By Cole Cohen. (Henry Holt, 221 pages, $25.)
Cole Cohen was always bright, but she was also always a little off. She got lost easily, grew agitated in crowds, was late for everything, all the time. She couldn't read a map, never remembered which was left and which was right and, for a while, wrote her words backward. Yet she was brilliant in other ways, especially verbally, "in special education and the gifted program simultaneously," she says.
She was tested, over and over, for learning disabilities. She was drugged: Seroquel, lamictal, rozerem, ativan.
And then, in her 20s, on her way to grad school, someone thought to do a brain scan. And whoa — they found a hole. In her brain. A hole the size of a lemon.
"Head Case" is Cohen's nonfiction account of living with this abnormality before and after the MRI that discovered it. The book is sad and funny, chipper and melancholy, thought-provoking and gasp-inducing. Cohen's hole is in the parietal lobe, which affects perception, touch and navigation as well as the ability to understand numbers. But of course there is no cure.
Once her condition is diagnosed, Cohen faces a raft of frustrating problems trying to get help, trying to get disability aid, trying to get — at the suggestion of her doctor — a guide dog to help her navigate city streets. (Not being blind, she does not qualify, although in a surreal scene — one of many — she is offered a cane.)
Throughout, she wrestles with her future (she has been fired from countless jobs for not being able to count money and for never coming in on time); she falls in love and struggles with intimacy; she pushes to live an independent life; she tries to figure out where she belongs in this world. All the normal problems of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, made more difficult by the presence of a lemon-sized hole.
By Simon Wroe. (Penguin, 288 pages, $16.)
To lovers of culinary lit expecting to encounter another kitchen drama (complete with recipes), this is not that book. But keep reading; this is good stuff.
Wroe's debut was a finalist for a Costa Award for first novel last year, and it's now available in paperback. The story is a profane chefs' farce, but also a ribald character study, all while provoking guilty belly laughs at the cruelty humans visit upon one another.
The desperate narrator, nicknamed Monocle for his English degree, provides a tale of life at the Swan with its tyrannical chef, but also of how dysfunctional people become a creative crew — except when they aren't. It all seems rather rollicking before the action turns darker, although by that point, you can't stop reading.
But here's the thing: Amid the raunchiness, Wroe also is capable of poignant insights such as Monocle's reflection on his upbringing: "Part of my parents' joy in those early years, I am sure, was knowing exactly what misery they had so far dodged. And part of their misery today, I have no doubt, is knowing the specific joy they once had." Keep reading.