From the book nook

• I just finished Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, written by the 37-year-old neurosurgeon as he was dying of cancer. His love and respect for both medicine and literature reflect conversations in our house, but the book is based on human connections even more fundamental than the subjects he studied. Like Montaigne, like Beckett, he is driven to identify what matters in life and how to go on in the face of death.

Straightforward in tone, the memoir made me wonder why I’d heard it was hard to read, even heartbreaking. Then I got to the last 50 pages and found the ending pulsing with sharp emotional flashes. It made me want to live better.

• Starting last week, S and I collaborated on a book that I’ve ordered in print. We made blind contour drawings to accompany a section of my late grandmother’s journal about her childhood in 1930s Indianapolis and young adulthood in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. All told, it took about four days, and I’m tickled pink.

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• This new biography is worth reading: Angela Merkel, Europe’s most Influential Leader. It caught my attention at the library last week, partly because I have my eye on Der Spiegel in addition to my usual online news rounds, partly because of Merkel’s humane, welcoming response to the Syrian refugees.

She’s exactly my mother’s age. Passages of note: “when Angela had become Chancellor Merkel, her attention to detail and her obsession with getting the facts right became almost legendary” (42).

Something that is sorely missing here in the U.S.: “that most German ideal of Bildung (education), the ideal that public servants should be intellectuals” (86).

• I’m finding some enlightenment in listening to the audiobook of The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer. (Available to read free here.) He’s a retired professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, knows a lot about why authoritarian leaders and followers are the way they are, and intentionally wrote in an accessible, straight-shooting manner.

Another audio book recommendation: John McWhorter’s Words on the Move: Why English Won’t –and Can’t–Sit Still (Like, Literally), read by the author. He advocates translating Shakespeare just enough so that the 10% of the Early Modern English text that is no longer intelligible to us would become clear again. Fascinating stuff.

The Paris Librarian by mystery writer Mark Pryor is a worthy winter break fireside read.

• Tana French’s mystery novel The Trespasser has been out for months and I’ve been saving it just for this break. It didn’t disappoint–she’s still one of the finest novelists working within a defined genre.

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