A DREAM IN POLAR FOG

Merits a place in the small but rich library devoted to the peoples of Siberia and the Arctic, reminiscent at times of V.K....

A graceful, moving story of cultures in collision—and concord—in the far north.

Chukchi writer Rytkheu, a native of the Chukotka region of far northeastern Siberia, is well known in Europe but new to American audiences. Influenced by Gogol and other classic Russian writers, he presents a matter-of-fact, sometimes almost ethnographic account of a conflict between outside and indigenous cultures, set in the early 20th century. The crew of a Canadian vessel, trapped in Arctic ice, set off dynamite in an effort to break the ship free; one unfortunate crewman, John MacLennan, is badly wounded in the attempt. “They should have waited a bit,” remarks a Chukchi who happens on the scene. “A south wind coming.” The reluctant captain decides to offload the wounded sailor in hope of getting him to a Russian hospital, though John is sure that he’s in for a bad time with “these savages”: “Their faces don’t inspire my trust. These people are just too unsavory-looking. Unwashed and uneducated.” As it happens, Rytkheu’s Chukchi know a thing or two about the healing arts, and soon a shaman is on the job, though John is distressed at losing certain body parts. (“ ‘What’s he wailing about?’ she inquired of Orvo.” “ ‘Crying over his hands,’ said the old man.” “ ‘Understandable,’ the shaman-woman nodded.”) Recovering, nursing his self-pity, John wonders whether he will ever be able to show himself among his own people again, even as his generous hosts do what they can to make him feel at home. As other outsiders come and go in ever increasing numbers, cultural misunderstandings ensue, while an ever-evolving John, formerly certain that his hosts were cannibals, is now inclined to think, with his Chukchi friend and benefactor Orvo, that “the less we come into contact with the white man’s world, the better.”

Merits a place in the small but rich library devoted to the peoples of Siberia and the Arctic, reminiscent at times of V.K. Arseniev’s classic Dersu the Trapper and at others of James Houston’s memorable White Dawn.

Pub Date: June 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-9749680-7-2

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Archipelago

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2005

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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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. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

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

“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. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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