Sunday, January 21, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air

I recently (and quickly) finsihed When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. The book, which was published post posthumously does not keep the author in suspense as to the eventual outcome of the author. Paul Kalanithi was in his final year of residency in neurological surgery when diagnosed with lung cancer.

My expectation of the book was that it would focus on the trials of a doctor dealing medical tragedy and that it would be an emotionally heavy read.

While the above was partially ture, what I read was different than expected.

For starters, as discussed in the forward and in the text of the memoir, Kalanithi was a fantastic writer. Kanithi had not initially began his life trajectory looking towards medicine, and instead had a literary interest (his undergraduate study was in English literature), and the though of writing was not something that occurred at the onset of cancer, rather something that was contemplated for later in his life. The result was a memoir written by a fantastic writer. The text was interesting, compelling, contemplative, and engaging. I am convinced that this is only slightly in part due to the life situation that Kalanithi found himself in -- his cancer.

The first half of the book deals with Kalanithi's pre-cancer life and his telling of his life pre-cancer was incredibly compelling, not for the actual content but the authenticity of how he ended up a brain surgeon and the lessons along the way. To read about the real experiences of a brain surgeon (names and situations changed to protect the medical rights of those described) is a window into a common world that is rarely shared (probably that protecting the privacy of others, and not all doctors could write some contemplatively).

The title of the book seemed poetic at at the start, but the title is so apt because it really describes the stories central conflict -- a wrestling of the treatment of the inevitable treatment from life to death and the existential challenge of the decisions that are made along the way.

One of the great things about this book, is that as a reader you know the outcome, you read the sincerity in the text that Kalanithi doesn't know his outcome and is wrestling with the decisions of what a young man is supposed to do with his life when he doesn't know his remaining life. As for conclusions, Kalanithi is transparent in not presenting a path, instead acknowledging how his own thoughts shaped and evolved as his story unfolds.

While the story is sad, for me the years didn't start until about page 187, I see this book as a great gift for Kalantithi to share, and a great gift that his wife Lucy Kalanthi gave in finishing the book and helping bring the book to press upon his death.

This book is one of the books in my 2018 goal of reading 12 books in 2018.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Steal Away Home

The book Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon & Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom was my first book of 2018.

The book is written by Mat Carter and Aaron Ivey, both pastors of Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, TX.

The introduction of the book indicates that the authors were in part inspired by the the 1975 Pulitzer Award winning novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. While this book's narrative shifts between two historical characters in parallel, this is not quite an equitable comparison.

Prior to reading the book I had limited familiarity with the central character, Charles Spurgeon the famous -- and widely published -- London preacher. The other character, Thomas Johnson is a slave who is emancipated following the American Civil War.

In many ways the intrigue that kept me engaged for most of the book was the question "how in the world, do these two men connect with one another?" And in many ways, the sections of the book that didn't help draw me into that plot were a struggle to read (such as a long passage discussing a young Spurgeon's horseback ride in the English country). And in a similar way, once the initial connection is made (which is my favorite part of this book) the remainder seems to drag to a conclusion.

Those who might come to this book with an initial and stronger interest in Spurgeon's life might enjoy the details that authors create in this historical fiction to tell such a broad story that tries to capture the heart and humanity of Spurgeon, Yet, I personally found the Thomas Johnson sections more intriguing. Surely there is more text and documentation of Spurgeon's life to recreate and capture him than Thomas Johnson, and feel that Carter and Ivey may have written these sections with less pressure to layer in facts and could write in a way to drive forward the narrative.

While the publisher of this book, B&H Publishing, is associated with LifeWay Christian Resources and is likely presented for a Christian audience, one of the items that I appreciated about this book was that Charles Spurgeon is as much a historical figure as a spiritual figure. His celebrity status in his time comes out in this telling -- the tone and accounts of journalist both in England and the United States was intriguing, whether it was the paper commenting on his initial public ministry, treatment of Spurgeon's opposition to slavery, and the growth of his church.

It's clear that the authors put much attention into the care and treatment of the story and the subject is interesting. I struggled at times in reading with the writing style, namely, I don't recall having a read a book in my life with as many adjectives as this one. Additionally, it seemed as those the authors desire to cover as much breadth as they could covered in the central characters lives meant that the story departed from typical narrative plot devises (conflict, climax, resolution) that could have been achieved leaving out certain parts of the characters stories for purposes of the narrative.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

12 Books in 2018

In 2017 I threw myself into a "simple" challenge to read 12 books in 2017. It was a pleasure. So much so, I said...I need to read (at least) 12 books again in 2018.

Here's the book's I've read in 2018:

1. Steal Away Home by Matt Carter and Aaron Levy (2017; historical fiction)
2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016; memoir)
3. The Return: Fathers, Son and The Land in Between by Hisham Matar (2016: memoir)
4. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009; young adult/children's fiction)
5. Sourdough by Robin Sloan (2017; contemporary fiction)