When Breath Becomes Air

Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Writers : Paul Kalanithi
Published: 2016
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir of Paul Kalanithi, who was a neurosurgeon and who passed away at a very young age due to lung cancer. This book is a record of his short but fruitful life and his brave journey of staring death in its face until he finally embraced it. Kalanithi was an English Major with his goal set on getting into literature and becoming a writer. He was interested in knowing what makes humans think, where do brain and mind connect and during the course of his life, changes his direction from writing to become a neurosurgeon.

Kalanithi ponders about this role as a surgeon when he has to make decisions which could cost or save a life. He also wonders how surgeons are bearers of bad news – patients are informed about their terminal illness and relatives are informed about the death of their loved ones. He sees the mysterious working of human brain when he meets patients who speak only in numbers or who appear to be in another world altogether.

When Kalanithi is in his final year of residency with dreams in his eyes of making it big in the medical world, life gives him a wake-up call as cancer comes knocking on his door. Even as a doctor, he can’t help but live in denial that it is not cancer but some stray pain in the body. When the news is confirmed, Kalanithi is devastated and so is his wife, but as doctors, they immediately kick into a action mode. They consult the best oncologist and thus begins Kalanithi’s treatment.

Death may be a one time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.

This book has no spoilers – we all know Kalanithi dies. The journey from turning from a neurosurgeon into a cancer patient and the moral questions that he asks and answers on the way is the meat of this book. During his first visit to this oncologist, all he wants to know is how much time does he have to live. His doctor refuses to answer that and instead veers him to look at his values and live by them. Kalanithi has plans in life.

The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: what was I supposed to do with that day?

There is no self pity or melodrama in Kalanithi’s voice. It comes straight from the heart and touches yours. The afterword by Kalanithi’s wife is heart breaking. I cried and sobbed while reading her chapter.

Does this book answer questions on morality? Not really. But Kalanithi does show us how to live life fully, no matter how short it is. He also shows how to die – staring death right into its face and embracing it with a smile.

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Whistling Past the Graveyard

Title: Whistling Past the Graveyard
Writers : Susan Crandall
Published: 2013
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

I have realized that I have a special affinity towards books with children as their central character. ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ and ‘My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry’ are some books that come to my mind. Added to that list is the latest one I read ‘Whistling Past the Graveyard’.

This book is about 9 year Starla who lives with her paternal grandmother (Mammie) as her father works at an oil rig faraway and her mother is in another town trying to become a famous singer. Starla is feisty, strong and stubborn and longs for the day when her mom will acheive her dreams and takes Starla with her, where her father too can join and their small family will be complete. She is brought up by her Mammie whose worst fear is Starla will turn out like her mother and hence uses strict rules to keep Starla in check.

While Starla and Mammie always had a not so loving relationship, things turn really sore on the Fourth of July when Starla is grounded in her room for something and she sneaks away to see the fireworks. She gets caught and she decides to run away rather than be sent to the reform school as per Mamie’s usual threats. She sets out on foot with no food and water to reach Nashville, where she is sure her mother would welcome her with open arms and keep her safe. On the way, she asks for a ride from a black woman, Eula, who is traveling with a white baby.

What starts out as a harmless ride in a stranger’s car turns out to be the most memorable, eye-opening and enriching experience of her lifetime – not just for Starla but Eula too. Eula has her own demons to fight – troubled childhood, teen pregnancy, lost baby and an abusive husband. Starla and Eula make up a great team where they fight for the same thing but in their own ways.

Starla and Eula’s journey along with baby James takes them to different towns and people. The highlight of this journey is the segregation and how badly black were treated back then (1963, where the book is set). Language of the book  mimics the language used in those days. The book is written in Starla’s POV and it is extremely difficult to see the world through a child’s eyes and describe that world to an audience mostly comprised of adults. (How do you explain sexual violence through a child’s POV?) The author, Susan Crandall, does an excellent job of this and keeps the child’s voice alive throughout the book.

What will remain with me though are the characters. Starla and Eula are poles apart but still similar deep down owing to their principles and good heart. These two vaguely reminded me of the characters in ‘Secret life of bees’ – quite a few similarities in the story too. This was an enjoyable read which raised some very important questions about how we treat our fellow human beings. What will continue to linger on with me is Starla and her feistiness.

I will leave you all with this excerpt from the book on why the reason behind the book’s title.

My daddy says that when you do somethin’ to distract you from your worstest fears, it’s like whistlin’ past the graveyard. You know, making a racket to keep the scaredness and the ghosts away. He says that’s how we get by sometimes. But it’s not weak, like hidin’… It’s strong. It means you’re able to go on.

Finders Keepers

Title: Finders Keepers
Writers : Stephen King
Published: 2015
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

Finders Keepers is the name of the detective agency run by Bill Hodges, who is a retired policeman. This is the second book in the Bill Hodges trilogy, something I did not know when I read the book. I read it as an independent book in itself and I really didn’t miss the background story of the first book.

The story has a book lover, Morris Bellamy, at the center who is obsessed with Jimmy Gold, a fictitious character brought to life by the author Rothstein. Morris loves the first book in the Gold trilogy, but is upset about how the author turns Jimmy’s character in the next two books. When he learns that Rothstein has been writing for more than a decade without publishing anything, he has a sliver of hope that Jimmy’s character has been redeemed in the unpublished books. Morris stages a burglary in which he steals all of Rothestein’s unpublished work and cash and ends up murdering the author. He buries his loot at a deserted place near his house but before he can reap the benefits of his theft, he is sentenced to prison for life for another unrelated crime which he commits under the influence of alcohol.

While Morris is living out his life in prison with Rothestein’s books being the light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel, we also follow Pete’s life whose family ends up living in the same house which was Morris’s house once. Pete discovers the buried treasure by accident and he puts it to good use. He uses the money to bring his family out of financial and emotional pit and he devours Routhstein’s books.

Our detective Hodges enters the scene just when these two stories meet. Hodges plays a not so crucial role in tying the loose ends together. We also get a glimpse of Brady, who is the evil protagonist from the first book in the trilogy. Brady steals a car and runs over a few people at a job fair and one of the people affected is Pete’s father. That is how this book is connected to the first book, but this connection is insignificant.

I loved the book’s plot – to have character/book obsession at the center of the plot is something new. I was shocked to find myself relating so well to Morris – am I borderline obsessed too? There definitely are weak points – Pete and Morris ending up at the same house, both sharing the same love (read obsession) for the same character, Pete ending up finding the treasure – too many coincidences, but, well, that’s what makes the story interesting.

The weakest point is the climax. There is so much of build up to the story’s peak point when Pete meets Morris (even the chapter has an ominous name – boy and the wolf or some such thing) and the actual moment falls like a thud. The end is predictable but King could have made it more plausible.

This is unlike the other crime thrillers where the reader also does not know who the culprit is and the reader is in the same phase as the detective, trying to decipher the clues and figuring out who the culprit is. With this book, the reader knows all along who it is and how the stories are connected. Despite this, there is an element of curiosity – more about what happens next rather than whodunnit. What should have been the icing on the cake  – the climax – is disappointing, thus it leaves a bitter aftertaste.

I am not a big fan of Stephen King – I stay away from his supernatural thrillers, so I don’t know how his other books are. Compared to the other crime thrillers I have read – this not the best, but an average read.

 

 

H is for Hawk

Title: H is for Hawk
Writers : Helen Macdonald
Published: 2014
Genre: Non-fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

H is for Hawk is in parts a memoir, in parts a dissection of T.H. White’s life and review of his book ‘The Goshawk’, and in parts an adventurous journey into the world of goshawks. Helen is devastated when her father passes away unexpectedly leaving her to cope with the grief. Having trained many falcons in her life, she naturally turns to her avian friends to find solace. She chooses to train a goshawk and she sees her own feral temperament reflected in the bird. She buys a baby goshawk and spends days holed up in her apartment making friends with the goshawk and training it.

The focus of the book is mainly on the author training the goshawk. Her hesitation on deciding whether this is a wise thing to do (can she be dealing with another living being when she herself is drowning in grief) and her anxiety when she is choosing the hawk (will the hawk accept her and what if it rejects her) and her fear of failure (“I am overfeeding her” or “I am starving her”) and the ultimate fear of losing the hawk while on a hunt – comes through so well through the pages that at time I almost gasped or cried with Helen. While Helen is training the hawk and teaching it to hunt, she realizes the real reason why she decided to take up this challenge.

I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.

While the main thread of the book is about the goshawk, there is a strong parallel thread about Helen’s grief. She tries to find words to express her grief, share it with her mother and brother and ways to come to terms with it. She reads a lot of books on grief, talks to therapist, goes on a course of anti-depressants but still feels that hole left in her heart. In her attempt to explain her grief, Helen says:

Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It is from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone.

Imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone.

The writing is simply beautiful. Helen has a way of expressing herself – be it the beauty of the wild or the pain in heart – she describes it to beautifully that you are right next to her feeling everything she is feeling.

The author is highly influenced by T.H. White’s ‘The Goshawk’ which she had read as a child (and hated) and she turns back to this book to use a reference when she is training her own hawk. Instead of just sticking to White’s experience of training his hawk, Helen tries to decipher why White went through what he did. His troubled childhood (mother abandons him and never gets his father’s approval), difficult adolescence (he is sent to a boarding school where he is sexually abused), and an even worse adulthood (he realizes he is homosexual and the world doesn’t accept him) and White has to prove himself to the world again and again. His decision of training a hawk is along the same lines – to prove a point rather than for his love for hawks – and that is why White and his hawk suffer through the ordeal and fail miserably in the end.

Let me admit, I had no idea what a goshawk was until I read the book (I still don’t know how to pronounce it, BTW). This world of falcons, hawks and training them to take them on hunts is a whole new world to me which I absorbed with the curiosity of a child. Every object (jesses), technique (whistling to call the hawk back) and the bird’s actions (bating, snaking) in falconry has a word and it was amazing to learn this whole new vocabulary. While this was the part I enjoyed, the part where Helen takes her hawk to hunt pheasants, pigeons and rabbits was disturbing. The author does raise the ethical question of whether it is right to hunt with hawks. Her justification didn’t convince me and I still think it is wrong, but I don’t want that to change my love for the book.

I picked this up with an attitude of ‘not my cup of tea, but let’s this a try’ and was captivated and amazed by the book all the way through. I learnt a lot of new things (alarum is a valid word, though archaic, did you know?) and not just about hawks. I am glad I decided to give this book ‘a try’.

I Let You Go

Title: I Let You Go
Writer: Clare Mackintosh
Published: 2014
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 2 on 5

I decided to read this book after reading the rave reviews on Goodreads. Reviewers called this a psychological thriller and compared it to Gone Girl. I have read the latter and loved it so much that I blindly decided to read this one. I naturally had high expectations from this book and what an anti-climax this was. On every page of the book I was asking myself if I was reading the same book others are singing praises about.

Jenna Gray finds her life turned upside down after a tragic accident in which a 6 year old boy gets killed. She runs away from her past and just when she is settling down, her past comes haunting her. There are quite a few twists and turns in the story, which I cannot mention here without labeling this review as a spoiler. The ‘Big Twist’ which everybody is talking about is very well executed. I had to reread these pages to convince myself I was not misinterpreting it.

Characters are not well developed and Jenna hardly evokes any emotion. There are quite a few handful characters including Ray and Kate, who are the CID investigators, lack depth and their relationships with characters around them looks forced upon. The story starts with a bang and holds your interest for a few pages and then it slows down, never to pick up the pace again. What could have been a wonderful start to an interesting story just fizzles out. Writing is so poor at time I found myself shaking my head and going tut-tut. Shifting POVs (from first person in some chapters to third person in some) is really taxing and the voice/tone doesn’t change to show the difference.

I don’t know why this is labeled as ‘psychological thriller’ because it neither a thriller nor anything psychological about it. And the praising reviews and 5 stars on goodreads is still a mystery to me.

 

 

 

10% Happier


Title: 10% Happier
Writers : Dan Harris
Published: 2014
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 3.5 on 5

The name of the book is actually “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works”, but it is too long, so I call it “10% Happier”.

This book is written by Dan Harris who is a TV news anchor with ABC News. Dan faces a humiliating panic attack on national television (which goes unnoticed by many) which is a pivotal point in his life which forces him to find a way to handle the stress in his life as well as find answers to some philosophical and ethical questions. When Dan is asked to cover spirituality for ABC, he naturally starts his quest in the spiritual world.

The book chronicles Dan’s journey through the world of meditation which  starts with him reading Eckhart Tolle’s ‘A New Earth’ as part of his new assignment. He tries meditating and being mindful and what starts as an attempt has him hooked. Dan goes on to interview some big names like Deepak Chopra and Dalai Lama (of course, Tolle too) and probes them in answering questions on how to control our emotions and stress and how to achieve enlightenment and so on. He even goes on a 10 day Vipasana silent retreat.

Dan’s writing is engaging and funny at times. The tone is casual and I felt an instant connect when Dan says he wanted to call this book ‘My inner voice is an asshole’. Instead of taking on a preachy tone (which many self-help books tend to do), Dan writes straight from the heart which makes it slightly easier to take in what he has to say.

There are many pause-and-ponder moments throughout the book. A quote from the spiritual gurus or an observation by Dan or a reference for a book – my Kindle is full of highlights and notes for this book.

Coming to the name of the book – there is no data backing up Dan’s claim that meditation has made him 10% Happier. This is his answer when someone asks him why he meditates.

If you are looking for a how-to on meditation and it benefits, this book is probably not it. Dan has provided instructions and FAQ for newbie meditators, but this is definitely not a how-to-meditate book. It is a funny, fast reading book on a man’s experience of how he found meditation beneficial.

All the Light We Cannot See

Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Writers : Anthony Doerr
Published: 2014
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

This book is set in the WW2 era and follows two parallel threads of story which ultimately culminate. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is one of the protagonists who lives in France. She is the daughter of a locksmith who works at a museum and loses her eyesight at the age of 6. She grows up in the warmth of fatherly love and curiosity fueled by her father and books. Werner Pfennig, on the other hand, is an orphan and lives in Germany with his sister. He is anti-establishment and often questions the system. Two contrasting characters and backgrounds, but they come together in an unexpected way and leave a lasting impression on each other.

Marie and her relationship with her father is one of the things I like in this book. Instead of showering pity on his blind daughter, the locksmith teaches her all the tricks to become independent in life. He makes a miniature of the town they live in and encourages her to ‘know’ the town through her hands. Werner and his equally inquisitive sister find an old radio which they manage to repair. They are hooked onto a regular broadcast where they listen to an enchanting voice with a French accent explaining the mysteries of science.

WW2 breaks out and we see it affecting both our protagonists. While Marie and her father flee from Paris and settle down with Marie’s uncle at a remote, coastal town, Werner enlists into the army and is fighting a battle of ethics  vs. duty. The story takes twists and turns and we see some interesting characters and finally the highlight of the book – protagonists meeting. This is one of the memorable moments. It was as if the reader knows all along that they are destined to meet and waiting for it with bated breath.

The book is not a fast read. And shouldn’t be read in a hurry, if you ask me. The book is beautifully written and has very memorable characters. It tugs at your emotions and gives you yet another glimpse of the havoc that WW2 caused on common citizens.

Key takeaway for me is Marie’s determination. Not a minute does she doubt herself because of her blindness. She charges ahead, overcomes hurdles and comes out winner in every single fight. They way she pulls her uncle out of depression with her charm, questions and perseverance is amazing. I couldn’t relate to Werner as much as I could to Marie. Werner appears as a confused soul who has not yet decided what he wants to do or become. His gutsy sister on the other hand – can completely relate to her, especially when she is angry with his brother for destroying the radio.

In short, a book worth not only reading, but savoring.

 

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