launches the reader, and herself, into the deep end at the book’s very outset; in the harrowing prologue of Comfort, she runs through the supposed ‘coping techniques’ which have been recommended to her, from drinking single malt whisky and taking regular courses of drugs such as Prozac, to reading memoirs about the grief of others.  As she writes of this last course of action, ‘But none of them lost Grace.  They do not know what it is to lose Grace’.

Comfort is, of course, incredibly emotional; one can feel Hood’s pain and anguish from its opening paragraph.  Some of the details were repetitive, but there was a therapeutic element to this; it seemed crucial for Hood to mention different elements or happenings at intervals, just in order to convince herself that everything had happened, and to reinforce the impact which her young daughter had had on people, both in terms of Hood’s nuclear family, and in the wider world.

I very rarely cry whilst reading (yes, I’m one of those people), but Comfort brought me to tears on several occasions.  Hood’s work is so candid, so honest; it felt like a real privilege to read.  I can only hope that the writing process gave Hood some comfort, and that my paltry review will encourage others to read it whilst also putting across how important this book was to me.

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Illness Narratives: Getting Started

Whilst I did not enjoy my Illness Narratives as Life Writing class anywhere near as much as I thought I would, I still read some incredibly good memoirs in preparation for it.  There are a few here which I read prior to the course too.  The following books have all been selected to feature on the blog today because I feel that they are all important; they are poignant, tender, thought-provoking and, above all, life-affirming.  For each, I have copied the official blurb, as the majority of them describe the conditions written about in a far more comprehensive way than I could without doing some research.

  1. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen 9781860497926
    ‘In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor and Ray Charles. A clear-sighted, unflinching work that provokes questions about our definitions of sane and insane, Kaysen’s extraordinary memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers.’
  2. On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf
    ‘The essay seeks to establish illness as a serious subject of literature along the lines of love, jealousy and battle. Woolf writes, “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”‘
  3. Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel
    ‘From the double Man Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Wolf Hall’, a wry, shocking and beautiful memoir of childhood, ghosts, hauntings, illness and family. ‘Giving up the Ghost’ is award-winning novelist Hilary Mantel’s uniquely unusual five-part autobiography. Opening in 1995 with ‘A Second Home’, Mantel describes the death of her stepfather which leaves her deeply troubled by the unresolved events of her childhood. In ‘Now Geoffrey Don’t Torment Her’ Mantel takes the reader into the muffled consciousness of her early childhood, culminating in the birth of a younger brother and the strange candlelight ceremony of her mother’s ‘churching’. In ‘Smile’, an account of teenage perplexity, Mantel describes a household where the keeping of secrets has become a way of life. Finally, at the memoir’s conclusion, Mantel explains how through a series of medical misunderstandings and neglect she came to be childless and how the ghosts of the unborn like chances missed or pages unturned, have come to haunt her life as a writer.’
  4. 9781783781461Until Further Notice, I Am Alive by Tom Lubbock
    ‘In 2008, Tom Lubbock was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and told he had only one or two years to live. In this remarkable record of those years, lived out in three-month intervals between scans, he examines the question of how to live with death in sight. As the tumour progressed, Tom engaged intensely and imaginatively with work, art, friends, and his wife and their young son, while trying to remain focused on the fact of his impending death. His tumour was located in the area of the brain associated with language, and he describes losing control over the spoken and written word and the resources he drew on to keep communicating; a struggle which brought him ever closer to the mysteries of the origin of speech. As the Independent’s chief art critic, he was renowned for the clarity and unconventionality of his writing, and the same fierce intelligence permeates this extraordinary memoir. This is a book written by a man wholly engaged with life even as it ends.’
  5. The Iceberg by Marion Coutts
    ‘Winner of the Wellcome Book Prize, and finalist for every major nonfiction award in the UK, including the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Award, The Iceberg is artist and writer Marion Coutts’ astonishing memoir; an adventure of being and dying and a compelling, poetic meditation on family, love, and language. In 2008, Tom Lubbach, the chief art critic for The Independent was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The Iceberg is his wife, Marion Coutts, fierce, exquisite account of the two years leading up to his death. In spare, breathtaking prose, Coutts conveys the intolerable and, alongside their two year old son Ev, whose language is developing as Tom’s is disappearing/  Marion and Tom lovingly weather the storm together. In short bursts of exquisitely textured prose, The Iceberg becomes a singular work of art and an uplifting and universal story of endurance in the face of loss.’
  6. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy 9780060569662
    ‘”I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I’ve spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison.”At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her jaw removed, she faced the cruel taunts of classmates. In this strikingly candid memoir, Grealy tells her story of great suffering and remarkable strength without sentimentality and with considerable wit. Vividly portraying the pain of peer rejection and the guilty pleasures of wanting to be special, Grealy captures with unique insight what it is like as a child and young adult to be torn between two warring impulses: to feel that more than anything else we want to be loved for who we are, while wishing desperately and secretly to be perfect.’
  7. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
    ‘The diary of Jean-Dominique Bauby who, with his left eyelid (the only surviving muscle after a massive stroke) dictated a remarkable book about his experiences locked inside his body. A masterpiece and a bestseller in France, it is now a major motion picture directed by Julian Schnabel. On 8 December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a massive stroke and slipped into a coma. When he regained consciousness three weeks later, the only muscle left functioning was in his left eyelid although his mind remained as active and alert as it had ever been. He spent most of 1996 writing this book, letter by letter, blinking as an alphabet was repeatedly read out to him.’
  8. 9780099556091Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
    ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It’s a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in a north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It’s also a book about other people’s literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft that supports us when we are sinking.’
  9. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
    ‘This is the true story of a boy who wanted to grow up with the Brady Bunch, but ended up living with the Addams Family. Augusten Burroughs’s mother gave him away to be raised by her psychiatrist, a dead ringer for Santa Claus and a certifiable lunatic into the bargain. The doctor’s bizarre family, a few patients and a sinister man living in the garden shed completed the tableau. The perfect squalor of their dilapidated Victorian house, there were no rules and there was no school. The Christmas tree stayed up until summer and Valium was chomped down like sweets. And when things got a bit slow, there was always the ancient electroshock therapy machine under the stairs.’
  10. Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie 9780805066128
    ‘By turns humorous and heart-rending, an unforgettable account of a young woman’s spiritual triumphs over breast cancer in the last year of her life Ruth Picardie was only thirty-three when she died, a month after her twins’ second birthday and just under a year after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. For Ruth, a journalist, it seemed natural to write about her illness. She published only five columns for Observer Life magazine before she became too sick to continue, but her moving, funny, and very human account drew a huge response from readers all over England. Before I Say Goodbye juxtaposes these columns with correspondence from readers, e-mails to her friends, letters to her children, and reflections by her husband and her sister. The result is a courageous and moving book, entirely devoid of self-pity, that celebrates the triumph of a brave and wonderful woman’s spirit. An international bestseller in England, Picardie’s sobering yet ultimately life-affirming book is destined to become a classic.’

 

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Reflections: ‘The Iceberg’ by Marion Coutts *****

The Iceberg by Marion Coutts was my book of the year in 2015.  Never have I read an illness narrative which is so poignant, nor a reflection on life which sings with such beauty and sadness.  A recent presentation which I had to give on the book is below.

Winner_-_The_Icebe_3285478fMarion Coutts’ The Iceberg presents not just one story – that of her husband Tom Lubbock’s gradual decline after being diagnosed with a brain tumour in September 2008 – but three; her own, Tom’s, and their young son Ev’s.  She writes, ‘We will all be changed by this.  He [Ev] the most’.

Tom’s trip to the hospital, which led to his diagnosis, was brought on by a seizure suffered whilst at a friend’s; this was the trigger, the catalyst, for the next two and a bit years, dying, as he did, on the 9th of January 2011.  The way in which Tom relays the news of his cancer to Coutts is incredibly matter of fact: ‘Tom stops me.  He says he has had a phone call.  He has a brain tumour.  It is very likely malignant’.  This discovery comes on an already momentous day for the couple – that of Ev’s first day away from them at the childminder’s.  Initially, she is distraught, breaking down in tears, but she does show strength of character from the outset, acting in what she sees as her familial duty.  She realises that she has to adopt the position of proverbial rock for both her husband and son: ‘Right from the start see how I set myself up.  Let us see how this thing goes’.

The book was a pre-planned project of sorts.  As soon as Coutts realises that something is drastically wrong with her husband, and is faced with his mortality – and, indirectly, her own – she consciously thinks about documenting the process.  She opens The Iceberg with the following: ‘A book about the future must be written in advance.  Later I won’t have the energy to speak.  So I will do it now’.  There is no doubt that Tom’s decline will be draining for all involved, and she is already steeling herself for the rocky road ahead.  The Iceberg is as much a historical document for she and her son to gain solace from, as it is a manual for those who are watching the suffering of a loved one to live by.

Throughout, the loss of speech and endless rounds of chemotherapy are not happening directly to Coutts; she is a bystander in proceedings – Tom’s crutch, as it were.  Throughout, she is remarkably understanding and empathetic, continually thinking of the ways in which certain daily processes will affect Tom, and how she can better his quality of life.  This applies both to the daily routine at home, and Tom’s medical care: ‘Normality is gifted in the form of steroids, 2mg daily, and immediately he tightens his grip on language and on the connection of meaning to word’.  She tries to maintain a manageable balance between their old, ordinary family life, and the situation which they have been forced into; they still see friends, and go on walks, for instance, which perpetuates a sense of normalcy in the face of the unknown.  She is essentially a mediator in a time of what could easily descend into panic.  ‘On hearing the news, our instinct is to tell it’, she says.  There is rarely any deception here, and the need to be honest – both with one another, and with others who matter to the couple – is paramount.

coutts-tom-and-ev-011

Tom Lubbock and Ev on Hampstead Heath, December 2008 (Photograph by Marion Coutts)

Coutts’ is a diachronic account; there is historical reach, and a chronological structure.  The form which she has chosen to use is not so much a diary format, as an almost academic way of breaking up separate scenes.  She deals with one day at a time, but the ‘1.1’ and ‘1.2’ structure does take an element of reality away from the whole.  Whilst we do not know the exact dates in which the written accounts took place, the whole is still achingly personal.  There is hope here; very early on in the book, she writes: ‘… we carry on in many ways as before but crosswise to what might be expected, we are not plunged into night’.

The couple do, however, become less able to discuss what the future – or lack thereof – holds for them, and for Ev.  On page 163, Coutts explains that ‘… there is the Talking Issue, meaning talking about what is going on, articulating the disaster that coagulates around us.  Tom promised a while back to begin a conversation with Ev and he has not done this’.  How does one communicate to a toddler that soon his beloved father will no longer be in his life?  Words, however, still have the power to carry them through their ordeal.  Whilst undergoing chemotherapy, Coutts describes the way in which she tenderly whispers poetry ‘with my mouth close to Tom’s ear’ (p168).

The Iceberg is a beautiful, brave, and heartfelt account of a newly-discovered mortality, which shows how one can make every single second in life count for something.  Love is at the forefront of every entry, and every decision which the couple make.