Recommended Summer Books
Despite many predictions of the decline of books and reading, it seems like the reading public is as strong as ever—with paper books leading the way. According to a recent study, younger people prefer reading paper books to e-books; it’s some of the older folks who see the advantages of the light weight and text-size changing possibilities of the Kindles and Nooks of the world.
And then there’s the eight-part PBS series The Great American Read, hosted by Meredith Vieira, J75, H08, “that explores and celebrates the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s 100 best-loved novels,” as the show says.
As we head into vacation season each summer, we ask members of the Tufts community to tell us about books that they recommend to others. Judging by this summer’s entries, fiction is always a good bet, including a debut novel by a Tufts alumnus and thrillers, mysteries, and classics. It’s also clearly a time for some serious reading—from the tale of a conflicted border patrol agent and a life of Stalin to How Democracies Die (“If this were fiction, this . . . would be a great summer beach book,” our reviewer says, “but it is not fiction”).
And 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.
The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn. This engrossing novel begins in 1947, populated with a divergent set of characters and centered on events that occurred during World Wars I and II, all of which come together in a satisfying way at the end. At the center of the tale is a college woman, Charlie, with a “little problem,” who is brought to Europe by her overbearing French mother to get the problem fixed; a recluse veteran spy, Eve, from an earlier era; and a Scotsman, Finn, who serves as their driver and eventually gets pulled into their mission. The majority of the novel veers from the original reason for the trip and centers on tracking down Charlie’s cherished childhood cousin, Rose, who seemingly vanished during World War II. The trio travels through France, from one clue to the next. Throughout the novel, glimpses can be caught of those who participated in the resistance movement and the prices they paid. Definitely a page turner. —Alice H. Lichtenstein, Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, Friedman School, and director and senior scientist, Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, HNRCA
Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman. I love this book’s humanity. It’s the quirky and tender story of Britt-Marie, a rather particular elderly woman who finds herself thrust into a new situation in life. She moves to a new town, gets a job, and makes new friends in unlikely ways. She lives according to her own rules, traditions, and norms, and constantly worries about what other people think of her, which makes her quite a quirky character. The things that made me love this book were Britt-Marie herself, the tiny town of Borg and all of its inhabitants, the humor, the dynamic characters, and the open ending. If you’re looking for something that will make you laugh and make you sad—and come out on the other side with a bit more optimism, I would definitely recommend this book. —Nancy Marks, community service learning coordinator, School of Dental Medicine
The Emperor of Shoes, by Spencer Wise, A99. Wise’s outstanding, beautifully written, and intriguing first novel takes us to a South China industrial city in the province of Guangdong, where twenty-six-year-old Alex Cohen, Massachusetts-born and bred, is climbing the ladder in his father’s shoe factory. In this place of strict and oppressively dire conditions for workers, Alex takes up with a seamstress, Ivy—her Chinese name is Hanjia Liu—who is plotting to undermine and confront both the unfair practices of the factory owner (Alex’s father) and the corruption of local government employees with whom he is in league. Their romance, both political and erotic, is set against a landscape where picturesque houseboats sit on polluted rivers and clouds of smog ensure that no one ever sees their shadow; one of the novel’s great strengths is the uncanny lyricism that Wise invokes in a location that seems to awaken the senses even as it confounds them. Alex struggles both with his father’s tough-guy stance and relentless realpolitik, and with his own confused desires. The novel also brilliantly attends, with Balzacian scrupulosity, to the world of shoes. A love story beaded on a political thread, The Emperor of Shoes shares the atmosphere of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, while Alex’s Oedipal struggle mirrors some of the great comic novels of Philip Roth. —Jonathan Wilson, professor of English, School of Arts and Sciences
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. This novel is a gem for anyone who enjoys the English language, a touch of history, and mischief. In 1922, the handsome Count Alexander Rostov is declared a “Former Person” and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Having never worked a day in his life, the unrepentant aristocrat must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history unfold outside the hotel’s doors. As the years pass, the count enthusiastically executes his daily exercises insisting that “by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world.” He remains a perfect gentleman always, and unexpectedly his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery. He befriends the hotel staff, entertains intriguing guests, and even finds himself responsible for a young girl whom Towles has called his “Eloise of the Metropol.” The grandfatherly Rostov’s resistance to Bolshevik ways may be in check, but it does not entirely subside, leading to entertaining escapades and a riveting ending. Listening to the audio version of the novel provides the bonus of a Russian accent and dramatic flair to Rostov’s impressive digressions. —Sandy Bosco, associate director of stewardship and donor relations, University Advancement
The Idiot, by Elif Batuman. In her first novel, Turkish-American author Elif Batuman writes about the equally confounding natures of romance and language as her heroine, Selin, a freshman at Harvard in 1996, struggles to navigate both. Away from her New Jersey home for the first time, she learns about the joys of shopping at record stores and Goodwill. Through email correspondence, Selin develops a simmering crush on Ivan, a senior who takes advantage of her intellect and attentive company. She follows him to Hungary, at his invitation, to teach English one hapless summer, but keeps falling into frustrating, hysterically funny situations. Batuman emphasizes the absurdity of Selin’s interactions with her professors, fellow college students, and ESL pupils for maximum hilarity—and borrows Dostoevsky’s title to echo the novel’s homages to Russian literature and illustrate Selin’s predicament. She is extremely bright, but lacks the emotional smarts to know that she must either express her love for the toxic Ivan or push him away. Reading this book makes you feel like you are hanging out with your wittiest yet most clueless friend, who never understands why you can’t stop laughing at the stories she tells. —Robin Smyton, A09, public relations specialist, Communications and Marketing
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. As a history lover and a native Chicagoan, I had long heard of this seminal work, written in 1906, which led to increased advocacy for labor rights and food sanitation. The novel—thoroughly-researched and wholly believable—tells the story of Jurgis Rudkus, a poor Lithuanian immigrant whose hopes and dreams of a better life in America are quickly dashed upon his arrival in Chicago, where he is repeatedly deceived and exploited by a corrupt labor and political system. With few marketable skills, no knowledge of the English language, and the guileless naiveté of an earnest newcomer to the country, he finds employment in Chicago’s meatpacking district. The working conditions are abominable and the pay so low as to make it nearly impossible for him to provide for his family’s basic needs. His prospects for working his way up to a less arduous existence are bleak, as the system is rigged entirely in favor of greedy business owners, who are in alliance with local politicians and law enforcement, who turn a blind eye to the needs of the workers. Hard luck and injustice gradually sour Jurgis’ outlook, leading him to eventually join forces with the very people who have repeatedly cheated him, temporarily improving his financial situation but causing him to experience self-loathing and shame. The book ends with a passionate endorsement of the socialist movement, which Jurgis embraces as the panacea for all his woes. Not for the faint of the heart, The Jungle describes the conditions of working in a packinghouse in unvarnished detail; the hardships endured by Jurgis feel endless. Reading this book provided me with insight into the challenges and vulnerabilities of immigrants in a world that regards them as disposable, a theme that resonates even today. —Carol Lidington, J81, A15P, campaign management associate, University Advancement
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. Clear your calendar—once you crack this weighty sophomore effort from Hanya Yanagihara, you can’t put it down; it’s all-consuming. (I read it in less than a week on vacation, sneaking pages before breakfast, while brushing my teeth, between flights.) A Little Life follows four college friends as they navigate adulthood and relationships, ascending from seedy apartments to the upper echelons of New York City society—circles in which Yanagihara, editor-in-chief of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, also presumably travels. But just as the sleeves of a well-tailored dress shirt can hide years of self-inflected scars, the aura surrounding this successful quartet obscures the horrifying childhood trauma that haunts its most mysterious member: hobbled lawyer Jude St. Francis. Glimpses of the unspeakable abuse Jude suffered continually burble up in flashbacks until he’s at the center of the narrative—and while the book doesn’t shy away from dark corners, the most disturbing moments often give way to a touching, if intense, meditation on male friendship. —Courtney Hollands, editor, Tufts Medicine magazine
The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner. I’m drawn to this blistering—and blisteringly new—novel for a number of reasons: mass incarceration as one of the signature human rights debacles of our time; the recently launched Tufts University Prison Initiative at Tisch College that brings students and faculty together with the imprisoned for courses, lectures, and conversation; and the expressive brio with which Kushner chronicles the increasing restriction of the novel’s main character, Romy Hall, a stripper who is serving two consecutive life sentences for killing her stalker. The novel alternates between present-day accounts of prison life with all its exasperating boredom and desperate intimacies, and flashbacks recounting the chain of events that brought Romy to this situation. Along the way, Kushner also portrays the well-intentioned though flawed work of the academic Gordon Hauser, who teaches at Romy’s prison, as well as the way the self-involved thinking of Romy’s stalker crystallizes the violence of our social system. In prose that balances the deadening slowness of life “on the inside” with the anarchic drifting of life outside, the novel thinks about the ways and means by which people are excluded from the social contract and explores what remains when they find themselves removed from history completely. —John Lurz, associate professor of English, School of Arts and Sciences
New People, by Danzy Senna. Senna, the author of Caucasia, names her latest novel New People with a good dose of irony, as the story focuses on an upwardly mobile interracial couple who seemed cutting edge . . . twenty years ago. Maria and Khalil are each biracial, their disparate family histories aligning in their matching “beige” skin tones; for the documentarian including them in a tribute to multicultural progress on the eve of their wedding, they are a symbol of the future. But Maria begins to balk at both this categorization and the wedding itself, first subtly and then in increasingly surreal ways sure to provoke many a reader. Maria is easy to sympathize with, but less so to like; that Senna is not interested in our comfort seems to be the point. Senna’s depiction of late-nineties Brooklyn captures the period’s “we’re all in this together” ideal in ways hilarious and then heartbreaking. But the novel’s caustic power comes from what it implies about our time now, reminding us that racial identity is thornier—all at once more damning and elusive—than Americans like to acknowledge. Senna suggests that will remain true for a long time to come. —David Valdes Greenwood, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences
The Rings of Saturn, by W. G. Sebald. Ostensibly a fictional first-person account of a walk by a nameless writer who is—and is not—Sebald down the Norfolk and Suffolk coastlines of eastern England, The Rings of Saturn is an extended meditation on loss and destruction, the remorseless march of time. You might think that this would make for a morose book, but it doesn’t. Seemingly random things that the narrator encounters spark extended historical reveries and disquisitions. Watching a BBC special one night about Roger Casement leads to the story of Joseph Conrad’s childhood, the intersection of Conrad and Casement in the horror that was the Belgian Congo, and Casement’s execution for his part in the Irish uprising. Then there are the cliffs of Norfolk, which are every day slipping bit by bit into the relentless waves of the North Sea. Sebald tells how an entire town—prosperous and substantial into the late 1800s—is now on the bottom of the sea, having crumbled slow-motion, like a sandcastle at the beach. Its streets and church towers have simply vanished. This, too, is our fate, Sebald implies. You can take that two ways, of course. If everything is impermanent, what’s the point of life’s struggles? But that’s not what Sebald seems to be saying. Instead, I think he is pointing to the imperative of quietly appreciating everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly—just as it is. By the end of the book, I wanted to start over to catch the connections I didn’t quite make the first go round, to sop up more history. (British travel writer Robert Macfarlane is hosting a Twitter-based reading group on The Rings of Saturn starting July 9.) —Taylor McNeil, deputy editor, Tufts Now
The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (Brilliance audiobook). Before diving into this comprehensive collection of stories, my familiarity with Nabokov had been limited to one of his early novels. So the opportunity to listen to his collected stories on audiobook afforded me an unanticipated chance to delve deeper into the prolific work of this literary marvel. Though well aware of Nabokov’s prodigious reputation, I was scarcely prepared for the undertaking. The sixty-eight stories are arranged chronologically over thirty-two hours, during which the listener is transported into a world characterized by the author’s acute perceptiveness and unparalleled gift for language. Expect your head to be crammed full of vivid mental images and to receive an indoctrination into Nabokov’s catalog of idiosyncratic preoccupations—physical anomalies, butterflies, infidelity, and tennis among them. Physiognomies in particular are afforded a notable display of descriptors. It comes as no surprise to learn Nabokov has been quoted as saying “Caress the detail, the divine detail.” Subject matter matches the kaleidoscopic array of the writing: a self-absorbed dandy who readies himself for a duel of honor by applying rouge; a peculiar composer and his unlikely mistress; a dragon with a taste for human consumption; a character physically engulfed by a painting; an ill-fated chap who squanders the single wish granted by an ageless witch; a performing dwarf known as the Potato Elf. The stories are narrated by Arthur Morey and prefaced with an introduction by the author’s son Dimitri. —Frederick Kalil, marketing strategist, Communications and Marketing
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré. This classic Cold War spy novel isn’t just about uncovering a Soviet mole in British intelligence, it’s also a take on the corrosive power of office politics. George Smiley has been sacked, forced out of the MI6, which he’s loyally served, by a cabal that was better at playing office politics than Smiley or his long-time boss, Control. But a tip from renegade field agent sets in motion a clandestine effort to find a Soviet spy at the core of the Circus, as the intelligence agency is informally known. Le Carré is at his peak here, fleshing out characters, settings, and complex plot with precision. Tensions mount as the mild-mannered Smiley slowly corners his quarry, one of the golden Oxbridge boys. The ending, of course, is satisfying—and at the same time, le Carré manages to convey deep ambivalence for a world that is filled with lies. I’d read this book before, and seen the Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman screen adaptations, so this go round I listened to the audiobook, narrated with wonderful richness by Michael Jayston, who perfectly channels Guinness’s skeptical, introverted Smiley. —Taylor McNeil, deputy editor, Tufts Now
The Trespasser, by Tana French. In the sixth and most recent book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, Tana French once again follows a detective facing down a bizarre crime scene, turning a regular procedural into a nuanced story of love, regret, and political intrigue. This time the protagonist is Detective Antoinette Conway, a sharp, determined woman who’s put up with more than her fair share of harassment and mocking from others on the Dublin police force. The Trespasser finds Conway paired up with her former partner Stephen Moran, and the case is a domestic quarrel gone horribly wrong. The foggy late nights of Dublin are a perfect backdrop to a creepy, intimate thriller buoyed by French’s characters and layered prose. Of the two detectives, Moran is nicer and easier to like, but Conway is the one who will see the story through to its conclusion—at great cost to herself. Best of all, there are five other Dublin Murder Squad books to pick up once you burn through The Trespasser in one sitting.—Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite, communications specialist, School of Engineering
i have to live., by Aisha Sasha John. I’m not much one for maxims, but I do spend some time thinking about the novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard’s big declaration, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” My recommendation for this summer is a collection of poems that alternately adheres to and fights against this principle. I have to live., a spare and searing book by the poet and dancer Aisha Sasha John, often takes the form of language experiments that are baldly conversational, as in the lines “What do / Uh I wear to the show?” At other moments, the writing is beautiful in its contortions (“An oval on my pant leg of oil”). Highly recommended. —Natalie Shapero, professor of the practice, Department of English, School of Arts and Sciences
American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World, by David Baron. When the world was gripped by solar eclipse madness last August, I meant to read David Baron’s American Eclipse, an account of the total solar eclipse that crossed America in 1878. But I got busy with other things, and time and tide (and the moon and the sun and the rotation of the earth) wait for no one, so I missed the deadline. I finally did pick it up sometime around the time of the winter solstice, and it was still an engaging and enjoyable read. It’s a science book, yes; but more so, it’s a book about history and society—that fascinating Gilded Age period when what we think of as American popular culture was born—and about larger-than-life personalities. Baron focuses on three of the eclipse chasers, including two astronomers: James Craig Watson (who was hoping the eclipse would provide him with a glimpse of the sought-after planet Vulcan) and the pioneering female scientist Maria Mitchell. His third character is Thomas Edison, and while, of course, Edison’s genius as an inventor is well-known, it’s his status as a nineteenth-century media figure that intrigued me—sort of the Bill Gates or Elon Musk of his time. By the way, the next total solar eclipse to cross America is slated for April 8, 2024. Plenty of time to add this to your to-read list. —Helene Ragovin, editor, Tufts Dental Medicine magazine
Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, by Amy Ellis Nutt. These days, it is not entirely uncommon to hear of a transgender child or teenager, and the struggle over transgender rights has become front-page news. But some twenty years ago, when Kelly and Wayne Maines’s toddler son started trying to tell them he was a girl despite having the biology of a boy, the world was a much more confusing and lonely place for transgender children and their families. “Becoming Nicole” is, at one level, the story of one young girl’s journey, from Wyatt to Nicole. And it’s a fascinating story, told with sensitivity and compassion. But more than that, as the subtitle suggests, the book is the story of Nicole’s family, and how a set of parents came to understand, accept, and defend a child who did not follow the script they had envisioned—something most parents grapple with in one way or another. The mother’s and father’s stories are not the same, either: Kelly Maines was open-minded and supportive from the beginning, even though she had no idea where the path would lead; her husband, Wayne, was unable to come to terms with Nicole’s identity for a long time, but, when his love for his child finally overcame his conventionality and fear of the unknown, he became an ardent ally and advocate. Ellis Nutt, a science writer, does an admirable job providing context for the neurological, psychological, and social aspects of transgender identity. The book’s only drawback is that the narrative too often pulls back from the engaging family interactions and lapses into dry exposition—the people are the heart of this story. But it’s a weakness worth overlooking. — Helene Ragovin, editor, Tufts Dental Medicine magazine
Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover. Some life stories are so impossible that they seem implausible. Tara Westover’s memoir of her journey from a fundamentalist household in rural Idaho (where she never attended school) to receiving a doctorate in history from Cambridge University is one of those stories—but it is, in fact, true. The author’s deeply religious and conservative parents eschewed traditional education and modern medicine, and she spent much of her childhood and adolescence working in scrapyards and helping her mother make herbal remedies for neighbors. Westover’s stories are harrowing at times as she describes violent abuse from a brother and horrific workplace accidents. She also speaks candidly about dealing issues of race and gender after arriving on campus at Brigham Young University at age sixteen, not knowing about the Holocaust and questioning the place of women in the Mormon Church. Westover’s lifelong struggle to experience the world outside her family feels like a hero’s journey, and a testament to the value of lifelong learning. —Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite, communications specialist, School of Engineering
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavello. This book, a collection of biographies and short stories about one hundred amazing women who have made their mark in the world, is illustrated by contributions of sixty artists, from Queen Elizabeth I and Amelia Earhart to Hillary Clinton and Serena Williams. Artists, activists, and scientists are just some of those highlighted. These stories are intended to inspire women of all ages seeking positive, confident role models: from young girls to mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and cousins. All can find empowerment by thumbing through this delightful book. There is also a Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2, for those who want even more motivational stories. —Melissa Ing, D89, associate professor of comprehensive care, School of Dental Medicine
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, by Matthieu Ricard. Ricard received a doctorate in biology from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where his advisor was a Nobel laureate. He was performing research on cell division, mapping genes on the chromosome of Escherichia coli bacteria, when he decided something essential was missing from his life. He moved to Darjeeling in India and then to Bhutan to study with great Tibetan teachers. He adopted the life of a Buddhist monk, and since 1991, has lived in Nepal in a monastery dedicated to preserving the Tibetan heritage. In the book’s introduction, Ricard describes what he found in the Himalayas that was missing from his life in Paris: “What I discovered never called for blind faith. It was a rich, pragmatic science of the mind, an altruistic art of living, a meaningful philosophy, and a spiritual practice that led to a genuine inner transformation . . . I have also come to understand that . . . achieving durable happiness as a way of being is a skill. It requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities, such as inner peace, mindfulness, and altruistic love.” Drawing on his thirty-five years as a Buddhist monk, and adding to that the wisdom he gleans from works of fiction and poetry, Western philosophy, and scientific research, Ricard offers a primer for leading a happier life. This is an especially useful book for those of us who try to improve the world but also wish to improve ourselves and to experience more joy and fulfillment striving for both. —Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, dean of Tisch College of Civic Life
Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation, by Peter Marshall. In his effort to wed Anne Boleyn and secure the Tudor succession to the throne, Henry VIII set in motion an unexpected Reformation—with unintended consequences that shaped British cultural and political life for centuries to come. Peter Marshall’s Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation tells this complicated story clearly and expertly. He details the shifting motivations, relationships, and interactions of key individuals and sectors of society as four successive royal regimes sought to guide the religious life of the nation and define the acceptable limits of innovation and dissent. While focusing on the royal, aristocratic, and religious leaders who shaped policy and politics, Marshall is also attentive to the religious life of ordinary people, one of the great themes of recent research on the period. In line with that research, he shows that local religious life was still vital during the early years of Henry’s reign: English Catholicism was no rotten tree that needed only a push to topple. Henry’s own actions were decisive. But they also opened the door to new energies, and changes he had never foreseen. —Michael Baenen, chief of staff, Office of the President
The House on an Irish Hillside, by Felicity Hayes-McCoy. Have you ever felt like you’re rushing through life? Like you’re stressed out and overscheduled, alone in a crowded city, disconnected from nature, not sure who you are? Dublin-born London resident Felicity Hayes-McCoy felt the same as she raced to keep up with her blossoming career in radio and the arts. Then she moved to the wild, temperamental Dingle peninsula in western Ireland with her husband Wilf—and her life changed forever. From Hayes-McCoy’s first visit as a teenager to learn Irish from the farmers and fishermen of the peninsula, to her restoration of an old seaside cottage to make her permanent home there as an adult, this is a story of rejuvenation and rediscovery. It’s a portrait of a place where people text, drive, use modern farming equipment and run bed-and-breakfasts for tourists from around the world—but also speak an ancient language, sing songs and tell stories handed down for millennia, and commune simply and deeply with the land and each other, in a way much of the world has forgotten. Hayes-McCoy is plainspoken but poetic, hilarious but poignant—I loved the story of when she and her husband tried to clean out their chimney the “traditional” way, with an enormous bush, and the time she fought loneliness and panic in London by looking people in the eye and smiling, as one does on the peninsula. This book is not just a memoir, but a treasury of old Irish culture and legends; a love letter to the staid and openhearted people who still live by their ancestors’ wisdom; and a meditation on art, patience, memory, community, and caring for ourselves and one another—which is not just our privilege as human beings, according to the people of the Dingle peninsula, but our duty. —Monica Jimenez, editor, One Tufts magazine
How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. If this were fiction, this book by two Harvard University professors of government would be a great summer beach book. If this were fiction, you could enjoy this book as a political thriller in which a country becomes ever more authoritarian through its government’s disregard for the “guardrails” of democracy and a normal political order. If this were fiction, you would be riveted by the narrative of the progressive march of a regime towards authoritarianism through the rejection of democratic norms, the denial of legitimacy of political opponents, the toleration of violence and the readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including, and especially, the independent media. If this were fiction, you would find it satisfying to compare the description of the way in which a democracy erodes to what you know of Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Chavez’s Venezuela, Pinochet’s Chile, and Erdogan’s Turkey. If this were fiction, the thrills of this book would remind you of the thrills you had when you first read 1984, It Can’t Happen Here, The Plot Against America and The Handmaid’s Tale. If this were fiction, you could lie in the sand and enjoy the read. But this book is not fiction. And this book is not just about the past. And this book is not just about other countries. And this book should be on your reading list this summer. —Michael W. Klein, Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs, Fletcher School.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays, by Alexander Chee. I read the sixteen essays in this collection as incentives—gifts from a writer who I admire—waiting for me at the end of my own writing days. There are essays about the writer’s life as a student in the wake of his father’s death, as an activist during the AIDS crisis, as an aspiring writer working as a waiter in New York, and a caterer-waiter for William F. and Pat Buckley. The writer dreams, strives, and fights for the life he wants. Several times throughout the book, I stopped on a page, astonished, and reread a passage several times, and because that was not enough, I copied Chee’s words into my notebook. If you look online, you’ll see many others posting passages from the book. On believing he has “made it” as a writer, Chee writes: “But believing trouble is gone forever is the beginning of a special kind of trouble.” On the experience of writing his first novel, Chee writes, “That afternoon, I tried to understand if I had made a choice about what to write. But instead, it seemed to me if anyone had made a choice, the novel had, choosing me like I was a door and walking through me out into the world.” This book feels like it was written for me to read at exactly this moment, but I also believe that I could read it in a year or several years from now and find something else I need to hear. —Grace Talusan, J94, lecturer, Department of English
The Line Becomes a River, by Francisco Cantú. Memoirs and fiction by veterans of unpopular wars—Vietnam and Iraq, to name just two—have become a staple of American writing. In this memoir, Francisco Cantú does the same thing for the US Border Patrol. Cantú, a well-educated young man of Latino and Anglo heritage, served four years in the Border Patrol in southern Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas, ostensibly fighting a war against drug smugglers and human traffickers, but mostly arresting undocumented migrants. The Line Becomes a River is not just a vivid, unsparing inside look at the Border Patrol. It is also a superbly crafted depiction of Cantú’s gradual disillusionment with what began as an attempt to gain some “real world” experience of what he studied in his college courses but which soon became an all-consuming job that he felt was turning him into someone he never wanted to be. He eventually quit, tormented by nightmares and guilt. The last third of the book—the narrative of his later attempt, while working as a barista in Tucson, to save a Mexican immigrant from being sent back to Mexico, leaving his wife and family behind in the States—is as gripping and passionate as the book’s first sections are introspective and ruminative. Cantú’s book has become controversial, not to opponents of immigration, as he expected, but to Latino activists angry that he ever participated in the Border Patrol in the first place. Readers less intimately affected by issues of life and death on the border will find this an eye-opening, often achingly beautiful book. —Neil Miller, lecturer, Department of English
A Most Elegant Equation: Euler’s Formula and the Beauty of Mathematics, by David Stipp. This delightful volume shows the genius of David Stipp, an award-winning science writer, at getting readers involved and excited. It is about the numbers pi, e, and i (as well as 1 and 0), and the most elegant equation that succinctly links all five of them together. I am quite familiar with them and with this equation, and I might rightly be suspicious of the suggestion that I read more about them. But once I started, Stipp drew me in as he lovingly and with discernible excitement and enjoyment started peeling away the layers of ideas and discoveries related to pi, e, and i. Then he introduces Euler (pronounced “oiler”), the Mozart of mathematics in elegance and output, who published more papers after his death than almost any mathematician publishes in a lifetime, and who invented whole new branches of mathematics years after going totally blind. Euler’s audacity and flair come to life as Stipp shows how these seemingly unrelated numbers are (very) deeply connected, and hence so are arithmetic, compound interest, trigonometry, calculus, and even infinity itself. For those who know no mathematics at all, he explains everything lucidly, and for the experts he reveals the beautiful inventiveness that awaits at every turn if you only know to look. A Most Elegant Equation is a most compelling page turner. —Boris Hasselblatt, professor of mathematics, School of Arts and Sciences
The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens That Made England, by Dan Jones. In today’s manic world, where each news cycle seems to last no more than a day, it can be tempting to fixate on the minute changes going on around us. The nice thing about reading ancient history, on the other hand, is that one must necessarily adopt the “long view” on how things happen, and why. Readers looking to escape into that second perspective for a time would do well to pick up The Plantagenets, which chronicles England’s ruling dynasty from 1154-1485. Stuffing 300 years of history into 561 pages is no easy feat, but Dan Jones manages to cut out virtually all the fat, leaving a nice lean steak of a book. The story includes a bevy of important figures and events that helped to inform ancient and modern mythologies: Richard the Lionheart, returning from the Crusades to confront his brother John (who, despite being best known as a nasty lion in the animated Robin Hood, went on to have a long and moderately successful kingship of his own); the ravages of the Black Death; the Hundred Years' War with France; the rise and fall of Thomas Beckett; the creation of the Magna Carta; the sinking of the White Ship. The list goes on! This was a time of incredible change, and Jones does his best to give an even-handed account of the strengths and foibles of the monarchs, their families, their friends, and their foes. Overall, I found it to be a fascinating read, and I look forward to picking up its sequel (The Wars of the Roses) soon. —Samuel Ruth, AG14, director of continuing education, Marketing and Communications, School of Dental Medicine
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson. I rarely pay full price for anything, including books. But a compelling interview on an early morning talk show with Bryan Stevenson, a professor of law at New York University School of Law, drove me to do just that for this book. Just Mercy is his account of his work as an attorney and of the nonprofit he founded, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Stevenson and EJI represent death row inmates unjustly convicted due to racial prejudice and inadequate legal representation. The EJI has been successful in exonerating several clients, but the case of Walter McMillan is most pivotal and covered in-depth. If you haven’t the time for a book right now, O Magazine features an interview with Anthony Ray Hinton, another EJI client who is now free. Hinton spent twenty-eight years in prison, most of them on death row, for two murders he didn’t commit. —Susan Martone, donor relations coordinator, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1928-1941, by Stephen Kotkin. It’s rare that a 900-page biography of an infamous figure will make you look forward to a 1,100-page second volume on the same life. But Stephen Kotkin’s ongoing biography of Stalin will make you do exactly that. This segment of what is set to be a trilogy shows the man in power, forging a Soviet Union in his image. Stalin is relentless and ruthless, but not simply a madman. In Kotkin’s astute telling, the Man of Steel was an ideologue, yet remarkably adaptive and never forgot a lesson. Earlier power struggles in the Communist Party left a mark, and help explain his murderous purging of the party in the 1930s. This was all in the background of a ferocious ideological struggle that seemed to portend a showdown with Nazi Germany. Vicissitudes of history meant that when the Hitler on which Stalin had been waiting for so long finally arrived, he did so as a partner—at least at first. That relationship would change violently—but that will have to wait for volume three. —David Ekbladh, associate professor of history, School of Arts and Sciences
Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, by Katy Tur. She saw Donald Trump’s victory coming before the rest of us. And even so, it was unbelievable, says Tur, NBC News correspondent and MSNBC anchor. She and her producer Anthony Terrell spent 510 days covering the Trump campaign. During that time, she filed more than 3,800 live TV reports, crisscrossing more than forty states with the campaign. Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History is a fast-paced, first-hand account that weaves together Tur’s own family and career narrative with a meticulously fact-checked retelling of the 2016 election. It is compelling both for the behind-the-scenes details of life on the campaign trail—competing for air time, endless road-trip food, sleep deprivation, jumping out of a cab near LaGuardia and running through snow banks to make a flight to Iowa—and for the thoughtful commentary it delivers on now-President Trump, his team and his supporters. Perhaps most importantly, Unbelievable is a statement on the role of on-the-ground journalism at a time when the Fourth Estate is withstanding unprecedented scrutiny and change. From her first thirty-minute sit-down with Trump—which MSNBC aired in its entirety—Tur took his candidacy seriously and held him and his campaign accountable. Even when Trump called her “Little Katy” from the rally stage or demanded her firing via Twitter, and even when angry crowds jeered, Tur persisted; but that doesn’t mean she came out unscathed. Her book details the sacrifices of that life on the road, from the frivolous to the deadly serious. Reading her account makes clear that she and the many other journalists who covered this and previous campaigns deserve our collective thanks. But Katy Tur, who spoke at Tufts in April, would never ask for that. —Jen McAndrew, director of communications, strategy & planning, Tisch College
The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, by Robert Gerwarth. Exactly one hundred years ago, the Great War officially ended. In our hazy memory, that moment ushered in a peaceful interlude in Europe before the horrors of the Second World War began. But that’s a misreading of history, Gerwarth argues in this book, which focuses on the states and peoples who were among the losers in that first epic conflict, namely Germany, the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. In central and southern Europe and in the Middle East, the war might have ended, but the forces of nationalism and leftist and rightist ideologies led to bitter confrontations and violence, often between ethnic groups fighting for their fair share of their new nations—and for simple survival. The result, more often than not, was what we now too politely call ethnic cleansing, as ethnic and religious groups fought dirty battles to take control of territory. The level of violence, almost all of it against civilians, was startlingly high. What’s even more unsettling is that the conflicts that Gerwarth describes from a century ago are still at play in Europe and the Middle East now. The dark forces that were unleashed by the First World War and its immediate aftermath still exist and bubble up periodically, wounds that have never healed. This is a disturbing history, but one well worth remembering. —Taylor McNeil, deputy editor, Tufts Now.
Washington’s Immortals, by Patrick O’Donnell. As the Revolutionary War recedes even further into the misty recesses of our awareness, here is a very appropriate read this Independence Day and afterward. It is not a deliberate and comprehensive tour of the war, but rather an extensively researched story at the personal level of an extraordinary regiment of colonial Marylanders. They mustered together in late 1774 for their own self-defense and that of other needy colonists against the depredations of the British, and had an outstanding record of bravery under General Washington from the Battle of Long Island (a.k.a. Battle of Brooklyn) all the way through to the war’s climax at the Siege of Yorktown. The regiment was made up largely of wealthy merchants and tradesmen from Baltimore who had everything to lose in a rebellion—and most of those original members did. In pitched fighting and hand-to-hand combat against the world’s best army at Brooklyn, just a month after independence was declared, the “Maryland 400” bought time for the bulk of Washington’s force to evacuate to Manhattan and save the Revolution at its beginning. The cost was steep: 256 of the “Old Line” lie buried in a mass grave as yet unlocated beneath the pavement of Brooklyn today. To read this book is to tramp with these immortals through the years of this southward-moving struggle, in which they repeatedly filled the breach for Washington at crucial moments. By portraying the war at a personal level, O’Donnell has given richly earned illumination to quintessential patriots who helped provide us with an independent nation. They deserve the read. —Robert W. Barry, A63