Reading around the world

In an effort to keep track of my own reading and research I’ve created a map using Google Maps Engine with categories for country-specific work, both fiction and non-fiction, from academic literature to long-form journalism. The map is pretty sparse at the moment, but I’ll keep updating it. Please send along your own reading recommendations by country (or region). Click here to view the map in detail.

“VIPs” a public nuisance

Sometimes you imagine your problems are yours alone. Writing is at its best when giving voice to observations you never thought to say aloud, or drawing parallels you didn’t know existed. So I’m constantly fascinated while reading an account of Indian politics and society by Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India. To give a small example, the following passage will be immediately recognizable to any of Kampala’s road users.

I once had a long conversation with the head of police for New Delhi about the number of cars that evaded normal traffic restrictions by putting a red or blue light on the roof. New Delhi suffers from a permanent epidemic of VIPs. He told me that a majority of car owners were not authorized to use VIP flashing lights. But his police, who are invariably junior in social status to the occupants of the car, felt unable to prevent it. The same discrimination can be observed at the dozens of road security checkpoints surrounding the capital. It is always the rickshaws, motorbikes, and freight trucks that get stopped by police. The expensive cars are waved through.

The abuse of hazards, lights, sirens, and even government number plates to forge a path through nerve-fraying traffic is a constant public nuisance in Kampala, and on the road to Entebbe. But all I can do is mutter to myself.

The similarities between the workings and paralysis of government in India and Uganda is striking, although India seems more extreme in both its successes and failures. Definitely worth a read.

Reading in 2014

Last year I kept track of all the (non-dissertation related) books I read, in an effort to return to the voracious reading-for-fun habits of my younger years. It worked.

Having achieved my goal, I wasn’t going to continue the list this year (hence the May posting), but realized I like having a record, and have found others’ lists useful in deciding which books are worth my time. So here we are again, with the star-based review, as in 2013.

Key:
* Don’t bother
** If you have some free time, I guess
*** Fun, interesting, and/or worthwhile
**** Outstanding or an important read
***** Read this book!!/This will change the way you think about your life

Fiction
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt ***
Every Day Is for the Thief, Teju Cole ****
Animal Farm, George Orwell *****
All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu **
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes ***
In the Country of Men, Hisham Matar ***
Family Life: A Novel, Akhil Sharma***
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry: A Novel, Gabrielle Zevin***
Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel, Helen Oyeyemi***
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler***

Non-Fiction
Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink ****
Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala *****
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, John M. Barry ****
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg Mckeown *****
In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India, Edward Luce****
A Thousand Hills to Heaven, Josh Ruxin**
 Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Robert K. Massie***
The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, Nathan Wolfe****
Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakanomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner***
Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling Our Modern Plagues, Martin J. Blaser*****
Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation, Elizabeth Pisani****
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs****

Ambitiously bought/currently reading
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark
The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, William Easterly
Scrambling for Africa: AIDS, Expertise, and the Rise of American Global Health Science, Johanna Tayloe Crane
Africa Must Be Modern: A Manifesto, Olúfémi Táíwò
Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty
Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

The Academy in the time of Influenza: American medicine and the Great Pandemic

American medicine up until the twentieth century was an unmitigated disaster. Or so argues (quite convincingly) John Barry in his fascinating book, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. The first two sections of the book cover a brief history of American medicine and medical research, and I’ve only just gotten to the outbreak of the pandemic that killed between 20 and 50 million people, according to the best estimates. For comparison’s sake, WWI claimed 16 million lives, and AIDS an estimated 33 million.

Barry highlights a strong link between war and disease, namely, the emergence of epidemics or even pandemics. I’ll return to a discussion of this thesis when I’ve finished the book, but for now, what has been most striking is the utter catastrophe that was American medicine up until relatively recently. While scientists and physicians in Europe, including Robert Koch, Pierre Louis, Louis Pasteur, and John Snow were pioneers in epidemiology, germ theory, and more, the study of medicine in America was stagnant, suggesting the importance of healthy academic and scientific competition on the European continent.

Evidence of the United States’ relative backwardness is abundant. Charles Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869, wrote in his first report as president that, “The ignorance and general incompetency of the average graduate of the American medical Schools, at a time when he receives his degree which turns him loose upon the community, is something horrible to contemplate.” When Eliot proposed reforms within Harvard, including examinations (of all things), Professor of Surgery Henry Bigelow, had this to say:

Charles Eliot, Harvard President 1869-1909

“[Eliot] actually proposes to have written examinations for the degree of doctor of medicine. I had to tell him that he knew nothing of the quality of Harvard medical students. More than half of them can hardly write. Of course they can’t pass written examinations…No medical school has thought it proper to risk large existing classes and large receipts by introducing more rigorous standards.”

At the end of the 19th century, Barry reports that American universities had “nearly two hundred endowed chairs of theology and fewer than five in medicine…” showing where both the money and the power lay.  It was ultimately the initiative of a few individuals, combined with big money from illustrious families such as the Hopkins and Rockefellers, that turned the ship around.

The Great Influenza is an excellent read, and fodder for thought not only for those interested in medicine, epidemiology, and virology (guilty as charged), but also for those interested in the academy as an institution – how it evolves or stagnates, and the factors that generate innovation and massive leaps forward in our understanding of the world.

2013: A year of reading

Happy belated 2013! I hope your year is off to a productive start. I rang in the new year with friends and family in Kampala, where I’ll be based for the next nine months or so, during which time I hope to become active again in this space. I’m currently conducting dissertation research on the history and politics of Muslim education of sub-Saharan Africa, among other collaborations with colleagues and friends here in Uganda. More on that to come.

In the meantime, and in my downtime, I have determined to make 2013 a year of reading. I think this is my one and only new year’s resolution; the gym has failed me time and again. For a long time I felt guilty spending time reading things that did not directly apply to my coursework or research, a terrible way to go through life (and grad school). You can find inspiration anywhere, and the joy of reading is something that is easy to forget when you have thousands of pages of required reading.

So, I’m posting below all the books I read this year for my own records and as encouragement (I’m very much a list person. Makes me more productive). I’m more than happy to hear your suggestions on books you love, whatever the topic. The Economist has a great list of best of 2012 books here.

Last update: December 30, 2013

Key:
* Don’t bother
** If you have some free time, I guess
*** Fun, interesting, and/or worthwhile
**** Outstanding or an important read
***** Read this book!!

Fiction:
The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova ***
The Round House, Louise Erdich ***
Island Beneath the Sea: A Novel, Isabel Allende ***
Sweet Tooth: A Novel, Ian Mcewan **
The Cutting Season: A Novel, Attica Locke ***
The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng ***
Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi ****
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie *****
And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini *****
The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling, yes I bought it right after I found out) ***
Beautiful Ruins: A Novel, Jess Walter ***
The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel, Adam Johnson ***
We Need New Names: A Novel, NoViolent Bulawayo ****
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri ****
Hard Times, Charles Dickens ***

Non-Fiction:
There Was  A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, Chinua Achebe ****
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, David Quammen *****
Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg ****
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman ***
What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World, Tina Seelig ****
The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood, Helene Cooper ****
More Than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm, Learn, and Stay Healthy, Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel ***
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Adam Grant ***
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely ****
Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser *****

Currently reading:
Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehardt
One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir, Binyavanga Wainaina
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
The Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuscinski

reading in global health: ACCESS

Several months ago I downloaded ACCESS: How do good health technologies get to poor people in poor countries?, a book listed on Karen Grepin‘s excellent global health recommended reading list, but only just now have gotten around to reading it.

What is “access” in this context?

Stated simply, access refers to people’s ability to obtain and appropriately use good quality health technologies when they are needed. Access is not only a technical issue involving the logistics of transporting a technology from the manufacturer to the end-user. Access also involves social values, economic interests, and political processes. Access requires a product as well as services and is linked to how health systems perform in practice. We think of access not as a single event but as a process involving many activities and actors over time. Access is not a yes-or-no dichotomous condition, but rather a continuous condition of different degrees; more like a rheostat than an on-off switch.

Understanding the factors that help or hinder access to health technologies is a topic I am hoping to explore further in my own dissertation, so I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book. ACCESS is available as a free download.

Earlier this summer, I read another of Karen Grepin’s suggestions, The Making of a Tropical Disease: A Short History of Malaria. It was fascinating, and highly recommended. I will post some excerpts and “fun” facts I learned soon. This one isn’t available as a free download, but is available on Kindle. And yes, I am a Kindle Convert.

Saving Survivors or Surviving the "Saviors"?

There is already a lot of heat surrounding the latest book by Ugandan-born Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors. Those whom have been involved in Save Darfur and similar campaigns have taken offense to Mamdani’s harsh criticism of their involvement in Sudan. I have just gotten my hands on a copy and so cannot make an informed opinion of the book, but I am excited to jump into it.

In the meantime, Alex de Waal, director of Justice Africa and expert on Darfur, has reviewed the book here in the Monthly Review. Howard French of the NYT has reviewed it here. And the blogs are hopping, with Easterly chiming in on Aid Watch and a lively debate taking place at the SSRC blog, among others.

Anyone read it yet who’d like to comment?