Road Reading, Part III

Here are books 20-30 in my endeavor to read 100 books this year. I’m finding an awesome pattern: so many of the books I’m reading center around social and health equality that they are quoting one another! The same research initiatives and nonprofits I read about in Half the Sky also pop up in Outliers and Poor Economics. Bryan Stevenson quotes Paul Farmer and Tony Campolo quotes Bryan Stevenson. Pretty great stuff.

Hope you enjoy these quick reviews and get to enjoy some of these great titles for yourselves!

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Economists Banerjee and Duflo synthesize their decades of research and interviews into a comprehensive look at global poverty and contend that yes, we can do something to change it. With a hearty 18-country data set, they categorize their findings into chapters on foreign aid, nutrition, health, education, savings, entrepreneurship, and the role of women in the family/community while arguing the existence of “poverty traps” as they’ve previously been framed by the economic research community. Often their findings are counter-intuitive but make clear sense when interviews with the poor shed light on the topic. (ie: providing girls with school uniforms in Africa is the single most effective intervention to lower the rate of new HIV infections among that population; more effective than comprehensive sex education or the availability of contraception, because the promise of school is the only thing more powerful than the promise of an older man/”sugar daddy” – much more likely to be infected than a younger man – to take care of you).

“We must arm ourselves with patience and wisdom and listen to what the poor want. This is the best way to avoid the trap of ignorance, ideology and inertia on our side.”

Farmacology: Total Health from the Ground Up by Daphne Miller, MD
Miller, a physician, is fed up with our modern-day, single-solution approach to health care. She travels to seven family farms around the US to learn about biodiversity, pasture-raised poultry and meat, microorganisms, and the effects of these things on our health. As someone who is allergic to everything (and different things on different days), I truly appreciate her detective work to bridge the divide between healthy agricultural systems and a healthy healthcare system. I’m excited to spend July with my wonderful (and uber healthy!) in-laws in upstate New York to experiment with the magic of biodiverse farmed produce, gut health solutions, and see if I can make a mean bone broth.

“what initially intrigued me [about The Soul of Soil by Grace Gershuny and Joe Smillie] was the detailed description of a soil ecosystem where the nutrient exchange between the soil, microbe, and plant sounded curiously similar to what takes place sin our own intestines. This was also the first time I understood the chemical makeup of soil has roughly the same ratio of nitrogen-to-carbon and a similar range for normal pH (6.0-7.5) as the human body. Like our own biosystems, it too depends on bacteria and fungi to supply it with the fats, amino acids, and carbohydrates that make up its structures. Midway through the book, it suddenly dawned on me that the carbon, nitrogen, and every mineral and vitamin that is a building block in our own bodies is derived from soil. In other words, we are not simply nourished by the soil, we are the soil. By the last chapter, I realized this book was not just a farmers’ manual but one of the most engrossing medical texts I have ever read.” 

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
Yes, this is my third Jon Krakauer book in three months. In this, he explores the development of the Mormon religion, concentrating on extreme fundamentalists and some high-profile murders-in-the-name-of-the-Lord that have occurred in the last few decades. As someone who is passionate about Jesus’ life and my faith community but cautious about religion, I found this to be especially confusing and unbelievable considering the overlap in some common beliefs that Christians have with Mormons. This is a collection of creepy cautionary tales and some philosophical musings on the deceptively blurry line that constitutes faith or insanity.

“Although the far territory of the extreme can exert an intoxicating pull on susceptible individuals of all bents, extremism seems to be especially prevalent among those inclined by temperament or upbringing toward religious pursuits. Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination, all bets are suddenly off.”

1984 by George Orwell
There were a lot of classics I missed out on reading in high school and this was one of them. Sad and gloomy and freaky, Orwell certainly lives up to all I knew of him before: his eponymous adjective “Orwellian”. Glad I knocked this classic off my list but I won’t be re-reading it for pleasure any time soon.

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

To Repair the World: Paul Farmer Speaks to the Next Generation by Paul Farmer, MD
This is a collection of passionate speeches delivered by anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer, the founder of the highly successful international nonprofit Partners in Health and perhaps the strongest voice for global health equity of our time. Recently, I’ve been missing the thrill of working for something you love and feeling nostalgic for the world of public health. Reading this got me excited and motivated to jump into opportunities to serve the world’s most vulnerable, whether here on our travels or back home in the US. Farmer is hilarious for a self-proclaimed nerd and certainly galvanizing to anyone who reads this. There’s some meaty policy stuff, too – on the importance of community health navigators as companions, the necessity to work alongside governments (even weak or corrupt ones), and the role of truly partnering with those you serve. Though most of the speeches are geared towards medical school graduates, the responsibility to repair the world falls on all of us across the spectrum of our unique talents and skills.

“The war against the major infectious killers is also the war against poverty and social inequalities, which are bad enough within our borders and scandalous beyond them. The ways to address social ills are contested bitterly but we know how to prevent or treat diseases that kill tens of thousands each day. Let us respond with increased investment in the basic sciences, in clinical investigation, and new drug development, and in the effective distribution of the fruits of this research to all those who suffer. Let’s make public health really matter, unleashing our power in a novel way: reaching out across boundaries of state and ethnicity and language in order to make common cause with those who bear the microbial burdens of poverty.”

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
John Darnielle is the lead singer of a band I love, The Mountain Goats. I heard about this book in his interview on NPR. It’s a strange, fiction book but well-written and a brief read. It’s about a severely disfigured man who lives in a world of self-created sci-fi games. Throughout the story, you get to see the world through his eyes and eventually come to find out how he ended up so permanently disfigured. It’s a story about empathy, about escape, about embracing your life even at the moment you’re throwing it away.

“No way of counting my blessings. No way for anyone to count that high.”

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
This book was downright chilling. It’s made me want to put “justice” in quotations any time I reference our justice system or criminal justice in the US. The stories from Stevenson, a lawyer who works with people on death row, are absolutely criminal – full of criminal treatment of minors, minorities, of people who have never received a trial after years of incarceration (yes, here in the US), of people with developmental disabilities, and scandalous physical abuses within prisons that are never set right. He paints a stark picture of how racism is alive and well within our justice system. The stories in here will make you angry and incredulous. But I believe it’s something everyone should read because it shows that things are never as clear cut as they seem.

“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

“Older people of color in the south would occasionally come up to me after speeches to complain about how antagonized they feel when they hear news commentators talking about how we were dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in the US after the 9/11 attacks. An older African American man once said to me, ‘You make them stop saying that! we grew up with terrorism all the time. the police, the klan, anybody who was white could terrorize you. we had to worry about bombings and lynching, racial violence of all kinds'”. 

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
I have been wanting to read this book ever since I heard Nicholas Kristof giving an interview about it on NPR months ago. Kristof, a well-known writer for the New York Times, and his wife, have clearly leveraged their professions to do some serious good in this world and have written beautifully about how you and me can be a part of that story, too. The information they have gathered over years of working with NGOs in Africa and Asia will baffle and horrify. But there are clear, albiet not easily applied, answers to the grave issues of gendercide, maternal injury and mortality, and modern-day trafficking. (Hint: it all centers around education, economic opportunity, and some really low-cost public health interventions). Kristof and WuDunn outline them expertly and are working to galvanize our generation to work towards true gender equality throughout the world.

“Decades from now, people will look back and wonder how societies could have acquiesced in a sex slave trade in the twenty-first century that is bigger than the transatlantic slave trade was in the nineteenth. They will be perplexed that we shrugged as a lack of investment in maternal health caused half a million women to perish in childbirth each year.”

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
I can’t get enough of Malcolm Gladwell books. I love how he urges us to look at our world a little differently than we currently do. In this book, he challenges us to rethink of concept of success, especially people who are “self-made”. He profiles moguls like Bill Gates and chronicles all the circumstances that led them to their success. It’s not just their smarts or their drive. History aligns so that some people have a much larger advantage over others. And once we think this way, we can look at those who have a disadvantage and understand better how we can even out the playing field. This is my kind of book. The implications for our communities are rich and beckon us to jump in and even things out so everyone has a shot at success.

“It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention. And it’s the biggest nine- and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage.”

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Recommended by my good friend and literary critic Benn, this book definitely did not disappoint. It’s a quick read but hard-hitting, filled with super short semi-fictional stories from the author’s lower-class, inner-city childhood neighborhood. Cisneros writes beautifully and paints a vivid scene with her words, even if the story is two pages long. Written so you can pick it up anywhere within the book, it’s a wonderful one to keep by your bedside and read a few pages a day.

“In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.”

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