Health Professionals Reading List

Nov. 23, 2012; modified Jan. 16, 2013

Sample Reading List: Health Professionals [especially those Working in Northern BC]

  • Joseph Boyden, Through Black Spruce. This Canadian novel explores issues of the modern versus the traditional, urban life versus rural life, and Aboriginal versus non-Aboriginal culture, along with issues of violence, substance abuse, fractured family relationships, and alcoholism. It is beautifully written but also well plotted, with alternating narrators adding to the feeling of suspense.
  • Emma Donoghue, Room. It’s difficult to approach this book without trepidation: a novel about a young woman and her son imprisoned by a sexual predator is going to be a hard sell. However, it offers plenty of interesting rumination on the mother-child relationship, survival and resilience, and the complexities of the recovery process.
  • Marina Endicott, Good to a Fault. This is a quiet book about compassion, selfishness, loneliness and connection, terminal illness, people living on the margins, and what it means to “be good” and “do good.”
  • (NEW) Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. It is difficult to summarize or discuss this beautifully written, haunting book without revealing spoilers, but it would provide a good starting point for discussion of bioethical issues.
  • Ami McKay, The Birth House. McKay’s novel explores the medicalization of childbirth that took place at the beginning of the 20th century and examines the devaluing of women’s traditional knowledge and the place of the midwife.
  • Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table. This novel, set in the 1950s, is about a young boy travelling alone from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to England via steamship. It is a thoughtful look at what it means to be travelling, literally and figuratively, between two cultures, and feeling both at home and out of place in both.
  • Kathy Page, Alphabet. The protagonist is a prisoner convicted of a violent crime. He learns to read and write and begins sending out correspondence to people outside of the prison. This novel looks at gender, sexuality, violence, abuse, redemption, and atonement.
  • (NEW) Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Frank Stack. Our Cancer Year. Co-written by Pekar and his wife Brabson, this graphic novel is a memoir about the events during the year Pekar was diagnosed with cancer.
  • Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach. Robinson’s novel is set in the Haisla community and looks at issues of colonialism, exploitation, and community bonds.
  • Carol Shields, Unless. This is quite different from (although just as good as) Shields’ previous novels; as the Guardian review in the link states, it is “her angriest book…a study in awakening and the belated loss of innocence.” The protagonist, Reta, is a novelist struggling to understand why her daughter has suddenly ceased speaking to her and dropped out of university to sit on a street corner with a placard that says “GOODNESS.”

A book club or reading group might be a good tool for health care providers wishing to build empathy and understanding between themselves and their patients. I would recommend a look at the work of Dr. Abraham Verghese, who has been writing for many years about the role of literature in building empathy for physicians: “[A] good novel can offer a formative experience to prospective doctors that is both broader and deeper than identification with an admirable or sympathetic hero….A well-developed fiction-reading capacity allows us to imagine our patients’ worlds fully and put ourselves in their shoes. I have marveled at the way in which selected fiction discussed in a medical school class effectively conveys the tenets of professionalism and multiculturalism without ever invoking those soporific words. ‘Fiction,’ says the writer Dorothy Allison, ‘is the great lie that tells the truth as to how the rest of the world lives'” [Verghese, A. (2005). The calling. The New England Journal Of Medicine, 352(18), 1844-1847.].

Influenced by Dr. Verghese’s words, I have attempted with this list to choose a variety of works (many Canadian, some Aboriginal) that “convey the tenets of professionalism and multiculturalism” sideways rather than directly. The subjects addressed in these novels are varied: cultural identity, urban life vs. rural life; substance abuse and addiction, family relationships, mental health, crime and violence, redemption, resilience and survival, parenting and caregiving, valuing women’s traditional knowledge.  I believe that each novel would provide rich fodder for discussion among a group of health professionals or professionals in training and would indirectly lead to many opportunities for the topic of empathy to emerge.