Category Archives: Book Review

Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

February 4, 2016 · 10:46 am

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Readability:5 Stars (5 / 5)
Content:5 Stars (5 / 5)
Overall:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Mood: Reflective

I was first introduced to Paul Kalanithi when an essay he wrote and a the video below were making the rounds on Facebook. As a 6th year neurosurgery resident, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and speaks about what it means to be dying.  He passed away in 2015. In his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, which was published posthumously, Kalanithi looks back on his life-long search to understand what gives life meaning.  The question was first sparked through his childhood love of literature, and he continued to pursue it in neurosurgery—what sacrifices of brain function are worth it to preserve life?

His writing is elegant and thoughtful, and his stories are interesting.  It’s perhaps not a ground-breaking book, but it spoke to me profoundly.  I think hearing his story while he was alive, and reading it again after his death made the book especially meaningful.  Also, as I look forward to studying medicine in the near future, his path to and through the study of medicine resonated with me.  But I think most significantly, I identified with the soul-searching questions he asked as he faced the end of life at the peak of his “potential”—the same questions I faced when I lost a dear friend shortly after his college graduation.

I’ll offer one suggestion to those picking up this book for the first time: read the forward and the epilogue first.  I think Kalanithi’s own final words are so profound, and bookend his story so well, that they deserve to be read last.


Read this if:

  • You want to read a poignant memoir by a thoughtful writer.
  • You like to explore the complexities of life and death.
  • You’re interested in Medicine and literature.

Favorite Quotes:

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” ― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

“’Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?’
‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” ― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

“That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.” ― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

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Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

February 1, 2016 · 9:59 am

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Readability:3 Stars (3 / 5)
Content:4 Stars (4 / 5)
Overall:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Mood: Depressing

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is about the chaos that latches on to Theodore Decker’s life when he loses his mother in a terrorist attack.  The story is part coming-of-age, part suspense, and part long-form philosophy.  Tartt is clearly a very gifted writer, and she skillfully pieces together the various raw bits of information that make up a poignant scene, thought, or memory.  That being said, I felt the laborious descriptions weighed the book down, and the passages about the meaning of life, particularly at the end, seemed somewhat extraneous to the actual story. To me, reading it was like sitting through a classical music concert: I recognize the incredible skill that goes into it, and the incredible beauty that comes out, but it’s not my cup of tea and I prefer it in small doses. If I was editing the book based on my own reading preferences, I would have pared down the middle 500 pages by half or more.

Read this if:

  • You enjoy unusual coming of age stories.
  • You love deeply descriptive writing.
  • You want to read a story that explores the many faces of grief over time.

Favorite Quotes:

“I missed her so much I wanted to die: a hard, physical longing, like a craving for air underwater.” ― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

“Every new event—everything I did for the rest of my life—would only separate us more and more: days she was no longer a part of, an ever-growing distance between us. Every single day for the rest of my life, she would only be further away.” ― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

“But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.” ― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

“Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe.” ― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

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Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

January 21, 2016 · 3:04 pm

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Readability:4 Stars (4 / 5)
Content:5 Stars (5 / 5)
Overall:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Informative

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman tells the tale of two “functions” of the brain: System 1 (our automatic thought processes) and System 2 (our conscious thought processes). The book is scientific non-fiction, but as far as scientific non-fiction goes, it manages to be both engaging and entertaining.  Based on the content alone, I would suggest that everyone read this book. It illuminates the unconscious choices and biases of the human mind, from why people play the lottery, to how lunch breaks affect parole hearings. I know I will be far more conscious of my choices for having read it.

Read this if:

  • You’re looking for an enjoyable read about the inner workings of the mind.
  • You want to better understand how humans make judgments and choices.
  • You want to makes thoughtful, “intentional” choices.

Favorite Quotes:

“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.” ― Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

“The psychologist, Paul Rozin, an expert on disgust, observed that a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches.” ― Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

“You are more likely to learn something by finding surprises in your own behavior than by hearing surprising facts about people in general.” ― Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

“Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.” ― Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

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Review: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

January 14, 2016 · 1:28 pm

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Readability:4 Stars (4 / 5)
Content:4 Stars (4 / 5)
Overall:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Mood: Reflective

Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck club follows the difficult relationships between four Chinese women and their American-born daughters.  The story opens as Jing-Mei takes her recently deceased mother’s place in the Joy Luck Club with her mother’s three friends, and laments that she never really knew her mother. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the events that shaped each of the mothers, and the struggle of the mother-daughter pairs as they try to relate to each other across their different cultures and life circumstances.  I found that some of the characters (particularly the daughters) blended together as they told strikingly similar stories, but overall it was a very pleasant read, and includes my new all-time favorite arranged marriage story.

Read this if:

  • You’re looking for an enjoyable read with strong female characters.
  • You have a mother or a daughter.
  • You’d like some perspective about the intersection of Chinese and American cultures.

Favorite Quotes:

“What was worse, we asked among ourselves, to sit and wait for our own deaths with proper somber faces? Or to choose our own happiness?” ― Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

“I think now that fate is half shaped by expectation, half by inattention. But somehow, when you lose something you love, faith takes over. You have to pay attention to what you lost. You have to undo the expectation.” ― Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

“I once sacrificed my life to keep my parents’ promise. This means nothing to you, because to you promises mean nothing.” ― Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

“And now at the airport, after shaking hands with everybody, waving good-bye, I think about all the different ways we leave people in this world. Cheerily waving good-bye to some at airports, knowing we’ll never see each other again. Leaving others on the side of the road, hoping that we will. Finding my mother in my father’s story and saying good-bye before I have a chance to know her better.” ― Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

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Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

January 10, 2016 · 3:21 pm

Readability:4 Stars (4 / 5)
Content:5 Stars (5 / 5)
Overall:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Mood: Reflective

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is written as the “begets” of the dying Reverend John Ames—a compilations of writings to leave his young son.  He writes about his life (stories of his father and grandfather), and his faith (the sermons he wrote, and sometimes unconventional things he believes), but much of the story centers around his difficult relationship with his best friend’s troubled son, Jack. Robinson subtly questions how we relate to people in our lives who have chose a different path than us. The writing meanders a a bit, so it took some time for me to feel invested in the story, but the various threads came together so powerfully in the end that this definitely ended up being my favorite book of 2015.

Read this if:

  • You’re interested in reflections about faith and redemption.
  • You’re a pastor, or know and love someone who is.
  • You want an interesting story about the intersection of slavery, pacifism and the divergent faiths of different generations.

Favorite Quotes:

“Christianity is a life, not a doctrine . . . I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own.” ― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

“It is a good thing to know what it is to be poor, and a better thing if you can do it in company.” ― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

“I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.” ― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

“Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” ― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

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Review: The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

January 16, 2015 · 6:36 pm

 The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Readability:3 Stars (3 / 5)
Content:3 Stars (3 / 5)
Overall:3 Stars (3 / 5)

The Catcher in the Rye is the perfect example of high school English class literature that I never got around to reading, so I decided to tackle it for Project 2015.

This book is essentially a 48 hour stream-of-consciousness of fifteen year old Holden Caulfield. It begins on a Saturday afternoon as Caulfield says goodby to Pencey Prep (he’s failing out), and follows him through a tumultuous weekend in New York City as he tries to drink and socialize his way out of a growing depression/nervous breakdown.  He wraps up the story at a park on Monday afternoon, having found some measure of solace in the company of his little sister, Phoebe.

The Catcher in the Rye took me completely by surprise.  I have no idea how I got the idea (perhaps the Pegasus-esque horse on the cover), but I was expecting some sort of mythical children’s story about dreams. Instead I found myself roaming the streets of NYC inside the mind of an angsty teenage boy with a bizarre vocabulary and pattern of speech.  I really felt like I aught to love this book, but my predominate feeling as I read it, and even once I’d finished, was bewilderment.

Likes:

  • I’ve never felt so completely inside the mind of a character before, except perhaps in Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go (and the whole Chaos Walking series.) Stream-of-conciousness is not my favorite style to read, but I do think it takes a certain level of literary genius to do it well.
  • Caulfield is not terribly introspective, but his feelings come across as incredibly raw and poignant nonetheless.
  • Salinger captures so much of the way that we think about the many different people we encounter, from our first impression of their noses, to the feelings they leave us with.
  • In the midst of his ceaseless rambling, Caulfield offers a handful of very profound insights into society.

Dislikes:

  • As I said, stream-of-consciousness is not my favorite style to read, especially when it is so full of colloquialisms and disjointed thoughts.  Holden Caulfield’s unique voice becomes sort of endearing after a while, but I still found it a bit grating to read.
  • I was pretty far into the book before I finally stopped trying to piece the plot together, and realized that there really isn’t one.  There was a moment in the end that seems to wrap up the story with a bow (à la Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower), but I couldn’t help feeling it was incomplete.  I expect a story to have some sort of unifying theme, and/or culminating event.  This was a detailed account of a moment in time, a psychosocial event, an intricate portrait of an individual, but not a story in the traditional sense.  I don’t think this necessarily deserves to be a con, except to say that even a great portrait cannot be a better story than a really good story (with a plot).

Favorite Quotes:

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” -Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

“I felt like praying or something, when I was in bed, but I couldn’t do it.  I can’t always pray when I feel like it.  In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist.  I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible.  Take the Disciples, for instance.  They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth.  They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head.  All they did was keep letting Him down.  I like almost anybody in the Bible better than the Disciples.” -Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

“I remember I asked old Childs if he thought Judas, the one that betrayed Jesus and all, went to Hell after he committed suicide.  Childs said certainly.  That’s exactly where I disagreed with him.  I said I’d bet a thousand bucks that Jesus never sent old Judas to Hell.  I still would, too, if I had a thousand bucks.  I think any one of the Disciples would’ve sent him to Hell and all—and fast, too—but I’ll bet anything Jesus didn’t do it.” -Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.” -Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

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