A brisk look at times when it pays off to take a chance.

THE POWER OF NOTHING TO LOSE

THE HAIL MARY EFFECT IN POLITICS, WAR, AND BUSINESS

Financial history expert Silber recapitulates a course in risk assessment, showing that generals and politicians no less than investors “take daring chances” in the absence of other options.

There are upsides when people are willing to game the chances of “downside protection,” writes former NYU economics professor Silber. For example, patients with terminal illnesses are crucial to the practice of medical experimentation, since many figure they don’t have much to lose. That decision, writes the author, is very much like the star quarterback who throws what Roger Staubach christened “the Hail Mary pass.” Never mind that the risk is turned all the way up. “The Hail Mary connects less than one in twenty times,” writes Silber, “which may be okay at the end of a football game, but not as a steady diet in life.” Yet the moral equivalents of the Hail Mary are frequent in our history. Silber suggests that having nothing to lose led Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Similarly, Woodrow Wilson sent Americans to World War I not in 1915, when it could have ended the war sooner, but in 1917, after he had won reelection and didn’t have to fulfill his campaign slogan of avoiding war. Writes Silber, sagely, “second-term presidents should come with a warning label: Do not provoke a lame duck.” Desperation will drive people to extraordinary measures, of course, including attempting to enter a country illegally and, in the case of rogue trader Nick Leeson, taking advantage of the fact that his employer, Barings Bank, “encouraged traders to become daredevils, ignoring the fallout.” (Barings collapsed in 1995.) With an eye to behavioral economics, Silber turns up a few surprises: Even though prisoners serving life sentences don’t have much incentive to behave, they “resemble members of the local chamber of commerce more than Murder Incorporated.”

A brisk look at times when it pays off to take a chance.

Pub Date: Aug. 17, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-301152-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 27, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2021

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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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