A successful neurosurgeon with seemingly everything going for him, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 36. Before the disease claimed his life he kept a journal – a journal that became When Breath Becomes Air.
In the early chapters, where Kalanithi tells of his work as a neurosurgeon, I got a sense of the life and death choices many doctors have to make every day. “In my life, had I ever made a decision harder than choosing between a French dip and a Reuben?” Kalanithi reflects as he graduates from medical school. “How could I ever learn to make, and live with, such judgment calls? I still had a lot of practical medicine to learn, but would knowledge alone be enough, with life and death hanging in the balance?” I gained a new respect for the medical profession as I read the author’s stories of the patients he treated, and the difficult decisions he had to made. Yes doctors make the big bucks but it is not an easy profession. “Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job—not a calling,” Kalanithi writes as he gives the reader an inside look at his demanding, yet rewarding work.
Then the tables are turned. With his cancer diagnosis, suddenly Kalanithi is the patient. “My life had been building potential, potential that would now go unrealized,” he recalls. “My carefully planned and hard-won future no longer existed. Death, so familiar to me in my work, was now paying a personal visit.” As I read Kalanithi’s account of being on the other side of the doctor/patient relationship I was reminded of William Hurt’s 1991 film The Doctor, where Hurt’s Dr Jack McKee faces similar challenges. But When Breath Becomes Air is a real life story, not Hollywood fiction. Kalanithi’s vulnerability comes through in relating his thoughts and feelings as his disease progresses. “Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding a life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused,” he writes.
Kalanithi’s wife Lucy is an integral part of this story, too. The couple decide to have a child, despite the dire prognosis for Paul’s recovery, and daughter Cady is born eight months before Paul passes away. “Caring for our daughter, nurturing relationships with family, publishing this book, pursuing meaningful work, visiting Paul’s grave, grieving and honoring him, persisting…my love goes on—lives on—in a way I’d never expected,” Lucy writes in the book’s Epilogue. “(Paul) was, and would have continued to be, a good person and a deep thinker. Instead, this book is a new way for him to help others, a contribution only he could make.”
Lucy Kalanithi is right. Paul Kalanithi’s words will be an inspiration to many (especially those dealing with a serious illness). I can’t imagine anyone facing death with more grace than Paul Kalanithi.
I received a complementary copy of this book for review purposes. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.
Mike Love does not hold back in his book “Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy”. Love gives a thorough account of the band’s 5+ decade run. “The specific details on the origins of the Beach Boys—who played what, when, where, and how—have been recounted in many, and at times contradictory, ways over the past fifty-five years,” Love writes early in the book. “I can only offer my best memory about what happened.”
I liked Love’s honesty in Good Vibrations, detailing the high and low moments of the band and his life. “I was good at falling in love but lousy at being in love,” he writes as he tells of his many failed marriages and romances throughout the book. But Good Vibrations is primarily about the formation, challenges, and successes of the Beach Boys.
I learned of the band’s humble beginnings. “It wasn’t as if we had some big meeting and decided to create a band. It was more of a natural evolution, as we had been singing together as a family for years,” Love relates. Love and his cousins originally called themselves “The Pendletones”. After obtaining their first record deal with a small company, “it was a shock when we opened the record and saw our name: the Beach Boys,” Love recalls. This was one of many little tidbits in the book of the Beach Boys origins – sure to be interest to the band’s fans.
There are plenty of background stories in Good Vibrations on how the band’s iconic songs came to be. Such as the formation of “Catch A Wave”. “Brian (Wilson) wanted to use a harp (on that song), so he contacted the best harpist he knew—my sister Maureen,” Love remembers. “She was living in San Jose, and Brian called at ten a.m. and asked if she could be there that night. With her harp.” Many of the Beach Boys hit songs were created with spur of the moment decisions like this, and not with weeks of planning.
And there are many stories of the Beach Boys down times. Brian Wilson was the creative genius of the group, but struggled with addictions. The Manson family lived with band member Dennis Wilson for a time, before that group’s horrid murders, as Charles Manson wanted to become a rock star. While having their share of megahits of their own, there was constant pressure on the band to keep up with the Beatles.
Even with all the internal bickering, unknown to the band’s fans but revealed in Good Vibrations, the Beach Boys managed to create a unique sound that will forever be a part of American music lore. “Beach Boys’ music represents joy of life and joy of living,” said band member Carl Love as related in the book. If you are a fan of the Beach Boys, as I am, I think you will enjoy reading this behind the scenes account of the band’s ups and downs over the years.
“All of us yearn for happiness and love, and sometimes we find it,” writes Marianne Willamson in her new book Tears to Triumph: The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment. “Yet most of us are visited at some point by sorrow as well. A relationship, a job, a particular circumstance brought us happiness—but then something went wrong.” Can you relate? I can. If you are spiritually inclined (or even if you are not) Tears to Triumph is one of the best books I have read on working through hard times.
The author speaks from experience in writing about challenging life circumstances. “I know something about suffering, as twice I’ve been diagnosed as clinically depressed,” she says. “I’ve also experienced personal tragedy and the deaths of loved ones. I’ve suffered through devastating betrayals and disappointments. I’ve felt on more than one occasion that I had lost any chance of happiness I might have ever had.” Yet Williamson has transformed these painful events to gain new spiritual insights – insights she shares with her readers in Tears to Triumph.
Sometimes I read criticisms of a metaphysical type of spirituality, like Williamson espouses, from religious conservatives. “You deny the harsh realities of life with your positive messages,” they may say. Williamson, who bases her work on A Course in Miracles, does not shy away from darkness and pain in this book. “Grief and sadness can be part of a transformational process, one that should not be automatically labeled negative,” she believes. “Difficult emotions are at times appropriate; they can be exactly what we need to experience in order to truly heal, grow, and get to the other side of our suffering with meaningful lessons learned.”
As with another book I reviewed last year, Ellen Debenport’s Hell in the Hallway, I’m getting the message that it is healthy not to deny pain but to feel your way through it. The hope is that you come out stronger and wiser, and through the lessons learned you can be of service to others. In her book Williamson emphasizes prayer and forgiveness as aides to healing.
“A prayer for a miracle is not a request that a situation be different, but a request that we see it differently,” the author writes. I recommend reading Tears to Triumph for help in transforming your own painful experiences to something good – for yourself and for others.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has been of interest to me for many years. I have seen two movies on this fateful day in American history (the best being 1970’s Tora Tora Tora). I took a Home of the Brave tour on a visit to Oahu in 2014 where we saw first hand Pearl Harbor and the other U.S. military installations bombed by the Japanese. But I have learned so much more about December 7, 1941 from Craig Nelson’s excellent book Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness.
I liked how Nelson includes many stories of ordinary people thrust into history by the surprise attack. Such as 22 year old flight instructor Cornelia Fort. “Fort was giving a lesson to a student pilot when she saw two planes headed their way, one on course to crash directly into them,” Nelson writes. “She yanked the yoke and punched the throttle, furious at another hotdogging Army Air Corps pilot. She looked down to get his registration number so she could file a complaint, which was when she saw the red balls on the wings and knew that ‘the air was not the place for our little baby airplane.’ She set down as fast as she could and ran into Andrews’ flying service, machine-gun bullets strafing the ground around her feet, yelling, ‘The Japs are attacking!’ Everyone on the ground laughed at this silly woman.” Fort’s story was one of many first hand accounts in the book that were fascinating to read.
I learned that the U.S. had plenty of warning before the attack, yet ignored these ominous signs. “At the end of March 1941, (American naval intelligence officer Ellis) Zacharias warned Hawaii’s Admiral Kimmel that when Japan decided to go to war,” Nelson relates, “It would begin with an air attack on our fleet on a weekend and probably on a Sunday morning; the attack would be for the purpose of disabling our battleships.” Nelson also includes accounts of the internal debates and planning on the Japanese side leading up to December 7, 1941.
The Pearl Harbor attack was a national tragedy, where almost four hundred Japanese planes attacked the US Pacific fleet, killing 2,400 men and sinking or damaging sixteen ships. Nelson also covers the aftermath of that day, including the decisive U.S. victory at Midway up to the eventual surrender by the Japanese. Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness is a must read for any student of World War II.
Anita Moorjani gets it. After a near death experience (NDE) that she describes in vivid detail in her first book, Dying to be Me, she came to the conclusion that “being in that state made me realize that I didn’t have to do anything to deserve being loved. I realized that I’m loved unconditionally just because I exist!” Unconditional love is the basis for my spirituality, and much of what Moorjani writes in her new book “What If This is Heaven? How Our Cultural Myths Prevent Us From Experiencing Heaven on Earth” resonated with me. Sadly, many of the belief systems of today are based in conditional love. “As soon as we put conditions on love, it becomes something else entirely,” Moorjani says.
I liked how the book was organized, with many examples from the author’s own life and conversations she has had with others as a result of her first book. “Each chapter of this book will highlight a common myth that most of us have just accepted as truth and show how these myths are pervasive and often invisible to us,” Moorjani writes in the introduction. I found meaningful the Tips and Exercises she has spread throughout the book, designed to put the ideas the author expresses into practice. “When others put you down in any way,” she writes in one “tips” section, “realize their actions are direct projections of their own state of pain and confusion. Likewise, remember that opening your heart and having compassion for them in their pain (which does not at all mean condoning their behavior) benefits you as well as them.” Since reading the book that tip has come to mind as I encounter challenging people in my life.
Moorjani addresses some big questions in What If This is Heaven? such as the reason for illness, the purpose of the ego, and more. She comes from the perspective of having experienced an incredible love in her near death experience, and not from years of study in seminary.
“One of the vital differences between a good healer and a great healer is that a great healer guides you back to your own innate ability to heal and ultimately encourages your independence,” the author writes. From hearing her speak in person two times, and now reading both her books, I consider Moorjani a great healer. I recommend reading What If This Is Heaven? as an aid to your own healing and expression of your unique talents.
“The practice of being on a spiritual path isn’t about being the best meditator, or the kindest possible person, or the most enlightened,” author Gabrielle Bernstein writes early in her new book “The Universe Has Your Back: Transform Fear to Faith. “The practice is about surrendering to love as often as possible.”
If you feel a lack of love in your life, the Universe Has Your Back is the book for you. Drawing from principles she has learned from A Course in Miracles, Bernstein’s new work is all about seeing the circumstances in your life through the eyes of love instead of fear. “Every experience you perceive on the movie screen that is your life gives rise to one of two choices: to learn through the perception of love or to learn through the perception of fear,” Bernstein says.
The Universe Has Your Back is more than pithy love sayings. Bernstein is very open in sharing from her own life experiences. “I was living a life far beyond my wildest dreams,” she writes describing her current career as an author and speaker. “I had spent a decade growing my spiritual practice, healing old wounds, and deepening my faith. And I was finally free—or so I thought.” I liked the vulnerability Bernstein showed in getting her love message out. The author wrestles with fear thoughts, too, just like us.
Bernstein summarizes her main points throughout the book with “Universal Lessons”. Such as:
- The Universe will always conspire to lead you toward solutions of the highest good when you open up to receive them.
- Our happiness, success, and safety can be measured by our genuine capacity to tune in to the loving vibration of the Universe.
- When we surrender our will to the power of the Universe, we receive miracles.
I found these sayings helpful. They are short, concise reminders of the essence of the book.
“Whenever you notice yourself stuck in your low-vibe story, witness it and say, I am determined to see this with love,” Bernstein writes. I suspect we all have our own “low-vibe stories” (I know I do). The Universe Has Your Back led me to take a fresh look at the perceived negatives in my life and reframe them in a positive, loving light. “As each individual lights up his or her life, the world becomes brighter. In our light that darkness cannot co-exist,” Bernstein says. The Universe Has Your Back will help light up lives when it is published later this Fall.
Can a national television anchor find some semblance of peace through the practice of meditation? Dan Harris answers this question and more in his book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story
I liked how real Harris is in the book. A prominent television personality with ABC News, Harris is very open about his rise in the TV News business and the obstacles he deals with along the way (such as his struggles with drug abuse). Haunted by self doubt, Harris writes, “The voice in my head can be a total pill. I’d venture to guess yours can, too.”
“The voice comes braying in as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, and then heckles us all day long with an air horn,” Harris relates. “It’s a fever swamp of urges, desires, and judgments. It’s fixated on the past and the future, to the detriment of the here and now.” Hmmm. This isn’t the first book I’ve read about that nagging voice (check out Michael Singer’s Untethered Soul). It was a comfort to know others have critical voices in their heads like me. So what to do about it?
Meditation will quiet the voice and make you “10% happier”, says Harris. “It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose,” he writes. “What I’m attempting to do in this book is demystify meditation, and show that if it can work for me, it can probably work for you, too.”
I enjoyed reading Harris’ journey through the self help field. As ABC’s Religion reporter he tells stories of interviewing the likes of Eckhard Tolle, Ted Haggard, and Deepak Chopra. He approaches each with a skeptical eye, yet finds some value in what they have to say. “There is something there,” he relates after an encounter with Deepak, “although I’m not sure Chopra is the best example of it.”
Eventually Harris does find a meditation technique that works for him. “(I) read a few books about what Buddhist meditation actually involved, and learned that you didn’t need to wear robes, chant Sanskrit phrases, or listen to Cat Stevens,” he writes. “In a nutshell, mindfulness is the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now—anger, jealousy, sadness, the pain of a stubbed toe, whatever—without getting carried away by it.”
If you are curious about meditation, Harris’ book is a good introduction to the practice, written in a fun, conversational style. If you have meditated for years, like I have, 10% Happier can give you new insights into making your practice more effective.
One of the best books I read and reviewed in 2014 was Dr Penny Sartori’s The Wisdom of Near Death Experiences. Dr Sartori has followed up this work with a new book featuring more of her findings, What is a Near Death Experience?
Dr Sartori is one of the leading authorities in Near Death Experience (NDE) research. I like that she takes a scientific approach to the topic, based on her 17 years as an intensive care nurse. “I passionately believe that NDEs have something to teach all of us, even if we have never ourselves had a near-death experience or anything like it,” she writes.
As in her first book, What is a Near Death Experience contains many fascinating stories of NDEs. Like this one: “One of the clearest examples of a dBv (death bed vision) that I have seen occurred when I was working in ITu,” she relates. “I saw a patient begin to gesture, smile and talk to someone I couldn’t see. He seemed so happy. He talked this way for about 30 minutes and then fell asleep. The following day he told his family that during the night he had been visited by his mother and grandmother, both of whom were dead, and also his sister. He couldn’t understand why his sister would have been in his vision, though, seeing as far as he knew she was still alive. Of course, that wasn’t the case –she’d died the week before, but his family had kept her death from him, for fear of upsetting him. A few days later he died entirely at peace.” This and many other stories in the book, based on her first hand observations, lead me to believe NDEs are to be taken seriously, even though I’m not quite sure what to make of them.
I also like how Sartori deals with objections. Such as the near death encounters with relatives – are they real or just a figment of the NDE person’s imagination? “NDEr meets deceased loved ones, and several cases in my own research have revealed NDErs did not meet the relatives in their NDE who they would, when asked during life, most wish to meet,” she writes. “If wishful thinking were the trigger for an NDE, we would expect that the fulfilment of the wish – meeting our closest relatives rather than distant ones; and finding our fondest friends, rather than acquaintances –would be the likely outcome.” Many of the stories she relates are positive NDEs, regardless of the person’s religious beliefs. “It’s the calmest and clearest I’ve ever felt,” said one. “The closest I can manage is to say that it felt like I was surrounded by and filled with pure love and contentment.” But Sartori also tells of NDEs that are frightening to the person. “Why are some NDEs distressing and others not?” she says. “We have no clear evidence why some people have pleasant NDEs and others have distressing ones.”
Sartori doesn’t claim to know everything about NDEs. “Science doesn’t appear to offer us any realistic or robust answers –all we can do is keep researching, keep recording the experiences and talking about them, then analyze them as closely as we can to watch the patterns emerge,” she writes. “However, just because our current science cannot explain NDEs does not mean that these are not real.” If you are interested in NDEs Sartori’s two books on the subject are musts for your library, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future based on her continuing research.
Do you consider yourself to be a creative yet sensitive person? I do, so that’s why I was drawn to Doreen Virtue’s new book – The Courage to be Creative: How to Believe in Yourself, Your Dreams and Ideas, and Your Creative Career Path. “Some of the most creative people I’ve met are also the most sensitive,” Virtue writes. “Their sensitivity makes them receptive to divinely inspired ideas. Yet, that same sensitivity makes them shy to reveal their ideas to others.” Yep, that’s me.
I have read and reviewed some of the author’s other books, like The Miracles of Archangel Gabriel. Virtue has written extensively in the past about angels – making the topic of communing with angels understandable to the reading public. While Virtue touches on angels in Courage to be Creative, her new work has loads of practical advice for us creative types, whether we believe in angels or not. “As much as I love my guardian angels,” she writes, “they don’t magically write my books while I sleep. I’m the one who has to sit at the keyboard and type.”
Getting in touch with all your feelings, the good and the bad, is the key to producing creative works that can touch the hearts of others, Virtue feels. “The more courage you have to fully notice and express your feelings,” she says, “the higher the vibration of your creation will be. Any watering down of your truth, because you’re embarrassed to admit how you feel, will lower it.” Reading the book encouraged me to be honest with my feelings in my own writing.
Another part of the book I liked were suggestions on dealing with criticism. “Most people aren’t comfortable with change or anything that’s unusual or different,” Virtue says. “Yet, as a creative person, you must present fresh, new ideas in order to be noticed. Along with being noticed comes the risk that you may also be criticized, feared, or misunderstood.” I also liked the guidance she gives in funding your creative works. “It’s not a good idea to quit your job without first having some savings or other income stream available,” she says. “You don’t want to put pressure on your creative output to be an income producer.”
Courage to be Creative is the best book I’ve read on the creative process since Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. If you have doubts about bringing your own creations into public view, I recommend reading both books. “True creativity is a gift that you give to yourself,” Virtue writes, “with full faith that there’s an audience out there who feels the same way you do.”
“Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view,” say authors Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander in their book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. This brought to mind one of my favorite quotes by the late Wayne Dyer, ““If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” I like this philosophy, and I wanted to read more.
The Art of Possibility is full of examples to emphasize that life works better when you have a positive mental outlook. The authors tell a story of two shoe factory salesmen exploring new markets in Africa. After assessing the situation, both send telegrams:
SITUATION HOPELESS. STOP. NO ONE WEARS SHOES.
GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY. STOP. THEY HAVE NO SHOES.
“The one who sees no shoes, all the evidence points to hopelessness. To his colleague, the same conditions point to abundance and possibility,” say the Zanders. Through easy to understand examples like this the authors drive home their point. I also liked the stories the Zanders share from their professions. Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Rosamund Stone Zander (nickname of “Roz” in the book) has a private practice in family therapy.
The Art of Possibility is more than just pie in the sky optimism. The Zanders recommend a realistic approach to negative thoughts and feelings. Their approach “doesn’t mean you should drown out your negative feelings or pretend you like what you really can’t stand. It doesn’t mean you should work to achieve some ‘higher plane of existence’ so you can ‘transcend negativity’,” they feel. “It simply means, being present without resistance: being present to what is happening and present to your reactions, no matter how intense. The capacity to be present to everything that is happening, without resistance, creates possibility.”
Reading the book led me to challenge some of my limiting beliefs. “We can replace the narratives that hold us back by inventing wiser stories, free from childish fears, and in doing so, disperse long-held psychological stumbling blocks,” say the Zanders. Perhaps our interpretations of the events in our lives do not match reality. “We see a map of the world, not the world itself,” the authors feel.