A highly informative memoir that explores Poland and Ukraine; the book should appeal to those who revel in the poetry of...

THE ODYSSEY AND DR. NOVAK

A MEMOIR

An author recalls two academic sojourns to Eastern Europe as a visiting professor of English literature.

Before she and her parents moved to the United States in 1953, Colley (Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain, 2014, etc.) spent her first 13 years in a small town outside Manchester, England, where her father was a Unitarian minister. It was there in 1946 that she briefly met Dr. Novak, head of the Unitarian movement in Czechoslovakia. From that one encounter and contact with postwar Eastern European refugees passing through her town, she developed a fascination with their part of the world. In 1995, accompanied by her partner, Irving Massey, Colley arrived in Poland to begin her year as a senior Fulbright fellow, teaching English literature at the University of Warsaw: “Strands of communism as well as remnants of Soviet rule” were “unraveling and clumsily intertwining with the government’s increasing commitment to a Westernized economy.” In early 2000, she and Massey traveled to Ukraine, where she spent another Fulbright fellowship year teaching at the Taras Shevchenko University in Kiev. Still dependent on Russia and emotionally scarred by the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, Ukrainians were nonetheless optimistic about joining the West. This elegantly written memoir is an elaborate tapestry blending the countries’ troubled histories with the author’s in-depth observations of people, places, and customs. Colley’s keen eye for detail and her flair for the dramatic bring humor, texture, and context to pages filled with vivid imagery: “Waiting up in the trees,” gray-beaked ravens “fly down, floating, swooping, and dropping like abandoned cloth handkerchiefs conversing with the currents in the air.” Her prose displays a passion for the symphony of linguistic complexity, although sentences occasionally meander and twist along paths so long that the beginnings are forgotten by the time the ends arrive. The book, which features some photographs, is best enjoyed in intermittent doses. Still, the author depicts both her mental and physical wanderings viscerally enough for readers to feel like companions on the vibrant journey.

A highly informative memoir that explores Poland and Ukraine; the book should appeal to those who revel in the poetry of intricate prose.

Pub Date: May 22, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63152-343-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: She Writes Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2018

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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  • New York Times Bestseller

  • Pulitzer Prize Finalist

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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A potent depiction of grief, but also a book lacking the originality and acerbic prose that distinguished Didion’s earlier...

  • National Book Critics Circle Finalist

  • National Book Award Winner

  • Pulitzer Prize Finalist

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING

A moving record of Didion’s effort to survive the death of her husband and the near-fatal illness of her only daughter.

In late December 2003, Didion (Where I Was From, 2003, etc.) saw her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, hospitalized with a severe case of pneumonia, the lingering effects of which would threaten the young woman’s life for several months to come. As her daughter struggled in a New York ICU, Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a massive heart attack and died on the night of December 30, 2003. For 40 years, Didion and Dunne shared their lives and work in a marriage of remarkable intimacy and endurance. In the wake of Dunne’s death, Didion found herself unable to accept her loss. By “magical thinking,” Didion refers to the ruses of self-deception through which the bereaved seek to shield themselves from grief—being unwilling, for example, to donate a dead husband’s clothes because of the tacit awareness that it would mean acknowledging his final departure. As a poignant and ultimately doomed effort to deny reality through fiction, that magical thinking has much in common with the delusions Didion has chronicled in her several previous collections of essays. But perhaps because it is a work of such intense personal emotion, this memoir lacks the mordant bite of her earlier work. In the classics Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), Didion linked her personal anxieties to her withering dissection of a misguided culture prey to its own self-gratifying fantasies. This latest work concentrates almost entirely on the author’s personal suffering and confusion—even her husband and daughter make but fleeting appearances—without connecting them to the larger public delusions that have been her special terrain.

A potent depiction of grief, but also a book lacking the originality and acerbic prose that distinguished Didion’s earlier writing.

Pub Date: Oct. 19, 2005

ISBN: 1-4000-4314-X

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2005

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