Medical memoir(this review contains spoilers)
A fascinating read (well actually I listened to the audiobook) of neuroscientist Barbara Lipska's brush with insanity. She mysteriously develops 18 brain tumours, descends into insanity, and then eventually makes a full recovery.
I found the book pleasantly educational, yet still accessible to someone who knows very little about the workings of the human brain. We learn that as Barbara's brain expands, it pushes onto her brainstem, initially causing a slight loss of vision, but eventually resulting in whole range of horrifying symptoms:
- She becomes uncharacteristically irritable and picks fights with her loved ones
- She is unable to stop eating chocolate
- She becomes very impulsive (eg. she pisses herself in public!)
- Memory loss - she forgets how to get home from places she has visited frequently before
- She develops bad spatial awareness and crashes her car
- She loses the ability to do multiplication and division, but surprisingly retains the ability to do addition and subtraction
- She loses the ability to understand spatial terms like "do a loop" (in the context of driving)
Obviously it is a rare case when someone recovers from 18 brain tumours. The ultimate cause of Barbara's remission is unknown, but no doubt it lies in some combination of the strategies she tries: She undergoes many different treatments - chemotherapy, experimental immunotherapy treatment, and various drugs to mitigate side effects of other drugs. She also exercises like mad the entire time, even competing in a 5k race during her chemotherapy and placing 4th in her age group! Furthermore, she and her immediate family are all experts in the area of her illness, and they leave no stone unturned as they scour medical journals and experimental procedures in search of a cure. And finally she is rich enough to be able to afford the expensive treatments.
I deducted 1 star because the protagonist focuses so much on her medical details and symptoms that she forgets to humanise herself. No time is spent at the start of the book acquainting us with Barbara's normal behaviour. Instead, we launch straight into her descent into madness. And sure, this technique makes the book immediately exciting, however it also makes it impossible to fully empathise with the protagonist. As a result, throughout the book she constantly has to explain when her behaviour is out of character. Whereas if she had built up an immersive experience of her normal life at the start then such explanations would barely be necessary - readers would be able to identify for themselves when her behaviour was out of character.