A graceful example of how rigorous scholarship and erudition can inform and animate popular history.

THE BURIED BOOK

THE LOSS AND REDISCOVERY OF THE GREAT EPIC OF GILGAMESH

How the epic poem Gilgamesh was composed, modified, recorded on clay in cuneiform, stored, smashed, lost and found.

For this general history and literary detective story, Damrosch (English and Comparative Literature/Columbia Univ.) steps a little outside the groves of academe, in whose shade he’s written and/or edited various scholarly anthologies. He begins with the Eureka! moment in 1872: George Smith, an assistant curator at the British Museum, came across Gilgamesh among the thousands of cuneiform fragments slowly being translated from tablets shipped from the Middle East several decades earlier. When Smith realized the significance of what he had found, Damrosch tells us, he removed some clothing and danced with joy. Subsequent chapters employ a Raiders of the Lost Ark approach to chart the lives and careers of the scholar-adventurers who first explored Assyrian culture by excavating sites in Iraq now associated in the public mind with internecine violence. Among them were Austen Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam, who, on a mid-19th-century expedition for the British Museum, uncovered the long-buried ruins of Nineveh (across the Tigris from Mosul) and the royal library containing Gilgamesh. Damrosch offers a long (perhaps overlong) re-telling of Rassam’s difficulties with the mad Abyssian King Theodore, a sanguinary tale told with even greater panache by George MacDonald Fraser in his novel Flashman on the March (2005). Things pick up with the author’s engaging retelling of the story of Gilgamesh, enfolded within the history of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal’s assembly of the world’s greatest library and the destruction of Nineveh after a three-month siege by Babylonian invaders. Fragments of Gilgamesh and thousands of other tablets then lay covered and waiting for centuries, until the arrival of the men Damrosch profiled in the early chapters. In his final pages, the author looks at how Gilgamesh has affected later writers, including Philip Roth, whose The Great American Novel (1973) features a baseball great named Gil Gamesh.

A graceful example of how rigorous scholarship and erudition can inform and animate popular history.

Pub Date: March 6, 2007

ISBN: 0-8050-8029-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2006

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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