The University of Texas at Austin- What Starts Here Changes the World
Services Navigation

Your Own Backyard Book Festival: Faculty and staff pick the best books to escape with this summer

Books, books, books. From the center of a university campus in a city known for having the highest book sales per capita in the country, it can sometimes seem like there’s nothing but books. Amid the bustle of the academic year, they are being toted, hastily scanned, researched, purchased, riddled with highlights, drafted, scribbled with marginalia, shelved, sold and, yes, read.

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat, front cover of book
Modern American Presidency by Lewis L. Gould, front cover of book
Atonement by Ian McEwan, front cover of book
House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, front cover of book
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, front cover of book
Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle, front cover of book

And then comes summer. Life slows down, and books can be simply savored.

We’ve assembled a panel of bibliophiles from across The University of Texas at Austin campus to guide you through your pleasure reading this summer. The lists they have compiled range from Harry Potter to Betsy Blair, a 19th century Tess to a new view of Khrushchev. They offer sprawling novels and detailed historic accounts, old favorites and new discoveries.

Read a little about our recommenders, and then read their books. You’re sure to find plenty to enjoy as you wile away the long days of summer.

Oscar Brockett’s “History of the Theatre” is used as a primary theater text from China to the U.S. A University Distinguished Teaching Professor, Brockett says, “to a theatre historian almost anything may be pertinent to an understanding of what is going on in theatre.”

Don Carleton is director of the Center for American History. In addition to publishing several award-winning books, he has acted as historical adviser to writers James Michener and Walter Cronkite.

Mia Carter is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor and an associate professor of English. Her list reflects her interests in 20th century history and British, postcolonial and ethnic studies, as well as her love of a gripping novel.

Amy Dolejs is an editor at the Charles A. Dana Center, a Ph.D. student in American studies and a true book buff with an eye for stories that “illuminate the present.”

Geoff Leavenworth, special assistant to the president and executive secretary to the Commission of 125, is also a writer whose first novel, “Isle of Misfortune,” was published this year to wide acclaim.

James Magnuson is the author of seven novels and numerous plays, and used to write for the television series “Sweet Justice” and “Knots Landing.” He directs the James A. Michener Center for Writers.

Victoria Rodríguez, vice provost and dean of graduate studies, offers a range of books from Latin America where, in many cases, it’s winter right now.

Mia Carter

Carter says forcing herself to stick to seven books was both difficult and fun. Reflecting on her list, she is struck by “the wisdom I have gained from these books and how it might be useful for others to glean.”

  1. “Everything Is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)
    A multifaceted gem of a novel (and a rather stunning authorial debut) that tells the story of a writer named Jonathan Safran Foer and his quest to find the woman who, during World War II, rescued his grandfather from the Nazis in the Ukraine.
  2. “Atonement” by Ian McEwan (2002)
    McEwan’s novel is about the power of writing and the imagination, family secrets, accidental and malicious crimes, class, war and ultimately, redemption. A real page-turner with characters the reader comes to know, richly and fully.
  3. “Days and Memory” by Charlotte Delbo (1990)
    Delbo, a French Resistance fighter and a Holocaust survivor, examines, quite eloquently, the wartime and post-war political traumas of the 20th century. The book is composed of a series of encounters and conversations with other survivors and witnesses. Their collective voices are haunting and instructive.
  4. “Paris to the Moon” by Adam Gopnik (2001)
    A terrifically wry and charming collection of The New Yorker regular’s essays about his family’s five-year stint in Paris, French and American cultural differences and connections.
  5. “Krik? Krak!” by Edwidge Danticat (1995)
    A collection of stories about life in Haiti and Haitian Americans’ connections to the U.S. and the island community to which they remain deeply linked. This early collection represents the young writer’s dazzling storytelling skills and compassionate understanding of justice, longing and loss.
  6. “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison (1952)
    A jazzy, modernist American classic about the dream of democracy and the messy, complicated labyrinth of race, identity and politics in the U.S.
  7. “The Birthday Boys” by Beryl Bainbridge (1991)
    An historical novel and an imaginative account of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed second expedition to the South Pole. Each chapter gives the reader a view of the expedition from the respective party member’s eyes. A fascinating, moving and complicated look at empire, national feeling and heroism.


Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer: 'It was March 18, 1791, when Trachim B's double-axle wagon either did or did not pin him against the bottom of the Brod River.'
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, front cover of book

Geoff Leavenworth

Leavenworth has been reading books written by friends lately. “Fortunately, living in Austin provides a rich selection of writing by people you might bump into in Central Market,” he says. Those same people may be reading his recent “Isle of Misfortune.”

Bel Canto, Ann Patchett: 'When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands.'
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, front cover of book
  1. “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett (2002)
    I read this novel on vacation in Mexico and it transported me to still another place, an unnamed South American country where a disorganized band of terrorists take hostage the multinational guests of a formal birthday party. The beautiful writing and fascinating characters draft the reader as an uninvited guest.
  2. “The Bullet Meant for Me” by Jan Reid (2002)
    I may have greater than average affinity for this true account of a terrifying shooting in Mexico and its aftermath, but I was riveted by its intelligent and insightful view of manhood, guns, boxing, friendship and healing.
  3. “The Last of the Honky-tonk Angels” by Marsha Moyer (2003)
    The second installment of the story of a young widow whose sexuality—and much more—is reawakened by a charming carpenter-country western singer in small town East Texas. Irresistibly smooth writing by an author who was a secretary in Welch Hall on campus until 2001.
  4. “Tortilla Curtain” by T.C. Boyle (1995)
    The life of a California suburban liberal environmentalist tragically collides with that of an illegal Mexican immigrant in ways that illuminate several national woes: immigration, poverty, suburban flight, materialism and the treatment of illegal aliens.
  5. “Chinatown and the Last Detail: Two Screenplays” by Robert Towne (1997)
    Anyone who can appreciate the power of storytelling stripped to its barest form will find Towne’s “Chinatown” screenplay intriguing and informative. Read the screenplay, rent the movie and be dazzled all over again.

Don Carleton

Carleton admits that his family teases him for bringing history books to the beach. He compiled an eclectic list in which “each book reflects a personal, and in most cases, a professional interest of mine.”

  1. “Khrushchev: The Man and His Era” by William Taubman (2003)
    Making judicious use of a wide variety of newly accessible sources, Taubman’s biography of Nikita Khrushchev is an engrossing read, especially for anyone old enough to remember some of the most frightening days of the Cold War.
  2. “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy” by Robert Dallek (2003)
    Suppress the natural tendency to think “Oh no, not another Kennedy book!” In his deeply researched book, Bob Dallek not only fills in a few of the blanks in JFK’s story, he also uncovers new information that significantly alters our understanding of the complex physical obstacles with which he struggled during his presidency.
  3. “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” by Andrew Solomon (2001)
    Solomon is a gifted writer who suffers from severe depression. In this well written and informative book, he paints a vivid picture of the effects of depression and its related disorders, not only on the individual, but also on society in general.
  4. “Sons of Mississippi” by Paul Hendrickson (2003)
    This is an unusual book that was inspired by the famous photograph of seven sheriffs (and one deputy sheriff) gathering at the University of Mississippi in 1962 to participate in the effort to keep James Meredith from enrolling. Hendrickson has written a thought-provoking and moving book about the extremely complex legacy of the civil rights movement.
  5. “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser (2002)
    Written by an award-winning journalist, this is a very critical, but judicious, examination of the fast food industry and its wide-ranging and profound impact on contemporary American life.
  6. “Five Days in London, May 1940” by John Lukacs (1999)
    This is a concisely written little book that examines the dramatic period May 24 until May 28, 1940, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his war cabinet debated their military and diplomatic options in the face of Nazi Germany’s imminent defeat of France.
  7. “The Modern American Presidency” by Lewis L. Gould (2003)
    In this deeply informed but accessible book, Lewis Gould, a distinguished professor emeritus of history at the university, sketches the historical development of the modern presidency. Among the many attractions is Gould’s well argued brief against the office as it now functions and his provocative suggestions about how to improve it.
  8. “This Just In: What I Couldn’t Tell You on TV” by Bob Schieffer (2003)
    Schieffer, a native Texan and longtime CBS news correspondent and anchor, has written an engaging memoir about his career in print and broadcast journalism. This book is chock full of interesting and sometimes humorous anecdotes about some of the most memorable events and people that have made the news during the last 40 years.
The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon: 'Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.'
The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, front cover of book

Amy Dolejs

Dolejs is such an avid reader that her Dana Center colleagues immediately look in her direction for reading recommendations. Her tastes are varied, though she says, “When I’m looking for something to read for fun, I tend toward mysteries or novels with historical settings.”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling: 'The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive.'
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, front cover of book
  1. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon (2000)
    Using pieces of real comic book history, which was heavily influenced by world events, especially in the 1930s through the 1960s, Chabon tells the story of comic book creators Joe Kavalier and Sam Klayman. Not to be too pretentious about it, but this book is really the story of America and Americans, and how we made it through some really awful times by telling stories about ourselves to each other. Also, it’s really funny.
  2. “Feed” by M.T. Anderson (2002)
    This is a young adult novel set in the United States of the future. The book’s title comes from the transmitters that are implanted into almost everyone’s brain at birth, allowing people to talk to each other, watch television, and see and hear advertisements. Very “1984”-ish. And as in that classic, this book’s language is almost a character in itself.
  3. “A Free Man of Color” by Barbara Hambly (1997)
    This is the first in Hambly’s series of Ben January mystery novels. The series is set in 1830s New Orleans, and the protagonist, Ben, is a free man of color, a surgeon and a musician. These books are plotted meticulously, but the best parts are the amazingly well-rounded characters and the astounding amount of atmospheric detail.
  4. “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813)
    I don’t care if you’ve read it before. Read it again, slowly, and savor it. This is one of the most hilarious books I have ever read.
  5. “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin (1965)
    This collection of short stories is heartbreakingly beautiful. My favorite in this collection—and my favorite short story, period—is “Sonny’s Blues.”
  6. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” by J.K. Rowling (2003)
    I couldn’t not recommend “Harry Potter.” This latest book forces Harry to grow up in ways that even the death of his parents and his own battles against Voldemort could not.

James Magnuson

As director of a center for creative writers, Magnuson is surrounded by good writing and keeps busy with the slew of books Michener Center graduates have published this year. The books below are recent ones he “went around pressing on people for weeks.”

  1. “Atonement” by Ian McEwan (2002)
    From a 13-year-old girl watching her older sister’s flirtation to the carnage of World War II and beyond, this is a novel that may restore our belief in surprise. An astonishing, cunning book.
  2. “Norwood” by Charles Portis (1994)
    This man is the funniest writer in America. Norwood, one of the world’s great innocents, gets on the bus in Ralph, Texas, setting off for New York to get his $70 back from one of his old Marine buddies.
  3. “The Story of Lucy Gault” by William Trevor (2002)
    A heartbreaking, unpredictable novel about a lost girl and her Irish parents who depart for Europe after her disappearance.
  4. “The Caprices” by Sabina Murray (2002)
    This year’s PEN-Faulkner winning collection of short stories is about the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II, told from a Filipino point of view. Sabina is a former fellow at the Michener Center for Writers.
  5. “Everything Is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)
    Accompanied by a Ukrainian translator equipped with seriously flawed English, a young man sets off in Eastern Europe to find the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
  6. “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy (1891)
    I know there are milkmaids in it, but give yourself a treat. Read a classic, just one, and you’ll feel a lot better about being in Texas in August.
Intramuros from The Caprices, Sabina Murray: 'Manila suffered during the war. How many times have I heard this? There are tales of the city weeping in the dead quiet...'
Intramuros from The Caprices by Sabina Murray, front cover of book

Oscar Brockett

Brockett maintains that while his list may seem disconnected, his choices are all ultimately related. “Cultural context is always one of the most important factors in trying to understand theatrical practices and values in any period,” he says.

The Memory of All That, Betsy Blair: 'I can't claim it was love at first sight--not even from my side.'
The Memory of All That by Betsy Blair, front cover of book
  1. “Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theatre in the Twentieth Century” by Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright (2001)
    A selective overview of significant theatrical productions in England and America during the past 100 years, written by Richard Eyre, artistic director of the Royal National Theatre for 10 years, and Nicholas Wright, first director of the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs and an associate director of the Royal National Theatre for 14 years.
  2. “The Memory of All That” by Betsy Blair (2003)
    Memoir by Betsy Blair, covering her career in the New York theatre during the 1930s and 1940s and then in Hollywood as an accomplished actress and wife of Gene Kelly. An articulate and perceptive view of her world, in which she was a part of a group that included, among others, Orson Welles, Leonard Bernstein, and Charlie Chaplin.
  3. “Curzon” by David Gilmour (2003)
    Biography of George Nathaniel, Viscount Curzon, who was viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905 and later foreign secretary in the British government. Not only is this a comprehensive overview of the life of one of the most important figures of the age, but also an excellent insight into the colonialist views of the British Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.
  4. “The Parthenon” by Mary Beard (2003)
    As the title suggests, a history of the building in Athens known as the Parthenon from its construction in the fifth century B.C. through its later incarnations as a Byzantine Cathedral, a mosque and ultimately as tourist attraction.
  5. “Turner” by James Hamilton (2003)
    A biography of J.M.W. Turner, perhaps England’s best known 19th century landscape painter. Turner comes in for much criticism as a person, being depicted as arrogant, greedy and neglectful of his family.
  6. “Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe” by Peter Spufford (2003)
    A study of how the economic world changed during the 13th century, when many of the characteristics of the modern business world began to take shape.

Victoria Rodríguez

Of her list, Rodríguez says, “All these books provide important insights into the life and cultures of Latin America through different points in history. The mix is most interesting, however, because you sometimes wish the facts presented in the scholarly books were fiction.”

  1. “Modern Latin America” by Thomas Skidmore and Peter H. Smith (2000)
    This popular book is a lively interpretive history that has been brought up to date in all areas in its most recent edition. The authors use an in-depth case study approach to guide readers through the major countries of Latin America.
  2. “Politics in Mexico: The Democratic Transformation” by Roderic Ai Camp (2002)
    This book follows the dramatic changes in the political landscape of Mexico since the election of Vicente Fox. It discusses the historical background and evolution of voter behavior responsible for sweeping Fox into office.
  3. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez (1970)
    Probably García Márquez’s finest and most famous work, this novel is a masterpiece of fiction. It tells the story of the rise and fall, birth and death of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendía family.
  4. “The Conquest of the Incas” by John Hemming (1973)
    Praised as one of the finest accounts of the annihilation of the Incan empire, this compelling, authoritative account removes the Incas from the realm of prehistory and legend and shows the reality of their struggle against the Spanish invasion.
  5. “The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende (1985)
    The magnificent epic of the Trueba family—their loves, their ambitions, their spiritual quests, their relations with one another and their participation in the history of their times, a history that becomes destiny and overtakes them all.
  6. “Engendering Democracy in Brazil” by Sonia Alvarez (1990)
    This book offers an engaging analysis of the potentialities for promoting social justice and transforming relations of inequality for women and men in Latin America and elsewhere in the Third World.
  7. “Twentieth Century Art of Latin America” by Jacqueline Barnitz (2001)
    Barnitz is a professor of Latin American art at The University of Texas at Austin. Her book covers well-known artists such as Frida Kahlo and Roberto Matta as well as less-known yet compelling artists. Published by the University of Texas Press.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: 'Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.'
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, front cover of book


Vivé Griffith

Photo on banner graphic: Marsha Miller

Book cover images from BookPeople

Related Stories:

Related Sites:

Office of Public Affairs
P O Box Z
Austin, Texas

(512) 471-3151
FAX (512) 471-5812

  Updated 2014 October 13
  Comments to