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Summer Reading Recommendations: 2009

An annual list compiled by the Swarthmore College Libraries

In Memory of Meg Spencer

Meg Spencer

For seven years, science librarian and ultimate book-lover Meg Spencer organized a list of reading suggestions from faculty and staff to highlight some good books to read over the summer. The Swarthmore Libraries continue this wonderful tradition in Meg’s memory.

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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley [also available as an audiobook]
After a semester spent reading only for classes, I've just read this snazzy little mystery novel I'd like to recommend to others. The detective here is eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, whose passion is chemistry, whose specialization is poison, and whose love-hate relationship with family and world turns the British country house mystery genre on its ear. The affectations here - which satirize that genre exquisitely - won't be to everyone's taste, but Flavia is riveting.

Nathalie Anderson
Department of English

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery [also available as an audiobook]
A novel in which the love of philosophy, music and art knows no special class status, profession or age. What do a concierge who cooks cabbage, a intelligent adolescent girl who chafes against the ordinariness of a bourgeoisie family, and a successful Japanese businessman who is extraordinarily cultured have in common Among others are Husserl, Maler, Claesz, in addition to contemplation are threads that bind these lives together no matter what their place in a Parisian apartment.

Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud edited by Robert Plinsky [request it from Interlibrary Loan]
A great book (or substitute another book by a poet such as Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes) for a summer picnic with friends or an evening by oneself. Do something that is so out of fashion it is nearly counter cultural: read poetry aloud for the complex and intensely pleasurable interplay of sound and meaning.

Frank Aydelotte of Swarthmore by Frances Blansard
In addition to enjoying various books on Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, the Quakers, the suffragists and the abolitionists (some of whom helped found Swarthmore), I have been reading the biography of Frank Aydelotte, president of Swarthmore from 1921 to 1940 who shaped Swarthmore during one of the most interesting and challenging times in American higher education. The book is not only the story of this influential leader in education but is also a solid account of the basic values and practices of Swarthmore College.

Rebecca Chopp

Still Alice by Lisa Genova [request it from the public library]
I just read this great book. It won a Bronte prize and is beautifully written. "Still Alice is a compelling debut novel about a 50-year-old woman's sudden descent into early onset Alzheimer's disease, written by first-time author Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph.D in neuroscience from Harvard University." (From

Hennie Cline
Health Center

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Moby-Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville [also available as an e-book]
Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe [also available as an e-book]
I cannot take credit for the pairing-that belongs to Sean Willenz (The Rise of American Democracy (New York: Norton, 2005), pp. 653-658)-but I can recommend the experience of reading these two classics of nineteenth-century American fiction as a pair. Like Americans in 1850, as a teenager I was subjected to an unsatisfying encounter with Melville's exhausting, monomaniacal circumnavigation, where the eponymous whale does not appear for hundreds of pages; in middle age, as to Americans long after Melville's death, the rewards of this voyage are substantial, even if the author repeatedly sends one to the OED and the brink of the abyss. Stowe does not depict tormented 1850 America through a glass darkly: she puts the reader face-to- face with humans in merciless bright light. One of these is timeless literature. The other powerfully captures the beauty and ugliness of its moment. Both grasp the reader tenaciously and provide lasting pleasure and pain.

Don Cooney
Development & Alumni Relations

The Mating Season
by P.G. Wodehouse
With favorite recurring characters Gussie Fink-Nottle and Claude Cattermole "Catsmeat" Potter-Pirbright, this Jeeves & Wooster story delivers lots of laughs. Delightful in audio as well, which provides an alternate option for the summer sloth - you don't even have to read!

Laurie Dibeler
Science Center Coffee Bar

The Shack by William P. Young [request it from the public library]
The Shack is a creative, transforming, and inspiring book that is hard to put down once you begin reading. Yes, it will probably make you cry. However, it is not a sad book, it is a book about love. While the theme of the book is the need to forgive (no matter what), it tells us why forgiveness is so necessary. The Shack addresses the age-old question of why God allows evil, pain and suffering in the world.

Anna Everetts
Department of Black Studies

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The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age by Stanislaw Lem
Very, very funny science fiction marvelously translated from Polish by Michael Kandel.

Solaris by Stanisław Lem
A very different book from Cyberiad - not funny, but a work that inspired both Tarkovsky and Soderbergh to make movie adaptations. [Note: the book is better!]

And almost anything you can find in translation by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (or in Russian, if you read Russian!).

Sibelan Forrester
Department of Russian Studies

The Little Giant of Abderdeen County by Tiffany Baker [request it from the public library]
The book is about two sisters - one, Serena, very beautiful and the other, Truly, quite the opposite. The story starts with Truly's birth and continues into school years and adulthood. Shows the different paths the sisters lives take and how they look affects them and their choices. Set in a small town where the past still has a lot to do with the present.

Diane Fritz
Department of Biology

Spade and Archer by Joe Gores [request it from the public library]
This prequel to The Maltese Falcon is a gem. Gores, who is perhaps the living expert on Hammett (and has explored this territory before in the novel Hammett) does a grand job of duplicating the cadence of Dashiell Hammett's prose in covering the years when Sam Spade set off on his own in San Francisco. A hard-boiled gem.

The Women by T.C. Boyle
T.C. Boyle continues his series of novels about American "cult of personality" monsters (Kellogg and Kinsey have already been deliciously dissected) in this fine novel about Frank Lloyd Wright and the women who variously worship and despise him. Highly recommended.

Gregory Frost
Department of English

The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neil Stephenson [request it from the public library]
This a good summer read about (among other things) the best textbook ever made.

The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe by Bob Richard [also available as an e-book]
This non-fiction book reads as if it were science fiction. Imagine, for instance, a scientific method based as much on poetry as quantitation, where truth and goodness merge into beauty, and where nature can be studied as a guide to one's selfhood. This book will take the entire summer to read, but it will give many seasons of speculation.

Scott Gilbert
Department of Biology

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The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith [also available as an audiobook]
Apparently there are nine installments of Precious Ramotswe's adventures, but I have only read the first one (which I picked up at the Swarthmore College Library booksale). A collection of vignettes about life in an African village, the reader becomes a member of an interesting community with fascinating domestic problems that are readily dispatched by the astute and loveable Mma Ramotswe. Check out the wonderful first (and sadly, only) season of Ladies Detective Agency produced for the BBC in 2009, available on DVD. (Note: The 10th book in this series Tea Time for the Traditionally Built [also available as an audiobook] was published in April.)

Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society: a Novel by Annie Barrows (a former librarian) [also available as an audiobook]
This was recommended to me by Sue Welsh (Finance & Treasurer's Office) and I am so glad that she did. This epistolary novel manages to make allusions to much of the great 19th century literature that I have read and re-read over the years while spinning a believable tale of life during Nazi occupation and the consequences meted out to members of the resistance. For a good read with a bonafide brooding protagonist, this story should not be missed. I especially appreciated Guernsey Literary after weeks of trudging through Charlotte Delbo's Convoy to Auschwitz: Women of the French Resistance, which is described as "a powerful and haunting factual account of the lives of 230 political prisoners, aged 16 to 60 - not for the fainthearted."

Pam Harris
McCabe Library

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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Although this book is nonfiction, it reads as a novel. The book is about one of the first recorded serial killers in America, who established himself at the 1893 Chicago's World's Fair. To me, it's fascinating how the fair was organized (which is one story within another) and how Dr. H. Holmes was able to prey on his victims within. The book has mystery, magic and madness at the fair that changed America!

Michelle Hartel
Kohlberg Coffee Bar

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The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga [also available as an audiobook]
Winner of 2008 Man Booker award. Born in a village in heartland India, the son of a rickshaw puller, Balram is taken out of school and becomes a chauffeur for a wealthy family in Delhi. The more liberal son of the family has an American wife. Class and caste in modernizing India are the central themes. Written with considerable humor but also frank grimness.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif
On the final list for Man Booker, the novel is a fictional account of circumstances surrounding General Zia of Pakistan's assassination in 1988 (the plane he was traveling in crashed under mysterious circumstances). Zia took over the government in a military coup. He was, apparently, a strong advocate of Muslim values religion. There are lots of theories about how and why the assassination was carried out. Hanif was in the Pakistan Air Force ad then became a journalist working with the BBC and others residing in England. Again, good humor. Clearly relevant to the current developments in Pakistan.

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
Also on the finals list for 2008 Man Booker. On a South Pacific Isle (perhaps based on East Timor) a rebel group (Rambos) rises up against the semi-colonial white power structure (whose army is called Redskins). White elites all flee, except one, Mr. Watts who is married to a native of the island. Since the school teachers have left Mr. Watts undertakes the education of the younger children, He does so by having them read and discuss Dickens/Great Expectations - hence the reference to Pip. The narrator is a teenage girl, native of the island. The book is grim at times as both the Redskins and the Rambos confront the natives. The whole concept is clever and the writing is clean and unpretentious.

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction 2007. This is a solipsistic nomination on my part, since in the introductory acknowledgements Johnson thanks me for help. We met at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, on Lake Como, where we were both resident scholars. The thanks were not deserved but I'd be happy to explain the origin if you like.

Rob Hollister
Department of Economics

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The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
This book will provide fresh insight into the Crum Woods, the campus, and the power of imagination.

Waiting for Snow in Havana, Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire
A professor of religion journeys into a beautiful expression of exile.

A Pickpocket's Tale, the Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York by Timothy J. Gilfoyle
An historian's compelling and documented narrative of another Dickensian city.

Chuck James
Department of English

White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenway [request it from the public library]
Lovely, delicate, haunting, scary. Two American girls in Hong Kong during the Vietnam war are left to their own devices by parents otherwise occupied. They grow up fed by their imaginations, untamed by adult influence. They long to be Viet Cong, become disastrously involved in a Red Guards demonstration, suffer, and bear burdens too large for them to handle alone - burdens that are simultaneously real and are metaphors for the knowledge and guilt that come with the loss of innocence.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville
A beautifully imagined account of the early settlement of Australia: the strangeness of the land and climate to English settlers; the extirpation of the aboriginal inhabitants; the imposition of a new culture and society on an old land; and the transformation of the desperately poor settlers into prosperous and rapacious landowners under the opportunities afforded and stolen in this new land. The novel is based loosely on a few bits of information in Grenville's possession about her forbears, who were among those early settlers.

Andrea Knox
Chester Children's Chorus

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Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
I have just re-read Joseph Heller's 1961 classic, Catch-22. The circular nature of the book keeps exposing deeper and deeper contradictions of war, bureaucracy, and fear. It been more than 40 years since I first read this Catch-22 as a teenager. Then, I saw it as an antiwar book, which it is. But now, as an older reader, I appreciate the general social chaos it depicts—something that is not confined to Yossarian's bomber squadron.

Jeff Lott

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The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman
The author's note says: "Jan and Antonina Zabinski were Polish-Christian zookeepers horrified by Nazi racism, who capitalized on the Nazi's obsession with rare animals in order to save over three hundred doomed people. Their story has fallen between the seams of history, as radically compassionate acts sometimes do. But in wartime Poland, when even handing a thirsty Jew a cup of water was punishable by death, their heroism stands out as all the more startling." The author uses diaries and other sources to re-create the Zabinski's lives during the war. They were able to use their position and eccentric fluid household on the zoo grounds to shelter many refugees. Reading like a novel, The Zookeeper's Wife recounts a very specific piece of the history of wartime Warsaw. Likable and interesting people bring a grim period to life, but somehow the grimness is held at bay by the life of the household.

Jackie Magagnosc
McCabe Library

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Straight Man by Richard Russo
Moo by Jane Smiley
Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
I totally enjoy novels in academic settings. My all-time favorite is Russo's "Straight Man" which is brilliantly written, funny and poignant. A close runner-up and another favorite of mine in this same vein is Jane Smiley's "Moo". Perhaps the most current title along these lines is "Admission" by Jean Korelitz. "Admission" is a novel written from the perspective of a fictional admissions counselor at Princeton, however Jean Korelitz has worked as an admissions counselor at Princeton. This is an eye-opening read with some right-on insights about the pitfalls of the college admission process from the perspective of both the student and the college. It's a great read for the summer or any time.

Mary Marissen
McCabe Library

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The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz [also available as an e-book and audiobook]
This is a test for those who believe a best-seller can't be "good-quality literature." Here, Junot Díaz narrates a coming of age story of a Dominican boy whose family moves to New Jersey. This boy, fat, sci-fi nerdy, and single, believes to be a victim of a "fuku" (a spell, like being jinxed). It is very interesting from a cultural perspective too, since the novel is full of quotes that explain a broad number of cultural 'places' that range from good-old Star Wars to historical facts about the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.

(Also recommended by Tom Whitman, Department of Music & Dance)

Candela by Rey Emmanuel Andújar
(Only in Spanish) Emmanuel Andújar is a very promising young writer from the Dominican Republic and this is his his most recent, and so far, best novel, in my opinion. A new take on the detective-novel, he follows a police man throughout his investigation. While he traces corruption all around, we become more interested in the way he deals with his family and his 'relationship' issues with Candela, a prostitute who ends up being the mystery we really want to know about. The Spanish he uses is easy, so I'd encourage Spanish students to go for it.

Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat
A beautiful and touching autobiography, Danticat tells us of the beautiful relationships she held with her father and her uncle, who raised her while her dad was trying to get her and her siblings from Haiti to the US. The fear of the impending death of both brothers is surpassed by the reader through the desire to know the goodness that drive these characters. The novel serves also as a way to learn a bit about Haitian history through personal accounts. I also recommend her "Farming of Bones," which portrays the largest massacre in Haitian history through the story of a family.

Our Caribbean: a Gathering of Gay & Lesbian writings by Thomas Glave
This is a very good collection of short-stories, all translated into English and written by all French, Anglo, and Hispanic Caribbean writers. These stories portray both beautiful and ugly aspects of what being queer means in the Caribbean -which sometimes seem to be an alternate reality when compared to some very open cities in the US. The selection includes both renowned and 'new-yet-very talented' authors. I love this book!

Consuelo Martinez-Reyes
Department of Modern Languages & Literature

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Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri [also available as an audiobook]
This 2008 collection of short stories by the author of The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake is just as good as her other books, and maybe it's the best-I can't decide. She captures the complicated relationships between Bengali-born parents and American-born children and the vast differences in culture and attitudes that are revealed, yet readers will identify strongly with these very human characters no matter what cultural background they have. In this collection, three of the eight stories follow the same two characters (Hema and Kaushik) at different stages of life. The writing is brilliant and detailed in a way that keeps the reader emotionally invested. Highly recommended!

Amy McColl
McCabe Library

(Also recommended by Tom Whitman, Department of Music & Dance)

Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie [request it from the public library]
A romance novel that's an easy read. This book stimulates the senses by anchoring flavors, sounds and sights to the minds eye, leaving you craving a certain Italian dish and a song by Elvis Costello. (I actually have a TERRIBLE memory when it comes to reading books, but my partner made me read this one (I am mostly a non-fiction reader, and my fiction delights tend not to come from the romance novel genre).

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri [also available as an audiobook]
This Pulitzer-prize winning bunch of short stories will keep your attention in spurts. Ms. Lahiri is a talented writer, and I think this is a great introduction to her work (other work includes The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth [also available as an audiobook]).

Any of David Sedaris' books
This guy could make anything mundane entertaining. He is hilarious and endearing. His humor can be a little dark or out of the ordinary at times. He writes essays, which makes me inclined to suggest him for summer reading. I have personal memories of picking up Barrel Fever from the library and bringing it to the beach one day, where my partner and I read it out loud to one another between taking dips in the Atlantic.

Jen Moore
Department of History and Islamic Studies

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The Size of the World by Joan Silber
I'm recommending The Size of the World, a collection of loosely interconnected novellas and stories about Americans encountering foreign places, particularly Thailand. In one story an engineer finds himself on the ground during the Vietnam War trying to figure out why his company's planes are crashing; in another (set in the 1920s), a tin prospector is out for adventure but also love; in a third, an American woman's marriage to a Thai Muslim gets her caught up in our country's response to 9/11. These stories zip along, gobbling up time and change with lots of narrative and few extended scenes, as the characters find solace as well as difficulty in the foreign places they visit and move to. Siam itself emerges almost as a character—slippery, appealing, and full of contradictions.

Rachel Pastan
Department of English

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People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize winner for her novel March, writes a compelling tale around the history of a particularly rare Haggadah, the liturgical text used at Passover. Her protagonist, Hannah Heath, a rare-book conservator, is hired to preserve the manuscript, which was recently rediscovered in post war-torn Sarajevo. The story unfolds through her investigation of each stain and flaw in the manuscript - a wine spill or traces of a missing silver clasp. Brooks takes the reader from Yugoslavia in World War II, to Vienna at the turn of the Century always returning to the present day and Hannah's own story. In the tradition of Medieval manuscripts and Jewish classical texts, this work is many layered with text and gloss interwoven.

Peggy Seiden
McCabe Library

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Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan
This is a wonderfully written, completely engaging literary mystery written by our own Rachel Pastan. I couldn't put it down and recommend it highly.
"My number one summer beach book for the year. A literary mystery crossed with a funny feminist commentary on marriage. Think A. S. Byatt linking arms in sisterhood with chick-lit champs Susan Isaacs and Jennifer Weiner. I was hooked from the opening scene ..." Maureen Corrigan, NPR's "Fresh Air"

Lisa Smith
Special Projects

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The Family Man by Elinor Lipman
This is Lipman's latest novel, and once again she has created a story populated by wonderful characters, including Henry Archer, a divorced gay man who stumbled across his now-grown stepdaughter in his neighborhood salon. Before long she has moved into his Upper West Side town house, bringing excitement and comedy to his once sedate life. I recommend all of Lipman's novels, including my favorite, The Inn at Lake Devine [request it from Interlibrary Loan].

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Want a behind-the-scenes peek into the world of college admissions? This hefty novel (464 pages - it's a good candidate for a Kindle…) is the story of Princeton's admissions officer, Portia Nathan, during one particularly intense academic year, when a life-altering decision made nearly twenty years ago, resurfaces. Korelitz is a former Princeton admissions officer herself and reveals in graphic detail today's unbelievably insane process (to me, at least!) of getting accepted to a college. It confirmed my long-held belief that I would NEVER get in to any college today, but since I don't have to, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. (Interesting tidbit: The author is the wife of Pulitzer prize winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who visited the campus this past Spring).

Meg Spencer
Cornell Library

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Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and The Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould
When people think of paleontology, dinosaurs usually come to mind. But one of the most important fossil sites dates from 300 million years before the dinosaurs. Here lies an amazing array of "weird wonders" preserved in minute detail, including a wormlike animal with five eyes, an armored walnut-shaped creature covered by spines and scales, and a worm that apparently walked on stilts. What can we learn from these creatures, seemingly unlike anything now alive? Wonderful Life will change how you think about our place in the history of life.

Steve Wang
Mathematics & Statistics

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American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
A fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush, which leads one to imagine what their marriage and family life is really like. Publisher's Weekly says it "sputters to a weak conclusion that doesn't live up to the fine storytelling that precedes it." So far it has been an interesting story - I have about 70 pages to go so maybe I haven't hit the sputter yet.

Barb Weir
McCabe Library