"Being Mortal", "Cutting for Stone", "Going After Cacciato", "LaRose", "Peacekeeping", "Redeployment", "The Little Red Chairs", "The Morning They Came for Us", "The Things They Carried", "When Breath Becomes Air", Abraham Verghese, Atul Gawande, Dexter Filkins, Edna O'Brien, Janine di Giovanni, Louise Erdich, Paul Kalanthi, Phil Klay, Tim O'Brien
To follow up the previous post on books recommended by MillersTime readers, here are six (‘new’ ones) that I’ve enjoyed in the last few months. Not sure if all of them will be on my year end list of most favorites, but I thought you might consider putting some of them on your summer reading list.
When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanthi (NF). This wonderful book will certainly make it as one of my favorites, probably THE favorite of the year. Just as Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal was/is an important book for anyone concerned about the late stages of life, so too is Paul Kalanthi’s book about his struggle with illness and ultimate death a gift to all of us. It’s a short book that can be read in just one or two sittings, though a second reading, as is often the case, is maybe even more valuable than the first. It certainly allows for appreciation of his gift of using language as art.
The story is simple. Kalanthi was a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 36. In the 22 months that remained in his life, he was able to write brilliantly, honestly, with great feeling and great clarity about what gives life meaning and how to face death with integrity. The first part of the book (“In Perfect Health I Begin”) tells his story until he must face his mortality. The second part, and overwhelmingly the most important part (“Cease Not till Death”), is simply superb, and if there is such a thing as a “must read,” then this it.
In a Foreward to the book, Dr. Abraham Verghese (author of Cutting for Stone) says it perfectly:
Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way. But above all, see what it is to live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words. In a world of asynchronous communication, where we are so often buried in our screens, our gaze rooted to the rectangular objects buzzing in our hands, our attention consumed by ephemera, stop and experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague, now ageless and extant in memory. Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message. I got it. I hope you experience it too. It is a gift. Let me not stand between you and Paul.
Redeployment, by Phil Klay by (F). This one was a National Book Award winner in 2014 and one of the NYTimes Best Books of 2014. While it is fiction, essentially a series of short stories, each told in a different voice, it reads more like a memoir. Klay is a former Marine, and this book tells of the Iraq War and what it did those who Americans who fought there. Just as Tim O’Brien (Going After Cacciato, 1978 and The Things They Carried, 1990) has become the human voice of the Vietnam War, Klay helps us understand how fighting in Iraq affected our soldiers and the families of those soldiers.
In his review of the book for the NYTimes, Dexter Filkins’ writes, “It’s the best thing written so far on what war did to people’s souls.” Read Filkins’ review. Even better, read Klay’s Redeployment. You may know much about this war, but I suspect you will moved by Klay’s writing of “how it changed the lives it (did) not consume.”
The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria, by Janine di Giovanni (NF). In this series of ‘dispatches’ – Giovanni was a foreign correspondent and is currently the Middle East Editor of Newsweek and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair – we learn what the civil war in Syria (at least in its early stages) has meant for ordinary people as their world has disintegrated around them. “Syria began,” she writes, “as a peaceful (revolution), but as I write this four years in, the revolution has since spiraled into a gruesome, a brutal, a seemingly forever war.”
This award winning author has experienced similar events in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Sierra Leone and says, “After all the lessons we had learned from the brutality of the wars in the 1990s — Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Chechnya — we were allowing it to happen again.” When she was asked to go to Syria, she was warned by a friend, a diplomat, not to take the job “because you will be angry all the time and it is an anger you never will be able to reconcile.”
Fortunately, for the world, she did not take that advice and instead went to Syria where she applied her reporting skills and insights to the effect of war on women, children, and families. She writes to bear witness to what these individuals (a doctor, a nun, a musician, a student, etc.) experience and because she too believes the world must know and never forget these events.
It’s a powerful account of horrors that are still taking place today, and The Morning They Came for Us indeed “bears witness” and will help readers understand why thousands and thousands are fleeing Syria. It’s a difficult book to read, but it’s an important accounting of events that deserves to be known and passed on to others.
And three others that I enjoyed recently:
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien (F). Her latest is about a man who mysteriously appears in a small Irish town and passes himself off as a healer. I’ll leave the details of what happens for readers to discover on their own, but the questions the story raises and explores are not so far from what Janine di Giovani was writing about in The Morning They Came for Us (see above) – “the limits of our own blinkered vision, the fragility of our own safe havens.” O’Brien is a wonderful story teller who uses her ability to involve us in her stories in order to see a world beyond our own.
Peacekeeping, by (F). His second book, another good story, well told, and one that gives outsiders an insight into the culture, the politics and the way of life in Haiti. You’ll cheer for some of the characters — both Haitian and non-Haitian — and dislike others, and along the way you’ll learn about a society that you may not know but that in many ways does not seem unfamiliar. The book is set in the time period just prior to the Haitian earthquake
LaRose, by Louise Erdich (F). Her newest one after her wonderful award-winning novel of revenge, The Round House. (See previous post, How Come I Didn’t Know About Her?)
Set in 1999, this story begins when a man (an Objiwe Indian) accidentally kills his best friend’s five-year old son. To make reparations, he and his wife give their own young son (LaRose) to the grieving family, saying, “Our son will be your son now.” As both families try to come to terms with these losses, Erdich takes us back through four generations of family members named LaRose and forward to how each of the main characters deals with the fallout from a parent’s worst nightmare — the loss of their child. Erdich is wonderful at drawing and developing her characters, and her writing in LaRose is every bit as good as it was in The Round House.
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And once more, here’s how you can get to the favorites from last year, and earlier:
MillersTime Readers Favorite Reads of 2015. This post includes a list of the favorites of the favorites as well as individual comments by every reader who contributed to the list.
Favorite Books Listed by TITLE, (non-fiction then fiction), then author, then the MillersTime contributing reader. A quick way to scroll through the list, bypassing what readers’ said about each book. You can easily print out this list.
Favorite Books Listed by the NAMES of the Contributing MillersTime readers, followed by title, (non-fiction then fiction), and then author. A quick way to check out what people whom you may know liked best. You can also easily print out this list.
For those of you who may want to see the lists from previous years, simply click on which year you want to review – 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014.
Finally, let others know what you’re reading and enjoying, or perhaps what books to avoid, by listing those titles along with a comment or two in the Comment section of this, or the previous, book post.
Oh! When Breath Becomes Air…yes. Yes yes yes. Heartbreaking, beautiful, wonderful read. I’m so glad it’s on this list! Oliver Sachs (On the Move) and Christopher Hitchens (Hitch-22) also wrote extraordinary terminal cancer memoirs…much longer, but if you’re engaged in the genre (maybe not for the summer), they’re worth reading.
Heartbreaking yes but also what a gift he left for the rest of us.
I’ve read everything Sachs has written (he’s one of my role models and heroes). I think I read and finished “On the Move” within a few days of its publication. Hitchens’ was good too, but “When Breath Becomes Air” and “Being Mortal” are both more universal (despite being personal). Read both of those twice and will read them again in a year or two.
Judy White said:
Yes, Mike & I also loved When Breath Becomes Air and Being Mortal (by the way did you catch Atul Gwande in a visual version of the book on PBS last week?) And Mike just finished The Morning They Came for Us. So some of our reading has been on parallel tracks with yours.
A few others I’ve especially enjoyed this year:
The Water Is Wide, Pat Conroy — I’ve never been a fan of Conroy’s fiction, but this true tale of his year teaching on Dafuskie Island in the 1960s was delightful and very funny, taking me back to our year of teaching in D.C. about that time.
Crashing Through, Robert Kurson — Amazing story of a very talented man who became blind at age 3, and what he was able to do with his life. Kurson’s Shadow Divers is a big favorite of Mike’s.
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge — The latest research about the workings of our brains, complete with lots of good stories. Like the previous book, there are so many exciting and riveting real-life stories that I rarely read fiction.
A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home, Sue Halpern — This book has more substance than the title and cover would suggest. Halpern’s experiences bringing her therapy dog into a nursing home illuminate all the choices we have — and don’t have — about growing very old. (Helpern is married to Bill McKibben, by the way.)
It’s a good idea to do this mid-year, Rick. Hope others send suggestions too.