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Review: ‘Brain on Fire’ by Susannah Cahalan

Review: ‘Brain on Fire’ by Susannah Cahalan post image

brain on fire by susannah cahalanTitle: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Author: Susannah Cahalan
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2012
Publisher: Free Press
Acquired: Book Expo America
Rating: ★★★★½

Review: At 24 years old, Susannah Cahalan was poised to begin her adult life, setting out on her first post-college job and just settling into her first serious relationship. A month later, Cahalan woke up strapped to a hospital bed, unable to move or speak, after a terrifying autoimmune disorder almost took her mind and her life. In Brain on Fire, Cahalan reconstructs her month of madness through medical records, interviews with friends and family, and a journal her father kept throughout her ordeal to tell a story of what happens when our brains betray us.

Brain on Fire first came to my attention when it was featured at the Editor’s Buzz panel at Book Expo America. The Editor’s Buzz panel is cool feature of BEA — editors for five big books coming out this year get to talk about why they think the book is great. Brain on Fire was the only nonfiction selection on the panel, and the book that I was most excited to get my hands on. Then, I waited six months to read it because I wanted to write a review closer to the publication date (self-control, thy name is Kim). Luckily, this book was well worth the wait.

The first thing to say about Brain on Fire is that this book is nearly impossible to put down. Although you know Cahalan will survive her ordeal (since she couldn’t write the book otherwise), it’s intense reading about her breakdown and wondering how much of her is going to come back. It’s entirely possible the Cahalan writing the book is different from the Cahalan who became ill, as readers we just don’t know how that will work out. There’s a lot of tension in that uncertainty and the exploration of health and personality.

The thing I most admire about the book was the way Cahalan reconstructed the time she can’t remember. The early chapters about how the illness slowly started to affect her — paranoia, migraines, loss of feeling on one side of her body, anger, and, eventually, seizures — are really absorbing, but I most admire the way she fills in the “month of madness.” It’s equally gripping, but even more intellectually interesting, since she has to write about this person who is not her that she can’t remember at all. I can’t imagine how bizarre and scary that would be.

Admittedly, the book isn’t quite perfect. Cahalan’s explanations of the science of how the brain works and how her illness affected her brain feel a little unpolished, but I think that reaction might be coming because I’ve read a lot of very elegant science writing to compare it too. And there are some pacing issues near the end of the book, when Cahalan transitions from the time she doesn’t remember back to her search for answers. But Cahalan is young writer (close in age to me, I believe), and so I’m confident if she continues to write those issues will work out with more practice. And really, they’re so tiny in comparison to how gripping this story is that they’re hardly worth worrying about extensively.

On the whole, Brain on Fire is one of those truly unputdownable memoirs (I know that’s cliche, but it’s totally true). Cahalan’s experience itself is terrifying and exciting to read, but she also does the necessary work to put it in context and help the reader understand how something like this could happen (even if, for the most part, contracting a rare disease is entirely unpredictable). If you get the chance to read this book, take it.

I admit to some self-plagiarism — part of this post originally appeared on Book Riot

Other Reviews: JulzReads | Jenn’s Bookshelves |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Trisha November 13, 2012, 9:25 am

    That just sounds terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.

  • Meg November 13, 2012, 11:09 am

    Wow — what an incredibly scary ordeal! I can’t even begin to imagine. The memoir sounds fascinating, although I have a feeling that my hypochondriac self would be totally freaked out after reading it.

    • Kim November 13, 2012, 8:04 pm

      Yeah, this is not a book for a hypochondriac. Cahalan writes a bit in the beginning about she may have picked up the virus, and mentions it could have just been from a sneeze on the subway. That scares the heck out of me!

  • Julie Merilatt November 13, 2012, 12:33 pm
  • Grace Peterson November 13, 2012, 5:58 pm

    Sounds like a very interesting read. As a writer it must have been very challenging to piece together your life when you have no memory of it. I’ll have to add this book to my Goodreads to queue. Thanks for sharing.

    • Kim November 13, 2012, 8:04 pm

      Absolutely. I can’t imagine how difficult that might be, or to see yourself and learn about yourself as a person you don’t even recognize.

  • Jennifer November 14, 2012, 8:55 am

    I have this one on my pile and I can’t wait to get to it 🙂 Now even more so!

  • Jenn's Bookshelves November 14, 2012, 1:46 pm

    I just recently reviewed this myself (http://www.jennsbookshelves.com/2012/11/13/review-brain-on-fire-my-month-of-madness-by-susannah-cahalan/). I’ve been raving about this book so much I’ve convinced my husband (not a big reader) to try it!

    • Kim November 18, 2012, 4:34 pm

      That’s so great! I will have to push it on the boyfriend a little bit harder. I think he’d like it too.

  • Courtney November 14, 2012, 3:05 pm

    I just read about this book this morning in Reader’s Digest. Super weird story.

  • susan November 14, 2012, 3:58 pm

    This one sounds hair-raising. Amazing she got treated in the end. What a crazy thing to happen … in one’s life.

    • Kim November 18, 2012, 4:35 pm

      Yes, it’s amazing that a doctor was able to diagnose her and help her come back to, it appears, good as new.

  • Kailana November 15, 2012, 1:08 pm

    I am glad you liked this. I also have it, but just haven’t had a chance to actually read it…

  • Andi (@estellasrevenge) November 15, 2012, 3:16 pm

    Wow, this sounds terrifying and gripping! Thanks for sharing your review, Kim. I’m intrigued, and I think this is something my family would enjoy reading.

  • Laurie C November 15, 2012, 8:28 pm

    This one sounds too frightening and depressing for me right now.

    • Kim November 18, 2012, 4:36 pm

      I don’t think it’s depressing, since she does recover, but if you have any lingering anxiety about illness, it’s probably not a book for you.

  • Stephanie November 15, 2012, 8:41 pm

    This sounds harrowing but absolutely fascinating. I am adding it to my list.

  • Allison November 26, 2012, 12:13 am

    I’m definitely going to check this out! Your blog helps me out in my latest post ( http://boredombreakup.com/2012/11/26/finishing-a-great-book-or-damn-what-will-i-do-for-the-rest-of-my-life/ ) as I search for ways to ‘breakup’ with boredom.