Winter Book Recommendations 2021

Looking for a good read? The Tufts community—faculty, staff, and alumni—share more than 40 of their favorites with you

As the nights get—and stay—long, it’s the perfect time to curl up with a good book. Or maybe you need a good audiobook to get you through a long commute, or even just a lot of prep cooking in the kitchen. Our ever-growing number of reviewers from the wider Tufts community—faculty, staff, alumni—have great offerings to suggest for you.

There’s something for everyone: the broad range of fiction includes short stories, mysteries, literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, literature in translation, classics and recent releases—even a children’s picture book.

Nonfiction sees a similarly wide reach. We have books on motherhood, personal essays, history from Lincoln to World War II, an ER doc in the pandemic, women’s friendships, words of hope and advice for activists, and a Mexican vegan cookbook, among many others.

Be sure to also check out the recommendations from a lively group of Tufts authors—faculty and alumni—in our Bookish series, as they chat about their own books, the ones 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.


Cat Among the Pigeons, by Agatha Christie. I discovered Agatha Christie when I worked in the Brookline Public Library in high school, and I read them all. When I was in graduate school, I came across an AI conference paper called, “Shifting the Focus of Attention—The Way Agatha Christie Leads You On,” which reenergized my love of her books. I started rereading them to notice minute details that actually solved the crime. Which brings me to one of my all-time favorites, Cat Among the Pigeons. It takes place at Meadowbank, an elite private girls school in England. The story takes the reader to exotic locations and introduces teachers and staff who are not what they seem, and students—or at least one—who isn’t either. Thankfully Tufts faculty don’t get murdered at the rate of these faculty, nor have such mysteries in their lives before Tufts—or do they? I highly recommend this for the political intrigue and international espionage as well as the window into elite British education. The solution is very satisfying, and I challenge you to notice every detail on the first reading since the clues are all there that solve the mystery. —Lisa Gualtieri, associate professor, Department of Public Health and Community Medicine

Conviction, by Denise Mina. In my last-minute airport bookstore quest to find a book for an upcoming flight, Conviction’s bold cover jumped out at me—and it didn’t disappoint. This is a fun, not-your-average thriller/mystery from Scottish writer Denise Mina that’s darkly funny, unique, and refreshingly modern. Anna McDonald, a young wife and mother, is a true-crime and podcast-obsessed bibliophile who starts listening to the Death and the Dana podcast about a murdered family on a sunken yacht, in the hopes that it will distract her from her recently imploded personal life. But one of the victims of the yacht tragedy featured in the podcast is someone who Anna knew in a prior life, a life she’s painstakingly tried to hide for the better part of a decade. Out of self-preservation and a determination to avoid her own problems, Anna decides to investigate the crime herself, alongside her tag-along neighbor with problems of his own, Fin. But the closer Anna and Fin get to solving the case, the more perilous their search gets—and the harder it is for Anna to continue concealing her real identity. In true thriller/mystery fashion, the plot is enjoyably outlandish, but it’s the very human problems underneath that make the novel feel richer and more complex. A quick warning about content: the book deals with sensitive topics like sexual assault, anorexia, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, and, of course, murder. —Jess Byrnes, A12, program manager, Tisch College of Civic Life

Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer. This is a great book that by turns made me laugh and cry. It’s about a Jewish-American man retracing his family’s history through Ukraine. His journey is interesting, but the journey of his guide Alex is what makes this book. —Sarah Morcom, veterinary technician, Hospital for Large Animals, Cummings Veterinary Medical Center

Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. Casting about for a book to recommend, I found myself perusing various tomes on the bedside table in search of direction, but thought, why not simply pick a book that has been fun to read. The one that sprang to mind is Harold and the Purple Crayon. Like Harold, I tend to meander (see above) which may be one of the things that first drew me to this book after a writer friend introduced me to it. Maurice Sendak, a protégé of the author, called this picture book a masterpiece. When asked about the book by NPR, Sendak responded by saying, “Harold is just immense fun; that’s all, just fun. But, also, Harold does exactly as he pleases. There are no adults to demonstrate or remonstrate. It comes out of the same theory: Let the kid do his own thing.” Johnson was a comic book artist, writer, and illustrator of more than 20 books for children. He painted 100-plus works relating to mathematics and mathematical physics. Of these paintings, 80 are found in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and can be viewed in their digital collection online. The book begins: “One night, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.” Off he sets, inventing and reinventing, facing peril and crafting a path to safety, in wide-eyed wonder. “But, luckily, he kept his wits and his purple crayon,” and with it he can do so much, from building a whole city to creating nine kinds of pies to serve to a deserving porcupine. The language is original and playful. Immense fun. —Nancy Mehegan, senior associate director of stewardship and donor relations

How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn. This is an old book, published in 1939. The film adaptation won an Academy Award in 1940. But given its setting—a Welsh mining town in the late 19th century—it could have been historical fiction written today. And with its themes of environmental degradation, the exploitation of labor, migration, and center-periphery relations, it has contemporary resonance. Told memoir-like, through the eyes of a young boy at the tail end of a large family of coal miners, it is nostalgic, but not cloying. The mine is dangerous, but it also sustains the people until a nearby ironworks shuts down and creates a glut of labor. The detritus from the mines also starts to accumulate and over the course of the novel, the pile of waste starts to threaten the town’s very existence. The language is spectacular, the characters are vivid and complicated, and the story goes places that are unexpected but felt real. After I finished it, I was able to stream the movie.  It may have won an Oscar, but alas, it has none of these qualities. —James M. Glaser, dean, School of Arts and Sciences; professor of political science

Infinite Country, by Patricia Engel. This powerful novel begins with Talia, a 15-year-old Colombian girl breaking out of a remote youth detention center, ultimately trying to make her way to the country of her birth: the United States. Along the way, we learn the story of her parents, Elena and Mauro—what took them to the U.S. almost 20 years earlier and what kept them there despite ill treatment and fears of being deported. Engel tells the family’s story, weaving recent history of Colombia with life in the shadows in the U.S. as experienced by so many immigrants, with papers and without. We quickly grow to know and deeply care for the family, including Elena’s mother, Perla, back in Bogotá. Their pain becomes our pain; their (less frequent) joy becomes our joy. We see how family and love ultimately exert the strongest pull, despite all the obstacles. Many novelists would take 500 pages to pack in this much story; this slender volume clocks in at 191 pages and packs a much bigger a punch for it. There’s not a word wasted. —Taylor McNeil, senior news and audience engagement editor, University Communications and Marketing

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, by Zoraida Córdova. In The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, Córdova puts a fresh stamp on magical realism, telling the story of a family both blessed and tormented by extraordinary powers. In what first feels like a straight-ahead family-gathering-for-a-funeral story, we meet an array of Montoyas, a clan whose personalities couldn’t be more different. But supernatural elements soon bind and divide them, as we follow twin tracks: the mysterious past that Orquídea has hidden from her children and grandchildren, and the quest of Marimar, Rey, and Rhiannon to figure out why they are all being threatened by a dangerous stranger. Leaping from the U.S. to Ecuador, and cutting across decades, the novel feels both epic and intimate. The magical elements may make the story feel other-worldly, but the family dynamics will feel painfully familiar to many readers, as will Marimar’s struggle to define herself and her role in all of it. Cordova has conjured up a vivid modern myth with images that linger long after you close the book. —David Valdes, lecturer, Department of English, author of the forthcoming Spin Me Right Around

Kindred, by Octavia Butler. I confess, I am not a science fiction fan. When my racial justice reading group selected the book Kindred, I didn’t realize I was embarking on a journey through time with a groundbreaking novel written by the first African American female science fiction writer. From the first page of the prologue through the last of the epilogue, I was riveted. Kindred is the suspenseful and traumatic account of Dana, a modern African-American woman’s passage back in time to the antebellum South to save a young boy born to a slaveholding family from frequent danger. It turns out the young man is her ancestor and she is continually called back in time to intervene on his behalf, yet hold herself back from interference that could affect her lineage. Along the journey, Dana is continually in harm’s way as she balances her modern day views and her reality sharing plantation life with other enslaved people. She navigates relationships, power, influence, love, and loss as she tries to make sense of what is happening to her and those around her. Kindred brings to life the trauma of the historical slave narrative and the knowledge of an alternate reality that will eventually manifest. This is a novel that will stay with you and make you question how far we have actually come. —Jennifer Hashley, N05, director, New Entry Sustainable Farming Project

Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto. Kitchen is a short novel that mixes mysticism, tragedy, and renewal with a beautiful Japanese backdrop. It follows Mikage, who we meet while she sleeps next to the refrigerator because it reminds her of her grandmother, whom she was close to and had died just before the start of the novel. The book touches on themes of loss and love and is a bit ahead of its time (being written in 1988) when it touches on themes of transphobia and tolerance. I loved this book since I first read it in high school, but the real star is the short story at the end called “Moonlight Shadow,” another story of love and loss but with heavier themes of mysticism swirling around the Weaver Festival Phenomenon. —Adam Powers, anatomic pathology resident, Hospital for Large Animals, Cummings Veterinary Medical Center 

Monstress, by Lysley Tenorio. You probably know the advice to cut more “to be” verbs from your writing. Often there’s a stronger, more evocative verb out there, one that propels the story forward into action and discovery. I get that. But reading Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress reminded me that the state of being can be an active process, too. In this story collection, characters traverse the Philippines and the United States, performing versions of their endlessly evolving selves. Whether they’re playing monsters in campy sci-fi films, scamming fellow immigrants as spiritual healers, or resisting eviction from San Francisco’s famed I-Hotel, Tenorio’s characters both lose themselves in their roles and arrive at something truer behind the mask. What do our mediated existences leave behind? A transgender woman’s family who never accepted her in life must now bury her body. An artist consigned to a lifetime in the Culion Leper Colony draws herself for the newest resident. A bullied boy inspired by the Green Lantern comics develops a disturbing relationship to violence. The writing is subtle yet propulsive. The stories’ many layers offer the best kind of headache and heartache. I loved looking at this maze of mirrors. —Simon Han, professor of the practice, Department of English

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich. Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel chronicles the fight of Indigenous Americans to save their tribe from “termination” by the U.S. government in the 1950s. The book follows members of the Chippewa community on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, especially council member Thomas Wazhashk—the titular night watchman at the local plant—and dutiful Pixie “Patrice” Parenteau. Thomas must organize a coalition to fight a new Congressional bill that threatens to dispossess the tribe of their sovereign rights, and figure out how to play a game when the rules keep changing. Meanwhile, Patrice is also trying to protect her family from other forces, some sinister, some absurd. This heartbreaking, hopeful, and engrossing book is based on the diaries of Erdrich’s grandfather and his attempt to protect their people from the same threat. —Robin Smyton, A09, assistant director, Office of Media Relations 

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich. Louise Erdrich’s oeuvre includes novels, poetry, and children’s books. An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, her stories, settings, and characters often harken back to her roots in North Dakota. The Night Watchman follows the lives and tribulations of several people living near the Turtle Mountain Reservation. There’s Thomas Wazhashk, the title’s night watchman, who works at a local jewel bearing plant. By night he struggles to stay awake to do his job;

by day he struggles to understand what a new “emancipation bill” might mean for local tribal members and their rights to their own traditional lands. Thomas works to organize his friends and neighbors in opposition to this Congressional bill, an important theme showing the situation in which so many Native Americans found themselves with regard to their land rights. There’s Pixie Paranteau, a young woman working in the plant who’s valiantly trying to improve her own life by rejecting the gender and class roles into which she’s been forced in 1950s North Dakota. Patrice, as she tries to call herself, travels to Minnesota in search of her older sister, Vera, and the baby she might or might not have had, who’s disappeared and feared gone the way of too many missing young Native American women. There’s Wood Mountain, a local young man talented in boxing, who proves to be a much more tender-hearted individual than his name or avocation would suggest. And there are many other complex, nuanced characters Erdrich weaves into this story, each of whom not only add to the layers of drama, but also illuminate aspects of Native American lives in mid-20th century America. —Julie Dobrow, director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies; senior lecturer, Eliot- Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development

No Longer Human (Ningen Shikkaku), by Osamu Dazai, translated by Donald Keene. This short novel, originally published in 1948, apparently drew heavily from the author’s own life during pre-World War II Japan. In the work, which opens after the war has concluded, an unnamed narrator comes across a set of photographs and journals containing the reflections of Ōba Yōzō, a young man from a wealthy family who—we discover—suffers from a crippling inability to anchor himself in relation to others. In the journals, Yōzō recounts his struggles with the problem of how to be ‘human’ within the context of social norms—something that others solve, he implies, by relying on superficiality and social convention. Yōzō instead experiences his encounters with others as a never-ending source of fear and anxiety, a problem that he initially displaces by playing the class clown, but later through alcohol and morphine. At one point, he determines that ‘society’ is nothing more than a tool that one person invokes when engaged in conflict with another, and these realizations lead him into a spiral of waste and dissipation. The novel ends with a pat diagnosis of Yōzō’s troubles by one of his acquaintances, a summation that makes perfect sense from a conventional perspective, but glosses over the psychological dynamics that drove his behavior. While there are a few clues that point to the novel’s historical era—people message one another by sending telegrams—the novel is still remarkably contemporary, a classic in the literature on social alienation. —Andrew K. Shiotani, director, Tufts International Center

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke. Piranesi lives a lonely life in a house that (quite literally) makes up his entire world. The rooms and halls stretch in every direction, differentiated only by the statues that decorate them, the birds and fish that call them home, and the tides that flow through and sometimes flood them. Piranesi himself spends his days exploring, noting new rooms, listing strange objects he finds, and tracking the tides in his journals. This routine is occasionally broken by visits from the only other inhabitant of the house, known as the Other, who brings Piranesi gifts in exchange for information about the house and its many mysteries. Gradually, however, Piranesi is confronted with evidence of strange goings-on. The Other’s questions get more pointed. He finds pages, torn from his own journals, that he has no memory of writing. And he begins to suspect that he and the Other might not be alone in the house. Anyone who has read Susanna Clarke’s debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, knows that she is a master of magical world-building, complex and satisfying plotting, and sharp, often dryly funny prose. Piranesi might be a quarter of its predecessor’s length, but it packs all of Clarke’s magic, mystery, and melancholy into its small package. You might read the entire book in an afternoon, but you’ll linger in Piranesi’s world long after you put Piranesi down. —Alexandra Israel, event planner and marketing specialist, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam. I love taking bestseller lists to the library—not to get the bestseller (too hot a commodity) but to see what else that author has on the shelves. Rarely am I as rewarded by one of those first works as I was by Rumaan Alam’s Rich and Pretty. You know his Leave the World Behind, one of the pandemic’s most talked-about novels. But this deeply insightful—and gently funny—look at a 20-year friendship of two thirty-something women is also a must-read. You turn every page of Lauren and Sarah’s journey from inseparable tweens to early middle age with Alam’s having made the women as real to you as that friend you still have from high school. It is a good match for a reader on your holiday shopping list who appreciates an honest, messy, and ultimately compelling depiction of what it means to have—and be—a friend for life. —Dave Nuscher, executive director, content and planning, University Communications and Marketing

A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean. This is a series of short stories, the most famous being about fly fishing and a brother’s murder. The short stories of working in a logging camp are also good. —Sarah Morcom, veterinary technician, Hospital for Large Animals, Cummings Veterinary Medical Center 

Severance, by Ling Ma. This debut novel jumped out at me from a bookstore shelf a few years ago, a zombie apocalypse tale with a baby-pink cover and a double entendre as the title, billing itself as social satire. I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be scary, funny, or artsy. It turned out to be all three—and more. It definitely delivers on the zombie apocalypse front, opening with narrator Candace Chen and a handful of survivors navigating highways choked by dead cars as they travel from New York City to a promised safe haven in Chicago, stopping to raid houses and shoot the living-dead inhabitants as they go through the motions of their former lives. But Severance is also a coming-of-age tale, following Candace as a new college graduate and aspiring photographer wandering New York City, snapping shots for her photo blog, and getting swept into her first apartment, first romance, and first job. It’s a critique of modern urban life, in all its excesses and isolation, and the corporate world, with its petty hierarchies and soul-killing routines void of meaning or joy. It’s a chronicle of the immigrant struggle, following Candace’s mother as she strives to carve out a place in a country where she never meant to stay, and Candace’s father as he tries to sell her on all America has to offer. As present-day Candace’s journey west takes disturbing swerves, vivid and lyrical flashbacks simultaneously show us the disintegration of her job and relationship, and the progression of the (now eerily familiar) Shen Fever pandemic, with masks and sanitizing regimes finally giving way to the full shutdown of offices, transportation, government, and life as we know it. We end where we began, with Candace ghosting through the streets of New York with her camera—memorializing what is lost when we die before our time, whether in body or spirit, and honoring what it means to be alive. —Monica Jimenez, senior content producer/editor, Office of Communications and Marketing

The Shack, by William Paul Young. This book invites readers into a moving story about a father seeking answers and comfort in dealing with the tragic loss of his daughter. The plot depicts the father’s plight through the navigation of tragedy, grief, and depression. Amid the agony and sorrow experienced, the father receives a letter with no return address that takes him back to the place where the tragedy occurred, “the shack.” Although not knowing any of the answers—the who, what, or why—the father goes off on a journey that includes revisiting pain and turmoil, leading to a refreshing experience that would significantly impact his life forever. Although this story is also available as a film, reading the book is intriguing and is excellent at stimulating individual thought and reflection. It can potentially foster strength and resolve, particularly now when many have experienced insurmountable losses resulting from the pandemic and other life circumstances. As the winter brings holidays and events that will undoubtedly contribute to an abundance of feelings and memories, reading The Shack allows one to absorb the details of a stirring encounter deeply within, arousing emotions and inviting a transformation that can be life-changing. —Vivian Stephens-Hicks, MBS program manager, assistant professor of medical education, School of Medicine

Simon the Fiddler, by Paulette Jiles. I finished Simon the Fiddler with one longing thought: I hope there’s a sequel, because I absolutely have to know how the story of Simon Boudlin and Doris Dillon—the book’s main characters—continues to unfold. It wasn’t until a friend pointed it out that I realized I did know how Simon and Doris’ story unfolded. The novel is actually a prequel, of sorts, to Paulette Jiles’ masterful News of the World, in which Simon and Doris appear as minor characters. (I’d remembered the characters from News, a book I adored, but had forgotten their names, and never made the connection.) And I’m sort of glad I did, because not knowing their fate kept the story just that much more intriguing. The story is set in the last days and immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Simon, a gifted musician and reluctant Confederate, travels across Texas with a band made up of former soldiers—both Rebel and Yankee—with the ultimate goal of finding Doris, the Irish governess he has set his heart on. While the official love story is that of Simon and Doris, the bonds that develop among the band members, and their tender devotion to one in particular, are equally moving. A bonus of the audio version is that you can hear the authentic 1860s melodies. —Helene Ragovin, senior content creator/editor, University Communications and Marketing

The Stone Loves the World, by Brian Hall. How do family members repeat patterns through generations, and somehow also spin off in their own directions? That’s the question at the root of this smart novel, filled with eloquent disquisitions—done with a surprisingly light touch—on a wide range of topics: number theory, the war in Yugoslavia, classical music, astronomy, method acting, nuclear war, Joan of Arc, and many more. The frame for the story is the sudden journey of 21-year-old Mette, a reclusive programmer living with her actor mom Saskia in Brooklyn. She hops on a series of Greyhound buses heading to Seattle, a completely random choice born of desperation to flee herself, or who she thinks she is. We learn the deep back stories of her father Mark, who is really the heart of the novel, and his parents Vernon and Imogen, who are also vividly brought to life. There’s a strong pattern of behavior repeating through the generations that we would now call being “on the spectrum”—but Hall never invokes that term. For him, what might be peculiarities to others are simply these people’s way of being, and he accepts them wholeheartedly. It’s a refreshing approach, and as he gets into the minds and hearts of his characters, we truly care for them amidst their foibles, occasional joys, and sorrows. Mette’s story is the weakest link, but it’s a small price to pay for the generous introduction to her extended family, so utterly real and profoundly human. —Taylor McNeil, senior news and audience engagement editor, University Communications and Marketing

This Eternity of Masks and Shadows, by Karsten Knight. This mythologically-inspired fantasy novel follows a young vigilante, Cairn Delacroix, as she partners with a brooding polar bear god to solve a series of supernatural murders in modern-day Boston—including that of our hero’s mother. Publishers Weekly calls this novel an “action-packed urban fantasy” as danger and intrigue abound when Cairn descends further and further into Boston’s shadowy, criminal underworld, endangering herself and the woman she loves. This Eternity of Masks and Shadows takes readers on a twisting adventure full of secrets, conspiracies, and complicated relationships; you won’t want to put down until the last explosive finale. Locals will appreciate all of the novel’s scenes set in Massachusetts; you’ll never look at the Custom House Tower downtown the same again. Perfect for fans of mythology, superheroes—and anti-heroes. —Annika Murphy, manager of marketing and communications, Tufts Gordon Institute

Under the Whispering Door, by TJ Klune. Wallace, a ruthless and well-respected lawyer, goes into work one weekend to prepare himself for the week ahead, only to suddenly “wake up” at his own funeral surrounded by a disappointing number of family and coworkers. Wallace is brought to a tea shop in the middle of nowhere run by a ferryman named Hugo, who is supposed to help him eventually cross over. The book takes you through the adventures of Wallace as he comes to terms with his death and maybe learns a bit about living in the process. At the heart of this book is an exploration of what it means to live, grieve, belong, and be left behind. In pure TJ Klune fashion, it is a humorous warm hug of a book that is a wonderful addition to any relaxing winter evening—and may also be a solid gut punch to the feelings you did not expect. —Krys Ziska Strange, associate director, Faculty Development & Instructional Design, Tufts Technology Services


The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron. Don’t be misled by the prosaic title—this is a powerful literary voyage with one of the best travel writers of the past 50 years. At age 79, Thubron undertook to travel the entire length of the Amur River, the 10th longest in the world, from its origins in the deserted forests of Mongolia, into Russia, and then along the 1,100-mile border it creates between China and Russia. His rusty Russian and Mandarin come back to him, and he is able to travel with a freedom others would find impossible. He spends a week on horseback, hitches rides with an Orthodox monk, hunkers down in an almost deserted abbey while Russian troops hold war games outside, ventures into far northeastern China, evading the authorities, crosses back to Russia, and finally ends at the Pacific. But mostly what he reports on are the people he meets. These are ordinary people whose lives linger in our imagination: the blowhard Cossack who fears and hates the Chinese just across the river; the Chinese father whose sole child, a daughter, is living a better life far away from these northern borderlands and their frozen winters, and will never return; the bluff Russian outdoorsman who takes him to the far reaches of the Amur as it nears the Pacific. There they mingle with marginalized Siberian natives, poachers, and policemen in this back of beyond, the people so cynical about their fatherland that hope for the future is impossible. It’s a sobering journey—and a glimpse into a vast part of the world mostly forgotten. Thubron’s writing is crystalline, honed to a fine finish, and always in service of telling the story of people and history and place. —Taylor McNeil, senior news and audience engagement editor, University Communications and Marketing

Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell. Building upon her experience as a lawyer and organizer, Derecka Purnell argues that the system of policing cannot be reformed. But for her, abolition is not simply about getting rid of police, but rather about envisioning new systems that address the root causes of violence, and support and sustain our most vulnerable communities. She challenges readers to imagine and fight for a more just society. This work must begin with serious study of the legacies of global injustice, previous social movements, and the work of abolitionists. In making her argument, Purnell describes her own organizing work in her hometowns of St. Louis and Ferguson and how she came to believe in an abolitionist framework of policing. This personal lens makes this an extraordinarily accessible and passionate book. This is an essential book for all committed to social justice work. —Ryan Rideau, associate director of teaching, learning, and inclusion, Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching

The Bomber Mafia, by Malcom Gladwell. Like many of us who love books, I have found myself listening to more and more podcasts.  Gladwell’s new book started as an episode of his fascinating Revisionist History podcast and reads like a podcast, with many side tangents and personal anecdotes. Gladwell’s previous books were groundbreaking studies focused on social psychology, but The Bomber Mafia is an old school military history focused on the differing viewpoints the leaders of the nascent U.S. Army Air Force.  With an almost religious belief in the power of and superiority of American military technology, one school of thought pushed the theory that precision bombing could win the war with minimal casualties or effects on the civilian population of Germany. The other school of thought, led by General Curtis LeMay, was to utilize the industrial power and might of the Air Force to lay waste to the enemy, inflicting so much death and damage as to force the end of the war. Despite their claims of being able to drop a bomb into a pickle barrel, the acolytes of precision bombing met middling results at best, the technology just was not there to accomplish their stated outcome. Whereas Lemay’s fire-bombing of Tokyo was the most deadly night of the war. Gladwell lays out each case, but does not answer the pivotal question “was it worth it?” —Stephen Muzrall, senior director of development and alumni engagement, School of Dental Medicine

Christ on the Rue Jacob, by Severo Sarduy. This exquisite and enigmatic collection of what its exiled Cuban author called “epiphanies” is one of the few books I’ve begun to reread as soon as I finished it. In fragmentary entries that seek to register and to reflect on ephemeral moments of intellectual eros, physical injury, and social encounter, Sarduy’s delicate, lyrical prose floats its reader into a space where language gives fleeting consistency and obscure significance to the traces left by otherwise unremarkable events: a description of a wart removal that subtly ciphers the calamitous violence of the 20th century; an account of cruising in a Tangier plaza that proceeds through the rub of cultural rubble; a meditation on an exhibition of photographs that articulates nothing other than looking itself. His style and his subject matter connect him clearly to the heady world of 1960s Paris, where he moved to study and remained in protest against Castro’s persecution of homosexuals and censorship of writers. Studded with references to his friendships with the likes of Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan, the book reveals the pleasure and power of that postmodernism while skirting the snobbery and Eurocentrism with which it is often associated. It’s the perfect bedside companion to dip into before falling asleep or to stay up with all night as you revel in its hallucinatory reality. —John Lurz, associate professor of English; director, First Year Writing Program

The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found, by Bart Van Es. This is an amazing book, the true story of a young Jewish girl during World War II who hides from the Nazis in the homes of an underground network of foster families, one of which was the author’s grandparents. Bart van Es began research on this biography in 2014. He knew that his grandparents hid Dutch-Jewish children during World War II, but they had never discussed it. He set out to find Lien, one of those children, and learn about her life and his grandparents’ relationship to her. When the Nazi occupation began in 1942, Lien’s parents saw the handwriting on the wall for Jews in the Netherlands. They contacted the underground and made arrangements for their 8-year-old daughter to be placed in hiding with a Christian family. The author uses photos, letters, manuscripts from the Dutch national archives, and lengthy recorded interviews with Lien to flesh out the fragments of her memory of the war years. He describes the origins of the Jewish community in Holland and the collaboration of the Dutch police and citizens in rounding up Jews for the Nazis. Lien shares with van Es the many years after the war that she tried to regain a sense of who she was and what purpose she served. Part of the healing process included telling her history and a visit to Auschwitz, where both of her parents perished. Winner of the 2018 Costa Award, this book is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit and a valuable record of a dark time In Dutch history. (I listened to this audiobook read by the author and really enjoyed experiencing the book this way.) Nancy Marks, Tisch/School of Dental Medicine community service program coordinator

Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births, by Michelle Millar Fischer and Amber Winick. It’s hard to find a book (or thing for that matter) that speaks to so many of the roles we all hold. As a curator, mother, design-geek, and part-time historian, I can finally say that I found that book/thing. Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births is the brainchild of design and architectural historian and curator Michelle Millar Fischer and design historian Amber

Winick, but it is reflective of a broad collaboration and, I would say, coalition, of activists, historians, medical experts, artists, and mothers who have come together in this brilliant, accessible, funny, traumatic, and complex history of birthing babies in modern times. The project itself takes on many forms: it is an exhibition (currently on view at the Mütter Museum and Center for Architecture and Design in Philadelphia), a series of programs, a website, and now, a book. Part exhibition catalogue, part illustrated history, the publication features a series of encyclopedic entries, interjected with artist projects and organized into the four cycles of childbirth: reproduction, pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. As a resource, Designing Motherhood offers concise and pithy texts on everything from the Pill and home pregnancy tests to gender reveals and the child-free movement in a writing style that is warm, accessible, and funny, giving it the guise of a coffee table book. But don’t let this fool you. In fact, it’s a rigorous historical account and feminist repair of the medical and design fields’ neglect—and worse—of this universal and female experience. In entries on the speculum and Dalkon Shield, we learn that the former was designed through forced experiments on Black enslaved women and the latter, a popular contraceptive intrauterine device in the 1970s whose lazy design flaw caused serious injury to thousands of women. To achieve this balance of levity and gravity, Fischer and Winick ground their scholarship in core intersectional feminist values and take care to provide first-person accounts when possible and present a diversity of voices: midwifes, doctors, researchers, political activists, artists, and writers. Their generosity comes through in the book’s own design, which elegantly connects these disparate voices with a wink and a nod to the project’s feminist activist roots—replete with pink pages and adorable baby photos—while gleefully skewering the patriarchy. —Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator, Tufts University Art Galleries

Every Minute Is a Day: A Doctor, An Emergency Room, and a City Under Siege, by Robert Meyer, M.D., and Dan Koeppel. Twenty-five years as a physician at one of the busiest emergency rooms in the country should have provided enough drama for a lifetime. In early 2020, Robert Meyer and his colleagues at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx were among the first front-line health-care providers in the United States to come up against the savage new virus that was changing—and destroying—life all over the world. Meyer and his cousin, writer Dan Koeppel, started a running text conversation, which gave Meyer an emotional outlet from the turmoil of the ER, and gave Koeppel a glimpse into the terrifying new reality of fighting COVID, and became the backbone of this book. Readers witness the nuts-and-bolts of how doctors, nurses, and the others in the ER learned to manage COVID as the clock was ticking—you can feel the relief and amazement when Meyer and his team, for the first time, roll a suffocating patient from his back to his stomach, and watch his oxygen levels climb and his breathing ease. And, perhaps more profoundly, the book chronicles how Meyer and his colleagues—people who had made the decision to devote their lives to trauma medicine—absorbed the emotional, psychological, and physical impact of the pandemic. “Covid has rewritten the rules. . . . But in the end, I know what matters most is that we’ve shown up,” Meyer says. The book ends with a poignant afterward by Koeppel, who was diagnosed with cancer in the midst of writing the book—a time when health crises other than COVID were often dwarfed by the pandemic. I was familiar with Koeppel’s story because he’s a high school buddy I follow on Facebook; still, his perspective as both a writer and a patient—he had his first treatments at Montefiore, 11 floors above his cousin’s emergency room—adds yet another layer of understanding. —Helene Ragovin, senior content creator/editor, University Communications and Marketing

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, by Louis Menand. In this book, Menard shows it’s hard to hide from the world. His The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War is aimed at explaining the transformation of culture in the U.S., but it is also an exploration of something larger.  It shows how many spheres of public life, whether they are labeled “cultural” or not, are threaded together across individual experiences and national borders. It is not explicitly a Cold War book, but shows how ideas animating and challenging the Cold War—totalitarianism, liberation, justice, rights, freedom—coursed through a spectrum of cultural activities, creating creative feedback loops. The canvas is large, crossing spheres of art, literature, philosophy, music, and film. This means the cast of characters is equally vast: Jean-Paul Sartre, Jackson Pollack, James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, the Beatles, and Elvis Presley, to name just a few. It’s a lucid and exciting book and one that reminds us that human expression always expresses the pressures of the age. David Ekbladh, associate professor, Department of History; faculty associate, Center for Strategic Studies, Fletcher School

The Girls from Ames, by Jeffrey Zaslow. The co-author of The Last Lecture, Zaslow in this book highlights the 40-year friendship of 11 women who grew up in the relatively small town of Ames, Iowa. Written in 2009, it is still relevant today, and I pick it up every so often to read it again. I didn’t want it to end. The lives of these women reminded me so much of my own group of friends from high school and the things we went through. Lives touched by success, tragedy, death, divorce, and illness—whether their own or that of their children. This is book is about more than just friendships. It’s about how strong bonds developed in a close group of friends create a special place that is beneficial to our overall wellness. “There’s this comfort zone. It’s good for my mental health to know there’s a group of people I can turn to at any moment in my life, and they’ll be my safety net,” says one of the women. Nurturing these lifelong friendships has been vital to all they have gone through. “We root each other to the core of who we are, rather than what defines us as adults—by careers or spouses or kids. There’s a young girl in each of us who is still full of life. When we are together, I try to remember that.” A book worth reading and sharing. I shared with those in my tribe to let them know that we are, as one of the women says, “all at the end of that fishing line if they ever need to tug and be reeled back in.” —Christine Fitzgerald, manager of marketing and communications, Tufts Technology Services

God Human Animal Machine: Technology, Metaphor and the Search for Meaning, by Meghan O'Gieblyn. Numerous commentators have explored the extent to which “the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief,” as the historian David Noble put it in The Religion of Technology. Few are as qualified to do so as Meghan O’Gieblyn. A former fundamentalist Christian, O’Gieblyn is uniquely sensitive to the spiritual yearning for Edenic transcendence and immortality that suffuses the discourse of Silicon Valley futurists and transhumanists such as Ray Kurzweil, the prophet of technological singularity. O’Gieblyn provides a history of this discourse and its impact on her personally, and explores its religious and philosophical roots and, most importantly, pervasive contradictions. The book is much more than this though, as it offers a timely rumination on the role of metaphor in understanding (and misunderstanding) human identity. For example, O’Gieblyn shows how the metaphor of the human mind as a computer, with all its limitations and distortions, gradually came to be taken literally in cybernetics and the philosophy of mind, thereby inspiring the millenarian dream of Elon Musk and others that “if your biological self dies, you can upload into a new unit.” An essential warning about the persistent seductions and dangers of technological enchantment in our supposedly disenchanted age. —Malcolm Turvey, Sol Gittleman Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture and Film & Media Studies Program

Harpo Speaks, by Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber. For a man who never uttered a word on stage or screen, Harpo has a lot to say in this engaging and amusing memoir, published in 1961. One of five brothers, he grew up in the tenements of the Upper East Side of New York in the 1890s. Adolph—his given name—was small for his age, and would regularly get tossed out his second-grade classroom window by tough Irish classmates when his teacher, Miss Flatto, stepped out; luckily, the classroom was on the ground floor. He’d come back in, explaining he’d been to the bathroom yet again. After hitting the sidewalk one too many times, he decided to walk away from school for good at age 8. He went on to take and lose a vast number of jobs as a youngster roaming the streets. His mother Minnie was determined that her Marx sons were going to succeed in show biz, and Harpo soon enough got in on the show. His early attempts to tell jokes fell flat, and he resolved never to utter a word on stage again. That and playing the harp became his ticket to success. The Marx Brothers took a long road to stardom: many years on the vaudeville circuit, one town after another, for years on end, mostly living hand-to-mouth, before finally striking it rich in the movies. Harpo tells many funny stories about their struggles, but skims past their successes. He also dwells on his many friends, luminaries of the 1920s and 30s who are now mostly lost to memory; they provided him the friendship he’d never had as a child. Eventually at age 42 Harpo settled down with an actress 15 years his junior, and as he tells the story, it was a truly happy marriage. They quickly adopted four children, raised them in freeform Marx Brothers style, and lived happily ever after. There is the caveat that Harpo was a product of his time—the women here are mostly broads and dames, for example. But if you can overlook that, this is a delightful memoir of an American icon. —Taylor McNeil, senior news and audience engagement editor, University Communications and Marketing

Home Made: A Story of Grief, Groceries, Showing Up—and What We Make When We Make Dinner, by Liz Hauck. Liz Hauck’s debut Home Made is a beautifully written book. She and her father had hoped to start a weekly cooking program in a residential home for teenage boys in state care, which was run by the human services agency he co-directed. Though her father dies, Hauck takes up the cause, and one dinner turns eventually becomes 100. I admire Hauck for the way she wholeheartedly embraced such an ambitious volunteer endeavor, honored her father, and generously shared an intimate account of her journey with her readers. —Christine Colacino, Office of Equal Opportunity coordinator

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith. This powerful book brings to light the unseen history of slavery that continues to unfold in our country through acts of violence that are happening in plain view, says Smith. His first-hand narratives compellingly describe eight places where “the story of slavery in America lives on.” These include descriptions of his visits to the Confederate Blandford Cemetery, Monticello, Whitney Plantation, and Louisiana’s maximum security Angola prison. The description of Angola prison as being built on a former plantation that has a museum gift shop selling mugs inscribed with “Welcome to Angola, A Gated Community” is a powerful example of “the indifference to the history of the place.” Descriptions of ongoing “convict leasing” at Angola prison depict how prisons have become the “new plantations” and powerfully illustrate how recent our nation’s history of slavery actually is. The vivid stories Smith tells help us understand how this history of slavery endures, deeply embedded in every part of our society, and continues to shape our nation’s current landscape of inequality—and stirs our personal and collective accountability. —Jonathan Garlick, professor, School of Dental Medicine; director, Tufts Initiative in Civic Science; director of science communications, Tufts Clinical and Translational Science Institute

The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us, by Paul Tough. The Inequality Machine is about schools like Tufts, and their impact on social mobility. Author Paul Tough explores the experience of students from underrepresented and under-resourced backgrounds responding to the pressures of applying, being admitted, and attending an elite institution. The book focuses on factors that create advantage for wealthy students, such as the SAT and ACT; test coaching; what Tough refers to as “the admissions-industrial complex;” and the impact of family income, family culture, and community support on student choices. This is no dry academic book. A journalist, Tough illustrates his narrative with compelling stories of students, families, and educators navigating this landscape. There are remarkable examples of student perseverance and insightful analysis of both intended and unintended consequences of institutional efforts to break down educational barriers. The original title of this book was The Years That Matter Most. I’m not sure that’s completely true (my preschool teacher son would certainly argue for early education), but those of us working in higher ed know how formative the college years can be. The Inequality Machine is a call for us to more deeply understand our own efforts to create a more diverse, inclusive environment of opportunity at Tufts. —Dorothy Meaney, director, Tisch Library

Letters to Camondo, by Edmund De Waal. It’s a little hard to describe Edmund De Waal’s new book: a slim volume that’s packed with beautiful writing, a poignant storyline, and arresting photos. It’s about art, about anti-Semitism in France, about a complicated connection of families, about Belle Époque high society, about archival work, about collecting. This book, a sequel of sorts to De Waal’s earlier book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, has the author writing a series of more than 50 imaginary letters to Moïse de Camondo, a wealthy collector in early 20th century Paris who was the neighbor and dear friend of De Waal’s great-great-grandfather’s cousin, Charles Ephrussi. Both families were Jewish expats from other countries who’d bought plots on the Rue de Monceau in 1869.The families became friends, became wealthy, became collectors of art and many other objects, and eventually became victims of the Nazi takeover of France. De Waal’s letters reveal the intertwining of his family with Camondo’s, and in so doing, also elucidate much about the era, the art, and how the pressures of assimilation came at immeasurable cost for both families. Da Waal is as gifted a writer as he is an artist (he’s also an internationally known potter), and this book is an unusual, creative, and thoughtful addition to a growing contemporary literature of the Holocaust. —Julie Dobrow, director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies; senior lecturer, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development

The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill America's 16th President—and Why It Failed, by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch. We all know many facts and stories about Abraham Lincoln, and certainly that he was assassinated in 1865. However, many do not know about a failed plot to kill Lincoln in 1861. The Lincoln Conspiracy tells the story of Lincoln’s trip from Illinois to Washington, D.C., on the way to his first inauguration and the plot by a pro-Southern secret society to kill him.  Add in the investigation by Allan Pinkerton and one of the first female private detectives. The result is Lincoln outsmarting his enemies and, as we know, arriving in Washington, D.C. unscathed. Following Lincoln’s journey, we see him making stops along the way that highlight the underlying political and race issue of the time and how Lincoln’s image was developed. Brad Meltzer is a great suspense novelist, and Josh Mensch is a bestselling author and documentary producer of American history. They combine their expertise to put together a historically true and well-told thriller. It reads more like a novel than a history book, and gives great insight to an important period of history. As the book jacket states, “Had the assassination succeeded, there would have been no Lincoln Presidency and the course of the Civil War and American history would have forever been altered.” —Dan Volchok, associate dean, Graduate School Biomedical Science 

No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear), by Kate Bowler. These are difficult times, as we all try to cope with our COVID-19 world. In No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear), Duke historian and stage 4 colon cancer survivor Kate Bowler has written a remarkable book that can help us steer our way through the difficult seas of life. This is Bowler’s second memoir, and in it she reflects with searing honesty and comic sensibilities on the new realities imposed on her by her illness. In just over 200 pages, Bowler launches a humorous yet stinging attack on what might be called the toxic positivity industrial complex. The scene where Bowler wanders down to the hospital gift shop in her medical gown and demands that they remove all the books that guarantee you can pray or will yourself back to health is truly worth the price of admission. While Bowler rejects platitudes that assure us that everything will be just fine, she does not give into pessimism nor lose touch with her strong Christian faith. Bowler has the unique appreciation for both the suffering and joy that life brings. The overall question that Bowler asks herself—and us—is: how will we measure our life? Will we check off all the items on our bucket list? Bowler reminds us that all our lives, because of the very definition of life itself, will be unfinished. There are things that we will just not get to do. We will have regrets. Our lives will be unfinished no matter how much we accomplish. Somehow, all of this will be OK because, as Bowler puts it, “Life is so beautiful. Life is so terrible.” Martin Burns, A81, manager, political intelligence, campaign strategy, AARP Campaigns

Provecho: 100 Vegan Mexican Recipes to Celebrate Culture and Community, by Edgar Castrejón. In his first cookbook, Castrejón teaches us about “Provecho!” which, he tells us, “comes from the Spanish word aprovechar (“to make the most of”). It imparts a sense of joy, an appreciation for community, and gratitude for all that we share.” I can’t think of a better book to end a difficult year or to carry with me into a new year. Castrejón’s recipes are enticing and beautifully captured in his photographs and in his warm and engaging prose; this is not a cookbook where you’ll find yourself simply racing to the recipe. A first-generation Mexican American, the author shares recipes from both his family and his neighbors, who bring their hearty and delicious Colombian and El Salvadoran dishes to the table. You’ll find easy recipes for tortillas, Frijoles Colombianos (Colombian beans), Sopa de Fideo (tomato noodle soup), and Galletas de Jengibre (ginger cookies perfect for the holidays or for a quiet moment over a cup Mexican hot chocolate). More than a collection of great recipes, we’re invited into Castrejón’s community—a community of warmth, care, and celebration—and made welcome. Grab a copy, get comfortable, and get started. Provecho! —Pamela Hopkins, public services and outreach archivist, Tufts Digital Collections and Archives

Sit Down to Rise Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change the World, by Shelly Tygielski. Self-care. What comes to mind when you hear this term? Do you equate it with selfishness? Do you wince as you perhaps associate self-care with an approximately $1.5 trillion wellness industry? Maybe you view it as superfluous to civic engagement? If any or all of the above ring true, I urge you to read Shelly Tygielski’s new book. She offers a timely call to reimagine and embrace self-care as “setting limits in ways that prioritize what’s most important,” in alignment with your purpose and values. The book’s premise is simple: “The successful inner journey of me leads toward a collective healing of we. The strength of the communal we can then rise to the task of creating true shifts in the fabric of society—movements—by arriving at the journey to us.” Through candidly recounting her own life journey through pain, loss, confusion, and a sense of brokenness, Tygielski offers a profoundly convincing counter-narrative to tropes of rugged individualism and self-reliance that continue to pervade our society. She contends that authentic self- and community-care are inextricably linked. Tygielski walks this talk in small and large ways. Among other impactful community-care endeavors, she founded Pandemic of Love in March 2020. Since then, this mutual aid organization has continued to reach across the world, matching millions of people needing and giving help and building communities of care. What propels her, and those who subscribe to genuine self-care and community-care, is “a shared purpose to create change that benefits everyone.” Tygielski asserts that “in social and political movements, commitment to community care, which means our own—and others’—care, emotional justice is a fundamental building block.” She convinces us that authentic self-care is not self-indulgence; it is the nexus of rising up with hope and solidarity for transformational social change. —Deborah Donahue-Keegan, lecturer, Department of Education; associate director, Generous Listening and Dialogue (GLAD) Center; senior fellow, Tisch College of Civic Life

To My Beloveds: Letters on Faith, Race, Loss, and Radical Hope, by Jennifer Bailey, A09. This book is filled with amazing insight on what it means to be fully human and serve humanity. It offers, as the publisher Chalice Press says, “comfort, wisdom, encouragement, support, and hope for young activists and emerging faith leaders aspiring to build a better world amidst its violence, trauma, and loss—and who may wonder if they’re up to the task or unsure if they’ll ever see the change they seek.” It’s not easy work, but Rev. Jennifer pushes us to think through questions around lost, hope, and reality. It’s a quickish read, and great gift for anyone who is considering activism, is an activist, or works closely with activism. It’s also a timely read as we continue on in a pandemic that attacks many identities at once. What do we do with all of this loss? Let’s think about it. —Domonique T. Johnson, A10, AG20, Black Community Service Center at Stanford University

The Will to See, by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Today, internationalism is on the wane; this, even as challenges such as the coronavirus and climate change emphasize the inextricable bonds that exist between nations and peoples. Lévy’s book spans the globe and his career, in which he’s sought to draw attention to the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of our time. In these pages, we travel to Bangladesh, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Afghanistan, to name a few, and in the course of this journey, which is as much intellectual as geographical, we see what Lévy sees. The result is a personal, deeply felt work which is part memoir, part reportage, and part philosophical cri de coeur, one that calls upon us to recommit to the type of humanism that—at its best—can protect the most vulnerable among us, and without which we are condemned to nationalism, isolationism, and our darkest protectionist impulses. —Elliot Ackerman, A03, F03  
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