How many good books did I read this year? A lot. How many am I talking about today? Just two. It’s not the fault of the books. They all work as hard as they can. It’s just that I read so very many of you. You books. And my brain is just not as spongy as it used to be. It comes with age. I’ve been noticing it lately. So forgive me, for not mentioning all of you. And maybe it’s because I’m noticing all these changes in myself that these two memoirs about the way the brain can betray a person stuck with me. But it’s also because both of these engrossing, emotionally arresting books -- Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire, and Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me -- are told by great storytellers. Susannah’s book follows her investigation into how an autoimmune disease turned her from a bright young reporter into a madwoman -- with little memory of her psychotic episodes -- strapped to a hospital bed. It’s also the story about how people who might not necessarily like each other or even know each other can come together to help someone. Because that is what people do. They help other people. I cried eight times while reading Brain on Fire. Ellen’s graphic memoir is about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and her long time struggle to find the right medication to help keep her functional both as a human being and as a creative person. The book is very, very funny, and sexy, and sad, and smart, and also beautifully drawn. Marbles has more to do with going it alone, which I get in a deep way, because I go it alone a lot of the time. I thought this was a very brave book. Ellen Forney is a bold woman. I would recommend buying these books perhaps with that new Oliver Sacks book on hallucinations, which I have not read but heard was great. A brain book trilogy feels epic. Pair them all with a bottle of red wine and a plate of cheese, one hard and one soft and stinky and gooey, and some dried apricots and a few squares of sea-salt chocolate, not for any reason other than that sounds delicious. I want you to treat yourself to something nice, OK? OK. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
In January I went to Barcelona alone on vacation and took Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment with me. I knew little about Ferrante other than she is a mysterious figure in Italian literature, and that few people know her real identity. That, perhaps more than anything else, intrigued me, and seemed appropriate for my solo journey. It was a bittersweet trip. I was supposed to travel with a friend for her 40th birthday – she had always dreamed of going to Barcelona, and had a lot of the trip planned out for us – but her mother fell very ill at the last minute, and so I ended up going by myself, on what felt like someone else’s vacation. It was nice to be in the sunshine during the month of January and there is much to admire about Barcelona, but I was sad for my friend, and for her mother, and a little sad for myself because I felt lonely, and then it was suddenly not that much of a stretch to start thinking about how I was going to die alone, you know, someday, and then I felt guilty for feeling sad when it was clear only my friend and her mother were the ones who were allowed to feel that way. So not only was I on a trip but also on a head trip as well. (Congratulations me.) And so it was perfect to sink into the dark, blunt lunacy of the book’s narrator, Olga, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of two who has recently been abandoned by her husband. In short order, she starts to fall apart. She swings wildly from self-pity to depression to anger and back again. She obsesses about her ex-husband’s sex life. She curses a lot, and is occasionally violent. She acts irresponsibly toward her children. She would almost be unlikeable, but the writing is so lucid and intense and funny that it is impossible not to live inside her head and be sympathetic to what she is going through. The rage she felt was deeply satisfying, and the climactic moments of the book made me sweat with worry. "I had to react, had to take charge of myself,” Ferrante writes. “Don't give in, I said to myself, don't crash headlong." I felt clean when I had finished the book. I felt relieved. It is a book that gives you perspective. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.