When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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Paul Kalanithi spent years training to be a neurosurgeon. He was one of those dazzling people who could have followed any number of paths, studying literature, philosophy and medicine with equal vigour. He trained in neurological surgery at Stanford University, believing brain surgery was his calling. The ridiculous workload (100 hour work weeks) and literal life and death operations, his striving for compassion and excellence in everything he did, his relationship with his girlfriend, Lucy, also a doctor, are all examined in the first half of this book. Kalanithi’s love of literature shines as brightly as his love of medicine.

When he began to suffer with excruciating back pains he wondered if he had cancer, then tried to push that concern away after an x-ray came back clear. He got weaker and the pain intensified. Eventually he had a CT scan, “I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurosurgical resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

Where the first half of the book is concerned with his striving to be the best surgeon he can and to help others deal with unthinkable disease and their fragility as humans, their lives literally in his hands as he operates on their brains, the second half is him looking frankly at his own situation as he makes the transformation from expert doctor to needy patient.

“Once I had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, I began to view the world through two perspectives; I was starting to see death as both doctor an patient. As a doctor, I knew not to to declare “Cancer is a battle I am going to win!” or ask “Why me?” (Answer: Why not me?)”

“Like my own patients, I had to face my mortality and try to understand what made my life worth living…”

It’s his clear thinking that engages the reader so fully. We, and everyone we know, will die. It is the awful truth we spend our days not looking at and here is someone who has studied the brain extensively, who knows what it is to look right at death, someone who writes with zinging clarity, preparing to share his wisdom with us so that we may go forwards in our own lives in a more meaningful way.

“The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”

Everything Kalanithi had worked so hard to achieve in his future, his ambitions and hopes, were lost with diagnosis. He had to examine what was most important to him. As he wrestled with choosing between literature and medicine before specialising, he wrestled again. He returned to surgery for a while, completing his residency with customary excellence despite everything. Offered his dream job he briefly allowed himself the fantasy of accepting it, before turning it down. He and Lucy decided to have a baby. He wrote most of this book. In the end it all boiled down to the deeply personal, as it does for us all. The things that matter are the relationships we have. It’s family and friends and love that count.

This is why When Breath Becomes Air is successful. We are desperate for clues how to live, how to die, how to cope. It’s unfair to expect so much from a book. Its unfair that Kalanithi died when he was 37. Life, and death, is not fair.

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Smash Lits with Janice Galloway

Janice Galloway is my favourite writer so I was thrilled when we were able to launch The Forge Literary Magazine with her superb story, peak. She recently published a new collection, Jellyfish, available from Freight Books, which showcases her incredible talent. If you’re a fan of short stories I really must ask you to buy/read a copy of this. It’s a masterclass.

 

I’m really chuffed that Janice agreed to take part in Smash Lits and answer my daft questions.

1. Do you have any recurring dreams?

1) Being in an institution or school and trying to pass for a natural member of that institution (one version of this was living in a sauna with only a towel for belongings);

2) Being on a bus heading somewhere very determinedly and realising it has no driver or other passengers after five minutes of just looking out of the window thinking I was safe;

3) Being alone in the dusk and looking out over low-lit moorland with a road winding through it, and someone waiting at the bus stop who may or may not be my mother –

Can I stop now? They go on forever.

2. Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

Yes. Indeed, there have been times I wished I could.

3. You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

Balzac, because he wrote (longhand, obviously) very fast indeed and I can’t write anything fast by any means whatever.

4. Did you have an invisible friend when you were younger?

No. Another loss.

5. What’s your favourite sweet?

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High quality – violet cream. Common or garden – Highland Toffee. I hope my dentist doesn’t see this.

6. Have you ever read someone else’s diary?

No. But my big sister read mine out loud at tea-time when I was 13.

7. Your writing is music, what style is it?

Varies. I can confidently say it’s never pub singalongs.

8. Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

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Tofu because it is honourable and bacon kills things and I want to say the right thing instead of reveal my weakness.

9. What was the last text you sent?

Get onions. Get lots of onions.

10. What is the oldest piece of clothing in your wardrobe?

A cardigan that was knitted by my sister and belonged to my mother. It’s TINY.

11. Have you ever had your fortune told?

Yes. I lived in a seaside town and the travelling fair (funfair, that is) came with a built-on fortune teller.

12. Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

I have never seen Neighbours. If there was a dog in it I would have liked that.

13. What’s your favourite swear?

Bugger McFucketty

14. What sandwiches would you have made for a picnic with George Orwell?

Boiled cabbage.

15. You obviously love words, do you have a favourite?

Succulent.

16. What’s the best thing ever?

A wild animal coming to give you a sniff and examine what you are out of curiosity. NB It must not be a spider.

17. Have you ever had a nickname?

No. At home as a child, I answered to “Here, you” more than anything else if that counts.

18. Do you have any writing rituals?

Other than occasionally weeping with rage and frustration, no.

19. Your character in “burning love” calls Sylvia Plath “the Boston Harpie” – what would they call you?

The character in the story would probably call me “Who?”.

20. What question should I have asked you?

Can we send you a cheque?

Janice, you’re amazing. Thank you for supporting our new magazine and thank you for writing your words. Dear everyone, please buy Jellyfish, you won’t be disappointed. 

Exciting new literary magazine

I am very excited to tell you about a new online literary magazine that launches tomorrow. It’s called The Forge and it’s pretty blooming special. I am one of the editors so yeah, I’m bound to think that, but seriously, it really is going to be good. We launch with a story by Janice Galloway – that’s how fucking cool we are. We have pieces by Roxane Gay, Emma Jane Unsworth, Kevin Barry and other superb writers coming your way. We want your submissions too. It’s free to sub to us and we pay. Didn’t I tell you we’re amazing?

We are an international group of literary writers who work together in an online writing group (The Fiction Forge – natch). Our leader is John Haggerty, a writer who makes me laugh more than any other. Twelve of us are going to rotate in pairs as editors and each of us will choose our favourite stories. John and I are first up. I was asked to write a wishlist of what I would most like to read which I’m sharing here:

Please send me the writing you are proudest of. I don’t want to read the piece that might do, I want the one you know means you are a bloody brilliant writer.

I like fiction that rings with truth and non-fiction that reads like it’s made-up.
I like stories that surprise, but don’t hinge on a twist.
I like darkly funny and dislike punchlines.
I like flash and longer form.
I love words and look forward to reading yours.

So, read us, love us, sub to us, “like” our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter, share us, enjoy us.

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Smash Lits with Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary has created a brilliant detective series featuring DI Marnie Rome. She recently won the 2015 Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year for her debut, Someone Else’s Skin, and today marks the paperback publication of her equally dark, twisty and engaging follow-up, No Other Darkness. Obviously it’s time to ask her the really tricky questions. Drum roll please…

1) What was the last text you sent?

To a friend, telling her I hoped the wind wouldn’t play merry hell with her bell tents. It’s a long story.

2) Does your mother play golf? (Question provided by Michael Richardson)

Once, but it was crazy golf outside a Welsh tearoom and only to keep peace between me and my siblings.

3) Who is your unlikely crush?

Norman Bates. I have my reasons.

4) Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

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Bacon kicks tofu’s arse. Then they team up to beat the crap out of quinoa. Because that’s bacon’s duty, and tofu does as he’s told.

You make me laugh with your quinoa hate 🙂

5) Your writing is music, what style is it?

Psycho shower scene meets Panic at the Disco. Everyone mosh-pitting until they drip with sweat and drop to the floor.

6) Can you make up a poem about tinned peaches? (winks to those in the know)

The end of the world comes in cans
With blue labels and tastes of pink
Served on a plastic fork.
(Or, to answer your question more succinctly, no I can’t.)
(Ooh, you can. I think that’s rather chilling.)

7) Have you ever had a nickname?

Tiger. Sadly not after the girl from the Double Deckers.

8) What makes the wind blow?

Something to do with the sun and atmospheric pressure. Plays merry hell with my mate’s bell tents.

9) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

No. It would spoil too many great crime stories where the killer thinks he’s been very clever incinerating a corpse near a fire-place.

10) What’s your favourite thing from childhood that you’ve still got?

My bloodymindedness.

11) Have you ever written an angry letter to a magazine or “news” paper?

Yes. I once explained to Mslexia why being snooty about fan fiction was a bloody silly idea. They published the letter, too. I think I might become an angry letter writer in my old age.

12) Have you ever woken up laughing?

Not recently.

13) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

I never watched it. I watched The Sullivans. John was my favourite in that. And I do love Kylie.

14) Who is your fave TV crime fighter?

Patrick Jane. His hair curls like the sea coming in and his smile is a sunset smiting the sand.

(grin)

15) What’s your favourite sweet?

Peppermint creams. Not the kind covered in chocolate. The plain kind, in the waxy wrappers.

16) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Lorrie Moore?

I would attempt a sandwich layer loaf, which my mum used to make in the 80s. You take a loaf of Hovis wheatgerm bread, unsliced, which you cut into three horizontal sections before adding three different fillings and slapping it back together again. Then you slice it like you normally would and–wowzer, you’ve got three layers of fillings in one slice. My mum used to smear peanut butter on the top crust. It’s retro, and a bit cheeky.

17) What was your favourite book as a child?

The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon. A book of short stories. My favourite was a wonderfully nasty one called The Lady’s Room.

18) What would you do if you were invisible for the day?

Sneak into Battersea Power Station and rearrange all the geegaws in the showroom flats. Then I’d nick Sting’s lute for a laugh.

19) What’s your favourite swear?

Oh fuck buckets.

20) What question should I have asked you?

Am I a good liar?

Ha! Thank you so much for taking part in Smash Lits. I wish you more and more success. 

Literary snobbery, bookshops, libraries and books that people want to read.

I’ve been working as a Library Assistant for six months now. I had imagined that my bookselling knowledge would easily transfer to library work and it’s true that my customer service skills have helped, but that’s about it. Of course I’m still handling books all workday long. l unpack books, shelve books, find books. These things are similar and yet not at all the same. Other skills have been needed. The library wonderfully provides up to two hours free internet access for all users each day and I gladly assist people to use computers. People also need a lot of help with photocopying (which was unexpected and my heart sinks when they ask how to enlarge and scan and so on; I’m getting there though.) Often people want someone to chat to while they collect their Blue Badge, or drop off their borrowed books. Many times customers come in hesitantly and ask questions. It’s so good to be able to find them answers and see them leave the library satisfied. From Baby Rhyme Time to Knit and Natter groups the library service offers something for everyone. It’s a remarkable thing and vital as libraries provide equal access to information for all. I am proud that I am playing my own tiny part in it. You can sense a but though, right?

But…

But, it’s a really big reality check for a book snob like me. Contemporary literary fiction is my thing. I read it, write it, review it, discuss it. For years I sold it. My social media feeds are full of likeminded people. I read broadsheet reviews. I have writer and bookseller friends with whom I chat about books. Sometimes it’s easy to believe literary fiction is as important to everyone as it is to me and I have to remind myself that it’s not. For every person that used to come into the bookshop looking for the latest literary must-have there was a customer proudly stating they never read at all. Hey, I have pals who aren’t into books. I’m married to a man who only reads graphic novels. It’s not how I judge people, but it is something I’m deeply passionate about. I thought that my years of working in the fiction section at Waterstones would be invaluable in recommending books to library users and helping them find what they want. In the six months I’ve worked in the library I have not needed this knowledge. Firstly, people don’t seem to ask for recommendations often. I suppose when you’re not paying for the book there’s less at stake. The library demographic in this county seems to be overwhelmingly children and old people. There are far fewer teenagers through to people maybe in their late 50’s. All the stereotypes that I try to avoid are true; the older women like sagas and romances and the men like crime novels. The latest Peter James novel is the book that’s had the biggest interest and people jostled for places on the reservations list. There is literary fiction available, but it doesn’t get out so much. I have awkward conversations about books with colleagues. They ask if I’ve read XYZ and I have not. I would not. I don’t want to be this awful judgmental bitch, but oh wow, there’s a lot of frothy shite being read. And that’s absolutely fine, isn’t it. We all like what we like. I do miss shiny, new fiction and go to Waterstones and lovingly tidy the tables, patting the delicious litfic, reassuring myself.

What it says to me as a writer is interesting. I worried initially that it meant there simply isn’t a demand for litfic, but now I think it’s likely that readers of this style of fiction are bookshop buyers rather than library users, as I was for years. A library will source whatever book it’s asked for, if it can, so I assume nobody is asking. Of course on the shelves you can find good quality novels, I’m not saying they aren’t there, however, they are nowhere near as popular as I imagined. I have tried adding them to displays to see if they get checked out as a consequence and maybe one or two have, but overwhelmingly the preference is clear. This may only be true of my area; I’m working in small village libraries, not city ones.

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And of course I’m well aware that fiction is fiction and to label something as commercial fiction/genre fiction/literary fiction isn’t always helpful, but my preference is for quality literary fiction and as my husband said when I discussed it with him and called myself a snob because I don’t read the books my colleagues have mentioned to me, “It’s like someone assuming you’d like a Boyzone song because you told them you like music.”

Anyway, libraries, whoo, excellent places and it’s great to enjoy my job and get to feel all glowy from being helpful, I just won’t expect to have a conversation about the fiction I adore.

The Kindness by Polly Samson

Julia meets Julian when she’s flying her husband’s hawk in Wychwood, and so begins a novel which is told in a series of ever illuminating flashbacks. Despite the age gap between them, and Julia’s existing unhappy marriage, they fall deeply in love and make a life for themselves in London. Their daughter, Mira, adds to their happiness and when Julian’s beloved childhood home, Firdaws, is up for sale he does all he can to buy it to recreate his idea of a perfect family home. It is when Mira becomes desperately ill that everything unravels. As we slide back and forth in time we see devastating heartbreak and discover a lie that poisons everything.

Samson is a gloriously evocative writer. She conjures the countryside and all its scents, sounds and sights beautifully, but is equally vivid writing about homes, clothes, life.

“She pokes her stick among the branches, unzipping the sound of angry buzzing, ‘Oh, but so many wasps,’ she says, batting her hands. The smell of the hot fruit has never pleased him, something too much like tom-cat pee. Where she parts the bush he can see a pair of figs hanging like purple testicles and he’s already trying to scoot off but she’s rushing with him, saying what a shame it is that no one gets to eat those delicious looking figs, her little legs working hard, two strides to his one.”

I really don’t want to give anything away and the plot is such that it would be easy to, so it’s best to just say that The Kindness is a novel to immerse yourself in and I imagine it will be a book club favourite.

Smash Lits with Carys Bray

I’m so glad that Carys has taken part in Smash Lits. She wrote one of my favourite books of the year, “A Song For Issy Bradley” which has been widely praised and is now on the prestigious shortlist of the 2014 Costa First Book Prize. Yay Carys! Anyway, without further ado:

1) Ian is described as “Superman in a Burton suit” – who would you be?

That is such a good question – argh! I would be Bibliogirl in an origami dress.

Ooh, I love that!

2) Do you have any recurring dreams?

Yes, and they’re both horrible! One involves my teeth falling out and the other involves a school reunion and the sudden realisation that I’m not wearing enough clothes.

3) Have you ever seen a ghost?

No (and I don’t believe in them).

4) What’s your favourite sweet?

I love Thornton’s Viennese truffles, yum.

5) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

I haven’t watched Neighbours for years. Erm, Libby Kennedy!

6) What’s your most vivid childhood memory?

I remember a whole school assembly in which I had to stand up and receive a dressing down for being late for school that morning. I absolutely wasn’t late – my mum was probably the most organised parent in the universe, I don’t think I was ever late for school – and I was only four. By that evening I was covered in hives and my mum was furious.

7) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

Not spontaneously, no.

8) What colour is Tuesday?

Oh, that’s easy, orange.

9) What is your favourite swear?

I didn’t swear for the first 30 years of my life because swearing was a sin, so I’m a late developer. I quite like near-miss swears, like twunt and nucking-futter.

I adore twunt, it’s such a satisfying word.

10) Tofu VS Bacon. Who wins? Why?

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Bacon. The bacony smell is one of the best smells ever. In fact, I think they should make bacon perfume.

Carys, they do make bacon perfume – lookit.

11) What is the picture on your wall?

I have a picture of ruby slippers and ‘There’s no place like home.’

12) What was the last text you sent?

A text telling son 3 that no, I couldn’t bring his drum sticks and music book to school because I was on a train to Liverpool.

13) How do you organise your book shelves?

I used to organise them by colour but the kids teased me so much that I changed them and now I’ve got short stories in one place and novels/favourite novels, poetry etc. elsewhere.

14) Who would play the character of Claire in the film of your book?

Suranne Jones because she’s a great actress, she’s northern and I think she’d be brilliant at the harried/resigned combo.

15) You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

Something flocked in red. My violin teacher used to have this amazing red, velvety wallpaper and I remember stroking it as I waited for my lesson to start.

16) Have you ever read someone else’s diary?

Yes. My mum has written in a diary every day since I was born and I sneaked a peek a few times when I was a teenager (I’m pretty sure she returned the favour, so it’s all good).

17) What is your most vivid childhood memory?

I think this is a trick question – it’s one of those memory tests to make sure I can remember the vivid childhood memory I described in answer to number 6!

Oops! 

18) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Margaret Atwood?

I did a little research (because who wouldn’t, if they were going on a picnic with Margaret Atwood) and discovered that she doesn’t answer questions about favourite foods, colours etc. because she has a hard time deciding favourites. I remember reading that she took the Veggie Vows during the tour of The Year of the Flood, so I’d do Greek salad wraps

19) What is your Book of the Year?

Probably All My Puny Sorrows, which I first read about on your blog!

It is stunning isn’t it. So glad you read about it here *chuffed*

20) What question should I have asked you?

I like the questions you asked. It was a relief not to be asked about novel 2 and Mormonism – thank you!