An elegant, intensive study that grapples with an enormous idea: how to be good.



A multilayered, intimate look at what creates a “peace enclave” amid terrible violence.

Pursuing her research into how “even powerless-seeming people can find ways to resist the will of a violent state,” anthropologist and essayist Paxson (Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village, 2005) delved into Holocaust studies and ultimately focused on one peculiar region in France, Plateau Vivarais-Lignon. From the early centuries of religious war, when the region protected Protestants, to World War II, when there was a school of refugees sheltering hundreds of Jewish children, to today, when a thriving center for asylum-seekers houses innumerable refugees from places like Congo, Rwanda, and Chechnya, the cluster of villages possesses a remarkable history of “heroic altruism.” In order to tell the story of this extraordinary community, the author immersed herself in the history of the small rural area, somewhat isolated at 3,000 feet, full of farmers and sheep herders. Specifically, she absorbed the tragic wartime fate of Daniel Trocmé, who arrived to run a home for refugee children in the French backwoods in the fall of 1942. As he wrote to his parents, he wanted “to be part of the reconstruction of the world. I…wish not to be ashamed of myself.” Paxson is meticulous in her attention to fieldwork detail: the way people live, their language, the choices people make in times of violence when communities tend to close doors and “act in such a way as to maximize the best outcomes for ourselves.” Yet the opposite happened on the Plateau, where people sheltered the strangers as the Nazi occupiers made strangers enemies to be annihilated. The many layers in this engrossing, almost suspenseful work involve the author’s evolving relationships with the current refugee families at the asylum center, the revealing letters Trocmé sent to his family delineating his blooming personality and sense of purpose, and the author’s own growing determination in her research. Throughout, Paxson keeps asking questions and probing, never settling for assumptions.

An elegant, intensive study that grapples with an enormous idea: how to be good.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-59463-475-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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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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