Book review: I had brain surgery, what’s your excuse?

Listen to this post: 

The weirdest thing happens when people trip near me. They laugh nervously and say, “And I don’t even have an excuse like you do!” Insert extra chuckle there for good measure. It’s not really needed, that extra laugh. I mean, I don’t even trip that much. I’m never sure why people say that to me. It’s kind of normal and average for people who walk to trip sometimes.
But yesterday, I barely missed getting hit in the head by a bike wheel that was attached to a bike attached to a bike rack on a moving car. Seconds later, I narrowly escaped falling over the handlebars of a bike attached to a bike rack attached to the sidewalk. So what’s my excuse? I wasn’t looking where I was going. Most importantly, the whole thing was rather hilarious. Maybe some people reading this won’t find it funny because it’s automatically not funny if someone with a brain injury almost hits their head again. But if you do really have the “excuse” of a slightly-off way of perceiving and processing the world, having such near misses with bikes that aren’t even being ridden is pretty silly.

So when when author-illustrator Suzy Becker says something like “I had brain surgery, what’s your excuse?” it kind of cracks me up. And she wants it to. She’s a humorist. Do you know about Suzy and her pre-brain surgery work? All I need to know I learned from my cat book coverI’ve pretty much worshipped her work since this gem, her first book came out: “All I Need to Know I Learned From My Cat (and then some).”

[Image description: Book cover has the title, author’s name, and accolades. Framing the title are 20 cartoon images of a white cat with red collar teaching 20 life lessons through facial expressions ranging from contentment to hairball.]

Then, Suzy had brain surgery and wrote a book about what led to the surgery, how it went, and how she developed great difficulties with speech and language from the surgery itself. Not just wrote a book, illustrated it with characters, images, graphs, charts, and notes. It’s the most clever integration of words and pictures I’ve ever come across in a memoir.

And what better way to show us how difficult speech and language were for her than to insert drawings in place of words? None. None better. It’s charming and delightful. She doesn’t use humor and delight to distract from the pain of having a brain injury due to surgery. Rather, you feel like you get to know so much about her in how she reflects on her struggles and how she was misunderstood.

So if you want to read a memoir about brain surgery filled with drawings of a brain with a white surrender flag stuck in it, a hat to hide the surgery scar that speaks only to express rage and disappointment, and an alter-ego named Augusta, this is your book. Mixed within these drawings are very, very real descriptions of fear, loneliness, how the impairments took a toll on her relationship with her partner, Karen, and her family, and so many experiences that I have heard from the brain injury community countless times. You see moments of utter triumph, like when she finally meets other people with similar experiences and finds out that, in fact, it takes time to recover, and that recovery isn’t very smooth. And you get to sit with her as she takes on a huge writing fellowship at Radcliffe College where she simultaneously frets that she can’t work again and creates this dynamo of a book. Cheers, Suzy!

Suzy Becker doesn’t rest comfortably under her brain surgery as an excuse for not getting anything done. She does a lot, just slower and with more mistakes and frustration. But anytime she needs to pull out a great conversation starter, nothing can really beat “I had brain surgery in July.”