Thursday, January 18, 2018

Recommended Reading

By Taylor McNeil

Novels, histories and mysteries, memoirs, science and more

As we head into the heart of the summer vacation season, Tufts faculty and staff have books they recommend you add to your reading list. There’s certainly some beach reading, but mostly it’s food for thought. Take them along as paperbacks, hardcovers or e-books. Anyway you read, enjoy.

April 1865 book coverApril 1865, by Jay Winik. April of 1865 was an extraordinary month at the very end of the Civil War, and Winik captures it in this very compelling history. The fall of Richmond, Lee’s surrender to Grant, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth and the beginning of national reconciliation are all part of the story. I thought I knew a lot about American history, but there was a lot here that I didn’t know: Lee’s decision to not pursue a guerilla war once conventional defeat was certain; the scope of the conspiracy to decapitate the federal government. The closing days of war are especially meaningful historical moments, and there are some other excellent books set in these transition periods, notably Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 and David Stafford’s Endgame, 1945.—James Glaser, dean of undergraduate education, School of Arts and Sciences

book coverThe Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volumes I and II, by M.T. Anderson. This two-volume work of fiction is set in the Revolutionary era of American history. It’s rare that I’d recommend any movie or work of fiction set in the time period I study, but Anderson really gets a lot of the language, the background and the history just right—while still offering a riveting fictional account. The key to these books is to know nothing about them before you start reading, which will vastly enhance the enjoyment. So don’t read any reviews, or even the flap! Anderson is generally pigeonholed as a “young adult” author, but these books are probably geared towards an older crowd.—Benjamin Carp, assistant professor of history, School of Arts and Sciences

book coverBlink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell. Blink engagingly explores how unconscious and automatic thoughts shape daily life and the ways we respond to the world around us. It’s a good summer read, but it also touches on issues central to my academic interests in social psychology. Plus, it describes research conducted by one of my departmental colleagues here at Tufts, Nalini Ambady.—Sam Sommers, associate professor of psychology, School of Arts and Sciences

book coverBottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, by Peter Gleick. Gleick is a renowned water expert, scientist and MacArthur Foundation “genius” who explains how the bottled water industry has worked to make us fear tap water. Bottled water has become one of the most successful commercial products of the last century, with unprecedented impacts on our water supply. The Office of Sustainability’s summer book club [link:] will be reading the book, and learning how the choices we make about water affect our future and that of others in this country and around the world. We’ll meet two or three times over the summer to split the book up into more manageable chunks. When you sign up you’ll be asked to select which day of the week works best for you for a one-hour lunchtime meeting. If you work at another campus—no worries! We’ll delve into the wild world of video-conferencing.—Tina Woolston, project coordinator, Office of Sustainability
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Carry on, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham For young readers, I strongly recommend this classic, the winner of the 1956 Newbery Medal. At face value, this is a tremendously well-told biography of Nathaniel Bowditch. It makes a great tale of adversity and accomplishment, of the life of the mind and of adventure on the seas. But it is also tremendously well placed in a larger context and as such is a great read for local history, maritime history and Western cultural history. Nathaniel Bowditch of Salem, Mass., was an entirely self-taught genius who made navigation into a science and one that everyone could practice. Even for adults, the narrative in this book brings to life the drama that produced the need for such a revolution. The book is illustrated with wonderful drawings, including lovely cityscapes of Salem. Visiting Salem with the youngsters after they have read this book may be a quite refreshing experience; you might not get any questions about witches! Once there, you can make a sport of finding the graves of members of the Bowditch family. You won’t find his grave there, however. That is much closer to home: Nathaniel Bowditch is buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.—Boris Hasselblatt, professor of mathematics, School of Arts and Sciences

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, by Elizabeth Kolbert. I am very much enjoying this short book filled with engaging stories that simultaneously present evidence for climate change and highlight how these changes are affecting humans and other organisms around the globe. Both scientists and non-scientists will find this book appealing.—Colin Orians, professor of biology, School of Arts and Sciences

book coverThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. The story behind the creator of this book is almost as mysterious as the kind of thrillers he wrote. Larsson was the founder of a Swedish organization established to battle right-wing extremism. He worked on books in his spare time and presented a complete trilogy to a book publisher before dying of a heart attack at age 50. Because he had often received death threats due to his work, there have been rumors he did not die of natural causes. His death also set off a dispute involving his father and brother, on the one hand, and the woman who had been his partner for more than 30 years as to who would inherit his estate. I’ve read only the first of the three books, but can see why they are so popular. Heavily plotted, the book keeps you wanting to find the answers to the key question: how and why did 16-year-old Harriet Vanger disappear from a Swedish island some 40 years ago? But the book is richly sprinkled with other questions that keep you turning pages, not the least of which is about one of the main characters. Lisbeth Salander is an enigma, a tattooed young woman who trusts and confides in few people and who apparently had a troubled childhood. We only know a little more about her at the end than we did at the beginning, which is why I’m looking forward to the other two books in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. As to the real-life Stieg Larsson mystery, his partner lost the battle over his estate, but she may have the last word: Larsson left most of a fourth novel in their home computer.—Marjorie Howard, senior writer, Office of Publications

book coverThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Few people on the planet today have been untouched by the medical and scientific advances brought about with the aid of “HeLa cells,” the products of the first laboratory-cultured, ongoing human cell line. HeLa’s unwitting donor was a young African-American mother of five named Henrietta Lacks, who died of cancer in 1951. Henrietta’s cells contributed to the development of the polio vaccine; cancer treatments; IVF and cloning technology and the mapping of the human genome, among other things—and for decades, her family never knew. Skloot’s book restores the humanity of the woman behind HeLa. It’s a well-written and fascinating story of science, history, family, race, medical ethics and social justice.—Helene Ragovin, senior writer, Office of Publications

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave. I recently picked this up, and I’m really enjoying it so far, and would definitely recommend it. Cleave’s writing is just lovely, and the story is very engaging, centered on the intersection of the lives of two women from distinctly different backgrounds. A really good read.—Melanie Armstrong, program specialist, Tufts Programs Abroad, and master’s degree candidate in ethnomusicology

book coverThe Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse. I read several books a week, so most of the books I read come from libraries. Otherwise, I’d be broke, and even my cupboards would be full of books. I make an exception for a writer’s first book, however, and I buy close to its publication date. Recently, I bought two debut novels: Brando Skyhorse’s The Madonnas of Echo Park and Michelle Hoover’s The Quickening. I’m looking forward to being immersed in the world of these novels, which are set, respectively, in an immigrant community in Los Angeles in the 1980s and on neighboring family farms in the Midwest in the early 1900s. I read novels to be transported, to witness closely someone else’s life, and these feature characters that we don’t see very often in literature—Mexican Americans and farmers. Most of the reviews for these novels are positive so far, but I always like to find out for myself.—Grace Talusan, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences

book coverOne L, by Scott Turow. I read this book as my daughter just completed her first year of law school. It is a journal of Turow’s first year at law school, and was a best-seller when it came out in 1977. (Turow’s first novel, Presumed Innocent, was published a decade later.) It’s a good read, especially for our undergrads thinking of law school, or parents with children heading there.—Nancy Levy-Konesky, lecturer in Romance languages, School of Arts and Sciences

book coverOperation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre. In a plot worthy of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, in 1943 British intelligence devised a daring plan to fool the Nazis about the Allies’ impending invasion of Sicily. They took a dead man’s body from a London morgue—a homeless Welshman who died penniless in London—and created a fictional identity for him as a courier of supposed secret documents hinting that the invasion was to be Greece, not Italy, and dropped it off the coast of Axis-friendly Spain. The body was found, of course, and eventually the misinformation was relayed to Hitler himself. It’s a story that’s been told before, first by the Brit who led the effort, Ewan Montagu, and later in novels such as Neal Stephenson’s classic Cryptonomicon, but Macintyre includes many first-time details that Montagu had to leave out in his vetted version. We know from the start that Operation Mincemeat worked, but in Macintyre’s telling, it’s a gripping tale, a worthy follow-up to his World War II true-life spy story, Agent Zigzag (2007). And Fleming? He was on the original team that worked on the plan, proving yet again that real life is stranger than fiction.—Taylor McNeil, editor, Tufts Journal

book coverPraying for Gil Hodges: A Memoir of the 1955 World Series and One Family’s Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers, by Thomas Oliphant. This book is much more than a re-creation of the 1955 World Series game in which the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the New York Yankees for the first and only time. It is a bittersweet story of the love and admiration of a young boy for his financially struggling parents and how devotion to the underdog Dodgers strengthened their bonds with each other. Gil Hodges, a mild-mannered but powerful ball player from the Midwest, is the unlikely hero. The Dodgers win but then are moved to Los Angeles, and Ebbets Field is demolished. Hodges goes on to an All-Star career culminating in managing the Miracle Mets’ World Series victory in 1969, only to die at the age of 47 in 1972.—Vincent Manno, associate provost and professor of mechanical engineering

book coverReinventing Order in the Congo: How People Respond to State Failure in Kinshasa, edited by Theodore Trefon. I’m currently doing some not-so-light reading of this book, a collection of papers, lent to me by Louise Flynn, a colleague on the USAID RESPOND Project, to help increase my understanding of life in Kinshasa. Kinshasa is the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the location of the RESPOND West Congo Regional Office. Modern-day Kinshasa is similar to a number of mega-cities in resource-poor settings that have outstripped any apparent basis for their size and survival. The writings highlight what is special about Kinshasa, especially the way its citizens have come together to create systems that enable the city to function despite the general inability of its administration to provide social services and infrastructure. The resilience of the human spirit is front and center in the papers that counter the more stereotypical portrayal of Kinshasa as a “heart of darkness.” There are some statistics that will remain with me: with 6 to 7 million inhabitants, Kinshasa is the second largest city in sub-Saharan Africa after Lagos; it’s the second largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris; at least one in 10 Congolese live in Kinshasa; and possibly the most daunting of all, approximately 50 percent of Kinois eat only one meal a day and 25 percent eat only one meal every two days. If you’re thinking about visiting or working in the DRC, or have an interest in international development and urban sociology, then I highly commend this book.—Robyn Alders, associate professor of international veterinary medicine, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

book coverSelf-made Man: Human Evolution from Eden to Extinction, by Jonathan Kingdon. This is a wonderfully engaging and accessible book with the author’s own fine drawings of portraits of the human lineage across the ages of a vast prehistory. I find it well worth re-reading every few years because it is so packed full of detail. It is a fine book that makes for a solid foundation of our adaptation and survival as humans.—Astier Almedom, director, International Resilience Program, Institute for Global Leadership, and professor of the practice, Fletcher School.

The Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See. The Cummings School administration second-floor book club read this book last month about two sisters who escaped war-ravaged Shanghai, only to face discrimination and the threat of deportation in the United States. We’re now reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. Both books are page-turners and filled with intrigue.—Annette McCarthy, staff assistant in the Adventures in Veterinary Medicine program

book coverSixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French, by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow. In preparation for an extended trip to France this summer, I reread this delightful book. If you are planning a trip to France that goes beyond a hotel stay with CNN as the main fare, then this book is an entertaining and enlightening way of getting ready to appreciate the French and France. If you are not planning such a trip, this book might change your mind. The authors suggest that the traveler in France take the attitude of an anthropologist visiting natives in their native habitat and accept them on their own terms. It is a truism that traveling with an open mind helps us understand other worlds and in doing so, to understand ourselves more
deeply. This book can provide such understanding even to those who do not take the trip, and those traveling to France after reading it will be doing so with their eyes and minds wide open.—Boris Hasselblatt, professor of mathematics, School of Arts and Sciences

book coverStrength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder. I love reading Tracy Kidder—each of his books captures the dignity of his subjects and helps us understand and appreciate their world. I just finished Strength in What Remains, about a young man from Burundi who arrives almost penniless in New York after political upheaval that prevents him from continuing medical school. Kidder chronicles his life from homelessness to going to medical school and the people who helped him—as well as a few who didn’t. As a teacher, I also loved Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, in which he shows how a dedicated and effective fifth-grade teacher in Holyoke, Mass., inspired students. I recommend it for anyone who wants to go into teaching.—Todd Quinto, Robinson Professor of Mathematics, School of Arts and Sciences

book coverWith the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, by E.B. Sledge. I decided to re-read this classic memoir after an impromptu discussion of the miniseries The Pacific (the latest Spielbergian homage to the “Greatest Generation”) in my U.S. foreign relations class this spring. This extraordinary book might not be breezy beach reading or reassuring flag-waving, but it earnestly exposes the experience of modern war. Sledge, a World War II combat Marine, carries the reader through the grinding, brutal and strategically unnecessary campaign on the island of Peleliu and the nightmarish struggle on Okinawa. He is candid enough to admit how he was driven to physical and moral breaking points. It is not all darkness, though. Sledge shows how even in the worst situations, a thread of humanity endures in comradeship. For me the book is a sharply written window on the grim personal costs war inflicts on those compelled to fight and, perhaps more terribly, what it forces them to do.—David Ekbladh, assistant professor of history, School of Arts and Sciences

Do you have other summer reading suggestions? Send them to the editor at, and we’ll include them in the August issue of the Tufts Journal.

Posted July 14, 2010