Friday, February 15, 2013

Bookish Twinbill


About a year ago, I noted a poll which asked which of several hyper-specialized academic press books a person was likely to read. It may surprise you to read that I made fun of those books.

One of them I did not mock, though, and that was Thomas Aiello's The Kings of Casino Park, a brief history of the 1932 season of the Monroe Monarchs Negro Southern League Baseball team. I said that I might pick it up someday, but I was fortunate enough to receive it as a gift. Aiello, a history professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia, researched the short life of the Monarchs and some of their impact on community life in their small northwestern Louisiana town.

Like most southern towns, Monroe was highly segregated and had a reputation as the "lynch law center of Louisiana." Its newspapers routinely ignored African-Americans unless they were mentioned in arrest reports. But the 1932 baseball season of the Monarchs rallied the town together behind them as they took on and beat some of the premier Negro League teams of of the day and laid statistical claim to a berth in the NSL's World Series. For some games, as many as half the seats at the Casino Park stadium were set aside for white spectators, and Monroe's two newspapers regularly ran stories about the team's fortunes.

Statistically, the Monarchs finished the first half of the NSL season in first place. But according to Aiello, owner collusion among more powerful teams from the larger cities put the larger market Chicago American Giants in the lead instead, the owners reasoning that a championship series featuring the league's smallest city would be a box-office bust. Aiello suggests artfully designed forfeiting standards created the switch, but other works on Negro Leagues history disagree.

Aiello notes that the Monarchs success didn't solve Monroe's racial problems and that living patterns in the city today retain much of their segregated character. But the power of sports fandom was such that for about four or five hours each weekend, black and white Monroe united behind a group of black athletes who represented their town.

As a baseball nut, I would have liked some more baseball history of the Monarchs' players. Although they produced only a couple of Negro Leagues superstars, Hall of Fame pitcher Hilton Smith and outfielder Willard Brown, they had several of the era's better players, either on their way up or on their way back down. Aiello also could have spent less time speculating on the league owners' shenanigans and more time examining the direct impact of the team on their segregated town. He interviews the team owner's granddaughter, but few others who might remember that time or hearing their parents talk about it. But he's produced an excellent introductory sketch of a hidden chapter of the Negro Leagues' history and one worth checking out.
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Susannah Cahalan was a 24-year-old reporter for the New York Post. She was one of the paper's better young writers and had a pretty bright career arc ahead of her. Then one day in early 2009, she started experiencing strange behavior -- paranoia, drastic mood swings, nausea, visual and auditory hallucinations, seizures and exhaustion. Not many days after that, she was checked into a hospital.

She remembers nothing of what happened until almost a month later.

In Brain on Fire, Cahalan retells her story, piecing together the missing month from medical notes, diary entries from her friends and family and security tape footage. Although she displayed all the symptoms of mental illness, she was actually suffering from a rare auto-immune disorder. An infection had produced antibodies, and those antibodies were for some reason attacking her own brain. As they fought against the chemicals that allowed her brain to process the world and respond to it in a normal fashion, Cahalan's brain created symptoms in her that literally mimicked mental illness.

Her condition baffled doctors until a new neurologist performed an older test on a spur-of-the-moment whim. It showed him that Cahalan's brain was somehow disordered, and that gave doctors the clue to her condition that allowed them to treat her.

The first two sections of the book, in which Cahalan tells about the onset of her symptoms and then about the missing month, are probably the strongest. She uses a basic, no-frills writing style insteaad of trying to overwrite the events and that serves her well; they're already pretty intense.

In the third section, Cahalan describes some of her recovery from the point where she starts remembering things again, as well as some of the things she learned about her condition and others who have had it. It's not as strong as the others; suffering from a lack of a single focus. She starts some interesting reflection on memory and how even the normally functioning brain can create memories of events that didn't actually happen, as well as some explorations of how the brain operates and how hers was affected, but she doesn't follow either very far and they end just as they start to get interesting.

Brain on Fire, though, is still an excellent memoir of a harrowing time in Cahalan's life, related with wit, grace and skill. Even though she may not pursue reflection on what it might mean to understand that a simple chemical imbalance in the brain can duplicate almost exactly the symptoms of serious mental illness, or on what it means when we consider the plain ol' electrical origins of our experiences and memories, her books offers the reader a chance to do so and some good places to start.

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