Winter Book Recommendations

Need something good to read? Tufts faculty, staff, and alumni share their favorite books, from recent titles to classics

An open book with bookshelves in the background. Tufts faculty, staff, and alumni share their favorite books, from recent titles to classics

As the nights get longer, there’s a natural inclination to want to curl up and read a good book. Add to that a lack of good options for getting out and about during this pandemic, and you’ve got perfect conditions for some serious reading.

We have a wide range of books, as usual. In fiction, new and topical novels are cheek by jowl with the classics (here’s looking at you, Jane Austen). In nonfiction, we’ve got everything from biographies and memoirs (from Longfellow to Tegan and Sara) to travel narratives, to books about maritime disasters, race in America, and the CIA in the world.

Be sure to also check out the recommendations from a lively group of Tufts authors—faculty and alumni—in our new Bookish series, as they chat about the books that they are reading and the ones they keep going back to.

If you have book recommendations to add to the list, write to us at, and we’ll post an update.


Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Keiko Furukura is a single, mid-30s misfit who has been working part-time in the same Japanese convenience store since it opened when she was 18. Keiko has always had trouble fitting in. In grade school, in response to her fellow students’ shouting for two boys to stop fighting, Keiko incapacitated one of the boys by hitting him over the head with a small shovel. When questioned, she deadpanned, “Everyone was saying to stop them, so that’s what I did.” At the convenience store, she learns about appropriate social interactions through the store’s employee manual and by mimicking her coworkers’ behavior (“whenever I got angry at the same things as everyone else, they seemed happy. . . . Good, I pulled off being a ‘person’”). She likes the structure and rules of working at the store and excels as a model employee; but her family and friends have qualms—she’s no closer to marriage or a family, no closer to a career. Torn between staying happy as a convenience store worker and succumbing to the pressure to find a husband or a proper job, Keiko again has to decide who to be. This short book is a quirky, wry, and haunting look at the expectations of a woman who is happy where she is. —Lisa LaPoint, assistant director of media relations

Embers, by Sándor Márai. Seven years after writing Embers, a novel that asks whether a single gesture might define a life, Sándor Márai despairingly concluded in his diary that, “The world has no need of Hungarian literature.” The book would prove his masterwork and its set up is deceptively simple. Two aristocratic old men—Konrad and Henrik, “the General”—meet one night for dinner in 1940 at a forlorn Hungarian castle after not seeing one another for 41 years. Of their one-time friendship, the General says, “We were quite different, but we belonged together, we were more than the sum of our two selves, we were allies, we made our own community, and that is rare in life.” Decades before, they had come to love the same woman, Krisztina, the daughter of a crippled musician. Their estrangement, which this dinner brings to an end, began when Konrad had pointed his rifle at Henrik on a hunting trip without firing. Konrad had then vanished with no explanation. What became of him? It is the topic the old men discuss over the dinner that comprises the entirety of the novel’s present-day action. As to whether a single gesture might define a life, the two men dance around the issue, never answering the question conclusively. Sixty years after the original publication of Embers, a republication brought Márai’s elegant story the international literary acclaim it deserved; sadly, it was a decade after his suicide. —Elliot Ackerman, A03, F03

Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett. “They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully,” begins the 33rd novel in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy series, published in 2004. “Unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged.” So Pratchett introduces his unfortunately named protagonist, con man Moist von Lipwig, on the morning of his execution—with his characteristic combination of tongue-in-cheek black humor and existential inquiry. What do you do when you’re about to hit rock bottom? The plot runs on the sheer indomitable shamelessness of Moist’s many answers. From digging through his cell wall with a spoon, to stalling hangman Daniel “One Drop” Trooper with jokes, Moist quickly progresses to trying to evade the self-described guardian angel who saves him from the noose—Lord Vetinari, whose dry tone and ongoing chess game (or Hnaflbaflwhiflsnifltafl game, in Discworld) are some of the main joys of the novel—and his golem parole officer, Mr. Pump, Who Only Speaks In Capital Letters. At first, Moist intends to escape his unusual sentence, which is to revive a local post office bursting with undelivered mail, made defunct by a new rapid communication network called the clack towers. But instead, he finds himself looking after an intense young staffer who’s obsessed with collecting pins and a “junior postman” who’s as old as death; wooing a chain-smoking young woman who fights for golem rights, stabs aggressive men with her stiletto, and introduces herself as Adora Belle Dearheart; butting heads with the evil overlord of the clack towers; and finally facing the consequences of a lifetime spent lying, stealing, and cheating. Although Pratchett’s novel is 16 years old and takes place in a far distant realm, its themes of renewal and redemption offer a gleam of hope in today’s dark times. It doesn’t matter what’s behind you or what lies ahead, according to a certain audacious escape artist turned Postmaster—when you’re facing a long drop, you fight all the way down. —Monica Jimenez, senior content creator/editor, University Communications and Marketing

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne. Were he alive today—and were he a gay forty-something Irishman—Dickens himself might have written The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The novel’s narrator, Cyril Avery, evokes Pip, as an orphan reared by uninterested adoptive parents and needing to find his way through the challenges of, in this case, the second half of 20th-century Ireland. (And trust me, you do not know the meaning of the word “uninterested” until you meet Maude Avery.) Furies has a Dickensian sweep, covering both Irish history and the social issues of that Catholic nation. At the same time, the vividness of this story’s particulars—the parish priest’s denouncement of Cyril’s unmarried, pregnant teenage mother; Cyril’s birth at a moment of staggering violence; his hilarious wedding scene—give the epic the personal dimensions that makes the narrative so compelling and hard to forget. Besides, who doesn’t love having a “hunchbacked Redemptorist nun” to set a whole plot in motion? —Dave Nuscher, executive director, content and planning, University Communications and Marketing

Jack, by Marilynne Robinson. Marilynne Robinson is one of the few novelists of stature in the United States today whose work focuses on religious themes. So, it comes as no surprise that Jack, the latest in the series of novels she has written following her 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, is about redemption. In these previous novels, Jack, the “bad-boy” son of a small-town Iowa Presbyterian minister, is always in trouble and frequently absent. He is “the Prince of Darkness, the prince of Absence,” as he himself describes it. Now Jack’s life in exile from the family circle comes to the fore—spending his nights playing the piano in St. Louis bars and sleeping in rooming houses or in a local cemetery, drinking excessively, stealing books from the library, and immersed in self-loathing and feelings of predestined Calvinist doom. A chance encounter with Della, the sweet, bookish daughter of a prominent Methodist minister and a teacher in a local high school, brings love into his life. But Jack is white and Della is Black, and this is segregated St. Louis of the late 1940s, where interracial cohabitations are against the law. Della offers Jack the possibility of redemption, but Jack’s redemption can only mean Della’s ruin—loss of her job, ostracism from her family. Fundamental theological questions and a critique of American racism are at the center of this tender and beautifully written book. Some of the time sequences are confusing, and it helps to have some familiarity with Robinson’s previous work, or a short story, excerpted from the novel that appeared in the New Yorker, earlier this fall. But don’t be put off by this: Jack is a lovely, even heartbreaking, novel that deserves a place in the Gilead pantheon. —Neil Miller, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences

A Nearly Normal Family, by M.T. Edvardsson. This is a Swedish murder mystery presented in a less than traditional way. The story is told from the perspective of three family members, not in alternating chapters as commonly occurs, but as three discrete sections. Each perspective builds and contradicts the prior narrative. Involved is a father, who is a pastor, a mother, who is a high-powered attorney, and their daughter, who is struggling to establish independence. The daughter is accused of murder. The plot takes many twists and turns, very much dependent on the narrator. At the very end, we find out whether she did—or did not—do it. Alice H. Lichtenstein, Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy and director and senior scientist, Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, HNRCA

Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson. Lillian is on a break from one of her two grocery store jobs when she reads the letter from her childhood friend, Madison, inviting her for a visit to Madison’s family estate for “an interesting job opportunity.” It turns out Madison’s husband, a U.S. senator, is a rising political star with a sensitive family situation. His twin 10-year-olds from a previous marriage have a tendency to burst into flame when agitated. Not tantrum: flame. Actual fire. It doesn’t hurt the children, it just has the potential to burn everything around them, as well as the carefully crafted image of the senator’s picture perfect family. Lillian is offered the job of looking after the twins for the summer after their birth mother dies and they come to live with Madison’s family. Lillian has no experience with children and no interest in children of her own, let alone combustible ones. But she can’t say no to her friend, or to the potentially life-changing salary, and she can’t deny her curiosity in the little flamethrowers. Lillian ends up relating to the unloved outcasts and even finds herself protective of her unique charges. The book is an incredibly funny and touching read. —Lisa LaPoint, assistant director of media relations

Persuasion, by Jane Austen. A trip to the healing waters of Bath is good for everyone’s health right now—as is an emotionally satisfying ending. When the haughty Eliot family falls on difficult financial times, they relocate to Bath and rent their manor to an admiral just home from the Napoleonic Wars. No one but quiet spinster daughter Anne realizes that the admiral is the brother-in-law of the fiancé she was persuaded to dump because he was not good enough for her family. Anne is initially left behind in the neighborhood to witness how her ex- fiancé—Captain Wentworth—has become a wealthy and popular bachelor. One of Austen’s final works, her trademark wit and irony is balanced with more warmth and a mature sense of melancholy and regret. The isolation Anne feels as she copes alone with her feelings and her and Wentworth’s reversed fortunes may be familiar in 2020, as is the grief many of the characters feel having survived a long war. —Robin Smyton, A09, media relations specialist 

Sensation Machines, by Adam Wilson, A04. I’m going to go full nepotism this year and recommend my son Adam’s extraordinary new novel Sensation Machines. And just to show that I’m far from alone in finding this a terrific and exigent novel for our times, here’s an excerpt from one of many stellar reviews the novel has received: “Sensation Machines reads a little bit like Tom Wolfe in a futurist dystopia. There are full-throated riffs on materialism and tech surveillance, on simulation video gaming, white privilege, and the lyrics of Eminem. A spirit of exhilaration fires the book’s best moments. We may be going to hell, but at least it’s fun to rant about.” That’s Sam Sacks in the Wall Street Journal, usually no friend of anarchic literature. Sensation Machines centers on the dissolving marriage of Michael and Wendy Mixner. Michael has lost his lucrative job in the banking world, but somehow failed to let his wife know that he's unemployed; Wendy is a marketing consultant tied up in nefarious doings beyond her control. The couple is marked by a personal tragedy limned by the author with heartbreaking sensitivity. Then, as the plot ramifies, they have to cope with the murder of Michael’s oldest friend. This is a novel, we soon understand, where individuals and their singular problems get shoved this way and that by powerful cultural and historical forces and have the fight of their lives to maintain their individuation and inner equilibrium. Set a few years in the future, where stores are almost 100 percent robotic and delivery drones as common as summer flies, the novel serves as both vision and warning. And that rough beast slouching once more toward Bethlehem? I think we know who it is. Oh, and despite the darkness, the book’s also very funny. A perfect read while we’re indoors awaiting the vaccine. —Jonathan Wilson, Fletcher Professor of Rhetoric and Debate, Department of English

This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger. This is a period piece, taking place in the Midwest United States in 1932 during the depths of the Great Depression. It follows the spiritual and physical journey of three boys and a girl who escape from one of the Native American Indian boarding schools designed to enculturate Indian children (read: obliterate their native culture), and then travel down the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers towards a hoped-for reunion with relatives. It is a lovely piece of fiction narrated in the first person by the youngest of the three boys, Odie, a 12-year-old whose spirit and vision continually expand as their lives intersect with an array of interesting individuals, some of whom who are wonderful souls and some disreputable. In part this grand voyage of discovery becomes a more modern-day version of Huckleberry Finn. It is both a thrilling adventure and a heartfelt one as you observe Odie’s increasing insights into the light and dark sides of human nature. Emma, the 6-year-old girl, in some ways fills the role played by the many fools in Shakespeare’s plays, possessing an outward appearance of impish innocence and foolishness but harboring many of the universal truths of the human spirit. —Joel Mason, professor at the Friedman School and Tufts School of Medicine, and lead scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood. The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to the dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale, and certainly does not disappoint. Set approximately 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian state established in place of the United States after a civil war, the novel follows three women and their journeys in a country which has stripped women of their rights and independence. First, Lydia, the most powerful of the Aunts—a select group women tasked with overseeing and enforcing Gilead’s strict rules for women—is using her position to supply crucial intel about Gilead to a resistance organization. Second, Agnes, a young woman raised in Gilead’s upper class, struggles with the expectations of the society she’s been brought up in, as well as her mother’s past. Lastly, Daisy, a young woman who has grown up in Canada, Gilead’s northern neighbor, finds out a very important detail about her ties to Gilead, which rapidly changes her life forever. The Testaments is simultaneously action-packed and full of internal discourse as each woman is forced to confront what she believes in—even if it means danger is imminent—and how far she is willing to go to stand up to corrupt leaders. —Sara Norberg, digital production coordinator, University Communications and Marketing

Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith. Ever since Robert Galbraith was revealed to be a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling, the Strike and Robin detective series has been slowly succumbing to what I call Harry Potter syndrome. The first book was great fun, the second was fine, the third made up for the second, the fourth was getting kind of heavy—the opposite of a light read, plus just literal weight—and Troubled Blood clocked in at 950-odd pages and 2.6 pounds, or just shy of a steam iron. As I hefted this tome, I couldn’t help but wonder if it, like the fifth Harry Potter book, would feature a mystery that drags on more than builds up and ends on an anticlimactic note. I was right—the case is the unsolved disappearance of client Anna’s mother Margot, 40 years ago. I have to confess I skimmed through the interviews with most of the people of interest, including a doctor, secretary, receptionist, cleaner, and regular patient at the medical practice where Margot had worked. The reveal felt anticlimactic, largely because I didn’t care about the mystery (which, again, 40 years ago). However, I tore through Troubled Blood for the same reason that I devoured Order of the Phoenix—I love spending time in the minds and the lives of any character created by this author, even if all they’re doing is talking to a roommate or throwing up from the flu. Private investigator Cormoran Strike continues to be a shrewd interpreter of human behavior on the job, but a clueless curmudgeon in his social life, resulting in some cringe-worthy faux pas with his partner, Robin Ellacott (including an epic drunk party scene at her place). Ellacott continues to come into her own as a detective and one of the heads of the agency, and her struggle to get the men around her to respect her authority will be familiar to many female professionals. Both Strike’s and Ellacott’s lives feel relatable even while verging on soap opera territory, including plenty of toxic ex drama—and lots of will-they-won’t-they tension. Friendship or romance? When it comes to Strike and Robin’s relationship, at least, the case is far from cold. — Monica Jimenez, senior content creator/editor, University Communications and Marketing

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett. Black twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes run away from their small Southern community for New Orleans. Only Desiree returns home; Stella decides to pass as white. Stella’s choice puts the sisters in two different worlds, and creates a weight that both sisters must carry as they and their daughters navigate the 20th century. Without one another, neither sister is completely whole. Through the Vignes sisters, Bennett’s devastating novel explores class, family, identity, history, legacy, and freedom in systemically-racist America. I had a hard time putting it down. —Robin Smyton, A09, media relations specialist 


Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, by Annaka Harris. How our daily experiences, our consciousness, fits into the scientific worldview is still a matter of great mystery and debate. Conscious is the clearest contemporary attempt to look at it through the lens of panpsychism—the view that consciousness is everywhere in physics, that for everything physical there is some experience mirroring it, perhaps an almost unimaginative simple one. Harris gives a strong argument for the panpsychist position, making sure that it is not straw-manned, writing that “Ascribing some level of consciousness to plants or inanimate matter is not the same as ascribing them human minds with wishes and intentions like ours.” A slim tract, it is to-the-point and highly readable, all while arguing against various complex attacks on panpsychism, like the question of how simple experiences could be built up into the rich one we actually experience. Throughout she references some less well-known texts, like the work of Gregg Rosenberg, which tend to be overlooked in the litany of famous names involved in consciousness research, but are just as important. Most current nonfiction books on consciousness emphasize either recent neuroscientific findings (which are often challenged, overturned, or under-determine a given hypothesis) or alternatively a highly specific theory of consciousness (coincidentally, it is often the theory coined by the author). It is refreshing to have a sane outside voice argue for a long-ignored intellectual position without committing too much toward any specific theory of consciousness, all while maintaining the balancing act of being easy to read for those without an extensive background in these issues. —Erik Hoel, research assistant professor, Allen Discovery Center; author The Revelations (Overlook Press, April 2021)

Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, by Nicholas Basbanes. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow got fan mail. A lot of it. According to biographer Nicholas Basbanes in a newly released and extensive book, Longfellow’s poetry was so well-known and so beloved in his own time that he received thousands of letters of appreciation, every one of which he retained and responded to. He kept a pile of autographed cards near the door of his home in Cambridge to give to the well-wishers who would show up unannounced. And yet despite being the equivalent of a 19th-century rock star, and despite traveling in elite academic and literary circles, Longfellow remained relatively retiring. His life, touched by the almost unspeakable tragedies of the deaths of both of his wives, was one almost constantly weighted down by sadness despite his very considerable successes. Basbanes excels in showing us the contrast between a high-profile exterior life in which Longfellow hobnobbed with some of the most important literary, artistic and political figures of his era, and his interior life freighted with the dual legacies of familial sorrow. Equally fascinating is Basbanes’ portrait of Fannie Appleton Longfellow, Henry’s second wife, whose many letters and diary entries tell a side of the Longfellow story that had previously been untold. Basbanes delineates Henry and Fanny’s meeting while both were traveling in Europe, their long courtship and seventeen -year marriage in alternating chapters, utilizing materials emanating from each of them as well as from additional primary and secondary source material, and this style works well. Basbanes’ contextualization of Longfellow’s life in the literary, political and technological advances of the time in which he lived, adds to a richly layered tale. In the end, Basbanes’ title is quite apt: this is A life of Longfellow, a version of his story that builds upon and enlarges previous renderings of the poet’s life. —Julie Dobrow, director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, senior lecturer, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development

The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939, by Ella Maillart. As the stench of war spreads through Europe in June 1939, Ella Maillart, an intrepid Swiss explorer and travel writer, gathers her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach and drives off in a new Ford two-seater, bound for Afghanistan. Maillart hopes the open air and novelty will cure her friend, newly on the wagon but still suffering from addiction’s harm and allure. Schwarzenbach, referred to in the book under the pseudonym Christina, all too often in her short life “chose the complicated, cruel way of hell,” Maillart says—hence the title. The two make their way through Turkey, slip into Iran, and ride its rough-and-tumble roads as cold weather approaches. Maillart is an old Middle East hand, and they avoid officialdom by skipping through towns and camping out, the Ford a hardy steed. Schwarzenbach, the one-time object of Carson McCullers’ affection, had lived in Teheran before, and the picture Maillart paints of the city is especially poignant—a time and culture long gone now. They finally make it to Kabul as winter is closing in, but the trip has not cured Schwarzenbach, and the book becomes an elegy to her and the world that was left behind in the aftermath of the war. —Taylor McNeil, senior content creator/editor, University Communications and Marketing

Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener, by Kimberly A. Hamlin. You probably have never heard of Helen Hamilton Gardener, but if you just voted in the momentous 2020 election, you owe her a debt. Gardener was one of the women most responsible for the women’s suffrage movement, but her largely behind the scenes work has relegated her to one of the least known women responsible for this important work that changed the face of the American electorate. Hopefully Kimberly Hamlin’s new book will redress this issue. Gardener, who was born and known as Alice Chenoweth until a scandalous relationship caused her to flee her family, her home and her previous identity, led a fascinating life. Apart from her love live, Gardener was a novelist, a public intellectual, and a political activist. When President Woodrow Wilson appointed her to the U.S. Civil Service Commission in 1920, she became the highest-ranking woman serving in the federal government. Hamlin’s book is impeccably researched and in places reads like a novel. Gardener’s life is most certainly a life with knowing about, and Hamlin’s book, most certainly a book worth reading. —Julie Dobrow, director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, senior lecturer, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development

High School, by Sara Quin and Tegan Quin. Tegan and Sara have always had a style unto their own, and it shines through as they trade off narrating each chapter of this vulnerable, relatable memoir. The duo gives a raw glimpse into their experience navigating the trials of adolescence, discovering their queer identity, and following an uncertain dream. There’s an impressive economy to their writing style that works as well here as it does in their lyrics. The chapters are concise, but filled with emotional depth. We meet the Quin sisters as ordinary teenagers fending off bullies, falling in love and breaking up, fighting with their parents, and dropping acid. There’s even a dramatic car chase. Eventually, we see the very beginning of their music career. It’s hard to overstate how important a presence Tegan and Sara’s music has been in my life and the lives of countless people of my generation. Their video series Where Does The Good Grow? has been a welcome ray of sunlight during the grim times of the COVID-19 pandemic. High School serves as an origin story, paired with the release of the album Hey, I’m Just Like You, which consists of re-recorded demo songs from the early days. This isn’t a nostalgia trip or a view of the past through rose-colored glasses. It’s an honest look back at a part of life that was painful and embarrassing for many of us, and an acknowledgment of the lessons we can take from that struggle. —Chris Maliga, photography studio manager, SMFA at Tufts

In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of its Survivors, by Doug Stanton; Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. The yardstick by which I measure I good piece of narrative nonfiction is whether, despite knowing the outcome of the events from the start, I find myself at a crucial point in the story grasping the book, and hoping against hope that the inevitable tragedy will not, in fact, unfold. But it does, and in the hands of a master storyteller these true-life tales take on the depth, suspense, and emotional resonance of the most powerful novels or films—made all the more remarkable because their authors were bound by often illogical, murky, or conflicting accounts of what actually happened. Both In Harm’s Way and Dead Wake tell the stories of wartime naval disasters with a compelling pace and painstaking historical scene-setting, and, above all, they breathe life back into the all-too-human characters who lived the stories themselves. Dead Wake recounts the May 1915, voyage of the world’s fastest and most luxurious passenger liner, the Lusitania, from New York toward Liverpool. World War I was raging in Europe, and the British steamer was famously torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland; with echoes of the Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable ship went down faster than anyone could imagine, dooming hundreds of civilians.

The narrative alternates between the seemingly tranquil life aboard ship; Britain’s naval commanders in London; the newly widowed American president, Woodrow Wilson, in Washington, and the cramped, acrid confines of the German sub. Most hauntingly, it details how a ship filled with families, business travelers, working-class folks, and millionaires was essentially allowed to sail into harm’s way. That theme—how conflicting priorities, inattention, personality clashes, and wartime tension—echoes even more strongly in the aptly named In Harm’s Way. The Indianapolis was the battleship that brought the components of the atomic bomb across the Pacific in late July 1945. After delivering its secret cargo, it quite literally fell off the Navy’s radar, and became a sitting target for the Japanese sub that sank the ship, killing hundreds. In the four days before the ship’s disappearance was noticed and a rescue mission could be launched, hundreds more sailors died as the survivors drifted with few supplies under brutal conditions in shark-infested waters. Equally riveting is Stanton’s explanation of how the Navy avoided taking responsibility for the disaster and pinned blame on the ship’s captain, and how decades later remaining crew members worked to clear his name. I didn’t intend to read these two books in sequence—and I know precious little about anything nautical—but they raise similar questions about the “unintended” casualties of war. —Helene Ragovin, senior content creator/editor, University Communications and Marketing

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. My very ‘woke’ daughter has been on my case to read the Indigenous People’s History for years, so I persuaded my book group to pick it for one of our monthly meetings. We concluded that every American should read this book. It is enlightening and horrifying, documenting hundreds of years of systematic elimination of native American rights, land ownership, political structures, and culture. It’s a history going back 400 years, and makes one realize how long, gradual, and ineluctable the process was. What we learned in school about manifest destiny, intrepid pioneers, and sod-busting settlers takes on a different perspective when presented in the context of a land not empty, but full of existing civilizations that needed to be destroyed to make room. We agreed that this history sheds light—I’d say, provoked an “aha!” response—on the current political climate in the US, with its thread of debates about the role of white supremacy. We had a lively discussion, and at the end of it, decided that we should read a much older book, Bury My Heart, which came out when all of us were just out of college. 

This latter book covers a shorter historical period, and it is told in much greater detail and from the perspectives of the native Americans. It says much more about the diversity of the native American nations, their livelihoods and political structures, and their internal as well as inter-nation (that is, native American nations) differences. Key historical incidents are described in a very human way that reveals how each evolved: the internal conflicts, misunderstandings, trust and betrayal, that eventually, nation by nation, led to surrender. The Indigenous People’s History is horrifying. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is heartbreaking. Together they form an essential education about the country we live in.  A note of warning: The Indigenous People’s History is available in a ‘young reader’ version, so be careful to get the version for grownups. —Beatrice Lorge Rogers, chair of the Division of Food and Nutrition Policy and Programs and professor of economics and food policy, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

The Irish Buddhist: The Forgotten Monk Who Faced Down the British Empire, by Alicia Turner, Laurence Cox, and Brian Bocking. Many years ago, I read the classic 1910 travel book A Vagabond Journey Around the World by Harry Franck, in which the Michigan-born writer circled the globe on a total of $104. One of the many characters he ran into in his travels was a Burmese monk who mostly looked the part—barefoot, shaven head, wearing monk’s robes—but was no Burmese; he had been born in Ireland. He was devout and pugnacious at the same time, eager to promote Buddhism and keep Christian missionaries at bay. He stuck in my mind—and now, decades after I read the book, three academics have teamed up to tell his story. U Dhammaloka, as he was known, had left Ireland as a young man, hoboed across the U.S., shipped out from San Francisco as a sailor, and washed up in southeast Asia, where he eventually converted to Buddhism. He trained as a novice, became fluent in Burmese and Hindi, and was formally ordained in 1900. A European monk was novelty for the Burmese, oppressed as they were by British colonial masters, and he soon became the very public face of Burmese Buddhism, going on lecture tours around the region, railing against what he called the false religion of Christianity. He was well known to British colonial authorities, who disliked uppity Irish as much as uppity Burmese, and dogged him. But Dhammaloka had a gift for PR and marketing; he made sure he got good press. Ultimately, it was his undoing. After more than a decade of agitation, the British brought him to trial essentially for sedition, and though he walked away from the charge, he was humbled and in ill health. He headed to independent Siam (Thailand) and disappeared. No one ever knew his birth name—he gave several over the years—and no one knows where or how he died. But more than a century later, Dhammaloka lives on in this deeply researched and fascinating biography—and in the minds of all who hear his name. —Taylor McNeil, senior content creator/editor, University Communications and Marketing

Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now, by Evan Osnos.  If anything, Joe Biden has proven F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong: there are second acts in American life. In lucid prose, Osnos takes us through the dramatic professional and personal ups and downs of Biden’s career: election to the Senate at the age of 29, losing his wife and a daughter in a car crash, failed presidential campaigns, major legislative accomplishments such as the Violence Against Women Act, a brain aneurism that very nearly killed him, losing one son to cancer, a successful vice presidency and finally a successful run for the White House. This is the life part of Osnos’s effort. For the run part, Osnos examines how Biden skillfully moved to his political left to capture the Democratic nomination. Osnos’ makes an important contribution here as this is a story that media—perhaps because they are fascinated by Donald Trump’s antics— have ignored. The conclusion that you are left with after reading Osnos’ account of Biden’s run to the White House is that he is a far better politician than we had realized. The What Matters Now part of the book is an examination of how Biden will govern. Osnos leaves us with no detailed analysis of how Biden will govern. Instead, he looks deeper: “Joe Biden’s life was replete with mistakes and regrets and staggering personal loss. And, if he came to the presidency, he was unlikely to supply much of the exalted rhetoric that reaches into a nation ‘s soul. But for a people in mourning, he might offer something like solace, a language of healing.” Overall, Osnos argues that Biden may even get America to hope again. Given where we are now as a nation, that would be no small accomplishment. —Martin Burns, A81

The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, by Jeffery C. Stewart. Alain Locke is often remembered as a figure who helped define the aesthetics of the “New Negro,” a concept at the core of the Harlem Renaissance. But in Stewart’s hands Locke is a cultural tribune who wrestles with fitting the African and African-American experience into the rolling modernism of the early 20th century. Locke, a Rhodes scholar who traveled widely, was able to see transnational cultural connections while advocating for Black culture to be seen as a progressive force in its own right. Throughout Locke was beset by the tensions foisted on a homosexual man in a homophobic time, but also those of an advocate dependent on the support of largely white patrons. Although often overshadowed by other more pointed figures, Stewart’s thick biography recaptures a figure whose legacy is profound. —David Ekbladh, associate professor of history

The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—a Tragedy in Three Acts, by Scott Anderson. Sometimes the “intelligence community” is not so smart. This is the story of four men who worked for American intelligence, first in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II and then in its successor agency, the CIA, in the late 1940s and 1950s. But it is also the story of the efforts of the CIA’s covert efforts to confront the Soviet Union and governments seen as hostile to the United States. There are a few moments of James Bond-like daring with the OSS, but mostly there are failed efforts to foment uprisings in Soviet Bloc countries, the overthrow of popular governments in Iran and Guatemala, and the support of a leader in Vietnam who became increasingly autocratic and was eventually abandoned by the United States. These efforts cast a long shadow on the countries involved as well as the United States that is still present today. They also deeply affected the four men profiled in this book. This book is a good complement to an earlier book on the CIA, Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner.  Together, these books paint a picture of overreach that ultimately did not serve the interests of this country. —Michael W. Klein, Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs, The Fletcher School

The Reacher Guy: A Biography of Lee Child, by Heather Martin. Like millions of other readers, I fell in love with the Jack Reacher series when I picked up my first Reacher novel over a decade ago. To me, Reacher was the quintessential American hero—a loner who travels by bus or hitchhikes from town to town on endless American highways to mete out justice and dispatch the bad guys. So imagine my surprise to find that Lee Child, Reacher’s chronicler, is actually an Englishman, a city boy born in Birmingham who worked at Granada Television in Manchester until he was made redundant in his early 40s. Deciding that he might try his hand at something else, and perhaps also filled with a desire to process the trauma of being fired, he created novels that, as he himself says, can be seen as deeply cathartic revenge fantasies. It is not surprising that Child used knowledge of the market, popular culture, and audience psychology that he had learned at Granada. But this knowledge came atop an excellent classical education at the St. Edwards School in Birmingham—alma mater of another major British bestseller writer, J.R.R. Tolkien. I learned this and much else of interest from what I believe to be the first ever Lee Child biography. Martin sees Child as inherently lonely. Raised by what seem to have been incredibly unloving parents, Child remembers himself as a brawler and a defender of his weaker brother while still practically a toddler. Brilliant at schoolwork and with an enormous love of reading, he was also a hellraiser, an ardent soccer fan, and an inveterate storyteller. All this is fascinating reading for a fan, but the actual structure of the biography is unnecessarily complicated, and any non-fan may be nonplussed. Martin only uses first names or nicknames, and she parades an enormous number of people through Child’s life story. At times I felt as if I was at a drinks party in London, being introduced to a tsunami of people who had, at times, only tangential relationship to Child and who don’t throw much light on Child’s psychology. At her best, however, Martin touches on the dark poetry that runs at the base of these violent thrillers. As she says, these books are not “textbooks for how we ought to live,” but rather, “consolations and compensations for how we have to live.” —Susan Napier, Goldthwaite Professor of Rhetoric and Japanese, Department of International Literary and Cultural Studies

Real Change, by Sharon Salzberg. This newly published book is a balm for our time given the collective stress and levels of grief that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic, racial reckoning, and much more. Drawing on  four decades as a world-renowned meditation teacher and New York Times best-selling author, Sharon Salzberg avows that we begin building deep-rooted resilience through acknowledging and responding to the difficult emotions that come with pain and loss “with more presence and compassion,” she says—individually and collectively. Drawing on her deep wisdom, keen wit, and sense of humor, she explores the intersection between work for social change and “the clarity and compassion arising from mindfulness and lovingkindness practices.” Salzberg does so in an accessible way that can appeal to a broad audience, even those who are mindfulness skeptics. Her Real Change exploration is also inspired by multiple changemakers interviewed for and quoted in the book. The featured changemakers, who represent diverse social identities and engage in a range of social change work “all grapple with similar experiences and challenges in their quest to have a positive impact on the world,” Salzburg explains. Many of these interviewees emphasize the vital importance of practicing self-compassion consistently, and that such practice fuels us to “serve, offer, create” for and beyond ourselves. Real Change is the first nonfiction book I have read twice within a month, cover to cover, every single page. Salzberg’s book provides hope in offering a compelling case for why and how cultivating interconnectness, joy, and equanimity allow us to “heal ourselves and the world”—a phrase that serves as the subtitle of this brilliant, timely book. —Deborah Donahue-Keegan, senior fellow, Tisch College; lecturer, Department of Education; associate director, Tisch College SEL-CE Initiative

Say I’m Dead, by E.  Dolores Johnson. This is a brilliant and heartfelt book about racism and identity. Johnson’ parents—her Black father and white mother—fell In love in the early 1940s in Indiana, where intermarriage was illegal and punishable by prison time. Given an active KKK presence and a recent lynching, they left without a word, and married in Buffalo. To escape safely and protect her white family left behind, Johnson’s mother pretended she was going on vacation and then disappeared. Thirty-six years later, Johnson, raised as Black, decided to find her secret white family and examine her own identity. Her discovery revealed a moving portrayal of forgiveness, understanding, and love. Using searing honesty and unflinching details, Johnson captures this ugly slice of America’s racist history, begun with plantation rapes, yet gives us hope with our accelerating multiracial demographic. A must read! —Michelle Bowdler, executive director of health & wellness

Survival in the Shadows: Seven Jews Hidden in Hitler’s Berlin, by Barbara Lovenheim. When I was growing up in Rochester, N.Y., my parents were friends with a couple at our synagogue who spoke with pronounced German accents. I knew only the bare outline of their story—that they met as teenagers and hid together in a factory during World War II—and I never gave much thought to what they had experienced. I wish I had asked questions at the time, but I’m glad I finally read this book, published several years ago, that chronicles step by step how they managed to survive. If your idea of what it means to hide from the Nazis is largely shaped by The Diary of Anne Frank, the details here are eye-opening. For two and a half years, the members of two families passed as non-Jews, moved among many hiding locations, pieced together jobs, endured bombing raids, and scrounged just enough food to get by—all with the help of more than 50 non-Jewish Germans. The book begins by tracking the tightening restrictions on Jews leading up to the war, and it goes without saying that the intersection of historical facts and personal remembrance recounted here can be grim and wrenching. The narrative is so compelling in parts that I was gripped with worry that they would be caught, even though I knew they survived and went on to live several decades in the U.S. Ultimately, I found the resilience and resourcefulness of these individuals—and the bravery of the people who helped them—inspiring to reflect on in our current times. —Amy Goldstein, assistant director, Experimental College

Underland: A Deep Time Journey, by Robert Macfarlane. What’s under the ground we walk on? It’s not something we think of often, and if we do, it’s sometimes a scary place: we bury our dead there, after all. But for Macfarlane, a British nature and travel writer, it’s a place to explore and come to terms with. In this poetic book, he travels where we wouldn’t dare and reports back. It’s hard to categorize Underland: part travel, part nature, part history, part philosophy, part memoir, part science, with Macfarlane’s haunting black and white photos scattered throughout. He travels to Somerset and Yorkshire, then across to Europe, through the catacombs of Paris for two straight days before surfacing, then underground again in Slovenia, Norway, Greenland, and Finland. They are all radically different underground landscapes and experiences, often claustrophobic, at least for me, but all tied deeply to understanding time, which seems to slow or stop beneath the earth. He quotes an archaeologist: “Time isn’t deep, it is always already around us. The past ghosts us, lies all about us, less as layers, more as drift.” We experience everything from prehistory in hidden cave paintings to the far deep future in uranium burial chambers, where signage must be conceived for a people thousands of years from now who speak no language we speak. And then there’s the present, as Macfarlane brings to life his encounters with sometimes wise and usually colorful people. The prose is often so crystalline it can easily be read as poetry, and certainly needs to be savored: “Buck of the boat off the wave-chop. Salt spray, air cold and fast on the face. Sharp peaks in all directions, fjords cutting away.” —Taylor McNeil, senior content creator/editor, University Communications and Marketing

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, Alex Ross. Ross, for years the music critic for The New Yorker, is one of those obsessive Wagnerites who can’t get enough of those Teutonic 19th century operas. But he is more than just a music critic. He is also a well-grounded student of modern culture and civilization. No one understands Wagner’s despicable genius and attraction as well as Ross: his musical virtuosity, his profound impact on generations of composers, artists, poets, dictators, and otherwise normal people. What became known as “Wagnerism” permeated cultures and civilization all over the Western world. He is arguably responsible for much of the racism that became the hallmark of German thinking over two centuries. But others—anarchists, feminists, gay-rights advocates, Christians, and erotic occultists—all saw in Wagner’s world view something to worship. He was a paradox: a vicious anti-Semite, who insisted often on Jewish conductors. For those who find his music the most sublime expression of their souls, they must live with the fact that Adolf Hitler defined his artistic aesthetic as well as his playbook for genocide with Wagner’s ideas. One reviewer stated it this way: “Adolf Hitler incorporated Wagner into the soundtrack of Nazi Germany. In Wagnerism, Alex Ross restores the magnificent confusion of what it means to be a Wagnerian.” Not all geniuses are nice people. —Sol Gittleman, Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor Emeritus

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