Book reviews by D.G. Kaye
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Sunday Book Review – When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi

My Sunday Book Review is for When Breath Becomes Air – A story of courage about the life of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon in his prime, just finishing his medical residency when he’s faced with the fatal blow of an almost certain death sentence when diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Nonfiction.





At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST • This inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds as an idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?

NAMED ONE OF PASTE’S BEST MEMOIRS OF THE DECADE • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • People • NPR • The Washington Post • Slate • Harper’s Bazaar • Time Out New York • Publishers Weekly • BookPage

Finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction and the Books for a Better Life Award in Inspirational Memoir


My 4 Star Review:

This is the memoir of Dr. Paul Kalanithi who takes us along his journey as he recants and examines his life leading up to his becoming a neurosurgeon and neuro-scientist. Less than a year left to finishing his 10-year surgical residency, he is given the fatal diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer, and this is when his originally intent memoir on his studies and how his path in life led him to wanting him to become a neurosurgeon, became a different story – more about his determination to continue his studies and being a surgeon, now focused on the life-altering decisions he had to make and the disease taking away parts of him as the story progresses.

We follow Dr. Paul’s remainder of his life throughout his treatments, philosophies and decisions until his last ‘breath of air’, which if not had been cut short, I’m convinced he may have become one of the world reknowned neurosurgeons of our time, had the Big ‘C’ not rocked his world and everything he worked hard to reach hitting at the pinnacle of his career.

This is the story about a man, a doctor, who became ‘the patient’ who knew despite the possible miracles that could happen that his diagnosis meant the clock was now ticking on his life, and shares his story with us about what he’d do for the remainder of his time while hope still floated, but common sense lurked inside him as he stoically accepted his demise.

We learn a bit about his world, his work, his marriage and the decision to have a child despite the edict. We’re taken into his world of medicine, life and death decisions he made, and his journey of hope until his ultimate death.

Dr. Paul prepared his whole life to become a neurosurgeon, but always with a passion for literature and an undeniable desire to also become a writer – something he’d planned on doing in later decades in his life after he would finish being a surgeon. But future plans now became the present with possible limited time to fit in a lifetime of desires. Writing and children became a topic to be dealt with in the now, no longer the future.

Dr. Paul continued to write this book throughout his treatments and illness to leave something behind – his life story as his legacy. He died before it was finished, and his wife Lucy wrote the epilogue. His determination to keep writing though, was relentless as was his vigor to live – “Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living.” With so many questions and decisions to be made, Dr. Paul shared his confliction in life as he had only another year to go to finish his surgical residency.  He wondered if he should continue to live life through optimism for a cure or continue his work, start a family and prepare for certain death.

I’d classify this book as part memoir as I felt the initial intent was to journal his life to becoming a doctor, which then turned to more of a soul-searching with reflections and platitudes and a need to perhaps ‘hurry it along’ as his illness progressed. And to be honest, I thought his wife’s epilogue was the most beautiful part of the book. As a compassionate human being myself, I was moved by the story and the miraculous man Dr. Paul. But as a writer myself, I felt the pace and a bit of a directional change midway through the book as well as important gaps – mainly emotion, which I couldn’t get a feel for from this doctor. I felt a bit distanced as I read the book, not all consumed because despite the horrific death sentence and Dr. Paul’s lifetime of work, I felt he didn’t reveal enough of himself or emotions to invite me in to his character, hence, the 4 stars.


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D.G. Kaye is a nonfiction/memoir writer, who writes from her own life experiences and self-medicates with a daily dose of humor.


    • dgkaye

      Thank you Robbie. A wonderfully insightful book on life and becoming a doctor with a death sentence coming shortly before he finishes his residency. So sad it’s a true story. 🙁 x

  • Sally Cronin

    A very balanced review of the book Debby… I do wonder if some of his detachment is down to his years of training, and being focused on not becoming emotionally involved in his own patients suffering. And perhaps he also was afraid of breaking down and letting go. I think you are spot on with the review and the book is also there for his child to read at some point which will give him at least something of his father and his life. Will share in the blogger Daily on Tuesday… ♥♥

    • dgkaye

      Thanks so much Sal. As I was discussing with Marian’s comment above. As in the book he talks about going through all the stages of grief and denial, but because he didn’t really demonstrate his emotions in the book, no doubt one has to feel sympathy for his demise and his life work hit with a death sentence, but because of the lack of demonstration it was hard to capture my empathy. You get exactly what I mean. But despite that, an eye opening story and an amazing look at what a doctor must endure to earn his credentials. <3 xxx

  • Marian Beaman

    I read this book shortly after it came out and found it a compelling story. The author didn’t have the time (literally!) to do the editing and revising you and I know the book could have benefitted from. Still, it is a worthwhile read and a testament to one man’s courageous spirit. Thanks for reminding me of this man’s valiant struggle, Debby!

    • dgkaye

      Thank you Marian for adding your take on the book. I wholeheartedly concur. Although he does mention that he does confer with his editor later in the story. I don’t think we know if perhaps certain parts were not edited, or perhaps editor had changed his voice a bit? I think it’s an amazing read for everyone. My only gripe was that despite the great storytelling that I felt Dr. Paul kept a lot of himself and his emotions out of the book, which is normally the part that takes in our empathy as opposed to just the sympathy. 🙂

    • dgkaye

      Exactly my thoughts Joy. Really makes us question the whys and hows of who gets to live and who doesn’t. It is tragic, yet beautifully written. <3

  • Pete Springer

    Wow! This whole scenario gives me the chills. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the spouse and to write the epilogue for your husband. Thank you for the review, Debby.

    • dgkaye

      That’s what I was thinking as I read Pete, how difficult that had to be to finish your dying husband’s book. They were both beautiful writers as well as amazing doctors. I just felt that the wife gave me more of an emotional connection with her writing more so than Dr. Paul as I felt he may have kept his deepest soul feelings to himself and not elaborated about them in his story. 🙂

  • Jacqui Murray

    What a book! You’ve noted some amazing lines–“when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present?”, “Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living.” I hadn’t heard of this book, Deb. Thanks for sharing.

  • Hilary

    Hi Debby – I read a lot about him, or heard him talk, or saw articles about him and his wife (and daughter) … after he was diagnosed and during treatment etc … I may have read his book – as I remember his wife’s epilogue … I really resonated with it … it’s great – I hope some others will take a chance to read … cheers HIlary

    • dgkaye

      Hi Hilary. Thanks for adding to the conversation here. Yes, it’s been a very popular book for quite awhile. Some great insights into the world of medicine too. 🙂 x

  • Jim Borden

    I read this book a while ago, and thought it was a great read. I appreciate the more critical look you offer, a point of view I had not considered. One takeaway may be that there is a writer in all of us…

  • Norah Colvin

    Thanks for sharing your review of this book, Debby. It’s interesting to hear your thoughts about it. I’m sure I’ve read another’s review of it previously. While I appreciate your misgivings, I think I’d find it interesting.

    • dgkaye

      Oh, it’s definitely a fascinating read Norah. 4 stars from me is nothing to sneeze at lol. I was merely saying that my feeling about an emotional connection was a bit distant for me 🙂 x

  • Balroop Singh

    Oh! my God…you are so unfair! As I read your review, my thoughts about how much goes into studying to become a doctor and long hours of residency tore at my heart Deb!
    Thank you for sharing the review of this memoir, must be heart-breaking!

  • Diana Peach

    It sounds like a moving story, Debby. Not that cancer is worse for any particular person, but there’s something compelling about the story of a healer suddenly needing healing. What an eye-opener. It’s too bad that the story didn’t quite work in some ways, particularly missing the opportunity to go deep emotionally. I guess that wasn’t who he was. Thanks for the review and recommendation. 🙂

    • dgkaye

      Thanks Diana. You said it, ‘there’s something compelling about a healer needing a healer’, spot on. We’ll never know why that deep emotional connection was lacking. Could be a multitude of reasons from his state of mind on the whole situation, the ‘editor’ he sometimes refers to in the book, avoidance, or who knows. But his wife’s chapter was moving and eloquent. <3

  • Olga Núñez Miret

    Thanks, Debby. I read this book when it came out, over three years ago, and my feelings are quite similar to yours, although in my case I could relate (somewhat) to the medical school part of the story, but there are the added bits to it, not written by him, in an attempt to give it some shape (and make it into a book, I guess), and definitely the wife’s contribution is much more compelling than the rest of the book.
    A sad story, for sure.
    Just in case you’re curious, here is my review (it felt a bit personal at the time).
    Have a great week.

    • dgkaye

      Thank you so much Olga for adding to the conversation and for sharing your review here which I’m hopping right over to read. As you know I enjoy your reads and recommends and partly blame you for my big fat TBR LOL. Also, I think as writers, we read books with a bit of a discerning eye, so we notice things like when the writing changes through one book. Understandable the poor man was dying while writing which changed the course of much of what he originally intended to write. <3

    • dgkaye

      Olga, I just hopped over and reread your review. I knew you’d read and reviewed this book. Now reading it again after now reading the book, I definitely see the similarity of our reviews- albeit, yours is much more elaborate. Your thoughts on the lack of emotional connection with the good doctor are all valid. Glad to know we’re ‘on the same page’. <3 Happy week to you too. :) xx

  • Carol Balawyder

    Debby, it’s interesting that you felt that the book lacked emotion. It made me think that perhaps this was a result of his training as a neurosurgeon which required him to keep a distance from his patients. Writers are different. They dive right into emotions and practice doing so for years. He was likely much too new as a writer. I haven’t read the book but it sounds like a heartbreaking one yet a courageous one also. <3

    • dgkaye

      You are so right Carol. He was a new writer and the intent of his memoir changed through his diagnosis. Nonetheless, it was heartbreaking and informative on the medical perspective, which I enjoy reading that sort of thing. And 4 stars does not make the book bad at all, only that I wanted to feel what he was telling us, but I felt a distance despite the story, possibly also because he may not have wanted to reveal the raw emotions he felt, again, could be his nature or his writing. <3

  • lisa thomson

    Wonderful review, Deb. I have heard of the book. He was featured on a news story a while ago. It is compelling to say the least. Just to become a neurosurgeon (a valiant profession) alone, the struggle and determination but then to be struck with cancer—-so unfair. His story sounds amazing. I’m not surprised that you didn’t feel the emotion from his words, Deb. Medical doctors and surgeons are extremely focused people. They have a rep of turning off the emotions to get the work done. I don’t know if that is in fact true or if it is a stereotype 🙂

    • dgkaye

      Your not alone in your thinking. Many have commented here on that possibility. But there’s a certain emotional connect we should get from a memoir. I do believe he changed the trajectory of the initial writing plan after his diagnosis. <3

  • John Maberry

    Tragedy strikes many like this–a promising life cut short. What one does in the time remaining is the critical question. Some have better answers than others. Some express their response to the unexpected sentence with more emotion. Your review conveys that sensitivity well.

  • Liesbet

    Thank you for this in-depth, well-written, and honest review, Debby. What a tragic and compelling topic, yet it seems like the author was more a doctor than a writer. Facing your own mortality is tricky and dying so young is totally unfair…

  • Sue Dreamwalker

    This sounds a most interesting read Debby, and indeed What do you do when the future no longer is a ladder for your goals.. Coming face to face with our own mortality is something each of us at some point come to have to think about.. My husband and I have had to begin to put in order some future thinking on this very subject..

    Loved your poem on Colleens poetry challenge too, Words often play a vital role in our perceptions of self, especially when taken to heart from others lips.. wonderfully scripted Debby.

    Loved also reading the interview with Jane.. I always think it takes great talent to write crime stories with intrigue and plots etc.. I wouldn’t know where to start with such a project.
    Congrats to Sally also on her recent new book Life’s Rich Tapestry I’m sure it will be a delightful read..

    And last but by no means least Debby, Have a wonderful Christmas my friend.. I have missed not being here in WordPress as often.. and hope to get back within the swing of blogging again soon..
    Have a Joyous Holiday..
    Much love to you Debby…. Sue <3

    • dgkaye

      Hi Sue! Lovely to see you pop by, especially since I know you’re on a bit of a blogging abstinence, lol. Thanks for taking the time to read a few of the post, I’m honored to have you pass by. <3 I do hope your spirit is feeling some of the festive in the season and you enjoy your Christmas with loved ones. Wishing you a most beautiful Christmas and a brand New Year of good things to come my friend. Sending lots of love to you over the pond. Peace and goodwill toward mankind is the wish for the coming year. Hugs <3 <3 xxx

      • Sue Dreamwalker

        Thank you Debby, yes the Spirit of Christmas is seeping into my bones at last as the last of my virus leavee me.. And I must remember which Posts I comment upon as I track back to see your replies lol.. As I searched through comments LOL.. Such is WP.. But must not grumble..

        Have a wonderful Christmas Time yourself my friend, and may the new year herald forth more Love and Light into the world..

        Take care, and hope to be around more frequently … <3 Hugs and Much love <3 <3 <3

        • dgkaye

          That’s wonderful Sue. Yes, may the new year bring much needed light and love into the world. Amen to that! Wishing you and yours a blessed Christmas my friend. And again, I’m sorry for the agro from WP and really appreciate your manually circling back here. Love and hugs flowing across the pond to you. <3 <3 xxx

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