Moments of brilliance and wonder amid the generally disappointing.

REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS

With a glance back at the essays in On Photography (1977), the eminent intellectual, critic, and writer cobbles together a defense of war photography—with a result that’s as much maunder as miracle.

The slightly superior, ever-unflappable tone will be familiar here to Sontag readers, as will be the wonderful aperçus that come along in a kind of pearls-on-a-string parade—“All memory is individual, unreproducible—it dies with each person,” for example, or “To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture,” or “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” Familiar, too, is the Sontagian pleasure of watching a mind roam through fields of history and reading—as the thinker touches down one moment in Plato, at another in Leonardo or Edmund Burke, all the while keeping up knowledgeably detailed references to politics and conflict from the Crimean war up to Somalia and Bosnia. And yet, for all its author’s capabilities, the essay remains only imperfectly satisfying. From Matthew Brady to now, photos of death and war have raised the question of whether prurience or sympathy is raised in the viewer of such images, degradation and moral numbing on the one hand or any kind of useful understanding on the other. Sontag reviews and explores this old question, and her answer, though without doubt the right one—“Let the atrocious images haunt us”—leads her to unexpected banalities (“There is simply too much injustice in the world”) and an unfocused ending that all but randomly touches on great matters—whether the mass media create passivity, for example—and just as inexplicably glances away from them (“But it’s probably not true that people are responding less”), leaving the greatest question—whether there is any “way to guarantee contemplative . . . space for anything now”—nudged at only lightly, and left to slumber on.

Moments of brilliance and wonder amid the generally disappointing.

Pub Date: March 15, 2003

ISBN: 0-374-24858-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2003

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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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