books, review

Book Review: A Molecule Away from Madness: Tales of the Hijacked Brain by Sara Manning Peskin

Hardcover, 224 pages

Published February 8th 2022 by W. W. Norton Company

Official Synopsis: Our brains are the most complex machines known to humankind, but they have an Achilles heel: the very molecules that allow us to exist can also sabotage our minds. Here are gripping accounts of unruly molecules and the diseases that form in their wake.

A college student cannot remember if she has eaten breakfast. By dinner, she is strapped to a hospital bed, convinced she is battling zombies. A man planning to propose marriage instead becomes violently enraged, gripped by body spasms so severe that he nearly bites off his own tongue. One after another, poor farmers in South Carolina drop dead from a mysterious epidemic of dementia.

With an intoxicating blend of history and intrigue, Sara Manning Peskin invites readers to play medical detective, tracing each diagnosis from the patient to an ailing nervous system. Along the way, Peskin entertains with tales of the sometimes outlandish, often criticized, and forever devoted scientists who discovered it all.

Peskin never loses sight of the human impact of these conditions. Alzheimer’s Disease is more than the gradual loss of a loved one; it can be a family’s multigenerational curse. The proteins that abound in every cell of our bodies are not simply strings of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon; they are the building blocks of our personalities and relationships. A Molecule Away from Madness is an unputdownable journey into the deepest mysteries of our brains. 


In the interest of full disclosure, I did receive an e-arc (electronic advanced reader’s copy) of this book from Netgalley. This does not influence my review, and I was not required to give a positive review in exchange for the copy I received.

This book reminded me of the style of Oliver Sack’s work, with a description of a particular disease or patient, and then followed by a deeper dive into the science, in this case largely the molecular and anatomical causes of an issue. The book was overall well written, with each chapter short enough to be engaging without getting boring, though the author does seem to assume a passing familiarity with neuroscience for her deeper explanations, which is something to be aware of if you have no STEM background before picking up this book. While other areas of the book sometimes felt bogged down in simple detail, though I just finished writing a thesis based on Alzheimer’s Disease, so I may be biased there and others may find it more helpful. The author also does attempt to be humorous with her narration at times, though for me the humor fell flat and sometimes felt mean-spirited which I didn’t enjoy.

I thought the book was overall interesting and engaging for anyone with an interest in neurological diagnoses and how different patients can present differently with the same diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease and sometimes other neurological disorders.

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