notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan (2013)
I flew through this one–a random, impulse purchase from the helter-skelter book section in a local Wal-Mart–in two days. The title is a bit misleading; I thought it would be more about mental health and insanity, a la Susanna Kaysen’s Girl Interrupted, but it’s quite a bit more than that. Susannah is in her early twenties, a successful, slightly obsessive, and attractive reporter, when she starts exhibiting strange, psychotic symptoms. She begins having seizures, and her friends and family no longer recognize the old Susannah. She ends up in the hospital for weeks, teams of doctors struggling to rule out hundreds of diseases and explanations. Eventually the root of her erratic, bizarre behavior is discovered. This book is terrifying–one day you’re completely normal, “yourself,” and the next you can’t speak coherently and are strapped to a hospital bed. Cahalan’s book is engaging and well-written, a mixture of reportage and memoir, and while it certainly scared the shit out of me at certain points, at least there’s a happy ending.
Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals, by Wendy Dale (2007)
I’m rereading this book for the (sixth? seventh?) time in an attempt to write a Lost & Found pitch for Tin House. I tend to reach for Dale’s hilarious and humble accounts of her travels, romances, and foibles in Central and South America whenever I feel the travel bug creeping up on me (usually at the start of the summertime–so, yeah, right about now). Unfortunately, it appears that Amazon is really only offering this title now via Kindle, although there are quite a few used paperback versions available. Wendy leaves her career as a well-paid television writer, takes all of her savings, and spends a few years exploring the globe–Lebanon, Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, and more. My copy is marked-up and highlighted in numerous places, with gems such as “All of the boring people I knew–the ones who led lives I didn’t want mine to turn out like–they had one thing in common: they all had jobs.” And: “Part of the allure of going to a foreign place is that even the problems are foreign. The hollowed-out buildings all around us didn’t apply to me. If I was going to continue traveling, it wasn’t going to be Club Med, the kind of place that allowed you to forget your worries for a week. No, I needed to head to the dark corners of the world, where my problems would seem insignificant by comparison.” Is, perhaps, her opinion and nativity of traveling to third-world countries convoluted and problematic? Absolutely. But keep reading. Just trust me. Read her book. Now.
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder (2009)
Sometimes I read a book and it makes me completely reevaluate all of my most important life choices. Tracy Kidder’s nonfiction account of years spent alongside his inspirational male subject certainly made an impression on me, as did the life and work of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who travels the world–visiting and helping individuals in Cuba, Peru, and especially Haiti–in an attempt to understand and cure infectious diseases, such as TB. When I finished the book I wondered if maybe I should have been a nurse, or a doctor, or pursued a job in public health. I spent hours examining his website and organization, Partners in Health, looking for ways to help, and even considered applying for an operations position at Doctors Without Borders. I admire how selfless and single-minded Dr. Farmer is, and how much good he has done in this world (and continues to do). Kidder is a fantastic storyteller, and his depictions of Haiti are both beautiful and disturbing. It would be an honor to meet both the author and doctor one day, and I’d love to see a sequel to this book in a decade or so.
Anyone who can complete an Ironman–never mind one per day for an entire week–immediately has my attention. (His, um, flattering cover photo also did the trick.) There’s kind-of a weird, jarring section in the narrative where he jumps from alcoholic lawyer (the subject of the first part of his book–his affluent D.C. upbringing, passion for swimming, and party-boy Stanford days) to training for these ultra-ironman races and becoming a vegan-fueled athlete that definitely felt strange and needed smoothing out, but overall the book is well-written and an easy, quick read. It’s an entertaining story of self-transformation. He certainly pushes his own products and family company (such as his wife’s music), so at times I felt I wasn’t so much being educated about a vegan lifestyle as I was being sold one, but his recently released cookbook–The Plantpower Way–looks intriguing. I passed Finding Ultra onto a friend whose boyfriend is an alcoholic and has been struggling with the disease for years. Recently he’s hit a really rough patch, but I was so thrilled and happy to hear that he devoured this book and has been going to AA daily since it landed in his hands–and is even considering becoming a personal trainer.