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. 23, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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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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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.


“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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