December 21, 2021

7 must-read books for the winter, according to Advisory Board experts

Daily Briefing

    We gathered a list of seven recommendations from Advisory Board's experts on what you can read (and gift) this winter. This comprehensive list features books that detail reflections on mortality, questions on identity and emotions, journeys into historical fiction, and storytelling about baseball, among others. We hope you find something meaningful in this list. Below are our recommendations:

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    1. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

    Amanda BerraAmanda Berra, Expert Partner

    Let me guess—you're already well aware of Anthony Doerr's much-celebrated 2021 novel "Cloud Cuckoo Land," and you've considered reading it.  After all, the title is great, the cover is pretty, and (maybe more to the point), you read Doerr's 2014, Pulitzer-winning novel "All the Light We Cannot See"—and you remember enjoying that.

    But you're still on the fence, for a few reasons. First, at 600+ pages, it is hefty, that's just a fact. Second, it's not that clear what it's about. The jacket flap says it has multiple protagonists, times, and storylines—and let's be real, that type of structure costs something in reader patience. Third … the reviews you read to psych yourself up were all positive, and yet, somehow, themselves a little ... ponderous. You're wondering if maybe what you need right now is something a little lighter, a little more beachy, and a little less ivory-tower than this table-thumper of a novel.

    Prospective reader, I hear you 100%. But the thing getting lost among all these discouraging signs is that "Cloud Cuckoo Land" is a really good book. It is a story about stories, with a recurring theme about how flights of imagination have the power to take us away from day-to-day pain and stress. Pleasantly, "Cloud Cuckoo Land" not only celebrates this, but also delivers it. The stories within the story are vivid, happy, sad, surprising, and scary. It's satisfying to watch the slow emergence of the big picture that connects it all together. Plus, Doerr has a gift for putting each of the fragile, beautiful worlds that he creates into immediate jeopardy—which is stressful, but also compelling. So much so, that you will find this book you thought you'd have to slog through is actually a page-turner! Who'd have thought? Not me, but that is what I found and I hope you will find that too.


    2. Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills, by Neil Ansell

    Christopher Kerns Christopher Kerns, Vice President, Executive Insights

    This book is 10 years old this year, but it's one that I uncharacteristically find myself rereading and recommending on a regular basis. It's called "Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills," by Neil Ansell, and is the memoir of man, who after an unexplained crisis, retreats into an isolated cottage in the coastal mountains of Wales, devoid of electricity, heat, or running water—and manages to subsist, survive, and even thrive (for a time). 

    Depending on one's perspective it can be at times terrifying, thrilling, uplifting, or depressing. But it shows how continued engagement with the landscape can allow one to incorporate with it, eventually silencing one's inner voice that continually struggles with and is yet buoyed by modernity.


    3. Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown

    Deirdre Saulet Deirdre Saulet, Expert Partner 

    I am an unapologetic Brené Brown stan. I recommend her podcasts, "Dare to Lead" and "Unlocking Us," to anyone who will listen, and I've adopted one of her mantras as my own ("I'm here to get it right, not to be right"). So as soon as "Atlas of the Heart" hit my local bookstore's shelves, I was checking out with multiple copies (pro tip: this article can also be used as inspiration for fantastic gifts).

    This guide is designed to give us a common language to express our complex emotions and experiences, with the ultimate aspiration that we will not bound by the limitations of our vocabulary. Not only can language help us convey our emotions, but these words can also shape our emotions and trigger reactions in our body. Throughout the book, Brené leads us on an exploration of 87 emotions and experiences. I know, that might not sound like much fun to read during your well-deserved downtime, but the personal and relatable stories, the beautiful pictures, and the eye-catching illustrations make this exercise in introspection truly enjoyable and engaging. It will be a permanent fixture on my coffee table.

    To help us make connections, the emotions and experiences are grouped based on their interrelatedness, helping us understand the nuance between anxiety, dread, excitement, and fear. From now on, when I say I'm “overwhelmed,” I will actually know the weight that word carries and how I need to process it. My hope is that this new vocabulary will help me name, identify, and sit with my feelings—no matter how uncomfortable they may be—to better understand, process, and extend grace to myself and others. And after the year we've all had, who couldn't benefit from that?


    4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

    Andrew MohamaAndrew Mohama, Senior Analyst

    I've never read a book in one day—until my brother handed me a copy of "When Breath Becomes Air." Now, four years later, I have re-read this book annually (and plan to do so for years to come).

    At the age of thirty-six, on the brink of completing nearly a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One moment he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife Lucy had imagined evaporated. Paul wrote this book as he was dying, and it offers a rare and vulnerable look into his mind as he faced the most pressing question about his own mortality: What makes life worth living in the face of death?

    Part of what makes this book so impactful is that the author was a brilliant polymath. His impressive and fascinating educational background shine in the book, having studied English literature and biology at Stanford, graduate level history & philosophy at Cambridge, and medicine at Yale. Paul's writing is some of the best, if not the best, writing I have come across—certainly in the field of memoirs. The reflections on living and dying truly make this book timeless. As long as humans are mortal, we will grapple with the questions that Paul faced so acutely.

    I promise you will leave this book with so much more than you came with. I agree with a statement made by Dr. Verghese in the foreword: "Finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option." There are so many questions and insights that linger, and not just about matters of life and death. Be prepared to wrestle with deep emotions throughout the book and embrace the reflections that stick with you. I cannot imagine a life in which I haven't read "When Breath Becomes Air."


    5. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

    Darby Sullivan, Research Consultant, Executive Insights 

    "Fun Home" was the first graphic novel I read, but it won't be the last. I was significantly late to the game on this 2006 memoir of Alison Bechdel, who is otherwise known for the creation of the Bechdel Test. It came back on my radar when my book club selected it a few years ago.

    It's a quick read, and I tried to savor it. The illustrations were fantastic—the nuances of each facial expression and background detail amplified the dialogue and built a cohesive mood throughout the novel. The story centered on Bechdel's often fraught relationship with her father, touching on her experiences coming out as gay and coming to terms with her dysfunctional (and sometimes toxic) family.

    This isn't a feel-good read by any means. But if the holiday season sparks any reflection for you about family relationships or the meaning of home, I'd add it to your list.


    6. The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski

    Thomas SeayThomas Seay, Managing Director

    Growing up in Atlanta in the 1990s, I had the unearned good fortune to live down the street from "Bullet" Bob Turley, a onetime flamethrower who had pitched for the Yankees four decades earlier. Bob was a gentle presence in my childhood, just a nice old man who took me fishing and told stories from his working days—except his coworkers were Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, and their workplace adventures earned them a fistful of World Series rings.

    I still remember the spark I felt as a 10-year-old when Bob talked about "Mickey" and "Yogi." To a baseball-loving kid in a baseball-obsessed town, these were the names of demigods, yet here was my neighbor talking as if they were ... ordinary. It was as though the mailman had casually mentioned golfing with Luke Skywalker.

    That same sensation buzzes through "The Baseball 100," Joe Posnanski's magnum opus profiling the greatest baseball players of all time. Posnanski has a flair for capturing, in just a handful of pages, both what made each player human and what made him superhuman; both how he fit into baseball's decades-long quilt and how he stood utterly apart.

    This is a book that can reward many different ways of reading it. If you start at page one and continue through page (gulp) 880, you'll find themes and narratives building up layer by layer. If you'd rather bounce around to read about your favorite players, each chapter stands alone. If you love baseball, you'll find much here to deepen your appreciation of these players and their game. If you can't tell balls from strikes, you'll still find evocative, empathetic sketches of 100 humans who blazed 100 distinct paths to excellence.

    Plus, it'd make a great holiday gift for any baseball fan in your life. Shhh, don't tell my dad I said that.


    7. This: Becoming Free by Michael Gungor

    Ben Palmer, Associate Editor, News Division

    I absolutely love memoirs, and this is one of the best memoirs I've ever read. Michael Gungor was a worship leader at a large church and a Grammy-nominated Christian musician who eventually left his faith entirely and embarked on a journey to really figure out what he believed. In the process, Gungor learned to let go of the stories that were defining who he was, working his way through various belief systems, including atheism and mysticism.

    While Gungor's story on its own is fascinating, what makes this such a great memoir is how different it is from other memoirs. Personally, I would've been happy with just his story of losing almost everything he knew to find who he is. But on top of that, Gungor adds in poems, artwork, musings on spirituality and philosophy, a little bit of everything, all in what amounts to a fairly quick read.

    If you enjoy spirituality or dabble in the world of mysticism or philosophy or just like to talk about whatever is going on here in this world where a whole bunch of embodied awareness are floating around on a rock spinning in infinity, "This: Becoming Free" is a book you'll love.

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