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Posts tagged ‘Joll’

When Breath Becomes Air

whenbreathbecomesReading Paul Kalanthi’s book is bittersweet: its author wrote it knowing he would die soon and I read it hoping time would slow down. I forgot that racing awestruck to the end meant racing to a foregone conclusion.

The book is a sort of letter, the sender dead before the words reach us. The first and last words are dedicated ‘to Cady’, Kalanthi’s baby daughter, and to his wife, Lucy. There’s something spooky and poignant about text that reaches us from a person no longer there. Like Albertine’s conciliatory telegram that reaches Marcel after she has died falling off her horse in Remembrance of Things Past, a letter with no extant sender is like being shut in a room where the door has been rubbed out. The instability of ideas we’d like to convey in letters is highlighted by Maggie Nelson in her recent, excellent book The Argonauts where she teases out the bravery of writing letters, we commit them to another person’s safekeeping, as well as the suspicion that the letter writer is really addressing themselves (an angry girlfriend replies to one of Nelson’s love letters the puncturingly simple: ‘Next time, write to me’). So why is Paul Kalanthi’s last letter of interest?

Last year, one of the editors wrote here about Do No Harm, written by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh. When Breath Becomes Air has much in common with Do No Harm: it’s also written by a neurosurgeon and deals with the crushing responsibility that comes with the job for the few that make it and it’s brilliant (arguably, more so). Marsh and Kalanthi reflect on their careers at different stages, of course: Marsh is towards the end of his; Kalanthi had only just completed his training. The difference in their accounts, however, is also attitudinal. Where Marsh bemoans the growing number of technological surgical interventions eclipsing a surgeon’s job and the impossibility of getting enough practice in the operating theatre as a junior, Kalanthi is passionate and always uncomplaining. Kalanthi castigates himself for mistakes made, most of them inevitable. Sometimes, he fights hard to save a life only for that life to be so limited by brain damage he wonders if saving it is the right way to look at it; decisions deferred not made.

Like Marsh, Kalanthi studied English before turning to medicine, a feat less surprising in America where students are encouraged to specialise later than in the UK, turning to medicine only after a first degree. Kalanthi’s writing shows how much literature meant to him and his style is lauded in the foreword. With infectious enthusiasm he tells us that ‘to burke’ meant “to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim’s body for dissection“, fuelled by medical schools’ demand for cadavers in “the bad old days“. We learn the root of the word ‘disaster’ means a star coming apart (the Greek for star is ‘astron’). According to Kalanthi, ‘no image expressed better the look in a patient’s eyes when hearing a neurosurgeon’s diagnosis’. Later, he tells us the word ‘hope’ first appeared in English about a thousand years ago “denoting some combination of confidence and desire“. His evident enjoyment in writing and choosing words deliberately is overdone only once. Expounding on how to communicate the immensity of an unbeatable brain cancer to a patient incrementally, he cautions: the “tureen of tragedy was best slotted by the spoonful“. The structure of the book is interesting: necessarily frustrating us as Kalanthi ran out of time. In the beginning of the book we race along hearing about his training, forgetting that the story is about to turn tragic. “Eat with your left hand. You’ve got to learn to be ambidextrous“, his boss tells him one day passing him at lunch in the canteen during his first year as a surgical intern.

Lessons learnt are hard won. “In the midst of this endless barrage of head injuries, I began to suspect that being so close to the fiery light of such moments only blinded me to their nature, like trying to learn astronomy by staring directly at the sun. I was not yet with patients in their pivotal moments, I was merely at those pivotal moments. I observed a lot of suffering; worse, I became inured to it“. At the end of part one, he’s just got to terms with how to live as a doctor: working 100 hour weeks; living with the responsibility of being a good doctor; working proximate to death and how to meet a patient “in a space where she was a person, instead of a problem to be solved“. Then, feeling he has learnt how to live, he then finds out at the age thirty six that he’s going to die of lung cancer.

“Be vague but accurate.”

Time, how it speeds up over a lifetime and how best to use it, is, is (unsurprisingly) a central concern. Accurate but humane uncertainty is promoted over the false satisfaction of giving a patient an exact amount of time to live (“I came to believe that it is irresponsible to be more precise than you can be accurate“).

Kalanthi returned to work after his tumour shrunk enough to hope more time may be meted out to him. He goes back in order to complete residency, resting between operations and swallowing handfuls of antiemetics and pain medication to get through his first week. Then he sleeps for forty hours straight.

“The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out…you may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.” This sense of values shifting would be familiar anyone who has lived close to someone terminally ill. It is well captured here and brought to mind Marion Coutts’s The Iceberg. Kalanthi wanted to spend 20 years working as a surgeon-scientist and 20 writing. In the end, he wrote for one year only and this book is his account of choices made and accepted.
Hannah Joll

Review of 2015: Part 2

The second instalment in our “best books read in 2015” series.

 

Charlotte Joll

The Poet’s Daughters by Katie Waldegrave…aka they fuck you up those famous Dads which might also be an appropriate comment on my second choice: Eleanor Marx by Rachel Holmes though her real (and possibly not unconnected) problem was being a HOPELESS picker of men.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. Best depiction of what it’s like to have dementia – I learnt a lot more reading this than from Atol Gwande’s Being Mortal which I found banal as well as depressing (but perhaps that’s because the issues he deals with are all too familiar to anyone who works in the NHS).

Night Waking by Sarah Moss.  The modern v historical plot line doesn’t entirely work (Possession has spawned a great many imitations) but it’s brilliant on the simultaneous intense pleasure to be experienced from having and holding small children and the soul destroying boredom of being made to look after them when all you want to do is work or sleep.

 

Olivia Amory

The only books I have read this year which were published in 2015 have been the Ferrante novels, which I loved mostly because of the quick movement in the language and realistic portrayal of a female friend, and A Little Life which I feel I enjoyed despite my better nature.

I have also read Far From the Madding Crowd which I thought was wonderful but somehow took me a very long time and got rather confused with the film in my head and a couple of books about old men thinking about their lives (Stoner / Disgrace) which were moving but also remained quite distant from my own emotional life.

H is for Hawk which I thought could have been shorter. The Narrow Road to the Deep North which I have now turned against in my head for some reason but has made me want to read something about Australia. Now I look back it seems rather a depressing year!

But I did read and love both A Month in the Country by J. L Carr and Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

I think I have become worse at reading books and don’t really like things that I find hard to relate to anymore. I’m reading Bonfire of the Vanities at the moment and everyone in it is so horrible, silly and unimportant that I can’t enjoy it at all. And why should I relation to Carr or Gibbon – I must have a rather warped, twee image of myself.

I think A Month in the Country is my best because it just gives you this very complete image in your mind, which is strictly limited both in terms of time (a month) and place (a church) that make the memory of reading it stay intact in your mind so that can look back on it with more satisfaction than most novels.

 

Anna-Jean Hughes

Co-founder of https://thepigeonhole.com/

Hands down my favourite has been a book of short stories called Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan. Can’t laud it hard enough.

 

Alexander Starritt

http://www.apolitical.co

For me this year it’s been the revelation that is The Adventures of Augie March. I’ve never read a book so slowly in my life, at first because it’s so directionless (like Augie’s adventures), then because each page shows you your own heart with more understanding of it than you could ever hope to muster. One of the few books you would go to your grave more ignorantly for having never read. Plus the sentences are some of the finest and it’s sometimes very funny.

Review of 2015: Part 1

Our approach to reviewing the year, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is to look at what people have read in the last twelve months, as opposed to what was published during that time. So without further ado, here is the best of what our contributors managed to get through over the course of 2015.

 

Candia McWilliam

Young Eliot by Robert Crawford: A poet and scholar, Crawford, thinks himself into the growing mind and childhood  of the poet and scholar T.S Eliot, whom it has been all too easy to think of as one who arrived with assured celerity at some judicious “version” of middle age. A lovely book rich in fully inhabited detail that can only whet the reader’s appetite for the next volume.

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Surfing – and why surf ?-  put into words that just about convey the pointful pointlessness of sitting inside the little green room at the end of the curl of the wave, and in so doing, of writing, slippery words eluding you as you try to make standing upright among their tides and fathoms seem natural and easy.

The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in our Times by Barbara Taylor. The account by a high achieving intellectual of utter breakdown and its redressing; and of changes in the treatment of such isolating mental pain,  with particularly attentive reference to Friern Barnett Hospital -now made into luxury apartments, while “care” has fallen into “the community “.

Step Aside, Pops! by Kate Beaton teases the culturally smug in elegant graphic form .

A Very Private Celebrity: The Nine Lives of John Freeman by Hugh Purcell.  Ignore the off-putting title. Anything is good that takes you back to Freeman,  who, in addition to being a soldier, a politician, a journalist, an intellectual and a diplomat, made some of the greatest ever telly, with his Face To Face interviews. Pleasingly, these interviews are often wreathed in smoke.

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie. The great poet of nature and its unharnessability by soppiness has asked of herself that she make a poem a week for a year.  Do read it;  nothing but the matter as it matters.

For pure sensual pleasure at the eye: Silent Beauties. Flower photographs made by the Dutchman Leendert Blok in the 1920s.

Queer Saint: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson . A curiosity and much more. Written by two authors (Adrian Clark and Jeremy Dronfield) which is somehow always a piquant, and inextricable poser for a reader. Watson was very beautiful, very rich, very generous and very intelligent. He was an enigma and exerts a forceful elegance beyond his grave, to which he was sent too soon by a jealous act of murder.

Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes by Richard Davenport-Hines. This book demonstrates its subject’s variform mighty intelligence (his Cambridge Tripos was Classics and Mathematics) and dares approach the emotional make-up and flowering of the great economist. A generous affecting energetic transfusion of a book.

My discoveries, amid the annually increasing re-reading, have been the works of the novelist, costume historian and very sharp opiner, Doris Langley Moore, who so loved Lord Byron that she arranged to marry him although he had been dead for more than a hundred years  .

Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, a short novel, concrete yet poetic, irreversible, merciless as to the fate of a woman who is understood to have sinned.

The Black Mirror by Raymond Tallis. It is an investigation of the ubiquity of the idea and awareness and sense of death such that it intensifies our relish for, understanding of, and love of being alive and of -what is it? – life itself.

 

Hannah Joll

Howard’s End by E. M Forster. I started the year with this. Sisters, family, personal choices. I loved it and know I will reread later on down the line. The evocation of how it feels to fall in love with a family (the Wilcoxes) is brilliant.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson. This made me want to read more by Robinson. It’s simple and graceful and quite ghostly/haunting for it. Lila the protagonist is a strange, innocent tomcat – an inspiration.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Murakami. ‘In each shave lies a philosophy’, so Murakami, quoting Somerset Maugham, opens a short book I read in one sitting. Murakami presents his choices, unusual as they are (such as running the original marathon to Athens backwards) plainly. There is something meditative about his orderly routines and the rhythm of his runs that suggests he knows his limits and emanates calm because of it.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Anger and reflection, restrained and channelled into this prose poem on casual, ubiquitous racism has made this book startling. Rankine describes multiple vignettes: the Tooting riots; the Williams sisters and the introduction of Hawkeye in tennis; her acquaintances’ lazy pronouncements on affirmative action. She does something very clever with narration and changing ‘you’ and ‘I’ to recreate the distance and alienation felt due to repeated racist acts.

Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante. Enough written on these elsewhere but I think that we are lucky to be alive when books such as these are being written: a paean to friendship; a dissection of violence in our characters, many things.

The best poem I’ve read this year by far is Paul Muldoon’s ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’, it punches above ALL the weights: ‘I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead’.

 

Margot Gibbs

@MargotGibbs

Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith: Originally recommended by Imogen Lloyd.  One of my favourite openings to a book ever, “Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says“. Delight in imagination, its silliness, the silliness of thoughts- whilst remaining serious at its heart; no poe-face. Lots of writing that talks about myth making and storytelling within the narrative makes me numb with boredom; this is completely alive. Some of the nicest writing on beauty and sex that I’ve read (on par if not better than Hollinghurst or maybe I just love gay books).

Elizabeth Costello, JM Coetzee: Novel dressed up as philosophical dialogue. A female novelist at the end of her life, interrogating her beliefs and the rationalist and humanist roots of modern thought. Easy to dislike at first for its self-consciousness, but it’s fantastically way too fleshy for that, and the most intellectually exciting book I’ve read for ages. Made me feel like a teenager.

This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein: I didn’t read it for ages because I thought I knew it, but when I read it I was like a new convert. Deeply historical, political and global. Links on well to her earlier work on the WTO and Shock Doctrine. First half arms you with every fact you ever wanted. Second half focuses on the small scale “barricades” being made by resistant communities but avoids sentimentalising. Her positive diagnosis comes naturally from the negative: localised politics are the way to defeat this brand of destructive capitalism.

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 1

Welcome to Don’t Read Too Fast’s review of the year 2014.

For those who have yet to experience our yearly extravaganza, our approach is not to give a list of the best books published this year, but rather to share some of the best of what we’ve actually managed to read, whether 21st century offerings or tomes from the Dark Ages. With that said, please sit back and enjoy the first instalment.

Hannah Joll

The Dig, by Cynan Jones

This is very short and very good by a fairly new writer, I think. The length and intensity of language (like Ted Hughes or Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist collection his ear is poetic and rough at the same time e.g. describing a badger’s nose hanging from ‘a sock of skin’). It’s about badger baiting but also farming, briefly. The physical descriptions, (knowingly) brilliant attention to detail, and its address to grief make the book tender as well as frightening.

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

I’d looked at this book on other people’s shelves and skipped over it for years (also vaguely mixed it up with Italo Calvino). The whole thing is great but a story like ‘Iron’ I’d recommend to anyone, anytime and feel confident. It’s about friendship and bear meat as a euphemism for experience. ‘Nitrogen’, a story about the author sifting through chicken shit with his new wife on their honeymoon to try and synthesise the factor that makes the better post-War lipsticks stay on is also tip top. He’s so thoughtful and excited, it’s good to read.

Alexander Starritt

Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis

I’m pleased to say I’ve read lots of good books this year, but the best I think is Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. Lewis was a population liaison officer in the War and for this book has basically written up his diary, taking out the boring bits. It is still in the form of entries a page or two long, and each of them is fantastical. Naples seems only half-real, only half-European, starving, oriental, in thrall to sex and superstition. Lewis reports that the Neapolitans raided the aquarium for food, sparing only a baby manatee they could not bring themselves to kill; it lived a few short weeks more before the American commander in chief demanded it for his table. A prince comes to Lewis to find a position for his sister at a military brothel. The populace anxiously awaits the annual liquefaction of a vial of San Gennaro’s blood. The volcano erupts. The mafia seize control. The warped and the monstrous gather in caves. Each diary entry is the most astonishing short story you’ve ever read.

Olivia Hanson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I’ve never read such a long book that is so compelling. A well-written page-turner! I have now totally forgiven Donna for The Little Friend on this basis. (Eds: we agree)

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This, plus The Corrections, are two of my favourite novels ever. Beautiful turns of phrase and highly believable characters. Perfect reflections of the human condition.

The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beautifully written, one of Fitzgerald’s best. If only it were complete!

Tender Shoots, by Paul Morand

A jewel-like collection of short stories, set in Paris at the turn of the century. Such a find.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

Wonderfully written, sympathetic narrator, startling insight into 80’s life for gay people.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

What a revelation.

Imogen Lloyd

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen for the scene with the tailor and all the other bits I wanted to underline and remember forever but was too greedy to.

A Girl is Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride

Because once I found a rhythm, it became the most ferocious and intimate thing.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I got there in the end. Because every scene felt intricately painted (like those tiny Dutch rooms ), not just the characters but their surroundings, as if she’d been spying on them inhabit that world before she started writing, and that richness and made all the tricksy twists and turns easier to navigate.

There but for the, by Ali Smith

It was a bit like if all the best, weirdest characters from legendary sitcoms have been told to hang out, and the master of ceremonies is an unassuming genius who has never watched TV and has no clue who they are. I loved it so much but can’t really explain why!

This list seems a bit sexist now, I did read men too but they didn’t cut the mustard this time.