When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi
Random House

when breath becomes airSo much has been written about Paul Kalanithi’s meditation on living and dying When Breath Becomes Air–reviews in every newspaper and magazine, a Super Soul short by Oprah, NPR interviews, a TED talk. What more could I possibly add?

Not much.

Kalanithi does with words what he did as a surgeon–takes two pieces seemingly torn apart and stitches them seamlessly together. As a surgeon he removed brain tumors and fixed broken spines, then sewed muscle to muscle and skin to skin so that the patient was once again all of a piece. As a writer he took an idea that frightens many–death–and connected his past and present, bringing the reader to understand that death does not separate us from our lives, but instead merely moves us along a kind of continuum. In her Ted Talk, Kalanithi’s widow, Lucy, recites the poem “Separation” by W. S. Merwin: Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle/Everything I do is stitched with its color. I can only hope that it may be so for my loved ones.

Strange that I read When Breath Becomes Air only three days into my retirement. Such an event is frought with thoughts of mortality and life’s work and self-worth. I’ve most likely lived, at best, two-thirds of my life already. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that some days that remaining slice of the pie seems terribly small.

I could also say that Kalanithi wasn’t so lucky.

Or I could say he was the luckiest man alive–because Paul Kalanithi experienced a marvelous grace that enabled him to live a good death.

On Brassard’s Farm: review

On Brassard’s Farm
Daniel Hecht
Blackstone Publishing

Ann Turner wants to get away from it all–her job (middle school teacher), her ex-husband (cheating scumbag), her city life in Boston (harriedOn Brassard's Farm and superficial). With a small inheritance, she looks for a  piece of land. Just a little place in the middle of nowhere. Vermont, maybe. Breathe the fresh country air. Meet some down-to-earth folks. Buy fresh corn and blackberries from a roadside stand.

Well … don’t we all?!

But most of us aren’t dealing with Ann’s mess of a life. Her dismissal for ‘inappropriate touching’ of a student. Friends who abandoned her. The brother who went missing several years ago.

Daniel Hecht’s On Brassard’s Farm is the story of how Ann made sense of it all. By buying an (almost) inaccessible piece of land on a farm in Vermont. Tent living in the woods for six months of the year. Working on a dairy farm to pay off unexpected debt. And questioning, always questioning, how she came to that place in her life. The property on Brassard’s farm was the means to confront “[her] own bramble patch, [her] own deep woods.”

And the hard work paid off.

She faced fear. Physical exhaustion. Utter loneliness. Even her rage. Gradually, she begins to feel “as if I possessed some degree of luminosity again. I felt a strand of resilience inside, strong yet supple, in body and psyche, as if I’d been at least party woven back together.”

Of course she finds love, again, too. It’s probably Ann’s revelations about love and loneliness that touched me the most. Like always, I’m so taken by a novel where a male author speaks with such accuracy about women’s inner lives–and Hecht did this well. Like chick lit on a deeper level.

(I also learned a lot about farming, dairy cows, trimming trees, and growing hops. Sometimes, quite frankly, a little too much, but still.)

On Brassard’s Farm is a good read.

[Not] Lost in translation: Hotel Silence (review)

Hotel Silence
Audur Ava Olafsdottir
trans. Brian FitzGibbon
Grove Atlantic

hotel silenceJonas Ebeneser built his life around the narrative of family: husband, wife, and child sustained by a Great Love.  But then his wife reveals a secret that causes him to question everything. They divorce. Add to this the fact that nearly every day Jonas visits his querulous mother in a nursing home where he must confront the loneliness and despair that so often accompanies old age and life simply becomes too much. Jonas decides to take preemptive action–and end his life.

Will the world miss me? No. Will the world be any poorer without me? No. Will the world be any poorer without me? No. Will the world survive without me? Yes. Is the world a better place now than when I came into it? No. What have I done to improve it? Nothing. 

Pretty dire, no?

But even in his misery, Jonas can’t bring himself to kill himself in his home town where, most likely, his daughter Waterlily would find him. (And Jonas adores Waterlily.) So he leaves for an unnamed country in the Middle East ravaged by war, but recently quiet under a cease fire. Jonas buys a one-way ticket and writes a letter to Waterlily.

And it’s here that the magic of Hotel Silence begins.

One of three guests at the Hotel Silence, he is met with rusty water, out-dated furnishings, and broken fixtures. The proprietors, a brother and sister gradually–very gradually–come to be his friends. He is warned of the mines. Learns of mass graves and the soccer killing field. Witnesses the bullet-pocked buildings. Jonas takes his meals at Restaurant Limbo, where he is the only diner. And despite his personal despair, he begins to serve as the hotel’s handyman: rewiring, refinishing, and re-plumbing the rooms.

While Jonas rebuilds the Hotel Silence, he also begins to rebuild his own life. As he reflects on his life, we come to realize that his Great Love Story probably wasn’t. That as a young man he had felt unmoored. That his mother had always been difficult.

I nearly abandoned the novel not too far in. It’s a depressing subject, to be sure, but I was leery that it was rip-off of A Man Called Ove. And there was the language–the book was translated from Icelandic, and something about how the book read was slightly out-of-kilter. Nothing I can identify specifically–no odd diction or awkward syntax–but something just a little off-putting.

Hotel Silence won’t be for everyone, but Olafsdottir has a powerful message for us all: “Everything can happen. It can also be different than what one expected.” And one can still have a life well lived.

Paris By the Book: review

Paris By the Book
Liam Callanan
Dutton

Paris By the Book is a love story, plain and simple.
About a girl and her guy.
A reader and the author.
A bookseller and her shop.
A mother and her children.
An artist and Paris.

Leah was trying to finish her masters thesis on Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 movie The Red Balloon when she met her husband in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Met” is just a half truth–he actually chased her down after she shoplifted a copy of the picture book The Red Balloon from a Milwaukee bookstore. One thing led to another, then they were in a bar, discussing which author did Paris more justice: Lamorisse or Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeline stories. It didn’t hurt Robert Eady’s appeal that he was an author in his own right. After publishing a few YA novels, he was trying to make his way in the world as a writer. So how do the poor student and the starving artist spend their courtship when they can’t afford to travel to Paris, France? They travel to Paris, Wisconsin–as well as Stockholm, Cuba, Montreal, and Berlin. All small towns in Wisconsin.

Paris by the bookThe rest, as they say, is history. Leah never finishes that masters thesis. She’s too busy working as a speech writer for a university president, supporting the couple while Robert tries to get his Next Big Novel finished. They have two daughters, Ellie and Daphne, and life is a whirlwind of birthday parties and university functions and neighborhood gatherings. Robert sometimes needs to retreat from the day-to-day grind to focus on his writing. He always leaves a note (“I’ll be back soon!”) and stays away for a few days at most. Leah lovingly calls them his “writeaways”–just a quirk of life when one lives with an artist.

That is until life begins to disintegrate. Because there has been no Next Big Novel. Money is tight. The couple argues. And Robert withdraws. So he leaves, presumably on one of his writeaways–but there is no note or phone call. Robert is gone a week, then two. Leah alerts the police and tries to stay calm, but there is no activity on his bank account or credit cards. No contact with friends or colleagues. He vanished. But after four months of limbo, Leah shakes a cryptic note out of a long-forgotten box of granola. It’s a confirmation number, her good friend Eleanor guesses–and within a week, Leah and the girls are on their way to Paris, France. On a flight Robert had booked before his disappearance. Because if he hasn’t shown up in the U.S., he’s sure to turn up in Paris, right?

As if that’s all not a crazy enough plot line, Leah buys an English language bookstore called The Late Edition. The three make some small headway into life without Robert–the girls attend school, Leah finds satisfaction in running the store. But there’s a strange sense that Robert is close at hand. Leah finds a copy of one of his books in the store with a scribbled “I’m sorry” in Robert’s handwriting. And the girls catch a glimpse of him on crowded streets.

The story’s ending fits where author Liam Callanan wanted to take Robert and Leah. And us, the readers. Oh, you might be frustrated. Vexed. And you might not know much more than you did at the beginning of the novel … but it’s a very writerly unwinding.

Paris By the Book also offers a brutally honest picture of a threadbare marriage that will either rip wide open or be darned back together. In fact, I could see my own life reflected in so many ways. I’ll let Leah speak for both of us here:

“I do want many things … to have raised brave independent daughters; to have read and loved every book on the shelves in my store. But more than anything, I had for the longest time, wanted Robert to be healthy, to be happy. To be here. He wanted to be elsewhere.”

“… I think [Robert] was afraid … of how much we loved him. Of how much that love required his presence.”

 “I do know what I saw in his eyes … I saw love, longing. What’s certain is that bodies, celestial or human, have a pull. It’s impossible to imagine he doesn’t still feel our tug. It’s impossible to imagine his fully gone.”

And finally:

“I don’t so much read anymore, but rather teeter, wonder, take flight … Like anyone who has ever started or finished a book, or a love affair, or confused the two, in sweet anticipation of the fall.”

August Snow: review

August Snow
Stephen Mack Jones
Soho Press

August This one was a can-I-read-all-day Saturday followed by a maybe-I-should-skip-church Sunday kinda book. Good thing I finished before the workweek started or it might have been a I-have-a-little-cough-cough-cold Monday. Stephen Mack Jones’ first novel August Snow is that good.

August Snow is a former Detroit police detective who blew the whistle on the city’s mayor, was unceremoniously fired–and later won damages for wrongful termination. He’s filthy rich. And determined to transform the lives of his neighbors and the street he grew up on in Mexicantown. After August turns down a request to help a wealthy white socialite, he is quickly drawn into investigating her suspicious death just a few days later. (Actually, it’s suspicious to August–the police call it a suicide.) Like so many other crime novels, the story turns on the tropes of the trade: cars with blackout windows tailing, surprise visits by thugs, gun fights, and a mysterious computer hacker thrown in for good measure.

But the genre wasn’t what made August Snow so fun–for this Michiganian it was the references to the Motor City and all things Michigan: the Tigers and Lions, Fisher Theater, Eight Mile, and Woodward Ave. The crooked mayor serving time for his crimes. Even a peek at our up North with a trip to Traverse City. (Nancy Pearl, NPR librarian extraordinaire, even said she briefly considered moving back to Detroit while reading it.)

Even that wouldn’t be enough to carry a novel, though, no matter how much it felt like home.

No, the reason to read August Snow is the man himself. He is a smart ass who leaves no dig undug, a rebel who is more interested in what’s right than who’s in charge. He loves children and old ladies alike with the same good heart, and his friends are as dear as brothers. He wants his neighborhood safe so kids could once again play ball in the street. He thinks more about his neighbors than he does himself. But heartache is no stranger to August, and he has walled his off against any more loss. August Snow is a Real Man–and I say that without a trace of irony. I loved the guy.

After listening to an interview with the author on Michigan Public Radio’s show Stateside, I have a hunch that writer Stephen Mack Jones might be just as interesting as his characters.

Good thing Jones isn’t sure he and August are finished playing yet.


Read my post about a chilly spring trip to Detroit here.