The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The woman’s name doesn’t matter. Just picture anyone you know and love. She’s in her mid-twenties when her world begins to crumble. She can’t concentrate at work, stops sleeping, grows uneasy in crowds, and then retreats to her apartment, where she sees and hears things that aren’t there — disembodied voices that make her paranoid, frightened, and angry. She paces around her apartment until she feels as if she might burst open. So she leaves her house and wanders around the crowded city streets trying to avoid the burning stares of the passersby.

In 2009, Susannah Cahallan was hospitalized with what appeared to be classic symptoms of schizophrenia: paranoia, delusions, violent impulses. Anti-psychotic medications didn’t help. Test after test found nothing useful. Until one did, and as soon as the medical establishment was able to identify her illness as auto-immune encephalitis rather than psychosis, everything about her treatment changed: “Hope, clarity, and optimism replaced the vague and distant treatment. No one blamed me or questioned if each symptom was real. They didn’t ask about alcohol consumption of stress levels or family relationships. People no longer implied that the trouble was all in my head.”

In 2012, Cahalan published Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, a memoir of her experience. A variety of subsequent encounters led her to continue looking into the history of psychiatry and the fine line between sanity and madness, and how society identifies those on either side of that (shifting) line. That brought her to the story of Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan and his 1973 “pseudopatient” experiment: Eight healthy people got themselves committed to psychiatric facilities and then had to prove their sanity to get released.

The resulting Nature article, “On Being Sane in Insane Places”, cast a glaring spotlight on what appeared to be serious problems in diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. But there seemed to be holes in the story, questions without answers. Rosenhan died in 2012, never having finished the follow-up book he was contracted to write. The volunteers were never publicly identified.

Cahallan digs into the details of what happened and how it affected the development of psychiatric care. She also looks backward, into the various threads of psychological theory and their supporters and detractors over the years. From Nelly Bly’s 1887 undercover investigation at Blackwell Island through the mass closure of mental institutions a century later and into the present day, it’s a fascinating and sometimes appalling tale, told with a story-teller’s flair. 

In the words of medical historian Edward Shorter, “The history of psychiatry is a minefield. Reader: Beware of shrapnel.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges:  N/A
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The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the CenturyThe Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
by Kirk W. Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 2009, Edwin Rist, age 20, American student flautist at the Royal Academy of Music, broke into an outpost of the British Museum and stole hundreds of preserved birds. Among the haul were scientific samples gathered in the 1800s by Alfred Russel Wallace, painstakingly labeled with data about where and when they were obtained. Priceless to researchers, the birds – or, more precisely, their brightly-colored feathers – were worth thousands of dollars to a select group: Victorian salmon fly-tying enthusiasts. When Kirk Wallace Johnson heard about the heist two years later, during a difficult time in his own life, the case gave him something to focus his energy on. Why did Rist do it? What happened afterward? And where, exactly, were those hundreds of birds?

Johnson opens the book with Rist in the middle of the burglary, then jumps back to the history of the birds and their collector, Alfred Russel Wallace, the Tring Museum and its beginnings as the private collection of Walter Rothschild, and the nineteenth-century “Feather Fever” and birth of the hobby of tying salmon flies to exacting standards. He chronicles Rist’s life as the homeschooled tween learns about and becomes obsessed with fly-tying, becomes famous among his fellow hobbyists, and heads to London with his flute. He covers the official investigation as well as his own inquiries into what exactly happened and how. It reads like a novel, introducing characters and backstories while briskly developing the plot. End notes detail his sources, including official records and personal interviews with key figures.

This book sounded interesting from the first time I heard about it – a feather-stealing flautist? Victorian fly-tying masters buying and selling black-market bird parts? It did not disappoint. In my paperback ARC, the photo section was black-and-white and not great quality, so I was very happy to discover the photo gallery on Johnson’s site. This is definitely my kind of true crime book!

Source: ARC borrowed from a friend (thanks, CG!)

Reading Challenges: Counts for Read Harder 2018 (Task #2: A book of true crime)

Book Review: Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

But how was a theoretical physicist supposed to save the world?

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Three stories weave together here, all of them fascinating in their own right: the story of the scientists at Los Alamos, including Robert Oppenheimer, the man who would become known as the father of the atomic bomb; the story of the Russian spies, including the unassuming Harry Gold, who were hard at work attempting to steal the secrets to building the atomic bomb, and the efforts of Allied forces, including Knut Haukelid and a few other dedicated Norwegian resistance fighters, to prevent the Germans from building an atomic bomb themselves. The names are important, because what Sheinkin does so splendidly is put human faces to the historic events. Literally, in fact, since each section of the book begins with a scrapbook-style double-page spread of photographs. This is an epic story, and Sheinkin lists a number of consulted sources in the back matter, but he picks out details sure to capture and hold interest all the way through.

This is a fascinating read, with appeal for older kids and teens as well as adults. It has great potential for classroom use, perhaps paired with Ellen Klages’ The Green Glass Sea. MacMillan even has a Teacher’s Guide (.pdf) already prepared with pointers to the Common Core State Standards. Also check out the post at Reading to the Core, which says of Bomb, “This is the kind of book you could build an entire curriculum around.” Suggestions for how to begin to do so are included, of course. Don’t limit this book to the classroom, though. After all, who could resist a true story of international spies and “the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon”?


Recommend to: Older kids and teens (and adults) who would like a “true story” that reads like a spy thriller.


Source: Checked out from my public library

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Book Review: Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn

The city’s comedians have been out writing signs. One says: WHAT ARE YOU ALL RUNNING FROM? Another says: YOU’VE GOT GREAT STAMINA. CALL ME. 1-834-555-8756. Yet another reads: IN OUR MINDS, YOU’RE ALL KENYANS.

Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth

Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth by Adharanand Finn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the world of distance running, athletes from a single country have been getting a lot of attention over the last several years. The East African nation of Kenya has produced some of the fastest runners on the planet. English journalist – and runner – Adharanand Finn wanted to find out what the Kenyan secret was, so he packed up himself, his wife, and their three young children and moved the family to a village in Kenya. There, he met runners. He interviewed them, he observed them, and he trained with them. Through it all, he puzzled over what element could be the key to the success of Kenyan runners (genetics? diet? culture?), and he wondered whether it was possible to improve his own distinctly non-Kenyan performance.

I am a big fan of the whole “quirky memoir” genre, in which the author tries out some experience and writes about it. Through Finn, I got to explore Kenya and take a peek inside the lives of runners whose names I see all over the running magazines. I enjoyed the easy, conversational tone of the first-person present-tense narration. Each chapter is headed with a small black-and-white photograph of people or events discussed in the book. This is not a book to help you improve your own running times, or even really one that thoroughly explores every facet of Kenyan running (a subject of academic research in its own right). It is an enjoyable tale of what one man’s attempt to understand what it means to be a Kenyan runner.

Source: checked out from the public library

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Book Review: The Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester

I re-read Alice in Wonderland not too long ago, and I was charmed all over again by the story. Since I enjoy biographies, and I generally like Simon Winchester’s writing, this book seemed right up my children’s-literature-loving alley.

The Alice Behind WonderlandThe Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yet, for most, even after the book is finally shut and put back, the memory of the image proves hauntingly and lingeringly distracting, and for a long while.

Winchester begins this slim volume with a description of a photograph Charles Dodgson (better known today as Lewis Carroll) took of then-six-year-old Alice Liddell, after a discussion of how the photo ended up in a library at Princeton. This first chapter is a good indication of what is to come: a curiously circuitous look at the life of Dodgson and the creation of both Lewis Carroll and his famous book, the girl who inspired it, and quite a bit about the history of photography.

While I have enjoyed Winchester’s writing in the past (I read The Map that Changed the World a couple of years ago), I don’t think this is his best. It just meanders a bit too much, the tone even wavering from conversational to a touch too formal. And there are a couple of oddly repetitious bits; the explanation that Alice’s sister, Lorina, was named after their mother and nicknamed Ina appears at least twice, for example.

It is a pleasant read, and a relatively quick one, full of bits of trivia about both Dodgson and his social world. But rather than bringing the reader into Dodgson’s world, let alone that of the girl in the title, Winchester’s prose maintains the distance between then and now.

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Book Review: At Home by Bill Bryson

At Home: A Short History of Private LifeAt Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.

Bill Bryson turns his insatiable curiosity and boundless enthusiasm for research to a subject quite literally close to home. His home, to be precise, a former rectory in Norfolk, built in 1851. He takes the reader on a guided tour of the house, room by room, from the entry hall all the way up to the attic. Along the way, he discusses the history of just about every domestic subject: food, health, birth, death, gardening, etc. His knack for pointing out just the right absurd detail provides unexpected laughs in the midst of very serious subjects.

I was introduced to Bryson’s work during the year I spent in Manchester. It was a year after the publication of Notes from a Small Island, and Notes from a Big Country was running as a weekly column in The Mail on Sunday. Reading those columns about his reentry to the nation I’d just left, I fell a little bit in love with his writing. Fifteen years later, I still love it. I can hardly wait to see what he comes up with next.

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Book Review: Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming

When kids come to the library looking for a biography, there are a few usual suspects, and Amelia Earhart is one of them. There is a lot of information about Earhart floating around out there, some of it more legend than truth, as Fleming notes at the opening of this attractive biography. I enjoyed Fleming’s biography of P.T. Barnum, and she brings much the same approach to the famous “aviatrix”.

Amelia LostAmelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“We believed we were about to see history in the making — the first woman to fly around the world, but she didn’t come, and she didn’t come.”

Fleming begins her biography of Earhart near the end of the story, joining the crew waiting for her arrival at Howland Island as they realize that the famous pilot is lost. She then jumps back to the beginning, and the chapters of the book move chronologically from Amelia’s birth to her final flight. In between the chapters, though, are brief two- or three-page sections about the progress of the search. This dual narrative maintains a feeling of suspense throughout the book, even though the reader knows the search is ultimately unsuccessful.

Beautifully designed, full of photographs and sidebar notes, with a striking red, black, and gray cover, this biography has plenty of visual appeal for children and adults. Fleming dug through mounds of research (many sources are noted in the back matter) to tease out the truth of Earhart’s life from the legends. She portrays an Amelia Earhart who is daring and inspiring, yes, but also a very real human being. A truly outstanding biography.

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Book Review: Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider by Jean Fritz

History was never my strongest subject. Much to my American History teacher spouse’s chagrin, I know next to nothing about an awful lot of people and events. It just doesn’t stick. But I do know that to learn something new, the best place to go is a children’s book. So, I was excited to see that Jean Fritz had a new biography coming out about Alexander Hamilton. I knew so little about Hamilton! I knew he was on the $10 bill, of course, and that he had, um, something to do with banking, and, well, I knew about Aaron Burr. So, thank you to Jean Fritz for pulling Hamilton out of obscurity for at least one reader!

Alexander Hamilton: The OutsiderAlexander Hamilton: The Outsider by Jean Fritz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

Noted autor Jean Fritz turns her keen eye for historical detail to the life of Alexander Hamilton. From his early years in the West Indies to that fateful day in Weehawken, NJ, Fritz puts Hamilton’s story center stage while also setting it in the context of the birth of the United States. The tone of the narrative is conversational and should appeal to middle grade readers. Historical images are reproduced throughout the book; while lovely and certainly helpful in setting the mood and tone in certain passages, the lack of captions may leave some readers a bit puzzled. The image credits are squeezed into a text-dense single page in the back matter. The back matter also includes several notes on particular points, but there is no indication in the text itself that the notes exist. (This is entirely reasonable, since children’s books do not generally use footnotes, but it is a little odd to reach the end and discover the notes.) The included bibliography indicates her research sources and points to further reading. An impeccably researched, fresh look at a figure who frequently fades into the background for kids studying American history.

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Book Review: Wheels of Change by Sue Macy

Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom by Sue Macy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

Macy explores the history of bicycling and women’s rights, and how each affected the other, in this appealing volume. Vintage photographs, newspaper blurbs, and fun facts pepper the pages in the style of a full-color scrapbook. In the first chapter, Macy covers the invention of the bicycle and its rise in popularity, then turns her focus squarely on women cyclists. From public condemnation of the “spectacle” of a woman on a bike to changes in fashion spurred by the need for more bike-friendly clothing to the achievements of famous female cyclists, there is a lot of information packed in these conversational pages. Between chapters, double-page spreads touch on topics like cycling slang, popular songs about cycling from the late 1800s, and the variety of publications centered on cycling. A final spread offers two complementary timelines of milestones in women’s history and cycling history to put events in perspective at a glance. Recommended for ages 10 and up.

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Book Review: Science Fair Season by Judy Dutton

Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch . . . and What It Takes to Win

Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch . . . and What It Takes to Win by Judy Dutton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book Source: E-ARC via NetGalley, by reviewer’s request


Fact: I was never part of a Science Fair. It’s one of those things that I’m a little sad to have missed out on. But Dutton offers a chance to live vicariously through some kids who are really part of the Science Fair scene. Twelve students are profiled in individual chapters, which alternate between a student (as of the book’s writing) headed for the 2009 Intel International Science Fair after winning a qualifying local competition and a participant in a previous year who has become Science Fair Legend. Their projects are not simple baking soda volcanoes or skin cells under microscopes; these are kids who have done things like build a nuclear reactor or create a home heating system out of salvaged materials.

Dutton takes the reader deep into the world of the Science Fair, interviewing not only the students, but also parents, teachers, and mentors. The young scientists reveal themselves to be teenagers much like their less scientifically-inclined peers, just kids with some quirky interests and an uncommon drive to explore. If you think you know what a Science Fair – or a Science Fair entrant – is all about, this book may surprise you. An entertaining and informative peek into the lives of the next generation of scientific discovery for teens and adults alike.

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