Thursday, January 23, 2014

Brain on Fire: When Bodies Attack Their Own Brains

As I have said many times before, memoirs are by far my favorite genre.  I love reading the true life stories of brave people who overcome ridiculous odds.  I love peeking inside someone else's world and gaining hope for my own struggles in life knowing that someone surely had it worse, and persevered through their circumstances.  Susannah Cahalan's memoir Brain on Fire - My Month of Madness took me into the realm of a young woman on the edge of a promising journalism career at the New York Post who inexplicably went crazy.  One day she seemed fine and the next as she walked through Times Square to her office, the colors hurt her.  She believed bed bugs infested her apartment and even after the exterminator told her there was no evidence of bugs, she made him spray again claiming they were crawling all over her at night.  She suspected her boyfriend of cheating on her and tore apart his apartment looking for evidence.  Her behavior at work drew worried expressions from her friends, and when she was unable to complete interviews or write, she knew something was wrong.  At first her family doctor told her that she was suffering from stress and that she drank too much.  Unsatisfied with those results and after a seizure, the testing got more intense.  Every test came back negative.  All the doctors told her she was "just fine" that her illness was all in her head even as her health deteriorated.  She lost her appetite, couldn't concentrate and started to show more and more signs of psychosis almost as if she was possessed.  She fought against those who loved her most - her mom, her boyfriend and her father, but she was eventually admitted into the epilepsy ward of NYU hospital after a second seizure.

Spanning the time right before her illness got serious and the recovery from her ordeal, Cahalan sheds new light on the new world of neuroscience, and gives hope to those who suffer from unexplainable brain disorders by paving a path for new tests and treatments for a rare brain disorder called NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis.

With horrifying details pieced together from hospital video, her own journals, hospital records, interviews with family members, her boyfriend and her doctors, as well as her father's personal journal of the ordeal, Cahalan shows that her illness didn't stop her from being a brilliant journalist, it may have propelled her to a different status as a human being - a superhero who lived through somethingt she almost didn't make it through, but she lived to tell about it and help others.

Her article "My Mysterious Lost Month of Madness"which spurred the book's development may have saved the life of countless others.  This was confirmed when Cahalan learned that one father used her article when trying to get doctors to save his daughter's life as she suffered through a similar brain disorder.  Here is a video from Susannah Cahalan on The Today Show with the father / daughter that she saved:

I loved this book and was unable to focus on life outside of it.  As the snow poured and the winds blew and the polar vortex (another strange phenomena) showed the power of nature, I silently cheered Cahalan to victory over an unknown nemesis.  The big question that her book comes right out and asks is how many others over history and in the present have suffered from this same illness without a diagnosis? Once the diagnosis was made for Susannah the illness was relatively easy to treat even though the recovery period was arduous.  She was lucky, and had the best care available.  How many others were left in a comatose state without an explanation to their family members?   The brain may just be the final frontier of medical science and Cahalan illuminates the mysteries of the brain in touching and thought provoking short chapters that will keep you entranced until the very end.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Worst Hard Time: When you think your life is tough . . . .

I've always had some weird fascination with the Dust Bowl.  When I taught Of Mice and Men, I really wanted my students to get a sense of the desperation of the time and understand further why the situation with George and Lennie was so dire. I showed footage of The Dust Bowl storms with voice overs of actual people who lived through them.  I read passages from Karen Hesse's book Out of the Dust (1998 Newberry Award Winner that is told from the perspective of a young girl named Billie Jo whose family struggles through the terror of the Dust Bowl), and I showed pictures taken of the farms and devastation during the dust storms of the mid 1930's when the land turned against the farmers.

I thought I understood the plight of farmers during the Dust Bowl, but I had no idea until I read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan (National Book Award Winner 2006).  Chosen as Central Pa's One Book, One Community (each year, a panel of judges chooses a book that they believe if you only read one book this year, this is the one you should read.  For this selection, the judges instead gave the public an opportunity to vote on the selection from a few choices).  Egan's book, in unflinching details, recounts the plight of the farmers brave enough to settle in the area called "No Man's Land" or the Texas panhandle.  The land was unforgiving - high winds, high temperatures in the summer, frigid temperatures in the winter, and covered in prairie grass as far as the horizon until some of the settlers imported wheat seeds that could withstand the elements. Then, the farmers transformed the land from prairie grass and bison country, to wheat fields - millions of acres of wheat on land that didn't seem capable of sustaining that kind of crop.  Heedless of warnings, the farmers continued to bask in the lucrative crop spurred by fast moving tractors, until the wheat prices dropped, and then they farmed more hoping to make up for the lack of money.

The land rebelled.  Drought took hold with temperatures as high as 114 degrees searing the land.  Crops died and the dust scraped the landscape entering homes through any crack or crevice.  The bugs came - grasshoppers, centipedes, black widows. Bunnies threatened what little crops would grow and then the skies turned black and mountainous billowing dust storm clouds rolled over the prairie.  People developed hacking coughs, dust pneumonia, blindness, and always the pervasive dust covered their tables, their floors, their lives.  No amount of sweeping, no amount of wet sheets placed over the windows could keep the dust out.

Egan humanizes the Dust Bowl, by first showing how desperate many of these settlers were in the first place and follows several families closely through their struggles raising crops, families and trying desperately to survive the bleak unforgiving dirt drenched days.  At the same time he shows the human struggle, he also personifies the land, giving it a voice.  The farmers stripped the land; they turned it into something that it was never intended to be, and the land fought back with anger and aggression. Melt White, a farmer who loved the plains as they were before the wheat boon said, "God didn't create this land around here to be plowed up. . . He created it for Indians and buffalo.  Folks raped this land. Raped it bad."

Although a bit dry (not as dry as the land during the mid 1930s) in spots, I thought Egan's extensively researched and heart wrenching study of The Dust Bowl shed light on so many aspects of that period in history that were foreign to me.  I knew the environmental disaster was caused by over farming, but I didn't know the extent of it.  I knew about the dust storms and even watched footage of them, but I didn't know how horrible and how often they afflicted the people of the region.  I had never heard of Black Sunday, but I am not going to forget it. The fact that anyone stayed in that forsaken land shows the desperation of the time.  Where would they go? Many of the immigrants that settled in No Man's Land were unwanted in other parts of the country.  This land held their last fragile hopes of making money and making a life. How would they survive anywhere else? How would they continue to survive where they were? "How to explain a place where black dirt fell from the sky, where children died from playing outdoors, where rabbits were clubbed to death by adrenaline-primed nesters still wearing their Sunday-school clothes, where grasshoppers descended on weakened fields and ate everything but doorknobs?" To the people who stayed, these storms must have seemed like the end of days - a punishment for wheat greed and for the ignorance of tampering with nature.

As I read and shared passages about bunny drives and mass slaughtering of dying livestock (some of the worst parts for me to read) with my husband, he continually asked, "so, how did it all end?" That was another surprising part for me.  The solutions for The Dust Bowl catastrophe shocked me.  People really believed that if you shot dynamite into clouds, it would rain.  FDR offered hope and help, but still regions affected by the Dust Bowl are uninhabitable and un-farmable. Egan leans heavy on the conservationist and environmentalist stance of when humans try to wield the powers of nature, nature wins, but he does it with sensitivity to the people who tried unsuccessfully to beat the wrath of nature and those who still love No Man's land despite nature's wrath.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling: The True Crime - It wasn't great

Crime dramas are not my genre, so if this particular entry seems harsh and you are someone who loves crime thrillers, my lack of knowledge may be the reason I didn't love this book.  I did; however, get very excited when my book club chose The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling's pseudonym) because it was celebrated as one of the year's best books.  The plot seemed intriguing enough: Cormoran Strike, a down and out detective who recently returned as a wounded soldier from a tour in Afghanistan and recently broke up with his somewhat vindictive (although beautiful) girlfriend of 15 years, hires a new, temporary secretary the same day that an intriguing, potential client walks through his door.  John Bristow, who knows that Strike was friends with his brother who suffered from a horrible childhood accident and died, wants Strike to investigate the highly publicized death of his famous sister, Lula Landry.  Her death was deemed a suicide, but Bristow doesn't believe his beloved sister committed suicide and he wants Strike to find out the truth behind the murder. Strike's heart tells him not to take this case since Landry's suicide was over publicized and over investigated, but his head and lack of any type of income (he's so poor he has taken to camping out in his office with only one bag of belongings with him).

I couldn't wait to read this book since it was quite a change of pace from my usual family drama or YA reading.  I wanted a fast paced, heart pumping crime drama, and instead what I got from this book was what felt like a stereotyped facsimile of a crime novel.  I loved the Harry Potter series and the clever names throughout the story lines, but in an adult novel, the wacky names and silly plot twists didn't feel the same and left me feeling a bit agitated.  Instead of feeling like "a gritty, absorbing tale" as People Magazine touted, the grittiness of this novel was the agitation I felt when the plot unraveled.  The silly conclusions and the heavy handed insider's world of the rich and famous left me wanting some sense of reality.  Instead, as I was reading, I continually felt like I was reading a fantasy version of a crime novel.  Here is the dramatic turn around of the rock bottom detective whose famous father shunned him.  Here is the loyal secretary who only wants to help.  Here is the crazy fashion designer who loved Lula and wants to show off his world to the sad detective.  Here is the jilted boyfriend who is into drugs and has anger issues.  Nothing felt developed enough for me to care or be drawn in and I wanted more.

I did race to the end of the book as the pace picked up and Strike went deeper into Lula's family life.  I did enjoy how he pieced things together, but that even felt a bit forced to me as I wanted grit and I wanted a semblance of the raves and high praise that this book garnered.  By the end of the book, I was glad it was over, but I did enjoy Cormoran Strike's character.  I can see Rowling creating an entire series of crime drama books featuring the unlikely hero Cormoran Strike where he, against all odds, solves even the most impossible mysteries.  Will I read another Strike tale - probably not, but I am glad I read this one even if it didn't live up to all the hype surrounding it because I know that anything that Rowling writes and in whatever genre, people will read it and make them bestselling novels.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Inspirational Books to Recharge Resolutions and Personal Revolutions

It's January 6th.  Have you already dropped your New Year's resolution ball?  I must admit that my husband and I are a bit OCD when it comes to goals and resolutions each year.  For the past 10 years, on New Year's Eve we go out to a different restaurant and come prepared with our typed highlights of the year. We love reminiscing about all that we need to show gratitude for as the year draws to a chilly close.  On New Year's Day, we get out our goal setting sheets (yes, we even made a sheet for other diligent goal setters like us that can be printed out on Stageoflife goal sheet).  After we talk about our goals and write them down, we hang them on the refrigerator and each quarter, we pull down the goal sheets and highlight the things we have accomplished.  Some years we have more goals than others.  Some years we are more successful than others (like last year one of my husband, Eric's goals was to stop eating our daughters' leftovers.  He succeeded in this even though he does get tempted by the occasional last few bites of chocolate chip pancakes).

This year was no exception.  We went through our New Year's ritual, but this year we decided to do something even more drastic than our typical routine.  At my yoga studio, they are running a 40 Days to Personal Revolution program which starts on Wednesday.  This program requires that participants go through a whole life revolution in 40 days which includes mindful eating, daily yoga practice and daily meditation.  Yes, this might be a bit much for some people, but for me it is the perfect way to begin a new year - clear, refreshed, focused and centered.  The book 40 Days to Personal Revolution by Baron Baptiste goes through a week by week program and my husband and I will be attending weekly meetings to talk to other participants about our progress and our failures.

I was a bit surprised when my husband jumped at the opportunity to join me for this program because he really does like eating hotdogs and potato chips.  He'd rather end his work day with a nice frosty mug of IPA than a downdog, but he knows big changes are coming this year and he believes that challenging himself in this program will help with the big transitions.  On top of his willingness to do this program, he also got me the book Hero by Rhonda Byrne (the author of The Secret) to pump me up for change.  I finished the book this morning right before my yoga practice and felt inspired as I selected my intention for the day, "I am powerful."  In Hero, Byrne furthers her visualization strategies for each person to see they can achieve whatever they believe they can achieve.  "There is somethings special about you. There is something you were born to be and do that not one of the seven billion of us was.  There is a life you are meant to live; there is a journey you are meant to take."  With the inspiring advice, wisdom and collective experience of Byrnes and twelve of the most successful people today, I was reinvigorated to achieve whatever I put my mind to.

If Hero doesn't sound like a book you would want to read, maybe one of these books might inspire you or recharge your New Year's Resolution.  Maybe you aren't the type of person who makes resolutions or sets goals each year, but one of these books might just change the way you view yourself and the world.  It's a new year.  Why not?

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (made wildly popular by Oprah, this book has inspired millions of people to visualize new lives for themselves. "As you learn The Secret, you will come to know how you can have, be, or do anything you want.  You will come to know who you really are.  You will come to know the true magnificence that awaits you in life.")

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch (even some of my most skeptical students loved this book which is literally Pausch's last lecture that he wrote for his kids and delivered to an audience at Carnegie Mellon University when he had terminal cancer.  This book will make you think about how you live your life, what you take for granted, and how short life really is.)

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom (who has inspired you the most in your life? Morrie Schwartz was Mitch Albom's favorite professor and years after they lost contact, Albom rekindled their friendship when he learned that Morrie was dying.  In their final thesis, Mitch interviews Morrie about what he deems most important in life.  I dare you not to cry.)

The Traveller's Gift by Andy Andrews (my students asked me to read this book for years, and I finally did last year and LOVED it - one of my amazing students even bought me a copy to loan to future students.  It recounts the story of a man who lost his way, and got a second chance to rediscover who he really is and what potential he has inside of him by learning lessons from some of the greatest people in history.)

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (this short book "reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, the Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love." Who doesn't want that?)

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff (an oldy but a goody.  I read this in college when my roommate suggested it to me.  The complexities of Taoism are told through the lens of A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh characters.  Sounds odd, but it is really quite refreshing and eye opening.  Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore? A Piglet or an Owl?  A Rabbit or a Pooh?)

A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle (also popularized by Oprah, Tolle urges people to awaken to their life's purpose through transcending our ego driven lives.)

I hope that 2014 brings each of you great happiness, joy, wisdom, and makes you the hero of your own life in whatever personal resolutions or revolutions you embark on this year.