A superbly nuanced portrait of a tortured character.

SIMONE WEIL

A PENGUIN LIFE

A lucid portrait of the enigmatic French writer and mystic.

With this volume, Gray (At Home with the Marquis de Sade, 1998, etc.) adds to the considerable success already achieved by the Penguin series of brief biographies. Weil makes for a challenging subject: Her writing is relatively unknown in the US, and in many respects her life was her most ambitious work. Born into a prosperous Jewish family in 1909, she eventually found fulfillment through a combination of extreme asceticism, solidarity with the working class, and Catholicism. At 16 she wrote, “Sacrifice is the acceptance of pain, the refusal to obey the animal in oneself, and the will to redeem suffering men through voluntary suffering.” And suffer she did: lifelong migraines, anorexia, and a tendency—perhaps subconscious—towards self-mutilation. As Gray observes, for Weil “the cult of self-mastery could all too readily become self-destructive.” Despite her cultivation of personal misery, Weil achieved a great deal. A brilliant student, she went on to considerable success as a schoolteacher, and offered free courses to working people in her spare time. She also spent a year working in various factories, where she attempted (with increasing disillusionment) to help the workers organize. Despite her sympathies with the working class (and her service with the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War), Weil was an early critic of Stalin and the Communist Party. Her position reflected a deep suspicion of power: A keen student of Machiavelli and Hobbes, she realized that those in power, whatever their professed beliefs, quickly become concerned primarily with self-perpetuation at the cost of social advancement. Towards the end of her brief life (she died at 34), Weil became deeply attached to Catholic doctrine, but she was reluctant to identify herself with any religion and deliberately chose not to be baptized. Many of her most important essays date from her final years and concern her search (never fully realized) for redemption.

A superbly nuanced portrait of a tortured character.

Pub Date: June 25, 2001

ISBN: 0-670-89998-4

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2001

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Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

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UNTAMED

More life reflections from the bestselling author on themes of societal captivity and the catharsis of personal freedom.

In her third book, Doyle (Love Warrior, 2016, etc.) begins with a life-changing event. “Four years ago,” she writes, “married to the father of my three children, I fell in love with a woman.” That woman, Abby Wambach, would become her wife. Emblematically arranged into three sections—“Caged,” “Keys,” “Freedom”—the narrative offers, among other elements, vignettes about the soulful author’s girlhood, when she was bulimic and felt like a zoo animal, a “caged girl made for wide-open skies.” She followed the path that seemed right and appropriate based on her Catholic upbringing and adolescent conditioning. After a downward spiral into “drinking, drugging, and purging,” Doyle found sobriety and the authentic self she’d been suppressing. Still, there was trouble: Straining an already troubled marriage was her husband’s infidelity, which eventually led to life-altering choices and the discovery of a love she’d never experienced before. Throughout the book, Doyle remains open and candid, whether she’s admitting to rigging a high school homecoming court election or denouncing the doting perfectionism of “cream cheese parenting,” which is about “giving your children the best of everything.” The author’s fears and concerns are often mirrored by real-world issues: gender roles and bias, white privilege, racism, and religion-fueled homophobia and hypocrisy. Some stories merely skim the surface of larger issues, but Doyle revisits them in later sections and digs deeper, using friends and familial references to personify their impact on her life, both past and present. Shorter pieces, some only a page in length, manage to effectively translate an emotional gut punch, as when Doyle’s therapist called her blooming extramarital lesbian love a “dangerous distraction.” Ultimately, the narrative is an in-depth look at a courageous woman eager to share the wealth of her experiences by embracing vulnerability and reclaiming her inner strength and resiliency.

Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-0125-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Dial Books

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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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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