Recommended Reading

Members of the Tufts community suggest mysteries and history, fiction and finance—and a wealth of other choices—in our annual summer roundup
books
August 1, 2011

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 As we head into the dog days of summer—and the heart of vacation season—our faculty, staff, alumni and students have recommended a range of books to enjoy at your leisure. They’re not all light reading—we’re often a serious bunch—but they’re all food for thought. Read them as paperbacks, e-books or hardcovers—or even on your phone—and enjoy.

 

Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Rebecca Goldstein combines an autobiographical account of her own encounters with Baruch Spinoza, a summary of his thought and a biography of the man. It is in this last effort that the betrayal lies. Spinoza’s big idea, as she tells it, was that we attain happiness by leaving behind the particularities of our lives and personalities and bending ourselves to a universal rationalism. To root Spinoza’s life and thought in the Portuguese Jewish community that excommunicated him, in the Jewishness he himself rejected and in the intellectual world of 17th-century Amsterdam is to insist that his universalist project was a failure and that the specific details of his context were inescapable. The result of Goldstein’s account, though, is a fascinating portrait of the man and his times, and the result of Spinoza’s project, as her title implies, is the universal rationalism that is the foundation of Modernity.—Ken Garden, assistant professor of religion, School of Arts and Sciences

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher MacDougal. I run only when chased by predators, but I still can’t stop thinking about Born to Run, which deftly weaves anthropology, biology and sports science—plus a few memorable characters—into a suspenseful page-turner that left me reconsidering what it really means to be human. When runner and journalist MacDougal got sidelined by a foot injury, he consulted the world’s finest orthopedic surgeons. Their consensus? The human body just isn’t designed to run. MacDougal finds some evolutionary biologists and anthropologists who disagree. They suggest that early humans—slow, small and lacking claws and fangs—used their finely engineered feet with their arches and springy tendons that capture energy from every footfall to run down prey, a practice called persistence hunting. MacDougal rounds up some friends to test it out. In the process, he notices the importance of both language and cooperation, two of humanity’s hallmark characteristics. It’s those social aspects of running that are so important to the Tarahumara, an indigenous Mexican people living in the Sierra Madre. The Tarahumara run for fun, for bonding and as a means of working out conflict. MacDougal is struck by the joy with which Tarahumara of all ages engage in races, easily knocking off 30 miles at a time, all without the benefit of camel packs, protein bars—or even special shoes. It’s that last point that leads MacDougal to conclude that it’s our hyper-engineered shoes that are causing all those runners’ injuries. He’s not alone; increasing numbers of runners are skipping the sneakers. Though still controversial, barefoot running is taking off, and luckily for those of us with sensitive skin, the sneaker industry is responding with increasingly minimalist shoes. Time will tell if the trend results in fewer injuries, but MacDougal’s writing will leave you with the belief that we were indeed born to run.—Jacqueline Mitchell, senior health sciences writer, Office of Publications

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. This vast entertainment—called by some wag “the ultimate geek novel”—is mind candy, no better way to put it. Stephenson is smart, flip, sardonic and just plain funny as he shuttles between World War II and the late 1990s, tracking related characters in the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families through war, work and love. A sampling of the delightfully arcane topics flowing through the book’s 910 pages: cryptography (complete with equations), high-tech but pre-dotcom-boom California, modern-day treasure hunters, the demise of General Yamamoto, the origins of digital computers, Douglas McArthur, Cap’n Crunch cereal, mining engineering, criminal mobs in Manila, submarine warfare and Turing machines. Stephenson maintains a pitch-perfect smart-alec tone throughout, and the pages breeze by. Cryptonomicon dates from 1999, but it’s still fresher than most novels written today. And when you’re done, you can head to Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy, each volume weighing in at some 900+ pages, to get the back story on the Waterhouses and Shaftoes in the 1600s and 1700s, with a supporting cast that includes Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Princess Caroline Elizabeth of Hanover—and yes, a digital computer.—Taylor McNeil, senior news editor, Tufts Now

Eden Lake, by Jane Roper. This debut novel, published in May for e-readers and in paperback by the Boston micropublisher Last Light Studio, is perfect for summer reading, as it is set at a utopian children’s camp the first season after the owners suddenly die. Unlike the Boston author, who spent the first 15 years of her life at summer camps where her parents worked, my only experience with sleep-away camp was through movies like Meatballs and Wet Hot American Summer. I always appreciate books that transport me to somewhere I wouldn’t have access to otherwise, which in this case is an idyllic camp by a lake. There’s also everything you’d want in a story—love, loss, ambition and transformation. I appreciated the irreverent humor, candid observations and moving moments between the family members left behind after their parents are gone. As soon as the parents’ private plane crashes in the first chapter, the plot spins in exciting and unexpected directions, while the characters deepen in complexity. I started reading this novel after dinner one night and didn’t stop until dawn, after I had turned the last page. Whether you’re waiting out the heat wave in an urban apartment with only an electric fan or are reading this sprawled out on a towel by the water, you will enjoy a visit to Eden Lake.—Grace Talusan, J94, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences

Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada. As much as American books and film have memorialized World War II, we rarely get a chance to see the truth of what life was like inside Nazi-era Germany through the eyes of the Germans who lived it. In Hans Fallada’s engrossing novel Every Man Dies Alone, the true-life tale of a couple who decide to resist Hitler (by starting, of all things, a postcard campaign) is brought into detailed life in the guise of fiction. The nobility and futility of the couple’s quest is equally inspiring and heartbreaking, but what makes the book so memorable is its specificity—an unvarnished portrait of the way the people acted, how they spoke and what local culture was like. This clarity is possible because Fallada (the pseudonym for writer Rudolf Ditzen) lived through the war and was confined by the Nazis for part of it. He wrote the novel three years later in a 24-day burst and died soon after. As a result, the novel could use editing, especially in later chapters overlong on speechifying, but the story’s immediacy is illuminating and moving.—David Valdes Greenwood, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences

The Exploration of Africa: From Cairo to the Cape, by Anne Hugon. At first glance, this looks like a predecessor of travel books that had just begun putting various windows on the page—quotes, history, pictures. But it has an attitude, no doubt influenced by the author’s thesis on Mary Kingsley, the redoubtable, witty and audacious early explorer of Africa. She was unusual not only in being a woman, but in traveling without a huge retinue of porters, a huge endowment or—apparently—a huge ego. Unlike Stanley, for instance, she didn’t go around (re)naming everything after herself or her monarch, but collected specimens and drawings of African fish. The book includes a series of thumbnail sketches of the various explorers and their foibles, and contains at least a consistent awareness of the unawareness of these Europeans about the actual people and lands they were “discovering.” I never would have read it before my recent months in India, my first prolonged stay in a non-European country, in which the residue of the British occupation still wafts, for better and for worse. The book seems full of energy and re-imagination of the times.—Rebecca Kaiser Gibson, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman. Newspapers may be dying out, but fortunately books about them are not. Former reporter Tom Rachman captures perfectly the quirky personalities who somehow manage to turn out a newspaper, this one an English-language daily in Rome. Each chapter is short story that could stand alone, but the portraits of people who love their work and lead complicated lives are linked by the newspaper. From the lonely copy editor to the man whose job it is to make sure everyone uses the English language correctly, the characters and setting ring true, right down to the newsroom office chair that repeatedly gets stolen. The stories are poignant and even heartbreaking, echoing the demise of the world these people inhabit.—Marjorie Howard, senior writer, Office of Publications

John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman, by Robert Skidelsky. A 900-page book about a dead economist a summer read? Absolutely, when it’s this good. John Maynard Keynes is fascinating as an intellect and an individual on his own, but in Skidelsky’s elegant, consummate biography, the economic titan becomes a window on an era. The book is a marvelous guide to Keynes’ economic thinking—a reader comes to understand why his ideas still guide policy and energize debate today—and it weaves these ideas into the rich life of the man and the tumultuous times in which he lived. Through his life we glimpse the spectacle of the Bloomsbury group to which he was attached. Keynes was more than an economist; he was a public intellectual and policymaker who had a profound impact on the Versailles treaty, the Depression and the post-World War II settlement. The sections on World War II are a reminder of his instrumental contribution to the Allied war effort and to the construction of key international institutions like the IMF and World Bank that still structure the world today. One understands why the bankrupt British consoled themselves with a ditty: “In Washington Lord Halifax/Once whispered to Lord Keynes,/‘It’s true they have all the money-bags/But we have all the brains.’ ” Keynes himself produced a litany of clever, pithy quotes. One of the more well-known: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” After reading Skidelsky’s masterwork, you realize how right he was.—David Ekbladh, assistant professor of history, School of Arts and Sciences

Landfalls: On the Edge of Islam with Ibn Battutah, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. This is the third in a trilogy of books following the footsteps of Ibn Battutah, a wily traveler of the 14th-century Islamic world from Morocco to China, but it stands alone perfectly well. Mackintosh-Smith trails IB, as he calls Ibn Battutah, from Tanzania, which is as far down the east coast of Africa as Islam had spread by the 1300s (and today, for that matter), to the Maldives, those idyllic-looking islands in the Indian Ocean that had just fallen under the sway of Islam as IB landed. Then it’s off to Sri Lanka, where a beleaguered Muslim minority still lingers today through the depredations of that country’s longstanding civil strife, and as far east as China, where Muslims now (as then) barely have a toe-hold. In the end, the author follows IB to West Africa and to Spain, another edge of the Islamic world. All along, Mackintosh-Smith seeks tangible remnants of IB or his time, and surprisingly often finds them. There’s the time he attends a Manding religious ceremony in Guinea—a Naipaulesque nightmare of a country. He’s suddenly sitting with IB, who wrote about the same ceremony some 650 years before, in pretty much the exact same place. It’s a startling convergence of time and space, and one that Mackintosh-Smith conveys in sparkling prose that brings it indelibly alive. This is the most erudite, masterful, amusing and enlightening book I’ve read in years, and deserves a wide audience, especially in this age of very one-dimensional portrayals of Islam.—Taylor McNeil, senior news editor, Tufts Now

Let’s Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell. Written to commemorate the brief, intense friendship of the author, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for the Boston Globe, with the Cambridge writer Carolyn Knapp, who died of cancer at 42, this book is spare and haunting to read. It’s a surprise in many ways. I was never a big fan of Caldwell’s journalistic writing style, finding it too distant and cerebral, but here her voice breaks open and finds a natural, heartbreaking depth. Caldwell describes herself and Knapp as “moody introverts who often preferred the company of dogs,” but you can feel the joy in their sudden mid-life connection. The wonderful title refers to the way the two women could never get enough of each other’s company and would often extend their car rides in order to keep the talk going a bit longer. “I remember it all because I remember it all,” Caldwell writes two-thirds of the way through, sounding as dazed and helpless as a child. Her memoir is about many things, including dogs, alcoholism, rowing, women’s friendship, grief and survival after terrible loss. I recommend it highly.—Bruce Morgan, editor, Tufts Medicine

The Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, by Liaquat Ahamed. The world economy cratered between October 1929, when the stock market crashed, and July 1932. One reason for this was a failure to understand the proper responses to such a cataclysmic event; the development of macroeconomics since that time has helped us avoid a similar disaster during the past four years. But there were other sources of the economic problems in the early 1930s as well, including political tensions and even the personalities of the dominant economic policymakers of the era. In this engaging book, Liaquat Ahamed presents the events of this period through the views, personalities and interactions of the four dominant central bankers of the era: Benjamin Strong of the New York Federal Reserve; Montagu Norman of the Bank of England; Emile Morceau of the Banque de France and Hjalmar Schacht of the German Reichsbank. The events of this period are a dark mirror to our own present-day economic challenges. They are also a warning tale of the dire results that can arise when politics overtakes economics at a time of crisis.—Michael W. Klein, William L. Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs, the Fletcher School

March Violets, by Phillip Kerr. When I think of “summer reading,” I think of books I’m likely to read in a slightly drowsy state—at the beach, for instance, or as a way of calling in the dreams at bedtime. For that kind of reading, I sometimes prefer good mysteries or detective fiction. I believe I’ve found a good series in that genre, written by an Englishman named Phillip Kerr and set largely in Germany before, during and after World War II. March Violets is the opening novel in Kerr’s “Berlin Noir” trilogy, which also includes The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem. Part of the pleasure of this series is its historical realism. The author has done his research, and you feel you are given a personal entry into Nazi Germany during its periods of expansion, collapse and disintegration. The protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is a former Berlin policeman turned private detective who, though possessing a powerful internal sense of right and wrong, happens to be caught in some of the most morally ambiguous times, places and situations imaginable. Gunther is too realistically portrayed to be entirely likeable, though I think he’s convincingly complex and ultimately admirable. I also find the historical details, which include mini-portraits of many of the Nazi leaders, as well as their allies and victims, fascinating. Can one ethically enjoy fiction about such a horrific time and the evil people who made it happen? I believe so, and I believe this fiction does not forget or trivialize the reality it’s based on.—Dale Peterson, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences

Nemesis, by Philip Roth. I am old enough to remember the terror that the word “polio” held for those of us born in the early 1950s. By the time I was 4 or 5, the first trials of Salk’s vaccine were under way, and by 1994, poliomyelitis had been virtually eradicated in the Americas. But in the 1940s, there was no defense against this scourge, which killed or paralyzed thousands of children each year. This is the plot line of Philip Roth’s powerful new novel, Nemesis. The book’s protagonist, Bucky Cantor, is caught in the maelstrom of the 1944 polio epidemic in Newark, N.J. Bucky is a young, overly conscientious athletic director who becomes convinced that he has spread the polio virus to a number of his adolescent charges. The book is very well-written and thoroughly gripping, but it is not for the faint of heart. The public and private tragedy of those dark times is brought home with great force by one of the finest writers of our time.—Ronald Pies, clinical professor of psychiatry, School of Medicine

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. It may be the only book about success that’s not about how to succeed. Gladwell, the New Yorker writer and author of The Tipping Point and Blink, instead exposes the hidden role of circumstance in shaping careers, achievements and wealth. Did you graduate from college in a year when jobs were scarce or plentiful? Were you older or younger than most of the kids in your high school class? Were you surrounded by dysfunction, as was Chris Langan, a certified genius for whom life has been anything but easy? Or did family and teachers support you so wholeheartedly that they forgave little lapses like trying to poison your tutor, as was the case for the physicist Robert Oppenheimer? The only one of Gladwell’s success factors over which most of us have control is his 10,000 Hour Rule: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the Beatles all logged at least that much time developing the skills that would later make them famous. Outliers may not make you famous, but it offers the gift of perspective.—David Brittan, editor, Tufts Magazine

Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror, by James Hynes. On a hot summer night when humid gusts flare the curtains, thunder rolls and lightning flashes, that’s when to curl up by the only lamp in the room with this spooky spoof of the many conceits of scholars and scholarship. Truly terrifying in the great horror tradition, it is equally humorous in its acerbic attacks on these wayward academics who stumble into demonic possession, Druid rituals and dreadful ends when ego and erudition blind them to dangers in wait.—Gail Bambrick, senior marketing communications writer, Office of Publications

The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life, by Amby Burfoot. Most books and articles about running focus on the mechanics of running—how to run faster, avoid injuries, maintain stamina and endurance. Amby won the 1968 Boston Marathon at the age of 21, and published this helpful memoir of sorts in 2007, 39 years later, at the age of 60. His book avoids the usual topics and instead provides ruminations on why we run and how running both inspires and provides a commentary on the lives we lead. I focus as much as anyone does on the mechanics of the process of running; this book gave me pause, made me smile and reminded me to enjoy the act of running, an activity that is often spontaneous at a very young age, requires no training and is frequently an expression of joy.—Mark Gonthier, associate dean of admissions and student affairs, School of Dental Medicine

Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers, eds. Mark Ammons, Kat Fast, Barbara Ross and Leslie Wheeler. Twenty-five original stories by acclaimed crime and mystery writers are included here, including award-winning authors and new voices. Fictions range from noir to capers to the paranormal and the village crazy. This is a terrific collection of short work, whether for the beach or the den, and also an excellent region-based gift book.—Liz Ammons, Harriet H. Fay Professor of Literature, School of Arts and Sciences

Time and Again, by Jack Finney. This is a wonderfully detailed novel about time travel that manages to convincingly move one by delightfully incremental degrees into another world and another time: New York in 1826. There is a slow pace to it—published in 1970, it is from before our contemporary darting and superimposition, the way we think now because of our experiences online, I think. It is a narrative that takes its time, so to speak. The effect is to widen one’s day-to-day experience. I’m listening to the book on tape, in my car. So when I arrive in Keene, for example, I see the old buildings in a new way—as if alive again, in the time of their construction. —Rebecca Kaiser Gibson, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. It’s about class struggles and economic modernization in present-day India, told from the point of view of a servant. Although serious at times, most of the book incorporates plenty of humor. It’s a fun read that also offers a keen perspective on India, a country of increasing global importance. I strongly recommend it.—Chris Pires, A15

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan. I am not a devotee of American history. And the literature of the Great Plains has never been as magnetic for me as, say, novels set on the East and West coasts of this country or narrative accounts of the heroic expeditions to our planet’s icy poles. I’m not even a big fan of The Grapes of Wrath—the Steinbeck novel or the stiff-lipped film adaptation. Maybe all of this explains why it was not until a few weeks ago that I picked up Timothy Egan’s riveting, wild, 2006 National Book Award winner, The Worst Hard Time. This is the story of an enormity—a decades-long, Biblical-scale ecological and economic disaster—and the people whose hopes and homes it buried. Every page is a treasure trove of staggering facts—soil clouds so dense that they altered the atmosphere and routinely produced static electricity strong enough to knock a man down and short-out car batteries, so vast that they darkened the skies in five states, and so persistent that the residue shut down cows’ digestive tracts and dried up their milk. This is a book of apocalyptic wonders delivered in prose so swift and lucid it seems to have been written on the wind.—Michael Downing, lecturer in creative writing, School of Arts and Sciences

The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa-Al-Aswany. Set in a Cairo apartment building in the 1990s, this novel looks at the lives of ordinary Egyptians as they struggle against a corrupt regime and an oppressive society. It’s about the big obstacles and the petty humiliations of people living on the edge. I picked this book up in Cairo just before the Arab Spring erupted. It really gave me insight into what people were protesting against in Tahrir Square.—James M. Glaser, dean of academic affairs, School of Arts and Sciences

 

IN SHORT

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.—Kevin McDonald, A11

The Blue Sweater, by Jacqueline Novogratz. The author founded the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture capital firm for the poor.—Rachel Geylin, A08.

Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella, by Neil Lanctot. A terrific biography for the older generation.—Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, professor of German and former provost

Citizen and Subject, by Mahmood Mamdani.—Doreen Ndishabandi, A12

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. A modern classic.—Paul Perrone

Dime Quien Soy, by Julia Navarro. A beautiful Spanish Civil War novel.—Ana Maria Vidal, A07

In the Garden of Beasts, by Erick Larsen.—Kevin Boyle, A78

Knuckler: My Life with Baseball’s Most Confounding Pitch, by Tim Wakefield with Tony Massarotti, A89.—Kevin Kearney, E89

The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, by Jane Leavy. A terrific biography for the older generation.—Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, professor of German and former provost

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Abhijit T. Banerjee and Esther Duflo.—Doreen Ndishabandi, A12

Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan.—Doreen Ndishabandi, A12

Stan Musial: An American Life, by George Vecsey.—Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, professor of German and former provost

The Tenants, by Bernard Malamud. It’s pretty great so far; you should check it out.—Eric Beiser Berg, A11, web systems administrator, Electrical and Computer Engineering

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen.—Kate Saville, A07

For more book suggestions, go to the Tisch Library leisure reading blog What Sophia Recommends.

 

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