Saturday, November 9, 2013

Wave (2013)

by Sonali Deraniyagala

from Amazon: “On the morning of December 26, 2004, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband, and her two young sons in the tsunami she miraculously survived. In this brave and searingly frank memoir, she describes those first horrifying moments and her long journey since. She has written an engrossing, unsentimental, beautifully poised account: as she struggles through the first months following the tragedy, furiously clenched against a reality that she cannot face and cannot deny; and then, over the ensuing years, as she emerges reluctantly, slowly allowing her memory to take her back through the rich and joyous life she’s mourning, from her family’s home in London, to the birth of her children, to the year she met her English husband at Cambridge, to her childhood in Colombo; all the while learning the difficult balance between the almost unbearable reminders of her loss and the need to keep her family, somehow, still alive within her.”

Note:  This is a harrowing book to read.  It gives new meaning to G.M. Hopkins’ lines “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,/More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.”

If you have courage…read Wave.

The Presence (2007)

by Dannie Abse (Welsh-Jewish poet-physician b. 1923)

from the Guardian: “There are no chapters in this book, just dates. It is the story of one man's year as he struggles to make sense of a life without his wife of more than 50 years. The book opens with the obituary of Joan Abse, killed instantly in a car crash in June 2005. Throughout the book her husband will recall countless details of the accident that took "in one unpredictable moment, my lover, my ally, and my friend". You yearn for the respite of a chapter break, but there are none, just as there is "no happy ending". The reader has to come to terms with that, as does Abse, this famous poet and doctor, who carries on giving readings and attempting to watch football but whose mind is always occupied in recollection. There is some humour, and inconsequential details, practicalities and outbursts. Accounts of buying trousers, walking in the park and seeing friends are interspersed with memories of Joan and others; and with poems, anecdotes and stories which seem to appear in random order, as in a commonplace book, but which beautifully, painfully convey the intertwining filaments of two lives.”

Joan Mercer Abse
Note:  This was a moving and eloquent journal starting a few months after Abse’s wife Joan’s death in a motor vehicle accident.  Each of us grieves in her own way, and this is another piece to the puzzle. Reading The Presence is like having a conversation with an insightful human being who is a word-smith and a knowledgeable physician-healer.

Brain on Fire (2012)

This is an important and harrowing book  Here is a review from NPR.

It's a cold March night in New York, and journalist Susannah Cahalan is watching PBS with her boyfriend, trying to relax after a difficult day at work. He falls asleep, and wakes up moments later to find her having a seizure straight out of The Exorcist. "My arms suddenly whipped straight out in front of me, like a mummy, as my eyes rolled back and my body stiffened," Cahalan writes. "I inhaled repeatedly, with no exhale. Blood and foam began to spurt out of my mouth through clenched teeth."

It's hard to imagine a scenario more nightmarish, but for Cahalan the worst was yet to come. In 2009, the New York Post reporter, then 24, was hospitalized after — there's really no other way to put it — losing her mind. In addition to the violent seizures, she was wracked by terrifying hallucinations, intense mood swings, insomnia and fierce paranoia. Cahalan spent a month in the hospital, barely recognizable to her friends and family, before doctors diagnosed her with a rare autoimmune disorder. "Her brain is on fire," one doctor tells her family. "Her brain is under attack by her own body."

Cahalan, who has since recovered, remembers almost nothing about her monthlong hospitalization — it's a merciful kind of amnesia that most people, faced with the same illness, would embrace. But the best reporters never stop asking questions, and Cahalan is no exception. In Brain on Fire, the journalist reconstructs — through hospital security videotapes and interviews with her friends, family and the doctors who finally managed to save her life — her hellish experience as a victim of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. The result is a kind of anti-memoir, an out-of-body personal account of a young woman's fight to survive one of the cruelest diseases imaginable. And on every level, it's remarkable.

The best journalists prize distance and objectivity, so it's not surprising that the most difficult subject for a news writer is probably herself. And although she's young, Cahalan belongs firmly to the old school of reporters — she writes with an incredible sense of toughness and a dogged refusal to stop digging into her past, even when it profoundly hurts. One of the most moving moments in Brain on Fire comes when Cahalan, preparing a New York Post article about her illness, watches videos of herself in the hospital. She's horrified, but finds that she can't look away. "I was outrageously skinny. Crazed. Angry," she writes. "I had the intense urge to grab the videos and burn them or at least hide them away, safe from view."

But she doesn't, and she barely flinches when her loved ones tell her about the paranoid delusions that held her firmly in their grasp for several weeks. There's no vanity in Brain on Fire — Cahalan recounts obsessively searching her boyfriend's email for signs that he was cheating on her (he wasn't) and loudly insisting to hospital workers that her father had killed his wife (she was alive). Cahalan is nothing if not tenacious, and she perfectly tempers her brutal honesty with compassion and something like vulnerability.

It's indisputable that Cahalan is a gifted reporter, and Brain on Fire is a stunningly brave book. But even more than that, she's a naturally talented prose stylist — whip-smart but always unpretentious — and it's nearly impossible to stop reading her, even in the book's most painful passages. Reflecting on finding a piece of jewelry she'd lost during her illness, she writes, "Sometimes, just when we need them, life wraps metaphors up in little bows for us. When you think all is lost, the things you need the most return unexpectedly."

Brain on Fire comes from a place of intense pain and unthinkable isolation, but finds redemption in Cahalan's unflagging, defiant toughness. It's an unexpected gift of a book from one of America's most courageous young journalists. (