This best selling autobiography by Susannah Cahalan is a quick albeit intense read. In 250 pages, Susannah reveals how her rather normal world was suddenly flipped upside down into a “month of madness.”
A twenty-four-year-old journalist working her way up at the New York Post, Susannah thinks that her life is falling together. She is beginning to get more challenging and public assignments at work. However, she starts to notice that she does not feel 100 percent. She cannot focus or keep up with her work. She notices that her hand starts to feel numb. Then, her boyfriend wakes up in the middle of the night to her low guttural grunts and her eyes wide open. She then has a grand mal seizure and thus, the quest for answers, begins.
Susannah describes waking up in a hospital in restraints, not knowing how or why she was there. Imagine what she must have been going through in that moment. With the help of video footage, the hospital staff and her loved ones, Susannah was able to begin filling in the blanks for these blackouts that she was suffering from.
It was through the unwavering love and dedication of her parents and friends along with the acumen of Dr. Najar that Susannah was able to find an answer to her medical mystery. Dr. Najar, through a fairly simple, yet highly reflective art test, discovers that Susannah is not suffering from a mental illness, rather a physical one. He determines that Susannah has a rare auto-immune disease known by the name of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, which had only just been discovered 2 years prior.
Cahalan is as brave as her loved ones – by revealing her brutally honest story she has helped shed light on not only her rare disease, but also the issue of mental health misdiagnosis. Though it was dominantly perceived to be mental illness, Susannah was suffering from a physical illness that was quite literally attacking her brain. As Dr. Najar put it, her brain was on fire.
This story sheds light on frankly, a bundle of scary factors in the medical field. Susannah knew something was wrong with her, but her initial test results were normal. To not have answers is already overwhelmingly frightening, but to not have people believe you when you say that something is wrong – that’s crushing and in a way, suffocating. Moreover, to be misdiagnosed and consequently, incorrectly stigmatized is another unfair matter altogether. And of course, there is the fact that such a disease exists out there – one that can capsize your world with practically no warning and causes you to blackout and to descend into madness, as Cahalan puts it. This book is a ride – one that’s raw and real.
This year, the team at Sub Stances has been busy writing articles, traveling and working - but we’ve also been doing some reading of our own. Throughout the year, each of us has traveled to and from different countries with a book in tow. It was a tough call, but after talking amongst ourselves, we’ve come up with four books that we felt were the best books we read last year. So what have we been reading? Check out our top four from below (and don’t forget to add them to your Amazon wishlists!)
Josephine Bush: 1984 by George Orwell
The year 1984 has come and gone, but George Orwell's prophetic, nightmarish vision in 1949 of the world we were becoming is timelier than ever. 1984 is still the great modern classic of "negative utopia" -a startlingly original and haunting novel that creates an imaginary world that is completely convincing, from the first sentence to the last four words. No one can deny the novel's hold on the imaginations of whole generations, or the power of its admonitions -a power that seems to grow, not lessen, with the passage of time.
Gabriella Gricius: All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein
Published just months before President Nixon’s resignation, All the President’s Men revealed the full scope of the scandal and introduced for the first time the mysterious “Deep Throat.” Beginning with the story of a simple burglary at Democratic headquarters and then continuing through headline after headline, Bernstein and Woodward deliver a riveting firsthand account of their reporting. Their explosive reports won a Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post, toppled the president, and have since inspired generations of reporters.
Jessica Hoefer: One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
One Thousand White Women is the story of May Dodd and a colorful assembly of pioneer women who, under the auspices of the U.S. government, travel to the western prairies in 1875 to intermarry among the Cheyenne Indians. The covert and controversial "Brides for Indians" program, launched by the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, is intended to help assimilate the Indians into the white man's world. Toward that end May and her friends embark upon the adventure of their lifetime. Jim Fergus has so vividly depicted the American West that it is as if these diaries are a capsule in time.
Florane Lavend’homme: "La Nostalgie Heureuse" by Amélie Nothomb.
Amélie Nothomb est née à Kobé en 1967. Dès son premier roman Hygiène de l’assassin paru en 1992, elle s’est imposée comme un écrivain singulier. En 1999, elle obtient avec Stupeur et tremblements le Grand Prix de l’Académie française. La nostalgie heureuse est son 22ème roman.
This is one of - if not my favorite book of all time. I read it when I was six years old and I recently read it again at twenty four years old. Throughout the years, my love for this story has neither faltered nor altered. Not only that, but “Number The Stars” is also perhaps the most influential book in my life as I chose to study and to learn about the Holocaust at every given opportunity. My decision to live and to earn my Master’s degree in Berlin, Germany is also no coincidence.
Set in Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1943, Lois Lowry's historical fiction is told from the point of view of ten-year old Annemarie Johansen. It is unclear if Annemarie is Christian or not, but she is not Jewish; however, her best friend, Ellen Rosen, is.
The audience is introduced to anti-semitism through the eyes of a young girl, who is not Jewish, but rather is the best friend of someone who is. That being said, there comes a certain innocence with Annemarie’s perspective. But not even her young age can completely shelter Annemarie from what is going on. Not only is she observant that her Jewish neighbours are disappearing, but she also suffered a personal loss - the death of her sister at Nazi hands due to her participation in the Danish resistance.
The climax of the story occurs when Annemarie is faced with a challenge that not many ten year olds would have to face. And she must muster the courage to complete the dangerous task that is asked of her, in order to save Ellen and her family.
Personally, I think this is a wonderful book to introduce a child to such an important, but grave topic. Though the Holocaust and its horrors are not mentioned or really alluded to - the reader is aware that the Nazis instil fear amongst and are targeting Jews - in this case, Ellen and her family- in addition to anyone who resists Nazi rule.
This book definitely resonated with me when I first read it. I was around the same age as Annemarie and my best friend at the time, was also Jewish. And as I did then, I still hope that if I were ever faced with such a crisis, that I would act in the same way that Annemarie did - and do everything in my power to help those in need, especially ones whom I care about.
She was my first heroine. Although it is a historical fiction and Annemarie Johansen didn’t necessarily exist - there were Danes that did help smuggle Jews across the sea to free Sweden. This year, I was able to make that ferry cross - from Denmark to Sweden and there really are no words to describe how much making that exact passage, meant to me. That being said, I strongly recommend that everyone read this quick, but very important story.
You can buy it here:
A Little Life is a profound book about friends —the family you choose. Four young men move to New York City shortly after attending college together. Although the lives they lead are drastically different, they are connected by their weekly outings, drinks, and having to make ends meet while living in the city on starting wages, right out of college. As a reader, you are compelled by the complexities of the four friends’ relationships. The group is made up of hopeful actor Willem, who is trying make ends meet, Malcom who is a New York native, born to a wealthy family and lives on the Upper East Side, JB the artist and Jude, the genius who also comes from a traumatizing past.
As the book unfolds, Yanagihara zooms in on the tragedies of Jude’s past. It comes to light that he was thrown in a dumpster as an infant and was raised in a monastery, where he suffered sexual abuse and physical trauma that resulted in long term mental health issues and habitual self-harm. Complex in nature, Jude is a lawyer, a mathematician, and the friend that the others know the least about. As his story comes to the surface, they begin to understand the depth of his life, how he has deeply impacted them, and also how he thinks of his life. One of the most compelling quotes in the novel is,
“It assumes that if you have a conceptual thing named x it must always be equivalent to itself, that it has a uniqueness about it, that it is in possession of something so irreducible that we must assume it is absolutely, unchangeably equivalent to itself for all time, that its very elementalness can never be altered. But it is impossible to prove. Not everyone liked the axiom of equality … but he had always appreciated how elusive it was, how the beauty of the equation itself would always be frustrated by the attempts to prove it. It was the kind of axiom that could drive you mad, that could consume you, that could easily become an entire life.”
A Little Life is a moving novel. I was left with only one thought: every person that I love in my life must know that I love them, but more importantly they must know that they are great.
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Our Head Writer, Josephine Bush, attended a UN event this past Friday, September 22nd, and got us the scoop on four books you absolutely have to add to your reading lists. Take your pick from environmental reads like "No Impact Man" to something that challenges your own beliefs on a topic like inequality. Each of us on the Sub-Stances team is going to be taking one book and reading it over the next month and we’ll report back. Let us hear your thoughts on these books. Have you read them? What do you think about them?
By Colin Beaven
What would it be like to try to live a no-impact lifestyle? Is it possible? Could it catch on? Is living this way more satisfying or less satisfying? Harder or easier? Is it worthwhile or senseless? Are we all doomed or can our culture reduce the barriers to sustainable living so it becomes as easy as falling off a log? These are the questions at the heart of this whole mad endeavor, via which Colin Beavan hopes to explain to the rest of us how we can realistically live a more “eco-effective” and by turns more content life in an age of inconvenient truths.
By Janine Di Giovanni
In May of 2012, Janine di Giovanni travelled to Syria. It would mark the beginning of a long relationship with the country, starting with her coverage of the peaceful uprising and continuing as the situation quickly turned into one of the most brutal, internecine conflicts in recent history. Drawn to the stories of the ordinary people caught up in the conflict, Syria came to consume her every moment, her every emotion.
By Joseph E. Stiglitz
America currently has the most inequality, and the least equality of opportunity, among the advanced countries. While market forces play a role in this stark picture, politics has shaped those market forces. In this best-selling book, Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz exposes the efforts of well-heeled interests to compound their wealth in ways that have stifled true, dynamic capitalism. Along the way he examines the effect of inequality on our economy, our democracy, and our system of justice. Stiglitz explains how inequality affects and is affected by every aspect of national policy, and with characteristic insight he offers a vision for a more just and prosperous future, supported by a concrete program to achieve that vision.
By Paul Collier
It is one of the most pressing and controversial questions of our time —vehemently debated, steeped in ideology, profoundly divisive. Who should be allowed to immigrate and who not? What are the arguments for and against limiting the numbers? We are supposedly a nation of immigrants, and yet our policies reflect deep anxieties and the quirks of short-term self-interest, with effective legislation snagging on thousand-mile-long security fences and the question of how long and arduous the path to citizenship should be. Immigration is a simple economic equation, but its effects are complex. Exodus confirms how crucial it will be that public policy face and address all of its ramifications.
Written by Pascal Mercier, "Night Train to Lisbon" takes place in Bern, Switzerland, where protagonist Raimund Gregorius, lives the same, perfunctory, life every day. Raimond teaches at a secondary school, where he is an expert in archaic languages. He is well-read, intelligent and very well respected, but his life is defined and in many ways, constrained by his profession. Until one day, must go. He must take the night train to Lisbon. And he does.
Gregorius is compelled to go to Lisbon to learn about another man’s life and how different each life can be. He is led to discoveries that drastically impact his perspective and knowledge of the world. His journey to Lisbon is based off his prevailing question, “Was it possible that the best way to make sure of yourself was to know and understand someone else?”
Although Amadeu Prado - the man Gregorius seeks to discover- is dead, Gregorius finds himself in Lisbon, discovering the history of the Salzarian Dictatorship and the intricate, but also painful, relationships Prado had during his lifetime. He realizes that Prado was a man who was deeply questioned because he questioned all fundamental pillars. To some, Prado was thought of as a “godless priest,” to others, he was considered an intellectual and an activist whose “religion” was practicing loyalty.
Throughout the book, Gregorius reads Prado’s philosophical letters. They convey the value of religion and religion’s ability to create beauty and community. The letters also criticize the establishment, such as is the case with the one below:
“I would not like to live in a world without cathedrals. I need their beauty and grandeur. I need their imperious silence. I need it against the witless bellowing of the barracks yard and the witty chatter of the yes-men. I want to hear the rustling of the organ, this deluge of ethereal notes. I need it against the shrill farce of marches…. I revere the word of God for I love its poetic force. I loathe the word of God for I hate its cruelty. The love is a difficult love for it must incessantly separate the luminosity of the words and the violent verbal subjugation by a complacent God. The hatred is a difficult hatred for how can you allow yourself to hate words that are part of the melody of life in this part of the world? Words that taught us early on what reverence is?”
Gregorius and Prado both represent man’s search for purpose. Maybe we find purpose in other people’s discoveries. But, wholeness is found through the immense depth achieved only through experience.
Although the book comments and questions the meaning of life, individual purpose and value, it also criticizes politics and questions religion all the while placing value in moral establishments. As an individual who aligns with agnosticism, "Night Train to Lisbon," perfectly described many of my feelings and verbalized how religion is something that can drastically add so much value to this world, but can also cause so much pain and ignorance. "Night Train to Lisbon," if anything, will leave you questioning the bigger picture.
And if we have left you hungry or curious about Portugal, check out Portuguese recipes here:
There have been few books that have left such an impact on me — "A Long Way Gone" is one of them.
Set in Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah’s memoir illustrates how life can go from average, everyday normal, to the throes of war - overnight. From school children to child soldiers, this story highlights just how little separate the former from the latter. Children do not want to become soldiers, fighters, killers. They want to go to school, play football, listen and rap to music. However, circumstances out of their control engulf them and turn their worlds upside down. This story does an excellent job of demonstrating that and in turn, humanizing child soldiers.
By following the personal story of Beah, readers learn the horrors that surround war. Through Beah, we learn that as an adolescent boy on the run, he is often misperceived as the threat he is fleeing. Therefore, he is rejected and chased away from villages he passes while fleeing the war.
Faced with the option - kill or be killed - Beah joins the army. He notes the horrors that become and surround his daily life - murders, rape, drugs, guns, violence, fear. It's often hard to remember that he is still barely a teenager and not a warmonger.
Beah does end up in a rehabilitation center. It is here, through the help of UNICEF and his incredible nurse that he begins to recover. It is also here that the impact and influence of war is perhaps most potently demonstrated - when the child soldiers try to return to being what they should have been all along, just children. Something that may seem so easy and so natural to return to, is in reality incredibly challenging for the children and caretakers alike. Nevertheless, they persist. I won't spoil the inspiring ending of the book, so I encourage you to read it yourself.
Beah's decision to share his story with the world is a brave one. His story is eye-opening and heartbreaking and quite frankly, a story that the world needs to know as long as child soldiers continue to exist.
** If you are interested in becoming more educated on child soldiers, we also would recommend watching the short movie, “They Came At Night.” You can watch it online for free, here: vimeo.com/81378993
Prepare to reimagine American history in Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” The menace of slavery is all too familiar to the protagonist, Cora, as she risks death and punishment by running away to the North. Instead of providing his readers with the traditional view of the Underground Railroad, Whitehead introduces us to an actual railroad that runs underneath the states.
Each state has its own perils to bare. Whitehead creates characters that open up new worlds of what it meant to be a conductor or engineer- like how their motivations might not be as pure as originally perceived. Whitehead also introduces his audience to how each individual found their way to the Railroad and why they are there as Cora makes her way up North. Each new experience forces Cora to reevaluate what slavery means, how it exists as this malignant cancer upon the Union and what it means to feel American when she isn’t even considered a citizen.
Although it is a work of fiction, Whitehead demonstrates that slavery has and will continue to always remain a part of American history. There is no way to erase the brutalities that slavery inflicted upon a large part of the American population, which still exists in forms of inequalities, today. How we ought to grapple with the future is the question the book poses to us. Whitehead leaves it to us to find the answer.
Whether you’re looking for a book that delves deep into rediscovering identity or an exciting story that details Cora’s escape from the slave-catcher Ridgeway, “Underground Railroad” fulfils both. It might not be the story you expected - nevertheless, the “Underground Railroad” is a story that you should read, especially since the United States is continuing to try to find its own identity.
“Small Great Things” is a must read. Not only is it relevant for our time, but the book also provides its readers with a new view of their own perspectives as well as those of others.
Written by my favorite author, Jodi Picoult, “Small Great Things,” like many of her other books, takes on controversial topics. Picoult is known for presenting her readers with the many grey areas that lie between what many often deem as only black and white. Thus, Picoult demonstrates that the human experience is a product of our environment and “Small Great Things” is no exception.
In this story, Picoult explores the many faces and levels of racism - from overt, in-your-face examples to the subtle, institutionalized forms. Picoult's tendency and ability to write from opposing perspectives has always amazed me - but this book of hers left me in awe. She focuses on two primary narratives: a white supremacist who is openly prejudice and a black nurse who has spent her life building a career and a family.
Ruth, the nurse who has established herself in a world with largely a white affluent construction, has dealt with institutionalized racism her entire life. For instance, although she is older and more experienced, people assume that she is an assistant. Similarly, while she was attending Yale, Ruth carried a mug with the university's label just to send the message to onlookers that she could be and was part of their world. Picoult does an incredible job of illustrating how privilege is a part of a system where those who are, are heedless and unaware of their status. In the case of Ruth, she experiences things that white people do not have to face on a daily basis. Personally, as a white reader, this story consistently pushed me to identify and to recognize my privilege. Chapter after chapter, I would set my book down and ponder what I could do differently to be a better citizen. It also pushed me to help break down my own stereotypes that have been a bi-product of the world in which I have grown up.
In a much more direct manner, Turk, the white-supremacist, also demonstrates that racism is often construed as an intense hatred. Honestly, these chapters left me in chills and in absolute disgust sometimes. But through these chapters, Picoult was also able to shape his perspective in a true and honest way. For me, it was very similar to the movie American History X, where overarching generalizations and hatred is rooted from single experiences and differences. However, I think it was vital for Picoult to show the many ways race plays into society - intentionally, systematically and historically. Many of us think that we are not racist because we do not act deliberately. Therefore, our definition of “racists” becomes people who are outwardly hateful. This was a very important lesson this book conveyed, for racism exists on a wide spectrum - ranging from hate groups to institutionalized racism and daily experiences.
“Small Great Things” got me thinking and hasn't stopped since. It has pushed me to reconsider how I perceive society and how I interact with it. It has made me ask myself how I can try to be a better advocate and it has also motivated me to speak up when I see or hear racial jokes, or inaccuracies.
It is a book that should be read, especially now. In a time where our political landscape is largely based on populist thoughts and fear of others and their differences, “Small Great Things” explores our shared experiences we have as humans. Picoult illustrates the compassion humans have and the ability people possess to not only recreate themselves, but to also do some small great things.
Paula McLain’s, Circling the Sun, conveys the beautiful and detailed tale of one young woman’s life. McLain vividly paints the the Kenyan sky, elaborately drawing the landscape with her words in such a way that makes it nearly tangible to the reader.
British bred Beryl Markham grows up in Kenya - a place where the land is her playground. Abandoned by her mother and brother, she is raised by the native Kipsigis Tribe, her father and their horses. In a non-conventional manner, Beryl receives an education through experience, adventure and play. Her unique adolescence shapes her into a tenacious, captivating young woman, who seeks adventure, loves fully and embraces the unknown. Beryl’s world is turned upside down when she must attend formal schooling. Not soon after, her young adult life begins with a series of tumultuous relationships and conventional rules Beryl simply cannot conform to. Motherless, she is ill-prepared and lacking guidance as she struggles to map out the role women play in colonial Kenya in the 1920’s. Interestingly enough, this book - contrary to many colonial books of this nature- focuses on white women residing in Kenya, rather than the Kenyan colonial struggle itself.
In one light, Beryl is consumed by the traditional ways and so, she marries. However, she soon realizes the weight and personal incompatibility marriage bears. And so, she chooses to fulfill her long-awaited dream of becoming a horse trainer. In another light, Beryl is a fearless pioneer. Throughout her entire life, she constantly defied the customs that dictated it. Whether it was working as a female, training horses, flying planes or simply having lovers as opposed to being someone’s wife, Beryl erected the life that she wanted - and not anyone else. Written beautifully, Beryl’s accomplishments literally and figuratively fly off the page in this historical piece.
Circling the Sun, is a compelling adventure of trials, love, and perseverance. Brazen Beryl Markham pushes life to its limits in the most raw and fervent of courses. Her never-ending pursuit for greatness is garrisoned by her lust for adventure and her unshakable will.