Monthly Archives: October 2021

Chris Hammer, Treasure and Dirt

The first thing I did when NSW’s lockdown 2.0 finished was head to a store that sold books. I couldn’t help it. I needed to stand and just look at all the titles and flick through the pages, weighing each tome and wondering what surprises it held inside. I didn’t have much time because there was so much else to do, but I quickly chose seven books, embraced them and raced to the check out. My selection covered multiple genres – some of my favourite authors, a few new ones and some unknowns. Four days has passed since then and I’m worried that seven wasn’t enough … I’ve read two already… devoured them simply as though ‘freedom’ has somehow given me space and time to revel in reading. Which makes no sense at all because the one thing I did lots of during lockdown was read. But there was something truly liberating about being able to handle these books that I had chosen off filled shelves in an open store surrounded by other people also perusing titles.

So, Chris Hammer. What can I say… this was not my first foray into his work. Although I don’t generally enjoy Australian fiction, I loved Hammer’s earlier book Scrublands, appreciating his keen sense of place and his well formed, complex characters. I was quite certain that his newest book, Treasure & Dirt, wouldn’t disappoint.

And of course, it didn’t.

Treasure & Dirt transported me to outback Australia. Despite the repeated descriptions of an arid, barren land, I was never bored. Each new image added something to my appreciation of this grand country. I felt rather than saw the earth. It’s hard to explain but Hammer has a specific way of leading a reader to see the place as a significant character in his narrative. It’s quite striking but I truly feel that I ‘know’ Finnigan’s Gap in the same way that I know the characters Ivan and Nell. I empathise with them equally …

I loved the interplay between the spaces that Hammer presents. We start underground, in the prologue, literally descending into the earth to witness the results of a crime in the bowels of a mine and then we are catapulted to the view from a plane in the sky which seems to be “inviting inscription”, a “great expanse of the interior … where the land is flat and forever, too far inland for the rains to persist.” Through the eyes of our protagonist, a detective called Ivan, this view is reminiscent “of Aboriginal paintings, the land from above, imbued with spirit, replete with hidden meanings, of unspoken significance. For a moment, the magic of it resonates within him, the magnitude.” But then, reminded of his position – “he’s a policeman, not a philosopher” after all – “He shakes off the idea … There is a job to be done. There’s nothing special to be read in the landscape; painting it a different colour doesn’t alter its essential emptiness.” And then in the space in between, on the ground – the heat “is ferocious. The sun is almost directly overhead, pouring its unfiltered energy into the rocks and gravel, with little or no vegetation to diffuse it. Such is its power that the metal framework at the top of the shaft” burns their hands as they move passed the rungs of the ladder.

There is something very powerful about the way these spaces intersect and I’ve had to reconsider the action of the story based upon where it occurs. Hammer has cleverly used place to change the tone of even conversations – their intimacy either heightened or lessened depending upon where they take place. The layers highlight the book’s underlying theme which revolves around secrets, what is plain to see and all that remains hidden or buried.

I won’t give anything away about the plot because the book really is worth reading just for that alone. What I will say is that Hammer has given me a new appreciation of the challenges that many Australians face when trying to work the land. It is something that we can easily forget when living in the city and I think that part of the magic of Hammer’s work is that he pays homage to that in a thoughtful way.

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

How does one review a book like this? How is it possible to even judge a book written by someone with such deep insight into life and living and living while dying? I don’t think it is. In fact, it’s impossible to be anything but moved by Kalanithi’s gracious manifesto which is on so many levels a love song to his young daughter, to his life, his wife, and all that he will never experience.

So do not consider this a review. Consider this instead a series of reflections about this profound and beautiful memoir.

There is no doubt that Kalanithi was an exceptionally gifted human being. Born in 1977 he graduated from high school as valedictorian, from Stanford with a BA in Literature and MA in History and the Philosophy of Science and Medicine and then – despite the fact that he had the option to pursue a PhD in English literature, he switched to the Yale School of Medicine where he graduated in 2007 cum laude winning a prize for his research on Tourette’s Syndrome. He went on to become a neurosurgeon. All of the depth of this intellectual experience is clearly reflected in Kalanithi’s book which blends art and science into a magnificent reflective tapestry.

In many ways, the book’s title reflects this tapestry – when does breath become air? Does it actually become air? What is air? Breathing is a scientific concern, the result of a biological process that involves the exchange of gasses. You can watch someone breathe. But can you watch breath? What does breath look like? It’s easy to see when it’s cold outside and breath takes on a form … but otherwise, how do we know breath? I wonder about a person’s last breath … the final inhalation and exhalation. I am reminded of my Bobba – my grandmother – whose last breath I watched. She was surrounded by family and my Oupa (grandfather). It was quite beautiful to know that we could all say goodbye. There was a ceremony to it and a sense of release that I think we all – her children and grandchildren – felt. I certainly felt comforted to know that my grandfather wasn’t alone in this moment. He took his last breath alone in a hospital room and I always felt that there was an injustice in that … but it’s another story altogether. Kalanithi takes his last breath before the publication of his memoir and the epilogue is in fact written by his wife Lucy. She commences with a poem by Emily Dickinson which sums up Paul’s attempt to reconcile his reflections about life with his knowledge of science and medicine.

You left me, sweet, two legacies –

A legacy of love

A Heavenly Father would content,

Had he the offer of;

You left me boundaries of pain

Capacious as the sea,

Between eternity and time,

Your consciousness and me.

– Emily Dickinson

Lucy tells us that Paul died surrounded by his family … his daughter, Cady, wasn’t yet one year old. A life lived … but not enough.

Yet, despite the sadness that tints these pages, this is a love story on so many levels. It’s Paul’s love for learning – for literature and words and ideas and thought. It’s his love for the human brain, for science in general, for patients and the impact that his work can have on them. It’s his love for Lucy and her love for him which she describes in an interview after his death as a kind of “forever” love. There is so much to learn here about the value of human connections and the importance of knowledge and passion and commitment to challenging oneself on all levels. Paul teaches us to never be satisfied. To always strive to improve because that is part of what makes life worth living.

Most of all, this is a book about the worth of a life. And here it is impossible to improve upon Paul’s own words:

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

Yet one thing cannot be robbed of her futurity: my daughter, Cady. I hope I’ll live long enough that she has some memory of me. Words have a longevity I do not. I had thought I could leave her a series of letters — but what would they really say? I don’t know what this girl will be like when she is 15; I don’t even know if she’ll take to the nickname we’ve given her. There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

It is easy to see why When Breath Becomes Air was a finalist for the Pullitzer in 2017. It traverses the human experience with such soft empathy that it is impossible not to appreciate both its literary and thematic value. But is also reminds us that we should take nothing for granted. Dr Paul Kalanithi, for all his commitment to learning and medicine and to understanding what makes a life worth living, never actually practised as a neurosurgeon. His diagnosis came toward the end of his 10 years of training for the specialty. What a profound irony that a man so gifted with so much to live for could die just as his life was about to truly begin.

This is a book abounding in wisdom, beautifully crafted and magnificently profound. Dr Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone, writes the prologue to When Breath Becomes Air. He ends it with the following words:

Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way. But above all, see what it is to live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words… experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague now ageless and extant in memory. Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message. I got it. I hope you experience it, too. It is a gift.

Simply put: Everyone should read this book. Don’t just read it and move on. Instead, read it and carry it in your heart, allow it to remind you to live not just any life, but a life worth living. Work and grow and learn and strive, but don’t do it at the cost of living.