Faculty and staff recommend books to expand your horizons, wherever the summer takes you
June 28, 2010
Where do you expect to find yourself this summer? By the side of a pool, feet cooled by the water? Or on a bus rambling through a distant city? Maybe you just want a comfy chair in an air-conditioned room where you can beat the heat. Wherever you land, isn’t summer better when accompanied by a good book?
We think so. That’s why for the eighth consecutive year we’ve asked a group of faculty and staff to share their picks for the best books to get you through the season.
This year’s list includes murder mysteries, political page-turners and collections of verse by poets from Greece to Austin. Whether you’re trying to make sense of the financial crisis, plan your family’s meals or become more adept at putting pen to paper, you’ll find something to suit your tastes. And a wealth of good old-fashioned novels will transport you to new fictional worlds.
Read about our recommenders and then see what selections they offer for you to explore this summer. You’ll be cracking open a book–or powering up your reader–in no time.
Kate Brooks is the director of Liberal Arts Career Services and the author of “You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career” (2009). She writes a blog for Psychology Today called “Career Transitions.” When she’s not working or writing, you can find her playing guitar in the South Austin Bakery Jam, whose motto is, “We’re all good at something else.”
George Georgiou holds the Cockrell Family Regent’s Chair in Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering. His work focuses on the discovery and development of protein therapeutics, including their use in the treatment of cancer.
Austin Kleon is a writer, cartoonist and designer. He is the author of “Newspaper Blackout” (2010), a collection of poems made by redacting words from newspaper articles with a permanent marker. By day, he’s a Web designer for the School of Law.
Deborah Paredez is an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance and associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies. She is the author of the poetry volume, “This Side of Skin” (2002) and the scholarly book, “Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory” (2009).
Geoffrey Tumlin is the assistant director of the Center for Ethical Leadership in the LBJ School of Public Affairs. His writing has appeared in the International Leadership Journal, the Encyclopedia of Leadership, Discourse Studies and the Austin American-Statesman. He buys books faster than his wife can put up book shelves.
S. Craig Watkins teaches in the Department of Radio-Television-Film. He has written three books. His most recent, “The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means For Our Future” (2009), explores the social aspects of young people’s embrace of social, mobile and digital media.
My summer reading has always been a little odd—my high school friends just rolled their eyes when, after quickly consuming Irwin Shaw’s “Rich Man Poor Man” I spent the rest of the summer of 1970 reading the complete plays of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. So I’m afraid my list may reflect my continued eclectic tastes with good writing and interesting stories the only unifying thread.
I was in London in June 1968, so my knowledge of Kennedy’s death came from the tabloid vendors, calling out the latest edition’s tragic headline. Later on, I became acquainted with Kingston Trio folksinger John Stewart and heard his stories and songs about his time on the Kennedy campaign. This book movingly fills in the details about a pivotal time in history, leaving me wondering, “what if …?”
2. “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America” by Erik Larson (2003)
What is summer without a mystery? And what a mystery this is: obsession, murder and the Chicago World’s Fair. Larson has E.L. Doctorow’s gift for mesmerizingly weaving truth, history, story and characters.
3. “The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings” by Jan Harold Brunvand (1989)
I grew up on the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa., in a house that was a station in the Underground Railroad, and I was always captivated by the ghost stories, myths and legends shrouding the area. Brunvand is my favorite writer in the folklore genre. If anyone can recommend Texan and Mexican folklorists, please e-mail me.
4. “Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life” by Phillip Simmons (2003)
“Wanting human suffering to fit some divine plan is like wanting to fly an airplane over tornado wreckage and see that it spells out song lyrics or a cure for acne.” Simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, this book follows a college professor’s journey through Lou Gehrig’s disease. Sometimes the smallest moments are the most profound.
5. “New and Selected Poems: Volume One” by Mary Oliver (2005)
More Robert Frost than T.S. Eliot, Oliver’s poems are at once accessible and profound. My favorites include “Wild Geese” and “The Journey.” Her insights can take your breath away.
6. “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving (1989)
John Irving hit the ball out of the park with this book about life, friendship and armadillos. Anyone whose favorite book is “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is automatically a friend of mine.
7. “Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man” by Fannie Flagg (2005)
Now THIS is great beach reading: a hilarious story, beautifully drawn characters and wonderfully entertaining. Flagg is high on my list of great female Southern writers, including Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Katharine Anne Porter, Harper Lee and Dorothy Allison.
I don’t get to read as often as I’d like, but when I do, I tend to dive headlong into a book. Therefore, the books on my list are works I found super engaging and hard to put down. They also offer subtle writing styles and some sort of commentary that peers into emotions or cultural issues you don’t encounter all the time.
I read this book and another from Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy in just two days over winter break; they’re that good. This is a murder mystery that has a completely different perspective from any thriller you’ve ever read and plenty of social commentary as well. More books should have female characters like the tough and brilliant Lisbeth Salander.
2. “South of the Border, West of the Sun” by Haruki Murakami (1999)
I think of this as a Harlequin for men: a romantic story a man can love. A business owner living in Tokyo sees a woman he was in love with when they were both young and the story unfolds from there. Murakami is one of Japan’s most popular novelists, and this book is wonderful.
3. “Saturday” by Ian McEwan (2005)
This is a simple story told in an extremely lively and engaging manner. McEwan relates one day in the life of a London neurosurgeon whose interior monologue guides the reader from the predictable to the unexpected: a war protest, car accident and a dangerous confrontation. I was drawn to how carefully woven the story was and the self-awareness of the main character.
4. “When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession” by Irvin Yalom (1992)
Yalom, a psychotherapist, writes fascinating novels that take historical characters and fictionalize events around their lives. In this book he creates an encounter between the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and a Viennese doctor who is one of the founders of psychoanalysis. He introduces you to some of Nietzche’s concepts in an entertaining way. I also enjoyed Yalom’s “Lying on the Couch.”
5. “The Key” by Juni’churo Tanizaki (1956)
This very small book is a masterpiece, and although I read it many years ago, I’ve never forgotten it. A middle-aged man and his wife essentially destroy each other as they write in and then read each other’s diaries. Tanizaki deals with the dark side of human nature in this intense and very disturbing novel.
6. “C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems” by C.P. Cavafy (1992)
Growing up in Greece, I first read the great Greek poet Cavafy when I was 15 or 16, and I’ve returned to him throughout my life. His poems are fascinating, beautiful and something to be relished. Last year the head of my daughter’s school used Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka” in his end of the year letter to students and parents, with its wonderful opening lines, “When you set out on your journey to Ithaka, / pray that the road is long, / full of adventure, full of knowledge.”
The son of two teachers who now works on a college campus, I figure most of my life has been tied to the rhythm of the academic calendar. I’ve always felt summer to be an opportunity: maybe I can go away for three months, get a tan and some smarts and some good jokes, and come back in September, a more handsome, more intelligent and funnier human being. It never works out that way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort.
This is the book I give to people who say, “But, I can’t draw!” Emberley tells us if we can write the alphabet, we can make a world of pictures. Spend 15 minutes with this book for three months, and I guarantee you you’ll never shy away from a pen and paper again.
2. “What It Is” by Lynda Barry (2008)
This is the book I give to people who say, “But, I can’t write!” It’s part memoir, part collage art, part activity book. Based on Barry’s terrific “Writing The Unthinkable!” workshop, she not only spins a wonderful story in pictures and words about her journey as an artist, she provides you with all the tools and encouragement you need to dip into your memories and start to write.
3. “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
This is the book I give to people who think serious literature can’t be funny. It’s a World War II memoir/novel that includes time travel and flying saucers. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden, but it took him over 20 years to be able to write this book. If you’ve already been forced to read this in school, read it again and then read everything else Vonnegut wrote. You’ll feel smarter, and you’ll learn some jokes.
4. “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” by Carl Jung (1963)
This is my version of the big fat book you take to the beach. The famous psychologist started his memoir at the end of his life at the age of 81 and worked on it with his assistant until his death. He covers everything from his childhood to his dreams to his relationship with Freud to his struggle to somehow combine religion and science. Jung teaches us that to know ourselves we have to discover our own myths and know our dreams.
5. “I Remember” by Joe Brainard (1970)
This is a book to put on your nightstand and dip into a little bit every night before bed. In a collage of hundreds of sentences that start with the words “I remember,” Brainard recalls both his post-war Oklahoma childhood and his days as an artist in New York City. A magical thing happens in this book: while recalling specific details of his life, what Brainard really does is help us remember our own lives. “I remember Saturday night baths and Sunday morning comics.” I do, too.
I enjoy works that move creatively across genres or that bring a poetic sensibility to prose. The books I’ve gathered here also seem to share thematic explorations of memory and longing.
Clifton’s passing earlier this year marked a great loss to American poetry. She was a master of infusing everyday language with heart-rending lyricism and just the right touch of wryness. A favorite poem in this collection, “why some people be mad at me sometimes” exemplifies her signature lean style and irreverent wit: “they ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories / and I keep on remembering / mine.”
2. “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood (2000)
Atwood’s fiction and poetry invariably transport me, and this is my favorite novel of hers. Part historical novel, part science fiction fantasy, part family saga and above all, masterful storytelling. The novel, which is narrated by a woman recalling the life and death of her sister, leads readers to contemplate the very nature and precarious practice of storytelling and memory itself.
3. “Just Kids” by Patti Smith (2010)
A great summer vacation read. In this memoir, poet/performer/visual artist/rock icon Smith chronicles her early evolution as an artist and the creative synergy inspired by her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe from 1968-79. The book ultimately offers an elegy not only for Mapplethorpe but also for a period in New York City when emerging artists could more feasibly thrive and practice their craft.
4. “Native Guard” by Natasha Trethewey (2006)
Trethewey approaches poetry in the tradition of African American poets such as Rita Dove, Marilyn Nelson, A. Van Jordan and Tyehimba Jess, who use poetry–and its capacity to “write it slant”–to document and re-imagine American history. This volume interweaves Trethewey’s family story with the history of the Louisiana Native Guards, a black regiment called into service during the Civil War. What results is a moving testimony of the legacy of racial violence and the struggle to claim one’s place, as Trethewey writes, “in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.”
5. “I, Carmelita Tropicana: Performing Between Cultures” by Alina Troyano/Carmelita Tropicana (2000)
Carmelita Tropicana is the performance artist persona of Cuban American writer Troyano. This collection of Tropicana’s/Troyano’s performance scripts, essays, manifestos and a screenplay captures the broad range of her incisive and riotous reflections on Cuban American identity and memory, Latina lesbian desire and the colonial history of the Americas.
6. “The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco” by Joshua Gamson (2006)
A beautifully written biography of the late disco diva Sylvester, this work also chronicles the worlds of Los Angeles and San Francisco during the 1970s, the emergence and decline of disco, the rise of the AIDS epidemic and the everyday practices central to diva-making. I’ve taught this book a number of times–most recently in my graduate seminar on divas–and every time I re-read it I become more and more convinced that, as Gamson writes of Sylvester, “The sea parts for fabulous.”
7. “Burn Lake” by Carrie Fountain (2010)
This award-winning collection by an Austin-based poet and Michener Center for Writers graduate captures the vicissitudes of life in the American Southwest–from scenarios of Spanish conquest to more recent episodes of violence and progress. Her writing is at once accessible and unflinching. These poems attend to the meanings of our literal and figurative constructions of place: “A road is the crudest faith in things to come.”
Summer books should be fun to read, so my list contains fiction and nonfiction books that will entertain and, in some cases, inform. The common element in these books is that you can get lost in them, so be careful–once you start reading one of these books, it is very hard to stop. Happy summer reading.
Page for page, this small, short book packs in wisdom and insight about the human condition. Nerburn wrote this book to pass along some thoughtful advice to his son. With sections on love, death, work and money, Nerburn powerfully yet delicately explains what it means to be human and how to create a life.
2. “Last Night at the Lobster” by Stewart O’Nan (2007)
O’Nan writes a short novel here about a Red Lobster manager who is forced to close his restaurant and accept a reassignment to a nearby Olive Garden. You could teach an entire leadership course based on this 160-page novel. Note: This novel is rated PG-13.
3. “I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay” by John Lanchester (2010)
I have read a number of books in my attempt to figure out what the heck happened during the financial crisis that began in 2007. Lanchester’s book provides the best and most easily understandable single account–not too complex and yet not overly simplistic–of the causes of the financial crisis as well as a brief section on possible implications.
4. “The Gay Place” by Billy Lee Brammer (1961)
A classic set of three interrelated fiction stories describing Hill Country politics in the mid 1900s. The characters pull you in and the laughs pull you along. Any resemblance to politicians or professors in greater Austin area is purely coincidental.
5. “How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learned to Live Like Everyone Else” by Michael Gates Gill (2007)
The true story of how a laid-off corporate executive creates a completely different–and completely fulfilling–new life behind the counter of a Starbucks.
6. “The Pentagon: A History” by Steve Vogel (2007)
It defies logic that a book about the construction of a federal office building could read like a gripping fiction novel. And yet, Vogel’s book will pull you in and speed you along with the eccentric and compelling characters who raced against the clock to build the Pentagon.
7. “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” by Sloan Wilson (1955)
A classic fiction novel where you will quickly find yourself rooting for the main character and sincerely wishing that his life will somehow work itself out. Don’t let the title or the age of this book fool you–this book will grab you.
8. “The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring” by Richard Preston (2007)
A delightful nonfiction book about a motley crew of scientists, oddballs and tree lovers who attempt to locate and then climb the tallest redwood trees in the world. Each page entertains and catapults you to the high canopy.
9. “Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea” by Frank Delaney (2006)
Delaney’s book tells the story of a Danish ship captain, Kurt Carlsen, who wouldn’t abandon his sinking freighter after it was hit by two rogue waves and started coming apart at the seams in the winter of 1951. This book makes you feel like you are on the doomed ship with the brave captain and therefore is not recommended for reading while on a summer cruise.
S. Craig Watkins
Reading for me is pure pleasure, which is why it’s so frustrating that I do not get to read as wide a range of books as I would like. I spend most of my time reading books and research related to how our lives are evolving with technology–fascinating stuff. But I’m also interested in a wide range of topics that are reflected in the summer reading list I’ve crafted below.
There is a growing debate about what our adoption of new technologies is doing to our brains. Is technology re-wiring our brains? Is technology making us dumber, smarter or simply different? Strauch’s book reports on some of the latest findings about human behavior and the human brain. As we live longer the new discoveries about the brain will help us nurture and maybe even extend the capabilities of life’s most amazing machine.
2. “Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece” by Ashley Kahn (2000)
For many like me, who did not grow up with jazz as a popular genre of music, Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” released in 1959, was my gateway to discovering and appreciating America’s classical music. This album helped me get through graduate school at the University of Michigan and still warms me up whenever I hear it today. Kahn’s book is a behind-the-scenes look at what is still the best-selling jazz album of all time. When Davis’ sextet recorded the album there were virtually no rehearsals and just sketches of musical scales and melody lines. If you like music, history and a bygone era in American culture you will like this account of the creation of a true masterpiece.
3. “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama” by David Remnick (2010)
I’ve always enjoyed reading about U.S. presidents and I enjoy the work of Remnick. Those two things make Remnick’s new book a must read for me. A lot of books will be written about our 44th president but Remnick’s tendency for fine story telling, rich character development and keen sense of history should makes this one of the best among the first of several waves to come.
4. “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World” by David Maraniss (2008)
Summer sports are always a blast, so this year as the world celebrates the FIFA World Cup in South Africa we can look back to an earlier era that gave us the modern global sports landscape shaped by, among other things, charismatic athletes, international intrigue, corporate sponsorships, performance enhancing drugs and, of course, television. Pulitzer Prize winner Maraniss’ book is a splendid narrative that spans the 18 days in the summer of 1960 where the collision of sports, culture and politics gave us an early glimpse of the sports world we know today.
5. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” by Michael Pollan (2006)
A new generation of books offers insight into the seemingly innocuous world of food. No book has been more provocative than Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Just a casual trip to the grocery store reveals how BIG the business of food has become. Pollan’s advice is simple: if it’s a plant it’s generally good for you. If it comes in a box it’s generally not good for you. In my family summer usually means fun foods and outdoor eating. This book is as good a place as any to start developing a fancy for meals that are simple, natural, healthy and, yes, tasty.
6. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
This tale would make for a great novel if this story about science, life, death and the question, “who owns our body when we die?” was not true. In 1951 Lacks, a 30-year old poor mother of five, died of a virulent form of cancer. However, when doctors discovered that the potent cells from her tumor could live and thrive in labs all around the world, the foundation of modern science–genetic mapping, cloning, fertility and the discovery of how cancer works–was born. But Lacks’ family never knew any of this until decades later. This book is a story about medical triumph and ethical failure.
7. “Dog Days: Diary of A Wimpy Kid” (Book 4) by Jeff Kinney (2009)
Every summer reading list must have at least one guilty pleasure. Among my guilty pleasure reading is Kinney. Kids love this book and the series. My daughter read “Dog Days” when it was released in October 2009 and still picks it up eight months later. Kinney is a game designer so he has probably spent some time thinking about the psychological world of kids. His books are witty, occasionally whiny and skillfully told from the perspective of kids. Most important, the Diary series books are page turners for kids and in a world of iPod Touches, laptops, online games and anytime, anywhere entertainment that’s no small accomplishment.
CHECK OUT summer reading lists from previous years: