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

On Writing

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” (On Writing by Stephen King)


on writing coverIn his memoir on writing, King frequently uses the phrase ‘you must kill your darlings’. Meaning, axe your favorite parts when they detract from the main point. Hypocritically, he ends the whole book with a giant un-cut darling: his car accident in ’99. Though he claims the story illustrates the healing power of writing, he’s just talking about the generalized healing power of work. Setting aside the ending hypocrisy, and the meaningless beginning biography, King packs some powerful big-picture thinking about his craft into the middle chapters that make the whole hodgepodge well worth a read.

I’ll summarize:

To write, you must read and you must write. A lot.  Bad writing stems from a fear of being misunderstood. Passive sentences stink. Active sentences rock. You must learn the fundamentals of grammar before you break the rules. Adverbs are weeds that need to be cut. Quote attribution should never be more complicated than ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. The shape of a paragraph has more meaning than the details of a sentence. Write how you speak – if you use simple language in real life, use it on the page – if you speak like an academic during the day, then write like one at night. Write your drafts quickly, all at once. Take a break before editing. Listen to the beat.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 288
Ending: Hypocritical
Incidental Learning: You came to learn about writing, you end up learning a lot about Stephen King
Further Reading: Another great writing manual/memoir is ‘Bird by Bird‘ by Anne Lamott

Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table

“Lawrence Durrell,’ I said wondering if I as pronouncing the name right, ‘said that olives had a taste as old as cold water.’ I rolled the musty pit around in my mouth, thinking that if I could come up with just one description as good I could call myself a writer.” (Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl)

Tender at the Bone CoverKnowing that the library would be out of my top five picks this week – it always is in the summer – I used some of my fancy Reader’s Advisory skills to find myself a book they just might have. Being in a sort of lazy, summery mood I recollected Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life and decided that something similar would fit just right. NoveList recommended a host of ‘read-alikes’, including the flashy and not at all Wizenbergy Anthony Bourdain. I settled for Ruth Reichl, an author that had already been recommended to me by an authoritative source.

When I thought that I wanted to read a food memoir, I wasn’t really banking on perusing the exact same book I’d already read. I don’t know if it’s the format (autobiographical story followed by unique recipe), but A Homemade Life and Tender at the Bone were eerily similar. When you read a good book, you don’t necessarily want to go back and start it over again – you need a little time to forget it first. The situation calls for something akin, a book with the same location or pace, but just different enough to keep you questioning; this is what electronic RA databases like NoveList don’t understand. There is a subtlety to recommending a book that the ‘read-alike’ algorithm can’t capture. Wizenberg’s book should be paired with another strong female autobiography or some serious non-memoir food writing. I have actually never gotten a satisfying NoveList recommendation: what have your experiences been with it?

Beverage: Iced coffee – when Ruth is going through her hippy phase, throwing out the coffee for conscientious reasons is where she, rightly, draws the line.

Reminds me of: Gastronomical Me by M.F.K Fisher and, as I said, Molly Wizenberg. I would only read these three together, however, if you were looking to see how food and foodies have changed through several successive generations. Strangely enough, out of the three I actually prefer the most recent – usually I side with the older books and principles.

Autobiography of Mark Twain

“I intend that this autobiography shall become a model for all future autobiographies when it is published, after my death, and I also intend that it shall be read and admired a good many centuries because of its form and method – a form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along like contact of flint with steel. Moreover, this autobiography of mine does not select from my life its showy episodes, but deals merely in the common experiences which go to make up the life of the average human being, and the narrative must interest the average human being because these episodes are of a sort which he is familiar with in his own life, and in which he sees his own life reflected and set down in print.” (Autobiography of Mark Twain)

The Autobiography of Mark Twain CoverThere is no telling the fire that was lit in my mind when I first heard of this feat of immortality. To write an autobiography and feel confident enough to know, without a smidgeon of doubt, that it would be widely read when published a hundred years after one’s death is absolutely mind boggling. Furthermore, the fact that nothing else like this has been attempted, that a century later the method is brand-new, absolutely revolutionary, and, on top of that, a pleasure to read staggers the imagination. Simply being able ask the question: ‘are you going to read the new Mark Twain?’ carried with it such a lovely state of seeming contradiction that I asked everyone – whether friend, foe, or random passerby.

If you have heard of the book, however, you already know all that. What you don’t know is that to read this autobiography is to meet Mark Twain in all of his humor, his opinionated self-confidence, and his wide subtlety of emotion. It is to be a friend sitting in the room with him every morning, while he lounges on the bed and talks freely about himself and his life, yes, but also about events current in the beginning of the 20th century, about politics and about anything at all that held his interest (which means, of course, that it will hold yours).

He won my heart in its entirety when he stated with vehemence that correct spelling is over-rated: “the ability to spell is a natural gift. The person not born with it can never become perfect in it.” My spelling has been the butt of family jokes my whole life long, and the red line in Word is my unvanquished enemy – but in a few sentences Mark Twain turned my failing into a virtue: “before the spelling book came with its arbitrary forms, men unconsciously revealed shades of their characters, and also added enlightening shades of expression to what they wrote by their spelling, and so it is possible that the spelling book has been a doubtful benevolence to us.” Never having lived in a time without spelling tests and dictionaries, I could not have compared standardized spelling to un-standardized times, but Mark Twain has shaken me out of my 21st century assumptions and shown me a different way to look at the matter.

What really brought this book into focus for me, and perhaps even for its author, was the account of his daughter Susy, who died at the age of twenty-four. In her adolescence she started a biography of her papa, and Mark Twain takes fragments of it to keep him on course and remind him of what is important; the reader gets the feeling that Susy performed this service for him in life, too. Mark Twain immortalizes himself in this book, but he also commits to posterity a tribute to his daughter, who had no children or grandchildren through which to be remembered. It is impossible to read about her and not feel that the world at large lost something important when she died, and lucky that we at least get to know her through the lens of this printed book. I don’t think that it would be assuming too much about her importance in his life to say that this was the real reason Samuel Clemens dictated his autobiography at all.

If the fundamental question of this blog is should the average person read this book, and why? Then the resounding, untarnished, and emphatic answer here is: Yes – because it is unbearably good.

Beverage: Mark Twain describes a scene from his childhood where they drink coffee with brown sugar, it seems to have been a common occurrence, but I’ve never heard of it and can’t wait to experiment.