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Tag: memoir

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

when_breath_becomes_air_coverTitle: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Publisher: Random House
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5
How I got it: I borrowed a copy from the library

I used to think that I had a book in me, but lately I’ve become less sure about that. My prose is clear and readable, but not breathtaking. I don’t have any striking new insights into the human condition. Most importantly, I read books like When Breath Becomes Air and become hopelessly discouraged at the protean talents of someone like Paul Kalanithi.

This man did not stop. He hungered for knowledge, he inhaled it until it filled his veins and bubbled in his blood. I mean, look at his biography:

Paul Kalanithi, M.D., was a neurosurgeon and writer. Paul grew up in Kingman, Arizona, before attending Stanford University, from which he graduated in 2000 with a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature and a B.A. in Human Biology. He earned an M.Phil in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine from the University of Cambridge before attending medical school. In 2007, Paul graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine, winning the Lewis H. Nahum Prize for outstanding research and membership in the Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society. He returned to Stanford for residency training in Neurological Surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience, during which he authored over twenty scientific publications and received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research.

Two B.As, an M.A, an M.Phil, a stint at the Yale School of Medicine, and a residency at one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country, where he did amazing neurological research.

All of that before he died in his late 30s from cancer.

I look at people like him, read their glittering prose, and feel that if people like this in the world exist with such gifts, any attempts of mine to compare don’t mean much.

And so we come to When Breath Becomes Air, Kalanithi’s first and only book, a meditation on trying to find the answers to life’s big questions by marrying a love of literature — the purest expression of human thought — with an understanding of the human brain — the mechanism that produces such thought. How do our minds work? Do doctors gain a deeper understanding of humanity by seeing people at their weakest and most vulnerable? Kalanithi tried reconcile these deep questions by combining his literary knowledge with his medical knowledge to study neuroscience, hoping that he could find the key to human identity.

Unfortunately, in the final year of his residency, he was diagnosed a rapidly metastizing form of cancer that left him with only years, if not months, to live. Thus he was suddenly forced to use his own lived experience to answer the questions that he spent his entire academic career investigating, rather than the second-hand experiences and knowledge of others. This dual understanding of being both a doctor and a patient gave him new insights and helped him develop more empathy for the people he treated. It also left him frail and exhausted.

Was writing this book worth it for him? I don’t know if he found an answer that was satisfactory, but I hope he did. But there are so many contributions he could have made to our understanding of the human mind that now remain unfulfilled. Reading over crystal-clear prose like this makes his absence, the loss of that potential, an even bigger wound than it already is:

The enormity of the moral mission of medicine lent my early days of med school a severe gravity. The first day, before we got to the cadavers, was CPR training, my second time doing it. The first time, back in college, had been farcical, unserious, everyone laughing: the terribly acted videos and limbless plastic mannequins couldn’t have been more artificial. But now the lurking possibility that we would have to employ these skills someday animated everything. As I repeatedly slammed my palm into the chest of a tiny plastic child, I couldn’t help but hear, along with fellow students’ jokes, real ribs cracking.

Cadavers reverse the polarity. The mannequins you pretend are real; the cadavers you pretend are fake. But that first day, you just can’t. When I faced my cadaver, slightly blue and bloated, his total deadness and total humanness were undeniable. The knowledge that in four months I would be bisecting this man’s head with a hacksaw seemed unconscionable.

I mean, this man could have seriously been the next Oliver Sacks! It’s cruel that he died so young, that he left a wife and a daughter behind just when he was on the cusp of becoming who he truly wanted to be. And it makes me sad to know such cruelty.

I started reading When Breath Becomes Air on the first anniversary of Kalanithi’s death — a completely unintentional but apropos coincidence. I hope that when the dust surrounding the books’ initial publication settles, it will join the ranks of other respected works of medical non-fiction like The Emperor of All Maladies and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

between_the_world_and_me_coverTitle: Between the World and Me
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5
How I got it: I purchased a copy

Living in a world that constantly threatens, fears, maims and devalues you is a psychologically scarring experience. But there are some people who can take those scars and turn them into something greater — something still infused with pain and life experience, but powerful nevertheless.

Such a thing is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Between the World and Me is Coates’s long-form letter to his son about growing up in Baltimore, going to Howard University, finding a career in writing, and how those things have shaped his worldview. But this is not a straight memoir of fatherly aw-shucks advice: it’s a primer for navigating the minefield that is growing up black in modern-day America. It’s also a plea to the world at large beyond his son: Please don’t destroy our bodies anymore. The Dream of Whiteness has made you complacent, and in your complacence, violence thrives.

In his own estimation, Coates walked a tightrope growing up. He wasn’t tough enough for the street and for the gangs that surrounded his home. But he also had to withstand abuse at home, even if that abuse was given with good intentions — the idea being that it was better to instill a fear of the world at home rather than lose your child to a lack of fear outside it:

Now  I personally understood my father and the old mantra — “Either I can beat him or the police.” I understood it all — the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is the philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.

Fear is really what it all boils down to. The weight of history, the weight of a world that expects you to bear it up and grease the path with your blood, without complaint, induces a lot of fear. And even if that fear is rational and leads to violent acts born out of a fierce instinct for self-preservation, it leads to more justification from people protected by white privilege that “those others” are bad and deserve what they get.

This is what makes Coates’ work so important: I will never feel the fear, the helplessness, the rage, that systemic racial oppression forces African Americans to live under; his work is probably the closest approximation I can come to those experiences. His words are machines running on rage and love and exhaustion — I want to honour that.

Coates is fully aware that his son is not his only audience in Between the World and Me. He writes eloquently to that invisible audience about The Dream: the structure of white supremacy that lets people who look the way I do live the way I currently live, safely ensconced in comfortable suburban homes at the top of the pyramid. But in his memoir, he not only attempts to afflict the comfortable with his insights, but also to re-examine his own youthful idealism regarding Malcolm X, his ideals of pan-African brotherhood, and his goal to find African analogues for European figures held up as paragons of history and culture. Why bother trying to make an African version of a European trophy case? Why accept the default of such a trophy case — the quest, as he puts it, to “find the Tolstoy of the Zulus” — in the first place? Coates resolves to construct something new instead.

He’s haunted by other things besides this quest to replicate the trophy case. Most importantly, he’s haunted by the memory of a fellow student and friend of his at Howard University, Prince Carmen Jones. Jones was killed by a police officer after being tailed by one for hours under the false suspicion that he was a drug dealer. It took a long time for his death to make an impact on Coates, but Coates lets us see the crater it left behind by showing us how it mirrors his own fear for his son, and it’s devastating:

And it occurred to me then that you would not escape, that there were awful men who’d laid plans for you, and I could not stop them. Prince Jones was the superlative of all my fears. And if he, good Christian, scion of a striving class, patron saint of the twice as good, could be forever bound, who then could not? And the plunder was not just of Prince alone. Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuition for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the daycare, and the reference checks on babysitters. Think of World Book and Childcraft. Think of checks written for family photos. Think of credit cards charged for vacations. Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks, and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth.

What’s the point of living in a world that willingly destroys such effort of love and care? And does so repeatedly to hundreds of families?

Coates’ own solution to this puzzle is to raise his son in circumstances far different from the hazardous ones he faced in Baltimore. But he also realizes that, hard as he tries, he can’t truly be a shield between his son and the world. It’s up to willing readers to reshape the world so that such shields will no longer be necessary.

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