Light of the World (Elizabeth Alexander)

In a word: Breathtaking

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This book was a jewel. I read the whole thing in a day (which I never do). I cried through almost the whole thing (which I REALLY never do).

(A side note about the crying: I was seriously worried about myself after I kept my composure through the end of Me Before You, a book with the ending that had everyone else I know curled up on the floor in the fetal position. Dry-eyed, I finished the book on the evening of February 14, and announced to Stephen, “It’s official. I don’t have a heart.” He graciously responded, “It’s one of the many things I love about you.” Happy Valentine’s Day, right?

But I feel vindicated. I’ve been wanting to have a visceral reaction to a book ever since I learned from the What Should I Read Next podcast that it’s the thing to do while reading, and now I can join the club.)

So, on to the book. This is the story of a marriage cut short by the sudden death of the husband just after his fiftieth birthday. His death occurs in the first few pages, and the rest of the narrative alternates between the blissful past and the anguished present. (Although time moves forward in the “present,” and you walk with the author through her healing process, ending in a place of strength and hope.)

An Ivy League professor of literature, the author delivered a poem at President Obama’s first inauguration. Here, her poet’s voice is evident in her prose. Each chapter is a snapshot of a moment, and I loved Alexander’s reverent attention to detail. It feels like this book is a response to the inevitable blurring of memories that occurs after a person dies; it’s like each page is crystallizing the everyday details of courtship, marriage, family life, early grief that might otherwise be forgotten.

(I wish now that I had held onto the book long enough to write down a few perfect quotes to illustrate my point here. But I was in such a hurry for Leslie to read it, I passed it along before I made any notes. So…you’ll just have to take my word for it.)

I highly recommend this touching tribute to an extraordinary man and an inspiring love.

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When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi)

In a word: Tragic

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Read in one afternoon. Cried lots of tears.

 

As Kalanithi’s wife puts it, “What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.” This is the autobiography of an almost-neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer, the last record of a promising life cut short. Although Paul’s story is certainly tragic, it is also an exploration of life, meaning, value, and humanity. In his college days, Paul sought to find out what gives life meaning. This search took him deep into literature and into biology. This book is graphic–he was studying to be a neurosurgeon, so he was face-to-face with all sorts of suffering and tragedy–but it is also beautifully written and thoughtful. He saved lives and he watched lives drastically change, but he had such conviction, such hope. Paul believed that this line of work was his calling; he wanted to be there to guide and comfort people through the hardest days of their lives. When his own life-changing diagnosis came, he wrestled with his convictions in a new way. He lived bravely and purposefully until the end.

I still have a hard time talking about how this book made me feel. When I closed the cover, I had to sit and think for a while. It is beautiful and thought-provoking, but also so hard to read. I don’t know if it is universally appealing, but it will certainly leave a mark on anyone who reads it. Paul’s story was a reminder that cancer doesn’t discriminate. I hope that if I was ever in a similar situation that I would respond with the grace and strength that he did.

Note: If you don’t cry on the last page and in the epilogue, are you even human?

The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah)

 

In a word: Devastating

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I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. But, the setting is France during World War II, so you know it’s not going to be an upbeat beach read. This is the story of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, each of whom faces her own struggle to survive.

In German occupied France, food is scarce. French police cannot be trusted to protect their own citizens. Men are sent to hopeless battles, and women and children are not safe in their own homes. Neighbors snitch. Politicians capitulate. Friends disappear. The details of this novel are a reminder that war is hell, even when the fighting is far away. And in an environment of fear, corruption, and desperation, human relationships are complicated.

On a most personal level, reading novels like this is always helpful in a shaming kind of way; “experiencing” the suffering of others offers healthy perspective. It helps me realize the smallness of my daily complaints (Can’t lose 5 pounds of baby weight! Grocery store out of 50% less sodium green beans! Ugh, where are my Tic Tacs?). I also am reminded what a bubble of extravagant prosperity I live in, and without which I would probably die. Were scarcity to enter my world in such a way that I depended on my own canning to survive the winter, for example, my family and I would starve. The contrast between Vianne’s life and mine makes me feel humble and grateful.

It’s hard to read stories like this where evil is so stark. Tales of brutality and terror are easier to stomach when they happened long ago; I can write it off as “another time,” perhaps even feel that it’s only to be expected among primitive, uncivilized peoples. But stories of World War I and II are especially stomach-wrenching for me: these are people so much like us, who live in a recognizable world that is suddenly turned upside down. I think this is why novels from this time period are so powerful: against the backdrop of a horrifying moral landscape, stories of hope and human triumph shine even brighter.