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:
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
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.
The Wave is a novel that is very relevant to this day and age of populism. Set in the United States during the 1980’s, this true story demonstrates just how fast a wave of populism can occur. It serves as a reminder that waves, such as the Nazism, did not begin with the horrible, infamous actions for which they are remembered, rather with words.
As most well written stories are, this book offers an ever-relevant lesson: stand up for what you believe is right. Do not simply comply with the masses. Do not permit or even bare witness to injustice taking place merely because it isn’t happening to you – because sooner or later, you will likely be the next victim. The climax of the plot best demonstrates this lesson, leaving the characters and its readers, humbled.
Therefore, I encourage you to read this short, but potent story. My recommendations for you would be to stay informed, to constantly question things, and to be on the lookout for what waves could be next.