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Good Reads, Winter 2014

This winter, find a warm chair and curl up with one of these books, recommended by our faculty.  

Sixteen professors from departments including art history, environmental studies, and mathematics contributed to our ninth edition of Good Reads. The books cover fascinating moments in history, such as the plans in the 1950s to develop a hydrogen bomb-powered spaceship, the creation of the Rockefeller Center, George Mallory’s ascent of Mount Everest, and the rise and fall of the Comanche. For fans of fiction, there are three mystery novels about Southern Europe and a tale of a young girl’s care of a precious 14th century document. Meanwhile, an environmental philosophy book “rescues the notion of sustainability from the traps of technological optimism and vapid buzzword.”


ackerman  Susan Ackerman ’80, the Preston H. Kelsey Professor of Religion

Snake Road by Sue Peebles

I spent the autumn in Edinburgh, Scotland, on the religion department foreign study program, and so I have been reading (among other things) Scottish fiction. I can particularly recommend Snake Road, although be warned, it’s bleak. It’s the story of how multiple generations of a Scottish family—and especially the family’s women—suffer from the heart-wrenching experiences of miscarriage and dementia during the dark and dank days of a Scottish winter. Still, the loving portrayal of the grandmother, as her mind goes further and further adrift, is as moving an account of senility as one could hope to read, and by the last pages, the novel has a happy ending—or at least as happy an ending as is possible for a bereft family in a barren time.


Kenneth Bauer, lecturer in Asia and Middle Eastern studies and the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis

In this carefully researched history, Davis sheds new light on a familiar subject—Mt. Everest. He shows how the exploration of Tibet and the Himalayas first rose out of imperial ambitions but later became a way for Mallory and his generation to rebuild their lives, which had been shattered by the horrors of World War I. In their pursuit of Everest, Mallory and his peers reclaimed, in part, a sense of purpose for themselves and their nation.


carroll Jane L. Carroll, senior lecturer in art history

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

As a continuing student of medieval manuscripts, I always am amazed by the stories embedded in their physical structure. We glean information by studying how dirt gets deposited, where a book falls open naturally, or notes placed in the margins. Geraldine Brooks has written a gripping fictionalized tale of a very real and precious document, the 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah. Our master storyteller is the young woman selected to clean this book—a Jewish text unusually filled with figural art. To view the images, you can click on the illustrations found at As she works to figure out each anomaly she comes across, a piece of the book’s history is revealed. We follow the volume through the Bosnian war, the Nazi occupation, the Jewish expulsion from Spain, etc., and each era provides its own story and set of characters whose lives impacted this Haggadah. We are introduced to people who risked their lives so that the manuscript could survive. In that commitment, we come to realize the power of the object as witness and the importance of material culture in embodying our history and in defining who we are.


coffey Mary K. Coffey, associate professor of art history

Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center by Daniel Okrent and Colossal: Engineering the Suez Canal, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, and Panama Canal by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby

Great Fortune is a deeply researched, but breezy narrative of the conception, planning, and building of Rockefeller Center during the depths of the Depression. Okrent has written a biography of this massive act of real estate speculation, filled with memorable characters and insight into the circles of money, power, and culture that brought about the creation of a mass-media empire in midtown Manhattan during the 1930s. If you have ever wondered about the censorship of Diego Rivera’s “Rockefeller mural,” Okrent provides a compelling argument for who made the decision and why the mural was destroyed.
In Colossal, Grigsby provides a surprisingly convincing and, at times, highly personal account of the connection between the Napoleonic Empire and the development of “colossal” engineering projects inspired by the scale of Egyptian monuments. She intertwines historically situated discussions of each engineering project with meditations on artistic media as well as the racial politics of empire and the expansion of Western capitalism. The book is beautifully illustrated, accessible to non-specialists, and dotted with poignant memories of the author’s childhood in Panama.


Donovan Aine Donovan, director, the Ethics Institute

Paris by Edward Rutherfurd and Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life by Natalie Dykstra

Paris is a blend of history and fiction in a comprehensive overview of one of the world’s most fascinating cities. Clover Adams is about a nearly forgotten figure from 19th-century American history, brought to life as a key element of the social and intellectual fiber of society.



gerzina Gretchen H. Gerzina , the Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography

Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart

I’d like to wholeheartedly recommend Andrea Stuart’s wonderful new book, which was featured on both NPR and given a stellar review in The New York Times  It tells the story of the history of Barbados, through a richly researched and detailed lens of her own family history and the story of sugar and the wealth it brought to England. She begins with her white ancestor, who established a sugar plantation in the 1630s, and goes down the generations through his white—and later black—progeny. She writes beautifully, and I couldn’t put it down. (In the interest of full disclosure, I know the author, who lives in England.)


green  Ronald M. Green, the Eunice and Julian Cohen Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values

Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial by Richard J. Evans

While traveling recently, my most recent Kindle read was Lying About Hitler, a riveting, detailed account of Evans’ role as expert witness in the David Irving vs. Deborah Lipstadt libel trial in London in 2000. Evans asks and persuasively answers the questions, “Can we know, and how do we know, when a historian is telling the truth?” At issue is the reliability of all our judgments about the past and the lessons we draw from them for today. Evans documents the many ways that Irving falsified history and perverted a historian’s proper task. In the process, he reveals the intellectual laziness and folly of the many academic and journalistic critics of the Lipstadt trial across the political spectrum who saw it as a threat to “free speech and free and open discourse” about the Holocaust, forgetting that Irving was the plaintiff who brought suit to silence Penguin Books and Lipstadt. This book is must reading for anyone interested in the ethics of historiography.


henderson  Leslie P. Henderson, professor of physiology and neurobiology, the Geisel School of Medicine

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson and The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida, K.A. Yoshida, and David Mitchell

Cryptonomicon has parallel but interconnected stories from then (WW II) and now (well, “now” when he wrote it in the late 1990s), with intrigue and technology that will keep any Big Bang theory addict happy, and, according to my dad, who served on a sub in the Pacific, a dead-on accurate description of the war.
The Reason I Jump is short and simple, but an extraordinarily compelling primer on the mind of a young man with autism. For anyone with an interest in neuroscience, you can almost visualize the lack of synaptic pruning. For everyone, this book should dispel major misconceptions about the depth of emotion and ability to make social connections of people with disorders along the autism spectrum.


irwin Douglas Irwin, the John Sloan Dickey Third Century Professor in the Social Sciences

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk

Jeffrey Sachs is a world-famous economist known for his passionate advocacy on behalf of the world’s poor. In his book, The End of Poverty, and elsewhere he has argued for massive increases in foreign aid to alleviate poverty and foster economic development in Africa and elsewhere. He successfully persuaded governments, non-governmental organizations, and rich donors to pour millions of dollars into “Millennial Villages” in Africa to demonstrate what could happen if only the resources were made available to help end poverty now. The Idealist is a sober look at Sachs by journalist Nina Munk. She looks at what actually happened in the villages and how the best of intentions and a lot of money can fail to deliver what is promised. This powerful book is sure to change your outlook on foreign aid and its ability to improve conditions in developing countries.


kapuscinski Anne R. Kapuscinski, the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of Sustainability Science

Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living by Seth Shulman and others at the Union of Concerned Scientists and Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability by John R. Ehrenfeld and Andrew J. Hoffman

Cooler Smart is an engaging, accessible read on how to substantially lower your own carbon emissions while saving money and living a healthier lifestyle. Written by climate, energy, and agriculture scientists and science communicators, the guidance focuses on how to “sweat the right stuff” in making effective climate choices in your own transportation, energy use, eating, and other activities, as well as how you can be most effective in encouraging climate-smart actions in your community and politically. This book, unlike most things I’ve read about climate change, convinced me that Americans—individually and collectively—can achieve deep reductions in carbon emissions with less difficulty and greater reward than most people realize.
Flourishing rescues the notion of sustainability from the traps of technological optimism and vapid buzzword. John Ehrenfeld, a leader in industrial ecology, has drawn deeply on philosophy and psychology to make the case that rekindling genuine care for ourselves, other humans, and other life on earth is the key to transitioning our consumerist culture from pervasive unsustainable trends to sustainability. This candid and concise volume iterates between short essays and conversations between Ehrenfeld and his former student, Andrew Hoffman, who directs the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. I’ve assigned chapters from Ehrenfeld’s previous book (Sustainability by Design) in my course, “Environment and Society: Toward Sustainability?” and his ideas have resonated with many students. Now we have a book that more fully reveals the force and reasoning behind his liberal arts approach to sustainability.


loeb  Lorie Loeb, research professor in computer science, director of the digital arts minor

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath and Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Switch is an engaging and informative selection of stories and analysis, highlighting examples where individuals were able to bring about meaningful change. The authors discuss the importance of understanding the need for both emotional and rational motivations for change. The book was given to me as a gift, and I bought several copies for students in the Neukom Digital Arts Leadership and Innovation Lab to read. My students have also enjoyed reading it.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a beautifully written book that tells the story of Annawadi, a poor settlement situated near luxury hotels in Mumbai. It follows several people who search for ways to make their own fortunes. For example, Abdul, a teenager hoping to make get rich through recycling garbage, and Asha, who tries through political corruption and through her daughter who manages to go to college. Overall, the book is about the impact on the people in Annawadi who do not benefit from the rapid change and sudden wealth in Mumbai. It is an extraordinary and painful insight into the often-unseen results of our global economy.


murphy James Murphy, professor of government

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict
Icon and Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture by James Billington 

These are two bold and brilliant attempts to capture a whole culture in a single book. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is a post-war effort to understand the relation of Japanese culture to Japanese militarism. Benedict is famous for her analysis of the roles of shame and guilt in Japanese moral psychology. Her book inspired James Billington’s profound interpretation of Russian culture, Icon and Axe. Billington tries to understand the religious sources of Russia’s brilliant culture and autocratic politics. No doubt, Billington’s book is much more scholarly and ambitious than Benedict’s; and specialists complain that both books are prone to over-generalization. But for anyone who loves Japanese and Russian culture, these books are highly illuminating and a delight to read.


parati Graziella Parati, the Paul D. Paganucci Professor of Italian Language and Literature

The Combover by Adrián N. Bravi and Everyone in Their Place, Blood Curse, and I Will Have Vengeance by Maurizio De Giovanni

If you like subtle humor, you must read The Combover by Adrián N. Bravi, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon. The main character, Arduino Gherarducci, is a college professor. “One day, after an unpleasant incident in which a student rises from his seat and proceeds to embarrass him by disturbing his well sculpted combover mid-lecture, Gherarducci decides to up and leave everything and everyone behind for a bit of much needed solitude.” Adrian Bravi’s style is a wonderful combination of Gogol’s, Pirandello’s, and his own sense of humor.

I would like to recommend these Maurizio De Giovanni books to readers who have spent the last couple of years reading Scandinavian mystery novels. It is winter, it is cold, it is time to focus on mystery novels about southern Europe. De Giovanni is a Neapolitan author whose novels narrate Naples in the 1930s during fascism. I regularly teach fascisms and these novels have a well-developed background. The main character is Commissario Ricciardi, 30 years old and not a fascist.


rockmore  Daniel Rockmore, the William H. Neukom 1964 Distinguished Professor of Computational Science

Project Orion by George Dyson

This is the true story of a project undertaken in the late 1950s and early 1960s to develop a spaceship (as opposed to a rocket) for interplanetary travel powered by a few thousand “tiny” hydrogen bombs! By various metrics it was, and remains, a viable kind of technology and idea. The author is the son of the physicist Freeman Dyson, who was one of the principal researchers on the project. The book is full of funny and interesting anecdotes and takes one back to the days when “big science” was about reaching for the stars instead of your phone.


wohlforth  William Wohlforth, the Daniel Webster Professor of Government

The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell and The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power by Hugh White

The sheer bloody senselessness of World War I still sears the heart and boggles the mind a century later. The year 2014 will see the release of new works to mark the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak, but the lover of literature and history can do no better than to read or re-read Fussell’s Great War and Modern Memory. A decorated World War II combat vet and acclaimed cultural and literary historian, Fussell uses literature to measure the impact of war on a generation. In Fussell’s hands, poetry and fiction become more powerful explanatory tools than anything today’s clever manipulators of “big data” have come up with. Will the world’s great powers ever be so misguided as to fight each other again? A big part of the answer will be determined by how the United States and China manage China’s rise. In a short, sharp, and reasoned treatise, Australian diplomat Hugh White argues that Washington needs to accommodate China, back away from its shores, and lower the American profile in China’ neighborhood. In a word, appeasement—a strategy that got a bad name in the late 1930s but might have prevented war in 1914. Has its time come? Read The China Choice and decide for yourself.


wright Richard A. Wright, the Orvil Dryfoos Professor of Public Affairs

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed ’81 and Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne

As I teach a course on racial mixing in the United States, I am always on the lookout for good reads on this topic. Gordon-Reed’s richly detailed account of the profoundly intertwined lives of slaves and masters on Thomas Jefferson’s estate is required reading for anyone interested in race and power. S.C. Gwynne book concerns Cynthia Parker and her son Quanah. The former was captured by Comanches as a 9-year-old; the latter grew up to be the last, and very formidable, Indian leader in the Southwest in the late 1800s. Apart from what I had gleaned from Cormac McCarthy, I knew very little about this time and place until I read this book. Open the first page and start reading—you will not put this book down.


Good Reads Summer 2013 | Good Reads Winter 2012  |  Good Reads Summer 2012 Good Reads Winter 2011 | Good Reads Summer 2011  |   Good Reads Winter 2010  |  Good Reads Summer 2010   |   Good Reads Summer 2009  
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