A fresh, invigorating look into complex minds and a unique time and place.

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AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFÉ

FREEDOM, BEING, AND APRICOT COCKTAILS WITH JEAN-PAUL SARTRE, SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, ALBERT CAMUS, MARTIN HEIDEGGER, MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY AND OTHERS

Days in the lives of influential philosophers.

In this brisk and perceptive intellectual history, Bakewell (Masters of Studies in Creative Writing/Kellogg Coll., Univ. of Oxford; How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, 2010, etc.) focuses on a diverse cast of men and women who, beginning in the 1930s, worried over questions of freedom, authenticity, anxiety, and commitment, creating the movement that came to be known as existentialism. Their antecedents were Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, who “pioneered a mood of rebellion and dissatisfaction, created a new definition of existence as choice, action and self-assertion, and made a study of the anguish and difficulty of life.” Dominating Bakewell’s narrative are Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, lovers and “compulsive communicators” of every detail of their work. Sartre, appealingly fun-loving (he played piano and sang jazz hits) in his youth, became “monstrous” as he aged: “self-indulgent, demanding, bad-tempered. He was a sex addict who didn’t even enjoy sex, a man who would walk away from friendships saying he felt no regret.” Bakewell was surprised at how much affection she felt for him despite his faults. Certainly he was more likable than Martin Heidegger, who “set himself against the philosophy of humanism and…was rarely humane in his behaviour.” As the author reveals historical context for the philosophers’ work—prewar Paris; the Nazi occupation; postwar debates among internationalists, pro-Americans, and communists—she explains the significance of cafes: “they were the best places to keep warm” for those who lived in cheap, unheated hotel rooms. Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Iris Murdoch (Britain’s first popularizer of existentialism), James Baldwin, actress Juliette Gréco, and Emmanuel Levinas are just a few featured in this well-populated book, whose hero, Bakewell writes, is phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “the happy philosopher of things as they are.”

A fresh, invigorating look into complex minds and a unique time and place.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59051-488-7

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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The book begins in Sri Lanka with the tsunami of 2004—a horror the author saw firsthand, and the aftermath of which he...

LIVES OTHER THAN MY OWN

The latest from French writer/filmmaker Carrère (My Life as a Russian Novel, 2010, etc.) is an awkward but intermittently touching hybrid of novel and autobiography.

The book begins in Sri Lanka with the tsunami of 2004—a horror the author saw firsthand, and the aftermath of which he describes powerfully. Carrère and his partner, Hélène, then return to Paris—and do so with a mutual devotion that's been renewed and deepened by all they've witnessed. Back in France, Hélène's sister Juliette, a magistrate and mother of three small daughters, has suffered a recurrence of the cancer that crippled her in adolescence. After her death, Carrère decides to write an oblique tribute and an investigation into the ravages of grief. He focuses first on Juliette's colleague and intimate friend Étienne, himself an amputee and survivor of childhood cancer, and a man in whose talkativeness and strength Carrère sees parallels to himself ("He liked to talk about himself. It's my way, he said, of talking to and about others, and he remarked astutely that it was my way, too”). Étienne is a perceptive, dignified person and a loyal, loving friend, and Carrère's portrait of him—including an unexpectedly fascinating foray into Étienne and Juliette's chief professional accomplishment, which was to tap the new European courts for help in overturning longtime French precedents that advantaged credit-card companies over small borrowers—is impressive. Less successful is Carrère's account of Juliette's widower, Patrice, an unworldly cartoonist whom he admires for his fortitude but seems to consider something of a simpleton. Now and again, especially in the Étienne sections, Carrère's meditations pay off in fresh, pungent insights, and his account of Juliette's last days and of the aftermath (especially for her daughters) is quietly harrowing.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9261-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Aug. 11, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2011

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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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