book review

Review: “A Bomb in the Brain” by Steve Fishman

Fishman, Steve. A Bomb in the Brain: A Heroic Tale of Science, Surgery, and Survival 
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988
Hardcover, 318 pages 
ISBN 0-684-18706-X


Journalist Steve Fishman was stalking a story in Central America when a bomb in his brain exploded. His book leads the reader through that experience and through the brain surgery necessary to prevent a second, and probably fatal, hemorrhage of his cerebral arteriovenous malformation.

Fishman weaves an amazing amount of historical, psychological, and philosophical material into the narrative of his own experience. We learn, for example, about the development of medical specialties such as neuroradiology, neurosurgery and anesthesiology, and about theories of pain from ancient times to the present. With an eye for detail and a skillful precision with words, Fishman unflaggingly leads us through both the background and the narrative material with descriptions such as this one of the human head prepped for surgery and the vise-like instrument that immobilizes it:

The pins puncture the scalp, which bleeds in slim rivulets down the cheeks and onto the floor, and then anchor in the skull . . . The head is bathed in Betadine, a disinfectant, the skin being a haven for staphylococcus germs. The floating head is now orange, the color of a pumpkin. 

(p. 195)

By letting the details speak for themselves, Fishman avoids self-indulgence, a potential danger of personal narratives. He regulates the cadence of the book with the same effect, breaking up his emotionally charged personal story with interludes of explanatory material. Not until the last section of the book, which describes the onset of epilepsy a year after his surgery, does he slacken his grip somewhat and begin telling us almost as much as he shows us.

Most of us will never experience Fishman’s degree of intimacy with his subject matter, but from his book we learn a lot about an unusual medical condition as well as about the courage and determination necessary to face it.

© 1990 by Mary Daniels Brown 

Discover more from Notes in the Margin

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

Scroll to Top