Brainstorm: Detective Stories From the World of Neurology
By Suzanne O'Sullivan. (Other Press, 312 pages, $27.95.)

This mesmerizing book by London neurologist Suzanne O'Sullivan is a true gift to readers who may have brain injuries or disorders, and well beyond that population, to anyone interested in the brain and how its wounding shapes behavior. In the spirit of Oliver Sacks (though not quite as poetically), O'Sullivan tells the stories of several of her patients whose cases begin as mysteries, most of whom were eventually diagnosed with epilepsy or other brain diseases or injuries.

Perhaps the strangest is that of a quiet middle-aged janitor who starts seeing glimpses of the Seven Dwarfs scurrying across his peripheral vision. He and his wife are scared and puzzled: Is he psychotic? Coming down with Alzheimer's?

In another arresting case, a teenage girl occasionally takes off in a breakneck sprint, and if she's confined to a room, bangs into the walls and keeps running. Is she oddly rebellious? Is she trying to hurt herself? Does she have a brain tumor?

These are not easy cases to crack, but O'Sullivan and her colleagues do, over time. The doctor comes across as compassionate and humble; she describes misdiagnoses and failures, as well as breakthroughs and near-cures. Her patients emerge as complex and strong people whose resilience she celebrates. But the book's most powerful presence is the human brain, which, as O'Sullivan stresses over and over again, remains, despite all the medical advancements of the past two centuries, a mystery deeper than the ocean.

PAMELA MILLER

Extinctions
By Josephine Wilson. (Tin House Books, 358 pages, $15.95.)

"Were there really people in the world who could say, 'No, I wouldn't change a thing?' He would give anything to be one of those people."

Fred Lothian would change so many things: his childhood, parenthood, his life now.

The widowed engineering professor hunkers in his new retirement "villa" in Perth, Australia, entombed in a jumble of sleek midcentury modern furniture and piles of regret. While he was busy inside his head figuring out new uses for concrete in bridges and buildings, his outside life crumbled. His wife is dead, his adult children lost to him. But now, an unwanted encounter with a neighbor opens a door to facing the past and putting a few things right.

Australian writer Josephine Wilson immerses us in this moving story of guilt and reckoning with powerful prose, intriguing characters and heartening touches of humor. The strangely apropos photos and drawings of engineering marvels and extinct animals that accompany the chapters leave readers smiling and pondering the trail that humans leave behind, as a group or by ourselves.

Maureen McCarthy