The Sum of Our Parts: Brain on Fire Book Review

The Sum of Our Parts“We are, in the end, a sum of our parts, and when the body fails, all the virtues we hold dear go with it.”

-Susannah Cahalan, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, written by New York Post journalist Susannah Cahalan, is a page-turning account about Cahalan’s experience with a sudden illness that altered her personality. Practically overnight, she goes from being a completely functional young writer to someone with angry fits, hallucinations and seizures. She visits several doctors, but no one can find out what’s wrong with her.

Reading Cahalan’s jarring story taught me a lot– not just about the incredible intricacies of the brain, but also about writing. Here’s what I learned:

1) The examined life is far more interesting than the unexamined life. Cahalan’s journalistic style captured my attention from the first page of her memoir. (From this point on, I’ll refer to the author as Cahalan and the first person narrator in the memoir as Susannah to avoid conflating the two.) Even when Susannah is becoming ill and losing brain function, she still keeps a journal (some of which is included in the book) where she tries to examine her problems. As she reflects on these old journal entries, she writes:

Reading these entries now is like peering into a stranger’s stream of consciousness. I don’t recognize the person on the other end of the screen as me.

Even though she doesn’t understand her own actions or words, she continues examining her own mind and looking for answers, even though it takes more time and effort.

This reminds us that, when it comes to telling a story, more research and more examination is always worth the extra effort. Eventually, all these little reflections and ponderings can add up to a more meaningful resolution (or at the very least, a more nuanced one).

2) The personal can be universal. Susannah’s struggle with her illness is brutally personal, and her exchanges with doctors and interaction with her parents, boyfriend, and friends make the reader realize the full impact of the debilitating disease. But from the beginning, Cahalan makes it clear that she and her illness do not exist in a vacuum. When reflecting on how her symptoms were similar to those depicted in The Exorcist, and how people with her condition often go undiagnosed, she asks:

How many children throughout history have been “exorcised” and then left to die when they did not improve?

Cahalan bridges the personal with the public this way, beginningBrain-On-Fire-My-Month-of-Ma a conversation about mental health treatment in the U.S. By showing how high the stakes are, she makes the reader sit up and take notice.

3) The resolutions we create for ourselves aren’t always the real resolutions. As readers– or rather, as humans– we are always looking for answers and patterns. We’re always anticipating the bottom of a downward curve and guessing when it will start to move upwards again. But when it comes down to it, we often construct endings for our own human comfort, and a lot of times, they end up being superficial or only partly true.

Throughout the book, Susannah attempts to pin down her illness by self-diagnosing herself. Because of her violent mood swings, she first thinks she’s bipolar. Then, her hallucinations make her think she’s schizophrenic or has multiple personality disorder. The seizures make doctors believe she’s epileptic. As all of these things turn out to be wrong, the reader shares her sense of uncertainty.

Cahalan quotes her journal towards the beginning of the book, showing how eager she was to believe that she had a common disorder:

Basically, I’m bipolar and that’s what makes me ME. I just have to get control of my life. I LOVE working. I LOVE it.

I could closely relate to her thirst for a resolution and her rush to identify her problem. But throughout the book, I was reminded again and again that these quick fix resolutions weren’t really resolutions at all.

And so it is with writing. Cahalan reminds us that marinating in questions and gathering evidence is more useful than rushing towards answers. Sometimes the correct solution is the one that takes the longest to find.

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All the rolling wheels that contradict Death! Thoughts on Tomas Tranströmer’s Selected Poems

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Tomas Tranströmer’s Nobel Prize-winning collection, Selected Poems, discusses big concepts– God, heaven, existence– but does it through small, specific objects and simple words. With vivid imagery and scientific precision , Tranströmer brings the infinitude of uncertainty back to the familiar and natural.

After reading Selected Poems, I felt like I had experienced enough of Tranströmer’s beautiful poetry that I could, in some way, imitate it.

It’s harder than it looks.

What seem like effortless, concrete sentences with conventional punctuation suddenly become impossibly convoluted puzzles. The more you dissect Tranströmer, the more complicated he becomes– and the more brilliant.

In his poem, “The Four Temperaments,” which explores perpetuity and mortality, closes with the exclamation: “All the rolling wheels that contradict Death!” This is a good way to describe this collection– always moving, always questioning, always finding astonishing beauty in the ordinary.

Here are some things I learned from Tranströmer’s collection:

Image1. We should think about the way we think. Tranströmer, a psychologist by profession, focuses on the human mind in many of his poems, specifically consciousness. How do we wake up? What does it mean to lose feeling? How do perceptions shape our world? By discussing what we see and what we don’t, Tranströmer creates an eyes-wide-open world where some answers still escape our reach. One example from “Memories Watch Me:”

I must go out to the greenery that’s crammed

with memories that follow me with their eyes.

 

They are not visible, wholly dissolve

into background, perfect chameleons.

Here we see the physicality and indisputable tangibility of thoughts– and also, their ephemerality. This paradox reappears throughout the collection.

2. Consciousness is shaped by space. Most of these poems discuss physical space and physical divides, and in a larger sense, how they relate to human consciousness. People often talk about how environment shapes a person, but what they don’t talk about as much is how exterior conflict can be mirrored on the interior. Tranströmer even stretches this concept to a different level with his poem“Vermeer”:

And the emptiness turns its face to us

and whispers

“I am not empty, I am open.”

This line complicates the limitations of consciousness even more by assigning thoughts to the void. Throughout the book, Tranströmer’s playfulness with the said and unsaid suggests that things aren’t always what they seem– that we are always surrounded by limitations. Those limitations of physical space define us, and we define ourselves through them.

3. Our understanding of ideas is limited by language. Tranströmer’s love of language is plain by the way he uses words. It’s clear that he also feels that some things simply can’t be explained with language, and that because language is what we have, there are severe limitations. Take this line from “Epilogue” for example:

And ultimately,

God’s soul is like the Nile: it overflows

and dries up, with a rhythm reckoned variously

in all the texts throughout the ages.

This limitation of language, of course, becomes even more complicated in the Robert Hass translation, which struggles with the unique limitations of the English language, as well as the Swedish language.

4. Our understanding of ideas expands with language. Language is necessary, and everything is verbal, and we simply can’t give it up. Translation complicates things even further. There are millions of alternatives to get as close as possible to what you’re trying to convey. But you still come up short. This is explained beautifully in the closing of “The Blue House”:

We don’t really know it, but we sense it: there is a sister ship to our life which takes a totally different route.

Language is expansive. Action is expansive. But ultimately, you make decisions about how you’re going to say something and how you’re going to do something, and all those possibilities are suspended. That’s a kind of tragedy that everyone has to live with.

Further Reading:

“Nobel prize for literature goes to Tomas Tranströmer,” The Guardian:

To win the Nobel prize, a writer has to have a readership in many parts of the world, and Tranströmer has been translated into 50 languages. One of the reasons he has been taken up by so many poets, translators and readers is that his poetry is universal and particular, metaphysical and personal.

“Versions: Tomas Tranströmer’s Poems and the Art of Translation,” The New York Times:

This is exactly the sort of writing that tends to do well in translation, at least in theory. The plainer a poem looks — the less it relies on extremities of form, diction or syntax — the more we assume that even a translator with no knowledge of the original language will be able to produce a reasonable match for what the poem feels like in its first incarnation.

The problem is, simple can be complicated.

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Everything You Knew About MFAs and the Publishing Industry was a Lie

ImageWhen I read MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, a collection of essays edited by Chad Harbach, I was really excited to learn about how I could break into either an MFA program or the vicious world of New York publishing. Instead, this book make me rethink everything I thought I knew about graduate school, literature, and the publishing industry, and my rosy-tinted views of the book world were swiftly replaced by much bleaker ones. If you’re looking for a book full of difficult lessons and hard realities, this is the book for you.

Here are some lessons I took away from reading it:

1) Aim for strange and unforgettable. In “My Parade,” Alexander Chee talks about his writing sample for Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where a “clairvoyant Korean adoptee helps the police find lost children and is the only actually psychic member of an ad hoc coven.” Even the summary of that story is unforgettable. I think that most people have something that makes their stories a little weird, but a lot of times, people have the impulse to edit those weirdnesses out. If people embraced the weirdness instead, like Chee, the stories might become more memorable.

2) It’s a popularity contest. In another essay, a former student of the notoriously overly-zealous editor (or some would argue, the appropriately-zealous editor) Gordon Lish recalled Lish saying, “Remember, in reaching though your writing to a reader, you are engaged in nothing so much as an act of seduction. Seduce the whole fucking world.” This message echoes throughout the entire book, from writers in MFA programs struggling to write a story that will resonate with readers, to established authors trying to pen a bestseller. If this book had a central plot, it would be the constant tug-of-war between artistic integrity and profitability.

3) Think really hard before you go into debt for grad school. This is an oft-repeated narrative in this essay collection– it’s hard to make money writing literary fiction, whether you have an MFA degree or not. Emily Gould’s essay “Into the Woods” about how deeply in debt she got while she was being a full-time writer with horrible spending habits still haunts me. She writes:

You think you’ll tackle the habits first– “I’ll stop buying water and fancy cups of coffee”– but actually, the habits are the last to go. I only stopped buying bottled water when I literally did not have any cash in my wallet at any time. In the meantime, I canceled my recurring charitable donations (all two of them), my cable, my Netflix, all my subscriptions. I moved in with Keith. I stopped seeing my doesn’t-take-anyone’s-insurance therapist, but only after I owed her $1,760.

The way many of the writers in this collection talk about money makes me incredibly nervous, and I just want to go over to their houses and help them make budgets and get-out-of-debt plans. Can we all agree that writers should be required to take a few personal finance courses before they are released into the wild?

4) Teaching isn’t easy. A lot of aspiring writers talk about teaching at a university as the Holy Grail– and it is, in many ways. But only if you’re really invested in teaching. As many of these essays point out, teaching really isn’t for everyone. You need have superhuman amounts of patience be a creative writing professor, and even for people who are utterly devoted to it, it can be tedious and taxing. Take Diana Wagman’s essay, “Application”:

Fucking MFA programs. The students were arrogant that they had been accepted by this fancy program. They were also desperate to believe they had done the right thing– that being there would help them, change them, save them in some way.

She goes on to explain how the students didn’t listen to her feedback or challenge themselves to write different material, and still received MFAs. Professors held back from giving harsh criticism because they wanted good student evaluation scores. This problematic culture tortured Wagman– and I imagine, it would torture a lot of other writer-teachers as well. It takes a unique person to wade through all the challenges and bullshit and help students become better writers.

5) The number of writers is expanding while the number of readers is shrinking. In “Reality Publishing,” Darryl Lorenzo Wellington discusses the problematic nature of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest, a supposedly meritocratic contest where readers vote for the best manuscript each year, and the winner gets a prize. I’ve heard of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest before, and even had friends who participated, but I never knew how cutthroat and ridiculous the process was for determining a winner, or how utterly exploitative the whole program was. Even with lower advances for prizes and a publishing deal with Amazon rather than with Penguin (since Penguin cut ties with Amazon), the competition is still growing, and every year, the winner is Amazon– not the writers who actually write the books. The way Amazon and hundreds of MFA programs are capitalizing on the dreams of aspiring writers reveals a more important problem: it’s more profitable to market to people who want to be writers than to market to readers– but the more people set out to become writers, the greater the demand  for the shrinking market of readers becomes. This imbalance is unsustainable.

Further Reading:

MFA vs. POC, Junot Diaz, The New Yorker: “I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.”

Actual Sentences Written By Students in my Fiction Workshop in a Well-Respected MFA Program Over a Period of a Couple Weeks Or So, Luke O’Neil, McSweeney’s. “We had often went there to the store.”

Ten Things I Learned About Applying to MFA Programs, Not That Kind of Girl. “The acceptance rate for fiction was 2.5%. Yes, that’s a decimal in there.”

 

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Love Again and Again

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So a question remains: How, then, to best love a book? If we love books at a gallop, we are almost certain to forget much of the scenery we encounter. If we love at a trot, we will never feel the wind against our face. The only solution, it seems, is to love again and again, with different, deliberate speeds.

-Jessica Love, from her essay “Reading Fast and Slow” in The American Scholar.

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My Recent Jonathan Franzen Obsession: Thoughts on Farther Away, The Corrections, and Freedom

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Reading a Jonathan Franzen novel makes a voyeur out of everyone. You get a bird’s eye view of a dysfunctional-yet-loving family, and you get to see them mess up. Repeatedly. The parents make parenting mistakes, the kids squander opportunities and ignore their parents, disconnections widen, and alliances shift. In many ways, Franzen’s stories are incredibly ambitious; he covers lifetimes of bad decisions and turns a critical eye towards capitalism, fraud, and selfishness. He portrays the struggle of families trying to keep up appearances while everything around them is falling apart. But in another way, Franzen’s stories are variations on a very familiar narrative of the unhappy family. It’s his writing style that elevates this pedestrian storyline to something more.

Here are a few things that make Jonathan Franzen’s work so fascinating to me:

(Spoilers Ahead)

Continue reading

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The Worst Conjunction Ever

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Never use the word “then” as a ­conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.

- Jonathan Franzen in his “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.”

For more about Franzen’s opinion on diction, read his essay “Comma-Then” in his book Farther Away.

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5 Things Les Miserables Taught Me About Writing

 

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Les Miserables as a gothic cathedral, according to my imagination.

Reading Les Miserables is a serious commitment. Even if you’re a fast reader, it’s going to take a long time. At the same time, when you finish it, you’ll feel like it could have gone on forever. Like it should have gone on forever.

When I read Les Miserables, it helped me realize a few things about writing that I didn’t understand before. Here’s what I learned:

1. It’s okay to get all descriptive. 

Hugo is the king of descriptions. He spends entire chapter simply describing character appearances and habits and nothing else. For me, this was such a liberating thing to read, because it made me bolder about writing my own descriptions.

Because, like most kids, I was raised to fear passive verbs, I’ve always found descriptions tricky to write. For instance, if you can’t say, “her hair was blond,” you have to say something like, “her blond hair waved in the breeze” or manufacture some kind of useless action for the sole purpose of introducing her hair, which often sounds contrived. Hugo, however, describes things with abandon and in such an easy, un-self-conscious manner, you feel like you really know the characters, and that your good friend Victor is just telling you a great story about some crazy people he met once.

2. Build a story like a gothic cathedral. 

There’s a huge section in Les Miserables about the Battle of Waterloo, which is only very loosely related to the main story. Then, of course, there are all the other flourishes: an essay about slang examining the relationship between language and social class that I was tempted to send to my Translation Studies professor, the long exposé about the intricacies of the Paris sewage system, and reflections on the relationship between politics and the oppression of poverty. In the afterword of Julie Rose’s translation, Andrew Gopnik compares Les Miserables to a gothic cathedral, an expansive building with several rooms and wings that allows the reader room to wander and travel. This is an apt description.

Even after reading 1,500 pages of one of the longest books ever written, I still felt like I was in Hugo’s world, and that there was more to the story. I’m not alone, either; the huge fandom on Tumblr and the amount of Javert/Valjean slash fiction that exists in the world is evidence that many other people are reluctant to leave this story behind, too.

3. A good story can provoke social change.

Les Miserables starts with this epigraph:

“As long as social damnation exists, through laws and customs, artificially creating hell at the heart of civilization and muddying a destiny that is divine with human calamity; as long as the three problems of the century—man’s debasement through the proletariat, woman’s demoralization through hunger, the wasting of the child through darkness—are not resolved; as long as social suffocation is possible in certain areas; in other words, and to take an even broader view, as long as ignorance and misery exist in this world, books like the one you are about to read are, perhaps, not entirely useless.”

If that doesn’t convince you of the power of reading and writing, nothing will.

4. The more you know a character, the more you’re going to miss him or her. 

Why does everyone cry at the end of Les Miserables? It’s not because they’re chopping onions. It’s because they’ve gotten to know all the characters inside-out, from childhood to adulthood, from convict to philanthropist. You get to see all the good and bad sides of each character, and their stories become, to quote Hugo’s preface, “an essay on the infinite.” This is what makes their loss so much more horrible. As a writer, this incredible attention to human behavior and flaws inspires me to think more about what makes people do what they do, then work harder to translate those observations to paper.

5. Be forgiving. 

The overarching theme of Les Miserables is that redemption is attainable, and as Hugo writes (and Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine sing together in the epilogue of the movie), “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Through the many iterations of this epic novel from book to musical to movie, I think that this idea comes through crystal clear. The idea of love and forgiveness as salvation is also relevant to writing. Instead of being fettered to all these rules about what a story should be like, Les Miserables freed me, instead, to tell stories in an infinite way. And, of course, it taught me to listen (gif from ethelreds):

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4 Books for 20-Somethings Who Are Trying to Figure Things Out

One of my writing professors once said that every story was a coming of age story– that there was really no other story that could be told. I think she was right. Even if a story isn’t about coming of age in the traditional sense, it is about learning, developing, and adapting. A coming of age story is really just a human story.

While I was thinking about this, I realized so many books I loved shed light on big decisions that twenty-somethings (like me) make.

So I made a reading list.

If you’re the kind of person who likes a good book to provide support through difficult moments,  here are some reading recommendations for you.

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If you’re deciding where to go to school.

Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld– When Lee, a middle-class girl living in the Midwest, decides to go to a prep school on scholarship, she feels alienated by all wealthy students. She struggles to do well in her classes and make friends, but despite all her efforts, her relationships with her peers and family become even more strained. Through Lee’s eyes, Sittenfeld dissects what it means to not fit in. If you’re about to make a big decision, whether you’re thinking about where to go to school or where to pursue your career, this book will remind you that nothing is guaranteed. Just because you succeed once doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful, and just because you screw up once doesn’t mean you’re doomed.

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If you’re thinking about taking time off school.

Joyland, Stephen King– After a messy breakup with his first love, Devin decides to take a break from college and work at an amusement park, Joyland, to recollect. While he’s there, he sets out to find the murderer of an unsolved case in the theme park. His friends and ex-girlfriend return to college and continue their studies, but Devin is the one who does the most growing up. Through Devin’s experiences, King shows how some of the biggest lessons can be learned outside of school.

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If you feel like you really messed up this time.

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen– Franzen’s Freedom is an epic story of a couple, Patty and Walter, struggling to raise two kids, maintain a marriage, and find their own identity. What makes this difficult is that both Patty and Walter consistently mess up, over and over again. By the middle of the novel, it seems as though the whole family is pulling apart and that it’s completely impossible that they’ll be able to salvage their relationship. Franzen shows how people can drift and wander and still find their way back.

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If you’re afraid of being forever alone.

This is How You Lose Her, Junot DíazAfter you read Díaz’s hilarious, vulgar, tragic collection of short stories, you’ll feel a little less alone. Through a colorful collection of characters, these stories explore what it means to be in love. Even if the messy break-ups, the serial cheaters, and the dysfunctional relationships aren’t exactly the same as your situation, the way Díaz portrays the pushes and pulls of human relationships rings true. The arc of the collection could be summed up in the last line of the book: “The half-life of love is forever.”

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Secrets as Tools of Connection: Thoughts on Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

ImageDave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a frenetic, darkly humorous, and tragic memoir, is a story about rebuilding. After both of his parents die when he is twenty-one, Dave is charged with caring for Toph, his precocious 7-year-old brother. He and Toph move to Berkeley where Dave starts a magazine and auditions for an MTV show. Throughout the memoir, Dave struggles to be both a parent and a brother while trying to understand tragedies in his life and his friends’ lives.

From here on out, I’ll refer to Dave Eggers as “Dave” when referring to his character in HWOSG and “Eggers” when referring to him as the author, to avoid conflating the two.

When Dave is trying out for MTV’s The Real World, he gives a moving speech about secrets: what secrets are, how giving them away doesn’t devalue them, how secrets don’t alter your identity. There are a lot of revealed secrets and personal details in Eggers’ memoir, and much of the memoir deals with the exchange of secrets, the results of sharing, and the understanding and lack of understanding he experiences. He speaks at length about his complete disdain for voyeurs, nosy people, and even well-meaning spectators of tragedy. This inclination towards privacy contrasts with his attraction towards exhibitionism. He acknowledges secrets as a powerful currency, but at the same time, spends freely.

Here he is in an interview trying to get on the MTV show:

“Because secrets do not increase in value if kept in a gore-ian lockbox, because one’s past is either made useful or else mutates and becomes cancerous. We share things for the obvious reasons: it makes us feel un-alone, it spreads the weight over a larger area, it holds the possibility of making our share lighter. And it can work either way – not simply as a pain-relief device, but, in the case of not bad news but good, as a share-the-happy-things-I’ve-seen/lessons-I’ve-learned vehicle. Or as a tool for simple connectivity for its own sake, a testing of waters, a stab at engagement with a mass of strangers.”

For Dave, secrets are a way to connect. That’s the distinction he makes between good listeners and voyeurs: the former understand the importance of connection, and the latter do not. This concept of connection makes one consider the dynamics of disconnection and connection in the  reader-writer relationship.

The Reader as Spectator

At times, Dave’s thoughts implicate the reader as a spectator. In the beginning, he expresses his complete hatred for people who look into his family’s windows at his mother, who is dying of cancer. Later on, he becomes frustrated at people who ask him insensitive questions. This anger towards the spectator complicates the reader-writer relationship.

The reader, after all, is effectively looking into the open windows at Eggers’ life by reading his memoir, taking on the role of spectator. The reader has the privileges of distance, privacy, and access to secrets, but initially shares none of Dave’s burden. In the beginning, the reader is a stranger in the street trying to figure something out, the nosy person at a party asking too many questions. But at the end, the reader-spectator becomes closer, more engaged, less strange.

That’s part of the magic of Eggers’ memoir: it opens up the reader-writer relationship through the sharing of secrets. It transforms gawking into understanding; it makes the reader uncomfortable to be comfortable and comfortable to be uncomfortable.

And the coolest part? The secrets don’t become cheaper because of it. The author’s burden is shared with the reader through narrative, and the “secrets” no longer are secrets, but tools of connection, taking on agency and purpose.

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Butt in Chair

“Butt in chair,” experts say. Be persistent. But maybe you’re starting to hate your novel. You have dark, escapist thoughts. You’re not feeling particularly pure of heart, nor steadfast of butt.

From “Novelists, You’re Doing it Right” on the Ploughshares blog by Rebecca Meacham.

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