Sharp, elegant cultural analysis.

WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE?

ESSAYS

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for her novels, Robinson (The Givenness of Things: Essays, 2015, etc.) gathers trenchant essays about faith, values, and history, most delivered as lectures at religious institutions and universities from 2015 to 2017.

Speaking at the University of Virginia, the author told her audience that she discovered, in an article on the internet, a description of herself as personifying “unhipness,” a quality that she cheerfully embraces. “I am in my seventies, I was born in Idaho, I live in Iowa, I teach in a public university, and I am a self-professed Calvinist,” she admits. Her unhipness, though, was given as a warning that readers “will find thinking that is very unlike their own.” This fear of contradictory ideas Robinson finds deeply disturbing: history is filled with “erasures and omissions,” she asserts, which skew our understanding of our shared heritage. In several essays, for example, she points to mistaken beliefs about capitalism, American exceptionalism, slavery, and the Puritans. “The convention,” she writes, “is that Puritan culture was stunted intellectually, emotionally, and morally by the religious tradition that also founded Harvard and, of course, Yale, to name only local examples of their remarkable institution-building and their devotion to learning.” In an essay about freedom of conscience, Robinson characterizes “Early American historiography” as “a toxic compound of cynicism and cliché, so false that it falsifies by implication the history of the Western world.” She blames nostalgia for the conviction that America “must once have had the authenticity and fellow feeling supposedly to be derived from a common stock,” emphasizing the ethnic and religious diversity that flourished since Colonial times. Robinson is at her most lyrical when writing about Barack Obama, whom she much admires and believes to have been the ideal president for 21st-century America: “dignified, gracious, competent, and humane,” showing endurance “more than heroic.” The author also writes with rueful anger about the vicious slander that her mother saw on Fox News.

Sharp, elegant cultural analysis.

Pub Date: Feb. 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-28221-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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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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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“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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