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December 4, 2012

Book Notes - Susannah Cahalan "Brain on Fire"

Brain on Fire

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Susannah Cahalan's memoir Brain on Fire reads like an exquisitely told medical thriller, a powerful insight into neuroscience that is also profoundly moving on a personal level.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Focusing her journalistic toolbox on her story, Cahalan untangles the medical mystery surrounding her condition… A fast-paced and well-researched trek through a medical mystery to a hard-won recovery."

NPR Books wrote of the book:

"It's indisputable that Cahalan is a gifted reporter, and Brain on Fire is a stunningly brave book. But even more than that, she's a naturally talented prose stylist — whip-smart but always unpretentious — and it's nearly impossible to stop reading her, even in the book's most painful passages."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In her own words, here is Susannah Cahalan's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, Brain on Fire:

My memoir Brain on Fire is about how a rare autoimmune disease attacked my brain causing me to hallucinate, act violently, and ultimately enter a catatonic state. I barely escaped institutionalization, as my own body robbed my mind of sanity, identity and memory…

Whew. Now that the introduction is over, we can get to the music.

I originally thought of "Brain on Fire" as an illness narrative (I dreaded using the term memoir), but over time, I've come to realize that my story means so much more. It's about family, love, and of course music. Music, melody, it's infused on each page. In fact, in the first draft of Brain on Fire, I named each chapter after a song on my boyfriend's iPod, which he loaned to me during my month-long hospital stay. In fact, the playlist should really be called "THE STEPHEN," because all the songs here remind me of him. But I've named it "PLAYLIST ON FIRE" instead because I'm a New York Post reporter and can't bear to pass up on a play on words:


"Box of Rain" by The Grateful Dead

Stephen is a Dead Head. I am not. But I wanted to understand him, so I bought "American Beauty" on vinyl. The two of us spent many lazy weekends listening the album. Sometimes I would even replay "Box of Rain" over and over, even though I've heard it all my life. Suddenly it all sounded so new. I was in love. But at the heart it's a sad song. Phil Lesh wrote it about his dying father—could it have been a sign of things to come?


"Mean Old Bed Bug Blues" by Bessie Smith
In 2009, everyone thought they had bed bugs. And so did I, though that was likely a result of slowly creeping paranoid thoughts. Nevertheless, I love Bessie Smith's gritty voice. You can feel her itchiness in her vocals.


"Caterpillar" by The Morgues

Part of my initial attraction to Stephen was that he was in a band that I actually liked. The Morgues have a smart and folksy sound that I fell in love with immediately. So I was devastated when I was too sick, throttled by an unknown ailment, to attend their first ever show. This is a song that they performed that night.


"I Went to the Hospital" by Cass McCombs
There is a line in this song that just slays me: "Is it dying that terrifies you or just being dead?" The rest is self-explanatory.


"Pills" by Bo Diddley

I relate on so many levels to Bo Diddley's misguided mistrust of nurses. I took it one step further, though believing that the whole nursing staff was spying on me and selling my story to the tabloids. But what I love about this song is the contrast between the unsettling lyrics – "I'm taking this junk against my will" – with the fun, danceable rockabilly hook. Great song.


"Let it Ride" by Ryan Adams

I could have done an all Ryan Adams playlist. Stephen introduced him to me; I sought comfort in "Cold Roses" when I thought I was losing my mind; I even mulled naming my book "Nobody Girl," another song of his. But I decided on "Let it Ride" because it still makes me cry. "Let it Ride" was one of the songs on a DVD Stephen gave to me of Ryan Adams performing at Austin City Limits that I watched obsessively during my month-long hospital stay.


"Fever" by Neko Case

Here, Neko Case describes death in a peculiar way: Death as a grotesque entertainer. "I heard his feet rejoice, I heard him tap his cane, as if he had his own review at the athenaeum," she sings. She's not supposed to hear him yet, but she does. But she's not ready to go: "I was already running. I heard him coming." The song ends with a gorgeous mantra/hymn that keeps him at bay.


"Surgical Focus" by Guided by Voices

I just like to imagine the neurosurgeon who operated on my brain rocking out to this song before scrubbing up.


"Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" by Elton John and Kiki Dee

This song played on my return to my childhood home from the hospital in my stepfather's car. It was on a Lite FM radio station. I was still so slow and sick that my friend Lindsey, who was also in the car, couldn't tell if I was dancing or having a seizure.


"California Dreamin'" by The Mamas and the Papas

Just a few weeks post-hospital release, Stephen and I were driving around aimlessly when this song came on. I was still a shell of myself. But suddenly Stephen and I, as if on cue, belted out the chorus—"On such a winter's day!"—in unison.


"In Dreams" by Roy Orbison

My brother says that he knew that I was still "in there" when we watched "Blue Velvet." I began to ramble about the differences in acting between "Velvet" and "Wild and Heart." So "In Dreams," used in a particularly creepy moment in "Velvet," needed to be on the list.


"Umbrella" by Rihanna

Months later, I could speak and write. But I bored myself. I hated this zygote, partially-formed person whom I had become. One evening, though, in my dad's backyard in Brooklyn Heights, I started dancing to "Umbrella." Later my family would tell me that this proved that my true personality was still in there somewhere.


"All the Roadrunning" by Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris

This album became very important to me while writing my book. It's so soothing and beautiful. Sometimes when I'd feel lonely and intimidated by the process, I'd play this song on repeat.


"A Song For You" by Gram Parsons

This is another driving sing-along song. Stephen and I were in the car heading to the Jersey Shore to join his family vacation when we both starting singing this song. Plus, Gram Parsons is just the coolest, right on down to his Nudie suit.


"Become One Anything One Time" by Promise Ring

And, finally, a song for Stephen and everyone else who "stuck around."


Susannah Cahalan and Brain on Fire links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Bookforum review
Booklist review
Bookreporter review
The Daily Texan review
Macleans.ca review
New York Journal of Books review
NPR Books review
Scientific American review
USA Today review

Big Think interview with the author
BookPage profile of the author
Fresh Air interview with the author
Globe and Mail interview with the author
Oprah interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

The list of online "best of 2012" book lists
The list of online "best of 2012" music lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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