Books & Products, Society

Migraine in “We Were Liars”

“I cannot recall a time when a narrator has brought this much focus on migraine disease with such apt descriptions,” Janet wrote in her review of the novel We Were Liars.

I had similar thoughts when I read the book a month ago (at Janet’s recommendation). The descriptions were so good that I highlighted passage after passage, eager to share them with you. Here are a couple:

“Welcome to my skull. A truck is rolling over the bones of my neck and head. The vertebrae break, the brains pop and ooze. A thousand flashlights shine in my eyes. The world tilts. I throw up. I black out. This happens all the time. It’s nothing but an ordinary day.”

“‘You have no idea what it feels like to have headaches like this. No idea. It hurts,’ I say—and I realize tears are running down my face, though I’m not sobbing. “’It makes it hard to be alive, some days. A lot of times I wish I were dead, I truly do, just to make the pain stop.’”

Then I got to the twist for which the book is known. The power of these incredible descriptions was diffused by a stereotype that, while not untrue, is a major contributor to migraine’s stigma. So much so that all the positive regard I’d had for the book’s depictions of migraine was gone. For me, no matter how elegant and accurate the descriptions, they can’t cancel out the harmful message I fear the book ultimately spreads about migraine.

I was so eager to have a wildly popular book raise some awareness of the severity of migraine that maybe I expected too much. Still, I’m disappointed. I’d like to say more, but don’t want to risk spoiling the book for anyone — it’s a great read.

That’s my take, which is probably a minority opinion among migraineurs. Have you read We Were Liars? What do you think of how it depicts migraine? (No spoilers, please!)

Books & Products, Coping

Escaping into Novels

Sometimes the pain is so bad or long-lasting that all I can do to cope with it is to be distracted by something else. I’ve added a list in the sidebar of novels with good distractionary value. Every book that made the cut is not overly serious and is fun to read. Some of them are girly, but not all of them are.

Here are brief descriptions and links to the novels currently on the list.

Bel Canto is a fabulously written tale of terrorists and their hostages forming unexpected bonds and rethinking their priorities. The novel is a sort of fairy tale, where the unbelievable becomes real through the humanity of interesting and quirky characters. I was so enchanted by this novel that I immediately bought the rest of Ann Patchett’s books.

In Broken for You, a reclusive elderly woman decides to challenge her self-imposed seclusion when she learns that she has a brain tumor. A heartbroken young woman becomes her housemate, and both women learn the importance of interdependent relationships. Themes of brokenness — and finding wholeness — are woven throughout the novel and, having felt broken because of headache, the themes resonated with me.

Some days I just need chick lit and Good in Bed satisfies with substance. Cannie, a 28 year old reporter, learns that her ex-boyfriend’s article entitled “Loving a Larger Woman,” which is about her, appears in a national women’s magazine. The novel follows her ensuing misery and the amazing resolution of it all. It’s light and fluffy, but is well-written and tackles issues of body image with ease. And, if you like Good in Bed, Jennifer Weiner’s subsequent novels, In Her Shoes and Little Earthquakes, are fun too.

Harry Potter…. Need I say more? My husband left the first book with me one day when I’d run out of things to read and I picked it up reluctantly. In less than a week, I’d read the first four books and had pre-ordered the fifth. If you don’t think you’ll like them, try 20 pages of the first novel. If you don’t like it, no harm done; if you do, you’ll be thrilled.

I Capture the Castle reminds me of a Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte novel, but written in a contemporary style. The narrator is compelling and colorful. The first line of the book is, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” How can you not love that?

I can only find adjectives like captivating and elating to describe Life of Pi, so here’s an excerpt from Amazon’s review: “Yann Martel’s imaginative and unforgettable Life of Pi is a magical reading experience, an endless blue expanse of storytelling about adventure, survival, and ultimately, faith. The precocious son of a zookeeper, 16-year-old Pi Patel is raised in Pondicherry, India, where he tries on various faiths for size, attracting ‘religions the way a dog attracts fleas.’ …After a harrowing shipwreck, Pi finds himself adrift in the Pacific Ocean, trapped on a 26-foot lifeboat with a wounded zebra, a spotted hyena, a seasick orangutan, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.”

With perhaps the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read, Peace Like a River describes a family’s adventure on the run, looking for the oldest son who has escaped from prison. The children and their father explores notions of right and wrong, love, family, and faith. More compelling, though, are the words themselves. I slowed down my normal reading pace to savor the exquisite writing.

The back cover of Set This House in Order made me a little wary of the novel, but I read it for a book club. And am so glad I did. Ultimately, it’s a journey of self-discovery, with a main character who has multiple personality disorder. Readers meet and care about many of Andy’s different personalities, or “souls” as the author calls them. The book club I read it for is at a local book store. More than 60 people attended the meetings and every one of us loved it.

Maybe it’s because I’m still in my 20s or that the young adult books of my teen years were terrible (Sweet Valley High, anyone?), but I’m smitten with current young adult novels, particularly the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. The stories are about four girls who are close friends and the lessons they learn on their own and together. Each of the three books tackles a different summer, the first between the girls’ sophomore and junior years of high school. The issues are real without being sensationalized and the characters are believable teenage girls. The third book reminded me so much of my senior year of high school that it was a little creepy!

I read a lot, so I imagine I’ll update the sidebar fairly frequently. In fact, I’m off to clean the house quickly so I can finish reading the The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Books & Products, Reader Stories

Claire’s Head: The Life of a Migraineur

Claire’s Head, a novel that will be released in the US in September, is a stunning depiction headache pain and treatment, desperation, and hope. Written by Catherine Bush, a migraineur, the novel is an examination of the relationship that someone with migraines has with him or herself and with others. Even if your headaches aren’t migraines, the struggle is probably familiar.

An Amazon review I read said that the first 150 pages are good, but the descriptions of headaches get old. The repetition might be annoying, but that’s the point. Frequent disabling headaches are bothersome and do interrupt the plot – whether it is the plot of fictional characters or real people.

If you have a hard time telling your loved ones what your headaches are like, pass this book on to them. There’s no way anyone can deny the reality of the pain after seeing it spelled out so well in this novel.

I feel like I’m writing an 8th grade book report when I say this, but reading Claire’s Head was like reading my own diary.

Note added Aug. 16, 2005: I copied this review so I could include it in an Amazon review and realized that I didn’t include a major part of it. While my ego would prefer if I just ignored this fact, I can’t mislead my dear readers.

The truth is, the book is great for showing the agony of headache, but isn’t a compelling novel. The plot isn’t believable, which makes the story boring. I still recommend the book, as it is great for showing headache pain, but don’t expect to have your socks knocked off. Despite this, the characters’ agony was enough to engage me for the first two-thirds of the book.

Sorry for the oversight.