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Dive In!: Faculty and staff suggest cool books to keep you immersed all summer

The mercury is rising (and rising and rising), at least here in Texas. As any true reader knows, one of the best places to beat the heat is between the cool pages of a good book. For the third year running, we’ve assembled a group of enthusiastic bibliophiles from across the university to offer their picks of some stellar books to get you through summer.

Book jacket for Brown: The Last Discovery of America by Richard Rodriguez
Book jacket for The Power and the Glory: A Novel of Appalachia by Grace MacGowan Cooke
Book jacket for War Trash by Ha Jin
Book jacket for The Garden In the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films About Place by Scott MacDonald
Book jacket for Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid
Book jacket for Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

The books on this year’s list promise to take you places: indigenous Mexico, 19th century New York City, South Africa, Korea and bustling neighborhoods in the Middle East. You can belly up to the table for some fried chicken in the South, or take a dive into a dumpster in Manhattan.

And you’re sure to meet some memorable characters along the way. Where else can you be introduced to a founding father, Bob Dylan and World War II cryptologists all at once?

Read about our recommenders, and then check out their picks. There are love stories, adventure tales, mysteries and probing histories to make you feel like summer has loosened its grip, if only a little.

Gary Chapman is a faculty member at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and director of The 21st Century Project, a research and education program on science and technology policy with an emphasis on Internet, telecommunications and information policy.

Elizabeth Engelhardt is an assistant professor of American studies. While writing her book “The Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism, and Appalachian Literature,” she noticed the times food worked as a code in women’s letters, diaries, novels and short stories, leading her to examine the ways that food helps shape culture.

Chona Guiang performs research in high performance computing at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

José Limón is the Mody C. Boatright Regents Professor of American and English Literature and director of the Center for Mexican American Studies.

Ellen Spiro is an internationally recognized filmmaker and associate professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film. Her recent documentary, “Troop 1500,” has aired at film festivals across the world and will appear on PBS in March 2006.

Tom Zigal, chief speechwriter to President Larry R. Faulkner, is the author of four novels. His most recent, “The White League,” was published this year. Reviews called it “a taut thriller” and a “rich and satisfying brew.”

Printer-friendly book list.

Tom Zigal

About his list, Tom Zigal says, “Summertime, in my view, is no time to read the Russians or the French. Save them for winter.” His list is composed of books he’d recommend to his friends.

  1. “White Noise” by Don DeLillo (1985)
    One of the truly great, subversive, darkly funny novels of recent decades. Anyone who works at a university, or has driven by one, should read this brilliant book about fears, phobias and deceptions in a small college town, USA. Winner of the National Book Award in 1985.
  2. “The Dog of the South” by Charles Portis (1979)
    Portis’s novels are eccentric and laugh-aloud wonderful. Ray Midge’s wife runs off with her boyfriend, Ray’s Ford Torino, and his boyhood .410 shotgun. In the South, you don’t ever steal a man’s Ford Torino and .410 and expect him not to chase you from Little Rock down through Texas and into Mexico. The chase ends in Belize, where Ray Midge has an epiphany that Central America would be a better place if everyone read the biography of Lord Nelson.
  3. “I Don’t Know How She Does It” by Allison Pearson (2002)
    A funny, incisive novel with an appealing narrator who is the mother of two small children and the star of her London brokerage firm. Kate Reddy’s first person voice is zippy and hilariously entertaining, and you’ll learn more about contemporary England than you would if you read a dry sociology textbook.
  4. “The Waterworks” by E. L. Doctorow (1994)
    A page-turning gothic thriller set in 19th century New York City, written by one of the country’s most brilliant stylists. An aging newspaperman sets out to discover what happened to a missing colleague and uncovers ghoulish scientific experiments, Boss Tweed politics, and Dickensian ills and abuses of every sort.
  5. “Moth Smoke” by Mohsin Hamid (2001)
    An elegant and sensuous first novel about contemporary Pakistan. A young man living on the fringes of the Lahore elite begins a spiral into drugs and a dangerous affair with the wife of his politically powerful best friend. The story reveals much about Pakistan’s uneasy dance between secularism and state religion, social stability and despotic power, and the quest for international respect amid the nuclear arms race.
  6. “Last Mountain Dancer” by Chuck Kinder (2004)
    An unruly romp through that mysterious land known as West Virginia, where “legendary mountain dancers, moonshiners, stupendous marijuana farmers, snakehandlers, blood-feudists, mystery midgets, mothmen and horny space aliens…drop into my home state as regular as clock-work….” Kinder’s voice is unique in American letters: simultaneously poetic, heartbreaking and gonzo hilarious.
  7. “Chronicles, Vol. 1” by Bob Dylan (2004)
    Forget that grumpy old guy you see scowling into the camera with his pencil-thin mustache a-twitching. This is the Dylan we all want to know and love. Young, innocent, yearning, funny, brilliant, romantic, enormously curious. He recounts his working-class upbringing in Hibbing, Minn., and how he made his way to Greenwich Village in the late ’50s, a country boy who became a legend.


People wouldn't take what Martin Pemberton said as literal truth, he was much too melodramatic or too tortured to speak plainly. Women were attracted to him for this--they imagined him as something of a poet, though he was if anything a critic, a critic of his life and times. E.L. Doctorow, The Waterworks


Book jacket for The Waterworks by E. L. Doctorow


Elizabeth Engelhardt

Elizabeth Engelhardt is such a devoted reader that as a child in North Carolina she was exempted one summer from the children’s reading contest—she’d read too many books! Her list takes readers back to the South, revolving around Southern foods and Southern cultures. Studying food, she says, tells us about race, class, gender and, ultimately, homes.

Just about every American I have ever met has some kind of Jello-O 'story' to tell, but two anecdotes in particular start me thinking about Jello-O and resistance: one that is personal and one from the news. Kathleen LeBesco, Cooking Lessons, ed. by Sherrie A. Inness


Book jacket for Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food edited by Sherrie A. Inness

  1. “Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History” by John Egerton (1993)
    After spending most of his career writing about race, class and region, Egerton turned to how food reveals Southern stories, positive and negative. In the process, he wrote a classic book about food and culture. It’s a cookbook, oral history, travel literature and cultural study all at once—it helps me think, makes me hungry and feeds my wanderlust.
  2. “Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Guide to the South” by John T. Edge (2002)
    Edge has recorded restaurant stories from around the South that explore foodways, families, communities small and large, memory and innovation. As a Southern reader, I find much that is familiar here, but also much that I did not know—because Edge is meticulous in his detail, always asking which South, for whom, and where.
  3. “Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food” edited by Sherrie A. Inness (2001)
    With articles on foods as diverse as fried chicken, bananas, biscuits, tortillas and Jell-O, this more scholarly anthology explores how our national and regional ideas of masculinity and femininity are played out in kitchens and on dinner tables.
  4. “The Power and the Glory: A Novel of Appalachia” by Grace MacGowan Cooke (2003)
    I helped bring this book back into print, and it remains one of my favorite page-turners. The story of a mountain girl who must come down to the city to work in a textile mill, Cooke’s 1910 novel has everything from romance, to car chases, to wandering chiropractors.
  5. “Prodigal Summer” by Barbara Kingsolver (2001)
    The perfect book to read in an old chair on a front porch. Kingsolver’s story of three women in a rural mountain community is at turns controversial, lyrical and fulfilling. Ultimately, food unites not only the women with each other but also the human and nonhuman world.

Ellen Spiro

In her 1996 documentary “Roam Sweet Roam,” Ellen Spiro and her dog Sam follow a group of adventurous senior citizens who have retired on the road. It’s not surprising, then, that this one-time full-time Airstream dweller offers a list of books that deal with travel and place. See where they take you.

  1. “Astro Turf: The Private Life Of Rocket Science” by M.G. Lord (2005)
    In this multi-faceted book, Lord delves into the history of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory through a personal narrative that details both family relationships and a microscopic cultural history. She captures the heyday of robotic space exploration by uncovering the sub-culture in which her rocket scientist father immersed himself while her mother was dying of cancer.
  2. “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
    A heartbreaking story and a vivid window into a culture few Americans understand. Against a historical backdrop of 30 years in Afghanistan, Hosseini blends a deeply personal story with a tragic history of oppression and destruction. Colorful depictions of everyday life in Kabul are woven into the young narrator’s story.
  3. “Assassination Vacation” by Sarah Vowell (2005)
    I became a fan of Vowell hearing her on NPR’s “This American Life.” Her sardonic humor and intelligence permeate all her commentaries. Her newest book is a particularly fun romp through American history via an unusual tourist itinerary—the sites of famous presidential assassinations.
  4. “You Are Here: Personal Geographies And Other Maps Of The Imagination” by Katharine Harmon (2003)
    As someone who loves to stare at maps almost as much as traveling, I found this book to be a gift. The maps in this book will not help you get to any actual destinations. There are maps of the body, DNA, time, moods and popular culture. These maps of the imagination are more vast and varied, whimsical and inspiring, than any map of a particular location.
  5. “The Garden In the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films About Place” by Scott MacDonald (2001)
    MacDonald is one of the strongest and most passionate advocates for the appreciation and study of avant garde film. This book is a great resource for anyone interested in contemporary film that has constantly pushed the boundaries and inspired many established Hollywood directors with radical artistic leaps away from the mainstream.
  6. “On Photography” by Susan Sontag (1977)
    I read Sontag before I ever made a film. Her brilliant analysis inspired me to dig deeper as an artist and to see my work in the context of an incredibly influential history of photography. When Sontag died this past year, I revisited “On Photography” and came away with an even greater appreciation of her sensibility and her way of examining the world through the media we use to depict it.
  7. “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side Of Everything” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2005)
    Just when you think you have figured it all out, it’s refreshing to read something that asks questions about a range of contemporary ideas and uses an effective economic model to answer them. This book deals with relevant issues and analyzes them in ways that turn expected notions upside-down—from crime and abortion to naming trends in society.
  8. “Mongo: Adventures In Trash” by Ted Botha (2004)
    OK, I confess, I am a trashophile. In Austin trash hunting is certainly not as respectable as it is in Manhattan, where I lived for 12 years. When I heard someone came out with a book on the subject, I had to read it. “Mongo” is filled with hilarious stories of the author’s encounters with fellow dumpster-divers and his analysis of this unconventional sub-culture.
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner


Book jacket for The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini


José Limón

José Limón says the books on his list “taught me more about the most singular cross-cultural phenomenon affecting the United States, what Richard Rodriguez, one of my chosen authors, describes as the Latinization of the United States but also the Americanization of Latinos such that a new America is emerging.”

Here's a piece of advice for you: If a guy named Jerry Fuentes comes knocking at your front door trying to sell you something, tell him you’re not interested and then lock the door. Oscar Casares, Jerry Fuentes from Brownsville


Book jacket for Brownsville by Oscar Casares

  1. “Brownsville” by Oscar Casares (2003)
    Casares, who hangs his professional hat in our English Department, explores the lives of seemingly rather ordinary Mexican Americans (and an occasional Anglo) in south Texas, people who turn extraordinary in the meticulous, well crafted prose of this gifted young writer.
  2. “Remembering the Alamo: Memory, Modernity and the Master Symbol” by Richard Flores (2002)
    Flores, associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts, reminds us that throughout most of the 19th century, no one really cared much about the Alamo, the site of that epic battle in 1836. How and why Texans and the nation began to remember the Alamo in the 20th century is the complicated and illuminating story that Flores has to tell, a story all Texans should know.
  3. “Brown: The Last Discovery of America” by Richard Rodriguez (2002)
    Rodriguez is one of our most perceptive public intellectuals and essayists who writes with grace and elegance. Here he explores the Latino condition in the United States through the metaphor but also the pungent reality of the color brown but sheds even more light on what it might mean to be an American today.
  4. “The Book of Lamentations” by Rosario Castellanos (1996)
    A probing lyrical novel set in indigenous Mexico. A must read if you really want to get beyond “touristic” Mexico and go deeper into the most fundamental contradictions and tensions that plague that sad and tortured country, many of whose citizens are now among us.
  5. “On Heroes and Tombs” by Ernesto Sabato (1988)
    Ostensibly a conflicted love story, Sabato’s vivid imagination, keen intellect and marvelous prose make this novel a probing exploration of Argentina but also the Latin American and human condition.

Gary Chapman

Gary Chapman says his favorite recreational reading is a story that takes him to another place and time but also leaves him with some valuable knowledge about a topic he didn’t know much about before reading the book. He’s assembled a group of novels he promises will sweep you away but also expand your understanding of something important about the world.

  1. “The Baroque Cycle” (The trilogy of “Quicksilver,” “The Confusion” and “The System of the World”) by Neal Stephenson (2003-2005)
    This epic trilogy will fill up your summer—these three books total 2,612 pages—but you will be grateful. Stephenson is a novelist with the biggest ambitions and an imagination to match. “The Baroque Cycle” is a fictionalized history of the beginnings of computing, set in the late 17th century, and a rip-roaring adventure tale. Like pirate books of your youth wrapped around an amazing description of the dawn of science and rationality.
  2. “Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson (1999)
    Another tour de force by Stephenson, this time an ingenious weaving of two story lines, both about encryption, one set during World War II and the other in modern times. The earlier story is about the efforts of wartime cryptologists to crack the codes of the Axis enemies, while their descendants in the second story use digital encryption to set up their own currency.
  3. “War Trash” by Ha Jin (2004)
    Ha Jin is perhaps the greatest writer writing in English today, all the more amazing in that English is his second and only recently acquired language. Originally from China, he writes in a way that utterly transports you to another time and place. “War Trash” is a hypnotic and completely absorbing novel about a Chinese soldier in the Korean War who is captured and endures the brutal politics of prison camps.
  4. “Little Scarlet: An Easy Rawlins Mystery” by Walter Mosley (2004)
    The latest in the delightful and addictive series of books featuring the wonderful character Easy Rawlins, a good man in bad circumstances. A tense mystery set in the days just after the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965. Mosley perfectly captures the liveliness and the sadness of a poverty-stricken and simmering neighborhood of memorable characters.
  5. “Cloudsplitter” by Russell Banks (1998)
    A thunderbolt of a book, one of the great books of the 20th century. The fictionalized story of John Brown, the fanatic anti-slavery activist who launched an armed attack on Harper’s Ferry, Va., in 1859, as told by his son, Owen. A sweeping and cinematic novel by a masterful and poetic writer.
Let's set the existence-of-God issues aside for a later volume, and just stipulate that in some way, self-replicating organisms came into existence on this planet and immediately began trying to get rid of each other, either by spamming their environments with rough copies of themselves, or by more direct means which hardly need to be belabored. Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon


Book jacket for Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson


Chona Guiang

Chona Guiang’s training as a theoretical chemist has influenced her reading preferences, which lean toward books with a scientific or philosophical bent. She admits, however, that her taste can be eclectic. Her list proves that.

When funeral directors have taxed me--which they have, and not infrequently--with being beastly about them in my book, I can affirm in good conscience that there is hardly an unkind word about them. Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited


Book jacket for The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford

  1. “The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins (1986)
    “The Blind Watchmaker” is both a great explanatory text on evolution for the general public (as well as more advanced science students), and a reasoned refutation of intelligent design. Dawkins provides lucid, naturalistic explanations for evolution of complex features (e.g., the eye) without appealing to the idea of a designer.
  2. “The American Way of Death Revisited” by Jessica Mitford (1998, revised)
    An eminently readable and humorous expose of the funeral industry and how it exploits people at their most vulnerable. It is a testament to Mitford’s witty writing style that the chapters dealing with grotesqueries like embalming and funeral trade shows lose their macabre edge and instead illuminate the predatory tactics, questionable tastes and excesses of the mostly overlooked death industry.
  3. “Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine (1795)
    Paine’s work provides a thorough analysis of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, and outlines his arguments against biblical inerrancy and the benevolence of the biblical deity. Believers and nonbelievers alike should read Paine’s thought-provoking arguments, if only to gain insight on the 18th century perspective on the Bible from a founding father and staunch deist.
  4. “Collected Fictions” by Jorge Luis Borges (1998)
    These stories represent all of Borges’ fictional writings and touch on themes such as the nature of infinity, time, dreams, memory and reality. Borges is known for the richly textured, dreamlike quality of the alternate universes he creates, and the integration of metaphysics into his fantasy and detective fiction.
  5. “Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht (1938)
    A compelling character study of a troubled genius and his conflict with, and eventual capitulation to, the Catholic Church. Galileo’s rumination on the nature of science is informed by his personal experiences: “Science trades in knowledge, which is the product of doubt. And this new art of doubt has enchanted the public…. They snatched the telescopes out of our hands and had them trained on their tormentors.”
  6. “The Trial” by Franz Kafka (1925)
    “The Trial” recounts the experiences of a man arrested for an unspecified crime. In this book, Kafka captures the alienation, dread and anxiety of modern existence through the eyes of the protagonist.
  7. “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” by Athol Fugard (1972)
    Fugard’s play focuses on the South African law that restricts the travel and employment of black citizens 16 and older by requiring the use of individual identity passes. The lead character assumes the identity of a dead person to find employment, and his day-to-day struggles provide a glimpse into the plight of Africans during the apartheid era.

BY Vivé Griffith

PHOTO on banner graphic: Marsha Miller

BOOK cover images from BookPeople

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  Updated 2005 July 4
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