From Vietnam to the Operating Room: What Faculty Are Reading

Published: June 7, 2008

Faculty Readings

Image by Shawn Barkhurst


John Huizinga
Walter David “Bud” Fackler Distinguished Service Professor of Economics

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace
Le Ly Hayslip (Doubleday, 1980

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
Robert Olen Butler (Holt, 1992)

When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge
Chanrithy Him (Norton, 2001)

“I like to read a mix of fiction and nonfiction, and I like to read about places I have visited. After recently taking a vacation in Vietnam, I chose When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler.

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is one of the best books I have read in a long time. It is a riveting first-person account of a Vietnamese woman who supported the Viet Cong during the early part of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Her life takes many twists and turns, including eventually marrying a U.S. naval officer, moving to the United States, and then returning to Vietnam after the war.

“The book is well written, and the story is told in a creative way that highlights both the changes that have happened in Vietnam since the 1950s and some important things that have stayed the same. However, what makes the book so compelling is Hayslip’s description of how people can survive truly horrible circumstances, her impressive objectivity, and her ability to be insightful and balanced in her judgments. I am not impressed by people who are nonjudgmental; I am impressed by people who make informed, fair, and reasoned judgments.

“If you like this book, I also would recommend When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him, a first-person account of a woman who survived the Khmer Rouge’s purge in Cambodia.

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain is the Pulitzer Prize–winning collection of fictional short stories about Vietnamese who relocated to the United States after the war. I find the storytelling element of short stories extremely appealing, and these stories are great in that dimension. I also like the mix of stories told from the male and female perspective. If you like this book, I also would recommend Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.

The Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder
Steve Hodel (Arcade, 2003)

“For those interested in something about the United States, I recommend The Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel. This is the incredible true story of a Los Angeles detective who makes a convincing case for having solved one of California’s most famous murder cases. It’s not the police corruption that makes the story unique, it’s the fact that the detective investigates the possibility that his father is the murderer.

“Next on my list to read: The Long March: The True History of Communist China’s Founding Myth by Sun Shuyun. How can I resist learning more about an event so central to the history of Communist China?”

George Wu
Professor of Behavioral Science

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
Atul Gawande (Metropolitan, 2007)

“I am a big fan of Atul Gawande. Some of you may know Gawande from his contributions to the New Yorker or his occasional op-eds in the New York Times. Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, whose previous book, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, investigated the fallibility of medical decision making. Better is a natural sequel to Complications. Gawande asks: ‘What does it take to be good at something in which failure is so easy?’ Most of us would guess that the answer involves something like better science or more resources. The surprising answer, at least in some cases, is attention to little things, such as getting doctors to wash their hands or patients to adhere to their treatments. Gawande’s writing is so balanced. He is neither an apologist nor an alarmist, but somehow is always able to maintain just the right tone, critical but constructive. Gawande’s book is full of hope that medical practice can and will become better.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year
Anne Lamott (Pantheon, 1993)

“My wife and I adopted a baby boy in December 2006. We had about 12 hours’ notice before becoming parents of a 12-day-old boy. We had read many books about adoption, but no books about parenting. We played catch-up when we had the energy and time, which wasn’t often. About six months into our boy’s life, I picked up Operating Instructions. My wife had recently finished one of Anne Lamott’s books and had loved it. Operating Instructions is Lamott’s account of her son’s first year. Her chronicle is hilarious and irreverent, but above all, candid. Although Lamott’s circumstances were unlike ours (she was a single mother, struggling writer, and recovering alcoholic, whose best friend had been diagnosed with terminal cancer), Lamott’s stories perfectly capture the range of emotions we experienced in raising a young child.”

Last Updated 5/14/09