Fragile Machines


So there’s a new book you may have heard about: When Breath Becomes Air, by the late Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who died of lung cancer last March. In the last year of his life he published several essays on facing cancer, the irony of being a doctor with a terminal illness, and the sadness of not being able to see his daughter grow up. And Paul worked on a book, shepherded to completion and publication by his wife Lucy. But I don’t think of him as Paul – I think of him as Pubby (his nickname). Because that’s how he was introduced to me twenty years ago.

Pubby and I had a lot of things in common. We were English majors, active members of the Stanford Band, wrote scripts for the Band’s field shows, and served terms as public relations director for the Band. This is an understatement, but he had a great sense of humor – it worked on levels from subtle and dry to completely over-the-top and crazy. We liked each other’s writing, and shared stories about crazy hate mail we responded to. I remember when he tried to bleach his hair, and the closest he could get was orange. I’ve heard he always wore fake mustaches for ID photos, and was known to randomly show up to events wearing a gorilla suit.

He had another side, it turns out. Besides majoring in English, he also majored in human biology, and like many of my band friends, eventually became a doctor (by the way, majoring in Hum Bio alone is tough, without a reading-heavy major like English on top of it). He returned to the Bay Area, working as a neurosurgeon at the Stanford hospital. And the rest you know, or you will when you read his book. We weren’t close friends, and I hadn’t seen him in person in about ten years, but the news of his illness hit me harder than I expected. Reading his moving words made it a little easier to think of his impending death, if only because I could see how his various and disparate talents had melded in this perfect, tragic, way. 

One thing that will really get you is when Pubby writes about his and Lucy’s daughter, who was born in the last year of his life. He knew he wouldn’t have much time with her, but he was determined to enjoy all the time he had. I look at my children and wonder if I have made the most of my time with them – how they would remember me if they were suddenly to lose me. Pubby was the third person from my era of the LSJUMB to pass away in a span of about a year (all from cancer), prompting me (and many of my friends, I’m sure) to dwell on my own mortality. But Pubby’s writing, I think, will not cause us to become obsessed with our deaths, but our lives: is what we’re doing worth doing? What is the best use we can make of the time we have left, however much time that is? What are the things that are really most important to us? I hope his book will help you find the answers to these questions. Snowden’s secret in Catch-22 is that man is matter, that we are fragile machines prone to destruction. Pubby’s secret is that despite that fragility, man can matter – we can choose to make a difference in this world before our own fragile machines break down, and our breath becomes air.

– Joe

Favorite Books of the Year – 2015

Despite what people may think, owning your own bookshop doesn’t mean that you get to read all day.  In fact, Joe has probably read less in a year than he ever has… which is probably a good sign for the business (things are going really well and we’re really busy!) but it’s murder on his page count.  What’s his page count you ask? Well… as truly obsessed readers can tell you, not only do you keep a count of how many individual books you’ve read, you also keep track of how many pages you’ve read.  (Author’s note: I only keep track of how many books, NOT how many pages)

However, we were both still able to read enough to still call ourselves book lovers.  So here are our favorite books we’ve read this year.

a yellow lab stares up at her owner,  a dark bearded light skinned man.

Joe’s Top 5 Favorite Books:

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick



A tie between…

red background with yellow block letters that say ready player one Ernest Cline a novel. a yellow sky over maroon water/liquid with an imagined structure in the background. The words The Man in the High Castle Philip K. Dick is in the top third of the image.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

Set in the not too distant future, this novel tells the story of the Oasis, a virtual reality world that provides relief for the unpleasant reality of Wade, aka Par7ival. When the creator of the Oasis dies, his will reveals a contest: the individual who solves a series of puzzles within the virtual world will inherit the whole thing. Both an homage to 1980s nerd culture (Wargames, D&D, Monty Python, Joust) and a reasonable glimpse into a dismal future, Ready Player One will transport you and thrill you.


The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick

The Hugo Award winner from 1962, this novel feels as fresh as ever – like most of PKD’s work. The novel’s hook is its setting: an alternate history in which the United States lost World War II and was divided between Germany and Japan. The novel mostly takes place in Japanese-occupied San Francisco, but quickly demonstrates it is much more than an alternate history novel. Dick ruminates on the concepts of authenticity of artifacts, fate and the I Ching, and the nature of reality itself.

woman holding a book in front of her face inside a bookshop. The title of the book is The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

Kelsey’s Top 5 Favorite Books:

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, Sally Mann

Dumplin’, Julie Murphy

We Were Liars, E. Lockhart

Improbable Theory of Ana & Zak, Brian Katcher

How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff


book cover shows a black and white photograph of clouds with a image of girl in 50s style shorts & shirt jumping in the air.

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, Sally Mann

A beautifully written memoir about family, land, growing up in the south, art, poetry, photography, and controversy. I was fascinated by her upbringing, her relationship with artist Cy Twombly, and her photographic process. But where I connected the most with this book is when she talks about being both an artist and a mother, which historically, most male artists haven’t had to balance. Much like her honest, real, and meticulously rendered photographs, Mann’s memoir is a picture into how an artist is created.