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Summer Reading Recommendations: 2012

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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Misfortune by Wesley Stace
Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace
Stace (who judged the Swarthmore College fiction contest this year) is perhaps better known as the singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, but these two books prove him to be a master novelist as well. Misfortune -- which starts with a baby left in a Victorian garbage dump -- is Dickensian in its cast of striking characters, but explores gender and sexuality in ways Dickens couldn't have, as that male baby is raised as a girl, and then must come to terms with the double nature he's been nurtured to.

Charles Jessold... offers a more fevered consciousness in the vein of 19th century sensationalist writers like Wilkie Collins, as a prim narrator reveals slowly the cracks in his tidy self and world. In both books, Stace's knowledge of music is crucial: the first character we meet in Misfortune sings his way through life, thus making momentary sense of his environment; and Jessold sets us among the ballad collectors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who began -- like Benjamin Britten a generation later -- to use this folk material as the foundation for their own more classical compositions. These are fascinating books -- and often also funny as heck.

Planning to read:
Railsea by China Mieville
Among the thousands of books I vainly hope to read this summer, I'll rate highest this latest novel by the British po-mo-inflected fantasy writer Mieville, which is evidently based on Moby Dick. Mielville is best known for his amazing book, The City and the City which is about weirdly super-imposed cities, intended to recall real communities like Jerusalem or Johannesburg where discrete populations live in tandem but ignore each other; and for the dystopian fantasy trilogy beginning with Perdido Street Station, which starts with a love scene between a human and an -- insect?

Nat Anderson
Department of English

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Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
This is one of the best-written books I've ever read. The subject matter is horrific but the whole book reads like poetry. I was reminded of epic novels like Moby Dick or Light in August that I read as a student. There's an insane ghost-like character called the Judge and the story is told from the perspective of a Billy Budd-like character called the Kid.

Planning to read:
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
This book was recommended to me by Barry Schwartz. I've just started it and so far, the first few chapters are fascinating.

Michael Brown
Department of Physics & Astronomy

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Embassytown by China Mieville
It is a wonderful example of the best modern science fiction has to offer. The novel explores language and the difficulty of communication.

Planning to read:
Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
First published in 1972, and out of print for nearly 30 years, a new translation, with forward by Ursula Le Guin, it has just been published. This book is still widely regarded as a classic science fiction novel.

Gabe Cutrufello
Department of English

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett [also available as an audiobook]
I didn't see the movie, but the movie is of course why I knew about the book. It is a wonderful story with compelling characters, virtually all women. It also raises interesting and troubling (to me, anyway) questions about authenticity and perspective since the author is a white southern woman and the most vivid and sympathetic characters are black women.

Planning to read:
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides [also available as an audiobook]

Ken Dinitz '88
Corporate, Foundation & Government Relations

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Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
A young Jewish American man same name as the author, Jonathan Safran Foer -travels to the Ukraine. His reason is to locate, a woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. only he just has a photo to guide him. He meets up with Alex, a not-quite-fluent translator, and his "blind" grandfather, who serves as the driver, travel with Jonathan to the site of Trachimbrod, his family's village, collecting stories and legends which will help Jonathan learn about his family and his Ukrainian Jewish heritage. I liked this book because of the very unconventional way it was told- it starts out with narrative by Jonathan, then prose, letters and plays. I found it to be a very funny, deeply sad, quirky, innovative debut.

Planning to read:
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Elizabeth J. Durning
Dean's Office

Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor
Stroke of Insight is an amazing chronicle of Jill Taylor's life following a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain at the age of 37. Jil is a Harvard-trained brain scientist and knew what was happening and why. Jill talks about what happened and why in everyday language. She could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any details of her life but thanks to her mother's dedication and assistance made a unusual full recovery. Jill gives insightful information about how stroke victims should be treated and talks at length about how the left brain damage allowed her to uncover (right brain) feelings of well-being and happiness that were "hidden" by brain chatter and negative self-talk. This book was given to me by a friend who bought multiple copies and distributed to people she knows and I can see why. Everyone should read this book.

Planning to read:
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
Was there a woman pope in the Ninth Century? This book is historical fiction about the life of Pope Joan. Plans are underway to make this story into a major motion picture and TV mini-series.

Anna Everetts
Department of Asian Studies, Black Studies, GSST, INTP, Latin American Studies, and Peace & Conflict Studies

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot [also available as an e-book]
This amazing book looks at the "life" of cancer cells belonging to an African American woman and gets deep into all the medical breakthroughs that came along with using them, the ethical issues of how and when they were harvested and the family members left behind with few answers. It was a page turner from start to finish!

Planning to read:
Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to be Black Now by Touré

Paury Flowers
Student Activities

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Leeches by David Albahari, translated from Serbian by Ellen Elias-Burseć
Albahari writes with intimate knowledge about Belgrade, though he has been living in Calgary (Canada) for several years now. The novel is one enormous paragraph, shifting between realistic description and dreamlike sequences, and set in spring of 1998, though it delves into the history of the Jewish community in Zemun (just across the Danube from Belgrade, and formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian borderlands). Besides the lure of the novel itself, the translation is wonderfully adequate: both accurate and lyrical.

Planning to read:
Cult of the Right Hand by Elaine Terranova
I'm hoping to read a bunch of books of poetry by Terranova this summer beginning with this one...

Sibelan Forrester
Department of Russian

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Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
Technically a novella originally published in the Paris Review, this is a short masterpiece of storytelling through the accumulation of detail and imagery. Probably my single favorite piece of writing so far this decade. You can read it in one sitting, but I'll wager you'll want to read it again.

Planning to read:
Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s by David Goodis
Goodis was a superb crime fiction writer of the time (his novel Down There was the source of Truffaut's film "Shoot the Piano Player"), and the Library of America has collected five more of his novels in one volume. Their comments speak of his signature "jazzy, expressionist style". I can't wait to enjoy it.

Gregory Frost
Department of English

The Third Policeman
by Flann O'Brien

This weird, brilliant book is O'Brien's masterpiece and possibly the first postmodern novel. It's also an incredibly difficult book to describe. Think of a satire/fable/allegory filtered through a black comedy, set in the world of Alice in Wonderland and performed by an all-Irish Monty Python.

Planning to read:
Nice Work by David Lodge

Kim Gormley
McCabe Library

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This has to be one of the best books I've ever read. The characters are all vivid, except the narrator, who is reveiled later in the novel. It is the story of a young girl who steals books and tells stories to her family and the Jewish man they are hiding, during World War II.

Planning to read:
In the Garden of Beasts : Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson [also available as an audiobook]

Michelle Hartel
Kohlberg Coffee Bar

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A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer
Not of much literary merit and not new, it was, however, a good read while waiting for The Sins of the Fathers. Interesting to think Jeffrey Archer may have used his own time in prison to describe life behind bars.

Planning to read:
At Last by Edward St. Aubyn, (I quite having enjoyed St. Aubyn's Mother's Milk this Spring.)

Birgitte Haselgrove
Worth Health Center

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State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Set in Minnesota and the Amazon, this novel showcases Patchett's eye for the telling detail and features echoes of Joseph Conrad's river journey into madness, Heart of Darkness. However, instead of Kurtz we have Dr. Annick Swenson, described in a New York Times review as a "dragon of a teacher who lurks somewhere in every student's academic history, and whose cruelty and exactitude are inseparable personality traits." She alone makes the book a worthwhile read.

Planning to read:
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild
Hochschild is a master of narrative nonfiction who recreates historical periods better than any writer I know (Bury the Chains is one prior example).

Sherri Kimmel
Swarthmore College Bulletin

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Mrs. Kennedy and Me by Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin
Clint Hill is the Secret Service agent who was assigned to protect Jackie Kennedy and her children. A genuine heartfelt account of Hill's time and friendship with Jackie Kennedy. Gives details of how difficult and consuming an agent's life was at that time.

Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews
Very intriguing view of Jack Kennedy, the man, beginning with his childhood. Chris Matthews gives us a well researched close-up view of what JFK was really like.

Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
The true story of Louie Zamperini (still alive, I believe) who went from being a star athlete to a soldier in WWII. Amazing look at the will this man had to survive. Very long read, but worth it.

Planning to read:
Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne
Historical account of the 40 year battle between Comanche Indians and the white settlers for control of the American West.

Ruth H. Krakower
Alumni & Gift Records

Terrene: The Hidden Valley by Eric Liu [request it from Interlibrary Loan]
Looking for themes that include plant molecular biology, ecology, global warming and science education in a novel of fiction? Well, good luck because you're unlikely to find it... unless you happen upon this 2011 novel by Eric Liu!

Philip Kudish
Department of Biology

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The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver [also available as an audiobook]
Historical fiction set in Mexico in the 1920s up to the US during the McCarthy era, wonderful exploration of a writer's development from a child's eye onward, with Trotsky, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to boot.

Planning to read:
Anything by Walter Mosley

Sue Lathrop
Development/Alumni Relations

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Swim: Why We Love the Water by Lynn Sherr [also available as an e-book]
In this compact book, long time journalist Lynn Sherr covers the history, science, sport, and sociology of swimming, interspersed with her preparation for, and swimming of, the Hellespont strait between Asia and Europe. Whether you just dip your toes in the water, or are dreaming of an epic swim, this book will have something for you.

Planning to read:
Wild: from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed [also available as an audiobook]
Strayed's account of Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after a series of setbacks in life. Like many such memoirs, Strayed seems not to have finished the entire trail, but it should still be interesting.

Danie Martin
McCabe Library

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The Science of Leonardo : Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance by Fritjof Capra
This book is part biographical and part-critique of Leonardo da Vinci's accomplishments and style. The book shows how his innovations in art and science were intertwined and how one influenced the other.

Planning to read:
Home by Toni Morrison [also available as an e-book]
In One Person by John Irving [also available as an audiobook]
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman [also available as an e-book]
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Alison Masterpasqua
McCabe Library

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Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Ten very different people's lives intersect in fascinating and poignant ways on one day in August 1974, including an Irish street preacher, heroin-addicted hookers, a mother mourning her son, killed in Vietnam, and a struggling artist. The central event that brings these stories together is the amazing real-life feat completed by Phillip Petit, a French high-wire walker who strung a wire between the newly-completed World Trade Center towers and walked and danced back and forth for over an hour (see the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire for more about this event). The book captures New York and its inhabitants at a chaotic time in our history. I couldn't put it down, and neither could my husband when I recommended it to him. It won the National Book Award the year it was published (2009) and it deserved to win. Highly recommended.

Planning to read:
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Amy M. McColl
McCabe Library

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A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
You think you know Hemingway and have read everything, or at least lots of what he wrote. But, it is unlikely you have ever read this one - and you should - especially if you know, or have visited Paris. It was published posthumously by his fourth wife in 1964, but reemerged in a better version which was edited by his grandson in 2009. The work is essentially a memoir of his life in 1920's Paris, that magnificent period of the roaring twenties where the ex-patriot writers of the jazz era roamed, worked and played. There are first hand accounts of interactions with the likes of Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. (The latter being another favorite writer for my summer reading). Hemingway writes with such a sense of place that if you actually have sipped a glass of Pastis at Les Deux Magots or un vere de rouge at Café de Flore a few doors away, you can almost hear the heated arguments between Hemingway and Fitzgerald and his palpable distaste for Zelda. Have Sunday lunch (never say brunch!) at La Closerie des Lilacs and conjure up images of Hemingway, his wife Hadley, Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas and Picasso, and be really overwhelmed.

I read that there was a plan to do a televised adaptation of this book - starring Mariel Hemingway, in fact - but so far nothing has come of it. The 2011 Woody Allen movie, "Midnight in Paris" was heavily influenced by the book. If you are a Francophile, or in love with Paris, have visited it, or intend to, you cannot pass up this reading!

Planning to read:
The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Frank A. Moscatelli
Department of Physics & Astronomy

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Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg
This is a fictionalized account of the Lodz ghetto, presided over by Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. The work is riveting and the border between fact and fiction in the lives and deaths of fictional ghetto residents is astonishingly imagined by the author.

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham [also available as an audiobook] (author of The Hours)

Planning to read:
Watergate: A Novel by Thomas Mallon [request it from the public library]

Carol Nackenoff
Department of Political Science

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Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
It's a children's novel told from the point of view of a girl with Asperger's, but I believe adults will find it remarkable (I did). The author is smart (she worked as a lawyer for years before she turned to writing) and knowledgeable (her daughter has Asperger's) and both insightful and a superb, clean writer. There's not a single spray of sentimentality in the whole thing.

Planning to read:
Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler
It's an old novel (from 1991), but I haven't read it yet, and I want to read everything Tyler ever wrote.

Donna Jo Napoli
Department of Linguistics

The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher [request it from the public library]
I just finished a book I really loved. The characters are interesting, the plot is complicated, and the writing is clear and effective. He's written many other books and I plan to keep the list growing.

Anne Rawson '50

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To the End of the Land by David Grossman
I loved this book by the Israeli Grossman. In it, a mother whose son is in the army for another tour of duty embarks on a hiking trip, clinging to the belief (while recognizing its illogic) that if she is not there to open the door to news of her son's death, that she will somehow be magically keeping him safe. What follows is a searing and yet somehow compellingly readable (and very moving) narrative of loss and of the moral costs of war. It is psychologically, politically, and morally complex, a novel I would describe as deeply humane and haunting.

Planning to read:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo [also available as an audiobook]

Michele Reimer
Department of Psychology

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness [request it from the public library]
Read this, the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, if you like the Hunger Games or other dystopian young adult fiction.

Planning to read:
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman [also available as an audiobook]

Kevin Ross
Department of Mathematics & Statistics

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The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
I really enjoyed the patched-together psychological narrative that emerges from the memories of this dementia patient, a survivor of the starvation siege of Leningrad during World War II. It sounds awful, but this book is full of light, beauty, and imaginary feasts.

Planning to read:
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Lucy Saxon
McCabe Library

Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell
This is a tale of an Englishman in the city who purchases an Otter from a pet shop, and the lengths he goes to ensure its happiness and well being. The Englishman finds some of his own too! It is a fine tale for learning about the bonds between man and the natural world. There is also a movie version with the wonderful couple who starred in the classic film "Born Free". This story is fit for all ages.

In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors by Doug Stanton [request it from the public library]
Accounts of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, that carried the world's first operational atomic bomb against the Japanese in WWII, and the survivors. Very good!

The Gales of November by Robert Hemming [request it from the public library]
If you are "of an age", then by the title you will have guessed it is of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald (Big Fitz) the ore tanker that was the greatest of her kind on the Great Lakes.

Planning to read:
Redwall series, beginning with Mossflower by Brian Jacques [request it from the public library]
I'm downshifting to the Redwall series to see if a bit of Sci -Fi catches my fancy...

Joan Scheer
Environmental Services

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Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
This is an historical novel covering fictional characters in UK, Russia and USA living during the real events leading to WWI. A great read, good character development and I even learned something new: I wasn't aware of the telegraph Germany sent to Mexico encouraging Mexico to invade the US which was used to gain public support for our entrance to WWI on the side of the Allies.

Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg [also available as an audiobook]
I just started reading this and anticipate will be somewhat similar to the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. So far it's a great read.

Planning to read:
Winter of the World (sequel to Fall of Giants) by Ken Follett [request it from the public library]

Corrine Schoeb

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Hitler's Holy Relics: A True Story of Nazi Plunder and the Race to Recover the Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Empire by Sidney Kirkpatrick
A true story that reads like a thriller and is a specialized episode in the fabled Monuments Men (the popular Edsell book), the US/ Allied campaign to restore Nazi art plunder to its proper sites after WWII. This one, however, concerns the Habsburg regalia as Holy Roman Emperors, and it lays out the ideology of Hitler and Himmler about Aryan ancestry and the potential plans for Hitler to crown himself as latter day Emperor. Finding these objects around Nuremberg was a pressured activity, prior to the partition of Germany among the Allies and the commencement of the war trials in the city. Interesting as both summer reading and as modern history.

The Tourist [request it from the public library] & Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer
These are fabulous, Le Carré-like, espionage thrillers. I warmly recommend them to those who miss the vintage works of George Smiley and the British Cold War. Great guilty pleasures, perfect for summer escapism,

Planning to read:
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro [request it from the public library]
The latest installment of the ongoing LBJ biography (anyone who has not read Master of the Senate by now should read that for understanding of the Senate itself and the wielding of power by the master of legislative leverage).

Larry Silver
Department of Art & Art History

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Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Wonderful, entertaining read - very prescient science fiction, since it was written in '92, but lays out a very realistic picture of what's happened in cyberspace, including creating the term "Avatar" in the form we now know it. Enjoyable narrative, and scarily close to current events.

Planning to read:
Gold by Chris Cleave

Susan Smythe

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The Distant Hours by Kate Morton [also available as an audiobook]
Last year I recommended Morton's first novel, The House at Riverton [also available as an audiobook], and I suspect next year I'll be recommending Morton's 3rd or 4th novel ... Anyone who is counting the hours until the 3rd season of Downton Abbey begins (which, unfortunately, is a lot of hours, since it won't begin until January...) should enjoy this story beginning with a letter written & posted in 1941 finally reaching its destination in 1992. A London book editor investigates the mystery of why her mother was so moved by the contents of the letter arriving out of the past. Reminiscent of Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca, it's a bit of a creepy, sometimes romantic, story.

Planning to read:
Broken Harbor: A Novel by Tana French
I'm eagerly looking forward to French's follow-up to last year's Faithful Place.

Meg Spencer
Cornell Science Library

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Reamde by Neal Stephenson
The book is a thriller that has a lot of interesting characters. It includes the owner of a massively online multiplayer videogame, the writers of the game (hilarious characters), the Russian mafia, Al-Qaeda terrorists, Christian fundamentalists and Chinese computer hackers. It is a fast paced read with a lot of unexpectedly funny moments and great action. Stephenson is not known for his thrillers, being sort of a cerebral writer (he's known for his Baroque trilogy and Cryptonomicon, but while the book has its share of ridiculous moments, it also has its share of deep moments. I highly recommend this book for the summer.

Planning to read:
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
This is his science fiction book, which should be a lot more cerebral than Reamde. Hence, it will take me longer to read...

Enrique Trevino
Department of Mathematics & Statistics

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Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World by Jessica Snyder Sachs
A well-written, very accessible book that focuses on beneficial microbes (as well as pathogenic ones). It emphasizes the importance of the beneficial ones and how they impact our health and well-being.

Planning to read:
ChiWalking: Fitness Walking for Lifelong Health and Energy by Danny and Katherine Dreyer [request it from the public library]

Amy Vollmer
Department of Biology

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
Two years after the Titanic a group of men and women escape a different sinking ship. With little food and water, only some survive the increasingly dire conditions in the lifeboat. The narrator, a young women on the lifeboat, is ultimately put on trial for murder. The book asks the reader, what would you do to survive?

Planning to read:
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell [also available as an e-book]
Canada by Richard Ford

Barbara Weir
McCabe Library

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain [available available as an e-book and audiobook]
Recommended to me by Pat Martin, Director for Off-Campus Study. As an introvert who works with many student introverts I am learning a lot about this alternate approach to study, work, friendships and family. .

Planning to read:
Bossypants by Tina Fey [also available as an audiobook]
I need a few good laughs, so shall enter Fey's world this summer...

Myrt Westphal
Associate Dean for Student Life, Dean's Office

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1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart
Beautifully written and unusually engaging, this book presents a series vignettes of our country on the eve of the Civil War. It's absolutely gripping; I found myself yearning for more.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
This book presents narrative accounts of the great migration of African Americans during the 20th century. The individuals it profiles have important stories to tell about their lives --- stories that, I think, all citizens should hear and take to heart. I'd fault this book for being too long and repetitive, but even so I found it moving.

Planning to read:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot [also available as an e-book]
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild

Thomas Whitman
Department of Music & Dance

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine [request it from Interlibrary Loan]
Mechanique is the difficult-to-describe tale of the Circus Tresaulti, a traveling circus in a war-torn post-apocalyptic future. The circus performers awe audiences with a signature blend of the human and the mechanical. Some of it is an act, dancing girls in metal gloves, but then there are those who have the bones. Boss, the proprietor of the circus, is a powerful necromancer-magician, and she builds and rebuilds her performers from the inside out - using whatever she can find. Full of beautifully haunting prose, this is one of the best books I have read in recent years. Valentine's style is quite unlike anything I've read before, so even those who don't (think they) like science fiction or fantasy should give it a try.

Planning to read:
Blackout / All Clear by Connie Willis
Time-traveling Oxford historians!

Zara T. Wilkinson
McCabe Library

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The Sound and The Fury By William Faulkner
Not an easy read, but it was very satisfying to feel like I could grasp different parts and create a whole in my mind. I also liked engaging in the puzzle-ness of the novel and thinking about how Faulkner's writing style inspired such avant-garde films as Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (one of my all time favorite movies).

Planning to read:
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel [also available as an audiobook]
The second part of a trilogy about Cromwell and England under Henry VIII. Ever since reading Mantel's Wolf Hall in 2009, I've become ever more curious about Thomas Cromwell (and the world of Henry VIII).

Carina Yervasi
Department of French & Francophone Studies