Tuesday, February 2, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi (Random House, 2016)

    Paul Kalanithi was a brilliant young neurosurgeon near the end of his training at Stanford when he learned he had Stage Four lung cancer. His report of crossing the boundary from doctor to patient is the fulfillment of his youthful ambition to become a writer; his death in the spring of 2015 represents not just a loss to his legion of family and friends, but to medical writing, as well.

    It may not be surprising that someone facing death in his thirties should think deeply about the meaning of life, but Dr. Kalanithi seems to have done so from a very young age. The son of first-generation Americans from India, Paul moved with his family into the Arizona desert at the age of ten, where his father established a cardiology practice. His mother, dismayed by the difference in the educational opportunities out West, set out a course of reading, into which young Paul dove avidly. He read Robinson Crusoe and Billy Budd, Brave New World and Hamlet, his wide-ranging curiosity forming his moral imagination.

    At Stanford, he studied biology and neuroscience alongside literature and philosophy, eventually deciding on medical school, which "would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay." He found that it did so, but also put up some barriers: to dissect a cadaver, you may have to suppress your awareness of its history as a human being. "Seeing the body as matter and mechanism is the flip side to easing the most profound human suffering. By the same token, the most profound human suffering becomes a mere pedagogical tool."

    Becoming a neurosurgeon, studying neuroscience on the side, was the natural outgrowth of his interests, and of his drive to excel. "While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact." He was only a year and half from finishing his residency when backaches, fatigue, and weight loss announced the abrupt shortening of his brilliant career. 
    The question of meaning now arose in a more demanding form. He would not have the luxury of spending twenty years in research and teaching, then twenty more as a writer. Should he and his wife try to have a child he would not live to see grow up? His oncologist refused to predict how long he had to live, beyond assuring him that he could complete his residency. Not only was the span of his life unknowable, as he knew very well from the doctor's side of the desk, it depended on what he valued. '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.... Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process."

    Though he must have had a harder and harder time concentrating, Paul Kalanithi kept writing through his first rounds of cancer treatment. He writes about the last day he performed surgery, and the way his life is already described in the past perfect tense: "Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past." Early on, he tried to participate in his own care, suggesting lines of testing and arguing about treatment. He shows us the loss, and the relief, of letting that go.

    His wife, Lucy, had to finish the book, describing the family gathering around. As his energy fades, his baby daughter learns to coo and to sit up. They passed each other on earth for only eight months, of which he must have treasured every second. Lucy writes, "He let himself be open and vulnerable, let himself be comforted. Even while terminally ill, Paul was fully alive; despite physical collapse, he remained vigorous, open, full of hope not for an unlikely cure but for days that were full of purpose and meaning." 
    In that he succeeded resoundingly, and I am grateful.

Any Good Books – February 2016

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Faraway Nearby

The Faraway Nearby
Rebecca Solnit (2013, Penguin Books)

   A friend recently described me a nonfiction snob. My inner ten-year-old lawyer rises to object. On the one hand, of course, it's true that I don't like novels as well as essays, history, biography, or memoirs of travel, illness, and grief; but I don't think I regard that taste as anything to feel superior about, any more than liking choral music better than symphonies, or football better than soccer. My excessively literal turn of mind seems like just one of the coves and inlets that make up the coastline of my personality. So I trust that you take all these musings with due allowances.

   The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit's book of essays, hits all the high spots of the reasons I like non-fiction. It's storytelling based in the real world, seen in lives beginning and ending; in connections across time and space, from Burmese monks to South American lepers to Arctic explorers; in actions as mundane as preserving fruit and as challenging as rafting down the Grand Canyon. They are stories that haven't necessarily ended, yet we can make sense out of how far they have come.

   Some years ago, Solnit had one of those ghastly years: as she watched over the unravelling of her mother's mind in senile dementia, she had her own breast cancer scare, and her boyfriend ended their relationship. By way of recovery and escape, she accepted an opportunity to spend a summer in Iceland, near the Arctic Circle, where she read and contemplated older stories of the frozen North. The environment reminds her of Mary Shelley, who set the framing story of Frankenstein on an ice-bound exploration vessel. In fact, her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had also written a book about traveling in Scandinavia – the best stories extend into the past as well as the future.

   Solnit spins tales out of abiding and evolving metaphors. One of these is spinning itself, taking short strands of fiber and turning them, by hand, into a long, continuous strand. Is that not what writing is, and indeed reading? Think of all the myths and fairy tales about spinning: it is a task of perseverance, usually under some compulsion. "Scheherazade forestalls her death by telling a story that is like a thread that cannot be cut; she keeps spinning and spinning, incorporating new fragments, characters, incidents, into her unbroken, unbreakable narrative thread." The strand may serve healing, as did the sutures after Solnit's breast biopsy. It may connect, literally, as in the cognate 'sutra', the word for the thread that bound Buddhist wisdom into books of palm leaves; as well as metaphorically, as in the transmission of Buddhist wisdom itself.

   Having spun a thread, you may take it into a labyrinth, which is not a maze; you can't truly get lost, but you can journey into the unknown, and come back to where you started, changed by the journey. Solnit seeks relief from all the light in Iceland by visiting a labyrinth, a piece of art experienced in the dark like a high-concept fun-house. "It was easy to believe that what was dark was solid, what was light was spaciousness into which you could move, but reality as you bumped into it was often the other way around, with open blackness and hard pale surfaces." This recalls what she said of her mother, even before Alzheimers: "It was as though she travelled by a map of the wrong place, hitting walls, driving into ditches, missing her destination, but never stopping or throwing out the map."

   Like light and dark, heat and cold are more complex than we sometimes imagine. In the far North, "Nothing decays, and so time stops for the dead, if not the living. Cold is stability and warmth can be treacherous." This is a thread that connects the ancient Europeans found intact in glaciers to cryogenically preserved people, and to Snow White. On her retreat in Iceland, Solnit looked into the books of a Danish explorer called Peter Freuchen. He told a story from 1905 about a lethally sudden thaw. A party of Inuit travelers had their sleds, which were made of frozen meat and hide, eaten by their dogs when the temperature rose; they made shelters and ate the dogs, and one woman eventually survived by eating the bodies of her companions as well, including her husband. 
   Freuchen recorded the story three times, with varying details; did his memory get better or worse? The survivor, Atagutaluk, went on to marry again, and become a matriarch of her village. Surely her telling of it was altered over time, and different people heard it differently. Solnit says, "Freuchen saw only a corner of the picture. The picture always gets bigger; there is always more to tell; one thread is tangled up with all the others; even when it stops, other threads carry the story onward, beyond the horizon."

   The Faraway Nearby gives us story on story, image on image, laid out in a beautifully labyrinthine structure. Solnit's mother doesn't get better, but she does become happier. "She forgot the stories that fueled her wrath, and when they were gone, everything was different. ...She had achieved something of the state people strive for through spiritual practice: a lack of attachment to the past and future and a wholehearted participation in the present. It had come as part of a catastrophic terminal illness, not a devotional pursuit, but it came."

   What saved Solnit in the darkest times was to face outward, to seek the perspective of oceans, and of centuries. This is advice most grief memoirs could use more of: "To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest."

New Years blessings on all your stories - may they go on and on.
Any Good Books – January 2016

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch
Rebecca Mead (2014, Crown Publishers)

Rebecca Mead's book about Middlemarch is also about the life of Mary Ann Evans, and how she became George Eliot. Delving deeply into (Evans's) life and (Eliot's) work, Mead stands on the shoulders of many scholars, while adding cogent observations of her own. She weaves deftly between the action and characters of the novel, and the life and times of the author. There's also just enough of Mead's own history as a student of English literature, as a journalist, and as a sleuth poring over letters and diaries, and visiting places Eliot knew. It's all skillfully put together, without a wasted word.

The plot of Middlemarch is instigated by Dorothea Brooke's high-minded but foolish decision to marry a much older man, a clergyman and scholar named Casaubon. Eliot stretches the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel by making marriage the beginning of the story rather than the conclusion, as in the works of Jane Austen. "One thing is beyond any doubt: if this were Jane Austen's story, the courtship of the blossoming Dorothea by the dry-as-dust Casaubon would have been a comedy." But something more serious is going on: "The pages vibrate with Dorothea's yearning for a meaningful life. Her soul is too large for the comedy of manners into which she at first appears to have been dropped. She is bigger – her longings are grander–than the conventional story that others would write around her."

For a century and a half, young women readers have vibrated in sympathy with that yearning, including Mead, who experienced it as a drive to leave her home in an English seaside resort for Oxford University, and the unknown adventures beyond. Looking into the letters Mary Ann Evans wrote in her school days, Mead discovers another such young woman: "She, too, was waiting for her life to start–not complacently, or resignedly, but anxiously and urgently....She knew she wanted something. She knew she wanted to do something. She didn't know what it was. She just knew she wanted, and wanted, and wanted."

After her father's death in 1849, Evans made her way in London as a translator and writer of critical essays. In 1851, she met George Henry Lewes; she moved in with him in 1854, though he was married to someone else, with whom he had three sons. (He also gave his name to two more children his wife bore by another man. Victorian life could be complicated.) Lewes encouraged Evans to try her hand at fiction, as a potentially more profitable line of work, and the world is richer for it.

Mead describes how the two supported each other, and how Lewes's sons became sons to Eliot, who had none of her own. The couple hosted a regular salon; they knew Thackeray and Dickens, Florence Nightingale, and the philosopher Herbert Spencer. "Their life together took its own course, free of the necessity to observe propriety. They read widely, wrote copiously, talked endlessly." For twenty-five years, this unconventional menage was, by some accounts, one of the happiest marriages of the age. 
Mead says, "There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree." As a look into this process, My Life in Middlemarch is a marvel. 

Any Good Books – December 2015 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Beautiful Struggle

The Beautiful Struggle
Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008, Spiegel and Grau)

Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in and around Baltimore. His memoir is the story of a bright but unfocused child (who, in other circumstances, would surely have been spotted as having attention deficit disorder,) learning to get along in the world on the streets. His oldest brother, Big Bill, has the Knowledge: he dresses in style, always has a few friends around for backup, carries a gun. Ta-Nehisi doesn't. He's a babe in the woods.

It's also the story of their father, Paul Coates, who wanted his children also to be Conscious of their historical place as descendants of the African diaspora. A Viet Nam veteran, he had been a member of the Black Panther party, in the days of its decline. In the late 1960s, the organization had fed breakfast to poor kids, and helped people keep their lights on, but 1972 saw it crumbling into factionalism and paranoia. The Panthers' threat of violence was genuine - he was once arrested for transporting guns - but he stepped out of the ashes to achieve a college degree, and then a masters. He took a job in the library of Howard University, commuting from Baltimore to DC. From his days in the movement and onward, his private passion was publishing and distributing forgotten treasures of African and African American history.

Having those books and pamphlets around the house was just a part of Ta-Nahisi's education. The hip-hop stylings of Public Enemy introduced a form of Consciousness that knuckle-headed teenagers could embrace. A bit later, there was a core of adults who rounded up fifteen-year-old boys and gave them a sort of paramilitary training, with calisthenics and sparring. Under their influence Ta-Nehisi got hooked on African drumming. School, as such, was a roller coaster. He was smart enough for advanced classes, but not focused enough to succeed in them.

It was actually Ta-Nehisi's mother who pushed him over the finish line into The Mecca of his father's dream, Howard University, after numerous perils and misadventures. He did eventually learn to defend himself, after a fashion, though fighting never really appealed to him. Nor did drugs, even as the crack epidemic mowed down the community around him. He was protected by his Walter Mitty innocence, and the watchful eyes of his parents, and plain good luck.

The book is both melancholy and angry about the old friends who weren't so lucky: "Their fates were maddeningly clichéd. Even the ones in whom I saw a tighter head game fell into shadow, became a statistic in the cold hands of some pundit, who looked out on our streets and rolled up his windows." Pathological as those streets may seem, or may actually be, the people who live there have a fundamental right to respect. "No matter what the professional talkers tell you, I never met a black boy who wanted to fail."

Though I found it difficult in places where I didn't have enough background in what he was talking about, Coates's writing is powerful and beautiful. He knows things most of us need to know, and says things we need to hear.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Negroland: A Memoir
Margo Jefferson (Pantheon Books, 2015)

              Negroland is a memoir, and a meditation, on growing up privileged but black, or black but privileged. Margo Jefferson was born in Chicago, in 1947, to prosperous parents: her father was head of pediatrics at the nation's oldest black hospital, and her mother stayed home to raise two daughters. Margo and her sister went to private school, mainly with white children. They met their black peers at Jack and Jill, an organization dedicated to social and cultural enrichment for the future doctors, lawyers, and teachers they were presumed to be. 

              In calling that culture 'Negroland', Jefferson is looking back into a time when the term 'Negro' framed a hard-won and fiercely defended respectability. In spite of, or because of, the fact that they could expect so little respect in white quarters, the matriarchs of Negroland brought up their children to exacting standards of grooming, dress, and manners. For fear of disgracing their people, the Jefferson girls could not appear in public with ashy skin or unkempt hair; they could not wear denim (except at camp) or too-bright colors; they could not laugh too loud. 
               There's something isolating about all this, of course. It places this self-conscious elite at a remove from the mass of black people without quite admitting them to the upper classes as viewed by white America. Jefferson's memoir doesn't tell a major dramatic story, but it locates the drama in some small ones: her father, pulled over in Hyde Park because he doesn't look like he lives there; and her uncle Lucious, who passed for white in his working life, then failed to fit in when he retired and returned to black life. "And my parents looked down on him a little. Not because he'd passed, but because he'd risen no higher than traveling salesman. If you were going to take the trouble to be white, you were supposed to do better than you could have done as a Negro."

                Margo is, most of the time, an avid participant in the uplift on offer. She plays the piano, acts in plays, and goes out for cheerleading. She spends three summers at Interlochen, winning prizes for her enthusiasm and talent. She loves Audrey Hepburn and Diahann Carroll, Robert Browning and Langston Hughes, Ebony and Vogue. It's a very bright childhood, though marked at intervals by cautionary tales from her mother, because the costs of going off the rails are so very high. 
              And, always, of those to whom much is given, much will be expected, and that can be wearing. "We were to be ladies, responsible Negro Women, and indomitable Black Women. We were not to be depressed or unduly high-strung; we were not to have nervous collapses. We had a legacy. We were too strong for that." By way of rebellion, Jefferson cultivates an aesthetic of suicide for a time, though by then she's a successful journalist and literary critic. (Sylvia Plath never had to worry about ashy elbows.) And she declines the imperative to become a wife and mother, though she's delighted with her sister's daughter. 
               Negroland tells old truths that shouldn't be too scary to tell; it tells old secrets that deserve to be freed from the power of secrecy. If Jefferson's grandmothers were proud to the point of snobbishness, well, they had much to be proud of. Her own reward for the awkwardness of being the only black child in her class was an education befitting her intelligence. The candor, integrity, and tenderness of this memoir show that while Jefferson was being taught manners, she also acquired character, which is always a beautiful thing.