I read plenty of books in 2017, but here are my favorite ones in no particular order:
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers writes a semi-autobiographical memoir about moving to the Bay Area with his siblings after their parents pass away suddenly one winter in Illinois. While his older sister and brother are independent and working, Eggers, a college senior, becomes the guardian of his 8-year old brother, while also trying to find his way as a writer, an entrepreneur, and a young man. It’s a coming of age story meeting a story about parenting.
The writing is full of contradictions: raw and refined, paced and manic, tragic and hilarious, grounded and meta. But it makes for a fascinating read, well-received by critics, reaching number 1 on the NY Times Best Seller list and as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. If you have a younger sibling in your charge, this is definitely a book you should read.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
Junot Diaz writes a story about a Dominican boy, Oscar Wao, who struggles through life as he gets older. He is overweight and obsessed with science fiction, terrible with women and deeply depressed. But even deeper than that, Diaz explores Dominican diaspora and masculinity through Oscar’s woes.
The first time I tried to read this book, I wasn’t ready for his literary style. Diaz uses multiple narrators, constantly uses Spanish words and slang, and drops references that frequently past me. When I attempted and completed the book the second time, I had studied Spanish and frequently kept Google close by so I could look up references and definitions.
Despite the extra work, it was worth it. Sometimes art forces you outside your comfort zone to reassess how it should be judged. I did not know books could be written like this and be so good. If you are looking for an example of great contemporary literature or an intellectual challenge, this is the book for you.
My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story – Abraham Verghese
Abraham Verghese is a practicing physician in rural, God-fearing Tennessee in the 80s when the big city and gay-associated disease, AIDS, comes knocking on his door. Verghese writes about his patients and small town community as they face the realities that HIV can infect anyone, that it is a genuine public health concern everywhere, and that you can’t judge someone by how they look, where they worship, or even their lifestyle.
His work takes him into patient care, advocacy, and eventually towards burn out as his practice caring for HIV-infected patients grows overwhelmingly large. The tale grows more complex as he weaves his story as an immigrant Indian doctor trying to make the most of this opportunity for his family without being torn apart.
Dr. Verghese is compassionate and careful, detailed and rich. It is an example of amazing writing by a physician that every health professional interested in writing should aim to emulate. If you are a medical student or a doctor, facing enormous challenges with your patients, this book will give you solace that you are not alone in your struggle for better outcomes for your patients.
Outbreak – Robin Cook
I started reading medical thrillers when I was in middle school. At the time I had no idea I was going to become a doctor. I just enjoyed the fast pacing, the idea of an intellectual solving criminal cases, and being transported to different locales around the world. Outbreak is about a public health researcher at the CDC who begins researching a sudden outbreak of Ebola in different US cities. As she investigates further, she realizes a sinister plot is underway and she is suddenly a target and a fugitive.
Robin Cook is an ophthamologist who started writing to make extra money, and decided on a formula to write his books. It made him hugely successful and he decided to write full time, forgoing his medical career. This book is a fun read but nothing more. Published in 1987, it is interesting to read about how society worked at the time of writing, even in a fictional world. So many situations that could have been easily handled with a cell phone or the omnipresent security cameras end up being greater problems in the book. If you want to write medical thrillers or want an easy beach read, check out this book.
Doctored: The Disillusionment of the American Physician – Sandeep Jauhar
Speaking of burnout, Sandeep Jauhar has just completed his fellowship and now entering the medical world as a full-fledged, practicing cardiologist in New York City. After the idealism of his medical student days has long faded away, he enters a world of cut throat and overworked providers as he tries to build his practice, raise his young family, and advocate for his patients in a growing and unceasingly ravenous health care system.
This is a classic, physician memoir: a clinical look at how medicine is practiced today and the author’s best solution to protecting himself from being just another jaded physician. Dr. Jauhar is an honest and capable writer, keeping me interested throughout the book. If you are anywhere in the medical education spectrum, from student to attending physician, you will relate.
House of God – Samuel Shem
A cult classic in medical literature, House of God cracked open Pandora’s box, exposing medical subculture to the masses when it was released in the 1978. A satirical look at intern year at the House of God (aka Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, MA), Samuel Shem, the pen name of psychiatrist Stephen Bergman, shines a light on the brutal hierarchy of medical education that culminates in the mistreatment of residents, the jaded outlook the physicians have towards their practice and their patients, and the salacious relationships between residents and nurses as they just try to survive.
Every attending over 50 that I have met has read or, at least, heard about this book and what it stands for. Shem writes a fast and easy to read book that is enjoyable to read. This is a great book to read as a medical student before you start your clerkships or residency. I found it a great way to bond with my attendings and it also gives you an idea of how far we have come in medical education… at one time it was normal for physicians to just take a smoke break on the wards!
An easy to read self-help book, The Charisma Myth, is about how anyone can develop the je ne sais quoi, the allure, the dynamism to attract success, positivity, and people towards himself. It is a practical guide with common sense rules that iare nice to be reminded of. Everything from understanding your type of charisma (Authority, Focus, Kindness, Visionary) to having a proper handshake and body language to listening and conversing well is covered. Read this book if you want to be a more confident person, just remember that its lessons are fruitless unless you actively practice them.
We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter – Celeste Headlee
I found this book serendipitously one evening while listening to NPR. Earlier in the day, I had an terrible argument with a good friend after our friendly “debate” devolved into us shouting past each other. I realized we had been speaking past each other and it bothered me the rest of the day. And then I heard Headlee, a prominent radio host, speaking about lessons she learned from interviewing numerous guests about the art of conversation. I knew I had to become a better listener and so I got the book.
The book gives numerous lessons and on how to listen, ask better questions, and make your partner in conversation feel comfortable. I have worked on incorporating her advice with friends, family, strangers, and new patients. It has been doubly influential when interviewing subjects for my new podcast, This Meharrian Life (which I will share more about in a later post).
Headlee is also gave a popular Ted Talk about having better conversations that is worth the listen:
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly – Anthony Bourdain
Half-memoir, half guide to food and restaurant culture, Anthony Bourdain introduced me to a fascinating world of crafty, outrageous, and brilliant cooks, owners, movers, and shakers of the food world. Stories about staff pranks, Bourdain’s addiction to heroin, and the cajones it takes to survive and thrive in the kitchen make the book an enjoyable and educational read.
For a self ascribed non-foodie, I found myself pleasantly surprised with Anthony Bourdain’s voice and writing style. It’s fast, witty, and unapologetic. Kitchen Confidential is the book that launched his career. I think the book is well-crafted and can be an excellent template to any author trying to introduce her tradecraft to the world. If you are interested in food, opening a restaurant, becoming a chef, or looking for a great gift idea, this book is for you.
The Obstacle is the Way is a self help productivity book masked as a philosophical guide to overcoming obstacles and to developing one’s best self. Steeped in Stoicism, the book offers anecdotes and lessons from history on how to reconceptualize one’s obstacles, how to act to change one’s plight, and how develop inner fortitude to overcome failure and hardship.
The beauty of the book is that it does not have to be read in one sitting or in any particular order. Sometimes I did not even read a chapter from beginning to end. I skimmed and bounced around to find stories and lessons that I needed at that particular time. This is an excellent gift book for anyone. It will inspire and challenge you to strive for a greater self.