Tag Archives: Paul Kalanithi

Best Books of 2016 …Thus Far (33/99)


That’s how many books I’ve read so far this year. That may sound impressive — especially when the average American reads 12 books per year and 27% of Americans don’t finish a single book —  but in the book blogger world, 19 books in six months is verging on pathetic.

(I know, I’m too hard on myself. This is true.)

At the midpoint of this current trip around the sun, I like to reflect on the reading year to date by sharing my favorite books of 2016 thus far.  Sometimes there’s a standout book that is a clear front-runner and sometimes there isn’t.  This happens to be a year when there is — and it’s a book that has landed among my all-time favorites.

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant and compassionate neurosurgeon who, at 38, was diagnosed with lung cancer just as he was on the verge of completing a 10 year residency program, has much to teach us in his posthumously published memoir. When Breath Becomes Air is more than the journey towards one’s own lightbulb, a-ha, now-I-know-what-life-is-all-about moment of revelation that often accompanies a serious illness or tragic event. It’s about what it means when everything you have worked toward and planned vanishes at the precise moment when you are on the cusp of realizing all those dreams and aspirations.

Scorpion Tongues

Scorpion Tongues: The Irresistible History of Gossip in American Politics by Gail Collins 
This presidential election campaign is like nothing we’ve seen before … at least in our lifetimes. History tells a different story — and many of them — of political scandals that rival what we’re seeing today.

The Art of Description

The Art of Description by Mark Doty
Written by a true master of the craft, this is a fantastic book exploring how we use words to place the reader in the heart of our work.  Reading this is like taking a class with Mark Doty himself (something that is on my literary bucket list).  Until then, we have this gem.

Shades of Blue

Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue, edited by Amy Ferris
An astonishing anthology edited by Amy Ferris (her Facebook posts are gorgeously written and full of inspiring kick-assery), the emotions in these essays are raw and real. These are personal, true accounts of people who have struggled with depression, suicide (either their own attempt or that of a loved one) and mental illness. As a society, we need to do a better job of telling our stories in order to help break the stigma that fosters shame and secrecy.  Shades of Blue is a damn good place to start listening.  Don’t be surprised if you find shades of yourself between these pages.

The Best American Essays 2015

The Best American Essays 2015, edited by Ariel Levy
A fantastic collection of essays by some of our best writers, including Hilton Als, Roger Angell, Justin Cronin, Meghan Daum, Anthony Doerr, Margo Jefferson, David Sedaris, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit and several others.

Boys in the Trees

Boys in the Trees: A Memoir by Carly Simon
Carly Simon’s songs are ones that make her fans — of which I am one, very much so — feel as if we know her.  Here, we learn for the first time the stories behind the lyrics that we’ve been singing for years. It’s an eye-opening, often surprising, sometimes heartbreaking look at family dynamics, coming of age, betrayal, sexuality, motherhood and the publishing and entertainment businesses.

So there you have it.  The best books I’ve read this year (so far).  It’s interesting that there isn’t any fiction on this list.  This seems to be shaping up as a year dominated by nonfiction, especially essays and memoir.

How is your reading year going? Is there a standout book (or books) that will be among your favorites this year?

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #33 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

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Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air
by Paul Kalanithi
Random House
228 pages

I read a lot of memoirs. A lot. My choices tend to skew on the sadder side of life and if it involves death or some tragedy, chances are it’s going on my must-read list.  These are often the books I’m still thinking about weeks and months after I’ve finished them.

In The New York Times (1/6/2016), reviewer Janet Maslin writes that “finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option. There is so much here that lingers, and not just about matters of life and death.”

She’s absolutely right.  Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant and compassionate neurosurgeon who, at 38, was diagnosed with lung cancer just as he was on the verge of completing a 10 year residency program, has much to teach us in his posthumously published memoir. When Breath Becomes Air is more than the journey towards one’s own lightbulb, a-ha, now-I-know-what-life-is-all-about moment of revelation that often accompanies a serious illness or tragic event. Indeed, many memoirs cover similar ground in inspiring ways — but this one is, somehow, very different.

It’s about what it means when everything you have worked toward and planned for 10 years vanishes at the precise moment when you are on the cusp of realizing all those dreams and aspirations.

“My life had been building potential, potential that would now go unrealized. I had planned to do so much, and I had come so close. I was physically debilitated, my imagined future and my personal identity collapsed, and I faced the same existential quandaries my patients faced. The lung cancer diagnosis was confirmed. My carefully planned and hard-won future no longer existed. Death, so familiar to me in my work, was now paying a personal visit. Here we were, finally face-to-face, and yet nothing about it seemed recognizable. Standing at the crossroads where I should have been able to see and follow the footprints of the countless patients I had treated over the years, I saw instead only a blank, a harsh, vacant, gleaming white desert, as if a sandstorm had erased all trace of familiarity.” (pg. 121)

This examination of identity and purpose is, ironically, at the nucleus of Kalanithi’s calling as a neurologist.

“While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact…. Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and his family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” (pg. 71)

“I had started in this career, in part, to pursue death: to grasp it, uncloak it, and see it eye-to-eye, unblinking. Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death. I had thought that a life spent in the space between the two would grant me not merely a stage for compassionate action but an elevation of my own being: getting as far away from petty materialism, from self-important trivia, getting right there, to the heart of the matter, to truly life-and-death decisions and struggles … surely a kind of transcendence would be found there?” (pg. 81)

These are such powerful observations — ones that resonate so much with me lately, which is part of why I think I loved this book so much.  It’s both reassuring and refreshing to know that there truly are doctors who think and feel so deeply.  In my 47 years, I’ve been lucky to know a few doctors with this level of knowledge and sensitivity, but, sadly, there haven’t been many. A doctor with a phenomenal bedside manner is special, indeed.

“As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives — everyone dies eventually — but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness. When a patient comes in with a fatal head bleed, that first conversation with a neurosurgeon may forever color how the family remembers the death, from a peaceful letting go (“Maybe it was his time”) to an open sore of regret (“Those doctors didn’t listen! They didn’t even try to save him!”) When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.” (pg. 86-87)

Read that last line again.  When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.

And those words? They matter. They matter so goddamn much.  They’re what we remember when we get the phone call, the test results, the diagnosis, the prognosis.  That moment is weighted; everything that comes after hinges on how that news is conveyed.

The title When Breath Becomes Air comes from Baron Brooke Fulke Greville’s “”Caelica 83.” (In addition to a brilliant physican, Paul Kalanithi was a hell of a well-read guy.)

“You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity. “

We’re all mere steps to our eternities, Kalanithi writes.

“Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” (pg. 115)

So how do we go on with our lives in the midst of such uncertainty which can either propel us forward or paralyze us? Kalanithi offers his perspective.

“Maybe, in the absence of any certainty, we should just assume that we’re going to live a long time. Maybe that’s the only way forward.” (pg. 162)

Undoubtedly, Paul Kalanithi impacted many lives as a neurosurgeon.  He would have — no, should have — had the opportunity to touch many more for many, many more years than the 38 he was given. And while he should still be here, enjoying his wife and young daughter and a successful career, his words will change countless lives.

Highly, highly recommended. 5 stars out of 5.  This will likely be the best book I read all year.  

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Sunday Salon/ Currently: 2/21/2016



Sunday Salon banner

Quiet, low-key weekend here. Yesterday was as spectacular of a weather day as it gets in Pittsburgh — made even better by the fact that it’s February. Nearly 70 degrees, I did errands with my car window rolled down and it was warm enough to sit out on our enclosed deck.

When Breath Becomes AirThis week I finished When Breath Becomes Air, the posthumous memoir by Paul Kalanithi, a doctor who was diagnosed at age 36 with terminal cancer just as he was on the cusp of finishing ten years of medical training to be a neurosurgeon.  Without a doubt, at year’s end this will be high atop my Best Books I Read in 2016, if not my favorite book of the year. It certainly is so far. I am so in awe of this book, which I am recommending to everyone. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Saying that this is a thoughtful reflection on life and death sounds too simplistic; so does saying that it’s about time and what we do with the time we have.”What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present?” is the question posed in the book jacket description. It’s about the connection between science and the soul. What an incredible writer, doctor, and person Paul Kalanithi was.  What a tremendous loss to the medical and literature worlds.

When Breath Becomes Air is the type of book that requires something less intense as a follow-up read.  A collection of essays about Hillary Clinton and the 2016 presidential race probably doesn’t qualify as a less intense read, but nonetheless, I’m reading Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox which is edited by Joanne Cronrath Bamberger.

Love Her Love Her Not

Ten essays in (of 28 total), this anthology seems balanced towards the Love Her side of the polarizing effect of HRC.  That’s fine with me, since I’m a Hillary supporter and have been since the ’90s. I’ll be curious to see if the subsequent essays present a different view of her candidacy.

The Witches

After nearly four months, I decided to give up on The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff — at least temporarily. It’s incredibly detailed and very well researched, but for whatever reason I can’t seem to make much progress with this one. I think it’s the type of book that demands close focus and while I am trying to read only one book at a time, that hasn’t been the case with this.  I may give this another attempt at some point with an audiobook/print edition combination.


I’m still catching up with all the Book Blogger Appreciation Week (BBAW) posts from this week. A month or so ago, I first learned that the ladies from The Estella Society were bringing back this event, but it didn’t register that this was the week.  Hence, my participation was limited to two posts:  Why I Love Book Blogger Appreciation Week and Staying Connected with the Book Blogging Community (and 326 Book Blogs).

One BBAW-related post that I really liked was by Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness who wrote about Six Ways to Avoid Book Blogger Burnout. Her tips are great ones to keep in mind regardless of whether you identify as a book blogger or not.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank my friend Florinda for including me in her BBAW Superlatives list as the blogger “most likely to go off on a tangent.”

Hope you’re having a great Sunday!

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