Reading for Humanity

Books of 2023, by The Athena Advisors team

11 December 2023

We have run a yearly team book recommendation blog since 2021. And here we are again, in 2023, with lots more social justice reads. There’s something for everyone, we think. We always encourage our readers to shop local and head to your nearest independent book shop. If you do find a book among this list, let us know! We’d love to hear from you. Now, let’s get straight to it.

First up, we have four recommendations by our Washington- and London-Based Founder and President, Robin Heller.

First up, we have four recommendations from our Washington- and London-Based Founder and President, Robin Heller.

Amidst her busy schedule, Robin always finds time to pick up a book and continue learning, wherever she goes. Robin writes…

“I’m a big reader. I can be opportunistic (picking up a tempting book donated to the free, popular “take a book” shelf at my local tube station, East Finchley Station) or focused (reading intensely and fast to learn more about a new client’s area of service). Here are just four of the books this year that caught my attention: 

Shake Hands with the Devil, by LT General (now Admiral) Romeo Dallaire:

This is the iconic book written by the head of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Rwanda at the start of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis. Exhaustive in its detail but immensely readable, Dallaire takes us through each day when he and a small band of brave soldiers refused to leave Rwanda and attempted to negotiate for a ceasefire. The Admiral is deeply revered in Canada and Rwanda (and globally). In recent years, he has used his stature to be candid about the mental health problems that resulted from war, inspiring other brave and men and women to seek help. I had the absolute honor of meeting him in person in Montreal at a presentation by our client, Aegis Trust, when its CEO Freddy Mutanguha gave a talk to the workforce of Bombardier about preventing genocide. Admiral Dallaire is about to publish another book, on child soldiers. 
 

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver: 

I have been reading as much as I can about the sweeping history of Africa, its colonization, and its current politics. The Poisonwood Bible, a 1999 book by the great American novelist Barbara Kingsolver, takes us personally into the life of one family at the crossroads of history. I read The Poisonwood Bible when it was first published during one very long weekend, astonished by the beauty and terror of her story of a U.S. missionary family going against all advice to the Belgian Congo in the transformational year 1960. Reading it again, I was as moved as the first time by the arrogance and cruelty that is possible in viewing and visiting Africa.  

On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, by Danya Ruttenberg:

My friend, Rev Dr Emma Jordan Simpson, of Auburn Seminary, gave an award this year to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg for this finely written, practical guide to forgiveness, sharing real-day wrongdoings as examples. Rabbi Ruttenberg uses the teachings of Maimonides, a 12th century doctor and teacher whose writings on philanthropy are well known to many of us, but I was new to his writing on forgiveness and atonement. Maimonides and Rabbi Ruttenberg are very practical people, and it is a wonderfully comprehensible book on a difficult subject. Our client Aegis Trust, which leads the Kigali Genocide Memorial, has guided my thinking this year (and forever) about forgiveness, peace, atonement, and resilience. Rabbi Ruttenberg’s book is a fine guide to what making amends requires to be genuine and consequential.  

Rest is Resistance, subtitled Free Yourself from Grind Culture and Reclaim your LIfe, by Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry:

Besides having the best title ever, this book, this book is about the way in which we would do well to stop the 18 hour days that intrude on our ability to rest, reflect, and live a more contemplative life as a human being. Rather than a book on meditation or reining in the “to-do” list, this clever book says that resting (which can be learned given that we have “unlearned” it) is a revolutionary act of resistance to the corporate grind that invades and propels even settings such as academia or nonprofits. The author began her thinking about “rest is resistance” while a student at seminary, learning to be a theologian. Is there more to life than the headiness of deadline then the crash of exhaustion? Reverend Hersey would say yes, and rest is the path to standing firm against tyranny of tasks. Her book now sits on the bedside table in the guest room, ready for weary travelers. I will read it again, and often”.

Thank you, Robin.

Next in line, championing Greek mythology and with four recommendations, is London-based Executive Vice President and Director of Athena Advance, Laetitia Pancrazi.

Laetitia writes:

 

“This year I have embarked on a Greek mythology ‘quest’ and read almost every ‘modern’ Greek mythology retelling you can find. Any telling of a myth is actually a retelling, but the past ten years have brought forth a new wave of modern take on the Greek heroes we know all too well, and more importantly, the heroines, who have often been erased from history.  

 

These retellings are important from a social justice perspective as they shine a light on the women who have played critical roles in Greek mythology yet are often misrepresented or cast away (Ariadne was quite literally cast away on the island of Naxos by Theseus despite helping him defeat the Minotaur and escape its Labyrinth).  

I therefore recommend the following books to those who want to know more about the incredible women of Greek mythology: 

A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes, tells the story of the numerous, forgotten, women who supported the war efforts, fought, died, or were enslaved during the War of Troy, showcasing the reality and brutality of war for women.

Elektra, by Jennifer Saint, is narrated from the perspective of Agamemnon’s daughter and wife, giving us a whole new look at the maybe not-so-noble King who led the Greeks against the Trojans. 

Circe, by Madeline Miller, recounts the gut-wrenching tale of the now infamous witch who loved Odysseus and turned his companions into pigs, providing a powerful lesson on the beauty of being human.

But of course, I could not provide my book recommendation without touching on my all-time favourite book for this year…

A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes, tells the story of the numerous, forgotten, women who supported the war efforts, fought, died, or were enslaved during the War of Troy, showcasing the reality and brutality of war for women.

Elektra, by Jennifer Saint, is narrated from the perspective of Agamemnon’s daughter and wife, giving us a whole new look at the maybe not-so-noble King who led the Greeks against the Trojans. 

Circe, by Madeline Miller, recounts the gut-wrenching tale of the now infamous witch who loved Odysseus and turned his companions into pigs, providing a powerful lesson on the beauty of being human.

But of course, I could not provide my book recommendation without touching on my all-time favourite book for this year…

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. This book is told from the perspective of Patroclus, the childhood friend and maybe lover of Achilles (no one can agree on that last part). In Homer’s Iliad, many scholars have argued that Patroclus was created to temper Achilles’ brutality, to humanise him and to represent the greatest Greek warrior’s ‘conscience’. In her retelling, Madeline Miller paints a beautiful coming-of-age story as we witness the love story between Achilles and Patroclus, and the sacrifices one must make in the name of love. It is a beautiful, lyrical, and heart-breaking novel that everyone should read!”.

Thanks, Laetitia, we now know who to come to for a chat on all things Greek mythology!

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. This book is told from the perspective of Patroclus, the childhood friend and maybe lover of Achilles (no one can agree on that last part). In Homer’s Iliad, many scholars have argued that Patroclus was created to temper Achilles’ brutality, to humanise him and to represent the greatest Greek warrior’s ‘conscience’. In her retelling, Madeline Miller paints a beautiful coming-of-age story as we witness the love story between Achilles and Patroclus, and the sacrifices one must make in the name of love. It is a beautiful, lyrical, and heart-breaking novel that everyone should read!”.

Thanks, Laetitia, we now know who to come to for a chat on all things Greek mythology!

Next, we move to a few (three) favourites from me, London-based Director of Client Services, Lucy Hart.

Where to begin?

My favourite book of 2023 was, without a doubt, The House of Doors, by Tan Twan Eng. Set in Penang in 1921 and inspired by real events, the descriptions and narrative create such a vivid representation of the events that unfold. It’s one of those books that make you feel like you were actually there. The backdrop of imperialism is a carefully woven thread throughout the book, critiqued in a subtle but effective manner to retain the story line. Think revolution, love, forbidden love, and murder. A must read.

I also really enjoyed The Exile and the Mapmaker, by Emma Musty. It’s a beautiful story about unlikely friendships. In this case between an Eritrean refugee and an aging Parisian cartographer with Alzheimer’s, in the face of growing anti-immigration sentiment in Europe and the increasingly hostile environment for refugees. The story, although fictional, is a real testament to what underpins us all: a common humanity. A reflective and moving read for this festive time of year, where I think we all begin to think a little more deeply about those around us and what really matters to us all.

Finally, it would be remiss not to recommend Wandering Souls, by Cecile Pin, because I could not put it down and read straight through it in one sitting. Wandering Souls was Pin’s debut novel and what atriumph. It is so cleverly written, from the perspective of an unlikely narrator, traversing generations. It explores the heart-breaking decision made by families, still most relevant to today’s refugees, to embark on perilous journeys across unforgiving seas in search of a safer life. The novel begins in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war, following the departure of the last American troops. It sheds light on the Koh Kra tragedy of 1979 off the coast of southern Thailand (something I knew nothing of until reading this book, and have researched further since), the experience of unaccompanied child refugees, and the unexpected tolls of assimilation in the face of new surroundings and a new life far from where you began. In traversing generations, it documents the impact of intergenerational trauma on the refugee experience and gives much deserved attention to the plight of Vietnamese refugees and the refugee experience in the UK.

 

That’s all from me.

Where to begin?

My favourite book of 2023 was, without a doubt, The House of Doors, by Tan Twan Eng. Set in Penang in 1921 and inspired by real events, the descriptions and narrative create such a vivid representation of the events that unfold. It’s one of those books that make you feel like you were actually there. The backdrop of imperialism is a carefully woven thread throughout the book, critiqued in a subtle but effective manner to retain the story line. Think revolution, love, forbidden love, and murder. A must read.

I also really enjoyed The Exile and the Mapmaker, by Emma Musty. It’s a beautiful story about unlikely friendships. In this case between an Eritrean refugee and an aging Parisian cartographer with Alzheimer’s, in the face of growing anti-immigration sentiment in Europe and the increasingly hostile environment for refugees. The story, although fictional, is a real testament to what underpins us all: a common humanity. A reflective and moving read for this festive time of year, where I think we all begin to think a little more deeply about those around us and what really matters to us all.

Finally, it would be remiss not to recommend Wandering Souls, by Cecile Pin, because I could not put it down and read straight through it in one sitting. Wandering Souls was Pin’s debut novel and what atriumph. It is so cleverly written, from the perspective of an unlikely narrator, traversing generations. It explores the heart-breaking decision made by families, still most relevant to today’s refugees, to embark on perilous journeys across unforgiving seas in search of a safer life. The novel begins in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war, following the departure of the last American troops. It sheds light on the Koh Kra tragedy of 1979 off the coast of southern Thailand (something I knew nothing of until reading this book, and have researched further since), the experience of unaccompanied child refugees, and the unexpected tolls of assimilation in the face of new surroundings and a new life far from where you began. In traversing generations, it documents the impact of intergenerational trauma on the refugee experience and gives much deserved attention to the plight of Vietnamese refugees and the refugee experience in the UK.

 

That’s all from me.

Now we are on to two recommendations by our Goa-based

Senior Consultant, Brahmi Chakravorty.

Brahmi loved Water in a Broken Pot, by Yogesh Maitreya and The Paper Dolls, by Julia Donaldson.

Of  Water in a Broken Pot, Brahmi writes….”a moving and lucid memoir, by Yogesh Maitreya, “Water in a Broken Pot” is a story of resilience. The book starts with a hard hitting fact- “For a Dalit person, his identity is always in transition as soon as he steps out of his home.” As a Dalit man in a casteist society, Yogesh shares his life’s experiences in a very matter of fact way, making his book a radical read. The author through his narration reminds his audience of how a casteist society denies Dalits the right to tell their stories. Agency always comes at a cost. As a poet, as a writer, as a translator and as a publisher, Yogesh Maitreya is doing all he can to ensure that the dreams, aspirations, and reality of the Dalits is documented. His work inspires readers like me to engage with books written by Dalit authors, telling their own stories”.

Brahmi’s other top read of 2023 was Paper Dolls, by Julia Donaldson, she writes “I chanced upon this wonderful book (I now count it as one of my favourite books) with my three year old son. While the story is about a mother and child and a string of paper dolls going on a fantastical journey, the book in its subtle ways teaches us about unity, challenges, loss, resilience and the power of memory. It ends on a beautiful message on life coming to a full circle and makes you ponder about what you pass on through generations. A must read for all ages”.

 

Thanks, Brahmi.

Brahmi loved Water in a Broken Pot, by Yogesh Maitreya and The Paper Dolls, by Julia Donaldson.

Of  Water in a Broken Pot, Brahmi writes….”a moving and lucid memoir, by Yogesh Maitreya, “Water in a Broken Pot” is a story of resilience. The book starts with a hard hitting fact- “For a Dalit person, his identity is always in transition as soon as he steps out of his home.” As a Dalit man in a casteist society, Yogesh shares his life’s experiences in a very matter of fact way, making his book a radical read. The author through his narration reminds his audience of how a casteist society denies Dalits the right to tell their stories. Agency always comes at a cost. As a poet, as a writer, as a translator and as a publisher, Yogesh Maitreya is doing all he can to ensure that the dreams, aspirations, and reality of the Dalits is documented. His work inspires readers like me to engage with books written by Dalit authors, telling their own stories”.

Brahmi’s other top read of 2023 was Paper Dolls, by Julia Donaldson, she writes “I chanced upon this wonderful book (I now count it as one of my favourite books) with my three year old son. While the story is about a mother and child and a string of paper dolls going on a fantastical journey, the book in its subtle ways teaches us about unity, challenges, loss, resilience and the power of memory. It ends on a beautiful message on life coming to a full circle and makes you ponder about what you pass on through generations. A must read for all ages”.

 

Thanks, Brahmi.

Last but not least, we have a recommendation by Uganda-based Senior Consultant, Diana Angeret.

Diana’s favourite book of 2023 was Start with the Story – Brand Building in a Narrative Economy, by Kristian A. Aloma, PhD.

Diana writes: “If you are interested in building a great brand or improving the quality of the stories you tell, this book is an excellent choice.

This book made my heart sing. All of the stories contained in this book were exquisitely woven, and they made you feel as though you were walking on air.

This book is the epitome of inspiration, and you could almost feel the love that went into writing it. This book will not only teach you how to create a brand, but it will also teach you how to infuse your brand with emotion.

After finishing the book, I had a better understanding of why certain brands are more successful than others, and I felt more empowered to act. This is a sensation that I hope everyone will be able to experience after reading this book”.

Thanks Diana and that’s all from us. Thank you for checking out our book recommendations blog. We really hope there’s something among these recommendations for you to enjoy this festive period and beyond. Check back again in December 2024 for our next yearly round up!