Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Brain on Fire

by Susannah Cahalan, Free Press, November 2013

Brain on Fire is Susannah Cahalan’s reconstruction of her harrowing year with a brain inflammation.  Calahan was a 24 year old reporter with the New York Post in 2008 when she began to exhibit signs of mental illness.  She was living on her own in NYC and had recently begun a serious relationship with Stephen.  Cahalan’s symptoms were a mixture of the physical (weakness on her left side, difficulty speaking) and the mental (paranoia, violence and psychosis).  Her condition was undiagnosed for an agonizing period of time.  Some of her physicians thought she was suffering from alcohol withdrawal despite the fact that she told them she was only an occasional drinker.  She came very close to being diagnosed as a schizophrenic.  Both of her parents but especially her father insisted that her illness had a physical cause and only with this advocacy was she admitted to NYU.  There she was diagnosed as having an autoimmune inflammation in the one hemisphere of her brain.  In a marvelous nod to medicine as an art not a science she is finally diagnosed by a physician who administers a simple straight forward test – she is asked to fill in numbers on a drawing of a clock.  Because she writes all of the numbers on one side of the drawing the physicians now have proof that the half of her brain is inflamed.   So after over one million dollars worth of laboratory tests, she is diagnosed by a savvy MD with pencil and paper!  Once the diagnosis of autoimmune disease is confirmed by researchers at Penn, Cahalan has a slow but steady recovery.  There are two back stories going on that deserve a mention.  One, her new boyfriend Stephen sticks around even when her strange behavior appears to have a mental origin not a physical one.  Surely a guy worth knowing!  Secondly, Cahalan renews her strained relationship with her father as he is tirelessly at her bedside throughout her illness.  As they say – it is an ill wind that blows no good. 
The strength in this story is Cahalan’s meticulous research.  In reviewing her medical records, reading a journal her parents kept through the illness, interviewing friends and family for their perspectives, and piecing together the little that she remembers she has told a story that reads like a suspense novel.    She is very good at synthesizing complicated medical issues into readable prose.  For me this was a quick read not the medical tour de force that was Henrietta Lacks but good nonetheless.  The one lesson I take from all of these nonfiction stories that deal with our health care system is don’t enter it on your own.  You must get an advocate (and not a timid one) who will fight for you and insist that you get top notch attention.  It is easy to be shunted off to the easiest diagnosis.  Cahalan makes the point that there are more than a few people with her syndrome who have been misdiagnosed and either did not recover or sit in psychiatric institutions today.  Scary for sure! 

I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Jewels of Paradise

by Donna Leon, Atlantic Monthly Press, October 2012

 a story that is in no way riveting and very slow to develop

In this book Donna Leon leaves behind her highly successful Commisario Brunetti detective series for a standalone novel.  Dotoressa Caterina Pelligrini is a native Venetian who has left Venice to study and work in both Germany and England.  Her field of expertise is baroque opera.  She is lured back to her beloved Venice with a strange temporary job.  Two cousins have inherited two trunks from a long dead 17th century ancestor Steffani.  Steffani was a mysterious figure who composed baroque operas and worked for the Catholic Church in Germany during the Reformation.  Caterina is hired to translate the papers and determine if the inheritance should go preferentially to one of the cousins.  The inheritance itself is somewhat of a mystery that isn’t revealed until the conclusion of the story.

Unfortunately that is the full extent of this story.  There really is little or no suspense in the telling.  There is lots of discussion of a murder that occurred in the long ago past.  There is lots of description of what constitutes research as performed by a classical scholar.  There is discussion of baroque opera and of religion.  The operative word here is discussion, there is not much action.  The best parts of this story are when Caterina interacts with her family – a sister who is a religious and a brother in law who assists her when she is mildly threatened for her work.  As always with Leon the descriptions of Venice are excellent and one of the things that draw me to her books.  The story is liberally sprinkled with Italian phrases that are not translated.  While this gives great color to the story I can imagine it would annoy readers who do not have basic Italian language skills.   I did think the author was remiss in not annotating at the end of the story which parts were based on true historical figures and which were not.  I do read this type of book for the history so it would be nice to know what parts were true and what were fiction. 

So in summary I’d say read this book for the characters and the atmosphere and be prepared for a story that is in no way riveting and slow to develop.  My hope is that Leon returns quickly to the much loved Brunetti series.

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Not Dead Yet

by Peter James, Minotaur Books, November 2012

True fans of the series will read and like this offering although far from the best of this series

The latest in the Inspector Roy Grace series from Peter James deals with attempts on the life of international superstar Gaia.    Gaia (read Madonna a/o Lady Gaga) has come to the UK, specifically Brighton, to film a movie.  Her assistant has been brutally murdered in LA before her departure.  Inspector Grace has been tasked with protecting her and her young son while in Brighton.  Grave works with the police team familiar to readers of this series and also present is his wife Cleo who is in the final trimester of pregnancy.
 There are two side by side plots – the threats on Gaia’s life and a mutilated torso that is found on a local chicken farm (no end of bad jokes there).  Eventually these stories are brought together.  Much of the action occurs in and around the iconic Royal Pavilion at Brighton.  The author does a good job of describing this scene.  Grace is challenged with no end of suspects who appear in this story.  There is the disgruntled script writer, the unhappy fan, the recently released criminal with a grudge, and at least a couple of others.  The plot unfolds in short 2-3 page chapters.  There are lots of police procedural facts, UK style, for readers who enjoy that detail.  I was slightly befuddled by the author’s propensity for naming each and every person even slightly involved in the investigation.  I could not begin to count the names in this book but it must be at least a hundred if not more.  The tone of this story is typically British and quirky if not upbeat which I find unusual and entertaining in a crime story.  Grace likes his job and his life and this comes through in the telling.  There is an ongoing subplot in the series about Grace’s missing first wife that is carried through in this book.  I found this subplot strange and not well integrated with the rest of the story. 

This is far from the best book in this series and doesn’t come near the last one I read – Dead Like You.  True fans of the series will read and like this offering.  First time readers I believe would not be enthusiastic to read other books in the series based on this one.

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Princess Elizabeth's Spy

by Susan Elia MacNeal, Bantam, October 2012    
 Maggie Hope is a strong, intelligent female character worthy of a series

This is the second book in the Maggie Hope series penned by Susan Elia MacNeal.  It is a stronger more realistic story than the first.  WWII is well underway in 1940 London.   Maggie has been recruited into the British spy services after her stint as a secretary in Churchill’s Downing Street office.  Although one of the brightest agents she is disappointed to be assigned to Windsor Castle.  At the castle she masquerades as a math tutor for the Princess Elizabeth.  There have been reports that an assassination attempt will be made.  Maggie has hardly arrived when one of the ladies in waiting to the princess is murdered during a ride.  Maggie inserts herself into the routines of the castle to try to solve the case and protect the royal princesses.  There are plenty of suspects around including some British pacifists and a disgruntled gamekeeper whose German wife has been detained.  The upstairs/downstairs world of the castle is well described.    In addition to the case Maggie continues to try and find out information about her mother’s death in a mysterious car crash in 1916.  Maggie mourns her lost aviator from the first book, he is missing and no information is forthcoming.  So there is a lot going on in this story.

The real strength of this series is the author’s ability to recreate the Britain of WWII.  Her attention to detail both in the physical aspects of the setting and in the creation of characters is exceptional.  It’s always fun for me to read stories where real characters (here the royal family) are interspersed with fictional ones.  The author gets it right - down to the stutter that George VI was known for.  I am even forgiving of the somewhat sensational end to this story because everything that comes before it is so good. Maggie Hope is a strong, intelligent female character worthy of a series.   I am signed onto this historical fiction series, bring on the next book.