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: 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!