When Breath Becomes Air

“I had attained the heights of the neurosurgical trainee, set to become not only a neurosurgeon but a surgeon-scientist. Every trainee aspires to this goal; almost none make it” (When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi)

The forward claims that Kalanithi will show incredible honesty, the post-script says he provides insights into death, and reviews laud it for its intimacy, but when reading the book, the only thing the reader can think is: unfair! Unfair that this near-perfect man had to die! He would have advanced neurosurgery, been a beautiful husband and father, and, if I had ever needed brain surgery in the San Francisco area, he would have been the man to do it. You clench your fists, you cry a little bit, and you become one with the millions of people who have read this book and would agree that this man should have had more time on the earth.

Yet, the disconnect between the actual reading experience and the commentary about the experience is jarring. On the one hand, the book itself reaches out to you as a dying man’s plea to be remembered for his best qualities, and on the other hand, everyone else insists that the book is truthful, insightful, and intimate. If the author had included one flaw without defending it or turning it into a learning experience, it might have been truthful. If he had confessed to anything shameful or raw, it might have been intimate. Instead, the book reads as a compendium of perfection, the author underscoring his triumphs and name-dropping prestigious institutions at the expense of focusing deeply into an experience.

I’m glad that he wrote it, glad to have read it, but I can’t see why everyone else insists on pretending it’s something it’s not.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 256
Ending: Posthumous post-script
Incidental Learning: Neurosurgery, neuroscience, Stanford, cancer

Big Magic

“Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat” (Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert)

big magic coverI was a bit snooty about this book at first. Too many exclamation points, I thought, too casual, too new age-y, too many parenthetical asides. I confess to also having a slight prejudice against huge best sellers like ‘eat, pray, love’.  Yet, I dog-eared, underlined, and bookmarked more passages in this book than any other I’ve read since college. It reminded me of panning for gold or shelling peas; you have to dig through a lot of filler to get to her points, but they’re well worth the effort once you find them.

Of her many randomly assorted ideas on creativity, I keep thinking about her comments on perfectionism; namely, that it has no place in an artist’s toolkit. She claims that something done is, without exception, better than something left unfinished, even if it’s imperfect. A born perfectionist, I tend to fiddle and nit-pick my sentences to death, sometimes leaving posts (and other creative projects) to languish for weeks or months until I can get one word or phrase correct. Gilbert proudly proclaims that Big Magic is an imperfect, leaning tower of a work, and she’s right. I can list many of its faults, but it is undoubtedly better than some idealized, perfect work languishing unfinished in her drawer. And in spite of, or perhaps because of, its faults, I loved it.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 304
Ending: hopeful; encouraging
Incidental Learning: interviews with various creative people
Further Reading: reminds me of other writing books, like Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott

Things Fall Apart

“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.” (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe)

I have a list of books I’m working through. They’re books one would expect a reader to have read by this point in their lives. The Big Ones; books referenced casually by other books, always with the expectation that you’ve waded through them yourself at one point. I’ve put off reading many of them because I always think I can guess what they contain. Oh, Things Fall Apart, that’ll be about the plight of indigenous peoples, I thought, it’ll pull my heartstrings and make me feel terribly.

Yet, unexpectedly, Achebe doesn’t put the reader in a place where it’s easy to empathize with the Igbo people he describes. If sympathy were his goal, he could have made his main character more likable, fleshed out some of the tertiary characters, or glossed over their infanticide, wife-beating, and casual murders. Instead, you leave the book half on the tribe’s side, half on the missionary’s side. Achebe doesn’t try to sway the reader, he doesn’t use overly emotive writing for the benefit of either, he tells the tale unadulterated and leaves us with our reason intact, perfectly capable of contemplating the rights and the wrongs ourselves.

So, wrong again; and I’ll probably be wrong many more times before the list is through.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 209
Ending: thought provoking
Incidental Learning: Ibo tribe; Africa
Further Reading: This felt like an oral story written down; I’d go with other oral histories, like Homer perhaps, as follow ups.

A Gentleman in Moscow

“Here, indeed, was a formidable sentence–one that was on intimate terms with a comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.” (A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles)

Poor Mr. Towles. I’m going to do what every sophomore novelist of a bestselling debut fears: compare the recent work not to the past work, but to a vaguely recollected feeling about the past work. The details of Rules of Civility have faded in my memory – a few scenes about a love triangle, some jewelry, a bored woman playing cards – while the wonder remains. I loved it so much that I couldn’t even write a coherent review, so much that I pre-ordered A Gentleman in Moscow the day news about it hit the library review journals.

When I picture this book as a novel, I imagine a viscous liquid dropped on a flat surface: at first you think it will assume a shape, but then it spreads out, thin and borderless. If you think of A Gentleman in Moscow as a collection of short stories, however, or a long book of exquisite vignettes about one character and one place, then you can focus on the brilliance of the language instead of the faults in plot arch. For Towles, more than anything else, more than history or philosophy or musing, loves words. He loves them in footnotes, in conversations between family members, in chapter titles and in poems, and when you read him, he reminds you that you love them too.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 480
Ending: vague
Incidental Learning: Russia, 1920’s – 1940’s
Further Reading: another rich historical fiction, which is apparently a genre a rarely read in, so the only recommendation I can think of is Rules of Civility.


“Everyone in the world has suffered. But you have not suffered precisely because you are an American Black.” (Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

This book is an intellectual experience first and foremost. The story, once you extract it from the over-abundance of tertiary characters and social commentary, is simply about a love lost and then found again. You never become familiar with, or particularly attached to, the main characters; they merely hold together Aichie’s points so that readers can examine thoughts about race in the more palatable form of fiction instead of as a collection of essays.

Adichie adds a new character the same way others might insert adjectives or adverbs: any time a sentence feels lonely, she drops one in.   While the plethora of characters do serve to form a layered background, they also create a fog of clutter that prevents the reader from getting to know the protagonists as full people. Though literature lovers will see through the ploy to dress up social activism in a fiction costume, this book is a worthy read for the way it forces you to acknowledge reality.


Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 588
Ending: tidy conclusion to love story
Incidental Learning: Nigeria, immigrant experience, race in America, Obama campaign
Further Reading: I followed this up with Things Fall Apart, since it was mentioned in the book. Two entirely different reading experiences.

Never Let Me Go

“That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him.” (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro)

This book has not aged well; It happen sometimes with sci-fi. Science fiction can age marvelously even if the author miss-predicts small details, yet, if the author misses something fundamental, the whole book ages out. I can suspend my disbelief about clones: that’s not the problem. The problem is that the book in no way addresses how the media (social and traditional) would react to the existence of clones harvested for their organs. I find it unbelievable that a clone-capable world would not also be in the information age, which would mean that those clones would be able to tell their story.

Ishiguro writes a completely consistent first person narrative, never for a moment stepping out of the consciousness of a 30-something female clone who calmly accepts her fate and status. Each description, each character, is seen only through her eyes, with her personality, with her unreliability and biases. Ishiguro doesn’t over-explain, but waits to reveal facts as the narrator feels comfortable telling them. This is gorgeously written literary sci-fi and worth reading for that reason, even if it does miss the sci-fi relevancy mark.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 288 pages
Ending: understated; acceptance of tragedy
Further Reading: As I try to think of read-alikes, I’m drawn to contemplative literary fiction, as opposed to science fiction, like Willa Cather or The Summer Book.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

“I’ve given what happened next a good lot of thought, and I’ve come around to thinking that it was bound to be and would have happened one way or another, at this time or that…” (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey)

one-flew-over-the-cuckoo-nest-book-cover3‘Predictable’ has always been one of the worst adjectives I can think of to apply to a book. I save it for particularly gruesome cases, when the plot isn’t just humdrum, it’s so non-innovative I probably used it when I wrote my first (and only) book at age 7. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey proves that predictability can be more than just a byproduct of lazy plotting, it can be wielded as a technique to heighten emotion. From the first scene with McMurphy, the reader senses that the book can only end in one way. Every single time he triumphs over Ratched, every time he throws his big personality around, every time he laughs at an unlaughable situation, you despair over his inevitable fate. The tragedy builds so painfully that, when it finally happens, you feel less anguish, and more relief, than you would have thought possible.

This is also a book to convince you that first person narratives can work. Kesey uses the first person not just as a storytelling viewpoint, but as a way to illustrate the narrator’s mental state. He starts off mad, incomprehensibly so, and ends strong, defiant, purposeful – his voice clear and focused. We get to see his healing take place not through specific events, but through language.

Writers beware: the best way to make sure no one reads your book in the future is to write something ingenious and then turn it into a blockbuster.
Readers: defy the trend that consigns this book to high school classrooms: it will restore your faith in reading.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 272 pages
Ending: relief, redemption
Incidental Learning: 1960’s asylums and psychiatric treatments
Further Reading: Infinite Jest is the closest I can come to a read-alike, and it’s an imperfect one at best.