Largely predictable, but gracefully stated.

CLIMATE OF FEAR

THE QUEST FOR DIGNITY IN A DEHUMANIZED WORLD

To visit fear on an already suffering world, writes the 1986 Nobel Prize–winner, is a naked assault on human dignity and “a prelude to the domination of the mind and the triumph of power.”

These days, Soyinka (The Open Sore of a Continent, 1996, etc.) argues, there’s plenty more afoot to fear than fear itself, which makes our time just right for warmongers, theocrats, absolutists, and other blights on humanity. Made up of five lectures given at London’s Royal Institution in March 2004, Soyinka’s latest wanders the boundary between memoir and political essay. Early on, he ranges among memories of resisting the military government in his native Nigeria during the Biafran war, of marching with Bertrand Russell (“a pipe-smoking leprechaun of a man with a giant brain”) against nuclear testing, of waiting out natural firestorms in Los Angeles. He then turns to broader world events; he recalls thinking, for instance, that if the world changed on September 11, 2001, then it also changed in 1988, when Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, and a year later, when a UTA passenger flight exploded over Niger. Also the result of sabotage, that last-named disaster was greeted by worldwide silence and “swallowed with total equanimity by African heads of state.” Fear and terror are our daily lot, Soyinka suggests, with dehumanizing effects. To combat this assault on our shared humanity, the world community must repudiate the notion that there are no innocents today while, at the same time, reaching out to ameliorate the conditions that produce terrorism in the first place among people who are probably innocents. Such remedies are sound but vague. In the place of completely thought-through prescriptions, Soyinka offers generalities: the al Qaeda attack on the US was a crime against humanity, the US shouldn’t have rushed into war in Iraq, and so on.

Largely predictable, but gracefully stated.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8129-7424-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2004

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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