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OVER THE LIP OF THE WORLD

AMONG THE STORYTELLERS OF MADAGASCAR

McElroy (A Long Way from St. Louie, 1997, etc.) recounts her visit to Madagascar, where she hunts and gathers the island’s oral traditions, tapping both the journey and the stories for their sense of magic, their “ancient time.” The University of Washington poet went to the African island country to immerse herself in the fables, legends, myths, and song-poems of village folk artists, not as ethnography but out of love and appreciation. Most of the tales she retells are quick on their feet and short-lived and, not rarely, obscure in an untroubling way. As with most folklore, they contain elements that require listeners to suspend disbelief and accept a certain level of magic at play in order to garner the story’s gift, which often revolves around examples of bravery, morality, responsibility—the wisdom of ancestors. The stories also encompass origin myths, or pose as brief expressions of larger truths: why dogs chase cats, how a child should speak to an adult, how tricksters plot revenge, how places get their names, why and how spouses cheat on each other. Included as well is a sampler of contemporary Malagasy poetry. Cradling the stories is the filigreed narrative of McElroy’s journey through the island. She displays a fine talent for description—the wealth of colors in a clouded sky, “the suddenness of open space,” the bustle of a cattle market, “the waxy scent of dust” in a drowsy noontime square, the way “the sun, filtered through mist, washed the houses in bloodstreaks”—her words, like the landscape, lush to skeletal, allowing readers to call up each place and fix it in their mind’s eye. She also displays a tart humor about all the many vexations of travel, giving her memories an enviable buoyancy. A piquant glimpse into Malagasy storytelling, set to advantage by the kind of poised writing that makes one slow down, read carefully, savor. (Color and b&w photos)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-295-97824-4

Page Count: 350

Publisher: Univ. of Washington

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1999

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

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

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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. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

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

“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. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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