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.

Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

A creative memoir on the presumed life of an absent mother.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 265 pages.
Read from February 28, 2019 to March 1, 2019.

Anaïs never knew her mother’s mother, Susanne, nor did her mother, really. After her grandmother’s passing Anaïs hired a private detective to get the details on why her grandmother was such a fleeting presence in her family’s life. Short-listed for Canada Reads 2019, this is a creative memoir taken from the facts gathered by the private detective in an attempt to piece together the life a woman who abandoned her two young children and caused a void in her family that is felt for generations. The book will be defended by Yanic Truesdale during the Canada Reads 2019 debates at the end of March.

canada-reads-2019-yanic-truesdale
Yanic Truesdale will be defending Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette during the debates taking place on March 25-29, 2019.

Susanne was originally written in French under the title, La femme qui fuit (The Woman Who Ran Away) and has been beautifully translated into English by Rhonda Mullins. Bravo to Rhonda who has managed to capture the poetic prose of this story in translation.

Susanne is successfully written in the second person and reads like an elegant poem of yearning as Anaïs envisions her grandmother throughout the different stages of her life. The book is far from accusatory and it reads like a real memoir in many aspects. The yearning is for forgiveness, understanding, and for the answer to the one question that neither the author or her mother get an answer to, why did Susanne leave?

Susanne led a tumultuous and intriguing life that included the great depression, political and art revolutions, alcoholism, homelessness, asylums and more. Even with the details unearthed from Susanne’s life, the author can still only speculate as to what drove her to her decisions and imagine how she might have felt in different parts of her life. Why did Susanne decide to abandon her two children, one of whom is Anaïs’ mother, after giving them such tender care for a few years? And then show up at Anaïs’ birth and a few small moments in her mother’s life? Guilt? Remorse? Forced responsibility? As Anaïs speculates, Susanne may have lived with guilt but ultimately may not have been able to face the choices she made, to which, Anaïs forgives her.

What’s the most moving about this book is the wonderful poetic prose which makes for a highly readable book that is easy to connect with. Anaïs is an immensely talented writer whose writing it literary and stimulating while also being highly accessible. I truly enjoyed this novel and felt entwined with Susanne’s gripping story, even if it is only through the speculative hope of her granddaughter.

This engrossing story is going to give the other contender’s in the Canada Reads 2019 debate a run for their money and I am looking forward to hearing how it is received.