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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

And here we are at book #5 of my Spring Training tour through books.  Here’s a post about book #4, which includes a link to the links for the first three books.

Book #5 is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

Kalanithi is a successful man by any measure of the word.  A Renaissance man as well — torn between his desire to pursue science and medicine and his love of literature and a need to be a writer.  He chooses the proper course and pursues neurosurgery and neuroscience.  “Proper?” you ask.  Well, hell yeah — that other thing, being a writer, doesn’t usually pay the bills.  (That’s my rationale, not his, by the way.)

As he winds up his schooling, education, residency, etc., and is in line to head a new neurosurgery program, he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.

When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s memoir, written in the final months of his life, when he and his wife decide to have a child and he deals with successful rounds of treatment followed by relapses and, ultimately … well “inoperable” means something for a reason when it comes to cancer.

I don’t know what I think about this one.  On the one hand, it’s a pretty remarkable piece. Written elegantly and unstintingly about the death he faced. Which is apparently how he handled the whole thing. On some level, I wouldn’t expect anything less from a scientist, particularly a neuroscientist, who had learned the unknown secrets of the brain (where ultimately his cancer spreads).

On the other … well, let’s just say that ever since my first son entered this world, I have feared an early death.  First, it was that I would go the way of the dodo bird before I had a chance to see my kids grown.  I have spent these years convinced there is a poison lurking in my body, in my bloodstream, in my bones, in some obscure organ that will snuff my flame out before I am ready.

Those kids are now 22 and 19.  I’m almost there. But my fear of the inevitable now is based on the idea that I want to have a retirement, a period of years where I am finally able to do the things I want and experience life the way I want to.  It’s not that being a parent, being married, working, and all else over the last few decades were not that.  I will never complain about the beauty and wonder of being a father or that it prevented me from something.  Raising my kids was and always will irreplaceable.

But now that I am just about done with that responsibility, I want desperately to have an opportunity to do all of the things I put off.  I want to revel in and wallow in the things that feed my inner soul.  And I am convinced that the poison still lurks and it will take away from me that dream.  That opportunity.

When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s story.  His experience with living just that … well, I call it a horror.  He accepts it.  And while he clearly is saddened by it and that he will never see his daughter grow up (yes, he and his wife had a daughter born a few months before he passed away), there was something missing from this.  At the end, it just didn’t speak to me in the way I had hoped.

When Breath Becomes Air is well-written.  It is meaningful.  It is powerful, inevitably, given the subject matter.   But it didn’t have the oomph I expected.


P.S.  The sixth and final book in my Spring Training journey through the published world may not make it on here.  I’m struggling with it.  About halfway through, and I just find it to be incredibly tedious.  We’ll see if I make it through.

Descent by Tim Johnston

Book four in my reading journey through Spring Training reading is Descent by Tim Johnston. Completely unintentionally, Descent is very much the fictionalized version of the last book I read, Alligator Candy by David Kushner.

Where Alligator Candy tells the true story of Kushner’s brother disappearing back in 1973, Descent tells the story of Caitlin’s disappearance in the mountains of Colorado. Where Alligator Candy shows a family that sticks together in the face of such tragedy, Descent tells the story of a family that is pretty much ripped apart by the tragedy of a child who disappears.

I’ll go back to my review of The Wolf Road and ask the question again. With The Wolf Road, I asked the question of why post-apocalyptic tales always seem to display the absolute worst aspects of human nature. Why isn’t it possible that after the apocalypse humans might actually learn something from it and end the brutality and inhumanity? Similarly, the true story version of a disappeared child shows a family staying together, keeping their bond and growing stronger over the years. And the fictionalized version shows the worst of humanity — a family ripped apart and stumbling blindly through the tragedy as they descend into the darkness. I’m sure the Descent version of the results of such a tragedy is not far from the truth, but it does make me wonder. We need … well wait a sec.

In my writing, there is always death and sadness and despair. Or at least some of my readers think that. They ask me why and I tell them that there is no drama in happy. Okay, I answered my own question.

Moving on to the nuts and bolts of  Descent, it’s another one of those stories that I struggled to start. The opening chapter or two covering Caitlin’s disappearance were good and compelling. But then the book went through this incredibly muddled group of chapters, flipping back and forth between the narrative of a handful of characters in an almost completely baffling way. For several chapters I could make no sense of the who or the what or the why.

Fortunately, by about a third of the way through the book, the narrative improved, it became clearer, compelling, must read.

Much like with Alligator Candy, if you can handle the subject matter, I encourage you to give Descent a try. I will say there was one small disappointment for me in the story, but it is a disappointment of my own making. About two thirds of the way through the book, as the narrative improved and my eagerness for the story grew, I began to feel like this would be one of those stories that would shake me at the end. That there would be a moment of emotional release and a sense that THIS IS A STORY. That ended up not happening, but the story is still compelling, a good read, and worth the time.

Two more books to go in my Spring Training reading journey.

Alligator Candy by David Kushner

I went to Spring Training a few weeks ago.  Like any good reader, I bought a few books to make sure I had sufficient reading material.  Yes, that’s right.  Six books, for what amounted to a 2 1/2 day trip that was filled with baseball games, bars, and time with friends. I got through one book that weekend — Into the North Wind, the true story of one woman’s attempt to complete a 1,000 mile mountain bike race across Alaska.  In winter.

I started a second book as the weekend ended — The Wolf Road, a post-apocalyptic tale of a young woman’s efforts to survive human evil.

Now comes the third book, another recommendation from the fabulous Cinthia Ritchie. Alligator Candy by David Kushner. In 1973, when Kushner was four years old, his eleven-year-old brother disappeared. A week or so later, his body was found and two men were arrested for his kidnapping and murder. Alligator Candy is Kushner’s memoir — of the event and its aftermath. It spans decades of how his family dealt with the loss of a loved member and Kushner’s own struggle to find out the truth of the event. Whether his childhood memories of it were really accurate.

There’s a theme that runs through this memoir that hits particularly close to home for me. It is the fear we as parents have allowed to take over the need for freedom our children need. In 1973, I was nine years old. I had the run of our neighborhood. I walked to and from school. I roamed the neighborhood on my bike alone and with friends. After school, we’d meet up and play pickup games of baseball and football. We’d bicycle around and to and from different friends’ houses. We were free of our parents and adult supervision pretty much every day for hours at a time.

Thirty years later, when my older son was nine years old, there was no chance in hell he would be allowed to do any of that. My kids never got to the point where they could go to and from school on their own until they were sixteen and could drive. They didn’t have hours of freedom hardly ever, let alone every day, where they could act and make decisions without parental supervision. Pickup baseball games down at the nearby school or park?  Hardly, how can you do that if there aren’t any kids outside to pickup along the way?

Kushner’s brother died just before the onslaught of news of child disappearances and abductions became nightly fodder for the newscasts. Kushner wonders, as do I, whether this loss of freedom is in the best interests of our children. The ability to make mistakes when you’re out there on our own and then learn from those mistakes, instead of having every single activity planned and supervised by adults may be a thing we need to ensure our children have. I wonder that in particular now as my sons, aged 19 and 22, demonstrate a basic inability to make the right decisions as they try to live more or less on their own.

There’s a lot more to Kushner’s book than this, of course. It is the story of a family that suffers the most brutal kind of loss. And sticks together. There are a lot of layers to the story. Kushner’s own struggle. How his thoughts change as he goes from a four-year-old who didn’t really know what happened to a teenager who started to peel away the layers of the onion and learned more about both the tragedy and his own parents and surviving brother, and then on into adulthood and greater awareness of all of it.

If the subject matter would bother you, Alligator Candy would be a tough book to get through. But it is a pretty remarkable story. A true one, a heartbreaking one, but also one that shows how people can survive such incredible tragedies.



The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis

In my last post, I revealed that I had ordered six books from Amazon in preparation for my trip to Spring Training.  In that post, I shared Into the North Wind, a memoir about a woman seeking to complete a 1,000 mile mountain bike race across Alaska.  In winter.  It was a good book.

I also promised that I would share with you the other books in that purchase, so it’s time for The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis.

When I started writing fiction, one of the things I wanted to try one day was what I referred to as a post-apocalyptic story.  Not like The Hunger Games or the Divergent series.  Instead, I had this idea of a man and a boy crossing the landscape of a devastated world trying to survive. Then I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy and realized my story had been done and there was no way I could improve on it.

I still have ideas for something post-apoclyptic.  In the meantime, I’m intrigued by the ideas other authors have.

The Wolf Road is about Elka, a young woman set adrift in a world devastated by what appears (strongly) to have been a nuclear conflagration between those damn Russians and the powers of the West.  The conflagration occurs years before her birth and she is set adrift by a storm that leaves her homeless and her grandmother dead.  Her parents having left her behind years earlier to seek their fortune up North.  Rumors of gold and riches took them there.

In the end, Elka is raised by a man she calls Trapper.  Who ends having a deep, dark secret that sends her on the run when she is about seventeen or eighteen years old.  Surviving on the talents Trapper taught her to live in the wilderness.

There’s a lot more here.  Layers upon layers.

And a whole lot of human brutality.

I wonder if all of these stories get it right.  So many post-apocalyptic stories seem to assume that the result of “the end of the world” is brutality, degradation, depravity — the worst human nature has to offer.  It’s all there in The Wolf Road, just as it is in many other novels like this. What if, instead, at the end of the world, humans realized that all of the violence and hate and need to diminish and dehumanize others was what led to the end of the world and that love and tolerance and community was a better option.

Just a thought.  Back to The Wolf Road.

It’s an interesting twist on the genre.  If you like this genre, I recommend it.  If you have delicate sensibilities, I don’t recommend it.

That’s all I’ve got.


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A friend recommended this book to me a couple of weeks ago.  She hesitated to do so because the content was … well, a little bit tough.  I immediately went to Amazon and ordered the book.  I crave intense subject matter in my books and movies.  She told me she cried during reading the book.  I told her I needed to feel that emotion reading a book again.  It’s been too long.  I looked forward to reading A Little Life.

From the book cover:

A Little Life follows four college classmates — broke, adrift, and buoyed with their friendship and ambition — as they move to New York in search of fame and fortune. While their relationships, which are tinged by addiction, success, and pride, deepen over the decades, the men are held together by their devotion to the brilliant, enigmatic Jude, a man scarred by an unspeakable childhood trauma.  A hymn to brotherly bonds and a masterful depiction of love in the twenty-first century, Hanya Yanagihara’s stunning novel is about the families we are born into, and those that we make for ourselves.

The book came.  I dove in.  It’s a big one at over 800 pages.  This is no small commitment, one made the harder by the fact that the first 120 pages are a complete mess.  At least that’s how I felt.  Absent my friend’s recommendation and the promise of intensity and human horror, I may have given up.  But it was close.  And somewhere between page 120 and page 150, the story started to click.  The narrative got a little cleaner, a little more straight forward, and it pulled me along.  It is one of those books that I needed to finish, that I couldn’t stop thinking about in the moments and hours when I wasn’t reading it.

This is not a story for the faint of heart.  As I wrote that last sentence, I thought of The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  The stories are completely different.  But they also are similar in the unstinting honesty in which they deal with absolutely brutal events.  The Road, with its simple, spare depiction of the fundamental horror of trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic word.  A Little Life, with an epic portrayal, that feels almost never-ending, of the horrors humans can inflict on others and the scars that sear themselves into the souls of the victims.

I cried at one point in the story.  Not when my friend did towards the end.  But early on, in a moment of unbridled happiness for Jude.

If you’re looking for something to read and do not have issues with searing, brutal depictions of what people do in abusive relationships (and I don’t want to share more because, well, you know, you have to discover the details by reading the book), I recommend A Little Life.  It’s a pretty stunning work.  I have this feeling Jude and the story of him and his friends will stay with me a long time and that I’ll come back and read this book every now and then.

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