Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi


When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air
Published by Random House in 2016

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

2 “Well, this is awkward” stars…

Before anything, I’d like to preface this review with some context. Around the time that I picked this up, one of my family members had been living with cancer for about a year. Like many people, I thought it was something that only happened in the movies – I didn’t think it would happen to me. So I didn’t know how to make sense of the experience. I was feeling confused, trapped, and terrified, and I wanted to read something that would help me understand what I was going through. It was around this time that I stumbled on Mr. Kalanithi’s memoir, and at the time I thought it was extremely timely for me.

Unfortunately, while I respect the effort that Mr. Kalanithi put into this work, and while I deeply empathise with his family for their loss, I can’t bring myself to say that I liked this book, or that it resonated with my family’s experience. This is one of those times where I’m not sure if I read the same book as everyone else. Instead of striking me as being emotional and profound, this book struck me as dry and pretentious. I felt like I was listening to someone detailing his accomplishments and lofty ideals in a bid to prove to other people that he’s worthy of being remembered after his death.

For example, at the beginning of the memoir, we learn that Mr. Kalanithi has had a fairly privileged life. He grew up reading all the classics under the eye of an intelligent and well-read mother with great ambitions for her children. He’s gone to a string of Ivy League schools – Stanford, Cambridge, and Yale – and earned degrees in literature and philosophy. However, he decided to go to medicine afterwards, because it was only through practicing medicine that he could “pursue a serious biological philosophy” (p. 43) and give up “[puny] moral speculation” in favor of “moral action”. Further along, he writes, “I was pursuing medicine to bear witness to the twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal” (p. 53).

Such abstractions have their place in philosophical tracts, but not in memoirs. If there are any abstractions at all, like the extracts quoted above, I would expect them to be hard-earned and grounded in the author’s own experience. But because of the paucity of intimate detail in the renderings of his experiences, these abstractions came across as precisely just ‘puny moral speculation’ – just empty talk about his noble ideals.

This might also have something to do with his style. To use the old creative writing adage, Mr. Kalanithi has a tendency to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, so he captures all the broad-strokes of his experiences as a doctor and a patient but none of the specificity that I usually look for in memoirs. Also, some people have called his writing ‘beautiful’, but personally I found his sentences flowery, overwritten, and clunky with self-importance. It felt like he was vacillating between writing an academic paper and a piece that would impress a bunch of MFA students.

The one part that I loved about this book was his wife’s epilogue. I cried when I read it; it was what I hope this memoir could have been. Ms. Lucy Kalanithi’s sentences were spare, but each scene she wrote about from her life with Mr. Kalanithi were limned with intimacy, affection, and grief. It was in the epilogue that I learned about the kind of person Mr. Kalanithi really was, and felt the pain of his family at losing him.

All that being said, I’m definitely the minority here (much to my distress, since I didn’t expect to be), so I would still recommend this to people grappling with grief. I think the fact that so many others loved this book is proof that Mr. Kalanithi’s memoir is more likely than not to resonate with someone on a similar journey. However, I’d also like to recommend Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying or Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, both of which I’d picked up around the same time, and both of which had been more personally meaningful to me.

Have you read this book? What were your thoughts on it? What memoirs have really stayed with you? Let me know in the comments!

Find me on Goodreads | Read from November 3, 2019 - January 6, 2020

Mini-Review Monday #2 | I’d Rather Be Reading, How Fiction Works, and Born to Run

Hey everyone! Hope you’re all having a lovely day. Here’s another rapid-fire round of reviews on three of the nonfiction books I’ve read this January, centered around my hobbies: reading and running.

Books about Books

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel (2018)

I'd Rather Be Reading

My Rating: ★★★★☆

As a bookworm, I absolutely cannot resist are books about books. I mean, I already love reading, but when the content is also about the love of reading, it’s just pure delight. Also, I’m surrounded by people who aren’t readers, or who read for utilitarian purposes – i.e., to get information or to be “more successful” (yeah, just… no) – so sometimes I just want to be reminded that my obsessive, non-utilitarian love for reading is not odd or archaic, after all.

This book definitely hits all the right notes. Since I read this primarily to feel understood, the parts I related the most with were “The Books that Find You”, about serendipitously picking a book up at the time you most need it; “The Readers I Have Been”, about who we are as readers at different ages; “Again, for the First Time”, about the joys of rereading; “Windows to the Soul”, about how revealing your favorite books are; and finally, “Bookworm Problems”, which speaks for itself.

There are a number of quotes that I loved – I highlighted nearly all of “Bookworm Problems” – but this one stood out to me:

I feel certain of this: I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I weren’t a reader. I don’t just mean because I enjoy reading or spend so much time with my books. I mean that from an early age, and without consciously intending to, the ideas I got from books formed the interior architecture of my mind.

I felt it captures how our hobbies – the things we do for play and for pleasure – profoundly shape who we become.

In short, Ms. Bogel just gets it, and it was a relief and a delight to discover that I’m not alone in my bookish quirks. I’d really recommend this to all readers and book lovers everywhere.

Read from January 13-15, 2020 | Link to Goodreads

How Fiction Works by James Wood (2008, 2018)

How Fiction Works

My Rating: ★★★★★

James Wood is arguably one of the most (in)famous critics of our age. In this work, though, he is less of a critic than a craftsman carefully taking apart a scene or a sentence to show how beautifully wrought they are, or to remark on the workmanship of each writer.

The book is divided into sections concerning a specific aspect of fiction – narrating, detail, form, character, consciousness, language, and so on – and he tackles each with lucid prose and with generous examples from several authors (mostly from realist writers like Woolf, Chekhov, and Bellow). Wood’s attention to detail is astonishing, and by drawing the readers’ attention to the small details, I felt like he was lending me his eyes and shaping the way I’m going to read fiction. In the section on language and on the issue of mixed metaphors, for example, he cites four ways that different authors have described fire:

Lawrence, seeing a fire in a grate, writes of it as “that rushing bouquet of new flames in the chimney” (Sea and Sardinia). Hardy describes a “scarlet handful of fire” in Gabriel Oak’s cottage in Far from the Madding Crowd. Bellow has this sentence in his story “A Silver Dish”: “The blue flames fluttered like a school of fishes in the coal fire.” And Norman Rush, in his novel Mating, which is set in Botswana, has his hero come upon an abandoned village, where he sees that “cooking fires wagged in some of the lalwapas” (a lalwapa is a kind of simple African courtyard). So: a rushing bouquet (DHL); a scarlet handful of fire (TH); a school of fishes (SB); and a wagging fire (NM). Is one better than the others? Each works slightly differently. . . . (p. 209-210)

He then proceeds to detail how each succeeds, but in a different manner. Obviously, I never read fiction this closely – I can hardly remember the synopsis of a book I read a week later, let alone specific sentences in it! – so Wood’s work was also a lesson in slowing down and delighting in language.

One thing where I disagree with him, but where he makes a compelling argument, is regarding character. He dismantles Forster’s popular notion of “flat” and “round” characters and instead proposes that:

. . . the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence, and even plain plausibility—let alone likeability—than with a larger philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters. That is how readers retain in their minds a sense of the character “Isabel Archer,” even if they cannot tell you what she is exactly like. We remember her in the way we remember an obscurely significant day: something important has been enacted here. (p. 118)

This seems to be a very thin description of a character to me. I have read books where I was aware that a “character’s actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake”, like, for example, Arthur Less in Lessbut I didn’t find it very satisfying to read. I like best protagonists who are dynamic, complicated, yet understandable, and who undergo some sort of character growth.

This doesn’t mean that I like Wood’s work any less, though. Overall, his work has definitely given me something to think about, and I’m sure I’ll be referring to it again in the future.

Read from May 4-6, 2019; January 13, 2020 | Link to Goodreads


Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall (2009)

Born to Run

My Rating: ★★★★☆

I truly enjoyed this one. I started this back in September, just two weeks or so before I began my first 10k, and while I’d only read the first half at the time, I remember feeling really fired up for the race. I believe that’s the book’s strongest point—McDougall has a real passion for running, and it really shows in his writing.

In this book, Mr. McDougall’s quest to run with less pain takes him on a whirlwind adventure to meet the Tarahumara, a reclusive tribe in Mexico also nicknamed the “running people”. I enjoyed learning about the mysterious Tarahumara, and how running is deeply woven into their lives as both play and ritual. While running for most of us is a sport or a form of exercise, for the Tarahumara, it’s part of their lives – as natural as eating and breathing.

Aside from them, we also meet a cast of white people who want to pit their endurance skills against the famed tribe, and all these people are absolutely crazy about running. I mean that literally: they’ve all attempted things no sane person would – run barefoot, join ultras without proper preparation or training, and even abandon civilization for running. Mr. McDougall’s descriptions here are possibly exaggerated, but nonetheless they’re also very entertaining.

That being said, this book also espouses in this book certain philosophies and theories about running that can beg belief. Mr. McDougall advocates barefoot running and veganism, has a tendency to exaggerate (“99.9% of all runners [will never qualify for] the Boston Marathon”—really?), and ties running back to a mythical past (that human beings evolved specifically for distance running). In these points, I either disagree with him or am skeptical about his claims. Still, my rating for the book holds because his writing was fun and inspiring, and this book gives voice to my own sudden, inexplicable obsession with running. I read it mainly to hear someone articulate why they love running so much, and on that point it definitely delivered. 4 stars for the very entertaining ride.

Read from September 21, 2019 - January 10, 2020 | Link to Goodreads

Have you read any of these books, or do you have a hobby that you love reading about? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you. 🙂

Book Review: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

Bad BloodBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
My Rating: ★★★★☆
This was a highly readable, highly enjoyable piece of investigative journalism. Carreyrou probes into the history of the Silicon Valley startup Theranos, the brainchild of its CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Theranos promised to revolutionize the medical industry with technology that could run tests on only fingerpricks of blood samples instead of drawing blood from the veins. The idea attracted a lot of venture capitalists and big-name investors, like statesman Henry Kissinger. But there was one problem: The technology didn’t work.   

I found myself simultaneously horrified at the lengths Holmes and Sunny, her right-hand man and lover, went through to scam their investors and employees, and was morbidly fascinated at the sort of lies they’d spin. With each chapter, I couldn’t help wondering, How on earth are they going to get away with it this time? 

Holmes made repeated claims that a fingerprick of blood was enough for their “revolutionary blood-testing technology” to run hundreds of tests on, when in fact it could only run around 12, and even then the results weren’t accurate. This was fine when the device was in its testing phase, but then they closed million-dollar deals with clients and launched the product even when it was just a prototype. And to cover that up, they cut corners and evaded government authorities to make it happen.

Because Holmes was the only one who knew the big picture of what was going on in the company after siloing all her departments off and emphasizing, even threatening, utmost secrecy, she was able to pull it off. She rocketed into fame while lying through her teeth about it. She was even called the next Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and she idolized the latter so much that she dressed like him and named products after Apple products.

But then, it’s one thing to overhype a product that’s meant to be a piece of entertainment, like the iPhone; it’s entirely another thing to do it with healthcare. Carreyrou, towards the end, gives a short and incisive summary of the rise and fall of Theranos:

Hyping your product to get funding while concealing your true progress and hoping that reality will eventually catch up to the hype continues to be tolerated in the tech industry. But it’s crucial to bear in mind that Theranos wasn’t a tech company in the traditional sense. It was first and foremost a health-care company. Its product wasn’t software but a medical device that analyzed people’s blood.

It was fascinating to read how Holmes’s sincere and admirable vision of affordable, quick, and pain-free blood testing devolved into an all-out scam, and to see how she used both charm and manipulation to do it. 

However, I wish that Carreyrou also gave an analysis on the sort of culture in Silicon Valley that made Holmes’s rise and fall possible. He did hint at it by saying that part of Holmes’s fame was due to “the public’s hunger to see a female entrepreneur break through in a technology world dominated by men”, and he offered a brief commentary on Silicon Valley’s overpromising, “fake-it-til-you-make-it” culture, but in the end, he ultimately blamed this scam on Holmes’s manipulative, sociopathic nature. Don’t get me wrong: what she did was highly unscrupulous and harmful. But the way he described her in his epilogue made her sound like some sort of seductress who duped all these well-meaning and well-respected old men to believe in her and invest in her company. Case in point:

If anything, it was Holmes who was the manipulator. One after another, she wrapped people around her finger and persuaded them to do her bidding. The first to fall under her spell was Channing Robertson, the Stanford engineering professor whose reputation helped give her credibility when she was just a teenager. Then there was Donald L. Lucas, the aging venture capitalist whose backing and connections enabled her to keep raising money. . . . David Boies and Rupert Murdoch complete the list, though I’ve left out many others who were bewitched by Holmes’s mixture of charm, intelligence, and charisma.

Sure, she might have been charismatic and manipulative, but these aging venture capitalists are hardly innocent victims. They bought into it because, in part, they also wanted to earn a lot of money. The words “fall under her spell” put me off, since it suggests that female villains are still being framed as seducers and witches.

Despite that, I still enjoyed reading this. It was brave for former Theranos employees and for Carreyrou (who includes his own part in the narrative two-thirds into the book) to hold their own against Holmes’s and Sunny’s intimidation tactics and expensive lawsuits. I really admire the amount of work and and nerve it took to get this story out. Definitely would recommend.

Read from December 22 – 25, 2018 | Goodreads Account

Book Review: Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work by Dave Isay

CallingsCallings: The Purpose and Passion of Work by Dave Isay

Rating: ★★★★☆

I first heard of David Isay in the On Being podcast, where he was interviewed by the host Ms. Krista Tippett in “Listening as an Act of Love”. I discovered that Isay is the founder of StoryCorps, an organization dedicated to recording and sharing the stories of people from all walks of life. (I don’t live in the U.S., and I’m a bit of a hermit from social media, so it’s still pretty new to me.) I was moved by the podcast, so after I listened to the episode, I checked out StoryCorps and their available publications.

In the end, I gravitated to Callings for a very personal reason. At the time I picked it up, I found myself stuck in a job that was no longer fulfilling, while my Facebook feed (before I’d stopped going on it altogether) seemed to feature a lot of successful young entrepreneurs, or else my peers who’d inherited the family business and were currently living it up by travelling the world. I was lost and tired and I guess I was looking for permission to have a vision for myself that didn’t involve this monolithic definition of success. So Callings was exactly what I needed.

Continue reading “Book Review: Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work by Dave Isay”