The toll is astounding, and this book is important for many reasons—difficult to stomach, but important all the same.

TOMBSTONE

THE GREAT CHINESE FAMINE, 1958-1962

The harrowing account of China’s Great Famine.

When he was a young boy in the countryside, writes Yang Jisheng, a classmate insisted that Chairman Mao “has been enthroned”—that is, following an old pattern in Chinese history, had overthrown the old emperor to become the new one. Mao Zedong wasn’t exactly an emperor—he complained bitterly about being lied to, something the first emperor in China, Shi Huangdi, would have dealt with by mass beheading—but he had the requisite aloofness to stand aside while, by the author’s account, millions of his compatriots starved to death in a four-year famine that was partly the fault of the weather, partly the fault of overpopulation, but mostly the fault of politics. “The basic reason why tens of millions of people in China starved to death was totalitarianism,” writes the author. In a book that may eventually be thought of as a Chinese analog to Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Yang offers a numbing inventory of the myriad dead and the statistics surrounding their demise: “One of the hospital’s so-called doctors was an accountant, and one of the two nursing attendants was an eleven-year-old orphan. The smell of the wards was so horrendous that the nursing attendants couldn’t bear to enter them”; “The figures on grain yield and pig farming quoted in the Anhui Daily report on Mao’s visit were preposterous. . . . Once the lies were reproduced in People’s Daily, cadres all over China felt compelled to spew out similar falsehoods.” And the deaths were not just of the living, writes the author, all 36 million of them, but also of the imagined unborn, another 32 million who would have entered the world had there been no famine.

The toll is astounding, and this book is important for many reasons—difficult to stomach, but important all the same.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-27793-2

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 25, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2012

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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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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