Recommended Summer Reading

Members of the Tufts community share their favorites in fiction, nonfiction and poetry
man reading a book in a field of flowers
Photo: Ingimage
June 27, 2017

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Heading into prime vacation season each summer, we ask members of the Tufts community to tell us about books that they recommend to others.

This year’s offerings are as extensive and eclectic as ever: immigrants’ stories, tales of good and evil, a fun summer read or two, plus nonfiction about everything from debt to anxiety, and from Germany to Mayberry. There’s also the stirring story of the Great Migration, as well as a dash of verse.

Dive in and enjoy. And for faculty, staff and students, don’t forget that many of these books are available at the Tufts libraries.

If you have other suggestions, let us know at now@tufts.edu, and we’ll post an update.

FICTION

The Charm Buyers, by Lillian Howan. Marc, this novel’s narrator, immediately drew me in with his introduction: “The things you’ve heard about me—they’re true, especially the lies.” A member of an upper-class Hakka Chinese clan, Marc is the son of a successful pearl dealer. He navigates the complex roles he plays in life as grandson, son, husband and lover, identities that are sometimes at odds with each other. The novel takes place in Tahiti during the time that France conducted nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and the impact of this destruction reverberates in the lives of these characters. Howan is a master storyteller. Open any page and find lush language and living characters grappling with universal conflicts. Will Marc find his own way in life amidst all his responsibilities and pressures? If a journey to Tahiti is not in your near future, pick up a copy of this book and be transported to French Polynesia. —Grace Talusan, J94, lecturer, Department of English

Chemistry, by Weike Wang. This is the funniest book I’ve read in a long time, especially when you consider it is about coping with depression, demanding Asian tiger-mom and -dad parents, and life as a struggling Ph.D. student in the guts of academe. Our narrator (whose name we never learn) has a lovely fellow-Ph.D.-student boyfriend named Eric (the only character whose name we ever learn) who is zooming through the program to obtain his degree in chemistry. The narrator, on the other hand, has a whole series of challenges in front of her that range from Eric’s proposal of marriage to pet control to lab experiment failures to chronic misunderstandings with her parents. The backstory of her parents’ struggles in China and their eventual successes in the U.S. form a moving part of the book and tell us, yet again, that immigration is a crucial engine for the growth and success of this nation. Another fascinating angle is the story of the narrator’s best friend, a highly successful doctor, whose husband is cheating on her. The two friends provide lifelines for each other through their challenges. But the heart of this clever book is the portrait of life as a graduate student fighting the good fight for an advanced degree — under shall we say “high demand signals” from her family. The writing is wry, nuanced and drop-the-mic funny throughout — and the life and academic lessons are priceless. —James Stavridis, F83, F84, dean, Fletcher School

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller. In the post-apocalyptic world of The Dog Stars, Hig lives with his dog Jasper and ally Bangley near an abandoned airport. While day-to-day life demands constant surveillance of their surroundings and assessing chances of attacks from villains who terrorize the area, Hig has hope that more people have survived. He takes surveillance trips in a small plane, but is tethered to a limited radius because of low gas supplies. When he hears a voice on the radio, he devises a plan to seek out what lies beyond the boundaries he’s been tied to. His adventure is a daunting one, not just because of the unknown terrain, low supplies and fear of what he may find, but also because of the journey he’s already been through. I truly liked Hig, who is a good, but real, person navigating his way in a scary, but maybe hopeful, world. —Kim Moniz, social media strategist, Communications and Marketing  

A Long, Long Way, by Sebastian Barry. With the centenary of World War I, I’ve been thinking about my favorite war fiction set during that terrible conflict. At the top of the list is Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way, about a young man from Dublin who goes off to war on the continent just as the Irish at home are rebelling against the British. It’s not for the faint of heart—the war scenes are devastating—but it’s beautifully written, and it captures the life of a common soldier caught in major historical events. Berry titled the book after “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary,” a familiar song, but one rarely connected to County Tipperary in Ireland or the World War I context in which it was popularized. I’m also a big fan of another great World War I novel, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, not as violent, but just as sad and just as important. —James M. Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, professor of political science

Murder on Boston Common, by Ernest Cassara, A52, G54. One of the satisfactions of compulsively rooting around at book sales for literary truffles is the certainty of unearthing oddments. One I extracted from the stacks perhaps bears sharing. Its author attended Tufts thanks to a full scholarship from an anonymous donor, later lectured in history here, and went on to become a prominent figure in the Unitarian Universalist Church. The title of his Bachelor of Divinity thesis was “Cotton Mather and the Possessed,” he wrote a biography of Tufts founder Hosea Ballou “spiced and dramatized by pungent anecdotes,” according to one reviewer, and he edited a new edition of Ballou’s A Treatise on Atonement. As interim director of Albert Schweitzer College in Switzerland where Lee Harvey Oswald had been accepted as a student in 1959 (but never showed up on campus), Cassara was questioned at the time by the FBI, which made off with related admissions files. His many publications include Play It Again! Confessions of a Prodigal Pianist—written upon his return to amateur pianism for personal enjoyment following a hiatus of 30 years—and two mysteries set in 19th-century Boston, featuring Hosea Ballou as sleuth. My only clue to any of this was the subtitle of the generic-looking paperback in my hand: “A Father Ballou and His Dog Spot Mystery.” Once into the first few pages, I wasn’t sure whether I was reading a spoof or not, but then I realized it doesn’t matter. Either way you approach it, mirth will result. I submit the following passage: “After pondering this subject, a cloud passed over his benign countenance as he wondered whether she would ever inform her daughters that their father had been slain by her fiancé of old.” A peculiarly nutty specimen: my idea of entertainment. —Fred Kalil, marketing communications manager, Communications and Marketing

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Long a fan of Daphne du Maurier’s macabre thriller Rebecca—and Hitchcock’s silver-screen take, with Judith Anderson as the terrifying housekeeper/bogeywoman, Mrs. Danvers—I can’t believe I never read the English author’s later classic My Cousin Rachel until recently. It was a preview of a new film adaptation of the circa-1951 book starring Rachel Weisz (how convenient) that finally sent me to the bookshelf. First a quick synopsis: Philip Ashley, an unworldly 20-something, comes into property and fortune after his beloved cousin and guardian, Ambrose, dies under mysterious circumstances while staying at the Italian villa of his new wife, Rachel (another, more distant cousin). Having never met Rachel, Philip suspects that she had a hand in Ambrose’s demise (murder?) and plans to accuse her—or worse—when she visits his coastal estate. But blind rage swiftly turns to affection, then plunges into obsession, leaving us breathless, wondering exactly who’s good and who’s evil in the unfolding drama. Does Rachel have designs on the Ashley riches? What exactly is she putting in the tea she serves to guests of her boudoir? During her lifetime, du Maurier was often glibly characterized as a romance novelist—a label I imagine rankled, considering her mastery of suspense and skill in writing from the male narrator’s point of view. Still, a brisk, lusty British mystery for the beach? Yes, please. —Courtney Hollands, editor of Tufts Medicine

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this novel is a frightening but powerful exploration of the effects of war on all of the combatants and how all become brutalized regardless of their motives as twar drags on. It is about the Vietnam War, but it could apply to any war, and certainly to what is going on right now in the Middle East. It is reminiscent of the movie An Honorable Woman. —Johanna Dwyer, professor of medicine, School of Medicine

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. If you are looking for beach reading, you may want to go elsewhere. This is not a light book. Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel describes the horrors and violence of life being enslaved on a Georgia cotton plantation in graphic and bracing terms. Cora’s escape from the terror is incredibly compelling. Pursued by Ridgeway, a legendary slave hunter, Cora travels from state to state on the Underground Railroad—here, a literal subway with stations and station agents—seeking sanctuary that may not exist. Gripping and haunting, Whitehead’s mix of historical record and revisionist fiction makes his descriptions of life in the antebellum South feel like it could be happening right now. —Robin Smyton, A09, public relations specialist, Communications and Marketing

POETRY

Advice from the Lights, by Stephen Burt. I’ve been lucky to spend time this summer with an advance copy of Advice from the Lights, the soon-to-be published collection of poems from Stephen Burt (also Steph Burt or Stephanie Burt). It’s a book of tremendous intricacy and the best kind of recurrent music. Strung throughout are several separate yet converging poetic sequences, exploring what it means to come of age while inhabiting multiple genders and multiple selves. Some of my favorite poems in the book take this act of tilting at self-knowledge and refract it through the subjective experience of non-human creatures and objects: kites, cicadas, terrarium pets, the hard-eyed Concord grape whose “promise of easy / separation from the stem is not / to be trusted,” the deadpan flashlight to whom sunlight “is just something I get shut off in.” —Natalie Shapero, professor of the practice of poetry, Department of English

In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu, translated by Red Pine. It’s amazing that the work of Wei, a Chinese poet who lived from 737 to 791, has survived and that we have it to console us today, almost 1,300 years after it was written. His plain style, filled with honest sentiment reflecting his hard life, was out of favor with the Tang dynasty literary arbiters, but somehow it lived on. A sense of loss pervades many of these poems—Wei lived in a time of great upheaval in China, as warring factions threw the country into chaos—but loss has always been part and parcel of the human condition. In one poem, Wei writes of his late wife: “I can’t bear to look at the things she left / her calligraphy brush and writing kit / her perfumed scarf still damp / pieces of silk she cut with her knife / I collected these things to bring back / but bringing them back would just cause more grief.” —Taylor McNeil, deputy editor, Tufts Now

NONFICTION

The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. In this powerful illustrated memoir, Bui tells of growing up in an America often hostile to immigrants, all the while trying to escape the wrath of her father and measure up to her mother. Slowly she gets to know her parents’ stories: her father, Nam, grew up poverty-stricken in northern Vietnam, but flowered with education, eventually meeting the cultured Hang in college, and marrying. War was never far away, always on the edge of their daily existence; first the fight against the oppressive French, then the war between north and south. By 1975, in the defeated south, the family is always under suspicion from the Communists: the family is educated, after all. Persecuted and slowly starved, they decide to flee—Hang is eight months pregnant—in an open boat, painstakingly making their way to a refugee camp in Malaysia. They end up in the U.S., and struggle anew, while the children try to fit in. In the end, it’s clear that Bui’s parents did in fact do the best they could do; they are fallible and imperfect, always linked to their pasts, and all the more human for their faults. As Bui grows to have compassion for her parents, she learns to have hope for herself and her new son, and even, just a bit, for the world. Bui’s illustrations carry us right along as the story unfolds; each scene is tightly scripted—she doesn’t waste a word. This is her first graphic book, but she’s already a master of the genre. —Taylor McNeil, deputy editor, Tufts Now

A Cuban in Mayberry, by Gustavo Pérez Firmat. For those of us who are aficionados of The Andy Griffith Show, the source of its appeal is obvious: the laughs, of course, and a longing for a cozy home where all wrongs are righted and all the townspeople  fit in. Pérez Firmat knows about fitting in—and not fitting in. He came to Miami as a Cuban exile at age 11, and later taught for 20 years in North Carolina. A new job landed him in New York City, where he was suddenly homesick for the Tar Heel State. Soon he was watching The Andy Griffith Show nightly on reruns, feeling its nostalgic pull. A longtime humanities professor, he takes us on a loving tour of Mayberry and its eccentric and charming denizens, treating it all as seriously and as sensitively as he might Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. He describes and analyzes the entire series, from the pilot to the sequel (the watered-down Mayberry R.F.D.) and the coda, a 1986 made-for-TV movie. For a fan of the show like me, it’s a wistful trip, and insightful. Pérez Firmat analyzes the insularity of Mayberry, how outsiders can never fit in, how time has essentially stopped, and how the TV show earned that sense of continuity from its constant references to events in its own past. Even though outsiders would never belong in Mayberry, Pérez Firmat ends this short book with a delightfully imagined episode. In it, a lost Cuban boy shows up at the bus stop down from the courthouse and is befriended by Opie, and the townsfolk take up his cause to find his Tía María. There’s a happy ending, of course, and as the proverbial credits roll, Andy and Barney are lounging in the dark on Andy’s porch, softly singing “La Cucaracha.” —Taylor McNeil, deputy editor, Tufts Now

Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber. Wealth inequality and its connection to debt is arguably one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today; Graeber’s book is certainly timely. A delightful and thought-provoking treatise on the history and nature of debt, money and inequality, it reflects Graeber’s background—he is an anthropologist at the London School of Economics. One theory of money, Graeber says, is that it is nothing more—or less—than debt. He points to the Bank of England, which was founded in 1694 when the king borrowed £1,200,000 from a consortium of bankers, giving them in return a royal monopoly on the issuing of bank notes. Each bank note was a portion of the debt owed by the king, and therefore effectively guaranteed by the king. The bankers were able to charge the king 8 percent interest on the outstanding debt, while simultaneously collecting interest on loans of bank notes to individuals. Naturally, this arrangement made the bankers extremely wealthy, but it worked only so long as the king’s debt remained outstanding. It is perhaps for this reason that, as Graeber notes, “to this day, this loan has never been paid back. It cannot be. If it ever were, the entire monetary system of Great Britain would cease to exist.” Graeber’s writing is clear, lucid, accessible and entertaining. His conclusions are sometimes startling, always profound and often delivered with a dose of humor and irony. The book covers topics as diverse as money, religion, slavery, marriage, sweatshops and war, providing a fresh perspective that is likely to be new to most readers. —Bruce Boghosian, professor, Department of Mathematics

Germany: Memories of a Nation, by Neil MacGregor. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which begs the question, why did the Reformation start in Germany? Indeed, why could it have happened only there? MacGregor does not march the reader through chronologies, but he gently, lovingly and enticingly wraps his mind—and ours—around many facets of what Germany is by examining objects and their histories. This approach makes for a riveting—and well-illustrated—tour de force. MacGregor was the director of the National Gallery and the British Museum, a background that allows him to approach the complexities of culture, identity and history with these concrete items as starting points, an approach previously taken in his book A History of the World in 100 Objects. This book is divided into six parts—Where Is Germany, Imagining Germany, The Persistent Past, Made in Germany, The Descent and Living with History—each with five chapters. Many chapters are headlined with a specific object, but not all. One opens with a quote from Thomas Mann: “Although I have become an American citizen, I have remained a German writer, faithful to the German language, which I consider to be my real homeland.” A close reading of this statement opens a rich panorama of language, identity, nation, culture and geography that is closely interwoven with the other chapters. Each chapter is a riveting gem worth rereading again and again, and the whole is a rich fabric, which left me feeling that I finally was beginning to “get” something that defies facile description. So, why did the Reformation start in Germany? Why could it have happened only there? Read the book and find out. —Boris Hasselblatt, professor, Department of Mathematics

The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered, by Benjamin Taylor. On November 22, 1963, four hours before JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Ben Taylor, an asthmatic, bookish Fort Worth sixth-grader, was taken by his mother to hear the president speak in front of the Hotel Texas. There, right in the front of the crowd as the president descended from his platform, Ben hit boyhood gold and got to shake his hero’s hand. What follows in this poignant, haunting memoir is a story that encompasses both the nation’s and a family’s trauma. In pellucid prose, Benjamin Taylor unties the knots in the country’s psyche and more urgently in his own life growing up Jewish and gay in suburban Fort Worth. Family members, shadowed by both the Holocaust and local tragedy, a house fire that has killed Ben’s grandmother and three of his cousins, are limned with delicacy, affection and insight; the world they inhabit is similarly evoked. In the end, we are aware that we have been reading an exquisite portrait of the artist as a young man, the developing consciousness of our narrator abundant recompense for the suffering engendered by the long-held secrets of his childhood. —Jonathan Wilson, professor, Department of English

In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, by David Reynolds. You realize how very true Churchill’s aphorism “history will be kind to me for I intend to write it” was. He literally did. David Reynolds deftly tells the story of how after defeat in the 1945 general election in Britain Churchill supported a “syndicate” of researchers and editors, and put together the monumental, multivolume and Nobel Prize-winning The Second World War. It was not only to secure his legacy but also to serve as a tool for his own political rehabilitation (it also netted him a bundle). While the book is often seen as an authoritative history of the conflict, Reynolds, through his own analysis of the British war effort, shows how Churchill massaged and obscured less laudatory aspects of his leadership. Still, Churchill succeeded in setting down a basic narrative of the war that we still recognize and revise. The book is not just a history of a writing project but an incisive look at the story of the war itself. It at once shows the power of history and the power of authors to shape it. —David Ekbladh, associate professor, Department of History

Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann. In the 1920s, the Osage Indian nation of northern Oklahoma was the richest per capita group of people in the United States, the result of vast oil reserves found on their land. Then members of the tribe began dying in large numbers—the victims of mysterious shootings, poisonings, even house explosions. David Grann, journalist, Fletcher graduate and the author of The Lost City of Z, brings to life a forgotten and horrific side of American history. What’s most impressive here is the depth of his research, making use of personal interviews, FBI files, secret grand jury testimony, logs from private detectives, newspaper articles and crime scene photographs. The book is also a gripping drama that illuminates a complex frontier world and features a rich panorama of Osage millionaires, their white American legal “guardians,” and law enforcement officials. J. Edgar Hoover and J. Paul Getty make cameo appearances. With this story, Grann has unearthed a gruesome chapter in the hidden history of America; it is not a comforting one, but it is a difficult one to put down. —Neil Miller, lecturer, Department of English  

Massacre on the Merrimack, by Jay Atkinson. This book provides an enlightening perspective on the conflict between Native Americans, French settlers and English settlers in the “New World,” complicated by the conflict between English Protestantism and French Catholicism. The story starts just before the turn of the 18th century. A band of Abenaki warriors aligned with the French attack an English settlement in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Killed are many of the settlement’s inhabitants, and among the captured is a woman with her one-week-old daughter. As the story unfolds we learn about the trials and tribulations of the captives as they march up to Canada to be sold as slaves, how two young boys captured earlier are critical to the protagonist’s survival, and how a grieving woman gets her revenge after the murder of her infant daughter. Eventually, she flees down the Merrimack River by canoe, is reunited with her surviving family members, and collects her bounty. A fascinating, albeit disturbing, story about New England life in the late 1700s. —Alice H. Lichtenstein, Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, Friedman School

A Revolution in Color, by Jane Kamensky. John Singleton Copley is widely regarded as one of this country’s pioneering artists, but he actually left America for London in 1774, as the Revolutionary crisis approached—his wealthy father-in-law was one of the consignees of the tea thrown overboard during the Boston Tea Party—and never came back. Copley’s life tracked many of the central themes of a turbulent and creative era. He participated in the emergence of a self-conscious culture of refinement in the seaports of British North America, experienced the pressures of popular politics, undertook an artistic grand tour of Europe, and made himself successful at the heart of an empire, winning election as a full member of the Royal Academy in 1783. Jane Kamensky tells his story beautifully and in its full complexity, attentive to both the enslaved African-Americans in Copley’s household and the royals he rose to paint. His life and career didn’t end in triumph: by the end, Copley fell from fashion and struggled to maintain his family in the face of debt. But his paintings endured. If you haven’t visited the Art of the Americas wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts recently, head over to Huntington Avenue. The MFA’s dazzling roomful of Copleys will make you want to read Kamensky’s book and learn more about the man who took colonial art to new levels of sophistication. — Michael Baenen, chief of staff, President’s Office

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. This winter, audiences flocked to theaters to see the movie Hidden Figures, a film based on the true but little-known story of three African-American women who worked for NASA and a played a crucial role in helping to launch astronaut John Glenn into space. For me, the depiction was both exhilarating and troubling. Why was this the first time I had ever heard about this? What could this knowledge have meant to me, and to generations of black women themselves portrayed in this light? These questions haunted me. It is in this spirit of exploration that I hugely recommend The Warmth of Other Suns, an epic story about the Great Migration, the movement of 6 million African-Americans out of the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West, between 1910 and 1970. Beautifully written, the book explores this fascinating period of American history while interweaving the biographies of three individuals: an agricultural worker who moved from Florida to New York City, a sharecropper’s wife who left Mississippi for Chicago, and a doctor who moved from Louisiana to California. The resulting narrative is illuminating. It is through their eyes that the book conveys the various impacts of race-inspired violence, as well as sustained education, housing and job discrimination. Exploration of this tough but important history through story makes for a compelling yet digestible page-turner. —Kalimah Redd Knight, associate director of public relations, Communications and Marketing

Worry: Controlling It and Using It Wisely, by Edward M. Hallowell. Do you want to fold yourself into another world—or your previous world, where you did not have to pause and consider your safety before going to the movies, the mall or the beach boardwalk? Worry: Controlling It and Using It Wisely is a must read for all who need to keep from dwelling on the “what ifs” that can preoccupy us in these interesting times. When I started to page through the beginning of the book, I was snagged by the simple, archaic definition of the word “worry” from the Oxford English Dictionary: to strangle, throttle, kill by violence . . . to seize by the throat and tear or lacerate, e.g., dogs or wolves attacking sheep. Skimming Worry’s table of contents will no doubt attract the reader to any one of Hallowell’s 26 themes. Among them are the biological basis of worry, worry at work, anxiety disorders and paranoia. Once Hallowell has discussed these topics, he helps soothe the reader with, as he says, “remedies that work.” His clinical expertise kicks in, as he discusses meditation and medication—and religion and golf—giving great analogies where he gently nudges the reader to help remember what is controllable and what one needs to shrug off. After reading Worry and trying the coping strategies, we become able to tackle many of the more current concerns of the day (bullying, family conflict, White House/global worries). This book is the perfect companion for a trip to the beach, too, and for all you worriers, did you know that there is a mobile app that will alert beachgoers about shark sightings? —Helen Rasmussen, instructor, Friedman School of Nutrition and Science Policy; research dietician, HNRCA

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