For the birds, or the BlackBerries: Titles to intrigue and entertain in BioWorld’s 10th Annual Summer Reading List

June 1, 2016 – 6:52 pm | By Marie Powers | No comments yet

summerWe’re still a few weeks away from the summer solstice, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, but with BIO around the corner that trip to San Francisco justifies a good read. Whether you’re in the mood for the story of a scientist coming of age or of a world leader seeking to thwart the Axis powers, a street child’s search for his father or a neurologist’s look at psychosomatic illness, BioWorld’s Summer Reading List – our 10th annual – is certain to have something to pique your interest.

We culled the top suggestions from our writers and readers, in some cases finding nice synergy between the two. Maybe that tells us, and you, something about being on the same page. And bringing lively literature your way.

Read on.

Memoirs and the memorable

Opening the category of biographies and autobiographies, Stephen Doberstein, senior vice president and chief scientific officer of Nektar Therapeutics Inc., gave his recommendation a personal touch. A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles: A True Story of Love, Science, and Cancer was penned by his friend, Mary Elizabeth Williams, who became one of the first patients with stage IV melanoma to respond to an immuno-oncology drug during a phase I trial. “Her story of a patient’s experience with life-changing cancer treatments is inspiring and reminds us of our ultimate goal when we create new medicines,” Doberstein said.

            Another inspirational autobiography is Bite Me: How Lyme Disease Stole My Childhood, Made Me Crazy, and Almost Killed Me by Ally Hilfiger – daughter of designer Tommy Hilfiger. Karen Pihl-Carey, database editor for BioWorld Insight and BioWorld Snapshots, said the memoir caught her attention “because too often complaints of pain and fatigue are misdiagnosed and mistaken for psychiatric problems, alienating patients from their families and careers. A close friend of mine has struggled for years with an unknown illness that could very well be Lyme or something not yet identified.”

            In a political turn with a health care twist, Pihl-Carey recommended Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. “It was fascinating to learn how education and hard work brought him from a childhood of poverty in a single-parent household to becoming a skilled brain surgeon who successfully separated conjoined twins and improved the lives of brain-damaged patients,” she said.

Jeff Abbey, president and CEO of Argos Therapeutics Inc., recommended When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, about another idealistic young neurosurgeon who found himself on the other side of the scalpel when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

Tagged both by Amanda Lanier, production editor for BioWorld Insight and BioWorld Asia, and Randy Osborne, BioWorld staff writer, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl examines the disappointments and discoveries that fill a life devoted to science. When she was growing up in rural Minnesota, Jahren was encouraged by her father to play in the labs in his classroom. An acclaimed geobiologist, Jahren focuses much of her attention on her relationship with her lab partner, intermingled with notes about their travels and her fascination with the natural world. Osborne called the book an “elegantly written, often funny account of what it was like for her to grow up devoted to science,” while Lanier observed that the book also contains an inspiring message for those in biopharma about “doing research with ‘both the heart and the hands.’”

In an entirely different vein, Blair McCarthy Atkinson, account manager at MacDougall Biomedical Communications, described Confessions Of A Counterfeit Farm Girl, by Susan McCorkindale, as an “enjoyable and entertaining escape” that recounts the “wildly hilarious” exploits of a New York City marketing director shuffled to rural Virginia. “It’s a light and funny read about Susan and her family’s move from the Big Apple to the country and how they adapted to life without city conveniences. I often found myself laughing out loud,” Atkinson added.

Osborne, who knows a thing or two about writing memoirs, also recommended Letters to Véra, a collection of “enthusiastic, even boyish-sounding correspondence” by Vladimir Nabokov to his wife, “though at 860-plus pages, it’s hefty for beach reading,” he admitted. And among Osborne’s top five reads this year is So Sad Today, a collection of personal essays by Melissa Broder that he called “sharp and honest.”

            Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow led this year’s crop of names from history. Oleg Nodelman, founder and managing partner of Ecor1 Capital Management LLC, called the biography “almost as good as going to the musical but at a fraction of the cost.” (And you don’t have to wait until 2018 to read it.)

            John McDonough, president CEO of T2 Biosystems Inc., suggested David McCullough’s Truman, which he called “a terrific book about a critical time in history,” covering – among other events – the role of the U.S. in World War II and the formation of Israel. “The history and background stories are revealing, and the political history demonstrates that the harsh personal political attacks taking place in 2016 look more similar to the 1940s than you might think,” McDonough said.

            Rounding out the category, Peter Winter, editor of BioWorld Insight, recommended The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future by Steve Case. Part memoir, part business manifesto, the book pays homage to futurist Alvin Toffler, “and I am wondering if Case’s vision of the third wave is any different from Toffler’s vision in his book with the same name,” Winter admitted.

Magic and murder

Although Mari Serebrov, BioWorld’s regulatory editor, is at work penning two historical fiction novels this year, she managed to put a few fiction selections on our bookshelf. Serebrov suggested Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, a mystery set in 16th century Istanbul “that delves brilliantly into the philosophy of art,” and Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy, a novel set in 1935 about a street child’s 1,000-mile journey through Yemen, Somalia and Egypt in search of his father. With her keen insights into that region, on display in her powerful Mama Namibia, Serebrov has never steered us wrong.

BioWorld Staff Writer Cormac Sheridan confessed that “I’ve been reading a run of mid-20th Century European fiction,” squeezing in four recommendations: The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, Hans Fallada’s Alone In Berlin, Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (one of my personal favorites – a remarkable account with a bittersweet back story) and Emanuel Litvinoff’s The Lost Europeans.

Niven Narain, co-founder, president and CEO of Berg Health, suggested Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child – a riveting novel and the first book the author has set in the present.

BioWorld Staff Writer Alfred Romann recommended the “oldie but goodie” Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, which also became a movie of the same name. Romann praised the collection of six novellas for its “fantastic span” of history and culture.

For murder mystery devotees, Stephen Rose, chief research officer at the Foundation Fighting Blindness, recommended the Louise Penny series of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels, set in Canada, as a fun read.

Rachel King, CEO of Glycomimetics Inc., selected two titles. My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout (who won the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge), recounts the story of a young woman recovering in a hospital and her visits with her mother. The conversations prompt the daughter “to reflect on her relationships and how her life evolved from poverty in a small town to life in Manhattan,” King said. A dramatically different tale is Fifth Business, the first book in the Deptford Trilogy by Canadian author Robertson Davies. King called the book “a magical telling of a man’s life,” with the lead character playing a minor but indispensable role in the outcome of each plot twist.

            Last on the fiction list is The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie. Jamie Lacey-Moreira, PR consultant at Presscomm PR and Sam Brown Healthcare Communications, recommended the wacky novel “that covers a couple’s engagement, a woman who converses with squirrels and a controversial path to development of a medical device for brain trauma.” What could go wrong?

If we could turn back time…

Wars of the past were a big theme in this year’s history category. Louis DeGennaro, president and CEO of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, suggested Five Days in London by John Lukacs, which recounts the struggle by Winston Churchill to reverse the British government’s policy of appeasement in May 1940 as he was assuming the office of Prime Minister.

From the same era, MacDougall’s Atkinson recommended A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II, by Adam Makos with Larry Alexander. The story traces the exploits of 2nd Lt. Charlie Brown, an American bomber pilot, and Franz Stigler, a German ace, through their encounter during an air battle in the skies above Europe as Brown’s crippled B-17 bomber limps back to safety behind Allied lines. Brown and Stigler meet again years after the war. MacDougall’s Atkinson called the book an exceptional war story of chivalry and humanity” and “one of the best I have ever read,” describing it in the same vein as the much-acclaimed Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.

Along with his fiction selections, BioWorld’s Sheridan recommended Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945, which chronicles the efforts of ordinary people to resume their lives after the shattering upheaval of the Second World War.

Jessica Yingling, president of Little Dog Communications Inc., suggested The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown. The book – making a second appearance on our list – also was recommended by Pihl-Carey. The story “reminds us about what it takes to win” – hard work, community support, dedicated leaders and personal guts – “even in the face of a race stacked against you,” Yingling said, noting the book also paints a vivid picture of the world during the Great Depression and pre-World War II years. Pihl-Carey appreciated the parallel stories of the rowers and their quest to achieve greatness in the shadow of the Depression and Hitler’s rise to power.

Greg Brown, founder of Healthcare Royalty Partners, reached back to the so-called “war to end all wars,” admitting that he’s “a biologist fascinated by complex systems and an avid reader of history who confesses to being perplexed by the modern political environment.” To satisfy those interests, Brown is working his way through Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in World War I. “The admittedly dense work dissects the multiple strains of tortured diplomacy within and between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Germany, the Balkans and other European powers before and after the crisis of July 1914,” he said. “Despite its formidable scale and rich detail, it’s a fascinating read.”

Charles Yeomans, president and CEO of Trigemina Inc., suggested Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War at Sea, the second of two books by Robert K. Massie (the first is Dreadnaught) on the period that led up to and encompassed World War I.  “Reading these books provides a detailed picture, in their own words, of the movers and shakers of Europe at that time,” Yeomans wrote. “The focus is on the Germans and British and how silly misunderstandings, hubris and poor judgment led to the deaths of millions and the destruction of much of Europe while setting the stage for World War II.”

Laura Bagby, account supervisor at 6 Degrees Public Relations, recommended another account from that era in the sad but compelling Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Author Erik Larson brings a complex network of characters to life in his retelling of the legendary disaster.

Yeomans reached farther back into European history for another recommendation: The Last Plantagenets by Thomas Costain, which he called “the third of a highly readable series (the others are Conquering Family: A History of the Plantagenets and The Three Edwards: War and State in England 1272-1377).” Though the books are set during the turbulent period of English history between 1145 and 1485 when the Plantagenet family ruled England, Costain wrote the series in the years following World War II. “Lots of action, romance and storylines a lot closer to superhero movies than modern politics give us (thank goodness),” Yeomans said.

Science – and science fiction (sometimes the lines blur)

Regardless of whether or not you’ve seen the movie, Andy Weir’s The Martian is worth a read, according to BioWorld Managing Editor Jennifer Boggs. “Though I’m not an engineer, the science comes across as pretty sound to me,” she wrote, “and I kept having to remind myself while reading that we haven’t actually sent a human to Mars. Yet.”

Boggs also was salivating over the release of Joe Hill’s The Fireman (“I’ve already pre-ordered!”), the story of a new pandemic of … spontaneous combustion. “Sounds equal parts horrifying and fascinating,” she admitted.

Also in the science and medicine category, Rose, of Foundation Fighting Blindness, recommended The Truth in Small Doses: Why We’re Losing the War on Cancer and How to Win It by Clifton Leaf and Bryan Sykes’ The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry. The latter is “a bit outdated vis-à-vis the technology, but it’s still an interesting read,” he said.

Justin Jackson, executive vice president of Burns McClellan Inc., recommended Arlene Weintraub’s Heal: The Vital Role of Dogs in the Search for Cancer Cures “as great for a book club discussion, whether in or outside the industry.”

The Personalized Medicine Revolution: How Diagnosing and Treating Disease Are About to Change Forever, by Pieter Cullis, takes a look at the rapid change occurring in personalized medicine – one of BioWorld Insight editor Winter’s favorite fields. “It will be interesting to read how Dr. Cullis anticipates its impact going forward,” he said.

Siddhartha Mukherjee rocked social media with the release of The Gene: An Intimate History. Whether you buy his take on the field or not, “I’m super excited to read the book,” said Shannon Ellis, BioWorld’s Shanghai-based staff writer.

Finally, though written more than 50 years ago, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn, still rings true, observed Ken Kengatharan, co-founder and president of Armetheon Inc., who wants to take a look at “how and when a theory or an idea becomes widely adopted.”

True tales of imaginary illness and real emergencies

In the nonfiction category, Brown offered another title that merits attention. “As one whose idea of a good day begins deep in the woods, hearing the forest wake up and the birds calling, I’ve found Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds a readable compendium of recent ornithological research that puts the lie to such avian epithets as ‘bird-brained’ and ‘laid an egg,’” he wrote.

Getting nods from BioWorld’s Sheridan and from Thomson Reuters colleague Mar Vicente, drugs and literature team leader in the Intellectual Property and Science Division, is Suzanne O’Sullivan’s It’s All in Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness. The 2016 Wellcome Book Award winner draws on the neurologist’s 20-year experience exploring the mysteries of psychosomatic illness, acknowledging, for instance, that “We still have very limited understanding of how thoughts or ideas are generated; we are no closer to explaining imagination and no closer to understanding or proving the reality of illnesses that arise there.”

In the realm of real illness (and injury), Lacey-Moreira recommended A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard, a first-hand account of a medic’s job in a large American city. “Never a dull moment,” Lacey-Moreira deadpanned.

Narain suggested Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, a clever spin on the journey to discover what makes high achievers – the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful – different.

Steliou Kosta, CEO of Phenomatrix Inc. and professor at Boston University School of Medicine, confessed that “this year I’ve been busy writing papers but I still found time to read an interesting book: Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry. Though the cautionary tale by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff focuses on a technological upstart, the lessons learned could easily be transferred to other industries, including biopharma.

Rounding out Serebrov’s summer reading list is Viral Mythology: How the Truth of the Ancients was Encoded and Passed Down through Legend, Art, and Architecture, which explores the “memes of the ancient past” and how they’re passed down through generations. The book was written by Serebrov’s friend, Larry Flaxman, and his writing partner, Marie Jones.

And two accounts from China gained a shout-out. Romann recommended David Bandurski’s Dragons in Diamond Village: And Other Tales from the Back Alleys of Urbanising China, a look at the tribulations of a Chinese village trying to deal with the tug-of-war between developers in the country and people fighting to keep their homes. Romann called the book “good writing based on years of research and a cut above most China books.”

And Ellis endorsed Street of Eternal Happiness by her friend and fellow journalist, Rob Schmitz. “Too often the story about China is focused on the macro level issues and grand historical narratives while the voices of everyday people are ignored or forgotten,” Ellis said. In contrast, Schmitz, a veteran China correspondent and broadcaster for Marketplace, “took the time to break away from constant demands of the news cycle to get a ground level take on what it means to be living in China today,” focusing on the life of ordinary people living along an average street in Shanghai. “It is the perfect antidote to the slew of business books that claim to explain how to win big in China,” Ellis added.

You’re getting sleepy … very sleepy …

No respectable summer reading list would be complete without an assortment of self-help, um, personal development titles. Isn’t that what everyone does during downtime: try to be a better person?

Thomson Reuters’ Vicente plans to check out The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by surgeon Atul Gawande, even if “it somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist,” as “the truly great are daring and improvise.” No matter. They probably don’t juggle updates to thousands of small molecules and biologics every year, like Vicente does.

Stephanie Fischer, senior director of patient engagement and communications for the Everylife Foundation for Rare Diseases, plans to read The Art of Risk: the New Science of Courage, Caution and Chance by Kayt Sukel, which she received from a friend in the rare disease community. “I have become afraid of making a mistake or making the wrong choice, even when the consequences would be very minimal, so I am curious about what I can learn,” Fischer said, citing a line from the book jacket that promises “understanding of what we can and can’t change about ourselves – and how to make the most of what life throws our way.”

The other title on Fischer’s list is The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It by Kelly McGonigal. “With shrinking budgets, downsizing and longer hours, who doesn’t need to not only manage stress but to benefit from it?” she asked.

For similar reasons, Kengatharan also plans to read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Charles Duhigg, admitting “I’ve always been fascinated by how to carry out activities efficiently and handle situations under pressure.”

Fred Jacobs, founder and CEO of Tyg Oncology Ltd., looks forward to “a short read” entitled Quiet the Mind, by Matthew Johnstone, which offers a simple approach to incorporate meditation into daily life – without lotus positions or prayer beads.

And two CEOs – Cliff Stocks, of Oncoresponse Inc., and Charles Theuer, of Tracon Pharmaceuticals Inc. – suggested Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which examines the differences between fast, instinctive and emotional thinking (“System 1”) and slower, deliberative and logical thinking (“System 2”), offering numerous examples along the way. Which process is better? You’ll have to read the book, which both called “very helpful to a CEO.”

For additional business acumen, DeGennaro plans to peruse The Hard Thing about Hard Things: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz, which he described as “an entrepreneur’s insight into managing rapidly evolving companies” – equally true of disease-specific research and education nonprofits, no doubt.

Finally, there’s the topic of sleep – the sacrifice that life science executives often make as they juggle demanding careers with family, social life and other commitments, observed Carin Canale-Theakston, president of Canale Communications Inc., who plans to seek motivation for better sleep habits in Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time. “Sending emails at 10:30 or 11 p.m. isn’t unusual for me, or for most people I know in the biotech industry,” Canale-Theakston confessed. “It’s a real struggle to prioritize sleep, but at some point you just have to unplug and acknowledge that you gain more benefit from a healthy night’s sleep than you do from getting that last batch of work done before bed.” 

            And there you have it. Some of our selections could easily fall into other (or multiple) categories, but that’s our list and we’re sticking to it. If we missed your don’t-miss, send the title our way. And whether you’re leaving on a jet plane or leaving your heart in San Francisco, enjoy a good book along the way.



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