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THE GIRL AT THE BAGGAGE CLAIM

EXPLAINING THE EAST-WEST CULTURE GAP

While Jen’s findings are undoubtedly intriguing, she is not fully convincing in her portrayal of the modest, hardworking...

A Chinese-American novelist and essayist investigates how culture shapes identity.

Award-winning writer Jen (Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Independent Self, 2013, etc.) continues the inquiry of her last nonfiction book, in which she examined differences in Eastern and Western writing and art. Here, drawing on abundant research from psychology and sociology, the author probes East-West distinctions in self-definition and community. These distinctions are so profound, she asserts, that they affect personal relationships, teaching, storytelling, architecture, and even “our ideas about law, rehabilitation, religion, freedom, and choice.” In the individualistic West, Jen argues, the self is “a kind of avocado, replete with a big pit on which it is focused.” In the collectivist East, the “flexi-self” is interdependent, “a context-focused self, oriented toward serving something larger than itself.” Whereas the big pit self believes that individual ability and drive lead to achievement, the flexi-self, Jen asserts, “starts with debt” to parents, teachers, and community. The flexi-self is more attuned to patterns than to “the strange and novel”; the Chinese, therefore, are not “divergent thinkers—thinkers who can easily generate novel uses for a brick, say, or a tree branch,” but rather can adapt others’ ideas to their own needs. Jen makes much of the Chinese college admission exam, in which students’ success is supported by the entire nation. Traffic noise is forbidden so as not to disturb the test-takers, and taxi drivers offer students free rides to the exam site. Yet despite the “self-sacrificing help” of parents and teachers, students are under extreme pressure to perform, since their entire future depends on admission to an elite college. In asserting that American schools “concentrate more on imagination and resourcefulness”—big pit traits—Jen ignores the competition for top nursery schools, emphasis on resume-building extracurricular activities, and intense test-prep tutoring that mark the experiences of many students.

While Jen’s findings are undoubtedly intriguing, she is not fully convincing in her portrayal of the modest, hardworking flexi-self and the big pit self “with high self-esteem and a lack of stick-to-it-ness.”

Pub Date: March 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-101-94782-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 22, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 5, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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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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