Typically, Wolfe throws a Molotov cocktail at conventional wisdom in a book that won’t settle any argument but is sure to...

THE KINGDOM OF SPEECH

A fresh look at an old controversy, as a master provocateur suggests that human language renders the theory of evolution more like a fable than scientific fact.

Before he started focusing his energy on epic novels like The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Wolfe delighted in making trouble with his cultural pronouncements, including one that labeled the novel itself an anachronism. Here, the author is in particularly delighted (and often delightful) form, as he targets “Charlie” Darwin and Noam Chomsky (no nickname) as overly influential figures with inflated reputations. What links the two in this short book that encapsulates some 150 years of scientific history is Wolfe’s contention that there is no evolutionary explanation for language, particularly abstract language, and that the pompous Chomsky has been exposed, at least in Wolfe’s estimation, as the emperor who has no clothes. “I could hardly believe that no licensed savant had ever pointed it out before,” he writes toward the conclusion. “There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a…dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.” As is typical with Wolfe, he finds considerations of class and fashion crucial to his argument. Darwin “freaked out” when he found himself “scooped” by a theorist considerably below his social station, one who “realized there was no way that he, all by himself on the wrong side of the class divide, was going to prevail against the Gentlemen.” Chomsky faced a “clueless outsider who crashes the party of the big thinkers” yet who provides persuasive evidence so that Chomsky’s insistence that language was “innate” in evolved humans and that there was such thing as a “universal grammar” was subsequently dismissed as “half-baked twaddle.” If language isn’t part of the evolutionary process, how did it come to be developed by humans alone?

Typically, Wolfe throws a Molotov cocktail at conventional wisdom in a book that won’t settle any argument but is sure to start some.

Pub Date: Aug. 30, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-316-26996-4

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 30, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2016

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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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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