When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Terminal lung cancer is not something which you expect when you're just 36. How do you cope when you thought that life and a glittering career was ahead of you? Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256/5h35m Date: February 2016
Publisher: Bodley Head
ISBN: 978-1847923677

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At the age of thirty six Paul Kalanithi seemed to have a glittering career - and life - ahead of him. He had degrees in English literature, human biology and history and philosophy of science and medicine from Stanford and Cambridge universities, as well as the American Academy of Neurological Surgery's top award for research. His reflections on medicine had been published in the New York Times. The Washington Post as well as the Paris Review Daily. It had been hinted, as he came to the end of ten years training to be a neurosurgeon, that he'd have the pick of the jobs on offer. There was just one nagging problem. Well there was more than one. He had severe back pain and he knew that he was unwell. He had stage four (terminal) lung cancer.

When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi's story of his life, his striving to become what he was and the identity crisis which he suffered when the ability to be a surgeon was snatched from him as he weathered the transition from doctor to patient. He was a doctor's son from Arizona who initially studied literature but found that he wanted something more and enrolled in medical school, tired of wondering about the meaning of life. Even then his life would be dedicated to his patients (to the point where his marriage was in trouble) and he wondered at his fellow students who would opt for the easier disciplines such as dermatology where the hours were shorter and the pressure less. Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job - not a calling he says, somewhat acerbically.

Even after the diagnosis and initial treatment he returned to work in the hope that he had a reasonable number of years left. Kalanithi and his wife had a baby, but the years he had hoped for were not to be granted and he died at the age of thirty seven when his daughter was just nine months old.

If you are wondering if this is a misery memoir, then forget it. I found the book strangely uplifting, despite subject matter which could have been depressing. Admittedly the book as initially envisaged is unfinished - Kalanithi's final weeks and his death are told by his wife, Lucy - as he had become too ill to continue writing. Had he been given more time he might have included some thoughts on what made him so driven and gave him such a drive for perfection, which was all that I felt was lacking.

In addition to reading this book I also bought an audio download, narrated by Sunil Malhotra and Cassandra Campbell, Malhotra reading the main body of the text and Campbell the epilogue written by Lucy Kalanithi. Both captured the writers perfectly and Malhotra was particularly good at conveying the emotions.

For more from a neurosurgeon we can recommend Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh. We've also been impressed by The Iceberg: A Memoir by Marion Coutts, a devastating yet mysteriously gorgeous account of a husband's decline and death from a brain tumour.

Buy When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi at Amazon You could get a free audio download of When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi with a 30-day Audible free trial at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi at Amazon.com.


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