A powerful text that floods the mind with illumination—and with agonizing questions.

NATURAL CAUSES

AN EPIDEMIC OF WELLNESS, THE CERTAINTY OF DYING, AND OUR ILLUSION OF CONTROL

Ehrenreich (Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything, 2014, etc.) returns with research and rumination on the complexity of our human bodies and the misconceptions of our minds.

The author has a doctorate in cellular immunology, and throughout the text, she employs the erudition that earned her degree, the social consciousness that has long informed her writing, and the compassion that endears her to her many fans. Ehrenreich leads us through the recent biomedical research that shows us, among other things, that our immune systems can turn on us, actually easing (rather than preventing) the spread of cancer cells. Elsewhere, she writes about the puzzles of menstruation (why do human women bleed far more than other creatures?), autoimmune diseases, and the pervasive belief that we can control our lives. “We are not,” she writes, “the sole authors of our destinies or of anything else.” The author also explores the social and cultural aspects of health and aging: She notes how wealthier, healthier people look upon the poor—who are more likely to smoke and eat poorly—with moral disdain. She goes after the medical establishment for what she believes are superfluous, redundant tests and procedures, and she assails the self-help industry for our currently dominant, and often unhelpful, ideas of selfhood and wellness. Ehrenreich sees the body-mind connection as incredibly complex and discusses the odd notion that cells often do what they want rather than what they’re “supposed” to do. The author will certainly not endear herself to the pious among us; her discussions of the origins and evolution of religious ideas are hardly orthodox. Mostly, she urges that we recognize that death is natural, that we enjoy our lives while we can, and that we disabuse ourselves of any self-serving notions of post-mortem permanence or even influence.

A powerful text that floods the mind with illumination—and with agonizing questions.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4555-3591-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Twelve

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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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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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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