A slight, breezy memoir that delves into serious subjects.

NAVEL GAZING

TRUE TALES OF BODIES, MOSTLY MINE (BUT ALSO MY MOM'S, WHICH I KNOW SOUNDS WEIRD)

A dying mother puts a middle-aged humorist more in touch with his own mortality.

Title aside, this memoir mentions Black’s navel hardly at all. The author obsesses more on the feet and toes that have embarrassed him longer than other appendages and on his “flaccid penis, hanging down like an aardvark snout.” Meditations on the author’s body generally alternate with reports on his failing mother and her various operations, including a “bellybuttonectomy” that left her without a navel on which to gaze. Much of the material here could be dark, even grim, but Black sustains a light touch throughout, projecting a warmth that extends from his relationship with his mother through his family life with wife and children. On the one hand, he recognizes that “every body inevitably fails….They are the very definition of planned obsolescence.” On the other hand, though he admits that the darker truths of existence have led him to contemplate suicide, he maintains, “I don’t ever plan on killing myself. For that matter, I don’t ever plan on dying. But I also know that circumstances change, people change, minds change.” Death (even suicide) permeates this book, yet it is the kind of book that some folks buy others to put the aging process in perspective, to have a laugh or two at it, to keep from taking oneself and one’s fate too seriously. So there are plenty of episodes that find the hapless author trying to combat aging by joining a gym or training for a distance race, and there are a few interludes that have nothing to do with aging at all but which didn’t fit in his other books (he terms this a follow-up to You’re Not Doing It Right, 2012) and omits material (such as that concerning his dad) that might have worked fine here but which he’d previously written about.

A slight, breezy memoir that delves into serious subjects.

Pub Date: Jan. 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4882-5

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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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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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

TOMBSTONE

THE EARP BROTHERS, DOC HOLLIDAY, AND THE VENDETTA RIDE FROM HELL

Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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