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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi

(9 Posts)
Luckygirl Sun 28-Feb-16 17:20:43

Just read this - here is my review for our villages magazine:

When Breath becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Why would anyone read a book about a highly intelligent and thoughtful young American neurosurgeon suffering from inoperable lung cancer, knowing it will be sad and that there will be a tragic ending? What kind of voyeuristic masochism is this? It was only the excellent reviews and, I confess, the fact that this book was a Kindle Daily Deal at 99p, that persuaded me to dip in – I am glad that I did.

The system of medical education in the US demands that students be post-graduates. This and the long training towards Kalanithi's chosen career meant that the bulk of his life was spent as a student. He had an MA in English Literature, another MA in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, a BSc in Human Biology and finally an MD from Yale. His observation that “Neurosurgical training is all about delayed gratification” is ironic in the context of his short life. Kalinithi brought to bear his literature studies, particularly Walt Whitman's poetry, on his approach to his patients, and his aim to treat them as rounded human beings and not simply a body to be analysed and hopefully cured.

This background in literature and philosophy drove him to concentrate on the brain and “neurosurgery's unforgiving call to perfection….….it seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation with meaning, identity and death.......there must be a way, I thought, that the language of life as experienced – of passion, hunger, of love – bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracks, and heartbeats..........where [does] biology, morality, literature, and philosophy intersect? …....what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay?"

As his cancer treatments came and went, promised life then failed painfully, he movingly describes the negotiation between hope and the acceptance of death. He was “so authoritative in a surgeon’s coat but so meek in a patient’s gown”

His wife finished the book after his death in early 2015 at the age of 37. His last words in the book are a message to his daughter, then 8 months old:
“When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man's days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

Grannyknot Sun 28-Feb-16 17:57:28

My daughter told me about this book and I haven't had the courage to read it (having just had a cancer death in the family and my daughter's best friend in fast tracked treatment for an aggressive breast cancer, in both cases I'm talking about people in their early 40s) ...

But I have a feeling it is one of those "strangely beautiful" books.

It is more expensive now on Kindle.

Luckygirl Sun 28-Feb-16 18:13:36

"Strangely beautiful" indeed - he faces up to his impending death with a real sense of the continuity of life. He is sad and he is angry but he accepts.

CariGransnet (GNHQ) Mon 29-Feb-16 14:33:27

I read it last week. It's extraordinary in its honesty. The very last bit (before his wife's chapter) will stay with me for a very long time. I'm not sure I have ever read a paragraph with such resonance. Heartbreakingly beautiful.

watermeadow Mon 29-Feb-16 21:07:18

I've read the reviews on this and very much want to read it but it's new so only in hardback. By the time most new books come out in paperback I've forgotten them. WHY are most books published in hardback first? It used to be so libraries would buy them but libraries can't afford new books any more.

Neversaydie Mon 29-Feb-16 23:19:36

I've just requested this from our library They will usually buy a copy of they think it will be of interest
There are several similar books around at the moment One whose title escapes me of a gifted young woman who died of bowel cancer in her thirties leaving twins.Profoundly moving .My 61 year old brother has recently been diagnosed with cancer so am not sure I can read the above yet .I am always humbled by the grace with which some people accept their fate .I think I would be raging .

jogginggirl Mon 29-Feb-16 23:37:36

Neversaydie Are you thinking of Late Fragments by Kate Gross...? I found it to be a very moving but honest book ...

Neversaydie Fri 04-Mar-16 23:21:36

Yes thats the one jogging

lovenannyxx Tue 08-Mar-16 20:29:54

I read a review of this book and would like to read it