Category Archives: Memoir

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

brain on fireIt’s been a while since I’ve posted, but then again, it’s been awhile since I read something that I liked enough to share with you.  But Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan, is definitely a book worth sharing.

Brain on Fire is Cahalan’s account of her mysterious neurological illness which essentially caused her to go crazy.  Cahalan went from being an ordinary woman in her mid-twenties who had everything–a job she liked, an apartment of her own, and even a new boyfriend–to someone her friends and family didn’t even recognize, both in physical appearance and personality.

One thing I found very interesting about this book is that it’s a memoir written by someone who has almost no memory of the experience she’s writing about.  It works because of Cahalan’s journalistic background.  She starts the book by explaining her process–she conducted countless interviews with her family, friends, and doctors and nurses, had access to surveillance videos taken of her during her time in the epilepsy ward at NYU, and used that information to build upon the few memories she had from that time.  The end result is a gripping, “user friendly” account of a medical mystery and how it affected her life.

Many times throughout the book, Cahalan wonders how many people who suffer from the same disease go untreated, resulting in death or institutionalization, and it is that haunting question that has remained with me as a reader.

Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

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The Latehomecomer

the latehomecomerThe Latehomecomer, a memoir by Kao Kalia Yang, is a powerful and moving illustration of the Hmong experience.  Yang starts by giving the reader a little historical background on the Hmong situation in Laos after the Vietnam War, interwoven with her family’s history.  She shares her family’s escape from Laos to Thailand and their life in the Thai refugee camps, where Yang was born and lived until she was six years old; she shares their overwhelming and exhausting journey to America; and she shares how they settled and acclimated to their new life in Minnesota.  The love Yang’s very large family has for one another, and the way they support each other through good and bad (“bad” being far worse than many of us could ever imagine) is what makes this book so compelling.

I first came into possession of this book because my boyfriend was cleaning his house and, since hardly anybody hangs on to books the way I do, he was going to give it away.  I noticed that it was published by a Minnesota publishing house, Coffee House Press, and decided I would take it to read someday.  It sat in one of the many piles squeezed onto my sole bookshelf for a few weeks, when it caught my attention again at work.  One of the nearby schools was requiring it for summer reading, so I found myself putting it into customers’ hands at least twice a day.  My curiosity was piqued–after a few days I started reading it myself.

The Latehomecomer turned out to be a particularly fascinating for me.  My neighbors, who I have known since I was very little, are Hmong.  The father was born in Laos, and escaped on foot with his brothers, just like Kao Kalia Yang’s family did.  As the book progressed, I realized how little I know about my neighbors’ history and culture, and how little Americans know about the collective experience of the many Hmong refugees living in this country, and it made me feel sad and a little guilty.  Yang does a wonderful job of presenting the Hmong experience through her family’s story, and The Latehomecomer is certainly a book well worth reading!

Yang, Kao Kalia. The Latehomecomer. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 2008.

Cover/book design by Linda Koutsky.  Cover photograph by Kao Kalia Yang.  Image from

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Reading Lolita in Tehran

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Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, is self-described as “a memoir in books.”  It could not be described more accurately.  Nafisi uses books to shed light on the lives of the citizens (and particularly women) of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The books end up being completely relevant to her own life, as well as the lives of the students in her secret class.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi, a literature professor, starts an all-female book group at her house after she leaves the university because she disagrees with the government.  The students are hand-picked based on their aptitude and appreciated of literature and knowledge.  They study Western literature, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, even though they are titles that have been banned by the government.  But perhaps it is the relationships they build and the things they learn about themselves and each other that is important.

I really enjoyed this book because it illustrates how reading and studying literature is important in a larger context.  Nafisi also makes a number of points about reading and the novel in general that I found to be both true and insightful.  For instance, she says, “…do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth” (8).  This quote is especially important to the book because the idea of a novel as a “carbon copy of real life” is exactly the mentality that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran that led to censorship.  And frankly, it is the idea that leads to censorship/banned books in our own country today, which I think is a shame.

I will leave you with one other quote that I felt incapsulated the spirit of this book: “I have a recurring fantasy that one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the right to free access to imagination.  I have come to believe that genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions.  To have a whole life, one must have the possibility of publicly shaping and expressing private worlds, dreams, thoughts and desires, of constantly having access to a dialogue between the public and private worlds.  How else do we know that we have existed, felt, desired, hated, feared?” (309).

Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran. New York: Random House, 2003.

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