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Summer reads

Australian Medicine suggests a selection of books to stimulate and entertain this summer.

Honour, Duty, Courage. By Mohamed Khadra. Penguin Random House; 249 pages; $34.99

What drives doctors with good jobs and loving families to risk life and limb by volunteering to work in some of the most hazardous places in the world? In his latest book, Sydney-based surgeon Mohamed Khadra sets out to answer that question, interviewing dozens of health professionals about their experiences working as volunteers for the Australian Army Medical Corps. He creates two fictionalised characters to recount their stories, and what emerges is a portrait of people imbued with a strong sense of duty (and a penchant for adventure) who are severely tested, physically, mentally and emotionally. Deployed to a forward surgical unit in a war-torn country that could be Rwanda, Afghanistan or Iraq, the book’s two protagonists – emergency surgeon Dr Jack Foster and anaesthetist Dr Thomas McNeal – are confronted with extremes of human depravity and deep ethical dilemma as they cope with a relentless flow of casualties from all sides of the conflict. Khadra gives a sympathetic account of the often harrowing situations such volunteers confront, and how these experiences stay with them long after the deployment ends.

The Gluten Lie: And other myths about what you eat. By Alan Levinovitz. Black Inc; 272 pages; $22.99

For his day job, Alan Levinovitz researches religious myths to find out what they mean and why they are persuasive. With this background and expertise, it is no wonder he has turned his attention to the world of food. Few areas are as prone to fads, half-digested ideas and quackery than what we eat. Flick through any newspaper or magazine, or surf the web, and you will be quickly hit with advice about the latest ‘super-food’, fad diet or poisons lurking in what you eat. In his brightly written and tightly-argued book, Levinovitz seeks to chart how some of the big myths about food of our times have emerged and taken hold, causing many into dietary contortions as they seek to confine themselves to ‘safe’ foods. He examines the science and shows how mass beliefs, in some cases verging on hysteria, about MSG, salt, sugar, grains, meat and gluten have arisen, mostly based on very thin evidence. Unlike diet books, Levinovitz doesn’t dispense advice about what you should eat, but instead asks some hard questions of those who do.

Happiness by design: change what you do, not how you think. By Paul Dolan. Penguin Random House; 235 pages; $16.

For many years, the overriding advice for those seeking to improve their happiness has been to change their mindset. Bookshelves abound with tomes advising people to think their way to a good mood. But Paul Dolan takes a refreshingly different approach. Drawing on the latest research in behavioural economics and brain science, he draws some general conclusions. Climate, for instance, does not exert a major influence on satisfaction. Wherever people live, they acclimate to the weather and get on with other aspects of their lives. He repeats the well-founded observation that volunteering tends to be correlated with a great sense of purpose, while television is associated with a sense of pleasure. So, how do individuals improve their happiness. Following the dictum that attention shapes experience, Dolan advocates identifying the things in life from which you derive joy or contentment, and seeking to make room for more of these experiences. Hardly earth-shattering advice, but powerful in its own way. As a Scientific American reviewer observes, Dolan touches on an important idea: happiness need not be pursued, simply rediscovered. In other words, sources of pleasure and purpose are all around us, if only one knows where to look.

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