When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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I don’t normally cry when I read; I can only think of three books that I’ve shed tears over in all my life. But when I heard about When Breath Becomes Air, and when I finally felt its weight in my hands, I expected tears to flow continuously while I read. I initially planned to read it on a plane on my way to New York for a weekend trip with a friend, but when I held the book and brushed my fingers over the title and Paul’s name, I knew that a plane wouldn’t do it justice. Even before turning the first page I knew that Paul Kalanithi deserved more than a short trip in a pressurized cabin; he deserved a quiet weekend afternoon with a cup of coffee and my oldest, favorite sweatshirt. He deserved my undivided attention, just me and the book and his words.  So I put it aside for another day, until I had the time (and courage) to give it my all.

To my surprise, I never did cry while reading the book. I think I was too focused on trying to take it all in and appreciate the message, I didn’t really allow myself to have an overwhelmingly emotional response. The tears seem more ready to come now as I try to talk about what this story meant to me, as I struggle to find a way to describe Paul and the story he so bravely shared. It’s not until now that I fully realize the irony that I think Paul was such an amazing and beautiful person, but it’s only through his death that I, along with millions of other people, came to know of him. He would have touched and changed and helped so many people had he lived to be the neurosurgeon he had trained to be, but he would have likely had no impact on my own life. It’s only through his death that I have come to know about his wise and beautiful mind, and I wonder if that is part of how we as a people think about the dead and dying. Don’t we always only focus on the good when our loved ones are gone? Will we all be better in death than we can ever hope to be in life?

One of the struggles that Paul talked about a lot was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his days knowing that he had a limited, yet unknown, amount of time left. This topic intrigued me. Paul’s struggle was that he wanted to accomplish A, B, and C, but if someone could just tell him that he only had a certain amount of time left then he would jump straight to C and not worry about A and B. He just wanted to prioritize what would make him most happy in a given time period, and isn’t that what we all want to do? I mean, as morbid as it sounds wouldn’t it be easier to know when we will die?

Basic time management skills involve assigning an amount of time to certain tasks, and then prioritizing the most important tasks first. In a perfect world we could do that with our own lives; we could schedule everything that we want to do into the number of years we have, and we could die happy knowing that we accomplished all our goals and left no stone unturned. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and we can’t schedule every moment of our lives. And what we might lose in productivity I think we gain in beauty, because I believe the beauty in life lies in the unplanned moments, and the things we don’t expect that take our breath away.

Paul made me aware of my own mortality, and the reality that my life can turn on a dime and end up vastly different than anything I can imagine now. A few of the things I value in my life now seem trivial in the long run, but realistically I don’t know how long of a run I actually have. What if I receive similar news someday, what would I do with my life? How would I find meaning? These are questions that I find difficult to answer, which is frustrating. I have always been an advocate for living your best life and doing what makes you happy, so am I a hypocrite if I think I would change something if I thought I only had one year left?

Paul doesn’t answer these questions. He’s not as trivial or naïve as I am discussing them. He tells his story patiently and wisely, beautifully and bravely. In the forward, Abraham Verghese discusses feeling inadequate after reading Paul’s words, and I understand what he meant. I keep struggling to talk about this book; it’s hard for me to explain exactly what it meant to me. Verghese says in the last paragraph of the forward, “Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message.” I think this is a simple yet profound way of reflecting on Paul’s message. It’s not just about what Paul thinks and says, it’s about what you get out of it. It’s about what you feel and think after reading his story. It’s about how Paul has found a way to impact your life despite his untimely death. It’s about how your life may never be the same after reading his words.

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A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

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Khaled Hosseini has been on my radar for a while now. For months (years actually) I’ve had A Thousand Splendid Suns, And The Mountains Echoed, and The Kite Runner on my reading list. But my reading list is an evolving one- it’s actually a spreadsheet organized and sorted by fiction/nonfiction, genre, Amazon rating, Goodreads rating, and my own “personal rating.” I know this sounds slightly crazy, but I actually got the idea from a girl that one of my friends went on a date with once. He asked her where she would like to go out for dinner, and she sent him an Excel spreadsheet with a list of restaurants that were sorted and highlighted into a bunch of different categories. I forget if they ever went on a second date, but I was inspired to use a spreadsheet to keep track of all the books I want to read. Basically every time I add a book to my list I enter the Amazon and Goodreads rating and I score the book on a scale of 1 to 5 on how excited I am to read it. Periodically I revise the personal scores based on my interests at the time, like if I’m in the mood for a romance novel or historical fiction or something a little more intellectual. And it’s been so helpful; every time I finish a book I generally know what I’m going to read next.

So Hosseini’s books have been on my list for a while, but until recently they’ve been edged out by my always-changing personal score. Recently, however, I’ve been reading more feminist literature (partly in thanks to Emma Watson, which I’ll discuss in a later post) and I bumped A Thousand Splendid Suns up to the top because at its heart it centers around two females who are brought together through tragedy and circumstance.

And what tragedy. What circumstance. What heart-wrenching lives these women lived. What hope persisted throughout the story despite all the tragedy. A Thousand Splendid Suns made me feel on so many levels, and as I read I kept trying to categorize the relationships and themes to try to put a label on what I was feeling. In the beginning it was about daughters and mothers, and daughters and fathers, then husbands and wives, then parents again, then friends and romance, and I eventually gave up trying to put a label on everything because part of what made this story beautiful was the web of relationships and connectivity of themes and the elegant way in which everything was brought together.

I have so much respect for Hosseini as a writer. It takes real talent to weave a story like this together in such a simple yet profound way. It really is a beautiful story, full of love despite the traumatic setting. It’s always been a dream of mine to be a writer, whether it’s a short story or novel, and this book is proof that I have such a long way to go. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to develop a style like this, it’s just amazing to me.

The two main characters in the novel, Mariam and Laila, are women that I would love to meet if they existed in real life. Their capacity to endure, to hope, to protect is beyond anything I can imagine in my own life. I find them inspiring, and I feel for them. I know that this is a work of fiction, but I am sure there are real women who have lived at least parts of this story, and I send good thoughts to whoever and wherever they are.

Other than the various kinds of overwhelming love portrayed in this story, the other main emotion I felt was guilt. A Thousand Splendid Suns spans over three decades of Afghan history, and to be completely honest this was my first exposure to much of that history. Before this book, most of what I knew about Afghanistan was learned from CNN news stories that my mom started watching after 9/11, and I find that embarrassing. It makes me feel incredibly naïve and somewhat uneducated; I keep thinking back to my history classes in high school, wondering if there was a section I blocked out, but I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think I was ever taught much about Afghanistan, and I never tried to seek it out myself.

This book made me uncomfortably aware of how trivial the things are in my life that I worry about. Compared to others, and especially compared to the women in this story, I’m an incredibly privileged person to be living the life I have. Though I’m generally aware of that fact I felt that it was really thrown at me throughout the book, which I believe is a good thing. I feel more inspired to do some good in the world, to be more aware and educated about what is happening, and most importantly to be truly grateful for everything I have. Mariam and Laila had their worlds turned upside down so many times and in so many different ways, and yet they kept going. They loved, they hoped, they endured, and their unrelenting bravery in the face of hardship makes them some of the best heroines I’ve read about in some time.

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

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What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman (aka My Life Goals)

Reading this memoir was an inspiring yet terrifying experience. As a single 25-year-old female who loves to travel, I identified with Kristin. It was something about the way she wanted to do her own thing and see the world, but at the same time she wanted to find love (because that’s normal and what we’re supposed to do, right?!). In so many ways I felt like I was reading the memoir of some sort of alternate-universe version of myself, with the main difference being that Kristin is hilarious and I can only dream of being as funny as she is.

I felt the connection in the first chapter. “The first time I blew off steam internationally was not born of carpe diem. It was born of deep despair.” Add in the fact that Kristin’s deep despair was caused by a rough break-up and at that point in time she was only one year older than myself right now… well, it sounded eerily familiar. Her first international escape was with a friend, the friend’s boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s friend to Paris and Amsterdam. She spent an extra few days in Paris by herself, trying to be the Girl Who Has Fun Alone and, ultimately, she admitted that those days didn’t go as well as planned.

It was like reading a twisted version of my own journal. My first solo international experience was also born out of a break-up and the combination of a need to get away and the desire to be independent. Instead of just taking a trip to visit good friends in New York or Philadelphia (which probably would have been the sensible thing to do), I booked a solo flight to Munich for Oktoberfest. Why Munich? Because my friend’s Italian coworker was working there for a few months and had mentioned at one point that if any of us were in Germany we should let him know. I took that as a sign that I should go.  I had visions of myself breezing through the streets of Munich, sipping coffee and eating pretzels outside some gorgeous café, drinking liters of beer with attractive single foreigners from all over the world. You probably aren’t surprised that the trip didn’t live up to my expectations: I really struggled communicating in German, I found it difficult to meet people, I felt unsafe navigating through a bunch of drunk people by myself, and felt generally alone for a bigger chunk of time than I’d like to admit. However, I did manage to get a few things right: there was lots of great beer and good food, a hot Swedish guy made an appearance, I met some really cool people from Australia, and most importantly, I made it through an international trip all by myself and had an overall good time. Mission accomplished.

 

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Marienplatz in Munich, Germany

I drew all these parallels between my life and Kristin’s, and it was only the first chapter! As I continued reading, and learned about her adventures in Russia, Argentina, Australia, and more, I felt so inspired. I kept thinking to myself, this is what I’m going to do with my life. This is how I want to live. I started telling people that traveling was the most important thing, that I wanted to see the world, that I didn’t want to settle down, that I wanted to enjoy being single. (I didn’t tell them that I was almost quoting from a memoir that I was reading.) Kristin matured throughout the book; she became more self-confident and carefree when she was traveling. I kept picturing a future version of myself that was right there with her, just going with the flow and enjoying life, living each moment abroad to the fullest, not afraid of being judged. For the first time, I felt capable of achieving all of my lofty travel goals. If Kristin could do it, then so can I.

The last few chapters sobered me up a bit, though. Suddenly, the amazing and confident Kristin was in her late thirties, and afraid that she missed her chance at love because of all her adventures. The woman I had come to identify somewhat as a heroine was dealing with life questions that I can’t possibly understand at 25, and as I read her thoughts I realized I was afraid of the possibility of encountering the same problems. What if I traveled so much and focused on myself so much that I miss other opportunities? What if the adventures that I’m planning at 25 turn me into a crazy cat lady at 35? The last few chapters left me feeling nervous rather than adventurous, cautious rather than bold. By being honest about her thoughts and her life, Kristin presented the opportunity cost of being so independent and well traveled. But at the same time, she kept traveling and doing her own thing, which I found inspiring.

After finishing the book and letting it sink in for the past few days, I realize that I’m still inspired by Kristin’s life. She knew what she wanted and she went out to get it, and even though there were tough spots along the way she kept going, and along the way she met some amazing people and racked up countless stories to share. And in the end she regretted nothing, which to me is the most important thing.