Books Make Great Gifts, Part 2: Personal Picks

So I can’t very well remind you that books make great gifts without giving you some recommended reading.

In an effort to expedite this post, and therefore expedite any remaining holiday gift purchases, this year I’m calling my list “Off the Top of My Head,” with the somewhat lame yet totally true claim that if I can remember a title at 10 o’clock on a Friday night after a long day, a long week, and a year full of reading and researching, it must be a memorable read.


(I’m still so fond of the book picks I suggested last year, so give them a second look if you’re interested. I think Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life is one of the most exquisitely written memoirs I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.)

Nonfiction (memoir, narrative, food, and health):
The Liar’s Club by Mary Carr
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Atlas of the Human Heart by Ariel Gore
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
It Must Have Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten
Overtreated by Shannon Brownlee
Encounters with the Invisible by Dorothy Wall
Breathing for a Living by Laura Rothenberg
The Autoimmune Epidemic by Donna Jackson Nakazawa
Blood and Guts by Roy Porter
Keep Working, Girlfriend by Rosalind Joffe

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld
Best Friends by Martha Moody
Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult
Certain Girls by Jennifer Weiner
Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin
Dirty Girls’ Social Club by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond
Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

I’ll probably think of a lot more tomorrow, but I think that’s a wrap for now. As always, please chime in with more suggestions, or feedback on any of the books mentioned above!

Happy shopping…(and don’t forget: whenever possible, support local independent bookstores!)

Women and Health Care: Are We Feeling Better Yet?

Since writing and publishing Life Disrupted, I’ve paid special attention to books and anthologies that deal with the patient narrative. (I have a more in-depth exploration of narrative medicine and a list of suggested titles if you’re interested.) This spring I reviewed Everything Changes, a book about young adult cancer patients, and found the similarities between young cancer patients and young adults with chronic illness compelling.

More recently I had the chance to read
Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America
, edited by Colleen McKee and Amanda Stiebel. With a forward written by my friend and colleague Jenni Prokopy of ChronicBabe and a submission from one of my favorites, Paula Kamen, I was especially excited to jump into this diverse collection of essays. Here again I found the universal questions and insights that came out of very different experiences with illness and health care to resonate the most.

When I hear the phrase “health care in America,” I instinctively expect a lot of facts and figures: how much chronic disease costs have risen, insurance premiums and co-pays, political debates over mandates or Medicare reimbursements, how many Americans remain uninsured or underinsured. Let’s face it, the system is confusing quagmire of contradiction and disparities, and much of what we read about is analysis or opinion about these issues.

While facts and figures are seminal to health care reform, I have always believed in the equally compelling power of the personal narrative. Regardless of differences in diagnoses, treatments, ethnicity or geography, these women’s stories all reveal frustrations, challenges, and insights that speak to the central question linking these 21 essays together: Are we feeling better yet? As the editors write in the introduction, “To even to begin to answer that question, the patient’s voice has to join the conversation. She can’t be entirely spoken for by charts, case studies, shiny magazine, politicians, physicians, pharmaceutical reps. For genuine healing, we must tell our stories—and hear them—in a way that is honest and real, even when the truth is ugly, unladylike, and sometimes, not even nice.”

It was with that expectation of unflinching narrative that I dove into the essays, and as a patient and a writer, I was not disappointed. I’ve come to expect topics like poverty, racism and health disparities, and inefficiency and bureaucratic stalemates to be a large part of the patient experience and a necessary part of any discussion. However, I was glad to see this (unfortunately all too familiar) terrain handled so well, revealing nuances to these universal problems that remain in my mind.

Terri Griffith’s wry rumination on “free care”—a merry-go-round of pushing papers and passing the buck that left her without therapy for depression and wasted a lot of time and resources, made me clench my teeth in frustration for her. The staggering wait times (up to eight hours) and dilapidated conditions Birgit Nielsen witnessed at a Los Angeles county clinic for women was bad enough; the shocking racism her doctor displayed towards Spanish-speaking immigrants and the preferential treatment her white skin afforded her was worse. Based on these experiences, we certainly have a ways to go in terms of providing quality care to everyone.

In “A Slight Case of Hypomania,” Anita Darcel Talyor writes about living with mental illness and the constant choice between paying for treatment or paying to live her life, between remaining untreated or living in an overly medicated, dulled state. But her personal negotiations give rise to larger questions:

“Sometimes I wonder if normal isn’t a myth, a state of magical realism, a place of the imagination against the backdrop of lies. Is normal a thing of the middle class suburban family? Is it as chic as the gay city dweller? Is it middle American red or coastal blue? Is normal the adjective of the elusive mainstream? Can I be normal with a diagnosis? Is it normal to be educationally elite yet live in poverty? Can I be normal if I am fat?” (58).

Moments like these, when the many universal complexities of the patient experience are laid bare, are the ones that resonate most with me. I’ve heard the policy wonks, I’ve read the Op-Eds, and I’ve and stared at the numbers. They are important, but they don’t get at my core like these moments do. Whether it’s receiving a life-altering diagnosis or a delayed diagnosis, having to choose between personal belief systems and those of the medical establishment, or being privy to the insider survival tricks and processes of cancer treatment, the personal insights these writers provide do much to illustrate where we are—and more importantly, where we have to go.

Some essays speak more directly to the question of “Are we feeling better yet?” than others, and personally those are the ones I enjoyed the most. I started the book wondering if it was merely a foregone conclusion that we can’t really be feeling all that better yet; after all, if the system was working well we wouldn’t need analysis and Op-Eds and consensus talks. But I finished it feeling encouraged. These stories aren’t always pleasant or easy to read, and that’s exactly why we need them. We can learn from them and draw from them as empowered patients and advocates…and that’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Do You Have a Job? (Or, The Truth About Self-Employment)

“Are you an epidemiologist?” the man in the seat next to me asked, gesturing towards the 200-page deep stack of journal articles I’d been attempting to annotate for most of our flight.

“No, but it would sure make this easier if I were. I’m a writer,” I told him. I noticed he was reading a book about epidemics, and for the last twenty minutes of the flight, we had a great discussion about disease, drugs, and the social influences on the two.

Turns out, he works for a tiny pharmaceutical company where the handful of employees work mainly from home. We left diseases and drugs aside to discuss working from home—or, more accurately, the misconceptions about it and the hidden benefits of it. I work from home part of the time, and I was traveling to speak at a symposium about young adults with chronic illness in the workforce, so this was definitely up my alley.

I’ve been told I’ve been a bit feisty lately, and this subject definitely gets me animated. Despite how many people telecommute or are self-employed, I still feel like sometimes there’s this attitude that working from home is somehow easier, less demanding, or less real “work.” My fellow passenger has noticed the same vibe.

Um, no. It’s different, but not easier. This isn’t an illness-specific post; so many writers, editors, artists, designers, consultants, sales people, etc work from home or are self-employed, and they know it’s just as draining as the 9-5 grind, but in its own ways.

A few days a week I do not have to deal with commuting, and I realize how fortunate that makes me. But I’m also at my computer, chest PT completed and coffee consumed, and at work by 7:30 at the latest every day, so I put that commuting time to good use. While the isolation of working from home can be an issue, my airplane companion pointed out a real bonus of that isolation: he doesn’t waste time being distracted by office chatter, people popping in to ask him questions or procrastinate; he just gets his work done.

“I get more done working straight through from early morning to lunchtime than most people do in a whole workday,” he said.

I can relate. My office is my laptop, and while I break for lunch and then again at dinnertime to go to the gym, I come home and usually get back to work, sometimes not stopping till 11pm. This is not a complaint, and it’s partially just my personality to be like that so I have no one to blame for the lack of boundaries but myself. I’ve started trying to leave my laptop up in my office after 8pm so I’m not tempted to work, and the physical boundary of the staircase is helpful.

I don’t have to slog through snow and rain when I leave the office at night (well, I do during the semester, so I know it stinks), but the flipside to that is that I don’t ever “leave work at the office.” (Does anyone ever, really? Even if it’s just thinking about it?) Any writer or teacher can relate: weekends, evenings, and holidays equal copious essay reading and grading and client deadlines and research and e-mail requests. I’m being honest when I say the last time I didn’t do any type of work on a weekend or vacation was my honeymoon almost four years ago. Anyone in any kind of freelance position knows that when you’re not pitching, pitching, pitching now, you’re not getting paid later. It’s exhilarating and a good motivator, certainly, but only if your risk tolerance can take it. It’s not for everyone.

Again, this is by no means a complaint. I’ve made these choices in my life and am responsible for the outcomes and I love writing books, teaching college students, and freelancing. I love that I have the flexibility to go to the doctors when I need to and make up the work, and that I can avoid public places where I could catch things during bad months. I also know those of you who are not self-employed can say the same thing about working weekends and vacations—most people I know log incredibly long hours and they don’t have the choice to do it from their homes like I do.

Really, I’m just saying that while there are many, many positives to working from home, like setting our own schedules or wearing comfortable clothes, that doesn’t mean it’s some kind of cakewalk where we’re merely lounging in pajamas and watching television, or that our workday hours aren’t as valuable (or as stressful) as other people’s.

Can you tell that I’ve heard comments like that and that I get lots and lots of interruptions during the day because I’m “not at work?” Does anyone else have this problem? I think part of the reason I struggle with work-life balance and boundaries on my own is because I have to work so hard to combat the assumption I do not have a job because I am not in an office environment. Seriously, it’s been a few years of doing the teaching and writing thing, and I have someone who still asks me if I have a job…well, my college students don’t teach themselves and books and articles don’t write themselves, and so yes, I’d say I have a job. And I have two offices: one on campus, one in my house. Neither is more “real” than the other.

(And as an aside, the days where self-employed people who are also chronically ill actually are in their pajamas? No cakewalk either, despite how good I’ve gotten at typing while hooked up to my nebulizer.)

I’ve done both, and there are definitely things I miss about the traditional workplace: the interaction with co-workers, the stable paycheck, the benefits, the ability to take a real sick day. I know, I know, there are also many downsides to 9-5: cranky bosses, gossipy co-workers, office politics, long commutes, unwanted travel, unfulfilling projects, etc. I guess that’s my whole point: neither option is without its benefits as well as drawbacks. Let’s make sure we respect the work that is done on both sides.

My mother always said she could tell I was feeling better when I got feisty (really, a tactful word for ornery when she used it) so I guess this is a good sign.

Oh, and the presentations about employment were a blast. Once I’m up there I have a lot of fun. The icing on the cake? Having dinner with the equally fabulous Paula Kamen and Jenni Prokopy, where we ate delicious GF food and talked about one of my favorites subjects: narrative medicine.…and of the work that is writing, of course.

Narrative Medicine: Better Doctors, Better Patients?

One of the best classes I’ve ever taught—and by “best” I mean the most interesting, engaging, and rewarding, the class I learned the most from as an instructor—was a writing course for pre-med and health sciences students. It was called “Constructions of Health in Contemporary Literature” and it contained various essays from physicians, writers, and patients about illness, healing, social justice, etc. I was so fortunate to have the chance to read these types of works with a class of future health professionals and see the way they responded to these personal stories and how their readings might inform their identities as they develop their careers.

Of course, physician-writers are hugely popular outside the classroom; the best-selling work of authors like Atul Gawande and Jerome Groopman are probably the most well known examples of this. Narrative medicine is an important topic (now more than ever, I would argue), which is why I was so pleased to come across Dr. Pauline Chen’s article on combining literature and medicine on Tara Parker-Pope’s Well blog in the New York Times.

Among other things, the article discussed how incorporating literature and writing workshops during residency can help doctors view patients with more empathy and compassion—and by extension, it can help them provide better care. It is no easy thing for the well to be able to understand what it feels like to be sick, and no insignificant thing when doctors can do this. As a patient, I am encouraged by programs that incorporate literature and medicine and as a writer I am appreciative of the value others see in studying these works.

Perhaps it is from the dual point of view that I see another strong benefit to narrative medicine beyond fostering more empathy and compassion in doctors: I think it makes us better patients, too. It is useful for me to see the other perspectives, the thoughts and fears and reflections of the people charged with healing (not curing) me. I hope it makes me more understanding and more open-minded, too.

Between writing about illness, living with it, and teaching it for a living, I’ve done my fair share of reading. Here’s a short list of some of the best examples of both narrative medicine and all-around riveting health writing I’ve found:

A Life in Medicine: A Literary Anthology, edited by Dr. Robert Coles and Randy Testa. I’ve used this book as a basis for undergrad and grad classes and have even given it as a gift. It’s a great mix of classic and contemporary pieces.

The Tyranny of the Normal: An Anthology (Literature and Medicine, Vol 2), edited by Carol C. Donley and Sheryl Buckley. An interesting combination of scholarly and personal essays and poetry on illness and disability.

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, by Dr. Atul Gawande.

How Doctors Think, by Dr. Jerome Groopman. I loved this book so much and it made me think about so many things that I quoted it in my own book when discussing the doctor-patient relationship.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder. I was originally assigned this book in graduate school, where the obsession began. It is one of my favorite books of all time, and one I recommend to students, family, and friends every chance I get.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. An utterly engrossing and emotional narrative about one family’s quest to cure their daughter and what happens when Western medicine and other cultural ideals and norms clash. I’ve used excerpts of this in classes and recommend it to everyone.

Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, by Susan Sontag. Every time I read it and teach it I come away with something new.

Have you enjoyed any of these titles? Have any more to suggest? I am always on the lookout for new material!

Speaking of writing about medicine, another fantastic edition of Grand Rounds is up today at Emergiblog. Check it out!