LETTERS FROM THE FIELD, 1925-1975

When Margaret Mead left for Samoa in 1925, she had never been abroad, never spoken a foreign language, never spent a day alone. These letters were intended to acquaint a close circle of family and friends with the nature of her work—arranging housing, accumulating children's drawings, tending the sick, negotiating for simple translations and access to rituals. In Samoa she finds the food starchy, the expectation of regular speeches exhausting. En route to Manus, she marvels at the wonders of Pidgin; once there, she contends with "crazy circumlocutions," avid native traders, and an informant "who is five feet six of sulky uselessness most of the time." In New Guinea, Mead and Reo Fortune use salt as currency and master 24 third-person pronouns. Bali has dancing, cockfights, and seven-hour cremations. By the Fifties, her audience enlarged by professional associations and the miracle of photocopiers, the letters are somewhat more formal but equally fluent; altogether, they document the evolution of an attitude and the refinement of techniques that now support anthropology. For even as she records the particulars, she fixes on the larger scene—the delicate relationship between fieldworker and subject. And many years later, returning with videotape instead of notebook to observe willing changeovers to 20th-century lifestyles, she meets past informants, reflects on transitions, and urges this graceful recognition: "when one works in a culture in which the people become literate, one's own work becomes part of their sense of their own history." Written in the unencumbered style of Blackberry Winter, with the same regard for paradox and continuities, her letters furnish a vivid, uncensored overview of emerging sensitivities and the shaping of a discipline.

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1977

ISBN: 0060958049

Page Count: 420

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 21, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1977

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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

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

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. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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