Chill between chapters
No matter the flavor — fiction, poetry, nonfiction — these cool book picks from university faculty, staff and students will appeal to the tastes of every reader
June 27, 2011
Summer is the season of leisure reading and this one is serving up a scorcher. Get the scoop on the latest, greatest and under-the-radar reads from our book-loving faculty, staff and student contributors.
Don’t get burned, get busy reading.
Even if you can’t physically get away this summer, these book suggestions conjure interesting escapes. Whether you want to go off the map, back in time or to an alternate present, you’ll find it here.
Mike Cramer is the first executive director of and a senior lecturer in the new Texas Program in Sports and Media in the College of Communication. The program was created to further the dialogue about sports and media in American society and culture. Prior to coming to the university, he was an associate professor at New York University, an investor in and president of the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars. He was involved in private equity for 25 years, buying and operating consumer products companies.
Carolina Ebeid is a fellow at the university’s Michener Center for Writers and is poetry editor for the Bat City Review. She has published her work in Gulf Coast, West Branch and Poetry, among other journals. She was a 2011 Keene Prize in Literature finalist for a collection of poetry.
Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research associate at the Jackson School of Geosciences’ Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy. She writes the science column for Bloomberg View, blogs at Wired Magazine and is author of “Unscientific America” and “The Science of Kissing.”
Avrel Seale is a speechwriter for University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers and previously was the longtime editor of the university’s alumni magazine The Alcalde. He has written six books, including “The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder” and “Dude: A Generation X Memoir,” and is working on two more — a humorous memoir on fatherhood and a book of Baha’i theology.
Shirley Thompson is associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and American studies and associate director of the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. Her first book, “Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans,” is a cultural history of free people of color in New Orleans in mid-19th century, and she is at work on a second manuscript on African American conceptions of property and ownership.
What would a summer reading list be without the University of Texas Press? The personal selections from five UT Press staff members — Andy Sieverman, Nancy Lavender Bryan, Karen Broyles, Laura Young Bost and Casey Kittrell — are sure to please. Founded in 1950, the press is an integral part of the Texas system of higher education, advancing knowledge through the publication of books and journals, and through electronic media. In addition to publishing the results of original research for scholars and students, the press publishes books of more general interest.
Summer has always meant serious book reading time for me. I enjoy reading primarily nonfiction although an occasional work of historical fiction finds its way into the rotation. Also, since I am in the sports business, sports books are always on my “to read” list. Summer reading also means quality not bulk. Tomes of several hundred pages are usually reserved for winter reading. I have selected as my recommendations a combination of all of my above interests. Hope you enjoy as much as I did.
A just released, wonderful little book about the man who almost singlehandedly integrated American professional sports written by a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author. Everything you need to know about a towering figure in American history who formed a unique and transformative partnership with Jackie Robinson that changed America and arguably led to the election of a black president.
2. “Scottsboro” by Ellen Feldman (2008)
Historical fiction that examines a terrible incident in American history: the early 1930s trial of the Scottsboro Boys, nine poor black youths, for a crime that never occurred. One reviewer said the book is ” a pleasure to read even if the history makes you wince.” I couldn’t agree more. This book will be difficult to put down once started.
3. “Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg” by James McPherson (2003)
Another wonderful little book (140 pages) by the preeminent authority on the Civil War. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War and this compact volume is a great account of the battle at Gettysburg that marked the highpoint of the Confederacy. The book is also a great companion if you’re exploring the battlefield. Allow a couple days if you go (and you should!) and take this book with you.
4. “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy” by W.P. Kinsella (1986)
If one were looking for the definition of “summer reading,” this book would appear. By the author of “Shoeless Joe” (which became the movie “Field of Dreams” with Kevin Costner), this mystical, magical book is a great way to get lost in all that is summer (which, of course, includes baseball). Imagine the powerful Chicago Cubs in 1908 traveling to Iowa to play a team of all stars from the Iowa Baseball Confederacy in a game that became a titanic struggle lasting thousands of innings. Did it really happen?
5. “They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967” by David Maraniss (2003)
Simply, this is one of the most powerful, wrenching books I have ever read. Period. End of story. Anyone who wants to understand America in the late ‘60s, one of the most critical and turbulent times in American history, has to read this book. The Pulitzer-winning author has written many books that have received wide acclaim but this is by far his best work.
6. “October 1964” by David Halberstam (1994)
Great writer. Great book about a great year in major league baseball that marked the end of an era for the Yankees and the beginning of the modern era of major league baseball. But it is not just a baseball book. It is an important look at how baseball helped American society leave Jim Crow behind.
7. “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America” by Thurston Clarke (2008)
If this book seems familiar to any of you, it appeared on one of the contributors’ lists last year. But I couldn’t leave this off my list. This is a wonderful portrait of the remarkable campaign of Robert Kennedy for the 1968 presidential nomination before he was killed at the height of his political popularity. RFK’s campaign was my first (I was 16) and while I was inspired then, I was deeply moved by Clarke’s recounting of this truly one of a kind campaign and the transformation of the heart and mind of a career politician. With Maraniss’ and Halberstam’s books noted above, this is the third of what could be a powerful trilogy about America in the ‘60s.
8. “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” by Robert Caro (1975)
OK, I’m breaking my own rules. This is not just a tome, it’s a library all by itself. This is a monumental volume about political power. It won every award of consequence. Although its focus is on a man, Robert Moses, who never was elected to anything, it is THE work on amassing and using political power. Moses essentially built modern day greater New York City and the story of how he was able to do it without holding elected office is phenomenal. One of the best biographies ever written. And it serves as a good doorstop when you’re finished.
Getting its title from the book of Exodus, the poems in “Horse and Rider” describe a passage through the wilderness, at times recognizable as the mountainous Tennessee, or the Old West, or a biblical landscape, desolate and unforgiving. This book explores the love, fidelity and violence inherent in the relationship of (war) horse to rider, men to God, and all of it is rendered in dexterously musical verse, rich in alliteration and internal rhyme. The lines cut to the Anglo Saxon root of words, and beg us to sing something old, “of a tongue’s first poetry –– the gleaming shard / which broke from prose, from simple speech, // the jagged line which founded epic, identity, belief.” I’m in awe.
2. “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard (1993)
Many believe that a play should not be read in a book, only experienced in the darkened theater. Yet “Arcadia” is vibrant on the pages. Around one table, Stoppard brings together two different time periods, investigations into chaos theory, investigations into Byron’s poetry, 19th century landscaping, carnal knowledge and a tortoise, making a beautifully choreographed waltz of simultaneity. My husband and I were lucky enough to see this tragicomedy’s Broadway revival.
3. “Mule” by Shane McCrae (2010)
These poems tell the story of a marriage dissolving, of the relationship with an autistic son, and they call up questions of race and masculinity. Yet the book does not operate in a narrative mode. It instead evokes a vexed mind at prayer, which envelops the reader with an incantatory power. McCrae has shown me a way to approach the subject of my own son’s autism, and I’m ever grateful for that.
4. “Hope Against Hope: A Memoir” by Nadezhda Mandelstam (1970)
This is the first of a two-book memoir written by the wife of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, wherein she chronicles (in matter-of-fact, crystalline sentences) the last four years spent with her late husband. To anyone interested in reading about the literary intelligentsia within Stalin’s Russia in the years of the Great Purge — the corrosive paranoia, the arrests, exile, executions — this will prove to be an important and utterly engrossing book.
5. “Fall Higher” by Dean Young (2011)
Being Dean’s student — especially during this tense period of transitioning from the sick heart to the new heart — it is impossible to separate my love for the teacher and my love for the poems. But these needn’t be distinguished. Dean’s work — the affecting poems in “Fall Higher,” particularly — teach me to trust in the full poetic range of American English, which includes the vernacular, the puns, language of praise, of science and song. He wears the masks of comedy and tragedy at once, and we don’t recognize whether we are responding with weeping or with laughter.
6. “The Profile Makers” by Linda Bierds (1997)
Bierds takes as her poetic subject the numerous 19th century technologies designed to capture an image. She makes “profiles” rendered in verse of early photographers, such as Mathew Brady, artists such as de Silhouette, scientists such as Thomas Edison. With the central metaphor of the glass plate negative, Bierds creates a series of narrative poems (threaded throughout the book) about a Civil War family photographed by Brady. She forms a pattern of interconnections intricate with loss. An absolute marvel!
Carl Sagan’s public exploration of the cosmos captivated the world. Lucky for us, he was also a master storyteller and “Contact” is the perfect blend of science and fiction. Scientist Eleanor Arroway listens to radio telescopes as part of the Search of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Weaving together themes of science and faith, readers will be left wondering, “Are we alone?”
2. “Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo” by Vanessa Woods (2010)
Primate scientist Woods shares her experiences working to save great apes in Congo. Just as Jane Goodall documented the lives of chimpanzees, Woods brings readers into the world of bonobos, recounting the unusual, often humorous challenges that arise while working with a species that famously approaches sex as easily as humans do a handshake. She also exposes an unsettling, and at times, devastating side of Congo in a memorable story of perseverance, love and hope.
3. “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World” by Tracy Kidder (2003)
Dr. Paul Farmer is a specialist in infectious diseases, working tirelessly to cure the poorest patients of tuberculosis across the globe. In this gripping personal narrative, Tracy Kidder provides a thought-provoking account of traveling alongside the good doctor. This is the rare book that will inspire readers by demonstrating how one individual can make a tremendous difference in the lives of people all around the world.
4. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
Already an immortal bestseller, this book tells the true story of how cells unknowingly taken from a poor African American woman became one of the most important medical tools in history. This touching account converges ethics, race and science in a beautifully crafted, impossible to put down, first-person narrative.
5. “Bossypants” by Tina Fey (2011)
Everyone needs a light summer read and Fey’s new book fits the bill. Fey is at her best sharing thoughtful and funny anecdotes from her childhood through “30 Rock.” It’s a quick, breezy read that might just make you laugh out loud.
6. “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1969)
Every time I reread one of Vonnegut’s works, I find new insights hidden between the covers. Through a simple narrative and memorable characters, he’s able to convey deep truths about humanity. Vonnegut speaks to me like no other author and in “Slaughterhouse-Five” he’s at his best: time travel, aliens, war, peace, and of course, Kilgore Trout.
A lot of people associate reading — especially summer reading — with escape from reality. But if you’re like me, your favorite books are just the opposite: Instead of a window out into a fantastic or more exciting world, they are a window from our often frivolous daily life into a deeper, more profound reality. Whether in the sweep of history, philosophy, religion or nature, my favorite books all seem to deal with life’s big picture.
Orwell is best known for his fiction, but his essays give us fascinating insight into the various philosophies that informed his famous novels. In particular, his essay “Politics and the English Language” is a classic and was influential in helping me understand the moral imperative to be honest in my word choices and the stylistic imperative to be unpretentious in my diction. (That sounded pretentious, didn’t it?)
2. “Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights” by Thom Hartmann (2002)
Hartmann examines how one radical misinterpretation of the constitution by the Supreme Court in the 1870s led to a huge rise in the power of corporations, largely to the detriment of the common good. The decision that a corporation should enjoy the same legal rights as an individual human continues to shape American civilization in profound ways. Hartmann’s take on the American Revolution as a battle of the people against a multinational corporation — an indistinguishable mash-up of the British royal family and East India Company — is fascinating as well.
3. “The Journey of Man” by Spencer Wells (2002)
I’ve interviewed Wells, a Texas Ex, twice over the years for The Alcalde. He’s a National Geographic population geneticist who has circled the globe taking blood samples and has helped establish that all humans descended from a single man who lived about 60,000 years ago in east Africa. This is our story, folks. It’s written in our DNA, and while there are still a few interesting wrinkles left to be discovered, we no longer have to wonder where we came from.
4. “The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion” by Ken Wilber (1998)
More people than ever are rejecting the old worldview that pits science against religion. Ken Wilber is an “integral philosopher” who does an amazing job of synthesizing and reconciling the seen and unseen worlds in an easy, conversational style. This is one of the few books I have ever read in can’t-put-it-down mode. Wilber has influenced both my thinking and my writing.
5. “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa” by Adam Hochschild (1998)
This is an amazing retelling of the genocide in the Congo perpetrated by Belgium’s King Leopold between about 1885-1905, in which as many as 30 million people were basically worked to death in the rubber and ivory trade, with plenty of indiscriminate killing for good measure. It’s a sobering topic, of course, but is written with such skill that it is oddly a joy to read. The heroism in this story outweighs the depravity.
6. “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson (1998)
You wouldn’t think that a book about walking through the forest for 2,175 miles would be funny, but this is one of the funniest things I’ve read, maybe ever. Bryson is a masterly writer, and the book is full of interesting nuggets of history and ecology along the Appalachian Trail. He doesn’t romanticize anything about the hiking/camping experience, which is what makes it so funny. But at the same time, he inspires you to go and see for yourself. While other books on the list have inspired me to be a bigger thinker, the prolific Bryson inspires me to be a better writer.
7. “Baha’u’llah and the New Era” by J.E. Esslemont (1923)
In 2002, on a whim, I ordered this little paperback from Amazon.com for $5. It turned out to be, by orders of magnitude, the most important book I have ever read. It revolutionized my worldview and ultimately prompted me to embrace a new religion. Baha’u’llah is the 19th century Persian prophet who founded the Baha’i Faith. The new era is the modernity in which we all live. Esslemont, an early Scottish Baha’i, wrote it in the 1910s with the benefit of Baha’u’llah’s son and successor as an editor. Almost a century later, it still stands as the most effective introduction to the Baha’i Faith and reads like a “teacher’s edition,” providing satisfying answers to humanity’s most vexing problems, from ultranationalism to racial prejudice to religious fanaticism and poverty.
Rita Dove has a knack for bringing together the intimate and the historical in carefully rendered personae. Her newest book of poetry follows the real career of George Bridgetower, the son of an African prince and violin prodigy, a contemporary of Beethoven. It’s a provocative vantage point from which to consider issues of race, creative production and cultural value. Plus, the book itself is a beautiful object. Our program coordinator at the Warfield Center received it as a birthday gift last month, and when she opened the package I immediately coveted it.
2. “In an Antique Land” by Amitav Ghosh (1994)
OK, so I’ve actually been anxiously anticipating his novel, “Up In Smoke,” the second of his “Ibis” trilogy in which a British slave ship is refitted, during the middle decades of the 19th century, for service in the opium wars and for transportation of captive labor from India to Mauritius. With a cast as motley as anything you’d find in Melville, including a free man of color from Virginia who is passing for white, Ghosh, in language that manages to be both embellished and precise, makes us think seriously about the many afterlives of slavery. In the meantime (“Up in Smoke” is due out in September) I will (hardly) settle for his “In an Antique Land,” a history of an Indian slave in 12th century Egypt, an account of his travels in the Egypt of today, and a meditation on archival research, historical memory and literary imagination.
3. “Faulkner, Mississippi” by Édouard Glissant (2000)
When he passed away last February, the Martiniquan poet, scholar and essayist Édouard Glissant was one of the Caribbean’s leading literary figures. He spent his career exploring the intersecting and creolized cultural and linguistic practices marking identity in the Americas. I like to imagine him in Oxford, Miss. — on sabbatical at Ole Miss — touring the grounds of Faulkner’s Rowan Oak. I have been dipping in and out of this book for the past 10 years or so, raiding it for theoretical insights, but this combination travelogue, literary criticism, prose poem begs to be read slowly and savored.
4. “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” by Manning Marable (2011)
Manning Marable’s long-awaited biography of Malcolm X has made a splash of controversy with its new perspectives on the iconic leader’s intimate relationships and the circumstances of his assassination. Marable, who died only days before the book’s release date in early April, was one of the most preeminent historians of the African American experience. I am eager to learn something new about Malcolm X, but I am also eager to discover how a seasoned scholar, after years of painstaking effort, made sense of contradictory shards of evidence to reconstruct the narrative of a legendary life, one that has been the continual subject of our popular imagination and revision.
5. “The Tiger’s Wife” by Téa Obrecht (2011)
Every now and then I like to read a novel set in a time and place that I know absolutely nothing about and that is wholly unrelated to my scholarship. I’ve been intrigued by this novel ever since I read the review. Set in the Balkans, it tells the story of a young doctor and her late grandfather, also a doctor but, more important, a storyteller. I anticipate a novel where the real and the fabulous intersect in surprising ways.
6. “Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America” by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (2011)
My grandfather pastored a church in central Harlem for more than 30 years, and, though I have never lived there, as a child I was filled with Harlem dreams which continue to haunt my creative mind. I’m not alone in this. For most of the 20th century Harlem has been a literal and mythological crossroads of the African diaspora. Charting her move to this iconic space of Black desire and longing in the midst of rapid gentrification, Rhodes-Pitts, a young Texan with a degree in African-American studies from Harvard, takes us on her personal journey through Harlem’s storied past, precarious present and a future that continues to hope against hope.
7. “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast” by Natasha Trethewey (2010)
At times, the flood that devastated New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina seems matched only by the flood of books about the tragic episode. In the midst of such an outpouring, Trethewey’s contribution to this literature is unique and timeless. Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry (for “Native Guard”), Trethewey, here in brilliant prose, uses the storm as a point of reference to survey the rocky terrain of development and devastation, memory and forgetting, race, class and uneven claims to belonging in her hometown of Gulfport, Miss. Her elusive search for home amid ruins and her rendering of strained intimacies and structural injustices are poignant and personal but never sentimental.
University of Texas Press Staff
This wonderful collection of stories deals with the commonplace (coming of age, motherhood, the family dynamic) turned upside down by uncommon events (early terminal illness, violent weather, murderous jealousy). Furman creates dramatic tension with ease and her descriptive prose completely engulfs the reader. The stories are interestingly connected and simultaneously contemplative and disturbing. Furman has been compared to Alice Munro and for good reason.
Andy Sieverman graduated from the university in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in photojournalism. He was co-owner of Custom Photo Labs from 1977-99 and is reprints manager at the University of Texas Press.
2. “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel” by Helen Simonson (2010)
This popular debut novel is a charmer that offers unexpected insights into both the human heart and the tensions that arise when tradition meets modernity in Britain’s multicultural society. Major Pettigrew, a lonely widower, is the very embodiment of proper English respectability. Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper’s widow, chafes against the restrictions her culture sets around women. She dares to reach beyond those boundaries to find happiness. Will the Major risk the disapproval of his upper-class friends to meet her half way?
Nancy Lavender Bryan is assistant marketing manager at the University of Texas Press, where she is managing editor of the seasonal catalog and also handles reprints. She holds a master’s degree in English from the university.
3. “The City and the City” by China Miéville (2009)
Miéville usually writes intricate, surreal, politically conscious fantasy novels, so it’s no surprise that his take on the crime genre is a creative one. In this alternate present, two cities occupy the same physical space. A complex set of rules and social pressures maintain the delicate boundary between them. A murder is committed that involves people and politics from both sides, and possibly other hidden forces. Such a concept could get a bit hokey and overly clever, but Miéville makes it work brilliantly, both in service to the story and as a metaphor for the things we “unsee” in our own lives. It’s absorbing and suspenseful, but thought provoking and a little challenging as well.
As a production coordinator in the Journals Division, Karen Broyles helps scholars communicate with each other. This comes naturally as an avid reader and the daughter of a university librarian.
4. “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)
This is the story of a world-class runner who joined the military during World War II. His plane ditched in the Pacific, and he and two other survivors spent more than six weeks in a small raft. One of the others died, and the two remaining men were captured by the Japanese. They then spent the remainder of the war in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps under horrendous conditions. The book concludes with his story of how difficult adjusting to life after the war was, and how, through faith, he finally came to peace with his experiences.
Laura Young Bost lived in Japan for six and a half years and was a history major in college, with an emphasis on military history.
5. “Far Tortuga” by Peter Matthiessen (1988)
Like the crew of the novel’s Lilias Eden, one of the last of the Cayman turtle fishing fleet, we in Texas enter hurricane season hoping for good weather but determined to face whatever blows our way. A cult novel, which Matthiessen himself has acknowledged as his favorite to write, “Far Tortuga” is almost incomparable. Its spare pages are utterly devoid of metaphor, with dialogue written in Cayman dialect. It ultimately delivers an uncompromising story of adventure on the Caribbean Sea.
Casey Kittrell is an associate editor at University of Texas Press. He lived in Grand Cayman from 1995-97.
Banner photo: Marsha Miller
Special thanks to Amy’s Ice Creams for providing the location and ice cream for the photo shoot.
Book cover images from BookPeople
CHECK OUT summer reading lists from previous years: