August 2, 2021

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36 books and podcasts on health and science to check out this summer

17 min read

In this time of transition, we’re back with our annual list of health, medicine, and science books to check out this summer — and this time we’ve thrown podcasts in the mix, too.

Read on for recommendations from the likes of Anthony Fauci, Rochelle Walensky, and Chelsea Clinton. Plus, STAT readers from New York to Sweden share their picks, in addition to our staff. Enjoy!

SEE SUGGESTIONS FROM:    NOTABLE FIGURES   |  OUR READERS   |  OUR STAFF

 

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“The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race”
By Walter Issacson
I recommend it because this captivating book provided clear and accessible explanations of the scientific discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 and its remarkable power as a gene editing tool, interwoven with the complex human stories of Jennifer Doudna and her relationships with the many other accomplished scientists who brought it all together.
— Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

“The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates”
By Wes Moore
“The Other Wes Moore” is a disquieting read. For those who are looking to understand social determinants of health, look to “The Other Wes Moore” to understand the challenges of emerging in the absence of role models and resources, and the importance of basic life securities, education, and opportunity. And then, read it through the lens of what a difference just one person can make to positively alter the life of another.
— Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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“EPIDEMIC” podcast
Hosted by Dr. Céline Gounder
During the past year, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts on public health and in my opinion, Dr. Céline Gounder’s “EPIDEMIC” is one of the best. As someone who reads and listens to as much as I can, I still always learn something new through her thoughtful insights, terrific interviews, and expert guests. She has done a particularly good job shining a light on an issue I care about deeply — the serious risks that the anti-vaccine movement poses to widespread Covid vaccine adoption, which we know is the surest way out of this pandemic.
— Chelsea Clinton, DPhil, MPH, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation and host of “In Fact”

“What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World”
By Sarah Hendren
Who doesn’t love a book that alters how you see the world and forces you to rethink your prevailing mental models? “What Can A Body Do?” by Sarah Hendren, an artist, design researcher, writer, and professor at the Olin College of Engineering, wrote one of those mind-changing books. Hendren takes on the challenge of bodies that don’t always match the built world. She widens the focus from the body to the social world around it, “the tools and furniture and classrooms and sidewalks that make it possible or impossible for the body, however configured, to do its tasks, and larger structures of institutions and economies that make human flourishing possible.”
— Jay Baruch, professor of emergency medicine and director of the Medical Humanities and Bioethics Scholarly Concentration, Alpert Medical School of Brown University 

“The Political Determinants of Health”
By Daniel E. Dawes
The experience of the past year made crystal clear how important social factors are as drivers of health. But these social drivers have their origins in policies and politics. This book draws the connections and offers a useful framework for assessing and addressing these political determinants, and was a particularly compelling read during the pandemic.
— Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, professor and chair, department of epidemiology and biostatistics, UCSF, and and vice dean for population health and health equity, UCSF School of Medicine

“The Memory Thief: And the Secrets Behind How We Remember”
By Lauren Aguirre
There’s something about a good medical detective story — the initial puzzle of a single inexplicable illness, the gradual realization of more than one, the way the cases start to link — that is both fascinating and compulsively readable. And Lauren Aguirre’s book, “The Memory Thief,” is an excellent, don’t-put-this-down, detective story about an unexpected group of scientists struggling to decipher a series of drug-induced memory failures. There’s neuroscience history here, there’s a modern understanding of what we do and don’t know about memory in a bigger-picture sense. But my favorite thing about the book is its vivid, sometimes quirky, always human picture of science at its working best.
— Deborah Blum, author of “The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” and director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT

“White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide”
By Carol Anderson
There is this pesky and pervasive notion that white opposition to Black citizenship — read: land ownership, public education, right to vote, or rights in general for that matter — is predominantly manifest through the “fragility” of individualized defensiveness and microaggressions. In a scathing and honest look at U.S. history, Carol Anderson eviscerates that notion. As she presents, the problem of whiteness is not fragility, as manifest in interpersonal slights, it is rage, as manifest in bald and persistent attempts made by those who believe themselves to be white, to enshrine white supremacy in the very fabric of this nation — from our laws to our social morals. And so the history she tells is one of violence, to be sure, but not simply the type of brutality that bleeds, but also the type that bends this nation away from its purported values and ultimately forecloses the fullness of what this nation could be for any of its citizenry. From the strategic closure of state public schools to evade the racial integration mandated and promised by Brown v. Board to the relentless fights against Black citizens’ right to vote (or to have their votes deemed worthy of selecting political leaders) — Carol Anderson tells a story that too many are willing to, wrongly, believe only includes bad apples and backward ideas. It is a must-read for anyone attempting to understand racism in the U.S. and its devastating tolls.
— Rhea Boyd, pediatrician, health advocate, and scholar who studies the interaction between structural racism and health and who co-developed THE CONVERSATION: Between Us, About Us, a national campaign to bring information about the Covid vaccines directly to Black communities

“Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again”
By Eric Topol
With all the rapid change in health tech accelerated by the Covid-19 p andemic, it’s well worth your time to revisit this classic treatise on the coming technological revolution in health care, authored by Dr. Eric Topol (it went live in 2019 and it’s already a classic!). A physician-scientist and cardiologist by training, Topol provides several concrete examples of the ways in which innovative diagnostics and wearables were already impacting clinical delivery pre-pandemic. Understanding what’s possible in the years ahead requires a grounding in what’s already been successfully achieved, and “Deep Medicine” will get you there.
— Vin Gupta, Amazon chief medical officer of pandemic response

“Everyday Zen”
By Charlotte Joko Beck
I haven’t had much time to read during Covid-19. But this is a book that I can always pick up and read again. I like it because it describes a warm, compassionate look at Zen, which can be sometimes very austere. It talks about using meditation to help you deal with everyday life situations, remaining calm and balanced. What I have called the Eye of the Hurricane.
— Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services

“The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race”
By Walter Issacson
Walter Isaacson’s book dives into to the timely and riveting story of Jennifer Doudna, an American biochemist and Nobel Prize winner responsible for pioneering critical innovation in CRISPR gene editing. In the book, Isaacson walks readers through Doudna’s passion for science and discovery from a young age, through her studies, and then her profound work as an adult to forever alter the way scientists will treat viruses and diseases. Doudna recently spoke at our BIO Digital event and this book builds on many of the topics she discussed. It is an inspiring, must read for anyone passionate about how science can transform the lives of people around the globe.
— Michelle McMurry-Heath, CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization

“The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women—and Women to Medicine”
By Janice P. Nimura
Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to earn a medical degree, is an icon. But for most of us in medicine, she is only that. Few people today know much about what she actually did, and fewer are even aware of her younger sister Emily, by far the more accomplished clinician. Janice P. Nimura aims to give both doctors their proper due. She brings new life to the story of two extraordinary and idiosyncratic physicians who forever changed the medical profession.
— Danielle Ofri, primary care physician at Bellevue Hospital, clinical professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review, and author of “When We Do Harm: A Doctor Confronts Medical Error”

“Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance”
By Alex Hutchinson
Sometimes I’m out running and just can’t go on. I used to take comfort in what I learned in medical school: lactic acid builds up and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. This book made me feel much less good about myself. Via a rigorous exploration of which physiological limits are real, and which aren’t, this book makes a persuasive case that psychology is the binding constraint, not physiology. It taught me a lot about myself, both when I’m running and when I’m not.
— Ziad Obermeyer, Blue Cross of California Distinguished Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health

“The Premonition: A Pandemic Story”
By Michael Lewis
Lewis opens a unique window into pre-pandemic U.S. unreadiness and failure of the CDC. There’s no shortage of substrate for his master storytelling. From Dr. Charity Dean, the fireball public health official, to Laura Glass, the 13-year-old who came up with the model to fight Covid spread, to the Wolverines’ group of seven “redneck epidemiologists.” We learn why the CDC is really CDOR — Center for Disease Observation and Reporting (not capable of any action) — and my favorite metaphor in the book, watering the plastic flowers (which really happened but has deep meaning).
— Eric Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute


“The Beauty in Breaking”
By Michele Harper
You learn firsthand what it takes to be an ER doctor: courage, calm, and compassion. There are lessons in ethics, in patience (from patients), in how the practice of medicine works — along with personal healing through yoga, love, and self-confidence.
— Heide Aungst, Cincinnati, Ohio

“The Nocturnists” podcast
Hosted by Emily Silverman, M.D.
Great collection of medical storytelling. They have an archive of healthcare workers’ experiences working during the pandemic but from an emotional and personal point of view. Very eye-opening and relatable.
— Sarah Bedell, Florida

“The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are”
By Libby Copeland
A great mix of storytelling woven with medical, historical and scientific information. We are all curious about these tests, but there are some whose lives have changed because of it.
— Beth Glicker, Vienna, Va.

“Kill Shot: A Shadow Industry, a Deadly Disease”
By Jason Dearen
This heart-pounding medical mystery traces a deadly fungus that claimed the lives of more than 100 Americans in 2012, and the loopholes in federal drug laws that let allowed the tragedy to unfold. Dearen has written a page-turner that reads like fiction but, for better or worse, is pure fact.
— Rachel E. Gross, Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Flip the Script” podcast
Hosted by Max Tiako
I am a double-lung transplant recipient. By definition I will have a lifetime of frequent encounters with a plethora of physcians and other medical professionals. As an African American, this podcast is a reliable resource for my self-education. It gives me trusted insights into areas that I may encounter during my transplant journey.
— Jennifer Loud, Washington

“This Podcast Will Kill You”
Hosted by Erin Welsh and Erin Allmann Updyke
This podcast is about diseases and human illnesses of all types, made by two women who work in health. They also cover the ongoing pandemic in special episodes, with interviews with topical experts. They present topics such as how parasites work or the definition of a serovar in an accessible manner.
— Laina S. Miller, Silver Spring, Md.

“Gravity” podcast, episode five: “On Cancer and Metaphor with Shekinah Elmore & Elena Semino”
Hosted by Lucy Kalanithi
Cancer touches everyone’s life, but I hadn’t given much thought to how we talk about it, and how that shapes how patients face their diagnosis, and doctors treat disease. This podcast is hosted by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, whose husband died of cancer, bringing a deep sensitivity to both the medical and human side of the disease. I found the interview with multiple cancer survivor and oncologist Dr. Shekinah Elmore inspiring for her sensitivity to meet patients where they are, and the menu of cancer metaphors by linguist Dr. Elena Semino extremely helpful to talk with a friend currently undergoing breast cancer treatment, where “bending with the wind” or “following a journey” feel much closer to the truth than a “battle.”
— Kimberly Nicholas, Lund, Sweden

“If Our Bodies Could Talk: A Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Human Body”
By James Hamblin
I met Dr. Hamblin for this book’s signing and found him hilarious, inquisitive, and amusing — just like the book! “If Our Bodies Could Talk” provides superb explanations to sometimes absurd health questions and phenomena. In today’s day and age of misinformation, Hamblin successfully debunks and informs the inner workings of our bodies through humor, fascination, and a quite readable fashion.
— Zach Olah, Brooklyn, N.Y.

“The Death Panel” podcast
Hosted by Beatrice Adler-Bolton, Artie Vierkant, and Phil Rocco
This podcast is by far the best resource for a sober analysis of the American healthcare system and how working people interact with it. Additionally, they’re a force for progress with regard to trans health care, disability rights, long-term care, and effective public health policy.
— Callie C. Orange, Massachusetts

“PhDivas Podcast”
Hosted by Dr. Liz Wayne and Dr. Christine “Xine” Yao
The hosts, Drs. Liz Wayne and Christine “Xine” Yao, are amazing scientists. They also are amazing storytellers who speak honestly about what it’s like to be a woman and a minority in the world of scientific academia. If my daughter decides to become a scientist one day, I will have her listen to these podcasts.
— Adam Silverstein, New York

“I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life”
By Ed Yong
This book is one of the most transformative I have ever read, in terms of forcing me to change how I think and interact with the world. A complete perspective shift and one all of us should read.
— Ron Stokes-Walters, New York

“Pleased to Meet Me: Genes, Germs, and the Curious Forces That Make Us Who We Are”
By Bill Sullivan
This book is one of the best written books for the lay (non-scientist/non-academic) person. Bill uses humor and pop culture to explain microbiology and epigenetics. Such a fantastic read and one you can share with younger students, family, friends.
— Melissa Treviño, Indianapolis

“Tradeoffs” podcast
Hosted by Dan Gorenstein
A great podcast that gives different perspectives on some of the different challenges facing the U.S. healthcare system. Tradeoffs features great guest experts to explain some complicated topics. The podcast has become my go-to for health policy topics.
— Megidelawit Yirefu, Baltimore


“Shuggie Bain”
By Douglas Stuart
When a friend of mine recommended this novel to me, he warned me that it was so emotionally intense he had to take breaks. I did, too: Stuart’s depiction of growing up queer in late ’80s Glasgow is an unvarnished story of addiction and its effects, observed in meticulous, devastating detail. But I kept coming back, drawn in by the vividness and empathy of Stuart’s scenes: Shuggie playing among the slag heaps, practicing a new gait that’ll allow him to fit in. His mother shimmying open the electric meter to reuse the coins. Shuggie discerning whether his mother has been drinking, just from the way she scrapes her key in the lock. Again and again, Stuart brings alive the people trapped by illness and circumstance, making you feel as if they were your own family.
— Eric Boodman, general assignment reporter

“Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions”
By Sharon Begley
Confession time: I’m still reading this book, written by my friend and colleague, Sharon Begley, who died earlier this year. The Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t allowed me much time for recreational reading for the last 18 months, but as its grasp on the United States eases, I am enjoying Sharon’s exploration of compulsions and how, though some may seem bizarre and pathological at first glance, they can be adaptive responses that help those afflicted cope with deep anxiety. Sharon’s wise and compassionate voice comes through in her lovely prose.
— Helen Branswell, senior writer, infectious disease

“The Great Believers”
By Rebecca Makkai
A book about identity, love, and socioeconomic power, “The Great Believers” is a powerful interrogation of concepts like family and art whose narrative unfolds within the underground gay communities of Chicago in the 1980s. Through the voices of fictionalized gay artists in the Reagan era, get a glimpse of what life was like as the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit one of the country’s cosmopolitan hubs. As the president was downplaying and stigmatizing the illness, it was devastating entire communities, killing friends, lovers, and families who only had access to limited, subpar “treatments.” Be prepared for an emotional roller coaster — this part-suspense, part-drama had me laughing, crying, and sitting at the edge of my seat. This book provides a rare window into the immutable link between equity and health. Read it — with tissues nearby.
— Erin Brodwin, health tech correspondent

“Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family”
By Robert Kolker
One of the many things I lost the ability to do during the pandemic was read for an extended time. “Hidden Valley Road” helped break that. The story is about the Colorado-based Galvin family and how six of the 12 Galvin siblings were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Long-standing research and therapeutic gaps meant the sick Galvins were shuffled around in a health system that routinely failed them. Interwoven with the Galvins’ story is discussion of the state of schizophrenia research, and how, with half of the siblings diagnosed, the family is a perfect case study for studying schizophrenia’s genetic underpinnings. It can be a difficult read as Kolker constructs vivid scenes of the erratic and sometimes violent behavior of the Galvins who were sick, the parents who seemed all but helpless against — and sometimes complicit in — the trauma experienced by the other siblings. Beyond the compelling narrative and informational content, the book is also a master class in science writing, for any fellow writers out there.
— Shraddha Chakradhar, reporter, Morning Rounds writer, and intern coordinator

“Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty”
By Patrick Radden Keefe
I got some odd looks when I mentioned I was bringing a book about the corporate dynasty behind the opioid epidemic on vacation, but Patrick Radden Keefe masterfully makes the complicated history of the Sackler clan a gripping read. It’s at its core a story about family — about love, betrayal, mistrust, pride, and legacy. Personal dynamics are expertly woven with a detailed indictment of what the Sacklers knew about the powerful, addictive drugs they sold, and what decisions they made with that information. Even in dissecting a world of wealth and power, Keefe never loses sight of the people in the Sackler’s orbit who suffered the devastating consequences of their actions.
— Rachel Cohrs, Washington correspondent

“The Undocumented Americans”
By Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio turned down the suggestion to sell a memoir about her undocumented youth for years before writing “The Undocumented Americans.” The book circumvents stereotypes and introduces readers to real, complicated people living in undocumented America, where the lack of papers can erode one’s health day by day, for a lifetime. There are undocumented Americans who responded to 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, forever recovering; others who wear down their bodies as day laborers for decades; many who find health care in herbs and potions, with no safe access to hospitals. “Maybe you won’t like it,” Villavicencio says in the introduction. “I didn’t write it for you to like it.” The stories are reported, but drift both into memoir and magical realism, all in Villavicencio’s sharp, unforgettable voice.
— Theresa Gaffney, multimedia producer

“Station Eleven”
By Emily St. John Mandel
Reading a novel about a global pandemic during a global pandemic isn’t for everyone. But I found it strangely soothing to see some of the fears and unknowns that we experienced at the beginning of Covid-19 depicted in fiction. The virus in Mandel’s “Station Eleven” is even worse than the one we’re dealing with — though, rest assured, would likely peter out too quickly to wreak such contagious devastation in reality. As the world adjusts to the many changes enforced by Covid-19, I loved reading about how Mandel’s society starts to remake itself, and the cultural institutions that somehow survive.
— Olivia Goldhill, investigative reporter

“Crying in H Mart”
By Michelle Zauner
This is a memoir that centers on Zauner’s mother’s diagnosis of and eventual death from cancer. It’s moving, funny, and heartbreaking, while providing an honest and intimate look at what dying from cancer can actually look like, and what it means when people’s lives are upended and they become caregivers. (It’s also an absolutely terrific book about food and what the food we share and gravitate to means.) And while the book is not about the pandemic, I couldn’t help but think about this deep and individual story of loss and grief in the context of Covid-19, when so many people around the world are simultaneously experiencing the deaths of loved ones and are reflecting on those relationships that were cut too short.
— Andrew Joseph, general assignment reporter

“The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History”
By John M. Barry
If you haven’t yet read “The Great Influenza” by historian John M. Barry, it’s time. This book about the 1918 pandemic is highly relevant to our current pandemic: It shows few of the hard-learned lessons from a century ago were retained, and analyzes the historical fallout of the earlier pandemic, including, possibly, the rise of Nazism as a response to the Treaty of Versailles. (Barry argues that President Woodrow Wilson, weak, disoriented, and feverish from the flu, did not forcefully negotiate a treaty that may have led to a different post-war Europe.) I read the book earlier this year to learn how we emerged from the 1918 pandemic and to look for clues about how we might emerge from this one. I remain haunted by Barry’s observation that few of the great writers of the 1920s — Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald among them —  tackled the pandemic in their works, as if they and the world just wanted to move on and forget, and worry we will do the same.
— Usha Lee McFarling, national science correspondent

“Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor”
By Kate Messner, illustrated by Alexandra Bye
All last year, your kids watched him on TV. But how much do they really know about Dr. Anthony Fauci? Did they know that before he became “America’s Doctor,” he was once a curious kid like them who pondered the cosmos and the mysteries of the deep sea? Or that he played stickball with his friends in his neighborhood streets and was captain of his school’s basketball team, despite being on the short side? In this children’s book aimed at kids aged 4 to 8, Messner tells of Fauci’s youth growing up in Brooklyn and attending medical school to becoming a doctor combating the AIDS epidemic to eventually becoming the man the nation would turn to during the Covid-19 pandemic. Through telling Fauci’s tale, Messner helps show kids that maybe one day they too could be a hero when the world needs them the most.
— Nicholas St. Fleur, general assignment reporter and associate editorial director of events

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo.