I’ve rather a large pile of unreviewed books I read in 2017 to catch up on, so today I have some shorter reviews for you…
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I love medical memoirs, especially surgeon’s tales, but occasionally a book will come along that will knock you sideways. When Breath Becomes Air was one of those. Paul Kalanithi was on track to becoming a top neurosurgeon in the USA when he was diagnosed with cancer. This book, finished during his last weeks, was published posthumously with an epilogue by his widow. It combines the story of his medical career with the story of his cancer and it is heart-breaking. What makes this text so special is how good a writer Kalanithi was – he had a degree in English literature amongst other qualifications obtained before turning to medicine. (Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh read PPE first too…) Here are a couple of favourite quotes:
When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.
…it is important to be accurate, but you must always leave some room for hope. Rather than saying, “Median survival is eleven months” or “You have a ninety-five oercent change of being dead in two years,” i’d say, “Most patients live many months to a couple of years.” This was, to me, a more honest description. The problem is that you can’t tell an individual patient where she sits on the curve: Will she die in six months or sixty? I cam to believe that it is irresponsible to be more precise than you can be accurate.
This is an elegant and moving book, and the medical world will surely miss Kalanithi. (10/10)
Source: Own copy. Buy from Amazon UK here.
Chemistry by Weike Wang
Described as a coming of age story set in a chemistry lab, this debut is an off-beat novel about a young woman’s indecisiveness. She, our narrator, is a Chinese immigrant only child on a post-grad chemistry programme at an elite Boston university. She lives with one of her lab partners, Eric, and in the opening lines he asks her to marry him – her reply: “Ask me again tomorrow.” That reply is symptomatic of their relationship as she struggles with their chemistry. Everything’s going well for Eric (also an only child) in the lab, whereas she is struggling to get the results she needs, and has a tendency to see things in a very literal, scientific way…
Eric has mixed feelings about being an only child.
This is because he has a family that loves him too much. From kindergarten to sixth grade, his mother puts handwritten notes in his lunch box. She writes things like You are my sun and stars.
That’s sweet, I say, until I think more about the phrase.
You cannot be two things at once: You are not light, both wave and particle. You are not Schrodinger’s cat, both dead and alive.
She always takes the scientist’s view of things, which leads to more philosophical musings:
The optimist sees the glass half full. The pessimist sees the glass half empty. The chemist sees the glass completely full, half in liquid state and half in gaseous, both of which are probably poisonous.
Her malaise grows, her research flounders, and her relationship with Eric is faltering. She has to ask herself what she really wants. This bittersweet novel follows her from the moment of that proposal over the next two years… Does she find it? This novel reminded me of Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation (reviewed here) with a younger protagonist and longer sections, but sharing that sense of self-analysis with the scientific wise-cracking paralells. (8/10)
Source: Own copy. Weike Wang – Chemistry (Knopf, May 17) Hardback, deckle edges, 211 pages. Buy from Amazon UK here.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
I’m not sure whether I’ve read a book by Graham Swift or not, but after devouring this novella one morning in bed, I ought to search my shelves for more. The cover presents an intriguing mismatch between the novel’s title and the sensual Modigliani nude; I started reading and it’s the latter that dominates:
But she watched him now move, naked but for a silver signet ring, across the sunlit room. She would not later in life use with any readiness, if at all, the word ‘stallion’ for a man. But such he was. He was twenty-three and she was twenty-two. And he was even what you might call a thoroughbred, though she did not have that word then, any more than she had the world stallion. She did not yet have a million words. Thoroughbred: since it was ‘breeding’ and ‘birth’ that counted with his kind. Never mind to what actual purpose.
It’s a Sunday morning in 1924 – Mothering Sunday. Our narrator, Jane Fairchild, a maid – has the day off – but no mother to visit. Instead, she meets Paul Sheringham, the son of her master’s neighbours, for a morning’s bliss. He will join his family and fiancée’s family at Henley later, but first there is Jane. He will, eventually leave before her letting her have a while to herself to luxuriate on her own before setting off back to the Niven’s house.
Jane narrates her story of that fateful day from her old age, looking back with hindsight at this turning point, and how it led to a different path for her own life. It is a sensual tale, but also moving with a sting in its tail. Exquisitely developed, this is a short novel to savour. (9/10)
Source: Own copy. Graham Swift – Mothering Sunday (Scribner, 2016) paperback, 160 pages. Buy from Amazon UK here.