Tufts faculty, staff, and students offer a wide-ranging selection for your reading pleasure
As it gets colder and darker, it’s time to start stockpiling good reads for the long winter nights ahead. As is our tradition, we’ve asked Tufts faculty, staff, and students to offer their suggestions.
As always, the choices are wide-ranging, with fiction including mysteries, a graphic novel, historical fiction, sci-fi, literary fiction, classic horror, and more. In nonfiction, we have an array of suggestions, too: inspiration for dark times, memoirs, natural science, ancient history and the history of ancient dinosaurs, and the myth of meritocracy.
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.
Dive in and enjoy. And for faculty, staff, and students, don’t forget that many of these books are available at the Tufts libraries.
If you have book recommendations to add to the list, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll post an update.
Água Viva, by Clarice Lispector. This is a book like no other I’ve read, fiction but profoundly real. A Ukrainian-born Brazilian writer, Lispector manages to depict the truest moments of living. Written as a first-person narrative by a painter and writer, the book is addressed to a former lover. The narrator’s stream-of-consciousness pronouncements are striking in their simultaneous simplicity and complexity. Close to the beginning of this short book, the nameless narrator says, “I write to you because I don’t understand myself.” Much of the book depicts her effort at self-discovery—it’s like, she says, “trying to photograph perfume.” She is trying to experience what she calls “the instant.” As the pages go by, the narrator describes mystical experiences that have no magic or mysticism: they simply are. She falls into a “state of grace” and describes it even as she says that “the discoveries . . . are unutterable and incommunicable.” Água Viva’s sometimes dreamlike, sometimes utterly concrete prose captures the nature of what it means to be human and alive in this moment. It’s definitely not a book for everyone—but I’m so glad I dove in headfirst, reading it straight through in one sitting. —Taylor McNeil, senior news and audience engagement editor, University Communications and Marketing
All This Could Be Different, by Sarah Thankam Mathews. Named one of the best books of 2022 by NPR and others, this novel was a National Book Award finalist that year, too. After graduating from college, Sneha secures a consulting job at a Fortune 500 company, moving to Milwaukee for the job. Sneha’s parents live in India, and the job, although grueling, allows her at first to send money to support her parents. Then circumstances change, and Sneha has to figure out how to cope. There are mental health challenges; struggles to be openly queer; money, friendships, and housing problems; and issues with working to fit into the American middle class, which is inhospitable to those who are different. As an immigrant, I could relate to the main character of this book, even though I came to the United States from a different part of the world. The book conveys the emotional states beautifully and compassionately, offers a big picture view into societal problems, and while it does have an ending that is not exactly happy, it provides a good closure. —Zoya Davis-Hamilton, associate vice provost, research administration, Office of the Vice Provost for Research
The Best of Richard Matheson. Richard Matheson is a recognized Grand Master of horror and science fiction, with a career that spanned more than 60 years. Best known for his novel I Am Legend, he is famous among fans for having written more than 15 episodes of the Twilight Zone (both classic and the 1980s version) including “Button, Button” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (famously starring William Shatner), both of which are included in this Penguin Classics collection of 33 short stories. His stories set the stage for later modern horror by moving horror’s setting from Gothic castles and strange spaces to a typical apartment in an average suburb on any given Tuesday—everything seems so normal, until suddenly it isn’t. —Jesse Anderson, associate director, AV architecture, Tufts Technology Services
Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone, by Benjamin Stevenson. A family reunion at a ski resort, a corpse covered in ash, and a duffle bag full of cash set the stage for a tale of dark humor and a masterful use of the conventions of the murder mystery novel. Ernest (Ern) Cunningham is a crime novelist who has been called to a snowy chalet for a large family reunion. The guest of honor? The brother he put in prison years ago. But something larger is amiss as several bodies are discovered and, as Ern will tell you, everyone in his family is capable of murder. The cast is large to start out with, but Stevenson’s conversational prose helps you follow along with ease. In a polarizing move, he also allows Ern to break the fourth wall on a regular basis to show how Ronald Knox’s 10 commandments of detective fiction will help him solve the murder at hand. Coming across as a suspiciously reliable narrator, Ern will let you know exactly when someone will die, get kissed, or burst into tears, down to the exact page. The brilliance of the storytelling is that you don’t feel cheated as a reader. Any fan of Agatha Christie or Knives Out will be expecting these twists already, and Stevenson presents them in a way that is inevitable yet surprising. Not exactly a true detective story, not exactly a cozy mystery, this book will keep you on your toes until the very end.—Shanley Daly, senior events coordinator, Tisch College
Heartstopper, by Alice Oseman. I just finished reading volumes one to four of Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper graphic novels. I unusually switched things up and first saw her Netflix series—mainly because my sister tipped me off that Olivia Coleman is in it. I was so taken by the characters in the show that I decided to dive into the graphic novels, and I can’t recommend them enough! It’s a sweet and compelling coming of age storyline and the novels provide you with a real sense of the characters and are beautifully and sweetly drawn. The drawings capture feelings, moods, and movement, and incorporate texting and images from social media. The novels follow two main characters. One is Charlie Spring, a 14-year-old who we learn had come out as gay in the previous school year, but who is inadvertently outed and subsequently bullied. The other character is Nick Nelson, a popular 16-year-old rugby player who gets assigned a seat next to Charlie in the new school year. Charlie immediately falls for Nick and assumes Nick is straight. The novels follow Nick’s falling for Charlie and their budding romantic relationship. They face a series of challenges, including when and how Nick should come out to their friends and family. The novels also explore the young characters’ mental health challenges, how they can and do support each other in the process, and when adult and professional help is needed. You’ll keep thinking about Charlie, Nick, and their friends and family long after you’re finished reading. —Bárbara Brizuela, professor and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; professor of education, dean of academic affairs, School of Arts and Sciences
In Memoriam, by Alice Winn. Part of what makes Alice Winn’s debut novel so astonishing is its ability to do so many different things so well. At its core, it’s a moving love story between two World War I soldiers—but it’s also an adventure tale, with daring escapes and unforgettable acts of bravery. It is meditative regarding the horrors of a war that sent an entire generation of young men to their death—and it has a propulsive plot that is highly cinematic. In Memoriam depicts with equal skill both endings (the end of the British Empire, the disappearance of the prep-school world) and arrivals (the emergence of modern warfare and its concomitant horrors). Winn is just as deft a storyteller when she is sketching on her vast historical canvas as she is when she is at the level of the intimate relationship between the two soldiers (truly, a love that dare not, in the trenches of Europe in 1917, speak its name). This is a saga that does, frequently, break your heart (when that heart is not, in fact, in your mouth from the suspenseful turns on which she takes her readers) and that ultimately, somehow, salvages hope from the wreckage of the Somme. This is not to be missed. —Dave Nuscher, executive director, content and planning, University Communications and Marketing
The Lost Shtetl, by Max Gross. Imagine a little Jewish village—a shtetl—hidden so deep in the Polish forest that it remains oblivious to any of the events of the 20th century, untouched by two world wars, the Holocaust, Soviet Communism. (And likewise, to automobiles, antibiotics, and electricity—but I’m getting ahead of myself.) That’s the premise of Max Gross’ The Lost Shtetl, in which a town frozen in time is abruptly forced into the 21th century after one of its more hapless residents, Yankel Lewinkopf, is sent out on a not-entirely-too-well-thought-out mission. It sounds comic, and a great deal of the book—primarily in the beginning—is a delightful jumble of satire, farce, and whimsy. But there is pain beneath the laughter, as the townspeople grapple with the consequences of entering the modern world (and, indeed, whether they even should enter the modern world), and the weight of the tragedies from which they—but not the rest of the European Jewry—were spared. The storytelling is thoughtful, engaging, and well-paced. And, if you’re familiar with Isaac Bashevis Singer, look for the parallels between Yankel, a baker, and Gimpel the Fool. —Helene Ragovin, senior content creator and editor, University Communications and Marketing
Marigold and Rose, Louise Glück. Glück, who died earlier this year, was poet laureate of the United States in 2003-2004, and wrote essays as well as poetry. She won a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her final publication, however, was not really a novel, and not exactly a book of poetry. It’s a genre-bender and a beauty. Marigold and Rose is comprised of a scant 55 pages that you can easily read in an hour. But don’t. Linger. Its phrases are infused with beauty; its sentences deceptively simple. Each utterance carries great depth. This is a book about twin baby girls, Marigold and Rose, who share their sophisticated observations about the world silently with the book’s readers. They are too young to speak. But Glück imparts her characters with remarkable vision and great insight. This book is like a literary version of Rugrats—the very young protagonists can communicate with each other in ways that their parents cannot see and do not understand. Indeed, the babies know much that the rest of us, too jaded by our years and by social conventions, seem not to. The twins could not be more temperamentally different. Marigold has inherited her father’s Jewish guilt and perseverates about the world. She is already working on a novel that she will someday write. Rose, on the other hand, is the social one. She’s already figured out what adults call “feminine wiles” and she uses them at will. People like her; storekeepers reward her with sweets. And yet Rose, too, worries about her place in the world, and whether she is serious enough to merit the kind of actual attention she thinks she deserves as opposed to the kind of social and surface attention she usually receives. We learn a lot about the dysfunction in Marigold and Rose’s family through their observations, and a lot about the developing relationship between the siblings. Sister relationships figured large in Glück’s other writings, but perhaps nowhere else have they been more creatively rendered than here. This wonderful little book will make you think twice next time you see a baby, smile at their seeming obliviousness, and believe that life is simpler before you have the ability to analyze or express it. —Julie Dobrow, director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies; senior lecturer, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development
The Rabbit Hutch, by Tess Gunty. When Tess Gunty’s debut novel was released last year to overwhelmingly strong reviews, its plot was described as an examination of the intertwined, often desperate lives of the tenants of a shabby apartment complex in a declining Rust Belt city. I dove into the book with the idea that it might be like a 21st century Grapes of Wrath, or a Bruce Springsteen song. It is not, and that’s not a criticism. While the book’s setting provides the sense of desolation and loss that pervades so much of the characters’ lives, their stories are unique (sometimes, mind-bogglingly so) and psychologically complex. And while I can’t say I was completely comfortable in their company, Gunty’s writing bestows a generous humanity and depth to them all. Among the residents of the building (nicknamed the “rabbit hutch”) is a group of former foster-care kids who share an apartment; in particular, the heart of the novel is Blandine, a smart, fierce teenage girl who is utterly adrift, and it’s ultimately her story that ties most of the characters together. But more than the plot, what drew me into this book, and its world, was Gunty’s remarkable, mesmerizing prose, which casts its spell and propels you from one scene, one character, one idea to the next with an almost enchanting force. —Helene Ragovin, senior content creator/editor, University Communications and Marketing
Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel. This was the sci-fi novel I didn’t know I needed. Normally time travel stories short-circuit my brain, but this was a human story told through the lens of many centuries. My reactions to the characters and events—shock, pride, worry, mistrust—were as much a discovery as the plot. The story takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon 300 years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space. If you are a better time-keeper than me, you may be able to foresee some revelations, but I was mainly engrossed in the relationships and patterns across time and space. Ethics, love, geography, and—fair warning—pandemics are all unraveled at the scale of centuries, and I couldn’t recommend it more for your next snow day read. —Nora K. Bond, associate director for programs, University Chaplaincy
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. In this 1992 novel, which introduced the term “metaverse” to the world, it’s Los Angeles at some point in the future, when the city has become just a collection of “burbclaves” with their own borders and security. As the novel begins, Hiro is a pizza “deliverator” for Uncle Enzo’s mafia—now just another business entity, given that there are no laws anymore. Hiro’s also a hacker who helped create the Metaverse, and regularly jacks into that alternate reality wearing his goggles. It’s there that he first runs into Raven, a mysterious figure pushing what he calls Snow Crash. “Is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?” Hiro asks later. “What’s the difference?” responds another hacker. It’s causing havoc, and Hiroaki Protagonist, to give Hiro his full name, is trying to understand how it works before L. Bob Rife (who “wants to be Ozymandias, King of Kings,” Hiro says) and his followers at Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates franchise infect even more people with it. That just scratches the surface of this propulsive, fast-paced cyberpunk tale, told in the present tense to keep things even more urgent. There’s plenty more, of course, this being a Neal Stephenson novel: Sumerian mythology, ideas as viruses, the origin of religion, Japanese katana sword fighting, robotics, cyber rat-dogs that move at 700 miles per hour, and a virtual librarian who sounds an awful lot like ChatGPT. It’s terrific entertainment—mind candy if you are into this sort of thing. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis, who does a great job with characters’ voices and keeps the hip, ironic tone of the book at the forefront. —Taylor McNeil, senior news and audience engagement editor, University Communications and Marketing
So Let Them Burn, by Kamilah Cole. With lush prose and a richly imagined world, this Jamaican-inspired fantasy debut, due out in January, is perfect for fans of del Toro’s Pacific Rim, Xiran Jay Zhao’s sci-fi novel Iron Widow, or Zendaya’s 2018 Met Gala look. The story follows two sisters, Faron and Elara. As the chosen one, Faron once used her divine magic to save her island from the dragon-riding colonizers of the Langley Empire, but with the war now over, she’s returned to an ordinary life, though the trauma of her past still haunts her. Elara, Faron’s older sister, is no stranger to living in Faron’s shadow, but she dreams of proving herself by being the pilot of a Drake—semi-sentient flying machines molded in the shape of dragons. But when she instead forms a bond with a dragon from Langley Empire, Faron calls on the help of the gods once more, only to be told a devastating truth: the only way to break Elara’s bond with the dragon is to kill her sister. As the two sisters uncover historical secrets, meet long-forgotten gods, and even fall in love, they’re forced to make an impossible decision that’ll change their lives, and the fate of the world, forever. Cole’s novel is a searing indictment of colonization and grapples with themes of war, national identity, and freedom. But at its core, So Let Them Burn is a story of sisterhood that explores just how far we’d go to protect the people we love. —Layla Noor Landrum, A24
Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett. When this book was selected by my book club, I was hesitant to read it because it is set during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—and I just did not feel ready to immerse my mind fully back into those early days of lockdown. But rest assured that the pandemic is only a plot device used to bring all the main characters of one family together at their Michigan cherry farm, where the matriarch of the family recounts the details of her short-lived career as an actress. I recommend this to anyone who wants to read a sweet family story where you can get lost in the very richly drawn characters and see how each family member grapples with the details of their mother’s coming-of-age story. What made this story particularly delightful is that the audio version is read by Meryl Streep. If you are looking for an action-packed novel, this is not it. But if you decide to immerse yourself in this book, you will be richly rewarded by Patchett’s masterful storytelling. —Melissa Stevenson, assistant provost for faculty affairs, Office of the Provost
Which Side Are You On, by Ryan Lee Wong. This novel is about an Asian American college student who wants to drop out of school to dedicate himself to the Black Lives Matter movement after a Black man is killed by a NYC police officer who is Asian American. Through conversations with his mother, who was also an Asian American activist, he processes his anger and is challenged on what kind of life he wants to live. The author draws from his and his family’s life experience. Ryan Lee Wong recently came to Tufts to speak about his journey and understandings of Asian America, politics, and Buddhism. This is a coming-of-age story for those of any age that raises the big question of how we should live ethically in an unjust world. —Penn Loh, distinguished senior lecturer, Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning
The Book of Charlie: Wisdom from the Remarkable American Life of a 109-Year-Old Man, by David Von Drehle. I have been reading a lot of doomsday books lately about climate change and the waning days of the republic. But the book that I’ve gifted to an embarrassing number of people is this one. It opens on a hot August Sunday in a Missouri driveway. Charlie is washing his girlfriend’s car, shirtless. His fit physique catches the eye of the next-door neighbor, who wanders over for a closer look. Don’t worry. It’s not that kind of book. Charlie is 102. The intrigued next-door neighbor is a Washington Post reporter, not a voyeur. This book is a result of the two men’s friendship. Charlie was born in 1905, before the invention of radio. He died in 2014, long after the invention of the iPhone. Charlie was a doctor, trained in medicine before the invention of penicillin. He became an anesthesiologist when that was a new and emerging discipline. He kept his notes from medical school, and the striking ignorance of those teachings could fill its own book. The practice of medicine for him was the practice of humanity—comforting the suffering and giving caretakers purpose and hope, especially in the absence of both. He has trauma in his youth, and sexual abuse that he never speaks about, which the author reveres as stoicism. The thing that impressed me was not his stoicism, but his curiosity. New technologies and discoveries were not to be feared, but embraced. New experiences not to be shunned, but chased. This book left me with a profound sense that what we do with our time matters. There are always wars and revolutions raging, death and disease lurking, technologies threatening to make us obsolete. “Charlie didn’t resent life’s insults or protest its humiliations. Nor did he fail to enjoy its fleeting kindnesses and flashings of beauty, among which he now counted the rare chance to hand-wash a girlfriend’s car shortly after his 102nd birthday, beneath the broad canopy of an old tree that was dying faster than he was.” I find Charlie’s longevity fascinating for a specific reason: I remember when my dad’s oncologist told him that he would, most definitely, not live to be 100. Two months, give or take. Two months came and went from my father’s diagnosis. Dad returned to the doctor a year later, on his 78th birthday. The oncologist, who is in his 80s, hugged him, called all the nurses in to see how good he looked. They celebrated being old, and wrong, and alive—time well spent. —Dana L. Fleming, associate general counsel, University Relations
Inciting Joy, by Ross Gay. When recently asked to suggest a title for my local yoga studio’s book club, I offered up this collection of essays by Ross Gay, acclaimed poet and author of The Book of Delights. This wonderful read is his personal meditation on the nature of joy and the ways in which he has tried to cultivate it in his own life. The predominant throughline is that joy is often found in the company of others and in surprising, sometimes challenging or sad settings. I most enjoyed the garden-themed stories in which he lovingly recounts the unexpected joys of sprinkling old sunflower seeds along a fence and watching them sprout from the earth, sharing the extra bounty the garden yields with friends, and joining the planning committee of a community orchard project in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. He also reflects on how losing his cell phone while on a book tour was a blessing in disguise—having to figure out directions to the airport solely by asking strangers (can we even remember a time when that’s what people did?)—and how full-bellied laughing and uninhibited dancing are some of the most completely joyful experiences imaginable. But Gay also stresses the value of leaning into times of heartbreak and loss to show that, contrary to what we’re often taught, joy can be part of these experiences, too. He writes, “...we often think of joy as meaning ‘without pain,’ or ‘without sorrow’...this definition also suggests that someone might be able to live…free of…heartbreak or sorrow. Which I’m pretty sure you only get to do if you have no relationships, love nothing, are a sociopath, and maybe, if you’re enlightened. I don’t know about you, but I check none of these boxes.” The collection is also chock full of eclectic music, literary, and film references, such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace, and songs by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and Luther Vandross. There’s something for everyone in this wide-ranging and tender book. —Julia Keith, program coordinator, International Center
The Monster’s Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How it Shook Our World, by David K. Randall. I have three young boys, so am surrounded by dinosaur books, dinosaur TV shows, and dinosaur-themed clothing. Besides the opening scenes of Jurassic Park, I hadn’t put much thought into archeology and the work that went into excavating and eventually displaying some of the most famous dinosaur exhibits. Now I know much more, thanks to The Monster’s Bones, which follows the life story of both the Museum of Natural History in New York and Barnum Brown, its leading “bone hunter.” Born on a farm in the Midwest, Barnum Brown (yes named after P.T. Barnum) collected the bones that his father dug up while preparing his crops, leading to a life of adventure through the deserts of the Middle East, the harsh conditions of Patagonia, and ultimately to the Badlands, where he made his greatest discovery—Tyrannosaurus Rex. At the same time, the Museum of Natural History was trying to establish itself as a leading institution of learning. The grand presentation of the king of lizards brought to the masses the reality of prehistoric life and the long history of our planet to life. This exciting read opened my eyes to a whole part of history I was not familiar with. Now I’m planning a trip to NYC to show my kids T. Rex in person. —Stephen Muzrall, senior director of development & alumni engagement, School of Dental Medicine
The Myth That Made Us: How False Beliefs About Racism and Meritocracy Broke Our Economy (and How to Fix It), by Jeff Fuhrer. We use stories and narratives to help us make sense of a complicated world. This can be helpful in many contexts, and benign in others. But some misleading stories can be damaging, both to ourselves and to others. In this new book, Jeff Fuhrer discusses how the idea that “success goes to those who work hard, failure goes to those who do not”—what he calls “the Myth”—is not an accurate reflection of reality. But even more importantly, the belief in this myth has shaped policies and public perceptions in a way that has caused economic harm to millions of people. Fuhrer served for almost four decades in the Federal Reserve system, first at the Board of Governors in Washington, followed by more than 25 years at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. As you would expect from an economist, the book has statistics bolstering his arguments. He writes that “a prerequisite to systemic change is narrative change,” so he also presents stories of residents he interviewed through relationships with nonprofits who were partners in the Boston Fed’s Working Cities program. These people struggle valiantly to make ends meet while facing many hurdles. Fuhrer writes how these personal encounters forced him to reevaluate his own ideas about the sources of economic disparities. These stories, and the arguments Fuhrer makes in this compelling and thoughtful book, may—should?—also make you rethink the sources of inequality in our society and the steps we as a nation need to take to address this issue. (Listen to my interview with Fuhrer about this topic on EconoFact.) —Michael W. Klein, Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs, The Fletcher School
Ordinary Girls: A Memoir, by Jaquira Díaz. Ordinary Girls is at once a heart-warming and heart-wrenching account of a young girl’s journey to finding friends, love, and her own identity as she navigates the challenges of poverty, discrimination, and violence in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach. There were so many things I appreciated about this book: the incredibly detailed and captivating accounts of Díaz’s early childhood through young adulthood, her ability to portray the humanity of the people who came into and out of her life with their many nuances and complexities, and the vulnerability she shares with her readers as she describes not only many of the obstacles she faced but how she responded to them and how they shaped her. The book was extremely engaging, using deeply personal accounts to teach us about issues we sometimes study academically: ethnic and racial identity, racialized segregation, sexuality, mental illness, substance abuse, and perhaps most importantly, friendship, family, and resilience. It is one of my favorite books, has won multiple prestigious awards, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. —Anjuli Fahlberg, assistant professor, Department of Sociology, and interim director, Latin American Studies
Plant Coach, by Nick Cutsumpas. I first learned about Farmer Nick—Nick Cutsumpas, A14—from a 2021 Tufts Now article. After graduating from Tufts, Cutsumpas began his career at IBM Watson in New York City and started a home garden at his mother’s insistence. He ended up falling completely in love with gardening and grew his passion and knowledge to the point where friends, family, and eventually strangers came to him for advice. Thus, the Farmer Nick plant coaching business was born. That story caught my eye because, like many during the pandemic, I developed a growing plant collection that was surpassing my gardening knowledge. Two years later, I jumped at the chance to attend a Tufts Women’s Network event featuring the plant coach. Each attendee received a copy of his new book, aptly titled Plant Coach. The writing style is conversational and entertaining, and there are plenty of eye-catching, aspirational photos. Cutsumpas’ reverence for plants and the environment really comes through. He name-drops his alma mater, too! With a subtitle of The Beginner’s Guide to Caring for Plants and the Planet, this book is accessible for anyone interested in plants and sustainability, regardless of your level of ability, but it’s particularly helpful for those just getting started or trying to figure out how to garden in an urban environment. Cutsumpas shares some unconventional tips and shows which rules can be broken. This book shows how anyone—even you—can become a successful plant parent. —Melissa Lee, senior communications specialist, Dean of Students Office
Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, by Heather Clark. The outlines of the all-too-short life of poet Sylvia Plath are familiar to many of us. To me, as a fellow graduate of Smith College, the contours of a seminal part of Plath’s path were familiar. I well recall the many times I heard her name reverently invoked in classes. But Heather Clark’s massive biography goes well beyond the familiar parts of Plath’s life and contains innumerable new details that resonate with those who’ve literally walked in the some of the same places as the poet. This biography, titled after a phrase in one of Plath’s poems, is remarkable. In its more than 1,000 pages—almost 200 in citations alone—Clark has managed to plumb not only Plath’s own writings and the considerable body of writings about her, but also previously unearthed letters, diaries, and even Plath’s check stubs and banking records to put together a fascinating and nuanced portrait of the artist as a young woman. Clark assesses Plath’s childhood drawings and early scraps of poetry, meticulously saved by her mother, Aurelia, to give us a thoughtful analysis of the poet as a young girl. Clark is a brilliant storyteller, a clear and elegant writer, and an insightful biographer. She delineates Plath’s “daddy issues” and her lifelong contentious relationship with her mother thoughtfully and thoroughly. Her discussions of Plath’s artistic growth are fascinating, and her descriptions of Plath’s romantic relationships are as juicy as you’d get in a pulpy novel, yet all are based on Clark’s meticulous scholarship. No wonder that this book was named one of the New York Times 10 Best Books when it was published in 2021, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Even if you’re not a fan of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, this biography is an excellent read, an outstanding example of what a biography can be. —Julie Dobrow, director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies; senior lecturer, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development
Sunshine: How One Camp Taught Me About Life, Death, and Hope, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. This graphic memoir mostly tracks one week of Krosoczka’s life at age 17, when he was a volunteer counselor at Camp Sunshine, a camp for children with serious illnesses and their families. In high school, he’s just trying to fit in, but it was clear he’d be an empathetic counselor: he’d undergone plenty of hardship himself (his father abandoned his mother before Krosoczka was born; his mom is drug addicted; he’s being raised by grandparents). But the week at camp, shown in detail, truly makes him appreciate life, with extremely ill little Eric and teenage Diego as his charges. He grows close to both and brings happiness to them despite their circumstances. The experience sets him on a life-affirming trajectory, which was far from guaranteed given his background. Krosoczka, the award-winning author-illustrator of the Lunch Lady series, writes and illustrates with a sensitive touch; this is a moving book, proof yet again that graphic memoirs are a powerful genre. I also heartily recommend Krosoczka’s earlier graphic memoir, Hey Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction. —Taylor McNeil, senior news and audience engagement editor, University Communications and Marketing
Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Near East, by Amanda H. Podany. Starting in Uruk, in what is now southern Iraq, about 3500 BCE and continuing until the 323 BCE invasion by Alexander the Great, this impressive book tells the history of the Near East, focusing on Mesopotamia, largely through the voluminous records left in clay cuneiform tablets that have survived the intervening thousands of years. The writing was mostly used to keep accounts—who got how much barley or woven cloth or beer and at what price—but it also describes royal life, including marriages and religious rites, in surprising detail. Podany uses this detail to tell the stories of individuals who are otherwise lost to history: the women weavers who create valuable export products; the traders who travel great distances to create new markets for their goods; the scribes who keep track of it all. Those scribes, as they learned the difficult cuneiform writing of Sumerian and Akkadian, copied valuable texts over and over, which is why we have the epic of Gilgamesh now, for example. We learn about everyday people, whose lives were much like our own with concerns for family and livelihoods and at the same time were very different from ours, with their beliefs in local gods who rule every aspect of daily life in their city-states, mysteriously and capriciously, and need to be constantly placated. Podany simultaneously tracks through the centuries the rise and fall of city-states, their constant skirmishes and minor wars, and the eventual growth of larger powers, culminating in the Neo-Assyrian empire, with its brutal standing armies and wholesale forced movement of populations throughout the empire (think the Jewish exile in Babylon, as only one example). Podany writes very clearly, and balances detail with narrative drive; a remarkable history. —Taylor McNeil, senior news and audience engagement editor, University Communications and Marketing