When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

Summary from Goodreads:

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air, which features a foreword by Dr. Abraham Verghese and an epilogue by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality.

Oh my goodness, THIS BOOK!! I made the horrible, horrible mistake of finishing this book right before starting a shift at work, where I spent the next eight hours in a sort of daze, wandering around the bookshop like a zombie and struggling to process my feelings. I couldn’t bawl my eyes out (although I really wanted to). I couldn’t escape and just be alone with my thoughts. I couldn’t just go upstairs and eat away the sadness that this book made me feel. It was only later, when I came back to my apartment after work, that I fully digested what I had read.

When Breath Becomes Air is one of the most beautifully-written, honest, heartbreaking, and affecting memoirs I have ever read. I knew it was going to be an emotional investment before I even started it (come on, it’s a book written by someone who knows they are going to die soon) and it did indeed break my heart to read, but it is also incredibly life-affirming. Kalanithi’s prose is gorgeous (oh yeah, he also had an MA in English Literature btw) – it’s poetic without being pretentious, simple without being too simplistic, and there is not a trace of self-pity to be found anywhere.

I do not think you should read this book because the story of an incredibly gifted man who had his life taken away at such a young age might give you the motivation to live your life more fully. Read this book because that talented, inspiring man has some very important things to say that need to be listened to. Read this book with the knowledge that you might not always be able to understand everything someone goes through, but you can set aside the time to listen to their story and hopefully give them the dignity and respect they deserve as a human being, in life or in death.

Have you read When Breath Becomes Air? What did you think? I would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

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Sweetbitter – Stephanie Danler

“Let’s say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge sometime in 2006…”

Meet Tess: a twenty-two year old with a mundane, provincial past, who has come to New York to look for a life she can’t define. After she stumbles into a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant, we spend the year with her as she learns the chaotic, punishing, privileged life of a “backwaiter,” on duty and off. Her appetites—for food, wine, knowledge, and every kind of experience—are awakened. And she’s pulled into the magnetic thrall of two other servers—a handsome bartender she falls hard for, and an older woman she latches onto with an orphan’s ardour.

Let me just start this review by saying that I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. I heard wonderful things about it from customers and one of my colleagues described it to me as Kitchen Confidential meets Girls. What’s not to love? Being the sucker for foodie fiction that I am, I picked this one up and was very excited to read it, but I have to say that I was a little underwhelmed. That’s not to say that I totally disliked this book! In fact, I thought it had some great moments (especially in the first 100 pages), but I think it was just hyped up a bit too much.

THE GOOD:

  • If you have every worked in hospitality, this book will definitely hit home and you will be able to relate to a lot of Tess’ feelings and experiences.
  • Danler’s descriptions of food are absolutely mouthwatering, to say the least. Word of advice: do not read this book while hungry.
  • Sweetbitter is one of the few books I have read that focuses solely on the present. We learn very little about Tess’ past – we don’t even learn her name until around page 200 – and she rarely discusses or even thinks about her plans for the future. In a world where everyone seems to be overly preoccupied with the question ‘what next?’, it was quite refreshing to read a book that is 100% focused on the present.
  • The relationship between Tess and her mentor, Simone, was quite intriguing

THE BAD:

  • I did not care at all for the romance in this book. Jake, Tess’ love interest, has the personality of her favourite food item (which is toast, in case you were wondering). Side note: how does one manage to land a job at a top restaurant if one’s favourite meal is toast with peanut butter?
  • The writing is quite pretentious and overly flowery at times. I didn’t mind this so much when Danler was describing food, but at other times, it bothered me immensely.
  • None of the characters are well-developed.
  • I thought that this book tried way too hard to be edgy and contemporary. Like, what was was with the random poems that made no sense whatsoever and were totally out of context?
  • The dialogue was totally unrealistic.
  • As a side effect of being a book solely focused on the present, this book had almost no plot. Tess describes her life as a backwaiter, makes a ton of bad decisions, does a lot of cocaine, learns about food and wine, and well, that’s about it. If you’re looking for something that will keep you up all night wondering what will happen next, look elsewhere.

All in all, I thought this book was overrated, although I did enjoy some parts of it. If you’re after a good foodie book that will make your belly ache from both laughter and hunger, I’d take Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential over this one any day.

Have you read Sweetbitter? What did you think? Do you have any recommendations for good foodie books? 

~Anna

In Other Words – Jhumpa Lahiri

“Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mothertongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realise that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.” 

– Jhumpa Lahiri/Ann Goldstein, In Other Words

As someone with three passports but no true homeland, three languages yet no true mothertongue, and a very fragmented cultural identity, these words from Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful and intimate non-fiction debut resonate strongly with me and I often find myself thinking about them.

Born in London to Bengali immigrants and raised in the USA, Lahiri spent most of her childhood trying to reconcile her parents’ Bengali heritage and language with the pervasive influence of American culture and the English language. At the age of twenty-five, while working on a PhD in Renaissance Studies, Lahiri decided to learn a language that had captivated her for many years – Italian. For close to twenty years, she attended private lessons in New York, did her grammar exercises dutifully, and caught brief snippets of conversation on the subway and on her few trips to Italy, yet true mastery of the language eluded her. Finally, seeking full immersion, she moved to Rome with her family for a “trial by fire, a sort of baptism” into a new language and world.

In Rome, Lahiri began to read, and then to write solely in Italian. This book is a polished and edited version of what Lahiri wrote in her journals – a raw and intimate account of learning to express oneself in another language and the journey of a writer seeking a new voice. Presented in a dual-language format, it is a book about exile, linguistic and otherwise, written with honesty, clarity and most importantly, a powerful awareness of its own imperfection. Interestingly and quite controversially in fact, Lahiri did not attempt to translate her own writing from Italian into English, stating that she needed to sever all ties to the English language in order to fully immerse herself in the Italian language. Rather, she hired the magnificent Ann Goldstein (who I cannot praise highly enough for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels) to do this for her. Unfortunately, as I cannot read Italian, this meant that I was, in a sense, exiled linguistically from Lahiri’s words. Ironically fitting, I think (although I really wish that I could read Italian).

As someone who has spent a great deal of time learning languages, I could identify with the frustration and excitement of learning to express oneself in another language that Lahiri describes. Her writing is clumsy and repetitive at times, but Lahiri is so painfully aware of this that you can forgive her for it. I for one believe that writing in a second or third language makes one feel incredibly vulnerable and exposed, and I applaud Lahiri for her courage in publishing this book. I greatly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in language, particularly the relationship between identity and language.

Have you read this book? Or any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s other books? What did you think? I would love to hear from you. 🙂 

~Anna

Around The World in 26 Books!

Earlier this week, while talking to Tristen over at musingsfromablogabroad, I came to the realisation that the list of countries that I have read books from is shockingly short. I have read a lot of European, American, and Australian literature and, well, not that much else. It’s terrible, I know! Anyway, I’ve decided to remedy this by setting myself a challenge: I am going to try to read one book from a different country for each letter of the alphabet (i.e. A for Argentina, B for Belarus, etc).

As you can probably imagine, it gets a little tricky with letters like Q, Y and X, which is why I need your help. I thought I would post my very tentative reading list and if you have any recommendations, please let me know. I am finding it especially difficult to find Qatari, Omani and Yemeni literature that has been translated into English. Anyway, here it is!

A – Argentina, Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

B – Belarus, Chernobyl Power by Svetlana Alexievich

C – Cuba, Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

D – Denmark, Out Of Africa by Karen Blixen

E – Egypt, Arabian Days and Nights by Naguib Mahfouz

F – Finland, Under the North Star by Väinö Linna

GGreece, Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

H – Hungary, Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

I – Iran, The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat

J – Jordan, Snow in Amman: An Anthology of Short Stories from Jordan by Ibtihal Mahmood

K – Korea (South), The Vegetarian by Han Kang

L – Libya, The Return by Hisham Matar

M – Moldova, The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov

N – Nigeria, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

O – Oman, Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs by Abdulaziz al-Farsi

P – Philippines, Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal

Q – Qatar, The Holy Sail by Abdulaziz al-Mahmoud or The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia al-Maria (not sure if this one counts because she grew up in the US, Qatar and Egypt)

R – Romania, any book by Herta Müller

S – Singapore, Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe

T – Thailand, Sightseeing by Rattawut Sapcharoeasop

U – Uruguay, The Ship of Fools by Cristina Peri Rossi

V – Vietnam, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

W – Wales, Gillian Clarke: Collected Poems by Gillian Clarke

X – Mexico, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Y – Yemen, A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal

Z – Zimbabwe, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any recommendations? I would greatly appreciate your help and if any of you want to join this reading challenge, please let me know. 🙂 

~Anna

EDIT: I forgot to mention that Tristen and I will be attempting this challenge together. Well, I didn’t exactly forget – I’m just technologically challenged and couldn’t figure out how to add the link to her blog. Anyway, I figured out how to do it and you can find her blog here. I strongly recommend checking it out as her reviews are very good and she has read pretty much every book on the planet. Oh, and she is much better at posting regularly than I am.

Fight Like A Girl – Clementine Ford

Summary from Goodreads:

Online sensation, fearless feminist heroine and scourge of trolls and misogynists everywhere, Clementine Ford is a beacon of hope and inspiration to thousands of Australian women and girls. Her incendiary debut Fight Like A Girl is an essential manifesto for feminists new, old and soon-to-be, and exposes just how unequal the world continues to be for women. Crucially, it is a call to arms for all women to rediscover the fury that has been suppressed by a society that still considers feminism a threat.

I picked this book up a few months ago, read the first chapter, and then put it down again. I guess I just wasn’t really in the mood for it and it did feel a bit like reading ‘Feminism 101’. NOTE: THAT SHOULD NOT DISCOURAGE YOU FROM READING IT. A few months later, I saw it in the ‘hot picks’ section at my local library and picked it up again and I AM SO GLAD I DID.

Ford’s writing is punchy, sarcastic and incredibly accessible without dumbing down the big theoretical issues too much. In many ways this book is perfect for teenagers (I was going to write teenage girls but it’s essential that boys read this kind of stuff too) and I wish that it had been around when I was younger. If you are well-versed in feminist theory, you are unlikely to learn anything new here, but Ford’s arguments are well-summarised and she adds a personal touch to many of them by sharing her personal experiences. Importantly, Ford acknowledges that she is an able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender white woman and that unpacking privilege is an incredibly difficult but important task. Reading this book reminded me that Ford’s particular brand of feminism is not one that all women identify with and many of the ideas I take for granted are in fact quite controversial.

My key criticism of this book is that it was a bit repetitive at times. In fact, it was written like a very long Facebook rant and I would have appreciated a little more structure. This humour-driven, rant-like style works well for short, snappy pieces online or in the newspaper, but in a longer form, it can be exhausting to read. Criticisms aside, I think it is incredibly important that people read and discuss this book and I am so happy to see that it is selling so well here in Australia. Also, on a side note, Clementine is a lovely woman who often comes into the bookstore where I work and you should support her by reading and discussing her book!

Have you read Fight Like A Girl? What did you think? Would love to hear your thoughts (even and especially those that differ from mine). 

~Anna

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Summary from Goodreads:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Before I start this review, I just want to say that this book had been on my TBR list since 2013. And I finally got around to reading it! And I didn’t buy it! I borrowed it from the library (that I have lived around the corner from for over a year but didn’t join until last month because I was too busy buying books that I don’t need). How’s that for fighting tsundokism? *pats self on shoulder* Seriously though, libraries are magical havens that should be frequented much more frequently by all, especially me. Note to self: when faced with the urge to buy a book, go to the library instead.

Anyway, back to Life After Life. The book blurb suggests that the question the novel explores is: “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” While this question is posed by one of the characters, it didn’t really strike me that this is what the novel is about. Rather, it’s more about all of the paths that a person’s life can take depending on a range of factors, including their own decisions, the actions of others, and random events over which no one has control. In their impact on Ursula, these factors create a complex web of alternative realities, so that she lives different lives in parallel worlds.

Ursula’s lives can be seen as an infinite series of forks in the road of time, with each fork representing a moment of crisis and subsequent change. However, Atkinson layers Ursula’s different lives on top of each other, so that she can sense them, through déja-vu experiences, through presentiments of doom, or simply through feeling that something is not quite the way it should be. Ursula states at one point that time is like a palimpsest and this is exactly the impression that Atkinson creates. The ways in which Ursula’s lives differ one from the other are given additional force by the things that stay the same: Ursula’s essential character, the personalities of her parents and siblings, the nature of her relationships with them, the family home. With each layer of a different life, Ursula, her parents and siblings age and develop; yet they remain recognisably themselves, for good or bad.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book! It was fun, original, well-written, and thought-provoking. Parts of it were quite over the top (I mean really, Ursula shoots Hitler in the opening chapter), but I didn’t really mind at all. After reading Robert Seethaler’s lovely, quiet novel A Whole Life (you can find my review here), it was a lot of fun to read something so audacious.

That said, there were moments where I was a little disoriented, as the story jumps around in time quite a lot. Also, I thought there were some sections that dragged a little and I couldn’t help but wish for Ursula to hurry up and die already so I could read about another one of her lives. Does that make me a horrible person? Don’t get me wrong, she is not an unlikeable character – in fact, I really liked her and emphathised with her a lot – but there were moments that felt a little repetitive.

Aside from these small criticisms, I loved this book. Would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a fun-and-entertaining-but-not-trashy read.

Have you read Life After Life? What did you think about it? 

~Anna

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

In German, we have a word (Waldeinsamkeit) that roughly translates to “the feeling of woodland solitude, of being alone in the woods and contemplating one’s existence”. Replace “woodland” with “mountains” (Bergeinsamkeit, I guess) and that is what Robert Seethaler’s exquisite novel A Whole Life captures.

Andreas Egger lives almost his whole life in the Austrian Alps, where he arrives as a young boy taken in by a farming family. He is a man of very few words and so, when he falls in love with Marie, he doesn’t ask for her hand in marriage, but instead has some of his friends light her name at dusk across the mountain. When Marie dies in an avalanche, pregnant with their first child, Andreas’ heart is broken. He leaves his valley just once more, to fight in WWII – where he is taken prisoner in the Caucasus – and returns to find that modernity has reached his remote haven…

After his return, the days pass slowly, but they are not filled with sadness as one might expect. Rather, Andreas is filled with an appreciation for the world around him – the beauty of the mountains, the gift of waking up each morning and falling into a deep sleep at the end of the day, the sense of having a purpose, even if it is not quite clear. He believes sharing his love of nature might be his purpose, and so he begins to act as a guide for tourists, and for a time, he is content.

It feels as though each word in this book (it’s more of a novella, really) was chosen with great care, but there is nothing pretentious about the writing. There is joy and sadness, but it is expressed quietly, softly – as an appreciation for the smallest kindness or a muted sense of loneliness. Like John Williams’ Stoner or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, A Whole Life is a tender book about finding dignity and beauty in solitude. Simply gorgeous. Please read it.

Have you read A Whole Life? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Thanks for stopping by. 

~Anna