An unsettling history of horrific events whose memory is still fresh.

TRIAL BY FIRE

A DEVASTATING TRAGEDY, 100 LIVES LOST, AND A 15-YEAR SEARCH FOR TRUTH

Exposition of a tangled tragedy about which it took “years before anyone knew what really happened—and who was truly to blame.”

It all happened in 90 seconds: a 2003 conflagration in a Rhode Island nightclub that killed 100 people and badly injured many more and that stands today, James notes, as “the nation’s deadliest rock concert.” Name a cause, though, and you enter Rashomon territory, with many contributing factors, ranging from a local culture in which “it was a badge of honor to figure out how to manipulate the system to one’s advantage” to the installation of improper building materials and perhaps willful violations of building codes. Two brothers owned The Station nightclub but were preparing to sell it when the band Great White played there. When the band’s road manager set off a pyrotechnic display, a foam-clad wall caught fire, and within that short span of time, nearly everyone who had been inside had died or been severely injured. The author’s account is minutely detailed, its technical discussions punctuated by human-interest-story portraits of the victims; it is often repetitive, sometimes to emphasize a point, sometimes seemingly carelessly. What emerges from the story is a blend of cascading effects and unintended consequences: The flammable foam had been installed in an effort to deal with neighbors’ complaints about noise, for instance, and the nightclub had no sprinkler system—though sprinklers weren’t required by code and the “deadly danger was never noticed” during multiple fire inspections. Considering James’ exhaustive examination of the facts and the back-and-forth argumentation regarding fault, it is surprising that the legal consequences were not more severe—the fire inspector, for example, received a raise from the town and then retired early on disability—or more broadly distributed.

An unsettling history of horrific events whose memory is still fresh.

Pub Date: Oct. 27, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-13126-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2020

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A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

Sedaris remains stubbornly irreverent even in the face of pandemic lockdowns and social upheaval.

In his previous collection of original essays, Calypso (2018), the author was unusually downbeat, fixated on aging and the deaths of his mother and sister. There’s bad news in this book, too—most notably, the death of his problematic and seemingly indestructible father at 96—but Sedaris generally carries himself more lightly. On a trip to a gun range, he’s puzzled by boxer shorts with a holster feature, which he wishes were called “gunderpants.” He plays along with nursing-home staffers who, hearing a funnyman named David is on the premises, think he’s Dave Chappelle. He’s bemused by his sister Amy’s landing a new apartment to escape her territorial pet rabbit. On tour, he collects sheaves of off-color jokes and tales of sexual self-gratification gone wrong. His relationship with his partner, Hugh, remains contentious, but it’s mellowing. (“After thirty years, sleeping is the new having sex.”) Even more serious stuff rolls off him. Of Covid-19, he writes that “more than eight hundred thousand people have died to date, and I didn’t get to choose a one of them.” The author’s support of Black Lives Matter is tempered by his interest in the earnest conscientiousness of organizers ensuring everyone is fed and hydrated. (He refers to one such person as a “snacktivist.”) Such impolitic material, though, puts serious essays in sharper, more powerful relief. He recalls fending off the flirtations of a 12-year-old boy in France, frustrated by the language barrier and other factors that kept him from supporting a young gay man. His father’s death unlocks a crushing piece about dad’s inappropriate, sexualizing treatment of his children. For years—chronicled in many books—Sedaris labored to elude his father’s criticism. Even in death, though, it proves hard to escape or laugh off.

A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-316-39245-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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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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