Thursday, June 14, 2018

Brain on Fire

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
by Susanna Cahalan
Published: Aug 2013

With this memoir, Susanna Cahalan accomplishes the extremely intimate and humbling task of piecing together her firsthand experience with an inexplicable and disabling illness. She suffers from seizures, paranoid hallucinations, and alexia (an inability to read) but perhaps the most unsettling aspect is that even top neurologists were at a loss in determining the cause. Though the bulk of her time inpatient escapes her memory, she puts her New York Post reporting skills to work, examining hospital security video, interviewing doctors and nurses and family members (who knew The Post wrote about more than nonsense celebrity gossip?). She does an excellent job of introducing and explaining medical and psychological terminology throughout the text making it an excellent candidate for required reading.

As someone who administers neuropsychological assessments for research studies, it was really interesting to get the patient's perspective on cognitive testing. She captures the frustration and the effort it takes to trudge through the mental fogginess incredibly (is it a spoiler to reveal her diagnosis? Here it is anyway, for the curious: Anti-NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis.). The whole experience was also a piercing glance into the american healthcare system, and research-based western medicine as a whole: the terrifying reality that no matter how far we've come in understanding the human body, there is still so much we have yet to learn.

The whole narrative is reminiscent of Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight - a memoir written by a neuroanatomist who experiences a stroke. But I personally enjoyed Cahalan's write up SO MUCH MORE. Where Bolte Taylor uses the experience to confirm the existence of a higher power and feed her spirituality, Cahalan reflects more on the existential chaos that is first-person experience, our chaotic construction of reality via perception and the fallibility of memory. Now that's my jam.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Cambridge University Press celebrates Intl Women's Day... sort of

For the month of March, Cambridge University Press is highlighting female writing across a wide range of disciplines (STEM, History, Feminism, Gender&Law/Politics/Religion).

Available here:
They are showcasing topics and authors that might not be on everyone's radar, but despite the misleading headline, these are not all available for free. Readers will have access to select chapters of select books as well as some journal articles and blog posts. So in the end, it's a neat round up of works where an unfortunately small portion has actually been made available to download/read. But if you have time to browse - have fun!

Sidenote: don't even bother with the Women in Computer Science section that they FEATURED ON THEIR HOMEPAGE because it's empty. Come on, guys.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower

Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper collaged with Beyonce in Formation

"When Beyoncé tells all the fly chicks to get in formation, she is asking us to get our shit together so we can do the work that needs to be done. An the stakes are high as hell, because Black people are being killed. So, she reminds us, 'Slay, trick. Or you get eliminated.' Now that might be a reference to some kind of dance competition. But it's also a revision of 'Never let them catch you slipping.' Be the best. Be exceptional. Or get eliminated."
Part memoir, part lecture series, these essays cover some serious ground. Cooper tackles everything from domestic abuse to intersectional feminism to Respectability Politics and the racism within the War on Drugs - all informed by personal experience but transformed into well-researched lessons on deconstructive sociology. The title was born from her journey learning to channel rage at injustice into productive, academic pursuits and it perfectly captures the thematic undercurrent of collection.

Cooper is well-educated and well spoken, a self-designated know-it-all and high achiever. This is both a strength and a weakness in her narrative voice. She is obviously brilliant and her insights challenge the reader, forcing us to reconsider our own preconceptions. But at times this is preached with a level of certainty that sidesteps her own personal journey: the roundabout mental side-streets that she has taken to end up with her current understanding of the world. Much of the book showcases how her beliefs have evolved over time with little forgiveness for those who still exist in these planes of ignorance. I certainly had a lot to learn from these essays, so perhaps this criticism comes from my own internal defensiveness. Actually yea, that's probably it. Still, Cooper herself says, "Intersectionality is not only not objective, it sneers at claims to objectivity, arguing that none of us is purely objective. We all come with a perspective and an agenda. We all have investments. We all have skin in the game." So part of this learning process is for us as readers to acknowledge our own sets of privilege and being willing to listen to each other's experiences and truths without judgement. Another part is taking a step back from our knee-jerk defensiveness and rather than saying to yourself "But I'm one of the good ones!" ask yourself, "What if I'm one of the bad ones?" and work from there.

Eloquent Rage is an excellent and necessary book that is somehow as funny and irreverent as it is solemn and deadly fucking serious. Highly recommend it to anyone interested in Black Feminism - in Cooper's own words, "America needs a homegirl intervention in the worst way." The text falls somewhere between Ta-Nehisi Coates' We Were Eight Years in Power and Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist on the highbrow-to-accessible scale of discourse (both of which are obviously also fantastic and eye-opening in their own right). To wrap up, here are some gem pull-quotes:
"All voters should have access to candidates that make them feel recognized, but there's a problem when your notion of recognition is predicated on someone else's exclusion. There's a problem when visibility becomes a zero-sum game, where making one group's demands visible make every other group's political concerns obscure. Only white supremacy demands such exacting and fatalistic math."
 "The term 'feminist killjoys' is well-earned. Sometimes, in the bid for rightness, feminists and hyperwoke folks can take the joy out of everything. I actually think its irresponsible to wreck shop in people's world without giving them the tools to rebuild. It's fine to quote Audre Lorde* to people and tell them, 'The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.' The harder work is helping people find better tools to work with. We have to smash the patriarchy, for sure. And we have to dismantle white supremacy, and homophobia, and a whole bunch of other terrible shit that makes life difficult for people. Rage is great at helping us to destroy things. That's why people are so afraid of it."

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower
by Brittney Cooper
Published Feb 20 2018

// I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from the advance reader's copy and may not accurately reflect the final published version.

Want more Brittney Cooper? Check out her essays, her personal site / twitter, the Crunk Feminist Collective she co-edits, or this interview on Popsugar she did to promote Eloquent Rage!
Audre Lorde standing next to a chalkboard where she has written Women are powerful and dangerous
Audre Lorde, self described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Philosopher's Flight

Sigils from The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller

The Philosopher's Flight
by Tom Miller
Published: Feb 2018

World War I rages in Europe and teen Robert Weekes is stuck at home in rural Montana, desperate to join the war efforts. He's dreamed of enlisting in the elite Rescue & Evac squad for as long as he can remember, but there are more than a few hurdles in his path. He'd need to become an expert empirical philosopher, or sigilrist: a practitioner well-versed in the art of drawing sigils to manipulate physical forces and matter (think magic without wands). Even though his tough-as-nails war-hero mother has taught him the basics, this cryptic field of study is so heavily dominated by women that men are rarely, if ever, train professionally. His talents eventually land him a university scholarship, but it's only the beginning of the trials and tribulations he must face to pursue his dream.

The Philosopher's Flight is a fun light read that pairs plausible alchemy with civil rights activism and rolls it all into an adventurous coming of age tale. Though it reads like a YA novel, it doesn't shy away from the darkness and violence that accompanies systemic oppression. I really enjoyed the "gender-flip" here-- it's a complex and nuanced reversal of the script. Even though women seem to have more of an aptitude for sigilry it certainly doesn't translate into total control over society. They are respected in some spheres and denounced in others, existing in a space somewhere between mutants in the X-Men Universe and the "witches" on trial in Salem. As an added dimension we get a quick glimpse into the dynamics of race relations in early 1900's America, but for the most part this remains unexplored.

Fans of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality will appreciate the effort Miller makes to ground empirical philosophy in science. The magical forces in the story are mysterious but not impenetrable (we get at least one character trying to decipher how the packets of magic energy travel in space). Plus with all the focus on rescue  missions and medical applications of sigils, it's really no surprise the author is an EMT turned ER Doctor (turned novelist!).

In all honesty, I wasn't hooked until about three-fourths of the way through when suddenly, I couldn't put it down. The first parts build up the slow simmering of tension and context until finally it all explodes into a rolling boil of drama that leaves you wanting more. According to this interview with author Tom Miller (which also details how his observations of subtle sexism as an EMT helped inform the novel) it's going to be a five part series. So that's exciting. Can't wait to see how this alternate-history world progresses. If stalking the webiste of the publisher is any indication, we may have "Philosopher's War" to look forward to (though Goodreads seems to indicate this is just an outdated alternate title/cover for Flight).

// I received The Philosopher's Flight as part of my subscription to Book of the Month

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

"I find myself to be radically discontinuous with myself." 

Feel Free is a phenomenal round up of Zadie Smith's articles and essays over the last ten or so years. Not all of the pieces were for me personally (specifically the heavy dose of highbrow lit crit), but man, the rest really struck me down to my core. So whether you identify as a writer, reader, artist, musician, historian philosopher, millennial, gen-Xer, black, white, or mixed: there's something that will speak to you, trust me. Together the essays weave a rich tapestry of voices, all varying shades of Smith. Deeply personal experiences presented alongside stoic, critical analyses. She waxes poetic on the importance of libraries, how technology shifts reality, pluralism and the significance of race, why she was terrified of writing in the first person and oh yeah this one time she burned down her Italian apartment. Seriously, something for everyone.

I went with the audiobook (shout-out to narrator Nikki Amuka-Bird for knocking it out of the fucking park) not thinking about the fact that listening to a book makes it super tedious to bookmark or make note of beautiful passages. Soon what started as me googling to find a few direct quotes snowballed into a quest to find all 31+ essays. Turns out, of the essays that had been previously published, most are available online! Some live behind paywalls, some are available as previews but ultimately require a subscription, and some are freebies open to the public. One's even in German so viel Glück damit...

I didn't collect all of these links to stick it to the publishing industry or help people bypass checking out the book for themselves. Just thought it'd be nice to compile the works into one easy-to-access spot for anyone else wanting to reference the texts digitally. Our benevolent overlords at Google Books have a ctrl+f-able preview available but it's not really the same.

Northwest London Blues
Elegy for a Country's Seasons
Fences: A Brexit Diary
On Optimism and Despair

Generation Why?
The House that Hova Built
Brother from Another Mother
Some Notes on Attunement
Windows on the Will: Anomalisa
Dance Lessons for Writers

Killing Orson Welles at Midnight
Crazy They Call me
A Bird of Few Words: Narrative Mysteries in the Paintings of Lynette-Yiadom Boakye
Getting in and Getting Out
MIA: Flaming June, Alte Frau by Balthasar Denner, Mark Bradford's NiagraThe Tattered Ruins of the Map: On Sarah Sze's Centrifuge

Crash by JG Ballard
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
Notes on NW
The Harper's Columns
The I Who is not Me (couldn't find the transcript, but this is an article about it)

The Bathroom & Meet Justin Bieber! (couldn't find the transcript, but this is an article about it)
Man Versus Corpse
Love in the Gardens 
Find your Beach
MIA: The Shadow of Ideas

And while I was scouring the web for EVERYTHING ZADIE I came across two beautiful commencement addresses that I may as well throw into this heap of links:

2014 New School Commencement Address
2016 Grinnell College Commencement Address

Happy Reading!

If you've found any of the ones I'm missing are easily accessible and I'm just dumb, drop me a comment and I'll add it in!

// and now a guide to my header collage//

i.e. in which essays you will find reference to these lovely people/characters
Also is it just me or do Phillip Roth and Denner's Alte Frau look like they're related?

Joni Mitchell > Notes on Attunement
Scowling Old Woman >  Alte Frau by Balthasar Denner
Billie Holiday > Crazy They Call Me
Michael Jackson, Prince, Beyonce > Dance Lessons for Writers
Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network > Generation Why?
Harold Lloyd hanging off a clock in Safety Last! > Killing Orson Welles at Midnight
Key & Peele > Brother from Another Mother
Man with bird, painting titled Mercy over Matter > A Bird of Few Words
Girl lounging in an orange dress > Flaming June
Jay-Z > The House that Hova Built
Zadie Smith looking gorgeous > All of em!
Phillip Roth > The I Who Isn't Me
Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out > Getting In and Out

Feel Free: Essays
by Zadie Smith
Published: February 2018