“A chemist colleague of mine runs a seminar in which art and science are brought together. And one such session was devoted to olfaction. And there was an olfactory physiologist from Columbia and a friend of his, a parfumier. Forgive my French accent. And the parfumier had made something unlike anything ever encountered on earth. And it had a very strong smell which aroused no associations and could not be compared to anything. One realized this was absolute novelty.” The Rumpus interviews Oliver Sacks about his new book, Hallucinations.
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.
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There are plenty of new books to this week to fill that post-election void: Both Flesh and Not: Essays, a posthumously published collection from David Foster Wallace; Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior; Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt; Magnificence by Lydia Millet; and These Things Happen, a debut by longtime TV writer Richard Kramer. From the indies, we have The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets by Diana Wagman and Keyhole Factory by William Gillespie. Also out are Philip Pullman’s new version of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm; Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks; and a big new Michael Jackson biography by a former Rolling Stone editor.