Monday, September 1, 2014

Books for the Dog Days

By Taylor McNeil

More summer reading recommendations from faculty and staff

When we published faculty and staff recommendations for good summer books in July, our readers wrote in with more of their favorites. Now, just in time for the final vacation days of August, here are more good reads.

The Checklist Manifesto coverThe Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande. I was intrigued by this book following my hip surgery and subsequent infection, which required a full second surgery and six weeks of IV antibiotics. Gawande, a surgeon who works primarily at Dana-Farber and Brigham and Women’s Hospital and writes regularly for The New Yorker, initially explored the causes of surgical infections and how they could be reduced (ergo, my interest in the book). The outcome was the discovery of how using checklists can make us all far more effective at what we do, be it complex surgery, commercial airline piloting, building construction, being the head chef at a four-star restaurant—and perhaps educating others.—Jack Fultz, lecturer in psychology, School of Arts and Sciences

The Cold Snap coverCold Snap: Bulgarian Stories, by Cynthia Morrison. The three stories and one novella in this book detail life in the small Bulgarian town of Old Mountain. Each story is written from a different person’s point of view; the main character of one story appears as a supporting character in another. As a result, the reader gets a unique perspective on day-to-day life in a distinctly different culture, seeing it through the eyes of a school boy, a young female teacher, a male mathematician just defending his thesis and an older woman who lost her husband, among others. The stories were inspired by the author’s experience teaching English in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria.—Meredith Knight, project coordinator, Department of Chemistry, School of Arts and Sciences

The Enduring Shore coverThe Enduring Shore, by Paul Schneider. Sure, I’m keen to learn more about the Cape I grew up on, but Paul Schneider tells a captivating tale of the present, recent past and geological history of a region that’s seen a great deal of change over the last 10,000 years. His ability to tell the story of the land, its native people and those who “discovered” it brings added depth to the vacation retreat an hour or so from Boston. Just as the author ponders a virtually untouched Cape Cod 500 years ago as he travels the area in a kayak, I, too have sometimes found myself with a vista free of human structures and imagined the wild and beautiful region that the area tribes knew for so long. The book is far from a dry historical record: it’s a story-rich read, a biography of a land and the people who have called it home for millennia.—Nathaniel Eberle, director of communications and public relations, Fletcher School

Hellhound on His Tail coverHellhound on His Trail, by Hampton Sides. I generally abhor book-reviewing clichés like “page turner” and “compulsively readable,” but there are no better terms to describe journalist Hampton Sides’ impressively researched account, published this spring, of James Earl Ray’s stalking and assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This book eschews speculations and theories about conspiracies for vivid, close-up views of Ray’s clandestine wanderings and of King’s inner circle, with cameo appearances by LBJ, J. Edgar Hoover and others. Sides wrote a superb history of the conquest of the American West called Blood and Thunder, published in 2006. His new book is a fresh look at events that still haunt America, and its narrative power will keep readers riveted.—Neil Miller, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences

The Journal coverThe Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861, edited by Damion Searls. I’d never been able to make it through Thoreau’s Walden, but when I came upon this book, it was a revelation: the man could really write. In his daily journal, he is lyrical on nature, sharp and pointed on his neighbors—and himself—and brings each day to life. He’s thoughtful, of course, but also lively and even humorous. Thoreau’s full Journal runs to some 7,000 pages; for this new abridged edition published by New York Review Books, it’s trimmed to a not-quite-slender 667 pages. As we read, the seasons and years roll along, and Thoreau’s insights into the ways of nature and man—his psychological insights sound surprisingly modern—are striking. Above all, we get a real sense for the rhythm of life in simpler times, and it makes me, at least, envious.—Taylor McNeil, editor, Tufts Journal

The Likeness coverThe Likeness, by Tana French. Faithful Place, Tana French’s newest book, has just hit shelves in hardcover, earning well-deserved accolades. But I’m partial to The Likeness, the second of her three marvelous thrillers, all of which are psychological portraits as much as murder mysteries. An undercover detective discovers a homicide victim who looks exactly like her and who was using one of her aliases. When the investigator goes undercover as her alternate self, living among the murdered woman’s grad school housemates who think their peer is alive, the lure of belonging to a powerfully bonded, rarefied clique becomes alluring—at the expense of solving the crime. Appealing for any reader of mystery, the themes here will ring especially true for all who have spent time in higher education settings.—David Valdes Greenwood, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences

A Person of Interest coverA Person of Interest, by Susan Choi. While ostensibly about the FBI investigation of a fatal bombing in a math professor’s office, this is just the platform for Choi’s exploration of one professor’s life and psychology. The novel reflects not only on the arc of academic life, from pettiness to greatness, but on universal issues of loneliness, self worth and how personal and professional lives are defined in small communities and in a modern society that values success and celebrity over sensitivity and substance. As Professor Lee nears retirement from an unremarkable scholarly career, he haunts the edges of campus life, virtually unnoticed and ignored. Ironically, his office is next to the rising star of the department’s new computer science division, Professor Hendley. When a bomb arrives by mail and goes off, Lee is suddenly thrust into the limelight as he continues to consider the small decisions, twists and turns that have defined his life. In this expertly written novel, Choi manages to evoke emotion and provoke questions about our own lives when set against today’s societal and psychological landscapes. Each of Lee’s mental meanderings, like the title, reverberates with multiple meaning: Lee is a person of interest on many levels for us all.—Gail Bambrick, senior marketing communications writer, Office of Publications

The Places in Between coverThe Places In Between, by Rory Stewart. If only read as a travel book, this is a fascinating read. Stewart sets off across Afghanistan on foot soon after the fall of the Taliban in 2002. He does this in winter in a country that has been wracked by conflict for years. He experiences hair-raising adventures, frightening encounters and extraordinary kindnesses and generosity along the way. But Stewart’s book is more than a travelogue. He speaks various Persian dialects and has a deep understanding of local customs and traditions that help him survive this dangerous journey. He sprinkles little insights about the country and people throughout the book and in the process gives the reader a deeper understanding of Afghanistan and a greater appreciation for the complex challenge the United States faces as it struggles to achieve its goals there.—Gilbert E. Metcalf, professor of economics, School of Arts and Sciences

When Skateboards Will Be Free coverWhen Skateboards Will be Free, by Said Sayrafiezadeh. With socialism a hot-button topic of our time, it seems like few of its critics actually know how to define it—or at least what it means in America. Turns out that’s true of its proponents as well, as is made clear in Said Sayrafiezadeh’s touchingly spare memoir of a socialist boyhood, When Skateboards Will be Free. The Iranian-Jewish child of Socialist Worker’s Party parents, Said learns of political movements in personal ways, such as when he is suddenly no longer allowed to eat grapes at home (the result of a United Farm Workers boycott), but he is allowed to steal them. The illogic of many of his parents’ stances is never lost on the boy who grows up to work for Martha Stewart, a universe with (as he notes) its own surreal obsessions. Deftly and with humor, this memoir offers a fresh, complicated, personal take on a subject often made rhetorical by all parties.—David Valdes Greenwood, lecturer in English, School of Arts and Sciences

Wolf Hall coverWolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Last year’s Man Booker Prize winner, this is simply the best book I have read in years. The story revisits the rather hackneyed venue of Henry the VIII’s court, but this time as seen through the eyes of one very fascinating character, Henry’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. The book is wonderfully written, full of history, politics, dark humor and suspense. It is worth the read for the portrayal of Anne Boleyn alone, but all the historical characters—Henry, Wolsey, Norfolk—came alive for me as never before. Best of all, there’s a sequel on the way.—Karen Lynch, loan accounting representative, Student Services Center

Posted August 09, 2010