Books for the Season
As the nights get longer and the winter chill sets in, there’s little better comfort than curling up with a good book. Whether you prefer to hold a book in your hands and turn the pages as you read, use your phone or tablet, or listen to audiobooks, the Tufts community has plenty of suggestions to keep you occupied during the long months ahead.
Our reviewers offer their takes on classic fiction—Jane Eyre, anyone?—as well as more contemporary and timely tales. We’re serving up a fascinating blend of nonfiction: international intrigue, business, the role of identity, class and power, and even playing tennis later in life.
And for faculty, staff and students, don’t forget that many of these books are available at the Tufts libraries.
If you have other suggestions, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll post an update.
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami, H14. This book is a heady blend of George Orwell’s 1984, suffused with hints of Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism—like taking a surreal vacation to a half-remembered wonderland. The action begins with our heroine, Aomame, going down a rabbit hole into an alternate version of 1984. Chapter two transitions to the viewpoint of co-protagonist Tengo, a “cram school” teacher who has embraced a quiet life. As the story progresses, Murakami peels the onion of Aomame and Tengo’s separate, yet increasingly shared, realities. Their loneliness and dissatisfaction with their lives deepens before reaching an unforgettable climax. Murakami’s use of language and masterful characterizations contribute to an immersive experience that delights and astounds with each turn of the page. You may not always know where he will take you next, but you remain confident in his unerring sense of direction as he leads you through this wondrous and wonderful tale. —Sam Sanker, senior associate director of gift planning, University Advancement
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. My book group recently read Jane Eyre. For most of us, it was a re-read after a couple of decades. The novel felt as daring as when I first read it, posing interesting observations about women’s roles as well as class in patriarchal mid-1800s English society. It seemed particularly prescient given recent discussions about how women should look, talk and act. The consequences for women living in Brontë’s time who were intelligent, well spoken and strong were not that different from today. I admire Brontë’s first-person narrative, groundbreaking for its stream-of-consciousness style. Despite a melodramatic plot, Brontë holds us “dear readers” close as we experience the resilience of a young woman making her way from despair to happiness. “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will,” Jane says. That may be Jane’s desire, but the novel proves we aren’t as free as we would like to be. —Linda Levin-Scherz, A09P, M16P, assistant director, Parents Giving Program, University Advancement
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. This isn’t just an epic Western; it’s a classic American novel, and if you have the time to invest in 858 pages, you will find yourself immersed in a rich saga of people struggling to find their way in frontier America in the 1870s. At the center of the tale are two former Texas Rangers who have hung up their badges and are living on a ranch just outside the dusty town of Lonesome Dove, smack along the Rio Grande. Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call are opposites—a talker and a brooder, a drinker and a worker, a man open to life’s possibilities and a solitary man at war with himself. Life moves slowly in Lonesome Dove until a former Ranger companion of theirs, Jake Spooner, shows up, on the lam, after accidentally killing a dentist in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He plants the seed in Call that Montana is a land of opportunity, and soon the ragtag crew is on the road, driving thousands of head of cattle north. In one sense, that’s just the frame for the action of the novel and all the other players who ride into and out of the lives of McCrae and Call—Lorena, the whore who is tougher than most men; July Johnson, the Fort Smith sheriff who is tracking Spooner; Deets and Pea Eye, quiet men who hold things together; young Newt, unsure of himself and who his father is. The writing is strong, the action steady, and the characters real people, filled with the flaws and self-deceptions that we all have. You’ll be sad when it’s over. —Taylor McNeil, senior editor, Tufts Now
The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. The four siblings of New York City’s Plumb family anticipate a windfall from “The Nest,” a multimillion-dollar inheritance saved carefully by their late middle-class father and ballooned by smart investing. But just before its scheduled payout, the trust money is gone, used to pay off a settlement for harm done by Leo, the charismatic and selfish oldest son. The resulting disarray upends the dreams of the remaining siblings: antiques dealer Jack, who has been borrowing against his beach house without his husband's knowledge; Melody, who needs the money to pay for her twin teenage daughters’ college educations; and writer Beatrice, who can’t finish her first novel. Amid the emotional and financial toll of Leo’s actions, the adult Plumb children have to learn how to grow up. The author creates a sprawling ensemble of people all over the city who are affected by the fallout of the Plumbs’ selfishness and dashed hopes. The Nest is a comic, New York-based update of Bleak House, with fewer jokes about lawyers. —Robin Smyton, public relations specialist, Office of Communications and Marketing
The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. Imagine this plot twist: the Republican Party nominates for president a xenophobic, anti-Semitic celebrity with no experience in public office. In Roth’s 2004 alternative history novel, that nominee—Charles Lindbergh—goes on to win the 1940 election, quickly comes to “understandings” with Hitler’s Germany (go ahead and do what you will) and Japan (ditto). On the home front, the government starts a “Just Folks” campaign to take Jewish children and have them summer in the heartland with Christians, just the beginning of a larger campaign against Jews. For the narrator of the novel, a 7-year-old boy in a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, the pain is palpable. His father had always considered himself American first, Jewish second. But with Lindbergh and others encouraging anti-Semitism far and wide, the freedoms of America suddenly are constricted for Jews; so much for the Bill of Rights. Couldn’t happen here? Roth paints a frightening picture of acquiescence by otherwise good people and demonstrates the power of hatred that can be exercised by those in power. —Taylor McNeil, senior editor, Tufts Now
Swing Time, by Zadie Smith. Write what you know, the adage goes. Smith, in a November reading of her fifth novel, Swing Time, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, expanded on that advice with her own philosophy: don’t try to pinpoint what is unique in your situation; rather, focus on the things that are so obvious you might overlook them. Those are the experiences that are most relatable. Since publishing her first novel, the multiple award-winning White Teeth, Smith has developed a style of such specificity that she can easily transport readers to whatever space her characters are occupying, and in the case of Swing Time, which plays with memories, through time. Her latest novel, which takes its name from the Fred Astaire film, follows an unnamed narrator from ballet class in the North London council estates to West Africa, where she helps her pop star boss Aimee (think Madonna) build a school. Weaving the universality of dance in African diaspora throughout, Swing Time tackles familiar issues of identity and belonging, female friendships, and family politics. —Divya Amladi, content producer, Communication and Marketing
Them, by Nathan McCall. Published in 2007, this book is painfully topical today. Set in contemporary Atlanta, it’s the first novel by McCall, whose much-praised memoir, Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, recounted his journey from tough city streets and prison to success as a reporter. In Them, middle-aged, hard-working Barlowe Reed has a good job at a printing plant and dreams of owning the rundown house where he and his adult nephew live in one of Atlanta’s historic black neighborhoods. But the community in which Barlowe lives faces upheaval as white yuppies in search of affordable homes close to downtown Atlanta begin moving in, encouraged by rapacious real estate speculators. Racism and a clash of cultures breed suspicion, mistrust and even violence, to which Reed and his new neighbors, Sandy and Sean Gilmore, are not immune. McCall resists any simple answers or happy endings, and Them is all the more satisfying because of that. —Kim Thurler, Office of Public Relations
Three Junes, by Julia Glass. It is very unusual for me to ever re-read a novel. The one exception is Three Junes, which I have a tradition of re-reading every other year. Because 2016 was a “Three Junes year,” I reread it, fittingly, in June, which marks the fifth time I have read it. This winner of the 2002 National Book Award for fiction presents, at first, as a richly textured meditation on family. But by second (or fifth) read, you understand that Three Junes is about the ways in which love and death are inextricably entwined in human existence. I have two copies of the book: one a hardcover signed by Julia Glass (and a funny story to go with it about having met her), and the other a dog-eared paperback that I loan out to friends on whom I have not already foisted the book. In the paperback, I collect the notes that friends have written in response to reading the book. They usually read something like this: “Fenno stole my heart . . . and then Mal broke it.” To find out the who and why of Fenno and Mal, check it out. This book is not to be missed. —Dave Nuscher, senior communications advisor, Communications and Marketing
What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty. Alice is 29 years old, pregnant and madly in love with her husband, Nick. One day she gets a bump on the head, and wakes up 10 years later with three kids, an impending divorce and no memory of the intervening years. She struggles to remember the past decade and how she could have become the kind of total stranger who would fall out of love with Nick or spend months without talking to her once-close sister, Elizabeth. Moriarty crafts a mystery by carefully withholding information from Alice and the reader. Some things about older Alice’s life are a little too convenient; she is shielded from financial insecurity by her husband’s career success, and her smooth transition to being a mom to three unfamiliar kids is not very believable. But a lot of the book’s twists are fresh, satisfying and genuinely surprising. —Robin Smyton, public relations specialist, Office of Communications and Marketing
The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J. Bass. Many at the time and today willfully overlook the horrifying political violence in East Pakistan in 1971 that led to a war between Pakistan and India and the eventual emergence of an independent Bangladesh. There is a reason for that. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, focused on an opening to the People’s Republic of China facilitated by a Pakistani military regime brutally repressing political dissent in East Pakistan, ignored the problem. Bass tells a moving story of mounting crisis and a march to war through Archer Blood, the principled U.S. consul in Dhaka, whose eponymous dissenting telegram cut through denial to lay bare the scope of state-sponsored murder. This is the story of a principled, moral stand and its costs, revealing the complexity of both a historical moment and diplomacy generally, when more powerful figures make decisions that are amoral at best. —David Ekbladh, associate professor of history, School of Arts and Sciences
Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, by Kenny Moore. This is a fascinating homage to Bill Bowerman, one of the fathers of jogging for fitness and co-founder of Nike. Moore tells an inspiring story. How Bowerman became one of the winningest track coaches in the history of the University of Oregon. How he wanted to create a lighter and less-expensive sneaker than the ones sold by the largest sneaker manufacturer, Adidas. How he found the answer in his wife’s waffle iron. Even if you’re not a runner, it’s a story that speaks to the power of creativity, perseverance and dedication to health and fitness—in everyone. Bowerman doesn’t care about how you perform against others—only about how well you perform against yourself. Just move. It’s a philosophy that Moore traces to a trip to New Zealand in the 1960s, when Bowerman was invited on group runs through the hills with runners who were mostly in their 60s and 70s. All were recovering from heart attacks and other health ailments. They had been ordered by their doctors to start moving. He was struck by the incredible endurance of these first-time runners. After learning and training for a month, he returned home and began duplicating these training methods in Eugene, Oregon. What started with the track team eventually drew a huge following, including alumni, staff and the city residents. The rest, as they say, is history. —Tom Williams, A92, director of outreach and engagement programs, Office of Alumni Relations
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, by Jo Marchant. Historically, Western medicine has tended to draw a clear distinction between what occurs in the body and what occurs in the mind. But as science journalist Jo Marchant explores in this fascinating book, this arbitrary distinction is increasingly being challenged, and not just by new-age spiritual-healer types. Take, for instance, the placebo effect, which, as Marchant reports, is actually becoming stronger over time (that is, the degree to which humans report changes as a result of placebo treatments has risen over the past decades). In fact, contemporary research indicates that not only can placebo treatments promote positive changes in human medical conditions, but that benefit may still be retained even if the individual knows that the treatment is a placebo! In one chapter, Marchant investigates an instance in which this idea has been used to slowly wean a patient off of a drug with significant long-term side effects, while using the placebo effect to retain much of the benefit associated with the drug itself, thereby getting the best of both worlds. Sound too good to be true? Read the book and find out more! —Samuel Ruth, director of continuing education, marketing and communications, School of Dental Medicine
Finding Them Gone: Visiting China’s Poets of the Past, by Bill Porter/Red Pine. The peripatetic Porter, author of a number of contemporary travel books on China and, under the nom de plume Red Pine, translator of multiple volumes of ancient Chinese poetry and Buddhist and Taoist scriptures, set out several years ago on a whirlwind 30-day pilgrimage to visit the grave sites and homes of classical Chinese poets, which he details in this engaging book. He demonstrates great reverence for the poets, telling their stories and translating poems for each, many for the first time in English (along with the original Chinese). There’s a lighter side, too: it’s his goal as pilgrim to offer libations of Kentucky whisky at the appropriate sites for the departed poets—and drink a toast. His descriptions of contemporary China are vivid, but it is Porter’s ever-sympathetic portraits of the many poets—most of whom lived more than 1,000 years ago—that make this book so entrancing. In the Tang and Song dynasties, poetry was not just a sign of cultural sophistication, its mastery was mandated for court officials. And all too often, those high-ranking officials, seeking to better the lives of peasants through enlightened policies, ran up against entrenched elites, ending up banished or worse. Their enemies triumphed in the short term, but the poems have endured. In translation, the poetry speaks to us here and now with timeless human emotion. The breadth and depth of Chinese history is on display here as well: when Europe was in the Dark Ages, writers were penning sublime works in China that miraculously have survived to this day, made available again in this well-illustrated book. —Taylor McNeil, senior editor, Tufts Now
¡Guerra!, by Jason Webster. The author of the Max Camara mystery series set in Spain, Webster also writes nonfiction. An Englishman who lives in rural Spain, he happens upon a mass burial site left by Francisco Franco’s execution squads from the Spanish Civil War. This prompts him to go on a walkabout around Spain, visiting sites seminal to that conflict, interviewing locals. In the process, he learns about the Spanish soul as well as discovering much about himself. —Joel Mason, senior scientist and director of the Vitamins and Carcinogenesis Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, and professor, Tufts School of Medicine and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund de Waal. In this delicate and moving book, de Waal traces the history of a collection of 264 netsuke—very small, intricately carved Japanese objects made of boxwood or ivory—that have been in his family since the 1870s, and which he inherits. While uncovering the story of the objects, he maps the parallel history of his family, and, as it turns out, Europe itself. The netsuke were originally bought in Paris by Charles Ephrussi, son of de Waal’s great-great-grandfather, the founder of a banking empire that for a time in the second half of the 19th century rivaled that of the Rothschilds. Charles was an aesthete, friend and patron of Impressionist artists and model for Proust’s Charles Swann. But being a member of the cultural elite didn’t mean that the French forgot that the Ephrussis were Jews originally from Odessa, in Russia; the Dreyfus affair starting in 1894 assured that. Charles gave the netsuke collection to his cousin Victor in 1899 as a wedding gift; de Waal follows it to Vienna, where the wealthy Ephrussis lived opulently, amid a large and mostly assimilated Jewish population. Victor’s children played with the netsuke—carved figures of everything from mice and monks to rocks and hares. But after the children are grown and leave, their parents stay in Vienna, ignoring the rising menace in Germany in the 1930s; before they know it, it is too late. As the Nazis take over Vienna in 1938, the Ephrussis are beaten and flee, allowed to take nothing. The netsuke are the only thing that survive—thanks to a household servant. They end up with de Waal’s great-uncle Iggie, Victor’s son, who brings them to Japan in 1946, where he lives the rest of his life, willing them to de Waal, an internationally known ceramicist. De Waal tells the story with elegance, investigating every scrap of documentation that will help him understand not only his family, but the societies that fêted them—and destroyed them. —Taylor McNeil, senior editor, Tufts Now
Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. By now, you’ve doubtless already heard that J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is an indispensable guide to understanding the voters who swung this year’s presidential election toward an unanticipated result. While this memoir may not provide the full background needed to understand Donald Trump’s victory, it does provide a thoughtful and often eye-opening account of the challenges facing one demographic important to his success—white Midwestern families, especially those originally from Appalachia, who have suffered as good-paying blue-collar jobs in manufacturing have been lost to globalization. Vance argues that the challenges this group faces are not only economic and political but cultural and moral. At times I felt that in blaming individuals for poor choices he underestimated the impact of broader social structures, and I would have appreciated a more detailed account of his own political philosophy, which he describes as conservative but does not explain in detail. His own ability to succeed against the odds has been phenomenal, but the question for our society is how to ensure that good opportunities are open to those whose talents and intellect are not quite as exceptional as his own evidently are. Still, I recommend the book as a valuable recounting of some of the very real challenges all of our public leaders should be acknowledging in crafting policies to advance economic growth and a healthy society. —Michael Baenen, chief of staff, Office of the President
In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri. This book is a thoughtful and at times beautiful account of Lahiri’s efforts to learn Italian, not only to travel in Italy, but also to live there and to be able to write in Italian. Lahiri wrote In Other Words only in Italian, and not wanting to detract from her considerable achievement, declined to translate it into English (that was done by Ann Goldstein, who has earned kudos for her renderings of Elena Ferrante’s novels.) As Lahiri chronicles her struggles and her triumphs learning a new language, we understand in an emotional sense what we already know intellectually: that the relationship between language and culture is inextricable. In Lahiri’s novels and short stories in English, her language tends to be sparse but graceful; “understated” is a word often used in reviews. But what Lahiri found in her Italian voice is quite different. “I now have quite an extensive vocabulary, but it’s an eccentric one,” she writes. “I feel as if I were dressed in an outlandish manner, wearing a long, elegant skirt of another era, a T-shirt, a straw hat, and slippers. That graceless effort, those muddled tones might be the consequence of the distance, from the beginning, between me and Italian.” The combination of beautiful phrases like the opening sentence—“My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation”—insights about language learning and use, and my own incredible admiration for someone who attempts to do what Lahiri has pulled off made this book well worth reading. —Julie Dobrow, senior lecturer, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, and senior fellow, media and civic engagement, Tisch College of Civic Life
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson. I had lunch with a colleague whose company I thoroughly enjoy, but who also always causes me to think how tirelessly she works for the benefit of mankind and leaves me wondering, "What have I done?" I scribbled a note after she told me that she was reading a book, Just Mercy, that took her breath away. I then ordered it and started reading. It was hard to put down, particularly in this year. Stevenson is a Harvard-educated lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit agency in Montgomery, Alabama. EJI gives legal assistance to those individuals incarcerated on death row or sentenced to life imprisonment. The book tells the story of Walter McMillan, who was falsely accused of a murder, but was nonetheless put on death row. This was one of 23-year-old Stevenson’s first cases, and in this book, he schools us with extraordinary stories of wrongful convictions, our judicial system, the role poverty plays in crime, and the conditions of American prisons. Spoiler alert: this story doesn’t have a happy ending, but it might give a reader pause about what justice really is, and isn’t. When I finished reading Just Mercy, I paged through Stevenson’s well-documented notes. At the end of these was “About the Type”—information about the typeface, which was ironically called Dante. As I wondered about whether this was intentional, I recalled the phrase “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” translated from Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy. On the way into hell, Dante hears the screams of the uncommitted, from souls of those who were not taking sides, just concerned with themselves. If you are one of the many who may like to get committed, read Stevenson’s book and visit the Equal Justice Initiative at www.eji.org. —Helen Rasmussen, senior research dietician, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts
Late to the Ball, by Gerald Marzorati. By some measures (for example, those of my wife), I play a lot of tennis—maybe four or more times per week in the summer, and often two or three times per week when the outdoor nets come down and my game moves indoors. But I’m a piker compared to Gerald Marzorati, the editor of the New York Times Magazine from 2003 until 2010. Upon retirement, he decided to fill his days (and I do mean fill) with tennis, a sport he took up relatively late in life. Late to the Ball chronicles Marzorati’s efforts to become really good at tennis. Most people who devote themselves to a sport do so when they are young, with few responsibilities. One needs a certain level of self-absorption to fully devote oneself to such a pursuit. Marzorati, with comfortable means and the time afforded him by retirement, undertakes his quest beginning in his mid-50s. He attends tennis camps and takes weekly private lessons, imparting some of the tips he picks up across chapters of the book. He enters tournaments, losing to nationally ranked players. He wins some, too, and, like the rest of us, particularly remembers cleverly constructed points and well-placed shots. Tennis is a beautiful sport, with its mixture of geometry, fluidity and power. I’m drawn to it for the same reasons as Marzorati. And, about the same age as Marzorati, I’m also focused on the sub-theme of his book, the effort to fend off aging and decline. This book about tennis somewhat surprisingly morphs, at points, into musings about aging, the fragility of the body and the quest for ongoing improvement. Marzorati is lucky—an ACL tear or a popped Achilles tendon would have ended his quest. In some of the more touching parts of the book, he recounts the travails of friends who are not so fortunate in the maintenance of their health. The theme of friendship is also important in this book. Singles tennis can be an isolating sport. You have no teammates to root for, or to root for you. Doubles, on the other hand, requires a constant awareness of your teammate, covering for your partner on some shots, and letting your partner take the ball on others. Doubles techniques differ from those of singles; “doubles is a game played with the same equipment as tennis,” a friend of mine says. Ultimately, Marzorati finds more enjoyment in doubles play than in singles, not least because of the camaraderie involved. Late to the Ball exhorts us to “not go gentle into that good night”—unless, of course, there are lit tennis courts there. —Michael W. Klein, the William L. Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs, Fletcher School
The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert J. Gordon. From the time of the Roman Empire until the mid-1700s, economic growth was negligible, Northwestern University economist Robert J. Gordon notes in his monumental, eye-opening work. It was industrialization that made the difference. In our own country, the late 19th-century invention and subsequent widespread adoption of electrical power, indoor plumbing, the automobile and the telephone came in a rush, linking Americans in new and dramatic ways. Gordon calls the period between 1870 and 1940 the greatest rise in the standard of living in human history. His evidence is detailed and exhaustive. The book shifts between dry economic analysis and a more personal, discursive tone, deploying charts—more charts than an average person can possibly make sense of—and anecdotes as needed. It’s shocking for a contemporary reader to be introduced to the common life of the 1870s, with its grinding labor, darkness, immobility and isolation. The good news is that world is gone. The bad news is that we seem to have played out our string in many ways. Since about 1970, and the end of the post-World War II consumer boom, economic growth in the U.S. has slowed to a crawl. Gordon argues that this current state of affairs is likely permanent. From his perspective, the robust good times that hold sway in our collective memories were genuinely impressive, but they were a product of their historic moment and, despite our wistful, even desperate hopes, won’t be seen again. —Bruce Morgan, editor, Tufts Medicine magazine
The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire, by Karl Jacoby. Guillermo Enrique Eliseo was a rich Mexican banker living in New York City during the Gilded Age. Newspaper reporters speculated about his ancestry, wondering if he was Hawaiian or of some “other Latin-American extraction.” They did not know that Eliseo was born into slavery in south Texas as William Ellis. Living so close to the border with Mexico, Ellis became fluent in Spanish. After the Civil War, he realized that he could subvert the brutal racial realities of Jim Crow by passing. This book is the culmination of two decades of work in search of Ellis—not an easy task, as many documents had been destroyed. Pinning down the story of someone like Ellis, who existed on the borderlands of identity and place, was also challenging. Jacoby writes, “The creation of two such separate containers means that those who move between the United States and Mexico like Eliseo tend to elude historians, their experiences falling through the artificial partitions we impose on the past.” This book explores the fluidity and fiction of identity, the history of our border with Mexico, and how one man tried to make a life for himself amidst the constraints of racism. Looking at our history of racism has never been more important, and reading Jacoby’s deeply researched, engaging book based on well-documented facts is an act of resistance against the lies in this post-truth moment that we currently inhabit. —Grace Talusan, J94, lecturer, Department of English, School of Arts and Sciences
Our next books roundup will be in the summer of 2017; if you’d like to participate as a reviewer, drop an email to email@example.com.