A digressive, lyrical meditation on the meaning of memory.

TRAPPED IN THE PRESENT TENSE

MEDITATIONS ON AMERICAN MEMORY

Rescuing the past to inform the present.

Lamenting a culture “prone to forgetfulness” and characterized by rapidly accelerating events, Brooks asserts the need to frame experience in history. “The most useful formulation going forward,” she writes, “may be a phrase, just four words, easy to remember when all the details have disappeared. It will likely as not apply to almost any conceivable contingency.” Those words: “Here we go again.” Considering the apparent eruption of gun violence, for example, Brooks notes that the nearly 2,000 mass shootings that occurred in the U.S. between 2014 to 2019 emerged from a nation beset by violence and awash in guns even since its earliest days. In 1966—three years after the JFK assassination and with scenes of the Vietnam War widely televised—Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old architectural engineering student, climbed a tower at the University of Texas and enacted the first modern mass shooting, killing 16 and wounding 23. Therefore, writes the author, subsequent mass shooting—Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Columbine, Las Vegas—may not have been as random as they seemed. As Brooks excavates the past, she considers the changing natures of secrecy and privacy as well as the impetus to self-disclosure that has impelled obsessive diarists for generations. She looks at the ubiquity of data collection, asking what statistics reveal and what they hide. Although thousands of snapshots amassed on smartphones record “fitful movements of memory,” neither data nor snapshots, Brooks believes, can capture the fullness of stories: Only stories can keep the past from becoming “an abstraction.” “As oblivion approaches,” she writes, “it may be time to go old school, to tell stories that slow the acceleration down, to practice acts of true attention. In this way, we might keep alive one of the only old questions that still matters: How did all this happen?”

A digressive, lyrical meditation on the meaning of memory.

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-64009-332-4

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2021

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A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

Sedaris remains stubbornly irreverent even in the face of pandemic lockdowns and social upheaval.

In his previous collection of original essays, Calypso (2018), the author was unusually downbeat, fixated on aging and the deaths of his mother and sister. There’s bad news in this book, too—most notably, the death of his problematic and seemingly indestructible father at 96—but Sedaris generally carries himself more lightly. On a trip to a gun range, he’s puzzled by boxer shorts with a holster feature, which he wishes were called “gunderpants.” He plays along with nursing-home staffers who, hearing a funnyman named David is on the premises, think he’s Dave Chappelle. He’s bemused by his sister Amy’s landing a new apartment to escape her territorial pet rabbit. On tour, he collects sheaves of off-color jokes and tales of sexual self-gratification gone wrong. His relationship with his partner, Hugh, remains contentious, but it’s mellowing. (“After thirty years, sleeping is the new having sex.”) Even more serious stuff rolls off him. Of Covid-19, he writes that “more than eight hundred thousand people have died to date, and I didn’t get to choose a one of them.” The author’s support of Black Lives Matter is tempered by his interest in the earnest conscientiousness of organizers ensuring everyone is fed and hydrated. (He refers to one such person as a “snacktivist.”) Such impolitic material, though, puts serious essays in sharper, more powerful relief. He recalls fending off the flirtations of a 12-year-old boy in France, frustrated by the language barrier and other factors that kept him from supporting a young gay man. His father’s death unlocks a crushing piece about dad’s inappropriate, sexualizing treatment of his children. For years—chronicled in many books—Sedaris labored to elude his father’s criticism. Even in death, though, it proves hard to escape or laugh off.

A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-316-39245-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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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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