When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

“There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”

5/5 stars.
Hardcover, 229 pages.
Read from July 8, 2021 to July 13, 2021.

It’s not very often that a book can marry literature, science, and philosophy together and it’s even rarer when it’s a memoir. Then again, the author of this book also seemed to be a rare human being. One that was taken from this world far too soon.

Losing someone you love to cancer is an exclusive club that nobody wants to be a part of, in that only those who have known the pain of it can truly relate to it. At the same time, it becomes such a defining and all-consuming part of your life that you can’t help but also be drawn to anything relating to it. This is how this book found my reading list.

The opening foreword by Abraham Verghese gives you your first powerful impression of what Paul was like and draws you in from the first page. Paul Kalanithi was an accomplished neurosurgeon whose first love was writing and reading, a venture that almost had him become a professor instead of a surgeon. He found himself in the medical field due to his own questions of life and death, often brought on by the literature that he read. Initially thinking he’d do psychiatry, Paul fell in love with neurosurgery and became one of the best. When Paul was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, his deep intrigue with life and death took a whole new meaning.

Despite his illness, Paul decided to continue doing what he does best, being a neurosurgeon. Paul gives the details of how he came to medicine and how he grew as a physician, not hiding his faults as he progressed in the field. His diagnosis changed him from a practitioner to a patient and it gave him a wholly different perspective on his patients and the type of care he and the system provided. Paul and his wife decided to try for a child despite his dire situation, a child he was able to see and spend time with for a few brief and magical months. He started with the hope of leaving his daughter something of him in writing this book.

Paul melds his talent and passion for writing with his ideas on science, death, and dying creating this moving and masterful work. I am so thankful he shared his ideas and vulnerabilities with the world as this book has left a lasting impression on me, as it has, no doubt for many others. Paul faced death with an immense appreciation for life and what he had and made the most out of every second, a lesson that he shared through his writing. Actively living and actively dying are two sides of the same coin and the side that you want is one of your choosing.

This book feels incomplete because it is. Paul had so much more to share with the world and with his family but cancer cut his life short. Isn’t that always the way of things, though? Never enough time. While poets have been writing on this topic for more than a century, Paul’s story is a modern telling of the beauty and fleetingness of life.

This book is suitable and recommended for any human but I think especially those going through times of struggle or transition. Paul’s words are raw, comforting, and a gentle reminder of what we have to be grateful for while exploring death and life’s meaning.

Blankets by Craig Thompson

“We experience a discomfort that may be foreign to others, but that pain opens up a world of beauty. Wouldn’t you think?”

5/5 stars.
Paperback, 592 pages.
Read from June 21, 2021 to June 22, 2021.

Childhood and youth are often reflected on with nostalgia as we age, even for those who have had difficult upbringings. Craig Thompson’s Blankets is a coming of age story in which he reflects on his youth with reverence, sadness, longing, and regret.

Craig grew up in Wisconsin in a strict Christian household with his parents and younger brother. Craig and his brother grew up like a lot of brothers do, a mix of roughhousing, shenanigans, and rivalry but as Craig gets older he comes to some harsh realisations about the abuse that occurred in within family, a weight that he still carries. As Craig enters his teenage years he is an awkward youth who has yet to find his place among his peers. During a stint at a Christian camp for teens, he meets a curious and intriguing young woman named Raina. As Craig and Raina get to know each other, their blossoming love is beautifully described with all the familiar intensity of a teen relationship, both sexually and emotionally. However, Raina comes from her own troubled home and while the two of them maintain a long-distance relationship, their home and family lives make it difficult to maintain. Craig’s relationship with also God begins to change, as he questions and grapples with the experiences and discussions he has with Raina.

The artwork colour scheme used by the author creates a perfect dream-like tone and mimics the blustery winter weather of Wisconsin as well as the fondness and frustration of being a teenager. Craig’s work is insightful, poetic, honest, and highly relatable. The story itself doesn’t feel tragic, though it has elements of tragedy, instead, it’s Craig’s matter-of-fact recollection of times gone and of moments of love, growth, and regret that he still holds close to his heart.

At first glance, this novel may look intimidatingly large but its content and beautiful imagery is devour-worthy and makes for a quick and pleasurable read. A highly recommended read to graphic novel lovers or for those looking to enter the genre.

The Choice by Dr. Edith Eva Eger

“Our painful experiences aren’t a liability—they’re a gift. They give us perspective and meaning, an opportunity to find our unique purpose and our strength.”

5/5 stars.
ebook, 304 pages.
Read from June 10, 2021 to June 21, 2021.

I have always enjoyed books about the holocaust or WWII, whether it’s a memoir, a historical fiction, or a piece of non-fiction, I never seem to tire of them. Even among holocaust memoirs, Dr. Eger’s story is unique.

Edith was a dancer and gymnast who was likely to compete in the upcoming Olympic gymnast when the Nazi’s came to Hungary. She was only sixteen years old when her whole world was torn apart. Having been separated from her parents, who were sent to the gas chamber at Auschwitz, Edith was fortunate enough to still be with her sister. Edith counted the few blessings she had in Auschwitz. At one point Mengele himself selects her to dance and rewards her with a loaf of bread that she shares with her Jewish companions. Nearing the end of the war, Edith and her sister were transferred to Mauthausen and Gunskirchen camps in Austria, of which they barely came out alive when the American troops started liberating the camps in 1945. However, Edith and her sister’s suffering is far from over. Edith now has the insurmountable task of coming to terms with her trauma, something that would take her decades to comprehend. Edith marries and starts a family and despite a business arrangement that would have her family move further into another war-stricken country, she makes the bold decision to take her family to America, a choice that puts tension between her and her husband. Edith and her family suffer greatly the first few years in America, from learning English to trying to make a living, and even as the years pass Edith refuses to talk about what happened to her. She blames her misery on her husband and eventually leaves him and begins to pursue her education in psychology. Her educational journey also makes her look at her own traumas and the traumas of others in a different light. She chose to use her suffering as a lesson, a gift, in which she can find value and joy in aspects of her life she never imagined. Lessons that she now passes on to the people she treats.

“Your pain matters and is worth healing, you can choose to be joyful and free.” 

What made Dr Eger’s story so unique is that she also includes stories of some of the people that she treated over the years that left an impression on her and how it intermingled with her own healing journey as well as her impressive ability to forgive and reap what life has given her despite the difficult hand she was dealt. Edith was also able to meet Viktor E. Frankl, the author of Man’s Search For Meaning, which also played an important part in her journey. Edith is a solid storyteller and writer making it easy for readers to be drawn into her story. As a reader, you mourn with her as she comes to terms with the shattered hope she held onto while in the camp after her release, the mourning of her parents, her youth, and all her lost potential as an athlete and Olympian and how she ultimately addresses these emotions. Edith chooses to take what life has given her and turn it into a gift, to turn her suffering into joy and use what she knows to help others deal with their grief and trauma.

If you have not read this book and are interested in holocaust memoirs add this one to your list now. Not only is Edith’s story amazing and equally inspiring, but she also continues to try and improve other people’s lives with her work, TED talks, and continued community events with which she always ends by showing off her high-kick despite her being well into her 90s. The Choice is a true testament to the power of our minds and the strength of will our choices can have.