Things to Read - Two Very Different Travel Biographies - Paul Farmer & Freya Stark

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (Random House Reader's Circle)

If you've ever wondered how one person can save the world (or try to save the world) then Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (Random House Reader's Circle) is the book for you. Paul Farmer visited Haiti as as an anthropology student and fell in love with the people and the country, though the dismal status of their health care upset him. Further he found most existing efforts to help these people seriously negligent (Farmer is not a fan of the small, ill-equipped third world medical clinic). With the goal of providing quality health care to the extermely poor, Farmer first got a medical degree (from Harvard, of course). He then founded the organization Partners In Health ("PIH"), though originally just a small charity, PIH now receives multi-million grants (94 cents on every dollar goes directly to patients and programs). Farmer and PIH refuse to balance economic worries against individual patient needs, to him a patient is a patient - so if a dirt-poor Haitan boy has to be airlifted to a US hospital for cancer treatment, then Farmer, through PIH, is willing to do it. The book makes a strong argument that by treating poor people like human beings rather than statistics, not only are lives saved but diseases could be conquered. For example, sub-par treatment of tubercluosis has lead to the rise of antibiotic resistant TB strains. But if the orignal treaments are carefully monitored and drugs continually available, then the risk of creating such strains lessens.

If this book sounds somewhat boring, it isn't. Kidder does a wonderful job not just explaining Farmer's mission but showing the sacrifies necessary to become a world saver and an internationally recognized third-world disease expert. Farmer spends most of his time on airplanes, he rarely sees his wife and child, he has few hobbies other than doctoring. Mountains Beyond Mountains changed my world perspective and served as HUGE reality check. I'm not sure what to do with this newfound knowledge (other than donate to Partners in Health) but I highly suggest reading it.

Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark (Modern Library Paperbacks)

I originally learned about Freya Stark during a conversation with F's preschool teacher on "explorers." The term explorer seems somewhat odd today (excluding Dora, of course), but not that long ago several parts of the world were still shrouded in mystery. Enter Freya Stark. In 1927, at the age of 34, Stark decided she wanted to learn Arabic and travel the middle east. Eventually, as her travels continued, Stark became quite famous - penning several books and working for the British government during WWII as an expert on the region.

Stark's biography makes for some fascinating reading, both on Stark's personal life - at one point she married a gay man and the love letters between them (in which he painstakingly tries to be straight) are some of the saddest and most loving communications I've ever read - and because of her field of expertise. As today's newspapers are constantly filled with news of the middle east, it's illuminating to read about the region as it existed less than one hundred years ago. In particular, as a modern reader I enjoyed learning about Stark's opinions on the Zionist movement (she believed that chaos would result if the West "imposed" solutions without seeking Arab involvement, she also predicted that an Arab federation would be created after the war which would make way for a Jewish community IF the West didn't force the issue ahead of time).

What about everyone else? Read any interesting books lately?


  1. I'm intrigued by the Freya Stark book. It sounds really interesting! In the meantime, I'm actually halfway into Mountains Beyond Mountains and am loving it. Paul Farmer is an amazing person, and I just love Tracy Kidder's writing. Great book!

    On the fiction side, you might want to try Run by Ann Patchett. Quick read, good story.

  2. Mountains Beyond Mountains sounds very interesting. Dave Eggers is one author that I quite like in the genre.



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