Summer Book Recommendations

What’s worth reading? Tufts faculty, staff, and alumni share their favorite books
An open book. Tufts faculty, staff, and alumni share their summer book recommendations
Photo: Shutterstock
June 25, 2020

Share

As summer rolls around, we ask the Tufts community to offer book recommendations, and this year is no exception. What’s different are the circumstances many of us find ourselves in: more time on our hands, more isolated at home, and more concerned about the state of our country and the world. Our book reviews reflect the times we’re living in.

We have reviews of a wide range of books, from novels about life in the English countryside and upheaval in India to mysteries and powerful reflections on race in America, not to mention speculative YA fiction. And then there’s a timely history of the influenza pandemic from a century ago, pioneering female American spies, the birth of Sesame Street and educational TV, and one of Maya Angelou’s memoirs.

In addition, we suggest you also check out the anti-racist reading list compiled by Tisch Library and a diverse reading list created by the Cummings School student community.

If you have book recommendations to add to the list, let us know at now@tufts.edu, and we’ll post an update.

FICTION

Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery. When faced with what to read during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I realized I wanted to revisit a book and character I loved. So I chose to reread this classic about an orphan girl mistakenly sent to a farm on Prince Edward Island (PEI). The farmer had wanted a boy for help on the farm, but instead got an imaginative eleven-year-old girl, who both he and his sister couldn’t part with. This story follows Anne during her first few years at Green Gables. During that time, she makes a “bosom friend” and gets into many hysterical mishaps, including mistakenly dying her despised red hair green and accidently getting her friend drunk on red currant wine. Anne is a loveable character with her vivid imagination and passionate emotions. She also is persistent, and rises to the occasion in more than one instance—including a time she saves a child’s life. The sweet, simple anecdotes of life on PEI at the end of the nineteenth century are a joy to read. I recommend this book to anyone looking for an escape to a slower time and a setting where everyday life in a small island farm town is the main action. —Britta E. Magnuson, D08, assistant professor of diagnostic sciences and assistant director of the Division of Biostatistics and Experimental Design, School of Dental Medicine

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, by Suzanne Collins. When you first heard about the new Hunger Games prequel, you were probably really excited. When you heard the protagonist was a young Coriolanus Snow, probably not so much. On the list of people you want to be quarantined with, “future evil dictator and weirdo mithridatist” is never high up there. But Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which came out last month, is worth a read. Admittedly, Coryo—as friends and family call him—is arrogant and entitled, and spends a lot of time manipulating others and angling for power and status. (And a creepy amount of time obsessing about his dead mother’s roses.) But as Katniss Everdeen showed us, the best heroes come with a healthy dose of mistrustful, misanthropic antihero. And it’s surprisingly easy to connect with Coryo as he struggles to hide his family’s poverty; secure his future in high society; protect his warmhearted cousin, Tigris; and win over his mentee in the tenth annual Hunger Games—the mysterious and theatrical Lucy Gray from a little district called 12. Even if you refuse to join Team Coryo, come to experience everyday life in the Capitol; to walk in the boots of a Peacekeeper; to stroll through the Hob and listen to the jabberjays; to witness the composition of the haunting folksong that later becomes a rebellion’s rallying cry; to watch the shaping of the Hunger Games—and to confront the questions about power, society, humanity, hypocrisy, and hunger that can as usual can be found lurking both within the arena and beyond. —Monica Jimenez, senior content producer/editor, Office of Communications and Marketing

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka. This is a remarkable book because of the story it tells—that of Japanese mail-order brides who came to California to marry Japanese men—and because of the remarkable voice in which it’s told. The author uses “we” to describe all the varied experiences these women had, making a universal story out of each individual one. The language is evocative and lyrical, and the narrative carries the reader along until the culmination, when the women and their families are interned in essentially concentration camps at the start of World War II. The novel is short, and I was caught up in the story enough to want to find out what happened after the end, which led me to the author’s first book, When the Emperor Was Divine. This book, though written earlier, takes up the story and follows the women, their children, and their husbands through internment and release. Both books are filled with human detail that makes them deeply personal. I recommend them both. —Beatrice Rogers, professor of economics and food policy, Friedman School

A Burning, by Megha Majumdar. This debut novel, set in contemporary Kolkata, India and told in three voices, follows Jivan, a young woman who wants to join the middle class, and two narrators connected to her: Lovely, a hijra or third-gender person, with aspirations of becoming a movie star, and PT Sir, Jivan’s former gym teacher who chases a better life by becoming a tool of a corrupt politician. For better and, in this novel, mostly worse, all three characters journey towards what they want amidst systemic forces working against them. After a terrorist attack on a train in her neighborhood, Jivan posts a provocative comment on Facebook in a bid for “likes,” which launches a thousand repercussions: “If the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” This question results in Jivan being accused, and then imprisoned, for the very act that she was commenting on. I have never read a novel this way, which was to read quickly and in one sitting, and as soon as I finished, to start again so I could appreciate what the writer had created. —Grace Talusan, J94

Caught, Henry Green. Set in the languid days leading up to the outbreak of World War II, Henry Green’s slim novel Caught tells the tale of a group of auxiliary firefighters drawn from across the British class spectrum who have come together to aid London’s official Fire Service in the protection of the city. As the men fill the long hours training, gossiping, and philandering, the personal tensions among them complement the escalation of international hostilities that rumbles in the background. Both ultimately break out in scenes of carnage, the violence of the Blitz easily matched by the psycho-sexual damage of an unspeakable encounter that led to the book’s censorship when it came out in 1943. While these narrative climaxes provide a satisfying ending, I was more taken with the empty days before the Blitz that the novel details in a lyrical, almost phantasmagorically realist prose. During those surreal early weeks of the COVID-19 quarantine, I found myself turning to this book for an account of the strange mix of boredom, anxiety, excitement, and fear that I couldn’t quite articulate for myself. Far from an ordinary book, Caught helps to rethink the very idea of what “ordinary life” is during and after a large-scale public emergency. —John Lurz, associate professor, Department of English

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange.Published in 1975, when Shange was in her twenties, this work broke theater and linguistic norms. The work can be reduced to a movie (Tyler Perry, 2010) or some controversies around it, but to do so would make you miss its exquisite voice, beauty, and power. With For Colored Girls, Shange unmuted herself, other women, and broke ground for Black feminist theater. Written in gutsy vernacular, with altered spelling and punctuation (“i cdnt stand being sorry & colored at the same time      it’s so redundant in the modern world”), the characters’ monologues and the echoing exchanges from the other six characters create a space for the reader/viewer to vividly co-experience the stories being told. By breaking with structural norms for writing and theatre, the very form itself—a flowing choreopoem of poetry, music, and dance—allows for the creation of new identities and new realities. In this new reality, women, particularly Black women, can shed pre-conceived restraints of identity. Many people who paid tribute to Shange when she died in 2018 quoted the last lines of the book—but I think getting there is a journey, so I’m ending with another line from Shange: “we are the same as the sky, we are here breathing, living creatures and we have a right to everything.” —Siobhan Gallagher, deputy director, Office of Media Relations

Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. Toward the end of this 1901 novel, the eponymous hero cries repeatedly, “I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?” Identity, seemingly a modern preoccupation, is one of the central questions in Kim’s life and story. The orphaned son of poor Irish workers in British colonial India in the late 1800s, Kim lives by his wits on the streets: sharp, savvy, and not just passing for Indian, but indistinguishable from any native. He befriends an elderly wandering Tibetan Buddhist lama in Lahore, becoming his disciple and protector, and their journeys frame much of the novel, as does the Great Game—that chess match between Russia and Britain in South Asia. Kim, speaker of many languages and fiercely intelligent, is slowly recruited into spying for the British. He’s shipped off to a Catholic school, where he is Kimball O’Hara, but loathes the experience, even as he sops up his lessons. Leaving school after only a few years, he quickly discards his sahib origins, while still in the service of the sahibs. But who is he? He is living, as we would say now, on the hyphen: Anglo-Indian, far more Indian than Anglo, but somehow still Anglo. The gentle “red hat” lama (probably from the Nyingma sect) provides a spiritual refuge for Kim in the materialist world. I’d always had the impression of Kipling as an apologist for British colonialism and racism, but this tale is much the opposite. We are left with a distaste for most Europeans, and a deep sympathy for all the myriad peoples who make up India, and for Kim, whose future—will he be a spy for the Brits or a Buddhist mendicant?—is ever unclear. Taylor McNeil, senior content producer/editor, Office of Communications and Marketing

The Lost Man by Jane Harper. For summer, I’m a big believer in reading mysteries, and Australian journalist-turned-novelist Jane Harper’s books are compulsively readable summer fare. Her latest book, The Lost Man, is set in the Australian outback and centers on three brothers—Nathan, Cameron, and Bub—who run two neighboring cattle ranches. When Nathan and Bub discover Cameron’s dead body at the start of the book, they can’t understand why he would have voluntarily abandoned his well-stocked car and braved the Australian summer sun without any water or supplies, but they’re so far away from any other people that the list of possible suspects doesn’t extend much longer than the other family members. There’s no central detective figure in The Lost Man; instead Nathan investigates the death himself, with some help from his son and a few locals, in a setting so singular and so swelteringly hot that wherever you are spending the summer will almost certainly feel cool by comparison. —Josephine Wolff, assistant professor of cybersecurity policy, The Fletcher School

Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Once COVID-19 hit and altered our day-to-day lives for the foreseeable future, many of us took on “Coronavirus projects.” One of mine was to read a book that had long been on my “to read someday” list: George Eliot’s classic, Middlemarch. I’d stopped watching the news at night—too scary, too depressing—and instead read several chapters of this 802-page novel each evening. I soon got the rhythm of Eliot’s mid-nineteenth century English—the novel was first published in serialized installments in 1871-1872—and before long, realized why this book is so revered. The path taken by Dorothea Brooke, a young woman who knows her own mind and charts her own destiny long before it was fashionable for women to do so, leads inexorably to happiness and fulfillment, but unfolds gradually. You root for her when she inevitably becomes a young widow after marrying the much-older Reverend Edward Casaubon, tries to figure out how best to use the money she’s inherited, becomes civically engaged, and eventually finds true love. The other main characters—Dr. Tertius Lydgate, who tries to introduce contemporary medical practices and sanitation into the fictional town of Middlemarch and who meets the beautiful but vain Rosamond and has a difficult marriage and a difficult time remaining solvent; and young Fred Vincy, who gambles and takes too many risks to win the hand of practical, kind Mary Garth until he grows into himself and emerges the better for it—are equally gripping. Once I got into the sedate pace of the book, it became the perfect counterbalance for a world that often seems out of control. (Of course, the folks in Middlemarch are busily fighting an outbreak of cholera…) You see in Eliot’s characters very contemporary people, people you know, problems we all deal with. Her remarkable ability to explain the inner and outer workings of human motivation underscores the beauty and scope of the novel. I’d also recommend Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, in which she revisits the times in her life when she read and re-read Middlemarch, and how it meant different things to her at different points in her life. She also dissects why Middlemarch is such a classic, tells the story of Mary Anne Evans’ (George Eliot’s) unconventional life, and intersperses it with reflections from her trips back to England to visit the sites that were important in Evans’/Eliot’s life and those that inspired Middlemarch. —Julie Dobrow, director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, senior lecturer, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie. Mysteries make the perfect summertime beach reads, and this masterpiece from queen Agatha Christie is a cut above. Hercule Poirot retires to the quiet English village of King’s Abbot to be near his old friend, Roger Ackroyd, and peacefully grow zucchini. However, Ackroyd’s murder compels the world’s most famous detective to abandon gardening and take the case. With the local doctor as his personal Watson, Poirot uses his “little grey cells” to dig up more than vegetable marrows. Full of Christie’s usual dry wit and trademark clever twists, you might only guess the killer because so many other mystery and thriller writers have emulated this classic. —Robin Smyton, A09, media relations specialist, University Communications and Marketing

The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead. This novel, Whitehead’s excellent follow up to his Pulitzer Prize winner The Underground Railroad, also was awarded the Pulitzer earlier this year, and for very good reason: it’s an instant classic. In 1960s Florida, bright and conscientious teenager Elwood unknowing hitches a ride to school in a stolen car. He is sentenced to Nickel Academy, a hellish juvenile detention facility, based on the infamous (and real) Dozier School. There, Elwood befriends Turner, a cynical fellow inmate who tries to protect Elwood by stopping him from standing up against the assaults the “Nickel Boys” suffer at the hands of the racist and corrupt administration and guards. Elwood and Turner debate about morality and justice in a place where having a strong sense of either is a burden. Decades later, an adult Elwood tries to reckon with the tragedy of his stolen youth and find healing when the abuses at Nickel are publicly revealed. It’s an unsettling and necessary read, and should be taught in every high school in the country. —Robin Smyton, A09, media relations specialist, University Communications and Marketing

The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo. Parallel stories set in the 1930s of multiple interesting protagonists that eventually converge in unexpected ways. A houseboy starts on a quest to fulfill the dying appeal of his employer within forty-nine days. A young woman with lofty career dreams is saddled with her mother’s gambling debts and forced into an unsavory method to resolve them. The novel mixes superstition, modern science, quirky characters, and mysterious plots. Lots of twists, turns, and surprises—a real page-turner. —Alice H. Lichtenstein, Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, Friedman School, and director, Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, HNRCA

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. Would history be any different if Hillary Rodham had never married Bill Clinton? That’s the intriguing (and perhaps cathartic, for some) premise of Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel Rodham. An ambitious work of historical fiction for very recent times, the book explores the question: How would Hillary Rodham’s personal and professional life have turned out and where would her and Bill’s political paths have taken them? Sittenfeld doesn’t ignore the couple’s intertwined lives, and it is true-enough to the historical record and timeline to be believable as an alternative reality. Reading the book is enjoyable, with pitch-perfect details, even if you are motivated only to find out how it ends. For those who don’t think the particulars of the story would interest you, I challenge you to consider it anyhow. Sittenfeld’s novel, as with much of her work, is really a study in relationships: between partners, mentors, friends, colleagues, and with our vision of who we should be. As Hillary points out, “the margin between staying and leaving was so thin; really, it could have gone either way.” The book turns on that very idea: sometimes, even with our most momentous decisions, the line is paper thin. Relationships, as elections, could have gone either way. —Jen McAndrew, director of communications, strategy & planning, Tisch College of Civic Life

Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh. This is the first volume in Ghosh’s “Ibis Trilogy” about the Opium War in China. To read all three is an undertaking, the kind of thing to pursue when staying home during a pandemic, but certainly worthwhile. A couple of dozen characters—Indian, British, American, and Chinese—converge on the Ibis, a ship based in Calcutta and heading to Mauritius to deliver indentured laborers for the plantations there. The British colonial system based on free trade, naval superiority, and the East India Company is well explained in the context of adventure, deceit, rags-to-riches, riches-to-rags, and the confrontation of cultures. In volume two, River of Smoke, the story mostly moves to Canton, where the British are imposing Indian opium on the Chinese. Field of Fire, volume three, is set during the Opium War itself. Note that in the first volume, Ghosh provides a glossary of many of the non-English words he uses, and you need it frequently. —James M. Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and professor of political science

They Both Die at the End, by Adam Silvera. As one of those adults who enjoys good young adult fiction, I’m always on the lookout for books that get away from coming of age tropes and high school cliques, and even more on the hunt for POC leads. When I heard the premise of They Both Die at the End—queer Latinx teens who have never met spend their last day on Earth together—I was hooked right away. In a slightly parallel contemporary world, people are notified at midnight that they will die that day. Industries have sprung up for enjoying last experiences (like simulated travel) and for befriending someone on what is known as End Day. Nobody wants to get the notice, but nobody can get out of it either; the ticking clock is ramped up by the fact you don’t know how or when in the day you’ll die. Sheltered Mateo and streetwise Rufus meet on the Last Friend app and spend the day getting to know each other, as well as deepening their own understanding of themselves. Silvera isn’t kidding with the title, and yet there’s all kinds of emotional suspense in their shared journey. It’s speculative fiction with enormous heart. —David Valdes, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences

The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson. In these troubled times, who among us can resist the urge to escape to a new reality? Luckily, the fantasy genre is ready and able to provide a compelling distraction, and few modern writers are better at doing so than the prolific Brandon Sanderson. He burst onto the fantasy scene in the mid-2000s with his Mistborn series, and earned serious industry bona fides by penning a (mostly) satisfying conclusion to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time epics. But Sanderson’s peak (so far) has come in his ambitious Stormlight Archive series, which begins with The Way of Kings. With three novels (out of ten!) published so far, the Stormlight Archive series is everything an epic fantasy fan could want in a story: a vast and fascinating world, heroism and temptation, and action that keeps you reading far past your bedtime. —Samuel Ruth, G14, director, Tufts Lifelong Learning & Osher Institute

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and The Elephant Vanishes, by Haruki Murakami. I’m going to cheat and recommend two books, although both are by the same author. Murakami’s books are bestsellers around the world, and for a good reason. He combines urbanity and disaffection with a quirky kind of magic realism that suggests that there are indeed more things in heaven and Earth than our imaginations usually dream of. This summer in particular I like the idea of immersing myself in a deeper, richer world in which terrifying and wonderful things happen to often very ordinary people. The novel I’m recommending, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is Murakami’s masterpiece. It starts with a lost cat and a mysterious phone call from an anonymous woman. Soon we are on a journey that takes us to war-torn Manchuria in 1939 and to the bottom of a deep well in present-day Tokyo. Murakami’s everyman hero grapples with loss, fear, and confusion as his world turns inside out around him, and we identify with his terrors and his hopes. The novel grips, stirs, and amazes in equal measure. For those who just want a quick dip into Murakami’s oeuvre, I recommend his entertaining short story collection, The Elephant Vanishes. It reveals how Murakami can be funny, satirical, and romantic, sometimes all at the same time. But even the lighter stories have a poignancy that stays with us. An example is “The Girl from Ipanema,” in which the narrator imagines sharing a beer with the girl from the famous song, thirty years older and wiser. Most memorable is the story “Sleep” which has particularly stunned my women friends and my female students: a middle-aged married woman can no longer sleep and stays up all night eating chocolate, drinking brandy, and reading Tolstoy. Murakami gets inside his heroine’s soul with a depth that seems almost incredible for a male writer. —Susan Napier, Goldthwaite Professor of Rhetoric, Department of International Literary and Cultural Studies

NONFICTION

Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes, and Empires, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Don’t let the bland title of this magisterial book put you off—this is no rote recounting of history, but a deep and compelling take on who the Arabs are—and are not—and on the constant tension between unification of the Arabs as a people and their inevitable conflict and dissolution. Mackintosh-Smith, a British writer, has lived in his adopted homeland of Yemen for three full decades, and has a deep sympathy for the Arab world—and the eye of an outsider. The rise of the Arabs is usually told as an outgrowth of the sudden power of Muhammad and his Muslims in the early seventh century, but Mackintosh-Smith takes us much further back, to the tension between raiding tribes of the interior of the Arabian peninsula and settled town folk, mostly in the south. He recounts the slow emergence of the Arabic language, the cornerstone of Arab identity, always with keen examples, and shows the overwhelming continuity of Arab culture and politics over the centuries, all the way up to the present day. His writing here, as in his other books, is always clever, witty, and erudite; he is a delightful companion, and I was sad to finish the book—but there is so much to learn here, I will be rereading it again soon. Taylor McNeil, senior content producer/editor, Office of Communications and Marketing

The Body Papers, by Grace Talusan. What are the stories about family that we only share behind closed doors? This question stitches together Talusan’s powerful memoir, which uses immigration and medical documents to map out experiences of family trauma, living with undocumented status, and coming to terms with preventive surgery. Born in the Philippines, Talusan moves to the U.S. at age two as her father pursues further training as a physician. Chapters oscillate between day-to-day life of a young Filipina coming of age in New England, while others point to the shame and thrill that accompany “family first” values. We learn that Filipino families can be bittersweet, as parental love is rarely declared aloud but rather is embodied by cumulative worry and sacrifice. When it eventually becomes clear that something traumatic has happened to Talusan, she lays bare the tension between self-preservation and worries about upsetting her family should she speak out. She goes on to reflect on her decision to pursue preventive surgery that would render her unable to have her own children, along with how she would ultimately blossom into being a tita (auntie). Coming full circle, Talusan returns to the Philippines as an adult on a Fulbright grant. Her experiences there yield witty insights into how her parents were brought up and as to why silence and filial piety might be held in such high regard. Despite the harrowing truths that Talusan reveals, this memoir is a powerful testament to a life overflowing with love and passion as a writer, partner, daughter, tita, and educator. Few authors have been able to excavate these topics with such poise and humility. —Nathaniel Tran, A17

Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, An American Hero, by Kate Clifford Larson. I’ve heard that people are turning to history to help process these difficult times. I didn’t read Bound for the Promised Land for that reason but the coincidence was welcome! The book offers a nuanced, adult version of Tubman, who navigated the intersectionality of race and gender during one of the most consequential eras of American history. I was not only struck by singular nature of her story — an enslaved Black woman who engineered her own freedom and that of dozens of others, served among the core leaders of the Abolitionist Movement, including being a spy during the Civil War, and financially supported an entire community of escaped slaves in upstate New York and Canada — but also how little I really knew about it. That it took so long to be exposed to a serious look at her biography is beyond unfortunate. It also reveals a gap in the American history education system that consistency over looks the accomplishments of black Americans and other people of color. The book goes beyond the mystical entity Tubman is often portrayed as, and humanizes her. —Kalimah Redd Knight, deputy director, Office of Media Relations

Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug, by Augustine Sedgewick. In a book that combines social, political, economic, and family history in a stimulating brew, CUNY history professor Augustine Sedgewick traces the journey of our favorite morning drink from the smoky coffeehouses of the Ottoman Middle East  to the breakfast tables and corporate “coffee breaks” of twentieth-century America. It is an ambitious task. Sedgewick wisely focuses on James Hill, reared in the slums of Manchester, England, who, along with his sons, created a coffee dynasty in the highlands of El Salvador, starting in the late 1890s and continuing to this day. Hill introduced industrialized, monocultural agricultural techniques to the Central American nation, making it a leading coffee producer. In the process, he helped transform communal ownership of land into a plantation-style export economy, and used hunger to keep workers in line by remaking a countryside previously covered with lush fruit trees. Sedgewick takes the reader on numerous side trips—through the coffee markets of San Francisco, the nineteenth-century philosophies of energy and vitalism that encouraged coffee-drinking, and the American supermarket, whose early success he attributes to inexpensive, vacuum-packed coffee. Some of the most intriguing chapters concern the radicalization of Salvadoran coffee plantation workers and a Communist revolution that almost succeeded in 1932, only to be halted by threats of American and British intervention and by the massacre of some 12,000 indigenous peasants. It is a mini-primer of Central American history. There is plenty of absorbing family drama, too: the book begins with the kidnapping for ransom of James Hill’s grandson, Jaime, by leftist rebels in 1979 and his spiritual transformation once he gains his freedom. Jaime becomes Coffeeland’s unexpected hero. —Neil Miller, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, by Camilla Townsend. Is pretty much everything we think we know about the Aztecs not true? It seems that way after reading this compelling and engagingly written history of the people who should in fact be called the Mexica (that’s meh-SHEE-ca), who ruled the central valley of Mexico starting in the mid-1400s. Townsend, a Rutgers historian, uses primary sources that most historians have until recently ignored—accounts written in Romanized Nahuatl by the surviving members of the once-ruling nobility of Tenochtitlan and their sons and grandsons—to vividly recount the rise of the Mexica, who like others in the region migrated from what is now the U.S. Southwest. Initially scrappy immigrants just fighting for a place to live, they established their stronghold on a reedy island in Lake Texcoco, and soon became the dominant force in the area, fighting other established groups and creating alliances where useful. Townsend details the interminable internecine battles for power within the Mexica, which were just as fierce as fights with other powers in the Central Valley. (No matter where groups of humans are, it seems, they are soon at each other’s throats to gain power and to possess more and better stuff.) Alienating each other and the peoples they conquered made the Mexica vulnerable to Spanish invaders. That wasn’t, in the end, why they lost the multiple wars with the Spanish; the Europeans simply had a huge technological advantage, aided by horses and especially by diseases that no one in the Americas had any immunity to: wave after wave of epidemics. Townsend vividly portrays everyday life for the Nahuatl-speaking people before, during, and after the Spanish invasion; it’s heartbreaking, and yet somehow hopeful. Despite the devastation, everyday life somehow went on, as it does for most people torn by war and power struggles. Townsend writes in a clear and engaging way, at pains to make this much more honest retelling of history accessible to all readers. Taylor McNeil, senior content producer/editor, Office of Communications and Marketing

The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry. Speaking of pandemics, now would seem an appropriate time to dust off this 2005 account of the great one of a century ago. It opens with a somewhat slow-moving tale in order to acknowledge many contributions which stimulated science- and research-based medicine in the late nineteenth century. This raised us out of a level of medicine not appreciably more advanced than that of the ancient Greeks. (Bloodletting was still a suggested treatment for many illnesses as late as 1910.) Lashing laboratories to practical medicine with the establishment of Johns Hopkins brought medicine in the U.S. to a level equal to and beyond that of Germany and the rest of Western Europe. The author holds to the likelihood that the pandemic originated in agricultural areas of western Kansas in early 1918, was brought to Army induction camps in the eastern end of the state, and thence to Europe. There it mutated into a more virulent form that came back to the U.S. as a much more lethal “second wave” during the last quarter of 1918 and inflicted the majority of American casualties. It gained the misnomer “Spanish Flu” because the only objective reporting of the scourge came from the Spanish press (Spain not being a World War I belligerent); British, French, and the surprisingly authoritarian Woodrow Wilson stifled and suppressed negative news that might be harmful to positive morale toward the war effort. The caution to a reader having a more than cursory interest of the many personages rolling in and out of the narrative would be to keep a playbill for reference, until the virus burns itself out in early 1919 after scores of millions had been killed worldwide. (For extra credit, when finished with the book and to solidify your understanding of technical details of the pandemic operation, reread Chapters 7, 21, and 31.) —Robert W. Barry, A63

If They Come in The Morning…: Voices of Resistance, edited by Angela Y. Davis, Bettina Aptheker, and the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners. First published in 1971 and reissued four years ago, this book brings together essays, interviews, poetry, correspondence, solidarity statements, and other forms of writing that document and deconstruct the anti-Black origins, practices, and aims of the American system of prisons and policing. —Natalie Shapero, professor of the practice of poetry, Department of English

On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, by Paul Theroux. Last fall I saw Theroux, the novelist and travel writer, speaking at Tufts about his sojourn to Mexico in his mid-seventies, driving from his home on Cape Cod to travel the length of the U.S.-Mexico border, and then take a deeper dive into Mexico proper. He weaves in and out of the two counties along the length of the border, talking with migrants and those working to help them—and stop them. The complexities of the border are on full display—thousands of Mexicans legally cross the border daily to work in the U.S., while hundreds of thousands work in factories just south of the border for multinational companies, thanks to NAFTA, earning in a day what they would earn in an hour just a few miles north. Theroux speaks enough Spanish to get by, a great asset as he drives into Mexico, from prosperous and dangerous northern Mexico all the way to Chiapas, in the impoverished south. Violence is never far from the surface; the cartels that profit from the U.S. demand for illegal drugs mix with crooked police and federal troops to create palpable fear in the population. The book shines as Theroux heads into Oaxaca and Chiapas, two southern states with large indigenous populations. He takes bumpy rural roads, gives lifts to peasants, talks with many men who have made the journey north (often coming back home to tend to ailing parents), and sees life as it is for millions of Mexicans: desperately poor, badly treated, and yet able to endure and survive, focused above all on family. He ends by meeting Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, and leaves with some small measure of hope about the possibility of overcoming the “malgobierno” [misgovernment] that defines not just Mexico, but so many countries.Taylor McNeil, senior content producer/editor, Office of Communications and Marketing

A Song Flung Up to Heaven, by Maya Angelou. After being mesmerized by I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I first read it last year, I found myself devouring the rest of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series. A Song Flung Up to Heaven is the sixth book in the series and, like the others, describes events in the author’s extraordinary life with spirit and candor. I found it remarkable that she had deep friendships with prominent leaders in the civil rights movement (Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.), literature (Langston Hughes and James Baldwin), and the arts (Cecily Tyson and James Earl Jones). Her majestic prose describes Blacks’ painful history, as well as their proud heritage and vibrant culture—in the United States, where she was born, and Ghana, where she lived for several years. Reading Angelou’s memoirs inspired a personal quest to learn more about Black history, leading me to discover (and continue to discover) fascinating books, documentaries, and podcasts that I never knew existed, deepening my education of the unfathomable horrors—but also the rich heritage—of Black peoples in America. —Carol Lidington, J81, A15P, associate director of campaign management, University Advancement

Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America, by David Kamp. A few years ago, one of my graduate students and I conducted a small study. We asked Tufts undergraduates if they remembered any of the songs from the iconic television show, Sesame Street. Not only did overwhelming numbers of them remember the songs, they reported recalling all the lyrics and singing them often along with friends in their dorms. To us this demonstrated not only the far reach of Sesame Street, but also its long-lasting impact and the ways in which so many of us use it as a way to connect with others. Kamp’s new book, Sunny Days, helps to explain why this show, along with others of its generation, including Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, The Electric Company, Schoolhouse Rock and more, became so firmly ingrained in our national consciousness. He paints a portrait of the pioneering producers Joan Ganz Cooney, Fred Rogers, and others, who tapped into a growing concern in 1960s America that children growing up in poverty and in under-resourced communities were at significant and systemic disadvantage, and how they came up with the then-novel idea of using television to try to bridge some of those gaps. The experiment worked. Sesame Street, in particular, became the most-awarded, most-researched children’s television show of all times. Now seen in more than 120 countries, this show has been on the air for more than fifty years. Thousands of studies have demonstrated its efficacy in teaching children letter recognition and numeracy skills, as well as providing them with social-emotional competencies. The book is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the ways in which television writers and producers, puppeteers, actors, and other creative folks learned to work with academics who studied child development and the ways children learn—not always an easy partnership—to create these monumental children’s TV shows. Kamp’s writing is easy and breezy. The book is filled with great trivia (who knew that the S.S. Minnow of Gilligan’s Island was in fact a facetious nod to Newton Minow, of the oft-quoted infamous “TV is a vast wasteland” quote?) and wonderful anecdotes (the first time Joan Ganz Cooney laid eyes on Jim Henson she worried that he might be one of the Weatherman terrorists). Along the way, readers will learn a lot about the “golden age of children’s educational media” and see why, in fact, we can all so easily recall the lyrics to iconic songs like “C is for Cookie” or “It’s Not Easy Being Green” or “Rubber Ducky” whether we watched these shows ourselves as children or watched our children watching them. —Julie Dobrow, director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, senior lecturer, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development

The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning, by Long Litt Woon. When the man you’ve been happily married to for thirty years suddenly collapses one day at work and is pronounced dead, and you’re thrust into a dark, unfamiliar world where nothing makes sense or seems to matter at all, what do you do? If you’re Litt Woon Long, a social anthropologist and Malaysian-born Norwegian, you start picking mushrooms. This may seem like an odd choice, but as Long discovers, the art and science of foraging for edible mushrooms yields more than just tasty treats for the dinner table. It’s an entryway to a bizarre, gorgeous world where mushroom enthusiasts jealously guard secret foraging grounds and argue passionately about whether certain species are really too toxic to eat, where the slight variation in color or texture is sometimes the only difference between a treasure and a poison. When Long isn’t meticulously documenting the biological subtleties of the mushroom kingdom and the social hierarchies of the mushrooming community, she’s writing precisely and unflinchingly about grief and the many ways it can be experienced: as a numbing of the senses, a voluntary exile, a slow grind, a gray mush, a nightmare, a storm—and a path. Mushrooms guided Long down the twists and turns of that path, and they hold valuable lessons for all of us, she suggests. From the hallucinogenic Liberty Cap, or the Mushroom That Must Not Be Named, to the delicious true morel, considered the holy grail of edible fungi and often found in areas recently ravaged by fire, Long makes it clear that the darkest corners can hide the most colorful surprises—and that even in the most barren landscapes, life can begin again. —Monica Jimenez, senior content producer/editor, Office of Communications and Marketing

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell, and Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, by Amaryllis Fox. You don’t have to be an aficionado of the spy genre—I’m not—to appreciate these two books. The first is a biography of Virginia Hall, the trailblazing operative who worked with both the British and the Americans to sustain the French Resistance during World War II, and the other a memoir by a former agent who joined the CIA fresh out of graduate school in the wake of 9/11. What I would suggest is reading them in chronological order—the Hall book first—which, unfortunately, is not what I did. Fox’s story is thrilling and thought-provoking all on its own, but learning about the sexism and callous treatment by the postwar CIA toward Hall, one of its most remarkable pioneers, would have provided some good context. Even as so many stories of unconventional women overlooked by history have been resurrected, Virginia Hall remained the most amazing women no one had ever heard of. She was supposed to live the life of a Baltimore socialite. Instead, Hall knew that a different kind of life was what she needed—and nothing, not even losing her leg in a hunting mishap, was going to stop her. An expat in Europe when the war started, she ended up with the British SOE, an official, yet underground, organization that concentrated on undermining Nazi efforts in France. Clandestine organizing, cultivating sources, and, above all, taking great risks, proved to be her strong points, and she flourished in a way that she never would have in civilian life. Later, she joined the American OSS, predecessor of the CIA, where she armed and organized French resistance groups after D-Day. Her gender, and her disability—she used an ungainly wooden leg that she referred to as “Cuthbert”—did not seem to prevent OSS leaders from according her respect and responsibility. Not so once the OSS was replaced by what was to become today’s CIA, where Hall, like so many other women, was hampered by sexism and outright discrimination. There’s no way her exploits in France could not be an exciting tale to follow—after her cover is blown, for example, she barely escapes the grasp of the notorious Nazi Klaus Barbie, and walks across the Pyrenees, in winter, to Spain (remember, she had that wooden leg). The substance of her story overcomes the sometimes dense, data-laden prose. With this copiously well-researched biography now on the table, I’m hoping someone can retell her story, perhaps concentrating on the war years, with a bit more of the verve it deserves. The CIA that Amaryllis Fox enters in the early 2000s appears to have a more inclusive culture than the institution Hall left in 1960s, but knowing the path blazed by women like Hall makes Fox’s story even more meaningful. The two women share many similarities—what intrigued me the most was their respective motives for choosing the life they did. Both, obviously, were fearless, and seemed to need the charge of adrenaline that a life of espionage provided. Hall was driven primarily by fierce anti-fascism—not a hard sell in 1940. Fox lives in our more morally ambiguous world, and exploring her reasons for choosing the CIA as her vehicle for fighting terrorism is a compelling read, as are her reflections on marriage to a fellow operative and motherhood while living undercover. Of course, she has her share of close encounters with al-Qaeda operatives, shadowy arms dealers, and bomb-makers—sometimes while pregnant or toting a baby. —Helene Ragovin, senior content producer/editor, University Communications and Marketing