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Book Recommendation: Summer Reading List 2020
Originally published 6/5/2020
Maybe you’ve finished off all those books you stocked up on before the libraries closed? Looking for some new good reads? It’s time once again for my annual roundup of some of the best books I read this year. As usual, my focus is mostly on nonfiction tales from the world of science, medicine, and technology. A master list of all books that I recommend can be found here.
I just finished reading Katherine Eban’s new book Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom (2020) and I can’t recommend it strongly enough to you. It’s a detailed look at the meteoric growth of the generic drug industry beginning in the 1980’s. Its primary focus is on the generic drugs produced by the Indian firm Ranbaxy for export to the world, as well as for domestic consumption in India. The book documents a not very flattering portrait of a thoroughly corrupt and greed-driven company that makes defective products without much concern at all for their customers, especially those in third world countries. The firm makes many different drugs, the majority of which don’t come close to being bioequivalent to their branded counterparts. Massive deception efforts are employed at all levels of the company to hide the details of their shoddy manufacturing practices, lack of quality control, instability, and a host of other problems. Much of this only comes to light because of the efforts of an internal whistleblower, which informs the FDA of the numerous problems being hidden. He, along with a dedicated group of FDA inspectors, are all that stood between the marketing of a large number of defective medicines and the people who were likely harmed before the deceptions were uncovered. The story goes on to paint equally damning pictures of other generic drug makers headquartered in India and China as well. This was a very well written expose that will be of value to anyone interested in global health.
Another really good book was Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us by Sara E. Gorman and Jack M. Gorman (2016). This book takes a deep dive into a very popular current subject: the rejection of facts and the marginalization of expertise. The primary focus of the book is in examining the psychological factors that control whether or not people choose to believe particular types of information. Included is a discussion of how the scientific method works for those who don’t have training in this process. The book is not a quick read, as there are a number of scenarios to ponder and reflect on. The authors fully admit that while understanding the reasons that people turn away from science (issues of health care are prominently featured in the book) is helpful, knowing this does not ensure that you can turn their thinking around. The book ends with a series of seven guiding principles explaining why people act this way, followed by six proposed solutions that may help us minimize this phenomenon. Consider reading if you’ve gotten tired of arguing about why climate change is real, or how vaccines save lives, with your Uncle Charlie or next door neighbor.
If you like graphic stories, I’ll recommend The Life of Frederick Douglass: A Graphic Narrative of a Slave's Journey from Bondage to Freedom by David F. Walker, Damon Smyth, and Marissa Louise (2019). An easy reading bio of the great abolition leader, the story traces his life from his birth as a slave on a Maryland plantation up until his death at an advanced age. I can’t tell you how old he was when he died because, like
many slaves, his birthdate was never recorded, and even he did not know how old he was. Beautifully drawn and well written, it covers a number of important chapters of Douglass’s life. It’s truly extraordinary how many well-known Americans he met and influenced during his lifetime. These include Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Rutherford Hayes, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The graphical nature of the book serves it well in giving a fuller flavor to the story.
I can also recommend Gene Eating: The Science of Obesity and the Truth About Dieting by Giles Yeo (2019). This is a well-written book that takes readers through an alimentary journey about how the foods we eat affect us. Yeo takes a look at a variety of diets that have been in vogue over the years and explains the science behind how our bodies process various types foods. He reveals how proteins, carbohydrates, and fats contribute to fuel our bodies while taking apart a number of food myths that those pushing particular diets highly tout. The cultural and economic underpinnings of our current obesity epidemic are explained nicely. The book is written in a casual enough style that even non-scientists should be able to understand how different hormones control when and how much we eat. He offers up a deep dive into the nutritional and caloric value of various foods, illustrating why some foods that ostensibly have the same number of calories actually are processed and absorbed by the body quite differently. Even if you’re not on or contemplating going on a diet, you will find the information in this back valuable as you ponder which foods you want to include in your daily sustenance.
I liked Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know (2019), although the title might be a bit misleading. The focus on this book is essentially how our internal biases greatly shape what we hear, and think about, our interactions with people we don’t know well. The stories in this missive are bookended between the fateful interaction on the side of a Texas road a few years ago between a black car driver, Sandra Bland, and police officer, Brian Encinia, who pulled her over. The book also covers stories about the public perceptions of Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Bernie Madoff, and Sylvia Plath, and how these are largely shaped by assumptions, not facts. The book meanders a bit, and the stories are frustratingly uneven in length and depth. Topics including sexual exploitation, criminal justice, and suicide. All of these topics are examined to support Gladwell’s assertion that communication difficulties underlie the misinterpretation of facts that color not only the outcomes, but also how these stories are presented to us in the press. One other topic that’s discussed in depth is how and why we assume, when someone is talking to us, that they are telling us the truth. Our inclination to believe others can have serious consequences when people are lying to us (example cited: Neville Chamberlin and Adolph Hitler). However, taking the opposite approach, in Gladwell’s view, would be even more problematic, as our society is built on the concept of trust.
If you’re looking for an inspirational read, take a look at Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope Into Actionby David Fajgenbaum (2019). The theme, sadly, is one I’ve come across before in other books (most notably When Breath Becomes Air the one by doctor who comes up with treatments for his kids). Here, medical student Fejgenbaum is stricken with a mysterious, life-threatening malady that defies diagnosis. He needs to become deeply involved in coming up with a viable treatment in order to save his own life (and others) while searching for a definitive diagnosis. This story is particularly engaging because the illness initially defies diagnosis, and even when identified, has no known effective treatments. Fajgenbaum’s story starts when he is still a medical student and he survives multiple near-fatal bouts of what is eventually identified as a subtype of Castleman’s disease. His particular type has characteristics of both autoimmune disorders as well as some blood cancers. Aided by family and a wide network of friends, and driven by those familiar motivators, love and loss, Fejgenbaum ultimately helps his doctors design his own treatments. While in a state of remission, he establishes a global organization to benefit other patients and facilitate research and treatment collaborations worldwide. It’s these kinds of efforts that really drive advances in the treatment of rare diseases, and Fejgenbaum is wise enough to model his efforts after observing what was and wasn’t working in similar groups working on other illnesses. His harrowing medical story moves along quickly, and his efforts will hopefully facilitate the eventual development of highly effective therapies going forward.
For a fun read, with a side dose of education, check out Randall Munroe’s latest bestseller How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems (2019). In this book Munroe comes up with some very unorthodox ideas for accomplishing different tasks after freeing himself from conventional boundaries for achieving these results. Some of the engineering problems considered: How to build a swimming pool, shoot down a drone that’s bothering you, or construct a moat of liquid metal around your home. It’s all very lighthearted, but you’re likely to learn quite a bit about physics and engineering along the way. The light touch, coupled with pretty clear explanations of the science, are the reason this book is a best seller. Come for the absurdity, stay for the science. Munroe, by the way, used to work for NASA, but now he draws cartoons for his XKCD comics and writes thought provoking books like this one.
As a longtime thrift store shopper, I thoroughly enjoyed Secondhand: Travels in the Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter (2019). Want to know where the clothes go that Goodwill doesn’t sell go? Curious about how computers and other electronics get recycled? Want to know when consumers in different countries decide to make the switch from buying used goods to buying new? All of these questions are answered as Minter travels the world to find out just who is involved in the buying and selling of used goods. It goes far beyond eBay and Craigslist; a place where used TVs are sold by the container load, and rags are generated by the ton. Much of what we discard of is recycled, but how that takes place is generally hidden from us. Minter’s travels take him through the American Southwest to Japan, China, Africa, and Europe. What we choose not to fix in the US become the (non) raw materials that are readily repaired and recrafted in other parts of the world. The author makes a strong case that without these secondary markets for second hand goods we would be drowning in our castoffs.
Vaccines are in the news a lot lately, and The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease by Meredith Wadman (2017) gives you an inside look at how some of the early (1960s era) ones were created. The primary focus of the book is the creation of the rubella vaccine, with side trips to polio and rabies. Making vaccines (especially live ones) is really hard. You need to inactivate the viruses enough so that they’re not harmful, but not so much that they no longer can generate an effective immune response in the recipient. The star of the story is Leonard Hayflick, a scientist at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia who created a cell line that has been used over the years to create a number of vaccines. He also figured out that normal cells, grown outside of the body, have a limited lifespan. Even with that limitation, an initial culture of WI-38 cells that he developed back in the 60s is still being used to make vaccines today. The book introduces us to giants of the vaccine field, including Maurice Hilleman, Stanley Plotkin, and Hilary Koprowski. You will enjoy this story if you want to learn how vaccines used to be made back in the day. The process was messy, and the book doesn’t shy away from reporting on serious ethical issues, such as doctors freely using orphans, poor babies, the disabled, and the incarcerated for many of the early vaccine test and trials.
I want to recommend a book that was incredibly informative, but whose subject matter was thoroughly depressing to absorb. The book is Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump by David Neiwert (2018). The book provides an in-depth review of the radical right, a scattered collection of groups comprised mostly of racist, anti-Semitic, anti-government types dedicated to creating an America that fits their singular vision, and removing those who don’t share their particular viewpoint. It’s downright scary at times, with in-depth explorations of various events (Ruby Ridge; Newtown; Oklahoma City; Malheur National Wildlife Refuge) that mark the movement, and how the individuals behind them became radicalized nationalists. It illustrates how numerous cranks and conspiracy theorists, such as Alex Jones, came to have a significant role in shaping a political online narrative that years ago would have been dismissed out of hand. Well researched, but his description of a rising tide of right-wing authoritarianism and fascism, and how Trump has served to fuel this fire, will likely chill you to your soul.
There’s a fascinating personal tale at the core of 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics by Bruce Goldfarb (2020). The book will really be enjoyed by anyone interested in the CSI TV shows, or anything having to do with the field of forensics (or as it used to be known, medical legal work). Those who advocate for gender equality would also enjoy this story about a women who stepped way outside of her assumed gender (and privilege) roles to make a lasting contribution to society. Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy socialite who developed an interest later in life in developing the field of crime scene investigation and the profession of medical examiners. The title of the book refers to a series of incredibly detailed dioramas of murder crime scenes that she had built. Their purpose was to teach how the available evidence at a crime scene could tell the story of what happened. These dioramas, known as The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, were built in the 1940s and 1950s and are actually still being used today for their original purpose. The book details how a woman who never went to college became the driving force behind a new field of science, even establishing a new department at Harvard to teach many of these new principles. Her goal was to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.” Given the power of modern forensics, she was clearly successfully in accomplishing what she set out to do.
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