‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi [Book Review]

I’d heard about this book a few months ago – I think through WordPress actually – and it seemed like such an interesting book. It was only until a few weeks ago that I actually thought about purchasing it, after I received an amazon voucher for my Birthday and was scrolling through things I could buy. And I’m so glad I did because I feel like this is something that everybody should read! (and I apologise for the long review but I just have so much to say about it)

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‘When Breath Becomes Air’, to put it simply, is an account of the life of a surgeon who has lung cancer, and it’s very much a true story. However, I’m sure this review will be full of understatements because it’s physically impossible to put into words how awful it must have been to be in that position. This book is the closest way you can get to understanding it I’m sure, without actually experiencing it for yourself.

On first glance, the novel is full of scientific jargon that honestly makes no sense to me and I can see how this might put people off, but it’s so much more than just the life of a surgeon and their everyday duties. The concept of reversing roles from a surgeon to a patient is in itself interesting – I think this is perhaps what makes it so hard for Kalanithi most of all. He’s always had this desire to help others and yet when he needs help himself, he has no control over his own destiny. After being the surgeon in control of life, he then realises that ultimately death is the only one playing the game.

What I loved most about this book was that it wasn’t all about science (because let’s be honest, I’m really not a massive fan of science); instead, there were a lot of philosophical ideas and a lot of talk on literature, as well as specific quotes. It was nice to see how Kalanithi worked within the field of science and yet he was still driven by all these books and knowledge outside of it too. There’s no limitation to his interests like there’s no limitation to knowledge and I felt myself admiring the way he helped people as a surgeon in the form of treating the dying but also, eventually, through the words of his novel itself. It’s two completely different ways of contributing to the world and yet I feel like they both made their mark.

Image result for when breath becomes airThe main theme of the novel seems to be a journey into finding out what makes life meaningful and this is perhaps pretty typical of a novel about cancer, however Kalanithi definitely approaches it in an original manner. I’d never really thought properly what it must be like to be a surgeon – I guess because it’s never really been my career interest – but reading this book made me understand how difficult it must be to be around struggling patients, people who you see at their most vulnerable even though they are in fact strangers to you. One paragraph that really stood out to me was this one:

‘At moments, the weight of it all became palpable. It was in the air, the stress and misery. Normally, you breathed it in, without noticing it. But some days, like a humid muggy day, it had a suffocating weight of its own. Some days, this is how it felt when I was in the hospital trapped in an endless jungle summer, wet with sweat, the rain of tears of the families of the dying pouring down.’ (p78)

The fact that this weight is the weight he felt when he was merely a surgeon, doesn’t even begin to explain the weight he must have felt when he became the patient. And I guess it’s one of those moments that’s unexplainable unless you, too, work around the pedestal of life vs death and face its conflicts every day. But it must feel great to not have to question your work in this way – you know you’re directly making a difference to the world and that’s got to be worth something.

One aspect that Kalanithi struggles with in the novel is the sense of unknown time – not knowing how long you have left and therefore what you should do with this time – and I imagine this must be one of the toughest parts of all. How are you meant to live your days if you don’t know how many you have? Is there a right or wrong way to do this? However I think Kalanithi made the right choices – if there is a right way to do anything. It’s heart-breaking to know that he’d been striving for complete medical success and that cancer prevented this, but I feel like this only made him more successful in his writing career and as a well-rounded person. As his wife says  in the epilogue, ‘this book is a new way for him to help others, a contribution only he could make’ (p224) and I completely agree with this. No one else could have helped others in the way Kalanithi has with this book because he’s an individual person in this unique situation and it would have been crazy to bypass this opportunity when he is such a great writer.

On reaching the end of the book, particularly on reading the epilogue, it suddenly hit me that I was completely aware of the ending; here it was actually happening and yet nothing could have prepared me for it, nothing at all. And I guess, in a way, that’s what it must be like to have cancer or to know someone with it; there’s no way to prepare for the inevitable and that’s what makes it so destructive. But I don’t think anyone could have made such a life-destroying disease into such a thoughtful piece of art as this novel did. It’s genuinely hard to put into words because I came out of it crying and yet I feel like I’ve learnt so much. I just love everything about it – from the way it was written to the way it just affects you and completely consumes you. Kalanithi’s daughter may not remember him when she grows up, but this book is certainly the greatest way she can come to know him.

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the home inside my head. [flash-fiction]

So it’s the night of Christmas Day and it’s raining outside and I felt like writing so I did. Shout out to Real Friend’s album I guess for the title of this piece!

the distant hush of pouring rain is like this drone inside my mind, pushed behind the curtains of my eyes so it cannot be seen. It’s like a kind of behind-the-scenes drama, a deleted scene – unknown to an audience but real, very real. often the curtains are black out and no one can see in. sometimes you can peek through if you look hard enough. in the daylight perhaps it seems there are no curtains at all.

this house may be drowning or there may be a drought. don’t let me close these curtains around your world. I don’t know if I can open them myself.

Merry Christmas!!🎄🎁☃️

I just wanted to say a Merry Christmas to everyone here! Whether you’re spending time with family, or doing your own thing, I hope you all have a wonderful day! And if you’re not feeling so great, that’s okay too because sometimes it’s hard to find happiness when it feels forced at this time of year. However, I hope you manage to find even some small joy in today.

I watched the film “A Wonderful Life” for the first time a few days ago and it made me think about how everything in our lives is worth something – even if not in our intrinsic being, but the things we have done to affect others. The character in the movie wishes he wasn’t born but once he becomes unknown realises he made a greater impact on the world than he initially thought and it really wasn’t the same without him. He pleads for his identity back and once retrieved, cherishes everything a hell of a lot more.

So if any of you are feeling down this Christmas, remember that you’ve undoubtedly made a difference whether you’re aware of it or not, and in a way, you’ve helped some unknown person out there as if they’re your family and that’s enough to celebrate your life. Writing a blog is for one, an example. You never know who might have come across your blog, read a post, and it changed the way they think about something, or instigated a certain action which in turn, changed their life for the better. It’s pretty amazing to think you could have had that impact without even knowing.

So with that in mind, you all deserve a great day whether you believe you do or not. So go out, eat lots, watch films and have a wonderful time!

5 Best Albums of 2017!

I feel like there has been a lot of great music released this year which definitely calls for a ‘5 best albums of 2017’ blog post, but at the same time, it’s quite hard to reduce it to a small number. However, I’ve tried my best and here are my favourites (and in no particular order)!

 

‘Feel Something’ by Movements

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As I’ve mentioned briefly in previous posts, Movements is a band I’ve only recently found but I absolutely love them and so it’s a necessity they make it onto this list. I probably won’t get round to writing a full post on them (although I did mention I would) but even if I did, I don’t think it’d particularly live up to their music anyway. You need to listen to it for yourself to really get what I’m on about! So definitely give these guys a listen. I love their use of spoken word amongst the singing and they give some front porch step, roam and knuckle puck vibes quite a bit, if any of you guys are into them as well. However ultimately, they have a completely different sound to anything I’ve ever heard and I think that’s why they stand out so much as a band.

 

‘Adornment’ by Grayscale

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Grayscale are another band I discovered this year with their first full length album ‘Adornment’! I love their kind of laid back but also urgent style of pop punk and you can read about my initial thoughts on the band here when I found them back in June!

 

‘The Peace and the Panic’ by Neck Deep

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I feel like it’s pretty obvious that this album would pop up on this list, especially since I went to see them in concert earlier this year and have of course written a long album review about them here, but Neck Deep are a great band so check it out!

‘Great Heights and Nosedives’ by Roam

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Roam are another band I discovered this year (wow it really has been a great year for music) and although this album is a lot more lively and upbeat than some of the other music I listen to, I just find that it’s so catchy. As soon as I heard ‘Playing Fiction’ I knew it was worth checking out their whole album and it’s actually pretty addictive!

‘Shapeshifter’ by Knuckle Puck

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And the last place, which was extremely difficult to pick, goes to Knuckle Puck. After their album ‘Copacetic’ last year, they had a lot to live up to but I definitely think they did it! They’ve kept to their sound really well, whilst also improving on distinctive sound and lyrics so they had to make it as the final place.

Of course, I have to mention the other albums that almost made it onto this list because they deserve recognition too. ‘Back to Beautiful’ by Picturesque is an album that came out earlier this year and I suppose I didn’t put it on this list because some of the songs had already been released previously. They are definitely a band to give a listen to though, especially if you’re into bands like Sleeping Sirens because his voice is really quite similar (but kind of better in my opinion haha). ‘Paradise’ by Broadside was also another contender – an album I really enjoyed however I feel like at parts it didn’t really live up to their previous album as much as I had hoped so this is why it didn’t quite make it. Shout out also to ‘The Flood Flowers’ by Fort Hope, ‘okay.’ by As It Is and ‘Unfamiliar (Deluxe Edition)’ by In Her Own Words!

What are your favourite albums of 2017?

fallen picture. [poem]

the frame is tilting on my arrival

and it feels like I’m slowly sliding

out of the frame

an image tucked into

a familiar setting

for all to see –

I am known.

 

and yet my return is so

unfamiliar in all this

knowable air,

it’s like I can’t be the

same anymore when really

nothing has changed at all.

it’s all one giant picture

and I’m slowly sliding

out of the frame…

 

but the floor welcomes me

in a world of possibilities

of trampling feet

and ignorant calls

but free motion to

run.

            think.

                           feel.

 

I’m looking up at the sky

as everything goes by

and in a way

it’s kind of nice to be free.

in a way it’s kind of nice

to call this my

home.

Returning Home from Uni

So after my first semester of uni, I have today returned home after almost 3 months of not being here and it’s a feeling that’s kind of quite hard to comprehend – strange, but also good.

For some reason it seems like I haven’t been here in at least a year – I guess because uni is such a completely new experience that it feels like you’re in a completely different world. The change is so huge it’s sometimes a bit overwhelming to actually make sense of. Coming home is kind of like walking back into nostalgia. The place is familiar and yet I feel like a slightly different person. Everything is where I’ve left it and yet I don’t feel like it’s where it should be.

It’s been really nice to catch up with my family though and I’m sure that even though I feel slightly like I’m a guest in my own house at the moment, it won’t be long before I’ll fall back into routine. Having an evening sitting in the lounge with everyone and watching a film has definitely made me feel really happy to be home.

I’ll probably wake up tomorrow and it will take my brain a while to register where I actually am, but I’m looking forward to a good and quiet night’s sleep. And it definitely feels a lot more Christmassy here with the tree up so I’m looking forward to celebrating it with family and friends 🙂

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and I will hopefully be publishing a lot more posts over the next few weeks!

Uni (Y1 S1): The Books I’ve Read So Far

So considering my degree lies solely around reading and most of my followers out there probably also love reading (because why else would you have a blog?), I thought why not compile a list of all the books I’ve read so far for uni and what I think of them. Looking back at this semester, it’s actually crazy how much I’ve read. Compared to school, where I literally had no time to read, I’ve now read about 10x the amount of books I would normally have got through. Yes, they haven’t been texts of my choice, but I’m surprised how much of them I genuinely enjoyed – whoever chose them, picked well!

It would be hard to compile this list into some sort of ordered structure – I think there’s too many to be able to put them from best to worst – however I think through my comments it will be obvious which ones particularly stood out to me.

  1. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley – This was the first book I read for the course. As I was reading it, I remember thinking it was pretty boring – nothing much happened and it was pretty uneventful. However, after completing it, I actually kind of liked it. It’s one of those books that once you grasp a particular concept or idea you like and analyse it to its depth, it suddenly makes the book 10x more interesting. This made writing the essay pretty fun, but I can’t say I’d ever reread the book.
  2. The Book of the Duchess by Chaucer – Overcoming the initial language barrier in this book is pretty overwhelming at first! I’d never read Chaucer before so the fact that there was no standardised spelling and every word was pretty much written however it wanted to be written, it was difficult to make sense of. I can’t say I was a massive fan even after understanding it, but it was interesting to read something different for a change.
  3. The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd – This play pleasantly surprised me! Looking at the cover, it really did look boring not gonna lie, but as I read it it reminded me so much of Othello and I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much. Of course, Kyd didn’t take it lightly when it came to killing off characters at the end, but I liked the idea of it being a play within a play.
  4. Politics and English Language by George Orwell – This is actually an essay but I genuinely found it so interesting. It made me think a lot about how we use words and how a lot of the time we use them out of habit rather than out of meaning. Orwell discusses the way, in politics particularly, how speeches are repeated and yet their purpose has just diminished and become simply lazy. It made me think a lot about my essay style and how we become accustomed to using block phrases such as ‘it is interesting to debate’ and ‘one may argue that’ when really these have become unnecessary. It was a very thoughtful read.
  5. The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World (extracts) by Margaret Cavendish – This text was really interesting because it was the only known work of utopian fiction in the 17th century and arguably an example of what we now call “proto-science fiction”. I really liked the philosophical approach, despite it being pretty confusing at parts (there was a lot of body swapping going on) and I enjoyed writing an essay in reference to its proto-feminism.
  6. Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett – This is a very short play that simply revolves around a man sitting at a desk playing back cassette tapes and yet I really enjoyed it. There was something about the way it was written and the way he spoke and was presented that made it seem so real and raw. It’s quite a strange text but I think it wholly encapsulated his depressed state of mind and I loved it for this.
  7. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas DeQuincey – This was a bit of a weird book to be honest. I’m not entirely sure whether I liked it or not. It was interesting to get into DeQuincey’s state of mind, but at the same time he was just such an unlikable and arrogant character. Due to it being a book of reflection, nothing much really happened and I just felt like it was lacking something.
  8. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky – ahhh this is 100% my favourite book I’ve read this semester! I don’t know why, because it’s such a weird and uneventful book, but I just feel like the narrator’s ramblings about life and mentality and truth are just so interesting and also relatable. There’s some particular lines in the book which really resonate with me and got me thinking a lot about the world, so much so that there’s no way I could write down all my thoughts on it right here, so within the next few weeks I’ll hopefully be putting up a separate post. For now, I’m actually really enjoying writing my final essay on this text! And I’ll definitely be reading some more Dostoevsky in the future.
  9. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West – It’s pretty weird that this one showed up on my module list because I studied WW1 for English Literature A Level and as a homework we had to find an extract and I took an extract from this very book! I hadn’t read it in its entirety before, but I’d analysed a particular section in depth so I had a basic understanding of it. Whilst the language in this novella is pretty simple, I think it really works and I love the descriptions of nature and colour. The notion of ‘returning’ physically and mentally is also really interesting to analyse.

As well as these texts, we’ve also read quite a bit of poetry (Ozymandias, Dunt, etc.); short stories (by Virginia Woolf, Ian McEwan, etc.) and a lot of criticism and historiographical material, but apart from that these were the main texts we studied and as you can see from my reviews, I really did enjoy the majority of them!

If I had to pick my favourites, it would probably be those that made me think beyond the book and those that I would say changed my thinking in some way or another. Therefore I would choose Notes from the Underground, Krapp’s Last Tape and Orwell’s Essay.

If you’ve read any of the books mentioned, let me know! I’d love to discuss them 🙂