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The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

I read the entirety of award-winning poet and novelist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ masterwork, all 816 pages of it, on the tiny screen of my phone during a trip throughout Washington. I can’t think of any other epic book that would be worth that kind of reading experience, but The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is special. While driving across the state, I regularly came across attempts to recognize and honor the Indigenous peoples who once populated that land, gestures that I don’t often see in the South where I live. For this reason, the long gaze of Jeffers’ novel felt like the answer to a prayer. It tells the full history of an American family—whose heritage is African, Creek and Scottish—and their centurieslong connection to a bit of Georgia land, as revealed by the research of one descendant, Ailey. It made me wish that all American lands could have their chance to tell their full stories, all the way back to the beginning.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

Empire of Pain

It is rare that a book simultaneously checks the boxes of timely, important, in-depth and narratively gripping. But the 640 pages of journalist Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain walk the line between an impressively researched tome and a page-turning, propulsive story. Keefe’s 2021 tour de force recounts the full, damning tale of the Sackler family, spanning three generations of this American dynasty and their dealings at Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that produces the opioid pain pill OxyContin. The Sacklers worked hard to keep their name from being associated with OxyContin, and Empire of Pain makes it clear why—from their invention of the concept of marketing prescription drugs, to their tactic of offering regional sales reps monetary incentives for getting more doctors to prescribe more of their drugs, to their outright lies about how their product would not lead to addiction. It is a harrowing story of one family’s catastrophic contributions to the opioid crisis, masterfully told by a top-notch writer.

—Christy, Associate Editor

The Priory of the Orange Tree

“You have fished in the waters of history and arranged some fractured pieces into a picture . . . but your determination to make it truth does not mean it is so,” declares Ead, one of the heroines of The Priory of the Orange Tree. Reading Samantha Shannon’s 848-page novel can feel like arranging fractured pieces into a complete picture, as it depicts the intersecting journeys of four narrators from different corners of an exquisitely detailed fantasy world. Ead, Tané, Niclays and Loth each have deeply held beliefs about the nature of good and evil, and a crisis that could annihilate humanity is bringing those beliefs into conflict. I will admit that I picked up the book for its Sapphic love story, and that’s a good reason to read it. The romance was tender and gorgeous, unfolding slowly enough to surprise me even though I was looking for it. However, when the casualties become devastating, what keeps you going is the thrill of connecting fragments of history and mythology from each storyline, knowing you will “see soon enough whose truth is correct.”

—Phoebe, Subscriptions

The Vanity Fair Diaries

There are many reasons that British journalist, writer and editor Tina Brown could land on one’s radar. She’s the founding editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast, the first female editor of The New Yorker and the author of two bestselling books on the royal family. But the achievement that cemented Brown’s reputation was her miraculous turnaround of Vanity Fair. Resurrected by Condé Nast in 1983, the new VF was floundering, so the 30-year-old Brown quickly engaged talent like Dominick Dunne, Gail Sheehy and Helmut Newton, and wooed advertisers like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Controversial stories grabbed headlines; so did provocative covers (who can forget the shot of a nude, pregnant Demi Moore?). Brown loves gossip and has a sharp wit, which means her behind-the-scenes stories of the 1980s NYC glitterati alone could carry 500 pages of memoir. But she’s also honest about the mistakes she’s made and the challenge of balancing a family and career. The Vanity Fair Diaries will leave you hoping Brown chronicled her time at the New Yorker too.

—Trisha, Publisher

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal is awarded each year to “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” In 2008, it was won by this love letter to French inventor and film director George Mélies. To make a 544-page story short, it’s extraordinary, with 158 pencil drawings that will make you rethink everything you think you know about what picture books can be. The Invention of Hugo Cabret begins by inviting you to “picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie” and then captures your imagination via 21 wordless spreads. In many ways, Brian Selznick’s story is about small things that combine to form a creation greater than the sum of its parts, from a boy who lives in a train station and steals toys from the cantankerous owner of a toy booth to paragraphs filled with exquisitely yet economically observed details. Few picture books can be described as perfect, but this is one of them.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Correction, February 15, 2023: This article previously misspelled the name of Dominick Dunne.

February is the shortest month, but if you're looking for a long book to keep you company until March begins to roar, our editors have a few suggestions.

As COVID-19 swept across the United States in 2020, health care professionals and patients quickly learned about the flaws in the public health system. Questions arose about equitable access to health care, the role of insurance and the quality of care in public hospitals serving uninsured people versus private hospitals serving people with private insurance. Taking the public Ben Taub Hospital—Houston’s “largest hospital for the poor . . . who cannot afford medical care”—as an example, medical researcher and practicing physician Ricardo Nuila explores these issues in The People’s Hospital: Hope and Peril in American Medicine.

Nuila has been an attending physician at Ben Taub for over 10 years, and he has discovered that “good care comes from connecting with your patients in whatever way you’re able.” Using the stories of five patients, Nuila weaves an intricate web of questions about the shortcomings of insurance and corporate medicine and reveals how Ben Taub has succeeded in providing access to health care for people who are medically and financially vulnerable.

For example, there’s Christian, a patient with chronic kidney disease who developed mysterious, debilitating knee pain. Because he was uninsured and had to pay out of pocket for his diagnosis and treatment, he traveled to a clinic in Mexico where he hoped his money would go further. A few weeks into his therapy, his knee pain diminished, and he moved back to Houston—but within weeks, he found himself facing the same medical issues again. When his kidneys started to fail and the insurance company denied him coverage, his mother admitted him to Ben Taub, where he started receiving hemodialysis on a regular basis and eventually left the hospital with hope.

Readers also meet Ebonie, who was 19 weeks into her pregnancy and experiencing dangerous levels of obstetric bleeding. After bouncing from hospital to hospital, she eventually landed at Ben Taub, where Nuila and another doctor developed a plan to deal with bleeding in the future and made sure she would be admitted to Ben Taub when it happened. Ben Taub also helped Ebonie apply for Medicaid so she would have an insurance safety net. Through his own experiences, and those of his patients and fellow health care professionals, Nuila paints a picture of a world where “people find healthcare and revere it like treasure.”

The People’s Hospital is an inspiring book that raises crucial questions about the future of American health care. Nuila illustrates that hospitals that make holistic decisions about care provide more effective and equitable treatment than those that ask simply about the ability of patients to cover expenses, reminding readers that the most effective health care systems always elevate humans and their needs over monetary gain.

Using the stories of five patients, physician Ricardo Nuila reveals how a public hospital in Houston has succeeded in providing health care to people who are the most vulnerable.

Anyone seeking medical care for a serious illness wants certainty in their diagnosis and treatment. The unsettling message of Random Acts of Medicine: The Hidden Forces That Sway Doctors, Impact Patients, and Shape Our Health, however, is that those understandable desires are often undermined by pure chance. 

In their revealing book, Harvard Medical School professor and economist Anupam B. Jena and critical care physician and health care policy researcher Christopher Worsham rely on natural experiments—studies based on collecting and analyzing data from random events occurring in the real world instead of controlled environments—to illustrate the role that randomness plays in America’s health care system. It’s a system that, in 2019 alone, spent $3.8 trillion—17.7% of the United States’ gross domestic product—and yet is “inefficient, inequitable, and poorly performing compared with other wealthy nations,” they write.

Jena and Worsham report on numerous studies, some of which they helped conduct, that attempt to answer some vexing questions: Why do children born in the fall have markedly higher influenza vaccination rates than their counterparts with summer birthdays? Why, despite similar conditions, are some patients more likely than others to receive an opioid prescription in the emergency room and maintain that prescription long after they’ve returned home? Why is an obstetrician more likely to perform an unplanned cesarean section if their previous patient’s vaginal birth presented complications? The answers, they argue, can provide critical insights into how to improve the quality of health care.

The book’s sometimes whimsical chapter titles conceal serious findings. “What Happens When All the Cardiologists Leave Town?” examines the survival outcomes for high-risk cardiac patients who are hospitalized during the annual professional conference for interventional cardiologists, versus those treated when those same cardiologists are back home. “What Do Cardiac Surgeons and Used-Car Salesmen Have in Common?” considers “left-digit bias,” a cognitive blind spot Jena and Worsham believe explains the differing care patients with heart attack symptoms who are just under 40 sometimes receive compared to those who have recently passed that milestone. 

If these unexpected insights sound familiar to readers of books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, there’s a reason. In addition to his professional duties, Jena hosts the podcast “Freakonomics, M.D.,” where he explores similar behavioral economics issues. Though their tone is occasionally lighthearted, he and Worsham repeatedly drive home a serious point: The American health care system is failing to deliver optimal care, often due to the unquestioned assumptions and inherent biases of its providers. If this provocative book can spark conversations about how to examine these persistent problems with fresh eyes, its authors have accomplished something truly important.

In their revealing book, Anupam B. Jena and Christopher Worsham illustrate the role that pure chance plays in medicine.
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In Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us, Rachel Aviv examines the challenges of living with mental disorders and how those disorders can define who we are. Aviv shares personal experiences and talks to a range of individuals who deal with—and find a sense of self in—mental illness. Featuring riveting firsthand reportage, moving interviews and important research, Aviv’s compassionate, revealing narrative offers a glimpse into the secrets of the human psyche while tackling tough questions about psychiatric treatment and diagnosis.

Judith Grisel mixes memoir and reportage in Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction, a compelling investigation of drug use and the nature of dependency. Grisel, a former drug user who is now a neuroscientist, writes with honesty about her troubled past and grappling with substance abuse. She also looks at the unique psychology of the addict and provides possibilities for escaping the cycle of dependency. The role of genetics in addiction and the brain’s response to drugs are but a few of the book’s rich discussion topics.

In Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery, Arnold Thomas Fanning offers a powerful, intimate account of a life spent wrestling with depression and bipolar disorder. Fanning’s first encounters with mental illness took place during his teenage years and left him ill-equipped to navigate daily routines. After spending time in an institution and living on the streets of London, Fanning found help in medication and therapy and achieved success as a playwright. In this poignant chronicle of living with illness, he shows that healing is possible.

Max Fisher considers the ways in which Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms have impacted our daily lives in The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World. Bolstered by in-depth research and interviews, Fisher’s fascinating book traces the evolution of social media, the rise of sensational content and the strategies employed by popular platforms to attract users and make profits. Themes like communication, self-esteem and the human need for connection will get book groups talking. 

From neuroscience to psychology, these nonfiction titles explore the mysteries of the human mind.
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“Rough sleepers” are homeless people who mostly choose to sleep on the streets rather than in indoor shelters. Their death rates are staggering, their health needs endless, their fates often in the hands of people who struggle to know what to do with them. However, there are some people whose mission is to care for rough sleepers, doing work that is both lifesaving and extremely frustrating. With a straightforward scrutiny that somehow sees, describes and reveals without flinching or judging, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder offers a long, hard look at the lives of people without housing in Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People.

As a writer, Kidder is intensely immersive. In Mountains Beyond Mountains, he traveled with Dr. Paul Farmer to observe groundbreaking health care work around the world. In Rough Sleepers, Kidder documents the three years he spent with the team that cares for Boston’s homeless population, making rounds with Dr. Jim O’Connell in his van late into the night. They treated people on the street or got them into hospitals and clinics to receive care. They offered blankets and food. They listened. Kidder was given deep access to their world—to the shelters, clinics, emergency rooms, hidden hangouts—and to the life of the man leading these efforts, fondly known by his many patients as Dr. Jim.

Readers also meet some of the people who live without homes in Boston in Rough Sleepers. There’s Tony Colombo, who spends his days at a respite house helping residents and staff and his nights on the street getting into trouble. Tony’s friend BJ, having lost both legs, needs constant help keeping upright in his wheelchair. Joanne Guarino is maintaining her sobriety after 30 years on the street and remains a regular guest speaker at Harvard Medical School, where she compels students to treat homeless people with compassion.

Dr. Jim and his team are the inspiring center of Kidder’s book. Now in his 70s, the Harvard-trained physician is still the city’s “street doctor,” sustaining and nurturing relationships with society’s most marginalized and vulnerable people. He realizes his work has come at the cost of his own family life and wryly compares himself to Sisyphus. His colleagues also grapple with the personal toll such vigilant care takes. Still, they see themselves as merely necessary, not heroic. In Rough Sleepers, Kidder begs to differ.

With a straightforward scrutiny that reveals without judging, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder offers a long, hard look at the lives of homeless people.

In 2010, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies provided a stunning history of cancer and medical scientists’ ongoing research into ways to overcome it. In 2016, he delivered a similarly breathtaking treatment of genetic biology in The Gene. Now, in The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human, Mukherjee tells the compelling story of cell biology and the ways that cellular engineering can help us rethink what it means to be human.

Drawing on case studies, interviews, visits with patients, scientific papers and historical archives, Mukherjee tries to understand life in terms of its smallest unit: the cell. As he puts it, he’s listening to a cell’s “music” when he observes its anatomy and the way it interacts with surrounding cells. For example, the genes, proteins and pathways used by healthy cells are “appropriated” or “commandeered” by cancer cells. “Cancer, in short, is cell biology visualized in a pathological mirror,” Mukherjee writes.

Such knowledge allows medical researchers and doctors to imagine how cellular therapy could modify a patient’s cellular structure to treat their disease or medical disorder. In one case, a girl named Emily Whitehead, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, received CAR T-cell therapy: Her own T-cells were extracted, modified to target her disease and infused back into her body. Although there was an initial setback because of an infection, the cellular therapy succeeded. Mukherjee includes other stories like Whitehead’s, as well as those of heroes such as Rudolf Virchow, who discovered that “it isn’t sufficient to locate a disease in an organ; it’s necessary to understand which cells of the organ are responsible”; John Snow, the founder of germ theory; and Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who discovered insulin.

According to Mukherjee, the cell sings of a new human who is “rebuilt anew with modified cells [and] who looks and feels (mostly) like you and me.” Using cellular engineering, he writes, “we’ve altered these humans to alleviate suffering, using a science that had to be handcrafted and carved with unfathomable labor and love, and technologies so ingenious that they stretch credulity: such as fusing a cancer cell with an immune cell to produce an immortal cell to cure cancer.” Captivating and provocative, The Song of the Cell encourages us to rethink historical approaches to medical science and imagine how cellular biology can reshape medicine and public health.

This captivating, provocative book from Pulitzer Prize winner Siddhartha Mukherjee encourages us to imagine how cellular engineering can reshape medicine.
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As we age, most of us will experience a debilitating or life-threatening illness at some point. Two nonfiction books take an unflinching look at this reality while painting a compassionate picture of how we and our health care providers could approach illness and death with more empathy, honesty and courage.


Cover of Healing by Theresa Brown

Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient is Theresa Brown’s searingly honest and deeply personal account of her experiences as a breast cancer patient. Brown, a registered nurse with a Ph.D. in English literature, has written and lectured extensively about the American health care system. As a former oncology and hospice nurse, Brown knew that patients often got a raw deal, but only after her own diagnosis did she realize how needlessly cruel that deal could be.

Brown has profound gratitude for her family, friends and medical team, who all supported her as she recovered, but she is also angry. She faced a host of necessary evils during her treatment, including invasive diagnostic procedures, painful surgeries and debilitating side effects from chemotherapy. But in a series of devastating vignettes, Brown also details the many unnecessary evils she endured in a system that favors profit over the needs of the patient: Diagnoses were delayed, questions left unanswered, test results undelivered. She was even forced to negotiate byzantine regulations on her own because her health care providers were stretched too thin to ensure that these basic duties were fulfilled effectively or graciously. Even though Brown was a seasoned health professional with extensive knowledge and professional contacts, she had to fight to be treated humanely. One can only imagine the obstacles less experienced patients must face every day.

Healing is both a moving memoir and a clarion call to action. When health care becomes a profit-making industry, dominated by hedge funds and corporate interests, we all lose. Instead, Brown argues, we must return to a system where meeting the patient’s needs—physical, emotional and social—is the priority.

The Day I Die

Cover of The Day I Die by Anita Hannig

In The Day I Die: The Untold Story of Assisted Dying in America, anthropologist Anita Hannig takes a different but no less passionate approach to her examination of death and dying in America. After becoming interested in how Oregon’s assisted dying law worked, Hannig embedded herself in a volunteer group that helps terminally ill patients take advantage of the law. She soon realized that the law, with its many hoops and barriers, could be like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s girl with the curl on her forehead. When it works, the law is very good. Hannig’s case studies of patients who have enough luck and resources to meet the demands of the statute demonstrate that assisted death can be, paradoxically, life-affirming. Autonomy can be restored to patients who have long been at the mercy of their diseases, and knowing when one will die can be an opportunity for reconciliation, reunion and gratitude.

But when things go bad, the law can be horrid. It is reasonable to have strict conditions surrounding assisted dying to ensure that the decision to end one’s life is freely made. But those conditions can have devastating effects upon patients who desperately want to die but cannot meet the requirements. Patients with ALS, for example, might lose their ability to communicate their assent before the deadline. Advanced Alzheimer’s patients are categorically denied access to assisted dying because they have lost the ability to fully understand their decision. Hannig rigorously details these and other situations in which people’s physical or mental deterioration, lack of resources or sheer bad luck result in a painfully prolonged life and terrifying death.

In her introduction, Hannig acknowledges the anthropologist’s dilemma: The act of observation is an imperfect tool for research, since it can change both the observer and the observed. However, it can also change the reader, since it is impossible to read Hannig’s book without being moved. Regardless of your stance on assisted dying, The Day I Die will make you reconsider how dying could and should be.

The personal stories in these nonfiction books set a more humane benchmark for patients and providers.

In her early 20s, Meghan O’Rourke began to experience an array of symptoms—fatigue, joint pain, brain fog, hives, fever, a sensation of electric shocks along her legs and arms—that neither doctors nor bloodwork could connect to a diagnosis. When one doctor suggested that O’Rourke might have an autoimmune disease, a condition in which the immune system begins to turn on the body, O’Rourke recalled her practical Irish aunts who lived with rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s disease and ulcerative colitis, all autoimmune diseases. As O’Rourke entered her 30s, her symptoms grew worse, despite seeing multiple specialists. She found herself barely able to leave her apartment, let alone have the baby she’d been hoping for.

O’Rourke is the author of three collections of poetry and a memoir, The Long Goodbye. In The Invisible Kingdom, she chronicles her long search for healing, layering in extensive reporting on the rise of chronic illness and autoimmune disease and the way our medical system fails to see ailments that aren’t readily diagnosable or easily treated. Likewise, she notes that autoimmune diseases are far more likely to affect women, and women, in turn, are more likely to be told that their symptoms are all in their heads. “Of the nearly one hundred women I interviewed, all of whom were eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or other concrete illness, more than 90 percent had been encouraged to seek treatment for anxiety or depression by doctors who told them nothing physical was wrong with them,” she writes.

O’Rourke examines her own experience with a lucid but compassionate lens, and she brings that same mix of analysis and compassion to the book’s reporting. It’s a delicate balancing act to write about a long journey of misery without being tedious or repetitive. She pulls it off by adding lyrical imagery and the words of other writers, such as Alice James and Susan Sontag, to her descriptions of suffering, the peculiar treatments she found herself undergoing, and the effect her quest for healing had on her marriage. And yes, the book reaches a happy, though not uncomplicated, ending.

While it’s especially useful for those who have personally encountered chronic illness, The Invisible Kingdom will add to everyone’s understanding of disease and health. Ultimately it offers a fresh image of what good medicine could look like: doctors understanding each patient as a whole person, not just as a collection of parts.

With a mix of analysis and compassion, Meghan O’Rourke chronicles the rise of chronic illness and autoimmune disease alongside her own long search for healing.
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To write a book about cadavers, you have to get in to see some. This is harder than you’d think. You’d think dead people would be easy to make appointments with. Their schedules are pretty open and they rarely go out of town. But of course dead people don’t make appointments. The researchers and surgeons and undertakers who work with them do that, and they don’t do it easily. If you were, for instance, a plastic surgeon who had set up a seminar with 40 severed human heads for other plastic surgeons to practice on, would you want a writer there? You would not. I contacted the organizers of this very head event, and indeed, they did not want me there. As the day drew near, I considered paying the $500 fee and registering as a surgeon. Maybe no one would notice that the woman in the back row was holding her retractor upside down and only pretending to make incisions.

In the end, an acquaintance, a plastic surgeon whom I’d profiled years ago, made some calls and got me in. I fear for his welfare once the book comes out. Not that I say anything negative about surgeons practicing on cadavers. I simply describe the things I saw, and most surgeons would probably prefer that the public not know about these things.

Inevitably, the doctors and scientists I wanted to visit would ask me to tell them about the book. I would assure them that I was in favor of cadaver-based education and research and that the book would support and encourage the donation of bodies to science.

This is true, but it didn’t really tell them much about the book. For instance, that its title is Stiff. That it’s meant not just to inform readers, but to entertain them. What could I say? “It’s a fun book about dead people. You’ll love it!” What scientist would agree to help me?

My past made matters worse. I used to write an irreverent, goofball column about medicine and the human body for the online magazine Occasionally my columns were about dead human bodies. There was one about car crash tests in the ’60s that involved cadavers. I did not criticize these studies, for they were and still occasionally are necessary and have, indirectly, saved thousands of lives. However, my tone was somewhat cavalier. Flippant, you might even say. By and large, it’s fair to say that people who do research using cadavers would rather not be the subject of flippant articles. At one point, I contacted a researcher at the University of Michigan to see if I could observe a cadaver impact test for the book. The man asked me how I’d become interested in the subject, and I said I’d done a little research on the topic for a Salon article. You don’t figure engineers log on to

“Salon!” he said. “I hope you’re not the one who wrote that horrible piece a couple months ago.” My piece had run about a year prior, so I replied that it must have been someone else. Then he began describing the piece, which was in fact my piece. I said, “I have to go now,” and I got off and called a different lab. I became so paranoid about potential sources running a Google search on me and finding my Salon columns that I’d sign off on my e-mails as Marion Roach. (Later I realized that my messages arrive with “Mary Roach” in the From heading.) The man whose automotive impact lab I eventually visited had seen the Salon column too, but he let me watch anyway. To this day I think of him as a kind of saint.

And now comes the part where the people in the book get to read it. There are days when I honestly believe they’ll be okay with it, maybe even enjoy it. Other days I imagine them turning up at my doorstep, saying I’ve destroyed their scientific standing. And then they shoot me, and the author of Stiff is a corpse too. Horrifying, but think of the PR possibilities: Dead author goes on tour to promote cadaver book! Sales through roof!

Mary Roach currently writes the “My Planet” humor column in Reader’s Digest. Her work has also appeared in Outside, Wired, GQ and Vogue. A contributing editor at Discover magazine, she lives in San Francisco. Stiff is her first book.

To write a book about cadavers, you have to get in to see some. This is harder than you'd think. You'd think dead people would be easy to make appointments with. Their schedules are pretty open and they rarely go out of town. But of course dead people don't make appointments. The researchers and surgeons and undertakers who work with them do that, and they don't do it easily.
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“I’m of two minds,” we say. Or, “I changed my mind.” These phrases roll casually off the tongue, but we don’t mean them literally. Maybe we should, according to two new books that explore the fascinating history and tantalizing future of neuroscience.

Are you primarily right-brained or left-brained? You might think you know, but Michael S. Gazzaniga is here to tell you it’s not that simple. Gazzaniga pioneered split-brain research with his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology in the 1960s. In Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience, he details the experiments that led us to talk about the brain’s two hemispheres in the first place. Filled with scientific luminaries like psychobiologist Roger W. Sperry and theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, Tales from Both Sides of the Brain takes us back to the intellectually energetic laboratories of Caltech. In scenes that read like episodes of “The Big Bang Theory”—intellectual energy abounds—we sit in on experiments done with split-brain patients, whose brains’ hemispheres had been surgically separated to treat epilepsy.

Gazzaniga meticulously documents the strange things that happen when the two sides of the brain aren’t communicating, such as losing the ability to label an item held in the left hand, even though the answer comes swiftly when the same object rests in the right. What’s even more fascinating, though, is the way the brain can sometimes overcome such limits. As Gazzaniga says, the brain is not a “random bowl of spaghetti” but a “biologic machine” with the power to rewire itself. Gazzaniga tells the stories of split-brain patients who have regained lost functionality as their brains’ hemispheres learned to “cue” each other in new ways.

Director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara and president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute, Gazzaniga continues to search for answers about how the brain works. His impassioned writing invites readers into his world, where the science of the past sets the stage for even greater discoveries to come.

Where Gazzaniga carefully documents the past, Norman Doidge, M.D. marches enthusiastically into the future in a dazzling collection of stories about neuroplasticity and the ever-changing brain. Following up on his 2007 bestseller, The Brain That Changes Itself, which brought the science of neuroplasticity to a mainstream audience, in The Brain's Way of Healing, Doidge considers cutting-edge treatments that use the body’s senses to access, and improve, neurological functioning.

In friendly vignettes reminiscent of Oliver Sacks’ case studies, Doidge chronicles the heroic efforts of patients with a wide variety of apparently intractable ailments, from chronic pain to multiple sclerosis. All have been treated successfully with non-invasive, natural methods that take advantage of the adaptive abilities of the nervous system. In-depth, personal stories describe patients like John Pepper, who has kept his Parkinson’s disease symptoms in check with a vigorous, yet careful, exercise regimen, and David Webber, whose blindness was relieved with a series of relaxation and visualization exercises.

The list of successful healings is long and impressive; it’s tempting to be skeptical of such a wealth of glowing accounts, except that Doidge truly takes a holistic approach to his subjects, getting to know them and their doctors and sharing every detail with his readers. Doidge doesn’t just read about low-light laser treatments, for example, but actually sits in on multiple sessions and discusses the science behind them. Similarly, he delves into the lives and careers of innovators like Moshé Feldenkrais, whose integrative movement protocol is well known, but whose escape from Nazi Germany is likely not.

Each of Doidge’s examples suggests tangible treatment ideas for patients who may have thought they were out of options. Doidge’s penchant for considering unconventional approaches to healing offers hope for all.

“I’m of two minds,” we say. Or, “I changed my mind.” These phrases roll casually off the tongue, but we don’t mean them literally. Maybe we should, according to two new books that explore the fascinating history and tantalizing future of neuroscience.
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Just Here Trying to Save a Few Lives is a gripping, real-life book by Dr. Pamela Grim, an emergency room physician. Grim, an ER doctor for ten years, paints a graphic picture of what life in the real ER is like the adrenaline, the life-and-death quick decisions, the burnout, and the hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror and relief. Grim recounts her most interesting cases in the ER and her travels with Doctors Without Borders the organization that recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. Grim traveled to Nigeria, Kosovo, and Macedonia with that organization, and Lives portrays how heart-breaking this practice of medicine is compared to the state of the art technology-driven practice in the States. Her front-line stories from these war-ridden and impoverished countries are maddening, touching, and inspiring.

The doctor’s recollections of her most remarkable cases are enlivened by her refreshing honesty. Readers witness Grim’s doubts, frustrations, insecurities, exhaustion, and confusion her thoughts and emotions are laid on the table, making this book difficult to put down. As evidenced by the popularity of the TV show ER, we are captivated by the events that take place in this setting, and. Grim tells her stories with a realistic flavor that could only come from someone who has been there.

Grim narrates with an insightful, humorous tone that hints at a bit of cynicism about her profession. It appears the author may have written this book as an evaluation of her career, struggling to decide whether she’s too burned out to continue practicing medicine, and perhaps trying to remember why she entered medicine in the first place. Do the rewards outweigh the costs? I encourage you to read and find out.

Susanna Swilley recently finished her first year of medical school in Memphis.

Just Here Trying to Save a Few Lives is a gripping, real-life book by Dr. Pamela Grim, an emergency room physician. Grim, an ER doctor for ten years, paints a graphic picture of what life in the real ER is like the adrenaline, the life-and-death quick decisions, the burnout, and the hours of boredom punctuated [...]

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Pain as God’s Megaphone, C. S. Lewis wrote, “is a terrible instrument.” Frank T. Vertosick quotes this line as epigraph to his new book, Why We Hurt. Lewis’s comparison points out why pain is essential: It gets our attention, alerting us that something is terribly wrong and, if possible, must be dealt with.

Throughout history, pain has been an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. It still is, but over the last century we have made great inroads not only against illnesses but against the pain they cause. We would do well to remember the agonies of past generations, for which there was simply no relief but the grave. Vertosick’s beautifully written book, The Natural History of Pain explores this essential but terrifying adaptation with intelligence, sympathy, and an encyclopedic store of references from across the cultural and scientific spectrum. A literate scholar and an experienced neurosurgeon, Vertosick is the author of a celebrated account of his training as a neurosurgeon, When the Air Hits Your Brain. He combines his own case histories (suitably disguised), fascinating tidbits from the history of medicine, and an endless curiosity about the nature of pain as a physical sensation. The surprises never stop. Vertosick explains the horrific etymology of the word “cancer,” which, as in the sign of the zodiac, refers to a crab in this case, a crab’s unshakable grip. He explains sciatica, and how Shakespeare came to coin the term. Carpal tunnel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine headaches, phantom limb syndrome it’s all here, in lucid, witty prose.

Nor does Vertosick overlook the pains of everyday life that are not considered disorders but are nonetheless what the Koran calls “a hurt”: menstrual cramps, the pain of childbirth, office-induced back pain.

Vertosick has examined and operated upon countless patients. He admits that he likes to play Sherlock Holmes and make a tentative diagnosis at first glance. He tells of the patient who awoke on the operating table and began screaming when he saw his opened chest and exposed heart, and of the woman who had to lift her leg with a towel because it wouldn’t move of its own volition. From these anecdotes, with sympathy and wit, he builds insightful chapters about the curse and blessing that is pain.

Michael Sims is the author of Darwin’s Orchestra (Henry Holt).

Pain as God’s Megaphone, C. S. Lewis wrote, “is a terrible instrument.” Frank T. Vertosick quotes this line as epigraph to his new book, Why We Hurt. Lewis’s comparison points out why pain is essential: It gets our attention, alerting us that something is terribly wrong and, if possible, must be dealt with.

Throughout history, pain [...]

Several recent books, most notably Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, urge us to ask ourselves how we can live a good life, recognizing that death is a seamless part of our existence. Two compelling new accounts highlight individuals struggling with this question.

In On Living, hospice chaplain Kerry Egan begins her vocation with some resistance, unsure that in her own brokenness she can provide comfort to those who are broken by life and waiting for death. Reluctant to talk about religion with her patients, she soon discovers that simply listening to their stories—of their families, of their losses and regrets, of love—heals her and them: “I don’t know if listening to other people’s stories as they die can make you wise, but I do know that it can heal your soul. I know this because those stories healed mine.”

Egan shares the story of Gloria, a mother who’s been withholding a secret from her son and wants to reveal it as a gesture of love in her final days. A patient named Reggie expresses regret about a life that’s been “empty and alone,” leaving him without a single friend or family member to offer comfort. Then there’s Cynthia, who struggles to accept her overweight body even as she’s dying; like all people who are dying, Egan observes, Cynthia faces the reality that she will “no longer be able to experience this world in this body, ever again.” The lesson for those of us not dying, of course, is that living fully means embracing our imperfect selves with joy and love while we still can.

Egan’s evocative and eloquent book reminds us that we are defined by the stories we tell, and those stories often reveal how life can be “beautiful and crushing” at the same time.

Deborah Ziegler’s poignant and fierce Wild and Precious Life celebrates the life of her daughter, Brittany Maynard, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2014 at the age of 29. 

When Ziegler first learned of her daughter’s condition, she ran screaming into the dark night of hopelessness, praying that God would take her and not her daughter. She refused to accept her daughter’s impending death and wanted to pursue any treatment that would extend her life.

Brittany, however, taught her mother the one truth we most often avoid in such situations: A good death is part of a life well lived. After Brittany learned the gravity of her situation, she moved from California to Oregon, where a death with dignity law allowed her to make her own choices on how and when her life would end. Her decision prompted a nationwide discussion of assisted suicide and a patient’s right to make end-of-life decisions. 

Skillfully interspersing stories of Brittany’s growing up with a touching account of her final year, Ziegler reminds us, in Brittany’s own words, of the real lesson we need to learn: “Live your lives well. Accept the sorrow with the joy, the ineffable grief with the love.”


This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Several recent books, most notably Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, urge us to ask ourselves how we can live a good life, recognizing that death is a seamless part of our existence. Two compelling new accounts highlight individuals struggling with this question.

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