Books for Long Winter Nights

The Tufts community offers fiction and nonfiction reading suggestions for all tastes

photo illustration of tree with books on branches

In this age of instant communication, sound bites, 140-character missives and disappearing Snapchat messages, books are holding their own, and maybe even growing in popularity, whether printed on the page or viewed on our smartphones. With suggestions from the Tufts community ranging from fiction by Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut to graphic novels and mysteries, and from a meditation on end-of-life care to same-sex marriage in early America, we’ve got plenty to recommend.

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


The Anatomy Lesson, by Nina Siegal. Maybe my favorite book last winter was this novel, which uses the story of how Rembrandt came to create his famous painting as a way of describing the life and culture of 17th-century Holland. An absolutely fascinating and historically based story. —Beatrice Rogers, professor of economics and food policy, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty. The children in Big Little Lies have much more sense than their parents. Moriarty’s darkly comic novel takes on the cliques, backbiting and sniping among parents at an elementary school outside of Sydney, Australia. When a darling first grader at Pirriwee Public School is bullied early in the year and she points her finger at a new boy, the mothers and fathers at the school take sides for or against him and his shy, fragile single mother. The three main characters—all mothers at the school—are sympathetic, but still unreasonably ridiculous. Moriarty is skilled at the slow reveal. Big Little Lies is a satire of helicopter parenthood, but it’s also a suspense novel about violence and deserved justice. I couldn’t put it down. —Robin Smyton, A09, public relations coordinator, University Relations

The Cartel, by Don Winslow. This is a big, sprawling book by a master storyteller. It perfectly illuminates the utter violence that seized northern Mexico roughly five years ago, and of course persists today, albeit somewhat less intense. The story centers on the various cartels that run the massive drug trade—Tijuana, Sinaloa, Gulf—and their legions of sicarios and Zetas, the foot soldiers who kill with complete ruthlessness in awful and creative ways. The interplay of a world-weary but willing DEA agent and his archrival, the cartel leader, is masterfully depicted, as is the increasingly shocking level of corruption in the Mexican government. After spending three years as the commander of U.S. Southern Command in Miami, with primary military responsibility for counter-narcotic activity throughout Latin America, I can attest to the absolute authenticity of this book. And we should not forget that the drug markets and the guns that fuel this violence come from the United States; after reading this, any sensible observer would agree that this is a problem we have to tackle together. The solutions are complex, and the metaphor of the “war on drugs” is all wrong. What is needed is a balanced approach to treating addicts, reducing the supply by alternative crop and development work and interdiction. And as with marijuana, we at least should be considering whether legalization of cocaine makes sense. Above all, The Cartel shows us the horrific level of violence that drugs and our failures as societies to address them are wreaking on our southern neighbor. Some have called this the Mexican version of Mario Puzo’s iconic crime family novel The Godfather in terms of its power and scope—but it is vastly more graphic and violent. Let’s hope it motivates action to resolve the challenges we share together with our neighbors to the south. —James Stavridis, F83, F84, dean of the Fletcher School

Cuba: My Revolution, by Iverna Lockpez, Dean Haspiel and Jose Villarrubia. Sometimes, a graphic novel has the power to convey an experience in a way that text alone cannot. Cuba: My Revolution takes some of the familiar narrative of the early Castro era and brings it to painful life in illustrations that capture both the ordinary and the terrifying. Inspired by the experiences of its author, Iverna Lockpez, and made potent with the images of illustrator Dean Haspiel and colorist Jose Villarrubia, the novel follows Sonya, a 17-year-old idealist, on a journey, literal and figurative, from pro-revolutionary to reluctant expatriate. As the son of a Cuban immigrant and friend to several more recent arrivals, I’ve heard both the dark and the sunny takes on the revolution and its aftermath, but Cuba: My Revolution was able paint a more complex portrait, as its panels unmask the practicalities and cruelties of dictatorship through the eyes of a young woman trying very hard to believe it will all be worth it someday. That the protagonist eventually cannot feel safe within a society is a painful arrival, not just for her, but for me as a reader. —David Valdes Greenwood, lecturer, Department of English

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher. Brilliantly funny, this epistolary tale told via letters of recommendation from a jaded, besieged late middle-aged professor of creative writing, Jay Fitger, is firmly in the tradition of campus novels that skewer more than a few of the absurd aspects of academic life. The comings and goings inside Payne University, a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, are laid out deftly and with exorbitant wit. Fitger’s office is under siege (think noise, asbestos dust, plumbing problems) from workmen who are busy turning the adjacent economics department into a palace. His love life is in ruins, his problems in that area compounded by an unfortunate “reply all” intended for his inamorata but misdirected to the entire campus. His literary career, too, is down the tubes, but he soldiers on, trying to secure positions for those who are graduating, or agents and publishers for his most talented writers. Unfortunately for Prof. Fitger’s current and former students, he cannot resist digression, and his letters almost always end up undermining their initial intent. Dear Committee Members won the 2015 Thurber Prize for American Humor, but for anyone familiar with American university life in recent years, it might come across more as a novel of Balzacian realism. —Jonathan Wilson, professor of English and director of the Center for Humanities at Tufts

Eureka Street: A Novel of Ireland Like No Other, by Robert McLiam Wilson. This is by far one of the most fascinating, disturbing and hilarious novels that I have ever read. Northern Irish author Robert McLiam Wilson sets his story in Belfast in 1994, shortly before and after the IRA ceasefires, and focuses on two working-class Belfast friends: Jake Jackson and Chuckie Lurgan. Jake is a Catholic—a fact that he tries to keep quiet among his Protestant friends—and a repo man who, despite his hard exterior, has a poet’s heart: he opens the novel with the line “All stories are love stories.” Chuckie is a fame-obsessed, overweight Protestant who, upon turning 30 at the start of the novel, realizes that he has never really accomplished anything in his life. The novel switches back and forth between Jake’s first-person narrative and Chuckie’s third-person narrative, and follows their absurd and sometimes dangerous escapades in a bomb-torn Belfast. Chuckie, despite his blundering and ridiculed appearance, discovers that he is an entrepreneurial genius and a person of great attraction to a beautiful American woman named Max. Jake attempts to come to terms with his seemingly hopeless love life, and his political role as a Catholic in Northern Ireland, which he is forced to confront upon meeting a passionate Irish Republican named Aoirghe Jenkins. The novel is particularly enjoyable because it offers personal insights into the deeply rooted troubles and strife of Northern Ireland, but takes no sides. Belfast is seen through satirically cynical eyes, but has a romanticized glint to it as well. As a former English major and known bibliophile, I am always asked for book suggestions. Eureka Street is always the first that comes to mind. —Krista Pierce, senior prospect development analyst, University Advancement

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng. This is a beautifully structured novel that shows the heartbreaking results of family members unable to communicate with each other. “Couldn’t put it down” is a cliché, but it was true of this book. —Beatrice Rogers, professor of economics and food policy, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

Finding Nouf, by Zoe Ferraris. This is a thoroughly engaging book—and it surprised me by being a murder mystery and at the same time an eye-opening window into the culture of Saudi Arabia. The narrative draws you in, and the characters are genuine. —Beatrice Rogers, professor of economics and food policy, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

Habibi, by Craig Thompson. A 672-page tale of brutality, migration, environmental degradation and love amidst a struggle for survival: a little light reading for the holidays anyone? I have lived for many years in Belgium where BDs (bande dessinées), or graphic novels, have long been considered a vibrant form of art and literature for all ages. It took me many years to really get this national obsession. Rather like watching movies with subtitles, it was hard at first to marry words and visuals. Then a few years ago I discovered a series called Le Combat Ordinaire by Manu Larcenet—highly recommended for the French speakers—which really drew me into the genre. Habibi has a mythical quality. To some extent, the plot is beside the point. Its strength is the sheer visual delight of the storytelling. If you’ve never appreciated a graphic novel before, try this one. — Julia Stewart-David, visiting EU Fellow, Fletcher School

I Could Chew on This: And Other Poems by Dogs, by Francesco Marciuliano. The writer of the comic strip Sally Forth, Marciuliano has uncovered a rich lode of canine creativity: 61 poems resulting from “an unprecedented—and unaccredited—writing program” that has enabled dogs to express their inner feelings and life experiences. Anyone with even an ounce of curiosity about whether and what dogs think will appreciate these crisp verses. From “Holiday Card,” which exposes “our annual lie of family bliss,” to “Kisses,” which reveals the real reason for a pooch’s affection, these poems are blessedly free of sentimentality and often rip-roaringly funny. Cat lovers can rejoice that Marciuliano has also written similar books featuring felines. —Kimberly M. Thurler, executive director of Public Relations

The Inspector Gamache Mysteries, by Louise Penny. They say no one finds the remote Canadian village of Three Pines—it finds you. This isolated enclave is both the central place and primary metaphor running through the Chief Inspector Gamache murder mysteries by author Louise Penny. Her works break every trope of the genre, with Gamache, who appears and acts more like a professor than policeman, solving crimes by probing suspects’ psychology and the hidden secrets of history that, like Three Pines itself, can be found on no map. Though you can start with any of her 11 Inspector Gamache novels, it is a great journey to begin with her first, Still Life (2005) and work through to her most recent, The Nature of the Beast (2015). That said, I confess I read backward through the works for a while, before jumping back to the beginning. And while each mystery is finely wrought in and of itself, it is equally addictive following the thread of Gamache’s life journey as he seeks peace after tasting violence and betrayal and the worst of human nature. He begins to understand the concept of joy thanks to unexpected friendships with Three Pines’ inhabitants—a somewhat mad poet, the former psychologist running a book store, a painter obsessed with perfection—all refugees from life’s tribulations who have made their own world. Here in a quaint yet quirky community, they determine that love, loyalty and friendship prevail over the tragedies that have touched them all. Most often blanketed with the heavy snows of Quebec winters, Three Pines, with its firesides and stunning mountain vistas, is just the place to unravel mysteries—of both murder and the human heart. —Gail Bambrick, G79, G90, lecturer, Experimental College

The Judge’s House, by Jonathan Strong. An accidental death, an unexpected and unsettling bequest, plus 10,000 books no one wants—and that’s just the first layer of the riveting mystery that haunts this astonishing new novel. Why did William Turley, a notorious recluse in a small Midwestern town, leave his home and all of its contents to the middle-aged pediatrician and her banker husband, who’d moved in next door only a few years before his untimely death? As this mystery deepens, veteran novelist Jonathan Strong, a lecturer in the English Department, unearths the more confounding mystery of a history we have all inherited and do not want to own. A rich vein of sardonic humor runs through the story’s darkening truths, as if Strong—a mainstay of the Tufts creative writing faculty—had invented an entirely new genre, the tragicomedy of manners. And he manages all of this in something less than 160 pages. The Judge’s House is an elegant little book, and a grand novel. Michael Downing, lecturer, English Department

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. Fresh blooms on a cemetery rosebush, a sharp knife hidden in a stocking, the miracle of a baby—in Lila, Robinson creates a moving meditation on living life with dignity, grace and peace. She places her story in the small Iowa town of Gilead, also the setting for her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel of the same name. Lila, after many hardscrabble years roaming the countryside, wanders into a church and meets the minister, widower John Ames. Pulled toward him, but always one step away from a bus ticket out of town, she struggles to reconcile her painful past with newfound tenderness, compassion and love. Her lucid conversations with Ames about faith, religion and God are a captivating slow dance around profound questions that reflect our yearning to find meaning in our existence. —Laura Ferguson, senior editor, University Relations

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. Everyone knows that crabby old guy who lives down the street, the one who chases kids out of his yard, monitors which neighbor is not mowing his lawn and grumbles out a “good morning” only when he’s forced to, but not many of us take the time to find out his story. A Man Called Ove is the story of one old curmudgeon who lives alone in a small community in Sweden. One by one, Ove’s neighbors learn more about him, and what they find will change each of them—and him—forever. This loveable crank will, at times, make you want to slap him, and at other times give him a hug. This novel is heartbreaking, funny, poignant and downright charming. It’s a gentle read, and my husband and I both enjoyed it very much. —Beth Gillis, staff assistant, Development and Alumni Relations, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick. If you want to be scared this holiday season, read this book before watching the new Amazon series. The Gemini Award-winning 1964 novel of ideas explores an alternate world 20 years after the Axis powers have won World War II and divided the United States into separate countries. Most of the book’s action is set in the Japan-controlled West (the “Pacific States of America”) and focuses on three characters occupying different strata in the highly regimented society. People shake their heads at the horrifying stories filtering out from the Nazi-controlled East, and those who initially swore they would defeat the Reich have complacently disarmed themselves. “The Man in the High Castle”—a banned book within the book—captivates the few desperate Americans with a view of the world in which the Allied forces are victorious. Philip K. Dick’s uneven and bizarre novel doesn’t always live up to its premise, but it boasts the most terrifying first 20 pages I have ever read. —Robin Smyton, A09, public relations coordinator, University Relations

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, by Jennifer Tseng. This debut novel explores a year in the life of Mayumi, a married librarian in her 40s living on an island off the coast of Massachusetts with a young daughter. Her husband sleeps in a different bedroom, although he might as well be sleeping on the mainland; the distance between the couple is vast. Mayumi takes joy in raising her daughter, but also lies about what time she is expected at work, so that she can have a few extra minutes to herself. She accepts what her life has become, which is why it’s so exciting to meet Mayumi on the day that everything changes, when she meets the young man, an unnamed 17-year-old high school senior, who catches her interest and then captures her attention as they engage in a taboo love affair. The first-person narrator is honest, self-aware and well-read, thinking of books, like Nabokov’s Lolita, as she struggles to make sense of her life. The novel follows what happens between Mayumi and the young man, and goes beyond that to what happens after. The novel is compelling and beautifully written. Once I started reading, it was difficult to stop. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness is about a woman risking everything for pleasure, but it’s also about the consolation of other pleasures, such as great books and unexpected friendship. —Grace Talusan, J94, lecturer in English

The Palace Guard, by Charlotte MacLeod. I can’t guarantee everyone will be as thoroughly amused as I was (I chortled the whole way through it), but this slim volume was pure confection. It is a tongue-in-cheek mystery written in 1981 and set in Boston, stuffed with whippet-smart writing and characters spouting agile-tongued dialogue. It opens straightaway with a mortality in a museum modeled after the Gardner, introducing “art detective” Max Bittersohn and his sidekick Sarah Kelling from an upper-crust Beacon Hill dynasty. A nibble of what to expect: “Fieringer laughed, but his eyes were watchful slits in their nests of lard.” References are peppered throughout to familiar locales, the Fenway Studios among them. I was left wondering how I hadn’t encountered the work of MacLeod, a Canadian-born writer who was based in Maine, before. —Frederick Kalil, marketing communications manager, University Relations

The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx. Interested in visiting Newfoundland, but don’t want to fight the impassable ice floes and snow drifts? Read Annie Proulx’s atmospheric classic The Shipping News instead. Sad-sack Poughkeepsie newspaper writer Quoyle decides to deal with the concurrent deaths of his parents and his abusive but beloved wife, Petal, by moving with his aunt and two small daughters to his family’s ancestral home in rural Killick-Claw, Newfoundland. The meek Quoyle has to deal with his trauma while adjusting to the town’s rugged idiosyncrasies and tough mindset. He gets work writing for a local paper, The Gammy Bird, about car accidents—unfortunately just like the one that killed his wife and her lover. His daughters refuse to eat fish, of course the only option available to them on this remote stretch of the Canadian province. Quoyle must also confront his family’s wretched history and poor reputation, which forced his ancestors to push their house away from town and tether it to a godforsaken strip of shoreline. Proulx’s Pulitzer-Prize-winner is both bleak and darkly comic; Killick-Claw is the kind of place where a man’s friends will destroy his boat during his going-away party because they want him to stay. Proulx’s prose is so evocative that her portrait of winters in Atlantic Canada will make any New England winter seem tame by comparison. —Robin Smyton, A09, public relations coordinator, University Relations

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. This warm and funny novel recounts the life of the fictional Alma Whittaker, a 19th-century botanist who became a leading figure in bryology (the study of mosses). Set during the heady days of scientific discovery between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, Alma’s family history crosses paths with giants like Captain James Cook, Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin. Covering locales from the Kew Gardens in London to the forests of Pennsylvania, to Tahiti, Peru and Holland, Gilbert’s novel is also a study of the interior life of one woman living within the constraints of the familial obligations of her era, sheltered by her wealthy father. And it tells how she eventually learns to live in the world. Recommended if you’re interested in the history of science, trade and international travel in the 19th century, or if you just enjoy a finely wrought story. Christina Divoll, information technology client support specialist, Tufts Technology Services

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. “Listen. Billy Pilgrim became unstuck in time.” That’s the iconic opening salvo of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. With Billy, the reader leaps through time, back and forth from his days as a prisoner of war in Germany in the Second World War, to his bourgeois suburban middle-age, to his—well, to his abduction by an alien race who don’t experience time as linear. They instead experience all moments, all at once. If that last bit seems crazy to you, well, so it goes. But Vonnegut’s genius is that Billy Pilgrim’s time-space travel adventure begins to seem downright wholesome (there’s an alien-language copy of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls for your space flight reading pleasure) compared with what we humans will do to each other on a daily basis here on Earth. Vonnegut should know. He, like Billy Pilgrim, rode out the 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden as a POW hidden in an underground slaughterhouse. Later, the near-starved 22-year-old was forced by his captors to collect the bodies of dead German citizens from the rubble, a task that became more cruel and gruesome as the weeks went by. The senselessness of the death and destruction left Vonnegut a lifelong pacifist. Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five nodded to the Kennedy and King assassinations and spoke to the anti-Vietnam war protest generation. But this novel, like Billy, is also unstuck in time, sadly as relevant today as in 1945 or 1969. “You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?” “No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?” “I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’” What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.”Jacqueline Mitchell, senior writer, Tufts Now 



American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England, by Katherine Grandjean. The constantly changing digital landscape in which we live has sensitized us to the importance of media, so it’s not surprising that this is a golden age for the history of communications. In American Passage, Wellesley historian Katherine Grandjean reinterprets the much-studied 17th century as a time of constantly shifting boundaries between peoples and nations: boundaries policed by successive innovations in communication and threatened by rumor, fear and danger. At the beginning of her story, English colonizers hug the coastal shores, traveling by water and hiring native couriers to carry their letters when an inland route is essential. By the end of the tale, the age of the newspaper is at hand, and abundant horses and wide roads have helped ensure the rise of a reliable postal service—and the decline of Native American political and military power. Grandjean writes fluidly and offers engaging personal vignettes throughout. This is as it should be. As Roger Williams said in 1643, “The whole race of mankind is generally infected with an itching desire of hearing news.” —Michael Baenen, chief of staff, Office of the President

America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve, by Roger Lowenstein. The Federal Reserve, which celebrated its centenary in 2014, is a strange institution. It is a government agency that is not part of the executive, legislative or judicial branches; part of it is privately owned and so well financed by its holdings of government bonds that it regularly remits funds to the Treasury. It is also one of the most powerful institutions on the planet in its ability to affect the fortunes of the U.S. economy and other economies around the world. In this compelling book, Lowenstein recounts the story of the struggle to create a national bank to prevent the disruptions and panics that were a regular feature of the American economic landscape in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Panic of 1907, when private banks literally ran out of money, dramatically exposed the deep flaws of the financial system. Lowenstein tells his story mainly through the actions of an unlikely group of officials and private citizens who worked, sometimes in secret, to create a central bank, including Sen. Nelson Aldrich, who was a power broker during the Gilded Age; Paul Warburg, a German immigrant and scion of a European banking empire; and Rep. Carter Glass, a Southerner whose instincts were deeply against federal control. The political struggles recounted in this book resonate today when we see the Federal Reserve both being lauded as having saved the United States from a second Great Depression and also pilloried by those who focus on possible missteps during the recent crisis—but who largely, in my opinion, make an argument analogous to one that blames fires on firemen because whenever you see the former, the latter are sure to be there. —Michael W. Klein, the William L. Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs, Fletcher School

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande. The nature of death in America has changed greatly since World War II, and not for the better, Gawande argues persuasively in his recent book. “As recently as 1945, most deaths occurred in the home,” he notes, early on. “By the 1980s, just 17 percent did.” What has emerged in this shift from the domestic milieu to the hospital is a devastating loss of context and meaning for the individuals and the families involved. The rise of the nursing home industry, where people age in isolation, has only accelerated the trend. Mortality is now treated as what the author calls “a medical experience,” reliant on technology and the efforts of strangers. Gawande, the well-known Boston surgeon and New Yorker contributor, explores the whole fractured realm of how modern medicine addresses—or more often, fails to address—crucial issues at the end of life. He is a curious, humble and engaging guide, capable of citing the average life expectancy of citizens during the Roman Empire (28 years) and musings from the 16th-century French essayist Montaigne on the same page, and making it feel like the most natural conversation in the world. Toward the end of this quietly overwhelming book, the condition of his ailing father brings the author face to face with the chilly medical system he’s been describing, and it’s not pretty. “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine,” Gawande concludes bluntly in an epilogue. “We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being.” —Bruce Morgan, editor, Tufts Medicine magazine

Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, by Rachel Hope Cleves. Lest we think same-sex marriage is a purely modern notion, Charity & Sylvia tells the intimate history of an extraordinary 44-year union in early 1800s New England. Charity Bryant (aunt to poet William Cullen Bryant) and Sylvia Drake lived in a small Vermont community. They ran a business together, taught Sunday school, acted as surrogate mothers and became well known and highly regarded as a married couple (if not legally). They were so integral to the community that they were buried together. The writing is somewhat dry, because there is little primary source material to draw from—scraps of diaries and a few letters and poems. Charity and Sylvia burned most of their letters—it wasn’t safe to be entirely out in the years after the Revolution, and gossip drove Charity out of more than one town. But I found this fascinating. Cleves does an excellent job of deciphering the language of the time, which has often been interpreted to downplay same-sex relationships as mere friendships. Anyone who thinks we weren’t around back then is in for a surprise. Makes you wonder how many others were out there. —Marny Ashburne, editorial and production manager, University Relations

China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, by Peter Purdue. This tremendous book recounts something many in the West overlook: China’s aggressive march to its west from about 1400 to 1800. It would be wrong to focus too much on China, though, as the story Purdue is really recounting is a tripartite contest between the Chinese, Russian and Zunghar empires for supremacy in Central Asia. That battle ended with the destruction of the Zunghar, the last major nomadic empire. “World historical” is not something to throw about lightly, but Purdue is right that the outcome of this earlier imperial “great game” was extraordinarily important, not only for the region or the Chinese and Russians, but for the world. Many changes in Asia and the structure of the international economy, such as the rise of global maritime trade routes dominated by European empires, came from the wrenching political and social changes that cascaded outward from this imperial struggle. Purdue’s book is also a corrective to the idea that China was inward-looking in the period. Finally, Purdue also reminds us that rumblings in the region today are echoes of this decisive period. —David Ekbladh, associate professor of history, School of Arts and Sciences

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, by J. Anthony Lukas. This Pulitzer-Prize-winning work traces the history of desegregation busing in Boston public schools. Lukas follows three families impacted by Boston’s desegregation efforts, focusing on Charlestown and the newly integrated (at the time) South End. This is a compelling read—not just about Boston’s own turbulent history, but about race relations in America as a whole. —Danielle Glazer, program assistant, Office of Alumni Relations

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, by Fatima Mernissi. This provocative tale is a classic work of Muslim feminism, first published 20 years ago. In her girlhood memoir, Mernissi crafts an exquisite account of a young woman coming into the world in mid-20th-century Morocco, based on her family and childhood memories. Her loosely autobiographical account celebrates and simultaneously complicates the bonds of solidarity among women. Nationalist and anti-imperial struggles provide the shifting ground on which each of the female figures seeks to mold and stretch the constraints of her reality. Mernissi’s sociological lens emerges through the musings and perceptiveness of her adolescent self, as she actively gauged her prospects for increased autonomy and personal fulfillment amid the oft-shifting, visible and invisible boundaries of power within her extended family and wider society. By recounting humorous and powerful accounts of women’s agency, Mernissi’s work commemorates indigenous feminist consciousness and defies Orientalist stereotypes of the harem. A short, enjoyable read, this book straddles the lines between fiction and memoir while packing in subtle lessons in postcolonial theory and feminist resistance. —Celene Ibrahim, Muslim Chaplain, University Chaplaincy

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, text by James Agee, photographs by Walker Evans. This is a complex and moving examination of three impoverished families during the Great Depression. Published in 1941, it grew out of a seemingly straightforward  assignment, when Fortune magazine hired the two men in 1936 to document the daily lives of sharecropper and tenant farmers in Alabama. It quickly becomes clear that Agee and Evans had difficult job. The pair set about exploring the rural backroads of Birmingham in the heat of summer. Outsiders that they were, they struggled to make personal connections with the farmers they encountered. They also had personal and moral misgivings about their purpose for being there; Agee was especially self-critical. Despite the practical and personal challenges, Agee and Evans eventually ingratiated themselves with three families and divided their time between these households over the course of eight weeks. Evans’ photographs, though deliberately arranged and undoubtedly subjective, are considered, along with his work commissioned by the Farm Security Administration, to be a seminal visual record of the Depression era. The strength and appeal of Agee’s writing is that there is no illusion of objectivity. He wrote about himself and his feelings and is shockingly candid about what he finds endearing and off-putting about various individuals. Meanwhile, he remains ever aware of his intrusion into other peoples’ lives. By pointing out the inherent flaws in attempting to encapsulate anyone’s life in words and pictures, Agee in fact succeeds in giving readers a genuine impression of the three families as real people. The farm families are not idealized for their adversity, nor are they simply specimens to pity or judge—their humanity comes through it all. —Steffan Hacker, multimedia producer, University Relations

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. In 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, NYU law student Shana Knizhnik created the blog “Notorious R.B.G.” as a tribute to the ruling’s most vocal dissenter, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. By last June, as the Supreme Court was deciding the constitutionality of denying same-sex marriage, the image of octogenarian Ginsburg wearing a jaunty crown in the style of rapper Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G., was popping up all over the Internet. The Supreme Court’s second female justice, who throughout her tenure on the bench had been hailed as one of the court’s most pragmatic figures, was suddenly being hailed as a civil rights champion. MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon and Knizhnik detail Ginsburg’s evolution from a quiet Brooklyn schoolgirl to the women’s rights movement’s greatest legal advocate to pop culture icon. Notorious RBG offers an entertaining twist on the biography genre. Each chapter takes its title from a Biggie Smalls song, but instead of reading gimmicky, the lyrics cement Ginsburg’s position as a trailblazer. Annotated opinions and dissents from Ginsburg’s most notable cases, including Bush v. Gore and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, break down legalese and illustrate the behind-the-scenes role Ginsburg has played in pushing social progress. By mixing thorough research and compelling storytelling with fan art, Ginsburg’s daily workout plan and husband Marty’s favorite recipe, the book offers a charming look into the personal life of a publicly stoic personality. —Divya Amladi, content producer, University Relations

The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, by Dale Russakoff. How can we fix the American public school system? In this book, Russakoff follows an unlikely trio of public figures as they attempt to answer this humdinger of a question: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, then Newark Mayor Corey Booker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Following a 2010 pact between Booker and Christie, and supported by $100 million from Zuckerberg, the trio engaged in a campaign to revolutionize the Newark public school system, with the goal of creating a model for reforms elsewhere. As readers familiar with similar educational reform efforts may guess, this process turned out to be more fraught than the trio had envisioned. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating read and had this reader flashing back to J. Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground (also recommended), a sociological classic about school integration in Boston in the 1970s. —Samuel Ruth, director of continuing education, marketing and communications, Tufts School of Dental Medicine

Reading Claudius: A Memoir in Two Parts, by Caroline Heller. In this book, Heller recounts the story of her family’s journey from Europe under the Nazis to her growing up in Chicago—the two parts of the title. It is at once a gripping historical account of Nazism and her family’s individual recollections of coming-of-age stories amid the terrifying chaos. Weaving the past heritage into her own life fabric, Heller has exhaustively collected stories from her family. She evokes the danger for everyday citizens in Prague who read and discussed the ideas of Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Kafka, Goethe and Yeats; Claudius the poet was recited frequently in the Heller household. This wonderful café-community city encouraged intellectuals, musicians, physicians and philosophers, all part of this multigenerational autobiographical saga. Heller recounts her mother Alice’s complicated relationships and struggles in her career in the new world. Caroline’s uncle Erich, an academic philosopher and Alice’s love interest, fled to England and later America, writing on meaning and salvation. Her father, Paul Heller, a physician, was not so lucky. Unable to escape the Nazis, he was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was a prisoner for six years. He was saved by using his wits and his work as a camp doctor, keeping hope amid the horror. Edward R. Murrow visited the camp after liberation, and one of the first men he saw at Buchenwald’s gates was Heller. (Caroline Heller did research for the book at Tufts’ Murrow Collection.) Reading Claudius is a riveting history and a love story that is hard to put down. It is a story that leaves you fascinated with and caring about the Heller family. —Helen Rasmussen, senior research dietitian, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging; instructor, Friedman School

Under an African Sky, by Peter Hudson. In 1988, Hudson traveled the length and breadth of Mauritania, a poor, mostly arid country in West Africa, which he detailed in his mesmerizing Travels in Mauritania. One of his stops was Kaedi, where a young man who had been crammed into his bush taxi invited Hudson to visit his village several hours away. Hudson spent four days there, and made the connection of a lifetime. He ended up returning many times over the following 25 years, working with his friend Salif to help fund small-scale agricultural development projects and becoming enmeshed in the local communities of farmers and herders. He recounts a recent 11-day visit—and at the same time fills us in on the last 25 years—in his eloquent and understated Under an African Sky. When we think about poor, underdeveloped countries, there’s usually little in the way of nuance—and Mauritania at first glance seems to fit that to a T. It’s saddled with wrenching poverty, little arable land, corrupt military and politicians and entrenched racism (Arabs vs. black Africans). But through his travels, Hudson introduces us to individual Mauritanians of all stripes, described with richly human details that make them—and the place—come alive. He helps us to understand the struggles faced by the people he meets, and the small, everyday stumbling blocks that help keep poor people poor. Despite all the obstacles, though, there is hope, and it’s clear that Hudson sees it in the form of small-scale efforts like Salif’s. —Taylor McNeil, senior editor, Tufts Now

We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, by Peter Levine. Writers have noted the declining levels of social cohesion and civic participation in the United States, and the resulting hand-off of political influence to professionalized special interests with access to lavish resources. We all see the symptoms: a lack of civility in public discourse, shallow and propagandizing mass media and the corruption of electoral and legislative processes. Peter Levine’s book is an important contribution to what I hope will be a rapidly growing literature on civic engagement. He calls for citizens to talk and listen to people different from themselves, and thereby enlarge their understanding, build consensus and then bring what they are learning into their work. He calls for work (both paid and unpaid) that is collaborative, where workers build civic relationships and together create things of public value. This combination of deliberation, collaborative work and strong civic relationships defines the good citizenship that enables Americans to make progress on the many daunting problems of our society. Going beyond lofty ideals, Levine fleshes out what civic engagement looks like with many examples. I particularly liked the example of Hampton, Virginia, where a nonpartisan city government engaged citizens in a range of grassroots collaborative processes to improve the schools, foster better race relations and plan the city’s development. A key component of this was seeing citizens, especially youth, not as problems to be solved but as resources that could be developed. At the close of the book, Levine suggests concrete ways of organizing the most active citizens of the U.S. into a coherent national movement for civic renewal. In an era of angry shouting matches, manipulative messages and character assassination, we desperately need to come together and work on authentic solutions. Levine’s book is extremely helpful for those who share this sentiment, and I hope it can persuade those who are not already believers. —Brian Aull, lecturer, School of Engineering

The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig. I recently discovered Stefan Zweig, a literary giant in Europe, but less known here in the United States. Born in 1881 in Vienna to affluent Jewish parents, Zweig experienced the heights of European society and professional success before falling into despair during the rise of Nazism, ultimately taking his own life in 1942. Part memoir, part astute social commentary, The World of Yesterday describes the relative unity that existed among European nations during Zweig’s youth; the fluidity with which people could travel to and reside in other countries in the days before the advent of passports and visas; and the hunger for culture and learning that found satisfaction in both universities and cafes during the early part of the 20th century. Zweig perceives the political and psychological dangers that loom on the horizon after the Great War—long before those threats are widely recognized and acknowledged by others. I was fascinated by the contrast in Zweig’s depictions of European life (at least, for the well-educated and affluent) before and after the First World War. His descriptions are at the same time personal and objective, factual and insightful, nostalgic and prescient, poetic and brutal. I was inexorably drawn into the world in which he lived. Through him, I not only read about “the world of yesterday”—I experienced it. Although English versions of Zweig’s works can be difficult to come by, I found a well-worn 1943 English translation in the Tisch Library. —Carol Lidington, campaign management associate, University Advancement
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