Author Archives: BookerTalk
It’s time for #6degrees once more. Let’s hope I’m more successful this month than I was in January when I couldn’t get beyond book number 3 in the chain.
Guess what – yet again I’ve not read, nor even heard of the book with which we’re meant to be starting this month’s chain.
It’s Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
When I saw the title initially my brain scrambled it with the Flashman series from the 1960s. So I started thinking of books featuring other rakes and rogues. I got halfway through the chain before I realised the mistake…..
Let’s start again shall we.
Taffy Brodesser-Ankner’s name happens to connect nicely to my home country. “Taffy’ is a ‘friendly’ generic description of a person from Wales (a bit like calling New Zealanders “kiwis”.) No-one really knows how the term Taffy came about – it might have been a mangling of the common Welsh name Dafydd but it could equally have originated with people who lived near the river Taff.
Whatever the origin it means I get the chance to promote an author from Wales.
I can’t do better than choose The Cove by Cynan Jones, not only because this is a superb novella but Cynan is a very Welsh first name (it’s the Welsh word for chief in case you’re interested). The Cove features a kayaker badly injured by lightening, clinging to the hope he can get back to safety and the woman he loves.
The watery setting links me very nicely to Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It’s a strange tale about a young boy called Pi who is adrift in a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean. Though he’s the sole human survivor of a shipwreck, he is sharing the lifeboat with a hyena and a male Bengal tiger.
The novel ends on a note of mystery because Pi gives two versions of how he managed to survive. It’s up the reader to decide which to believe.
As an arch deceiver, Pi could go head to head with the protagonist in my next linked book: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle . Mary Katherine Blackwood (known as Merricat) is rather a minx, leading us a merry dance with her clues about how the members of her family ended up poisoned by arsenic. In true Gothic tradition this is a novel that takes place in a rambling ruin of a house.
Bly Manor, the setting for Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw isn’t a ruin but just like the Castle, it’s a place of mystery. Shortly after a young governess arrives at the isolated country manor house, she begins to suspect that the two children in her care are tormented by ghosts. Or are they? We have only her word for it since no-one else in the house sees these figures and the one person to whom she confides her suspicions is highly sceptical.
The first readers of this short story viewed it purely as a spooky story but new interpretations began emerging in the 1930s. The question now is whether James wrote not a simple, but effective ghost story, but a far more complex and disturbing psychological tale of delusion and insanity.
Let’s stick with governesses who are misunderstood.
Is Jane Eyre a heart-warming novel of a poor governess who overcomes challenges and obstacles but finally finds happiness in the arms of Mr Rochester? Or is she the alter ego of mad Bertha, his first wife whom he locks up in the attic? Is Jane Eyre a sorry figure upon whom other people like to trample? Or is she, as feminist critics maintain, a champion for the rights of women to have a life of their own choosing?
Now I could take the easy path here and link to the author of a twentieth century landmark work of literary criticism. But as much as I appreciate Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she was standing on the shoulders of another giant.
So let’s make the final link in my chain a much older yet still ground- breaking work of feminist literature.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in part as a reaction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, published in late 1790 which argued that religious and civil liberties were part of a man’s birth right.
Wollstonecraft went one step further, and, argued for women’s rights to be on the same footing as men’s. Her work was discredited when, after her death, details emerged of her unorthodox lifestyle.
And so we’ve come to the end of the chain. I didn’t realise when I chose Wollstonecraft that there was any connection to Fleishman Is In Trouble. But now I see that it’s been called “a powerful feminist book”. The circle is complete…..
When Breath Becomes Air is an unflinching account of what happens when a man with expertise that can save lives, is powerless to save his own life.
At the age of 36, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Overnight he underwent a transformation in his identity. One day he was a doctor in control of his patients’ destinies. The next he became the patient, forced to relinquish control over his treatment and to put his future into the hands of fellow professionals. Having aspired to be “the pastoral figure … I found myself the sheep, lost and confused”.
When Breath Becomes Air traces his life and the path he took to become a neurosurgeon fascinated by the most complex organ in the human body. The organ that not only controls all other organs it operates in the very core of human identity.
From Literature to Neurosurgery
He never set out to become a doctor. At university he studied English literature, gaining a postgraduate degree with a thesis on Walt Whitman. But he became increasingly interested in the metaphysical questions raised in literature but found books couldn’t provide him with answers. So he enrolled at medical school.
He chose to specialise in neurosurgery because of its “unforgiving call to perfection”. A two millimetre variation in the size of an incision would mark the difference between life for his patient or a living hell of “locked in syndrome.” His quest for excellence combined with the pressure of his job (100 hour weeks were not uncommon) almost cost him his marriage. He even persevered with his punishing surgical duties (including 36 hour stints in theatre) through excruciating back pain and severe fatigue.
What kind of surgeon would he have become if those pains and rapid weight loss hadn’t turned out to be a sign of lung cancer so rampant it had deformed his spine and obliterated one lobe of his liver? When Breath Becomes Air gives us a strong feeling that he would have become one of the foremost specialists in his field, an expert much sought after by university medical departments across the United States.
Questions of Mortality
But it was not to be.
Instead of contemplating that glittering career Paul Kalanithi instead turned to contemplating questions of life and death. They are questions his medical training has not equipped him to answer. The statistics of survival rates and probability of treatment effectiveness that are part and parcel of a medical practitioner’s world are meaningless to a patient he discovers. He comes to the conclusion that the question is not “how long will I live, but how well will I live”?
Not an easy question to answer when his sense of himself has been turned upside down. Robbed of his role as a surgeon he no longer knows who he is or what he wants. How important is it that his treatment plan preserves his manual dexterity, so leaving the door open for him to return to work? Should he and his wife have a child as they had always planned? Should he stay in Stanford and take up a much coveted post or go for a different job that would require a move to Wisconsin?
When Breath Becomes Air was written in the 22 months that elapsed between his diagnosis and his death. But though he wrote at every opportunity and with great determination, he died before he could finish the book. It lends the text added poignancy particularly since the last words he wrote were in the form of a direct address to his baby daughter, the child whose first birthday he would never see. I confess that listening to this passage in my car I was so overcome with emotion I had to pull over and stop.
There is of course a huge amount of emotion invested in this narrative. How could it not be, given the topic. But it’s never sentimentalised or gratuitous. Paul Kalanithi tells his story with delicacy and beauty. It makes the result a book that is inspiring and unforgettable.