Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

BookReviewLogoReview by Tom Bragg.

At its most interesting, the late Paul Kalanithi’s bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016) is a book about language. It is not, as many reviews would seem to indicate, an introduction to medical humanities, lacking both a primer’s organization of ideas and an author’s inclination to educate the reader. Rather, the book presents readers with the startling idea (to those uninitiated in the field) that science and humanities can be linked, can inform each other, can benefit both patient and practitioner in so applied and grimly pragmatic a field as neurosurgery. This it achieves through its harrowing narrative and by repeatedly contemplating the miraculous powers of language, “an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion” (39).

25899336Always interesting, at times gut-wrenching, When Breath Becomes Air is an account of a surgeon’s life and training bracketed by a diagnosis of his cancer and death, and ending with an epilogue by his wife, Lucy. The proximity of the two ideas—the healer stricken, the health-giver succumbing to illness—sets up the parameters for our reading of the life; we are constantly aware that this is a narrative race against time and, as though we were hearing a deathbed confession, that knowledge prepares us to read with sympathy and extra awareness. Without such expectations, Kalanithi’s early memories and even his tone might convey only a dully impressive catalog of achievements. He seems alternately to overlook and foreground a voice of privilege in his recounting of juvenile literary interests (“Hamlet bore me a thousand times through the usual adolescent crises” [27]), college preparatory experiences, acceptance into Stanford. The young student, sipping whiskey and chatting with authors, roaming the English countryside while part of a History and Philosophy of Science program at Cambridge, finds himself “increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them”; eager for such direct experience, he says, he was heading back to the States and “going to Yale for medical school” (43). It’s hard not to be aware of the irony: the young acolyte hungering for life-and-death reality, ensconced in systems and experiences that seem to shield him from those realities. Continue reading “Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air”

Book Review: This Mortal Coil

BookReviewLogoReview by Stephanie Hudson.

In her new book, This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016), Fay Bound Alberti writes that “our bodies are products of the stories we tell” (19). And this is the work Bound Alberti takes up, to explore stories of bodies and how these stories impact our embodied experience. She works to trace, and perhaps complicate, origins and potential futures of stories of bodies, with particular focus on women’s bodies.

26401367Bound Alberti is a cultural historian whose work is situated within histories of medicine and the body. Her previous work includes Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, and Emotions (Oxford University Press, 2010), which was shortlisted for the Longman History Today book of the year award. Bound Alberti co-founded the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, where she is an honorary senior research fellow. Through a Western lens, This Mortal Coil is located in Britain, and in part, North America.

Bound Alberti’s work in This Mortal Coil was motivated by an interest “in looking at the body as an assemblage of parts, and why it was that some parts take on particular significance and meanings at certain points in history” (206). Each chapter focuses on a different body part—spine, breast, genitalia, heart, brain, skin, tongue, and gut—taking the reader on a journey “from inside out, from our very core to the surface of our body and the boundaries between self and other” (16). Continue reading “Book Review: This Mortal Coil”

Book Review: The Clamorgans

BookReviewLogoReview by David Kilgannon

Julie Winch opens her book The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America (Hill & Wang, 2011) bemoaning the failure of Charles Dickens to visit the Clamorgan family’s “bathing saloon” during his visit to St. Louis, Missouri in 1842. If the Victorian novelist had attended, Winch speculates, there may have been another Dickens novel as the story of the Clamorgan clan provided a range of the archetypally Dickensian tropes of “hapless orphans, wily villains, women seduced and betrayed by the men they trusted, imposter of one kind or another, with an unscrupulous lawyer or two thrown in the mix” (3). Comparing an actual family to a novelist’s work sets a high standard for any tale, but is more  than surpassed in Winch’s engrossing narrative history of one biracial American family.

10308115Through the life and times of the Clamorgan family of St. Louis, Winch traces the development of the idea of race and its role in family life, the law and broader American society from 1781 to the early decades of the twentieth century. The narrative begins with the clan’s progenitor, Jacques Clamorgan, whose uncertain origins and even murkier ethics set the stage for more than a century of contention. Specifically, this tension centred on Jacques’ questionable investment in large tracts of land in the upper Louisiana territory alongside the fact that “over the years he lived openly with a succession of black women, all of them at some point his slaves, and several of these women bore him children” (39). Clamorgan’s provision for these children, his mixed-race illegitimate heirs, went on to produce more than a century of often bitter litigation. Winch is sympathetic but clear sighted in showing how Jacques’ less than scrupulous business methods, as well as the racist sentiment inherent within the United States’ justice system, conspired to leave a legacy of unfulfilled riches that occupied generations of Clamorgan’s descendants. Continue reading “Book Review: The Clamorgans”

Book Review: Annals of Pornographie

BookReviewLogoReview by Katelyn Smith

In his first full-length book, Annals of Pornographie: How Porn Became Bad (2016), Brian Watson traces the long history of pornography in the West, reiterating throughout his work the need to place our modern understanding of porn in context. Porn became popularized through the printing press, which allowed cheaper reproductions of obscene texts, and Watson has made use of the modern day printing press for his own description of the obscene, self-publishing his research in e-book format. The book is an expansion of Watson’s masters’ thesis on the Society for the Suppression of Vice (Drew University, 2013), which attempted to regulate and exterminate “smut” in nineteenth-century England, one of the many organizations Watson discusses.  

29232094Watson argues the book is an “attempt to trace a history through the ‘underside’ of Western culture, its art, literature, philosophy, sexology, psychology and its changing laws. It is an attempt to explain the modern view—to explain exactly why, where, and how porn became ‘bad’”(9). He disputes the belief that pornography is a modern conception and instead that we must ‘begin at the beginning.’ His history begins with the 14th century Italian Renaissance and Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1353 work, The Decameron. While recognizing the text is not usually labeled pornography, Watson points to its underlying philosophy, humanism (where “living people deserve as much attention as the future world”), claiming that this philosophy would significantly impact the development of porn in the centuries to come (18).   Continue reading “Book Review: Annals of Pornographie”