A Helter Skelter for our time, though without a hint of sensationalism—unsettling in the extreme but written with confidence...

THE LONG SHADOW OF SMALL GHOSTS

MURDER AND MEMORY IN AN AMERICAN CITY

A haunted, haunting examination of mental illness and murder in a more or less ordinary American city.

The small ghosts of debut author Tillman’s title are those of three young children, innocent of any wrongdoing, who were killed in March 2003 by a drugged, arguably insane young man, the father of one of the victims, and his common-law wife. And not just killed: apparently convinced that the children were possessed, John Allen Rubio stabbed them repeatedly and decapitated them. Not for nothing is one of the chapters titled “Don’t Read This Chapter Before Going to Bed”: the facts of the case are horrific. A journalist working in Brownsville, Texas, when the case occurred, Tillman writes of her initial reluctance to engage the story. “I had never been drawn to tragic crimes,” she writes. “Like many people, I pushed them out of mind when I could. It was easier to box them up and store them on a mental shelf of humanity’s worst moments.” Moreover, the media plays these tragic crimes for a time and then shelves them, moving on to the next atrocity. But what of the actors in the crime? Tillman looks deeply into the life and mind of Rubio, with whom she corresponded as he idled on death row, alternately convinced that he was the hero of the piece and aware of his guilt. The author raises or intimates difficult questions as she hears out Rubio, whose insanity defense was unsuccessful: what is it about our kind that makes us do such awful things? How does a community where an awful crime has been committed work toward healing after the cameras have been packed up and the reporters’ notepads put away? How much compassion does a mentally ill person who has murdered deserve? Tillman’s narrative, mature and thoughtful, eventually forces readers to examine the justice of the death penalty itself.

A Helter Skelter for our time, though without a hint of sensationalism—unsettling in the extreme but written with confidence and deep empathy.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5011-0425-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Jan. 26, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 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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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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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

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 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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