ARGUABLY

ESSAYS

A new collection of essays from Hitchens (Hitch-22: A Memoir, 2010, etc.), his first since 2004.

Whether on the invasion of Iraq or the merits of Vladimir Nabokov’s fiction, master controversialist Hitchens has an informed opinion. Here he gathers a hefty helping of work over the last few years, published in venues such as the Atlantic and Vanity Fair. Sometimes his pieces concern passing matters, though they are seldom ephemeral themselves; more often he writes about what he wishes to write about, topics that require weighty but not dense (and usually not heavy-handed) consideration. On Gore Vidal, for instance, Hitchens gets in a lovely zinger worthy of Vidal himself: “The price of knowing him was exposure to some of his less adorable traits, which included his pachydermatous memory for the least slight or grudge and a very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong.” Hitchens balances old interests with new discoveries; he was one of the first to write at length about Stieg Larsson, for instance, whose death by “causes that are symptoms of modern life” he endorses. He also turns to his long-standing fascination for the totalitarian mind. He characterizes Adolf Hitler as holding opinions that are “trite and bigoted and deferential,” while “the prose in Mein Kampf is simply laughable in its pomposity.” Hitchens revels in theoretical questions and in stirring up trouble: His pieces on religion seem calculated to offend as many believers as possible, which is of course the point. Still, he is also practical, offering up some fine advice on how to argue points over a Georgetown dinner table or down at the local watering hole—just say, “Yes, but not in the South?” and, he avers, “You will seldom if ever be wrong, and you will make the expert perspire.” Vintage Hitchens. Argumentative and sometimes just barely civil—another worthy collection from this most inquiring of inquirers.

 

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4555-0277-6

Page Count: 776

Publisher: Twelve

Review Posted Online: July 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2011

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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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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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