Born a Crime
In his uplifting memoir, comedian, social critic, and “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah recounts his extraordinary experiences growing up biracial and under apartheid in South Africa. He never quite fit in, but he used his “outsider” perspective to his advantage. A speaker of English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, Tsonga, Tswana, German, and Spanish, Noah bounced from group to group and won acceptance from all of them.
Although his story is often tragic, the comedian’s writing leaves me laughing.
—Ryan Jiha, finance grant manager, Partners In Health
The Black Jacobins
“The Black Jacobins” is a history of the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, and of the role of Touissant L' Ouverture, a former slave who led the uprising and later became governor of Saint Domingue (before Napoleon ousted him in 1803).
James is an odd historian. He wrote the book in 1938 and his writing is anything but dispassionate, so the book comes across as not very objective or academic. But I found it refreshing that James made his political views clear, and he effectively captures the horrors of slavery and the hypocrisy of the French.
One of the most interesting and puzzling parts of the story for me is how L'Ouverture—with no military training or experience—emerged as a brilliant military strategist. We tend to think people can only do what they have been trained to do, and I feel this creates passivity that stunts creativity. While we have recently seen what can happen when someone with no preparation for leadership becomes a national leader, and I don’t want to encourage people to follow his lead, I think the idea that we need technocrats to move fields forward is an error that can be easy to make.
—Megan Murray, professor of global health and social medicine, Harvard Medical School
Harry Hole Series
Nesbø is a Norwegian writer known for his crime novels and their main character, Harry Hole, who is kind of a mess but “gets the job done.” There tends to be grisly murders of very nice people and lots and lots (and lots) of coffee drinking (in between benders).
—Sidney Atwood, programmer and analyst, Division of Global Health Equity, Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Forty Million Dollar Slaves
William C. Rhoden
Rhoden’s book is disturbing and uncomfortable. It draws parallels between slavery and today’s black athletes playing for white-owned sports teams. He goes back to the beginning of sports in America to show the plight of black athletes, from jockeys to boxers, under white control.
It gave me a broader view of today’s athletes. I look at Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who protested racial injustice by refusing to stand at games during the national anthem, and it’s apparent to me that Kaepernick understands that he and his peers are not really playing for themselves.
While riveting, it was saddening and made me feel we haven’t come very far. But if nothing else, it’s a must-read for its historical background, which shows how important a role African-Americans played in starting sports in America.
—Mary Cooper, accounts payable accountant, Partners In Health
All the King’s Men
Robert Penn Warren
This summer I reread Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. The novel is loosely based on the story of Huey Long, a populist politician in Louisiana in the 1930s, but it’s really a story about how people compromise or uphold their values. After 70 years, it seems incredibly current, demonstrating the power a politician can wield over people who feel they are unappreciated and not getting a fair deal. It captures how narrators can be unreliable and how seemingly hardened people can still be damaged or change completely. It’s totally captivating.
—Jennifer Goldsmith, director of administration, Division of Global Health Equity, Brigham and Women’s Hospital
If I were pleasure-reading, I would pick up my tattered copy of Siddhartha and read it for the fifth time. The novel, set in ancient India, is about a young man who journeys to discover the meaning of life. As he wanders, he tries to find enlightenment through practices ranging from spiritual idealism to materialism. It’s a highly accessible book that’s short in length but profound in impact and has always been my go-to when I have felt stuck in life or need some inspiration. It’s also rather poetic—where else have you heard of lips resembling ‘freshly cut figs?’
—Jerome Galea, research associate, Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School
L.A. Times’ critic Mark Athitakis called it brilliant. The New Yorker’s James Woods ultimately found it unsatisfying. Whatever your take on this short novel published in July, Cohen’s maximalist writing style definitely makes other contemporary fiction look timid by comparison. (E.g. One character wears “a vintage polyblend suit pullulating with pleats.”) And the story, about a young Israeli soldier attempting to start afresh in modern-day New York City, never panders to a reader’s desire for easy truths. Indeed, it made me squirm, snort with laughter, and deeply appreciate the traumas that can hide behind familiar faces.
—Eric Hansen, senior writer, Partners In Health
Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?
For a book that I imagine no one’s read, I’d recommend a novel called Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by a Norwegian author named Johan Harstad. It’s about a guy who has a bit of a mental breakdown and ends up recovering in the Faroe Islands. The narrator’s voice is quirky and unique, and the descriptions of the Faroe Islands have kept me wanting to visit for years. I found it at the library accidentally, but the story has stayed with me.
—Lewis Seton, senior grants administrator, Division of Global Health Equity, Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Cash In, Cash Out
Hannes van Rensburg
This is Hannes van Rensburg’s personal story about starting a mobile banking business in South Africa in 1999. The entrepreneur poured his blood, sweat, and tears into the company, Fundamo, and is brutally honest about his struggles, doubts, failures, and lucky breaks. He describes choosing between his personal and professional goals and how his morals guided his business decisions.
It is still too early to understand how mobile banking will change the lives of the poorest citizens, but van Rensburg offers exciting possibilities: He believes that the mobile banking economy goes hand in hand with poverty alleviation. It’s a book that challenged me to consider how banking fits with human rights and our work at PIH.
—Mike Johnson, MEQ senior analyst, Partners In Health
Inside Out and Back Again
Lai’s story is about a 10-year-old Vietnamese refugee girl who fled Saigon with her family to resettle in Alabama. It’s based on Lai’s own experience leaving the city at the end of the Vietnam War. She writes in verse and tells the story through the young girl’s eyes. It won adult and children’s literary awards and is a New York Times bestseller. I read it as part of a mommy-daughter book club I just joined. It’s timely, considering the current political climate in the U.S. and Trump’s position toward immigration. A quick and lovely read.
—Leslie Friday, senior writer, Partners In Health