When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

paul kalanithi when breath becomes air

A neurosurgeon’s quest for meaning while living with terminal cancer

When Breath Becomes Air is a Pulitzer Prize finalist that was written by Dr Paul Kalanithi and published posthumously. It is an autobiography of the author’s life and the years surrounding his cancer diagnosis, treatment, and death. In it, he explores the struggles he faced in his quest to become a top neurosurgeon, his personal relationships, and what it felt like to be on the opposite side of the doctor-patient relationship. He also shares his quest to find meaning and purpose in life.


Career as calling – The author reflects on the demands, physical and emotional, that surgeons (especially neurosurgeons) face as they climb their way through medical school and the years of residency afterward.

Search for meaning – Dr Kalanithi traces his search for meaning and purpose in life from his early childhood days through med school and to the very end of his life. He offers a very candid take on how he dealt with those deep, existential questions of life.

Life as a cancer patient – Though he had much experience in interacting with cancer patients and performing countless surgeries to remove cancer, life is very different on the other side of the doctor-patient relationship. These sections of the book are very moving and profound.


This book will tug at your heartstrings. It was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster in sections for me and I know the same will be true for others, especially those who have lost loved ones to cancer. It’s amazing how much a book like this can change your perspective in many areas of life. If you’re up for the journey, this book is a well-needed dose of humanity.

Here is a link to the Wiki page for this book. You can find the book on Amazon here.


Educated: A Memoir – Tara Westover

Educated book cover

A story of surviving fundamentalism and finding freedom

Educated, by Tara Westover, is a really powerful story that covers a roller coaster of emotions. It is a memoir that details what it was like for the author to grow up in an extreme fundamentalist home in rural America. Her family (specifically her father) was deeply suspicious of the government and didn’t allow their children to go to school or to receive medical care – she didn’t get a birth certificate until she went to college. The book covers family relationships, fears about the outside world, and the author’s journey to finding her own identity.

Trigger warning: There are multiple episodes of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse throughout the book that could cause relived trauma for those who have experienced such things.


Mental health/illness – Though he never gets a formal diagnosis, it is clear that her father suffers from some clear symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, mania, major depression, and some possible personality disorder issues. A brother clearly has some violent tendencies of his own that are not addressed either medically or by the family. The author also details what appears to be a major depressive episode of her own while working towards her PhD.

Abuse and Resilience – The author traces her journey from homeschooled (more accurately no-schooled) child to university and eventually earning a PhD. Childhood adversity and resiliency is a topic that I’ve covered before in this blog with the book Supernormal. Trauma is a complex thing and what makes some more resilient than others is worth an entire book itself.

Identity – Dr Westover continuously wrestles with which version of reality to believe – the one she sees when she’s out in the world with her grandparents and people in town, or the one presented by her paranoid, conspiracy obsessed father? This struggle might be hard for some to accept or understand, but it is a struggle that people in abusive and manipulative relationships have to endure.


I strongly recommend this one. It deserves all the awards and excellent reviews it has gotten. My only caution would be for people who have experienced childhood trauma. This book doesn’t sugarcoat or skip out on the details. I had to skip over more than a few sections. You might also need to do the same.

You can connect with the author on her website here and on Twitter here.

P.S. Here’s an interview with Bill Gates and Tara Westover

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave – Frederick Douglass

narrative frederick douglass book cover

An autobiographical account of Frederick Douglass’s life and the truth about slavery in the United States

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in the early 1800s and grew up to be one of the most influential voices in the abolitionist movement. This book is written in narrative form and covers his life from birth (approx 1818) until he escaped and became involved in anti-slavery meetings (approx 1840). Throughout the book, he describes the practices of slavery in the South, the dehumanization that happens because of it, and his determination to find freedom. This is a really important book because many of us who grew up in the United States have only an abstract understanding of the horrors of slavery and haven’t been exposed to what it was actually like.

Normally, this is where I would talk about the topics and themes of the book I’m reviewing. But I don’t think I can do it justice if I go that route. This isn’t a long book, so it really should be read in full to best understand it. I’ll share a few quotes in hopes that it will help give you an idea of what it is like.


“Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”

“I have observed this in my experience of slavery, – that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.”

“The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men.”

“I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes, – a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, – a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, – and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of the slaveholders find the strongest protection.”


I consider this a must-read book. There’s such a lack of understanding among some groups of people, especially privileged white folks like myself, about what slavery was actually like according to the people who experienced it. What we grew up with is a white-washed version of the history of our country and slavery in particular. Powerful stories like this help to put a human face on the suffering and injustice. This forces us to look at it in a different way.

Here’s the Wiki page regarding this book. Here’s a link to buy the book, but you should know that this work is in the public domain and you can find several places online where you can read it for free – like Project Gutenberg.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption – Bryan Stevenson

just mercy bryan stevenson book cover

A bold and brave look at injustice and racism in America

How committed are we to justice in America? Are we consistent with this commitment to justice, or are some groups given preferential treatment while others are discriminated against? Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and has occasionally been in the headlines over the years for his work in defending people of color on death row. “Just Mercy” addresses the inconsistencies we have in our judicial system and looks at ways to make things better.

The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy


Injustice in our judicial system – There’s no ignoring the statistics. Black men are significantly more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than white men, even when you factor in the same crimes. Black men are also sentenced to the death penalty far more often. This isn’t just some artifact from our country’s white supremacist past, this is current-day America.

American incarceration – The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Does this mean we have more lawless people or are the laws themselves (and how they are enforced) the real issue? I think it’s pretty obvious that the latter is the case.

The death penalty – Since the science has finally arrived with DNA evidence, many people who were wrongfully sentenced to death row have been exonerated. The author makes a great point about the morality surrounding this question – “The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?”


I can’t recommend this book enough. It is very well done, but it is also incredibly sad. My heart breaks to think of how many people have unjustly suffered under the cruel judicial system we have here in the USA. It can be easy to turn a blind eye to statistics, but when you take a moment to hear the stories and the people who have suffered, you can’t look away and pretend you didn’t hear. I suppose you can try, but you’d only be deceiving yourself.

You can find Just Mercy on Amazon here. You can learn more about the book on the EJI website. The book is being made into a movie – more on that here.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants – Robin Wall Kimmerer

robin wall kimmerer braiding sweetgrass book

Equal parts memoir, science book, and essays about Native American wisdom

Braiding Sweetgrass is a really unique book. Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author, weaves together the knowledge and wisdom she’s gained as a scientist, professor, mother, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. It might help to view this book as a series of essays on different topics. There are certain themes that tie everything together, but each chapter has its own narrative, structure, and topics. This is a fascinating book that is very informative and calls you to join in instead of lecturing you about topics.


Indigenous culture – Dr Kimmerer speaks from a place of identity with her dual citizenship, American and Potawatomi worlds as they collide and intersect. She shares the deep wisdom traditions of many tribes who are native to the Americas, long before the conquistadors and colonizers showed up.

Persecution and genocide – She takes a deep look at what really happened in our history as a country and the treatment of the Indigenous people as the United States expanded and grew.

Nature – Dr Kimmerer explains in several areas just how much we can learn from nature if we would just slow down and listen. She shares scientific insights about the biology of plants and how we can take these scientific principles and apply them to our daily life.

Mindfulness – Our busy American culture is often so preoccupied with jumping from task to task that we rarely have the chance to slow down and think about what we’re doing and why. Part of the wisdom from Indigenous people is being more mindful about how we interact with the earth and each other. Are we caught up in consumer culture? Do we realize the impact this has on our environment, our bodies, and our minds? Can we slow down and practice gratitude and thankfulness? What do we do with the tension between honoring life and consuming it for our benefit?


If you are interested in botany, biology, gardening, and connecting with nature, I think you’ll be delighted with this book. The science nerd part of me loved those chapters. If you would like to learn more about the true history of how Native Americans were treated in the US, you will find this book informative and also heartbreaking. If you enjoy memoirs and storytelling, Braiding Sweetgrass will full your cup with her stories of growing up, balancing between 2 cultures, raising a family, and pursuing a career while discovering her identity all over again.

This is a powerful book. It has the power to change your perspective. I know it helped to change mine. Check it out and let me know what you think.

You can find the book on Amazon here.

Recovery – Russell Brand

book cover russell brand recovery addiction

The 12 Steps, a memoir, and more

Recovery and addiction are all over the news these days and it can be a controversial topic. I’ll say upfront that I’m not really a fan of Russell’s comedy, so I was a little reluctant to check this book out even though someone I greatly respect recommended it. It was way better than I expected.

The book goes through each of the 12 Steps that Alcoholics Anonymous is based on. He talks a lot about addiction (obviously), but also goes deeper into the fears, hurts, and pain that lead people to self-medicate. At the end of each chapter/section/step, he includes many self reflection exercises and gives examples on how he has worked these things out in his own life.

A book for everyone, not just those with substance abuse problems

I think this book could help a lot of people, not just those who identify as addicts. He makes a good case that most, if not all, of us fall somewhere along the addiction spectrum and that we’re at epidemic levels of addiction at least in part to how isolated, disconnected, and lonely we are in modern society. We lack community and connection, both of which are crucial if you are recovering from an addiction and want to stay clean and sober.

This a really helpful book. He does a good job of knowing when to insert a little joke to keep it from getting too dark, when to include a story to help illustrate a point, and when to dive into vulnerability and the dark areas. If you are offended by swear words, this isn’t the book for you. But if you’re okay with a multitude of F bombs, or able to look past it, I think you should read this book.

Here’s a link to the book on Amazon. I’ve been told that he did the voice for the audiobook version, but I read this book so I can’t provide any comments on that.