Book review: The Wisdom of Whores, Elizabeth Pisani

This book ticked off two challenges for me: part of Mount TBR*, and part of my Reading Resolution to read more non-fiction. I said in my Reading Resolutions post that I’m terrible for picking up worthy-looking non-fiction, which I do genuinely intend to read, but then ignoring those books for the instant gratification of fiction. I do this because I’m too easily seduced by a good story, and too many worthy non-fiction writers can’t tell a story for toffee. As much as I love to read to learn, wading through pages of dry facts leaves me desperate for the trashiest kind of chick-lit.

I’m delighted to say that Elizabeth Pisani, aside from being a dedicated epidemiologist and passionate AIDS researcher, is also a cracking storyteller. In The Wisdom of Whores, Pisani has taken her experiences of years of work on the front lines in the battle against AIDS, and woven it into a compelling narrative of greed, stupidity and bureaucracy, as well as bravery, compassion and sheer bloody-minded hard work.

The book is part memoir of Pisani’s time as an AIDS researcher for various public health bodies in and around South East Asia, and part public health polemic. She outlines in relentless detail the many, many mistakes that have been made in first identifying, then researching, then preventing and treating the global AIDS problems – but she also covers the unexpected successes along the way. She explains, patiently and in terms even an arts graduate like me can understand, precisely why there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all AIDS strategy, and why it is a mistake to think there can be. And she rounds it all up by giving a simple plan for tackling AIDS – that makes perfect sense from Planet Epidemiology, but that is unlikely to gain traction on Planet Politics.

I’m not going to go into more detail here about the many, astonishing facts and anecdotes that litter this book, because I couldn’t explain it in a way that does justice to Pisani’s work. All I will say is: read it. Read it if you have an interest in public health, or AIDS, or sex work, or drug addiction, or politics, or development funding. Read it even if you don’t think you’re interested in any of those things: you will be by the time you’ve finished.

* Yes, it’s an ebook. Yes, I am including ebooks in my Mount TBR challenge. I realise this isn’t quite to the letter of the challenge – an ebook takes up no physical space, so can’t be said to be contributing to my teetering pile of TBR books – but I believe it still honours the spirit. Ebooks may not take up any actual shelf space, but they do clutter up my mental bookshelves. I can’t see them, but I know they’re there, giving me sad why-aren’t-you-reading-us looks.

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