What We’re Reading

The Tufts community weighs in with wintertime book recommendations

Our year-end books roundup is always a page-turner. And with suggestions from John Steinbeck to dystopian fiction and from modern journalism and a biography of Louis Armstrong to the future of the earth and the end of poverty, this year’s recommendations are as wide-ranging as ever.

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


The Circle, by Dave Eggers. Tech giant the Circle has streamlined online identity security and emerges as the web’s most powerful company in Dave Eggers’s darkly comic novel. We see it through the eyes of a young Circle employee, who is put off by the company’s luxurious but suffocating work culture—amazing health care, beautiful onsite dormitories, raging “non-mandatory” parties—until she becomes one of its most notorious members. It is easy to see how the world could be drawn into such brilliant and charismatic leadership, even when the company’s real motives are unclear. Eggers bases the all-consuming but civically responsible corporate culture of the Circle on those one-word tech companies that we interact with every day—this could be where Internet culture is headed. You’ll experience a shudder of recognition by the end of the book that will inspire you to take a holiday hiatus from the web. —Robin Smyton, administrative assistant, Office of Public Relations

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher. I am a big fan of the academic satire—in fact, I’m such a big fan that I even wrote one myself. I would imagine that if you’re reading Tufts Now, your links to the academy mean that you, too, enjoyed Jane Smiley’s Moo, Richard Russo’s Straight Man or even my Something for Nothing. If this is the case, then you should put Julie Schumacher’s new novel, Dear Committee Members, on your wish list for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza or the Pagan Solstice. Schumacher has written a wonderful epistolary novel. This form presents an author with a certain challenge. Only through the letters of Professor Jay Fitger (no emails for this proudly Luddite middle-aged professor of creative writing and English at the modestly rated Payne University) do we see how he attempts to balance the demeaning aspects of academic life (endless letters of recommendation for underqualified students, stifling committee work and decrepit and even health-threatening surroundings) with efforts to salvage his collapsing professional and personal life and promote the career of a faltering advisee. The letters are great fun, not least for Fitger’s grandiloquent language, which he wields like a sword; unfortunately for him, the rest of the world is now fighting with bazookas. As an economist, I particularly enjoyed his skewering of the privileges enjoyed by those in my discipline; for example, his complaints that once the English Department is shut down, the professors could be “…rehired to clean, perhaps with cotton swabs dipped in olive oil, the gold leaf surely to be installed in the brand-new fiefdom on the Econ floor.” Schumacher deftly moves the plot and the character development along, and the novel turns surprisingly touching at the end. —Michael Klein, the William L. Clayton Professor of International Economics, Fletcher School

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel focuses on young Theo Decker, who winds up with a Dutch masterwork after a tragic day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book follows the next 15 years of his life, bouncing from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, to deserted sunbelt housing developments and a 21st-century curiosity shop. Tartt’s writing is extraordinarily vivid and deliberate, if long-winded—at 800-plus pages, The Goldfinch is best read on a Kindle. Descriptions of Theo’s lost teenage years drag a bit, especially when it is clear where he is headed, but that’s a quibble: this epic is intense and engaging, especially for fans of art, books about the criminal underworld or sprawling Dickensian character ensembles. —Robin Smyton, administrative assistant, Office of Public Relations

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. I just finished rereading this prize-winning short story collection and was again struck by Lahiri’s simple but beautiful prose, centered on themes of disconnection and connection. Lahiri primarily uses immigration to illuminate the otherness in her characters, to see the possibilities between vastly different people who are thrown together and make connections despite their isolation from society. In “Mrs. Sen’s,” for example, a boy and his babysitter keep each other company until an adventure goes awry. In “The Third and Final Continent,” a new immigrant from India gets to know America through his relationship with his 103-year-old landlady while he’s waiting for his wife, who is almost a stranger, to arrive. In each story, the characters are struggling to understand and adapt to a new situation, and while not all endings are positive, there is something hopeful in the human need to connect. —Margot Grisar, design director, Office of Publications

The King, by Kader Abdolah. In this remarkable novel, Kader Abdolah draws on the life of Naser al-Din Shah, a 19th-century king of Persia, to reflect on issues that still challenge our world. Abdolah fled his native Iran for the Netherlands in 1988 after opposing the regimes of both the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini. Writing with the economy of fable and with a judgment at once compassionate and unsparing, he takes us into the mind of a monarch who is overmatched in his efforts to control the pace and direction of change. Nothing has prepared this prince for the range and scale of the challenges he faces, within his own country, on his borders and from far away. Kader Abdolah’s Naser is not the historian’s. But in Abdolah’s imaginative recreation of Naser’s story, the great abstractions of history—modernization, imperialism, nationalism, fundamentalism—take on new vividness, complexity and personal resonance. By the end of the book, the impact of his rule for the future of his nation, and for the news we follow today, has become all too clear. The King made me want to learn more about Iranian history, and to read more by Kader Abdolah. —Michael Baenen, chief of staff, Office of the President

The Moon Is Down, by John Steinbeck. Published in 1942, this novel tells the story of the military invasion of a small, northern European town. Under cover of darkness, the town is taken by surprise in a swift and bloodless maneuver. Wanting nothing more than a simple life, the townspeople initially accept the suppression of their democratically elected officials and consent to military rule. In the hopes of maintaining the town’s submission, military leaders seek to be benevolent in their rule. But a surface of civility masks a deeper oppression. As winter sets in, relationships begin to fray and the absence of democracy is more deeply felt. Steinbeck expertly details the motivations of townspeople and invaders alike, illustrating how subtle and insidious oppression can be. A tale of oppression and resistance, The Moon is Down inspires resisters everywhere to push for a truly free and democratic society. —Sarah Shugars, communications manager, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson. On the day of Allan Karlsson’s 100th birthday, he decides to escape from his detested nursing home by climbing out the window before the party planned by Director Alice, who won’t allow him to drink vodka. He embarks on a wacky series of adventures that begin in earnest when he steals a suitcase in a bus station without knowing its contents. Allan joins forces with a hotdog stand operator, and when they discover what’s inside the suitcase, well, that’s how they meet up with a succession of characters during their adventures. Interspersed with Allan’s current-day journey is the story of his life, in which he somehow manages to pop up in unlikely places as a young man, meeting Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and Harry S. Truman, among other historic figures. This Swedish novel is an easy and fun read; just be sure you’ve willingly suspended disbelief. —Marjorie Howard, senior writer, Tufts Now

Sharp Objects and Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn. If you need to cut back the glare of holiday lights, take a walk on the dark side with two lesser-known novels by author Gillian Flynn. Her New York Times bestseller Gone Girl is now a major motion picture, nominated for a Golden Globe award. But her two previous novels offer more compelling and fully drawn psychological portraits of women damaged by gruesome events who search for themselves as they unravel compelling crime mysteries. In Flynn’s debut novel, Sharp Objects (2006), Camille Preaker is a newspaper reporter in Chicago who was once institutionalized for carving words into her skin. Now assigned to cover a serial killer in the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri, where she grew up, she sees the truth about the murders and her own psychological puzzle begin to unfold. In Dark Places (2009), we meet the thoroughly dislikable Libby Day, who speaks the book’s opening line: “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” She is drawn back to her childhood home of Kinnakee, Kansas, 25 years after her family was slaughtered in satanic killings. She slowly sees how memory can deceive as she unlinks a chain of guilt that has ruined her life. In both novels, Flynn deftly paints the grit of poor rural towns and their inhabitants, and the environments become integral characters in creating and revealing tragic secrets. The books will surprise you with their depth and refusal to be simply defined by any one genre. —Gail Bambrick, senior writer, Tufts Now

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. What if Ebola had been easily transferable through a simple cough like a highly virulent flu? The world after a pandemic is an ugly thing to consider, and in this National Book Award nominee, we see a sort of gentle dystopia descend across the globe after 99.99 percent of the world’s population is wiped out in a matter of months. Unlike brutal, hard-to-read apocalyptic novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this is the story of what might happen if humanity by and large decided to work together, remembered what was lost and haltingly tried to rebuild some semblance of a civilization. The heroine is a former child actress and—predictably in these post-Hunger Games days—a self-trained expert with a weapon: in this case the thrown knife. But she is also a member of a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors and concert musicians who wander the somewhat dangerous but not impassable roads of the upper Midwest performing what they loved so deeply before all was lost. Along the way, there is time to ponder the mysteries of Station Eleven itself, a graphic novel whose tale provides a kind of DNA to the back story of this gorgeously written and seamlessly assembled book. The final scenes in the Station Eleven, as several plot lines converge, will stay with you like the closing bars of a symphony in hopeful and lovely tones long after you put it down. Hope springs eternal, and this is just the novel to remind us of that. —James Stavridis, dean, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Take This Man: A Memoir, by Brando Skyhorse. This is a memoir unlike any I’ve ever read before. While many in the genre explore harrowing childhoods, parental relationships and questions of identity, Brando’s life offers singular material. He writes about growing up in Echo Park in Los Angeles—where his first novel, 2011 PEN/ Hemingway Award winner The Madonnas of Echo Park, is also set—with his mother, Maria, as well as his grandparents and a series of men playing temporary father, his mother’s boyfriends. There are moments of maternal cruelty when I want to look away, such as when five-year-old Brando is punished for losing cereal box tops by getting his face pushed into a public restroom toilet. However, this isn’t a catalogue of childhood abuses. This is a book about storytelling. It’s about truth versus fiction. As Brando works through the stories he’s been told and what they’ve meant, he interrogates the role of narrative in our lives. Brando’s mother, a Mexican American, transforms identities for herself and young Brando based on a version of “Native American” that is an interpretation of stories she’s heard. The book is a vivid, moving journey into an American childhood that lives up to Maria’s favorite saying: “At least it’s never boring.”—Grace Talusan, J94, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences


All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai, A90. In this compelling work, Bai documents the infamous 1987 scandal involving Gary Hart, whose promising presidential run came tumbling down when relentless journalists uncovered and publicized his extramarital affair. At a time when politics and tabloids were destined to collide, Hart found himself at the mercy of an emerging 24/7 media machine fed by a public whose trust in public officials was growing increasingly fragile. In a thoughtful analysis of the role of journalism in a democracy, Bai illustrates how tabloid journalism has changed the face of politics and questions the cost to our democracy of the public’s thirst for scandal. —Alan D. Solomont, dean, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service

Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, by Robert Whitaker. In this provocative and meticulously researched exposé, Whitaker seeks to answer one of modern medicine’s mysteries: why has the number of disabled mentally ill in the United States tripled over the last two decades? His answer may surprise you and will certainly change the way you think about mental health and pharmaceutical use in the United States. This isn’t just a good book, it’s an important one. —Samuel Ruth, G14, associate director, Office of Continuing Education, School of Dental Medicine

The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis, by Ruth DeFries. Homo sapiens spent many tens of thousands of years roaming the planet, not much different from other mammals, but then a few of them stopped foraging and settled in small groups to farm. It was the first of a recurring series of events: every ratchet in food production leads to larger populations, followed inevitably by the hatchet, as food production is outstripped by population growth or simply crashes due to bad weather or pests like locusts. But then, DeFries says, humans make a pivot, and through ingenuity figure a way to ratchet up food production again. The cycle has repeated regularly since humans first settled to farm, and she tracks many instances of it over the centuries. Eventually, this phenomenon led to what DeFries calls the Big Ratchet, the explosive growth in the mid-20th century in food production worldwide, due mostly to the so-called Green Revolution, with its hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuel-powered farm machinery, as the human population soared from 3 billion at the turn of 1959 to 7 billion by 2012. But the Big Ratchet, of course, contains the seeds of its own destruction: pesticides destroy more than just insects, and pests quickly evolve resistance to them anyway. Nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers run off into rivers and lakes and poison them with algae growth. What’s next? DeFries doesn’t guess, but suggests that it’s good to remember that it’s not a case of us vs. nature. We are simply a part of nature, she points out. Perhaps realizing that might help with the next pivot. —Taylor McNeil, senior news editor, Tufts Now

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown. The University of Washington rowing team—a scrappy bunch of boys, most of whom had been hard-hit by the privations of the Depression—surprised most of the world by capturing the gold at the Berlin Olympics. First they had to defeat the more privileged teams of the East; then they were up against Hitler’s Aryan athletes. The story of their four years of training and their victories and defeats and the larger story of how a Western university came to dominate the formerly elite sport of rowing are indeed exciting and set the tone for Daniel James Brown’s briskly paced book. What’s that you say? You don’t particularly care for sports stories? Don’t worry—neither do I. But The Boys in the Boat is worth your time anyway, because it’s really a gripping social history of Depression-era America. With its focus on one rower, Joe Rantz, who faced some extraordinary personal hardships, it’s also a story of individual perseverance and strength. Some reviewers have seized on Brown’s sometimes overwrought prose and tendency toward cliché—but it’s the story that’s the star here, and the tale overcomes any mechanical faults in the telling. —Helene Ragovin, editor, Tufts Dental Medicine magazine

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, by Mary Elise Sarotte. Nothing is inevitable in history—Sarotte makes this abundantly clear as she describes the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. The reunification of Germany was no foreordained conclusion: the momentous change was brought about by spontaneous decisions that local people on the ground in East Germany made—and it could easily have turned out differently. The Communist regime was nasty; the secret police, the Stasi, kept tabs on everyone; dissent was sharply limited. East Germans were shot and killed trying to flee their country, especially at the Berlin Wall, as late as the spring of 1989. By then, though, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was instituting reforms in the USSR, which emboldened opposition movements in Eastern Europe. The East German regime was ready to use violence against its people and planned to during a large protest march in Leipzig, but the local Communist party chief was out sick, and his number two at the last minute ordered the heavily armed police to let the protesters alone. The regime drafted new guidelines for a supposedly more liberal exit policy, but middle-level bureaucrats added provisions that looked like the borders were suddenly opening, and a botched press conference on Nov. 9, 1989, by a party official announcing the changes made it seem like anyone could leave right away. People started showing up en masse at checkpoints along the Berlin Wall. One officer in charge that night, Harald Jäger, driven by anger at his insulting superiors and the rising mob outside, on the spur of the moment opened the gates—and thousands streamed across to West Berlin. The Wall had fallen, and soon with it the Communist regime. Sarotte tells the story in compelling prose, and makes us understand the fragility of the moment. —Taylor McNeil, senior news editor, Tufts Now

Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, by Frederik Logevall. The U.S. war in Vietnam left deep marks on this country. One of the less painful scars is the great literature on the conflict that spans the spectrum from fiction to nonfiction. However, the struggles that preceded the U.S. war tend, in American minds and books, to be mere exposition. Logevall’s elegant yet piercing book changes that. It is a full, gripping account of the grasping French (and Japanese) attempts to control Indochina 1940s and 1950s and the Vietnamese movements that sought independence. It shows how a set of misguided and tragic colonial wars crackled to life and just how furiously they burned. Logevall also reveals how the United States, building on the ashes of the defeated French empire, only added fuel that assured those fires would roar to life again. Logevall’s book is built on what is now three generations of scholarship, but as the Pulitzer committee rightly saw, Embers of War is a grand achievement in its own right. —David Ekbladh, associate professor of history, School of Arts and Sciences

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History through the Heart of the Grand Canyon, by Kevin Fedarko. After outlining the geological and political history of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, Fedarko comes to a defining event: the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. The damming of the river leading into the Grand Canyon enraged environmentalists and the river runners who guided tourists the length of the Grand Canyon. Among the elite of the river runners were the guides who piloted wooden boats called dories rather than inflatable rubber rafts. In 1983, massive floods almost destroyed the Glen Canyon Dam, and huge amounts of water had to be released. Three river runners saw the opportunity of a lifetime in this flood of water. They launched their dories onto the river, without permits, to ride the length of the Grand Canyon in 48 hours—rather than the normal two weeks. It was a speed record that has never been matched, even by motored boats. —James Michael Hall, associate professor, oral and maxillofacial pathology, School of Dental Medicine

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, by Jeffrey D. Sachs. When opening this treatise by the heroic Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, do not skim past the introduction by Bono. It is a bit of hero worship that puts Sachs’ contribution to the understanding of poverty in perspective. As a dentist, I appreciated the way The End of Poverty follows the comfortable format of a scientific paper. Sachs illustrates the problem of poverty with a whirlwind tour of four countries: Malawi, Bangladesh, India and China. After comparing and contrasting their financial and social situations, he introduces the concept that although each country faces unique problems, people have the same needs and desires. Sachs believes that each country’s situation calls for diagnosis and treatment planning exactly the way a physician (or a dentist) treats a patient. Sachs provides case reports of economic successes and failures, including his efforts in Bolivia, Poland, India and Russia. He closes by outlining current efforts, with a prescription for successful eradication of poverty in the next 10 years. The concepts discussed in The End of Poverty will fuel all manner of political discourse for years to come. I highly recommend this book for its easy readability and the way Sachs’ concepts stayed with me long after I finished it. —David Leader, D85, MPH13, associate clinical professor, Department of Diagnosis and Health Promotion, School of Dental Medicine

Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism, by Thomas Brothers. In 1922, when Louis Armstrong boarded a train from New Orleans to Chicago to take his spot as second trumpet in King Oliver’s band, the party was about to begin. Over the next decade, this shy, brilliant young man would blow the roof off whatever passed for a conventional song, opening up new harmonic worlds. He would do the work first with his instrument and then with his voice. There is no better telling of the tale than this superb biography by Thomas Brothers, a musicologist at Duke University and author of a fine earlier book, Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans (W.W. Norton, 2007), who frames Armstrong’s achievement in terms of a collision between Western and “black vernacular” styles of music, dating back to Africa. The 1920s were when Armstrong led the Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions, among the most influential recordings in jazz history. Brothers shows great narrative skill in relating a story as much sociological as musical. He’s able to guide you along the streets of Chicago in a period when black residents were thriving and ran their own banks, department stores, nightclubs and barber shops. And then, when he bumps into a landmark tune from Armstrong’s repertoire, he can shift gears and dive into the musical architecture of the thing. I’ve read a few Armstrong biographies now, but all the others stumble when it comes to the music itself; they don’t know what to say. In contrast, Brothers can convey the flavor of a high note that Armstrong hit in two successive songs and make you hear the difference. This book is highly recommended for anyone who has loved Armstrong’s sound and wants to understand precisely how it came to be. —Bruce Morgan, editor, Tufts Medicine magazine

The Meaning of Human Existence, by Edward O. Wilson. In less than 200 pages, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson reminds us why Homo sapiens have had this species moment in the earthly sun and will soon give way to the ants, bees, wasps and termites, which outweigh us and soon will take over the management of this planet we humans have wrecked. If you believe in God, then it will be God’s will; if you believe that our species is no more than a selfish naked ape, then our demise as rulers of the earth is just what we deserve. We evolved the bigger brain, the flexible thumb and, for a time, we cooperated with each other. Alas, it was not enough to keep us from destroying the environment and each other. The Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible and the Koran tell us that the world was once destroyed by flood, and next will be destroyed by fire. Professor Wilson helps us understand how we did it to ourselves. —Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor and Professor of German

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, by Dorothy Wickenden. In the spring of 1916, two Smith College graduates set out for a year of teaching in the frontier of Elkhead, Colorado. Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood came from wealthy families in Auburn, New York. Like other well-educated and well-heeled young women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after graduation they found themselves with few options other than the obligatory tour of Europe, social reform work and, of course, marriage to the right sort of fellow from the right sort of family. Dorothy and Rosamond found none of these options particularly appealing. So when they heard of an opportunity to go west and staff a new school being started by an ambitious young man—Farrington “Ferry” Carpenter—they couldn’t resist. It turned out to be a life-altering experience. Wickenden, an executive editor at the New Yorker, is Dorothy Woodruff’s granddaughter, and as such, had both the literary skills and the access to documents to weave together a compelling tale. Nothing Daunted is a very good read—I read it in a single day. That said, despite Wickenden’s access to Dorothy and Ros’ letters and diaries, the book is curiously devoid of the inner aspirations and thoughts of the main characters. We’re left wondering how it is that these women without any formal training in teaching learned to be seemingly inspirational teachers, why they fell in love with the men they did, even what beyond their shared background and experiences made them such close friends for life. But the strength of the trio of stories—Dorothy’s, Ros’ and Ferry’s—carries the tale. The next book on my “to-read” list will be Ferry’s autobiography, Confessions of a Maverick. —Julie Dobrow, director, Communications and Media Studies Program; senior lecturer, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development

Sugar: A Bittersweet History, by Elizabeth Abbott. Most of the books I read come from three genres—psychology, food and global affairs. I’ve had Sugar on my bookshelf for a while, but the recent media craziness surrounding whether carbs are good or bad, and where sugar fits into that topic, prompted me to open it up and see what is inside. Abbott describes in fascinating detail how demand for sugar as a luxury product was actually the impetus for the slave trade, and how for many years sugar cane production was the largest industry in the world. Sugar was in such massive demand that a pound cost the equivalent of earnings for two to three days of manual labor—so about $300 to $400 per pound in today’s terms—and business magnates were willing to do whatever was necessary to create a supply to sell. In effect, one of the key initial drivers of the enslavement of 5.5 million Africans was to make a profit on what was then called “white gold.” Sugar is a heart-rending narrative that provides a sobering message for those who innocently imagine that all we need to do is tell people that too much sugar is unhealthy and expect they will give it up. For reasons not yet fully understood, sugar is extraordinarily hard to resist, and with modern-day per-capita sugar consumption hovering at a very unhealthy three pounds a week, the lesson I drew from this fine book is that government needs to create some policies to encourage change. —Susan B. Roberts, director, Obesity and Energetics Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts; professor of nutrition, Friedman School; professor of psychiatry and scientific staff member in pediatrics, Tufts School of Medicine.
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