The best HIV/AIDS books

8 authors have picked their favorite books about HIV/AIDS and why they recommend each book.

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And the Band Played on

By Randy Shilts,

Book cover of And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

This book characterizes the discovery and spread HIV and AIDS. Shits an investigative journalist provides an extensive look into the disease itself, the politics and politicians battling to control or ignoring the disease. Also discussed are the events that shaped the pandemic leading to its expansion or its control. 


Who am I?

Michael B.A. Oldstone was head of the Viral-Immunobiology Laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute, devoting his career to understanding viruses, the diseases they cause, and the host’s immune response to control these infections. His work led to numerous national and international awards, election to the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Medicine. Oldstone served on the SAGE executive board of the World Health Organization and as a WHO consultant for the eradication of polio and measles.


I wrote...

Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present, and Future

By Michael B.A. Oldstone,

Book cover of Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present, and Future

What is my book about?

More people were killed by smallpox during the twentieth century--over 300 million--than by all of the wars of that period combined. In 1918 and 1919, the influenza virus claimed over 50 million lives. A century later, influenza is poised to return, ongoing plagues of HIV/AIDS, COVID, and hepatitis infect millions, and Ebola, Zika, and West Nile viruses cause new concern and panic.

The overlapping histories of humans and viruses are ancient. Earliest cities became both the cradle of civilization and breeding grounds for the first viral epidemics. Michael Oldstone explains the principles of viruses and epidemics while recounting stories of viruses and their impact on human history. This fully updated second edition includes new chapters on hepatitis, Zika, and contemporary threats such as the impact of fear of autism on vaccination efforts.

Was

By Geoff Ryman,

Book cover of Was

Ryman describes himself as a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism, and there’s something of that in each of the novels I’ve chosen here. In Was he draws together three story strands and weaves from them something unique and moving around the cultural tentpole of The Wizard of Oz. The main strand concerns little Dorothy Gael whose harsh life inspires Baum’s fictional revision of her unhappy childhood: then there’s ‘baby Frances’ who, as Judy Garland, embodies Dorothy in screen fantasy: and Frank, a dying man for whom Garland’s movie has been a lifelong obsession and source of comfort. The connections are effortless, the story engrossing. Here’s a confession; I love this book, but I’ve never actually read or watched The Wizard of Oz.


Who am I?

They say that we begin by imitating what we love and find our personal themes in the process, and that’s certainly been true for me. I grew up reading horror and fantasy and now I write realistic fiction with something deeper and darker always throbbing under the surface. My subjects can be contemporary, like Nightmare, with Angel or The Spirit Box, but I’ve had some of my biggest critical successes with historical fiction. I’ve had parallel career paths in books and TV, each often crossing with the other, but it’s in the novels and short stories that you’ll find me uniquely invested.


I wrote...

The Bedlam Detective

By Stephen Gallagher,

Book cover of The Bedlam Detective

What is my book about?

It's 1912 and Sebastian Becker, Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy, arrives in the West Country to interview Sir Owain Lancaster on his run-down country estate. Descending from his train in the coastal town of Arnmouth, Becker finds the entire community mobilised in a search for a pair of missing girls.

Sir Owain is one of only two survivors of a self-funded Amazonian expedition which saw his entire party wiped out, wife and child included. His explanation for that tragedy was a nightmarish fantasy of lost-world monsters and mythical beasts. The questions that face Sebastian: what really happened then, and how dangerous is this man now? A Kirkus 100 Best Books of the Year pick.

Impure Science

By Steven Epstein,

Book cover of Impure Science: Aids, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge

AIDS was the pandemic before Covid. Unlike Covid, it mobilized people to take the science and efforts to find a cure into their own hands – especially people on the fringes of society. Nothing like this had ever happened before. It appeared to mark a watershed where medicine would become a servant of the people rather than people being enslaved to its commercial priorities. Sadly this is not how things worked out. The discovery of Triple Therapy was a high point of modern medicine but we have gone downhill since then with few if any drugs saving lives the way Triple Therapy did. Impure Science shows you vividly what we are up against.


Who am I?

I’ve been researching treatment harms for 3 decades and founded RxISK.org in 2012, now an important site for people to report these harms. They’ve been reporting in their thousands often in personal accounts that feature health service gaslighting. During these years, our treatments have become a leading cause of mortality and morbidity, the time it takes to recognize harms has been getting longer, and our medication burdens heavier. We have a health crisis that parallels the climate crisis. Both Green parties and Greta Thunberg’s generation are turning a blind eye to the health chemicals central to this. We need to understand what is going wrong and turn it around.   


I wrote...

Children of the Cure: Missing Data, Lost Lives and Antidepressants

By David Healy, Joanna Le Noury, Julie Wood

Book cover of Children of the Cure: Missing Data, Lost Lives and Antidepressants

What is my book about?

Study 329, a trial of paroxetine in depressed teenagers, led to a fraud charge and a $3 billion fine against GlaxoSmithKline for reporting a negative trial as showing paroxetine worked wonderfully well and was safe. Nearly one in five teens on paroxetine had serious behavioural problems. The ‘fraudulent’ report was ghostwritten, as it appears were other trials of antidepressants in depressed teens, all negative but published as safe and effective with FDA turning a blind eye and willing to approve drugs that didn’t work. Children of the Cure gives you the insight into who was sleeping with who story behind a trial that despite the fraud charge and billon dollar fines is now standard practice for all trials of all drugs you or those you know may be taking. 

Reports from the Holocaust

By Larry Kramer,

Book cover of Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist

In Reports from the Holocaust, Larry Kramer charts his own journey into AIDS activism, through a collection of his articles, speeches, jeremiads, and public pronouncements dating from the earliest days of the AIDS crisis. A combination gadfly, angry prophet, activist conscience, and provocateur, Larry was also a huge pain-in-the-ass and an unyielding and loving advocate for the gay community—all of which is on full display here. The book includes his incendiary “1,112 and counting,” written in 1983, which first awakened me (and the rest of the gay community) to the political dimensions of the AIDS crisis, as well as his speech four years later, that led to the formation of ACT UP. I defy you to read this book and not want to take to the streets in protest.


Who am I?

I’m a nice gay Jewish former wannabe actor turned AIDS activist. I joined ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, in 1987, and for the next eight years, I chaired committees, planned protests, led teach-ins, and facilitated our weekly meetings. I visited friends in hospitals, attended far too many AIDS memorials, participated in over a hundred zaps and demonstrations, and earned the title of ACT UP’s unofficial “Chant Queen.” It was the hardest, most intense, most rewarding, most joyous, and most devastating time of my life. Aware that I had witnessed history, it became my mission to record what happened and to make sure our story was not forgotten. 


I wrote...

Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York

By Ron Goldberg,

Book cover of Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York

What is my book about?

Boy with the Bullhorn is an immersive, chronological history of the New York chapter of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and a memoir of my coming of age and activist education during the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic. Told with great heart and surprising humor, it offers an intimate look into ACT UP's tactics and strategies as we successfully battled politicians, researchers, drug companies, religious leaders, the media, and an often-uncaring public to change the course of the AIDS epidemic. Combining personal accounts with diligent documentation, it captures the spirit of ACT UP and the adrenaline rush of activism―the anger and grief, but also the love, joy, and camaraderie.

Christodora

By Tim Murphy,

Book cover of Christodora

Sometimes I regret not having experienced the sex and drugs enjoyed by my contemporaries who came out much younger in life. The Christodora brought me back to reality. The reality of those years was much darker than my fantasies.

Murphy sketches out the diverse group of intertwined characters that inhabit the Christodora, a gentrified building in Manhattan’s East Village. I wanted to be the artistic Mateo who pushes through life’s difficulties to live an actualized life. But I can’t escape that I could have been one of the AIDS victims for whom the activism Murphy describes was so critical. Or I might have been Hector, an AIDS activist who descends into substance abuse after losing his lover.

Christodora recounts the heartbreak of AIDS but ultimately is a story of the healing of broken lives.


Who am I?

I’ve been gay for half my life; the other half I was confused, questioning, and considered a pathologic deviant by the American Psychiatric Association. I am no longer confused, or considered pathologic or deviant. I’m a father, psychiatrist, and author who grew up in Nebraska. I was a good boy, followed all the rules, and lived the life that was expected of me. I fit in but I never felt like I belonged. I took back control of my life and threw off expectations of what I should be. I want others to believe that they can have a richer life by living the life they were meant to live.


I wrote...

No More Neckties: A Memoir in Essays

By Loren A. Olson, M. D.,

Book cover of No More Neckties: A Memoir in Essays

What is my book about?

In No More Neckties: A Memoir in Essays, Loren A. Olson, MD writes that fitting in is not belonging. Growing up, he tried to fit in, but he felt lonely due to conflicted sexual feelings and a poor body image.

In No More Neckties, Dr. Olson shares the story of his life and its hard lessons. He writes about intensely personal events: tragedy and loss, love and heartbreak, infidelity and betrayal, and the fear of aging. He explores being gay in rural America, stereotypes and misconceptions, religious dogma, empathy and forgiveness, and the need for self-acceptance. Through the memoir’s essay format, Dr. Olson invites the reader to reflect on their own life. He believes that sharing our stories removes the loneliness and isolation we feel and changes peoples’ minds about who we are.

Carved in Bone

By Michael Nava,

Book cover of Carved in Bone: A Henry Rios Novel

One of the qualities of mystery fiction that continues to draw me to the genre is the complex interplay between past and present. Nava’s 8th Rios novel utilizes separate narrative lines that resonate and then, like a parallel perspective drawing, converge in a powerful emotional twist. The first line is the story of Bill Ryan, a young gay man who, after being cast out of his home in Illinois, flees to 1970s San Francisco to discover himself and the gay community. The second line is Rios’s recovery from alcoholism and his investigation of Ryan’s suspicious death during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Ryan and Rios serve as foils: Ryan is a man losing the war with his self-loathing. Rios, in contrast, is winning his war.


Who am I?

I’m a historical mystery writer, English teacher, and book reviewer for Lambda Literary. I love to write and explore buried and forgotten histories, particularly those of the LGBTQ+ community. Equally, I’m fascinated by the ways in which self-understanding eludes us and is a life-long pursuit. For that reason, as a reader, I’m attracted to slow burn psychological suspense in which underlying, even subconscious, motivations play a role. I also love it when I fall for a character who, in life, I’d find corrupt or repulsive.



I wrote...

The Savage Kind: A Mystery

By John Copenhaver,

Book cover of The Savage Kind: A Mystery

What is my book about?

Philippa Watson, a good-natured yet troubled seventeen-year-old, has just moved to Washington, DC. She’s lonely until she meets Judy Peabody, a brilliant and tempestuous classmate. The girls become unlikely friends and fashion themselves as intellectuals, drawing the notice of Christine Martins, their dazzling English teacher, who enthralls them with her passion for literature and her love of noirish detective fiction.

When Philippa returns a novel Miss Martins has lent her, she interrupts a man grappling with her in the shadows. Frightened, Philippa flees, unsure who the man is or what she’s seen. Days later, her teacher returns to school altered: a dark shell of herself. On the heels of her teacher’s transformation, a classmate is found dead in the Anacostia River—murdered—the body stripped and defiled with a mysterious inscription. As the girls follow the clues and wrestle with newfound feelings toward each other, they suspect that the killer is closer to their circle than they imagined—and that the greatest threat they face may not be lurking in the halls at school, or in the city streets, but creeping out from a murderous impulse of their own.

Bad Blood

By James H. Jones,

Book cover of Bad Blood

This in-depth account of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study is considered a classic in the field of medical ethics. Though Greg Dober and I have recently discovered the true origins of the Public Health Service’s “non-treatment study” and former Surgeon General Thomas Parran’s critical role in the ugly saga, Jones’s book is still the best chronicle available, and lays out a devastating narrative of how a sophisticated but uncaring and racist scientific establishment could annually examine and not treat hundreds of unschooled Alabama sharecroppers suffering from a deadly disease. 


Who am I?

I began working in prisons 50 years ago. I was just out of grad school and I accepted the challenge of starting a literacy program in the Philadelphia Prison System. The shock of cellblock life was eye-opening, but the most unexpected revelation was the sight of scores of inmates wrapped in bandages and medical tape. Unknown to the general public, the three city prisons had become a lucrative appendage of the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School. As I would discover years later, thousands of imprisoned Philadelphians had been used in a cross-section of unethical and dangerous scientific studies running the gamut from simple hair dye and athlete’s foot trials to radioactive isotope, dioxin, and US Army chemical warfare studies. My account of the prison experiments, Acres of Skin, helped instill in me an abiding faith in well-researched journalism as an antidote to societal indiscretions and crimes.


I wrote...

Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

By Allen M. Hornblum, Judith L. Newman, Gregory J. Dober

Book cover of Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

What is my book about?

This groundbreaking book explores the underbelly of American medicine, the sordid history of scientific researchers using developmentally impaired children in overcrowded and underfunded state institutions as raw material for medical research. Against Their Will documents how thousands of children in hospitals, orphanages, and other public asylums became unwilling subjects in countless experimental studies during the 20th century.

All the Young Men

By Ruth Coker Burks, Kevin Carr O'Leary,

Book cover of All the Young Men

This true story begins in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1986, when Ruth Corker Burkes, a solo mother of limited means is visiting a friend in the hospital. There she comes across a young man who has been shunned and left to die alone from the then little-understood and much-feared “gay disease”. Corker Burke stays with this stranger, affording him comfort and dignity in his last hours, and a final resting place in her family’s cemetery. ‘Jimmy’ becomes just the first of many HIV-infected men Corker Burkes helps during the terrifying AIDS crisis. She becomes their carer, advocate, and community educator, all the while battling ostracism and prejudice from families, medical professionals, and government bodies. I love this story for the way positive change can begin with just one person.


Who am I?

Growing up in a house filled with books – my father was a publisher –  meant that I fell in love with the written word at an early age. Growing up in apartheid South Africa and witnessing the brutal regime at work meant that I was sensitised to issues of injustice and racial prejudice at an early age too, issues which would come to inform much of my writing. I’ve always been drawn to the underdog’s story and often write to shine a light on the lives of the marginalised. My first literary heroes were brave authors such as Nadine Gordimer, Athol Fugard, and Alan Paton, who used their pens to provoke change. 


I wrote...

Another Woman's Daughter

By Fiona Sussman,

Book cover of Another Woman's Daughter

What is my book about?

Set against the violent backdrop of apartheid South Africa and then the calm of late-twentieth-century Britain, Another Woman’s Daughter (Shifting Colours) tells the tale of a little black girl, Miriam, who captures the heart of a childless white couple while her mother is working as a maid for them in the suburbs of Johannesburg. When the couple decides to leave South Africa following the Sharpeville uprising, they ask to adopt Miriam. The decision Miriam’s mother makes is one she makes out of love, but it is a decision which comes to haunt all the characters, the outcome so different from what was intended.

A powerful and affecting story of a mother and daughter separated by land, sea, and heartrending circumstance.

The Great Believers

By Rebecca Makkai,

Book cover of The Great Believers

Told across several decades, Makkai's book leaps between 2015 and 1980s Chicago, allowing for a poignant story that weaves the fictional characters with historical events, chiefly the 1980s AIDS crisis. Again, the book tells a compelling story written with elegant prose while also being a delight from a craft perspective. I love epic novels that take place over many years and the decision to tell the story in a non-linear fashion is a rewarding one when handled with this sort of skill. 


Who am I?

A building stands the test of time because of how it's structured and a story is no different. Figuring out what happens in a story is important but I can't ever write a thing until I know how that the story is going to be put together. Using multiple timelines introduces complexity but it's also one of my favorite kinds of structure because it allows for epic storytelling in a dynamic way - we can transverse the years and see how the past and present (and sometimes future) all continue to impact each other in unexpected ways. Employing multiple timelines can be a sneaky way of throwing in some historical fiction in what might otherwise be a contemporary novel.


I wrote...

The Thunder of Giants: A Novel

By Joel Fishbane,

Book cover of The Thunder of Giants: A Novel

What is my book about?

The year is 1937 and Andorra Kelsey – 7'11 and just over 320 pounds – is on her way to Hollywood to become a star. Hoping to escape both poverty and the ghost of her dead husband, she accepts an offer from the wily Rutherford Simone to star in a movie about the life of Anna Swan Told in parallel, Anna Swan's story unfurls. While Andorra is seen as a disgrace by an embarrassed family, Anna Swan is quickly celebrated for her unique size.

Joel Fishbane's The Thunder of Giants blends fact and fiction in a sweeping narrative that spans nearly a hundred years. Against the backdrop of epic events, two extraordinary women become reluctant celebrities in the hopes of surviving a world too small to contain them.

The Angel of History

By Rabih Alameddine,

Book cover of The Angel of History: A Novel

A few years ago we at Gertrude lit journal decided to answer the question that kept coming our way: What are some great books written by queer people with narratives that center on queer people? Before the pandemic made a mess of things, we ran GERTIE, a book club that chose two fabulous queer books every quarter. This was our very first book selection, and—like with many firsts, perhaps—it holds a special place.

The Angel of History takes place during one night in the waiting room of a San Francisco psyche ward when visits by the Devil and 14 Saints reveal the life of Jacob, a Yemen-born poet who was born in an Egyptian whorehouse. Yes, you read that right. 


Who am I?

I’m a serial mover, living in 18 cities in three countries (so far) – though that has settled down (kinda) now that my lady and I find ourselves with three kids + a fish, kitten, and 100-pound dog. Wherever we land, we single-handedly support the entire local restaurant industry. My debut novel was lucky enough to do well and has inspired a short film, which will hopefully usher it down the long road to TV series… 


I wrote...

Sugar Land

By Tammy Lynne Stoner,

Book cover of Sugar Land

What is my book about?

Sugar Land follows the life of Dara, a prison cook in the 1920s, who is inspired by real life blues singer and prisoner Lead Belly to break out of her own prisons and become the fabulous, gay matriarch to a family of Texas trailer park misfits. 

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