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Good Reads, Summer 2013
If you’re looking for a good book as you enjoy the remainder of the summer, consider one of these recommendations by Dartmouth faculty members. Picks include A Farewell to Arms, suggested by Graziella Parati as the department of French and Italian anticipates the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I; Pineapple Culture, a story of migration and globalization recommended by Richard Kremer of the history department; and professor of geography Richard A. Wright’s choice of Netherland, a look at the lives of “a cricket-playing, street-wise immigrant dreamer” and a “Dutch-born apolitical equities analyst.”

John M. Carey

John M. Carey, the John Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences and chair of the government department

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

The stealth candidate for feel-good book of the decade has to be The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). It’s stealthy because, at 700 pages of text plus a couple hundred more of notes and citations, mainly to academic works, it won’t immediately strike most readers as a good time. Besides, Pinker doesn’t skimp on the gory details of medieval torture, religious persecution, the likelihood of death by mayhem in hunter-gatherer societies, and the implications of technological improvements in warfare on the integrity of your internal organs. If you aren’t feeling great yet, rest assured all this detail is in the service of a happy message: The likelihood that we in the 21st century will perish by violence is lower now than it has been at any point in human history, by a lot. And so is the likelihood that we will experience non-lethal violation of our bodies, our civil rights, our cultural sensibilities, or even dinner table etiquette (our own children excepted). Pinker takes great satisfaction in puncturing popular misconceptions about how the world has never been more dangerous fostered by TV news producers, interest group activists, NGO fundraisers, and chest-thumping political candidates. A lot of his work is done by the simple fact that as the world’s population grows, large-scale violence doesn’t necessarily translate into high per-capita vulnerability. But Pinker’s story is about much more than an increasing denominator. He draws from psychology, political science, anthropology and archaeology, demography, criminology, game theory, economics, history, religion, and literature. And he writes far more gracefully than most academics do. The book is a tour de force, and it’s hard to come away from it without the sense that, in at least one very important way, our present century is shaping up to be much better than those that preceded it. Not a lot of books I’ve read lately have that effect.

[Note: The Better Angels of Our Nature was recommended by Richard A. Wright, professor of geography, and William Wohlforth, professor of government, in previous versions of “Good Reads.”]

Aine Donovan

Aine Donovan, director of the Ethics Institute and faculty member at Tuck School of Business

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman and Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

The Light Between Oceans is a poignant and ethically interesting novel.
Wolfe, as usual, captures a point in time perfectly. This novel highlights the racial, economic, and social problems that currently plague Miami.

Bruce Duthu '80

N. Bruce Duthu ’80, the Samson Occom Professor of Native American Studies and chair of NAS

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King

This is King’s first work of nonfiction and it provides an accessible, insightful, and surprisingly humorous (re)telling of Native/non-Native relations in the United States and Canada.

Ronald M. Green 

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

The Last Lion, Volume III: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid

I’m sure that others have recommended William Manchester and Paul Reid’s The Last Lion, (Little, Brown and Co., 2012), but I will add my own name to the list of recommenders. This volume lacks some of the verve of the earlier volumes written by Manchester himself (and there are small errors in this text), but it is an engaging narrative of Churchill’s wartime and post-war leadership. I recently coauthored a book on leadership (Ronald M. Green and Al Gini, 10 Virtues of Outstanding Leaders, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), and I devote a chapter to Churchill’s insightful and courageous moral leadership during the month of May 1940. The Last Lion takes us further and amplifies our knowledge of one of history’s greatest leaders.

Leslie P. Henderson 

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

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson and The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro

Case Histories is an olio of great characters, good mystery, wonderful use of language, and effortless reading.
The Passage of Power is an amazing book. The level of accuracy and detail would make you think it would be as dry as dust. It is anything but. Johnson’s story is one that I doubt few of us fully appreciated at the time. Moreover, it is fascinating to realize that as much as many things with respect to our government and society have changed so substantially since the 1960s, so many others are exactly the same.

Irene Kacandes 

Irene Kacandes, the Dartmouth Professor of German and Comparative Literature

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes, Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi, and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Levels of Life is a new book by Julian Barnes, author of Flaubert’s Parrot and The Sense of an Ending. I’m interested in life writing (memoir) in general and I love the prose of Julian Barnes. He lost the love of his life, his wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, to cancer five years ago, and in this book ruminates about qualities of love and grief. I was intrigued by his decision to put his experience in relation to that of Fred Burnaby, an early English balloonist who developed a passion for Sarah Bernhardt. If you like books that don’t spell everything out, go for this one.
Pereira Maintains is in a new English edition and mentioned by Barnes in Levels of Life. This is a real authors’ book for its seeming simplicity and uncanny depth (there are endorsements on the cover from authors as diverse as Philip Pullman, Mohsin Hamid, and John Carey). Set in Lisbon in 1938, it deals with the rise of fascism in Portugal, which I didn’t know much about. At its heart, like Levels of Life, it explores the kind of bond of love that simply never dissolves.
I recently found myself staying in my niece’s room and without anything to read. Somehow I had missed The Secret Garden as a child, and I decided to check it out. While it’s not a perfect book from a structural (or political) point of view, I enjoyed and admired the way the story frames the healing power of natural beauty. If you, like me, somehow never read this, take heart. Not too late to enjoy it.

Richard L. Kremer 

Richard L. Kremer, associate professor of history

Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones by Gary Y. Okihiro

This is a (juicy!) story of the pineapple, of a material object and the human dreams it inspired. It’s a story about migration. The fruit was first cultivated Paraguay, went to the European tables of kings and queens, came to Hawaii in the 1890s when its production became plantationized, and then moved around the world in tin cans bearing the label of the Dole Hawaiian Pineapple Co. In American grocery stores of the 1930s, the yellow Dole cans symbolized “tropical” luxury for working and middle-class shoppers. As someone who has always loved pineapples—indeed, they were the only “canned” fruit I ate growing up in Nebraska—reading this book opened my eyes anew to the global realities in which we’ve long lived.

Dean P. Lacy 

Dean P. Lacy, professor of government

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris and Outliers and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Morris is one of the better presidential biographers, and this is one of the best books about a president’s term(s) in office. I expected his lengthy coverage of the Panama Canal. I was pleasantly surprised by how much attention Morris devotes to racial issues during Roosevelt’s presidency, from Booker T. Washington’s dinner at the White House to the Brownsville Affair.
Outliers is a book about the ingredients of success, from sports to education to music to business. Blink describes how first impressions and gut instincts inform and distort our decision-making. Both are good, but I prefer Outliers. Every entering Dartmouth student should read it. High SAT scores and intelligence get one only so far. Thousands of hours of grueling work, being in the right place at the right time, and persevering through failures are more valuable, and often overlooked, ingredients of success. Why are these books interesting politically? Among other things, Blink is notable for its attempt to explain Warren Harding’s ascent to the presidency. Gladwell focuses on Harding’s good looks and charm. Harding also owed much to being in the right place at the right time, a story that could be told just as well in Outliers.

James Murphy

James Murphy, professor of government

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky by George Steiner and How Fiction Works by James Wood

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky is a feast for those who love Russian novels. Tracing Tolstoy to Homer and Dostoevsky to Shakespeare is a brilliant way to contrast these two titans of the novel. But Steiner also offers a huge range of other contrasts, moral, philosophical, and theological.
How Fiction Works is a splendid, erudite, and fun discussion of the techniques novelists use in making descriptions and shaping characters.

Graziella Parati 

Graziella Parati, the Paul D. Paganucci Professor of Italian Language and Literature and chair of the French and Italian department

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

If the idea that the humanities don’t change the world has ever crossed your mind, you must read The Swerve, published in 2011. It is a very legible book that won the National Book Award. It is the story of a poetry and philosophy manuscript that Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered, changing the course of western culture. The text was Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura. In the 15th century, the cultural models were dominated by church models. Life was suffering, following the example of Christ and his sacrificial life. With the re-circulation of Lucretius’s writings, new models emerged, originating from Epicurus’s notion of the pursuit of “pleasure.” However, pleasure regulated by ethics, not pleasure as we would mean today. The works by Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo reflect the painters’/scientists’/sculptors’ familiarity with De Rerum Natura, and would exist if Bracciolini had not rediscovered the manuscript. The impact of Lucretius’s work continued for centuries, and is tangible in the Constitution of the United States. That right “to the pursuit of happiness” wanted by Jefferson is the direct consequence of his erudition and familiarity with the classic Latin text.
In one year we will be remembering at Dartmouth the beginning of WWI with a conference organized by the department of French and Italian. It is time, therefore, to re-read the novels that conflict has engendered. Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929, is one of those books. Against the backdrop of the war, the novel narrates the love story between the American Frederic Henry, who is serving as a lieutenant (“tenente”) in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army, and the English (at times she is defined as Scottish) Catherine Barkley.
If you are only interested in one seminal book about WWI, I would recommend a masterpiece: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, published, as was Hemingway’s book, in 1929. The book narrates the hardships and mental stress (shell shock) that soldiers experienced during the conflict. It demystified heroic notions about that conflict, violence, and killing and became one of the books banned by the Nazis.

A. Kevin Reinhart 

A. Kevin Reinhart, associate professor of religion

Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present by Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail
I mostly study 500 C.E. to the present.Deep History begins C. 2.5 million years ago. A useful corrective to our temporal provincialism. It’s a book that has radically reoriented how I think about history. It is a perfect complement to Robert Bellah’s most recent book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. A magisterial uniting the most recent work on paleo-evolution with authors no longer much cited, such as Suzanne Langer. I’m not sure his larger argument is right, but it is a richly rewarding work to chew through, a little at a time.

Diederik Vandewalle

Diederik Vandewalle, associate professor of government

The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order by Benn Steil, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra Vogel, and Zhou Enlai: the Last Perfect Revolutionary by Gao Wenqian

A recent stay at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods prompted me to read The Battle of Bretton Woods. The book provides a fascinating account not only of how Great Britain and the United States (represented by Maynard Keynes and Dexter White, respectively) negotiated the architecture of the post-World War II global economy, but also how the negotiations reflected the changing power in world politics of both countries (Great Britain in relative decline and the United States the new superpower), and how each side had distinctly different ideas of what the role of the state and markets should be in global economic management.
An extended trip to China afforded the time to read the biographies of two major figures in Chinese recent history who have fascinated me for a long time: Ezra Vogel’s massive Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China and Gao Wenqian’s Zhou Enlai: the Last Perfect Revolutionary.

Richard A. Wright 

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

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

On the surface, Netherland concerns 9/11, a marriage going off the rails, and lessons to be learned from cricket. But O’Neill is really more interested in deeper issues: identity, anxiety, and the uncertain promises of immigrant America. He manages to do all this in an extraordinary manner—by exploring the intertwined and entrepreneurial lives of Chuck Ramkissoon, a cricket-playing, street-wise immigrant dreamer and Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born apolitical equities analyst. The plot is sophisticated and the writing refined; readers will pause on almost every page to savor the prose.
In the Garden of Beasts is the story of Roosevelt’s choice of ambassador to Germany in 1933 as Hitler assumed absolute power. We stand witness to the growing oppression and terror through William Dodd (and his family). This is by far Larson’s best work and a good read indeed.

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