Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

This book had been sitting on my shelf for a while, and I’d put off reading it. I’ve desperately wanted to, but I felt the weight of its contents before I’d even put eyes to page.
Paul Kalanithi has cancer. Horrible, debilitating, quick-acting, stage IV cancer. He’s young. And he dies. This may seem like a spoiler, but you know this going in. He never really gets to fully finish his book. And yet, even knowing this, Kalanithi’s story still feels hopeful, warm, inviting.

A man whose right and left brain halves pulled equally, Kalanithi was and always had been an avid reader and lover of literature. Even though he was a neurosurgeon, he also held a Master of Arts in English literature. Writing this book gave him an opportunity to explore the part of him–the writer–that he hadn’t really ever been able to explore before. Aside from the beautiful writing, it’s the juxtaposition of science and art, faith and atheism, and the vibrancy of life even in death that moves the story forward. From a basic look at his childhood and youth to an examination of the difficulties of his career and his illness, I found the book to be thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Kalanithi’s writing is stunning, of course, but it’s his wife’s epilogue to the book that I carry with me still. She carefully and honestly discusses her husband’s death and talks about their decision to bring a child into the world knowing full well he may never live to see that baby’s first birthday. It’s her perspective on his perspective that really pulls at your heart.

This was a quick read, and I highly recommend it. Make sure you’re sitting with a box of tissues for the ending. Happy reading!

Book Review: Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

Summer is coming. Most people start thinking about swimwear and their beach bodies, but I’m over here like, What awesome books am I going to read this summer? To me, a summer book is a specific type of book. I imagine myself sprawled out on a beach towel, or lying on the couch at night while a lazy, hot breeze works its way through the house, or frantically trying to read a few pages while my kid is tearing something somewhere apart. I like a book that’s easy. Something that moves along at a clip, nothing that requires too much thinking. Some escapism, maybe.

Enter this fun little piece of pulp fiction: Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris. Now, I want to be up front with you. This book is not winning the Man Booker Prize. It’s not even the best writing. But, boy oh boy, did it sickly drag me in and keep me reading.

The description for the novel teases that this is a story about the perfect couple that isn’t quite as oh-so-perfect as they seem. True enough. Jack is a handsome lawyer, and his wife, Grace, is pretty and put together. Blah blah blah. You’ve read that beginning a thousand times. But Behind Closed Doors really takes you down a deep, dark spiral.

The book bounces back and forth between the past and the present until the two eventually meet at the end. It’s hard to tell you much about the plot line without giving away some major spoilers, so I’ll say this. The women in this book are pretty awesome. Grace’s sister, Millie, has a bit of a starring role in the women’s successes, and I appreciated that the character with Down Syndrome wasn’t portrayed as incapable or less than. Grace and Jack’s neighbor, Esther, is a sharp wit, too, whose place in the last chapter really surprised me. Even Grace herself (who may drive you nuts sometimes) gets it together and finds her strength.

What I liked about this book is that it read very quickly. There’s a lot of dialogue and action. It’s pulpy; it’s digestible; you’re both horrified and desperate to keep reading at the same time. The deepness and darkness wasn’t the obvious that I had expected. At a certain point, I was able to predict what was happening, but it didn’t bother me. The book is fun and breezy. The perfect read for toes in the sand and wind in the hair.

P.S. The audiobook is great, too! Excellent reader. Good for a summer road trip, perhaps?

Happy Reading!

Book Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

I can’t help it. I was an English major; I’m a librarian. I have to talk about books, guys. If your “to read” list looks anything like mine, it will take you years to finish reading everything you want to. I get it. I really do. But here’s another for your consideration: The Fireman by Joe Hill.

Joe Hill has been getting buzz not only for his best-selling Heart-Shaped Box, but also as Stephen and Tabitha King’s son. Deliberately choosing not to use his birth name in full, Hill started writing as anonymously as possible with the aim that his work be read and treated as something other than “that book Stephen King’s kid wrote.” Well, The Fireman is that book Stephen King’s kid wrote, and ain’t no shame in his game, it’s pretty good.

The book opens on a not-too-distant future where society has begun to crumble thanks to a sweeping epidemic called Dragonscale. When a person gets Dragonscale, their body slowly becomes covered in thin, tattoo-like swirls, but what’s worse is most who are infected slowly burn until they catch fire and combust. The world is in a permanent state of fire and smoke. No one knows for sure how you “catch” Dragonscale, but it seems to be coming for everyone.

We follow Harper through the story, and she’s possibly one of the best parts of the book. She’s capable and strong, and really doesn’t discover just how much so until she is infected with Dragonscale and becomes pregnant.

Hill does a great job of navigating a realistic, non-zombie apocalypse. The beginning of the book feels exactly how you would imagine the world beginning to end if this did in fact happen tomorrow. Things fall apart slowly with people clinging to society as they knew it. Firefighters, police officers, and doctors are in high demand. People try to keep things going (go to work, send kids to school) until it becomes nearly impossible. There is denial and confusion and a slowly permeating fear, one that reveals the type of person really living inside each of us.

As my friend Amberly points out, there is a lot of heavy-handed foreshadowing (and boy is there), but mostly it’s okay with me. I found the story to be suspenseful and engaging. The middle drags a bit through some clunky and awkward action scenes, and the end is a bit puzzling (sorry, I won’t spoil it for you!) and maybe mildly disappointing, but I’d still recommend checking it out. There’s some truly great writing and, well, all the drama of fire you could ask for. The concept is smart, and while I have no idea whether or not the science holds up, I’m willing to suspend disbelief, so kudos to Hill on that.

Not sure if I’d read a sequel, but I’m definitely interested in reading Heart-Shaped Box. Hill’s a good storyteller, and I’m looking forward to more from him.

If you’re really into fire, then you might want to check out this Fire Triangle print on our website. Science: it’s everywhere. Even in your fiction.

Happy reading!

Book Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

We’re trying out lots of different topics for our Grammatical Art blog, so I’m bringing you a book reivew. That’s right, the resident librarian is talking about books. How could I not?

Though Jon Ronson is most known for The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, I was originally introduced to him through his collection of essays, Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries. The title essay is about people going missing from cruise ships and it haunts me to this day.

In Ronson’s latest, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he explores recent, public, often ruthless shamings, many of which you probably saw on Twitter or heard people weighing in.

Ronson sets out to interview the subjects of the shaming, uncovering the stories from their point of view. Sometimes, it seems they may have been rightfully judged by society at large (as was the case of Jonah Lehrer who was outed as a plagiarist), but that’s not really Ronson’s point. He shows us how they’ve handled their ridicule, their intentions, and how they got caught up in their situation.

He also talks with Justine Sacco who tweeted before boarding a flight to South Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” When she landed, she was branded a racist and her life has been forever altered. It’s interesting to consider what happened to her post-tweet and the price she paid. Most of us read or heard about the tweet, rolled our eyes, muttered “Racist,” and moved on.

Then there’s the story of Adria Richards who tweeted a photo and called out two males at a tech conference she was attending who were making jokes about dongles (use your imagination there). They all lost their jobs (yes, including Richards), but how it ultimately shook out might surprise you. I found the story complicated and fascinating, and can remember getting into a heated discussion about it with a group of friends. Was she right to post a picture of total strangers without their permission? Did the men have a right to talk and joke about whatever they wanted when they thought they were having a private conversation? Did she have the right to not be subjected to dongle jokes while at a work conference?

Overall, Ronson digs into these so-called public shamings in a way that makes his book a fast, surprisingly compelling read. When you stop to think about the fact that literal public shamings were banned back in the days of old because they were considered a more severe punishment than even jail, it makes public shaming the age of Twitter, Facebook, and gorilla mom feel a lot different. A great, quick read for a trip on a plane or poolside this summer.

Don’t forget you can borrow books, audiobooks, and ebooks for free from your local library. Click here to find the book at a library close to you!