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April 6, 2016 – Notes

 In attendance: Liz Clarke, Vivian Krone, Janice Loschiavo, Cathy Quinn, Lois Pagnozzi, Meta Pitrelli, Sharon Rome, Barbara Santillo, Tina Segali, Marilyn Sinisi.

Absent: Cathy Quinn, Joan Swensen

Emeritus: Donna Sabetta, Jeri Stangl.

Book & Author: Saving Sophie, by Ronald Dawson.

The group welcomed back Vivian and Meta from Florida and enjoyed appetizers in Lois’ living room. Reluctantly, we moved to the dining table to begin the discussion of the book and feast on Lois’ opulent dinner.

Questions and notes regarding Saving Sophie:

  • Meta, Sharon and Vivian spoke about their reasons for your enjoyment of the book: it held one’s interest, it dealt with current issues, it seemed real and believable.
  • What was the appeal of the father-in-law? Sharon noted that he had a way of being persuasive, speaking about honor and sacrifice. Plus his role as a doctor conferred on him inherent prestige and respect. He talked with passion his people’s heritage and culture.
  • On the other hand, he was somewhat of a monster. He was cruel to his granddaughter (e.g., the bear stuffed animal) and was blind to the affect of his actions on her.
  • There was a protracted discussion of the intractable problem of Jews vs. Palestinians, the divided territory of Hebron, and the fact that anyone who comes to make peace is setting himself up for failure.
  • The history of the area was fascinating yet confusing when trying to determine which party holds the high ground.
  • Barbara spoke about her trip to Israel. Others mentioned how the inhabitants of the region live every day with the threat of violence and acts of terrorism.
  • There were comments about how the author tied together seemingly disparate plot tangents (such as the basketball point-shaving angle) into a coherent and lively read.
  • A discussion ensued about the impossible expectations imposed on young, gifted athletes because the money is so big. These young people become a commodity. Does the lure of success encourage parental exploitation?
  • Do you think that Jews and/or other nationalities honor education and family more than we do?
  • What would have become of Sophie if she hadn’t been rescued?
  • What do you think of the relationship between Liam and Catherine?

The book earned a 3.00 rating (after the usual discussion about the arbitrary nature of our rating system). In a brief conversation about the celebration of our 100th book, the group confirmed October as the best time to hold it. Locations near Mahwah will be researched in the next few months.

Lois was bombarded with compliments on the exquisite dinner of chicken, rice, zucchini, asparagus, salad, (what did I leave out?!). We also enjoyed Liz’s delicious apple cake and Sharon’s cheesecake cookies (arguably the best that Sharon has brought us, and that’s saying a lot!). Happy birthday was sung to Janice and Barbara, both celebrating birthdays in April.

Next Meeting: Wednesday, May 4, beginning at 5:00 p.m., at Joan’s house in Mahwah. Assignments will be sent out with the meeting reminder.

Next Book: When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, chosen by Vivian. The book for the June 1 meeting, selected by Lois, is Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley. The July 6 book will be chosen by Meta.

Submitted by Tina Segali

April 12, 2016

The New York Times Review of January 6, 2016, by Janet Marlin 

When Dr. Paul Kalanithi sent his best friend an email in May 2013 revealing that he had terminal cancer, he wrote: “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” It was a jokey way of dealing with the unthinkable but also an indication of Dr. Kalanithi’s tremendous ambition. He had led a fascinating life and was not about to leave it unchronicled.

The bittersweet news is that in the 22 months left to him, Dr. Kalanithi, who died at 37, went on to write a great, indelible book, “When Breath Becomes Air,” that is as intimate and illuminating as Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal,” to cite only one recent example of a doctor’s book that has had exceptionally wide appeal. To paraphrase Abraham Verghese’s introduction, to read this book is to feel that Dr. Kalanithi still lives, with enormous power to influence the lives of others even though he is gone.

Dr. Verghese suggests not only reading “When Breath Becomes Air” but also listening to the overwhelming response it prompts in you. I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option. There is so much here that lingers, and not just about matters of life and death: One of the most poignant things about Dr. Kalanithi’s story is that he had postponed learning how to live while pursuing his career in neurosurgery. By the time he was ready to enjoy a life outside the operating room, what he needed to learn was how to die.

Dr. Kalanithi’s abiding and eclectic interest in serious literature serves him well throughout “When Breath Becomes Air.” Its hauntingly beautiful title is a paraphrase from the poem “Caelica 83,” part of a 17th-century sonnet series by Fulke Greville. It’s obscure but could not be more apt. Thomas Browne’s “Religio Medici” was the book he loved most.

He wrote his own book with great determination but also great difficulty, to the point of wearing silver-lined gloves to use the trackpad when his fingertips began to crack during chemotherapy. (In the epilogue and afterword, by his wife, Lucy Kalanithi, also a doctor, she says that the manuscript had to be completed posthumously.) But the difficulty doesn’t show: Dr. Kalanithi knows how to make a paragraph fly. And the book opens with a beauty, quoted here to show its swift economy and precision:

“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.”

With those facts established, he is free to flash back through the lifetime of experiences that got him to this point: an unusual love-hate relationship with medicine as the thing that kept his father, a cardiologist, away from home at night but also struck him as a calling rather than a profession. Once his family moved from Westchester, N.Y., to Arizona, he and his brothers became essentially home-schooled by a strict mother who had no idea what truly excited Paul, the neurosurgeon in waiting. She worried about her sons and drugs, “never suspecting that the most intoxicating thing I’d experienced, by far, was the volume of romantic poetry she’d handed me the previous week.”

With the seeker’s restlessness that seems not to have left him until his last breath, he went on to accrue two B.A.s and an M.A. in literature at Stanford, then a Master of Philosophy at Cambridge, before graduating cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine. He returned to Stanford for a residency in neurological surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience. His training was almost complete when the bad diagnosis hit.

In the first half of the book, Dr. Kalanithi provides a good set of anecdotes about how he goes from medical resident to seasoned doctor: first cadaver (formaldehyde stimulated his appetite), first births and deaths on the same day (which made him mindful of “Waiting for Godot,” with its line about “birth astride of a grave”). From the start, workaholic though he is, he understands patients’ needs better than most young doctors do.

And then everything changes. In a single moment of recognition, everything Dr. Kalanithi has imagined for himself and his wife evaporates, and a new future has to be imagined. Should they have a child, or would that make it harder for him to die? (They do. The book is dedicated to their daughter, Cady.) A job at Stanford for which he was the prime candidate? Not happening. Another good job that would require the Kalanithis to move to Wisconsin? Too far from his oncologist. Long-term plans of any kind? Well, what does long-term mean now? Does he have a day, a month, a year, six years, what? He’s heard the advice about living one day at a time, but what’s he supposed to do with that day when he doesn’t know how many others remain?

“When Breath Becomes Air” is gripping from the start. But it becomes even more so as Dr. Kalanithi tries to reinvent himself in various ways with no idea what will happen. He can’t gauge how much strength his body still has until he tests it, and sometimes the consequences are horrific. He no longer knows who he is or what he wants. His whole sense of identity is shaken. And for a terrible period when his oncologist is away, he is treated as a problem and not a patient by an inept medical resident who nearly hastens his death by denying him one of the drugs he desperately needs.

Part of this book’s tremendous impact comes from the obvious fact that its author was such a brilliant polymath. And part comes from the way he conveys what happened to him — passionately working and striving, deferring gratification, waiting to live, learning to die — so well. None of it is maudlin. Nothing is exaggerated. As he wrote to a friend: “It’s just tragic enough and just imaginable enough.” And just important enough to be unmissable.

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