BOOK REVIEW: Brain On Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Imagine waking up tied to a hospital bed with no recollection of how you got there, your head wrapped in gauze and a strange woman standing over you. Your only recent memories are hazy and terrifying, and you can’t quite establish what is real and what isn’t. You find you can no longer communicate clearly through speech or written word, and a horrible paranoia plagues your thoughts. For New York Post journalist Susannah Cahalan, this scene isn’t just the gripping opening chapter of a bestselling book, but also one of the most vivid and horrifying moments of her entire life. It is one of her few clear memories of a month of extreme illness that nearly killed her.

In her early twenties Cahalan appeared to have it all. She was in a committed relationship, working in a prestigious newsroom, and had the kind of natural good looks and outgoing personality that attracted people to her. Surrounded by friends and living in a New York City apartment, Cahalan was well on her way to establishing herself as one of the most promising young print reporters in the city. And yet she felt tired - weighed down by fatigue and other vague symptoms of an unnamed sickness progressively getting more intense . Her thoughts were becoming more and more convoluted and her work was beginning to falter. A variety of tests for things like mononucleosis came back negative, and even after experiencing severe seizures, Cahalan’s illness was still being brushed off by doctors as nothing more than alcohol withdrawal (despite her not being an alcoholic) and stress.


Eventually Cahalan’s condition deteriorated to a point where she was having frequent seizures, violent outbursts, and symptoms of mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Unable to live alone or continue working, she first moved in with her mother and was then admitted into New York University hospital. At this stage her condition had become so severe she could no longer properly form memories and was unable to communicate effectively with her family and doctors. For a person whose entire life and career evolved around communication and memory, Cahalan felt like she was losing her mind.

Despite having a team of incredibly intelligent and proactive physicians working on her case, Cahalan’s condition continued to evade diagnosis. She slipped into a state of catatonia, and to this day remembers almost nothing of a full month of her life spent in the hospital. Just as doctors were preparing to admit her to a psychiatric ward, a brilliant physician named Souhel Najjar took on her case and diagnosed her with an incredibly rare and vastly misunderstood autoimmune disease called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Essentially her own body was attacking her brain, causing massive inflammation and leading to symptoms like hallucinations, paranoia, violence, and physical pain.

With an intensive drug regimen, Cahalan slowly began to recover, and with time became curious to learn more about the history of her disease. Through extensive interviews and hours of watching footage of herself in the hospital, she was able to successfully piece together the lost month of her life. Brain On Fire is a compelling and harrowing story about sickness, recovery and all of the unknowns lurking around the corner in life, but also a brilliant analysis of how medical systems deal with people who are difficult to diagnose.

The most interesting pages of Brain On Fire unfold in the book’s third and final section, in which Cahalan analyzes her experiences in the American medical system and considers what would happen to a patient with anti-MNDA receptor encephalitis who didn’t have insurance or wasn’t able to advocate for themselves properly. Though the disease is still incredibly misunderstood, researchers are starting to form a theory that anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis could be responsible for the thousands of cases of so-called demonic possessions that have been reported for centuries - cases which led to young people, women in particular, enduring brutal interventions by quack doctors and religious “experts”. With symptoms that mimic severe mental illness, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis is likely undiagnosed in many patients who have been sequestered to psychiatric institutions as well.

Brain On Fire is an incredibly well written book, and one that reflects the analytic ability of its author. Cahalan has used her journalism powers for good in this book, and has created a platform for physicians, patients and families to discuss a complex and under-researched disease. This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in science, journalism, or the American medical system.

BOOK REVIEW: In Extremis by Lindsey Hilsum

When war reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Syria in 2012 it sent a shockwave through the journalistic community. A leading conflict correspondent and veteran of some of the most dangerous places on earth, Colvin seemed impenetrable. Even an attack in Sri Lanka, which left her permanently blind in one eye and resulted in her iconic eye-patched look, couldn’t stop her from returning to the field. It seemed impossible that she had finally succumbed to the inherent risks of her job. But, regardless of her bravery and her reputation, Colvin was ultimately killed doing one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, and with her death came the inevitable scrutiny and study of her life. What has been revealed is both brilliantly exciting and heart-wrenchingly painful.

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin chronicles Colvin’s life from her rambunctious childhood to her famous career as a journalist with London’s Sunday Times. It depicts her force of will – for example, showing up at the Yale admissions office and talking her way in to the school despite having missed the application deadline – and the darker sides of her personality that made her such a fantastic reporter but also caused her immense personal pain – i.e. her drinking problem and tumultuous romantic relationships.

The book’s author, Lindsey Hilsum, is herself an accomplished war reporter. Like Marie, who she befriended through the industry, Hilsum has experienced conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda and Israel, and has real insight into what Marie experienced in her later years. Using Marie’s personal diaries and extensive interviews with her family, friends and coworkers, Hilsum has compiled a fairly complete portrait of a very complicated woman. In Extremis’ real strength lies in the lingering personality of its subject. In passages from her journals and anecdotes from her friends, Marie Colvin comes to life as a person of incredible liveliness and even more incredible nuance. Even in the more shadowy moments - the ones she’s left no writing about - her silence points to the constant contradictions driving against one another and forcing her to choose between love, work, and ultimately life.

Mortal peril was no obstacle to Marie Colvin at the time of her death. She’d been attacked with guns, explosives, and various other weapons throughout her career. Threats of death and kidnapping were par for the course, and despite these workplace dangers, she continued to return to war zones time and time again. Hilsum explores the factors that motivated Colvin to pursue war reporting, and the problems that plagued her decorated career, including an inability to file copy on time, a bad habit of wracking up satellite phone bills, and an alcohol addiction that threatened to weaken her credibility. Risky behaviors like showing up hungover to a battlefield and ignoring orders from superiors should have signaled that something was amiss, but instead only added to Marie’s legend.

Hilsum rightfully uses Marie’s story to demonstrate the hardships journalists - even those who don’t operate in war zones - face day to day in a changing news industry. Marie struggled constantly with feeling of inadequacy and pressure, and after years of witnessing and writing about the worst of humanity finally had to admit to herself and her loved ones that she was struggling. When being treated for post traumatic stress, Marie’s doctors, most of whom had only ever treated soldiers, realized hers was the worst case of the disorder they had ever seen. While soldiers normally only experience combat in fleeting bursts over relatively short deployments, Marie had been embedded in combat zones for months on end.

In Extremis is a harrowing and highly interesting biography of a woman who defied categorization and felt the emotions of life at their most extreme. She took her duty as a societal gatekeeper very seriously, and in exchange compromised her own happiness and well being on many occasions to give voice to the voiceless. Fans of Lynsey Addario’s memoir It’s What I Do will love In Extremis, and anyone who has ever watched war coverage on television owes it to the reporters in those clips to read about their experiences and gain a better understanding of what it takes to shine a light on the darkest corners of the world.

BOOK REVIEW: House On Fire by Bonnie Kistler


Former trial attorney Bonnie Kistler’s debut novel is a domestic legal drama that explores tragedy in a blended family.

Divorce lawyer Leigh Huyett is happily married to Pete Conley, and their children - despite coming from different backgrounds - get along well. But when Leigh’s daughter is killed in a car accident with Pete’s son behind the wheel, their perfectly integrated family begins to crumble. Grief stricken and angry, Leigh throws herself into several complicated court cases while Pete grapples with the possibility of losing his only son, Kip, to the American court system.

House On Fire is first and foremost a study of family dynamics. Kistler explores how two broken families can merge together and find peace among the chaos of divorce and custody battles. Leigh and Pete have a beautiful life, and one that many remarried couples would aspire to. But the ease with which their relationship falls apart after the accident demonstrates how fragile relationships of that sort can be. Both Leigh and Pete are forced into impossible situations as the book intensifies. How can a parent choose between their child and their spouse?

House On Fire does have its downfalls. While the main storyline is gripping and reminiscent of a Jodi Picoult novel, it feels as though Kistler has overcrowded the book’s narrative. Side stories about Leigh’s various legal dramas overwhelm and distract from what the book is really about, and at times seem to have no purpose other than to enhance tension and intrigue. It can almost feel like jumping between two completely different books. This isn’t to say the passages about Leigh’s work aren’t interesting, because they are actually some of the more riveting parts of the book. Kistler personal legal expertise is palpable as she describes Leigh’s work, and it’s fascinating to learn about the American legal system. But the two parallel plots don’t mesh seamlessly, and keeping track of all of the characters can be confusing.

It’s also unclear if readers are supposed to sympathize with Kip or hate him. While at times he seems relatable as a teenager who made a mistake, other passages of House On Fire portray him in a darker way. As a main character and the person who the entire story hinges around, Kip’s behaviour was confusing and at times even misleading. He never really emerged as a fully developed character, and despite his central role in the plot he always seemed to linger on the fringes, only coming in to the spotlight in moments where it felt unnatural or unnecessary.

House On Fire is a bold debut, and Kistler clearly has a lot of potential. It’s a complex story and one that is sure to strike an emotional chord in readers, but it’s also somewhat disjointed and overwhelming. Fans of Jodi Picoult and William Landay should give this book a try, and should definitely keep an eye out for whatever Kistler does next.

BOOK REVIEW: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

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Eight months after his tragic death, Anthony Bourdain’s inimitable voice still shines brightly through in the book that launched him into culinary superstardom. Despite being published almost two decades ago, Boudain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly feels as true to his personality as ever. Filled with dark humour, vulgarity and a complete lack of regret, it’s a book about the food industry, but also about a man who was seemingly unaware of how much he had to offer the world and the adventures his life would soon take him on.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, a young Anthony Bourdain began his career in New York City. Working his way up from intern to line cook to head chef of various restaurants, Bourdain formed relationships with some of the most influential people in the food industry. Throughout his cooking career he experienced and witnessed the unsavoury side of the culinary world, and in Kitchen Confidential he unapologetically lays bare the bizarre realities of working in a kitchen.

Kitchen Confidential is filled with wacky characters. From the sociopathic bread-maker to the handsy line cook, Bourdain dealt with some truly unbelievable people and situations. His anecdotes about messing up job interviews and cooking for celebrities will have you laughing out loud, and his beautifully lyrical writing will have you in awe of his knack for storytelling. His keen work ethic and can-do attitude are beyond what most people could ever muster. Long work days and infrequent breaks wore Chef Bourdain down like they would anyone else, but his passion for food never faltered.

Kitchen Confidential unveils the real story behind bread baskets on tables, free drinks from bartenders, and the screaming chefs who operate behind the scenes in the restaurants we all frequent. Unafraid of the response he would get from critics and fellow culinary professionals, Bourdain wrote his book with a kind of blunt honesty that’s both appeal and completely repulsive. It’s a little stomach-churning to know what’s really going on in the kitchen of your favourite restaurant. But with Bourdain’s trademark wit stories of rats feasting on leftovers in the kitchen become less disgusting and more hilarious.

Although life changed for Bourdain quite significantly after the publication of his book, reading Kitchen Confidential is a pleasant reminder that he remained the same throughout the rest of his ever-changing career. He never - at least not publicly - lost the kind of curiosity and humour that feature so prominently in his book, and these infectious traits are what made him so popular to people all around the world.

In one of the book’s final chapters Bourdain takes a trip to Tokyo. He describes exploring the city and eating anything (and I mean anything) he could find, and forcing himself to try things he never imagined. In these pages we see the Bourdain we would all come to know and love on television - the man who would try anything once and displayed such appreciation for the cultures and people he visited. Even then, well before the media training and fame, Bourdain knew how to get people to open up. It’s a gift he never lost.

Reviewer note: As a journalist and writer, I have long been an admirer of Anthony Bourdain’s work. I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading Kitchen Confidential, but I’m so glad I finally did. Although we’ll never know what went in in Bourdain’s mind at the end of his life, it is a beautiful thing to be able to remember him through his own words in writing. I feel incredibly sad knowing that the vibrant, excited and full-of-life man I came to know on T.V. and in the pages of Kitchen Confidential was going through so much personal trouble and battling an illness. I hope my review will inspire at least a few people to pick up this book and find out more about Anthony Bourdain.