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Books I couldn’t put down in 2016

I love books that I can’t put down. In fact, if I find myself reading a book that I’m willing to set aside to do such menial tasks as eat, sleep or interact with other people – well then, it’s not a book I pick up again.

Luckily, there are plenty of books that can hold my attention – more than three dozen since January. As 2016 draws to an end, I found myself perusing my bookshelf to relive the stories that took me on the most captivating adventures of the year. I thought I’d share a few.

A Little Life by Hannah Yanagihara

  • No story has ever left me as scared as this book. Reading it was like learning about the Stanford Prison Experiment for the first time – discovering the depth of evil that humans are capable of inflicting on each other, and of surviving, of carrying on for the rest of their lives. This book is the story of Jude, who was frequently and devastatingly abused as a child, and his quest to live a life as a normal adult.
  • A quote: “His very existence was twinned: there was who he was at work and who he was outside of it; there was who he was then and who he had been; there was who he was in court and who he had been in the car, so alone with himself that I had been frightened.”

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

  • I wanted to savor every word of this novel. The rhythm, the flavor, the structure of every sentence was exquisite. The protagonist is not supposed to be entirely likeable, but the world she takes you into is a living poem. This is the story of a lost girl trying to find herself as a waitress.
  • A quote: “SWEET: granular, powdered, brown, slow like honey or molasses. The mouth-coating sugars in milk. Once, when we were wild, sugar intoxicated us, the first narcotic we craved and languished in. We’ve tamed, refined it, but the juice from a peach still runs like a flash flood.”

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

  • This book went down like a spoonful of sugar. It's the story of two very different sisters resisting Nazi occupation in France in their own ways – big and small, loud and quiet. There is nothing so inspiring as seeing a coward choose to be brave.
  • A quote: “‘That’s good,’ Vianne said. The sound of her own voice calmed her, reminded her that she was a mother and mothers took care of their families.”

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

  • This book lured me into a story I wanted to resist. The premise is that four siblings are fighting over an inheritance – and I had no sympathy for any of them. At least, not until I started reading.
  • A quote: “He turned and it took him a minute to recognize the woman in the beret, grinning madly above a pink-and-orange hand-knit scarf, waving and calling after him. He stood and watched her approach and in spite of himself, he smiled. Beatrice.”

When Breath Becomes Air

  • Perhaps no other book could hit a medical student as hard as this autobiography. Our mortality is real, and it's just as fragile as that of our patients. This is the heartbreaking and true story of a neurosurgery resident who died of cancer in his last year of residency. He is survived by his wife and daughter.
  • A quote: “People often ask if it is a calling, and my answer is yes. You can’t see it as a job, because if it’s a job, it’s the worst one there is.”

This last book makes me pause, my hand frozen in the air just above my bookshelf. I sometimes feel torn between my love of writing and my love of medicine. I sometimes wonder how I will ever find a balance that feels right. And then Paul Kalanithi’s book catches my attention and reminds me that for now, it is enough that I try.

Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category.

Natalia Birgisson is a fourth-year medical student at Stanford University. She is in her second year off and writing her first novel, which is described on her site

Photo by Pexels

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