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Summer Reading Recommendations: 2017

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.


Book cover for Hot Dog Taste Test

Hot Dog Taste Test by Lisa Hanawalt
Lisa Hanawalt is an absolute joy to read, from her food reviews to her wordless and gorgeously detailed pages to her anecdotes about swimming with otters. Her sense of humor and her bizarre art style are captivating and comforting, memorable long after you finish reading.

Planning to read:
We All Wish for Deadly Force by Leela Corman
Boundless by Jillian Tamaki

Maria Aghazarian
McCabe Library

Book cover for The Firebrand and the First Lady
The Firebrand and the First Lady
by Patricia Bell-Scott
This book traces the friendship between civil rights activist Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt from the 1930s when they first met until Roosevelt's death in the early 1960s. This is a wonderful introduction to Pauli Murray (civil rights "firebrand," lawyer, teacher, author, feminist, the first African American woman Episcopal priest, and lesbian). The book also reveals Eleanor Roosevelt's complex relationship with civil rights movement leaders and activists, her support in public and private for racial equality, and the way that she combined her personal and public friendships to promote what she believed to be right. Roosevelt also acted as a mentor to Murray who was a generation younger and never part of a Washington elite. Bell-Scott traces their evolving 30-year friendship in which each woman deeply influences the other. Murray wrote a book about the history of her inter racial family Proud Shoes (1956) and her own memoir and struggles as an African American woman in racist America, in Song in a Weary Throat (1987), both also wonderful reading experiences.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: the War Years and After, 1939-1962 by Blanche Wiesen Cook
First, it is not necessary to read Vols. 1 and 2 of Cook's biography to enjoy this final volume. But they are wonderful as well. Volume 3 follows Eleanor Roosevelt through the years leading up to World War II, and her career as a world leading humanitarian. I recommend this volume for two reasons: it demonstrates that Roosevelt was one of the great Americans of all time; and the important issues of this period are especially relevant today: the refugee crisis and anti-semitism of the 1930s and 1940s, the battles for the rights of workers, rights of women, issues of racial equality, battles over social safety net issues, national security, environmental issues (crop management, care for national land, water management), attempts to create an affordable health care system, the fight between economic, political, and social elites vs. everyone else, all are detailed here. Eleanor Roosevelt was not always on the right side of every social issue, but she came close. Cook sees Eleanor as the much more progressive of the Roosevelts in the White House. Roosevelt managed to balance her public and private lives, maintain dozens of friendships and relationships with a wide range of people, and grew from a shy young woman to one of the most influential public figures of her time. Be inspired by this great woman.

Currently reading (and recommending):
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann
Fascinating account of the "Columbian Exchange," the theory that 1493 was a watershed year in the world history and beginning of globalization. The arrival in the New World of Christopher Columbus and his fellow explorers in the 1490s set off a vast environmental, biological, and cultural exchange between all continents that has affected the last 500 years of the history of the world. Mann explores everything from the transfer of microbes, plants, cultural and social practices between the continents which has set off environmental and social revolutions, often with devastating consequences. For example, infected Europeans from the Mediterranean area likely brought deadly malaria to the New World in the late 15th or early 16th centuries. European settlers in Virginia cleared forests and fields to grow single crop fields of tobacco (a drug to which many in the Old World were soon addicted), and settlers in the Carolinas soon turned to rice cultivation. These farming practices created ideal conditions for the breeding of malaria-bearing mosquitos, which devastated European and Native populations. However, the majority of peoples from West and Central Africa were not susceptible to the malaria microbe then common in the Americas, thus making African slavery an economically viable practice.

Wendy Chmielewski
Swarthmore College Peace Collection

Book cover for The Plot Against America
The Plot Against America
by Philip Roth [also available as an audiobook]
Written as a fictionalized memoir, it's rather relevant today: An oppressive foreign power (Hitler) coordinates with a populist candidate (Lindberg) to get him elected president and then undermine our democracy.

Planning to read:
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

Phil Everson
Department of Mathematics and Statistics

The Sundial
by Shirley Jackson
The Sundial is my favorite book about the end of the world. The Sundial is very dark, but it is also very funny. It is a great example of how expertly Jackson can keep a story together in spite of it wanting so badly to spin out of control. Every page ripples with the tension.

Planning to read:
Virus by Sakyo Komatsu

David Foreman
Development & Alumni Relations, Institutional Relations

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Fredrik Backman’s novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others.

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman [request it from the public library]
Britt-Marie is an acquired taste. It’s not that she’s judgmental, or fussy, or difficult—she just expects things to be done a certain way.

Planning to read:
Beartown by Fredrik Backman
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline [request it from the public library]
Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett [request it from the public library]
No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers

Diane Fritz
Department of Biology

Book cover for Beautiful Ruins
Beautiful Ruins
by Jess Walter [also available as an audiobook]
A remarkable and somewhat category-defying read, the novel (which Walter worked on over a 15 year period) shifts skillfully from lyrical passages set in the past in a tiny Italian coastal village, where a dying actress retreats; to comic sections of modern Hollywood that circle around a legendary (and morally questionable) producer, his assistant, and a pitch session from hell; to the set of the 1962 filming of Cleopatra; to an adventure concerning a sozzled Richard Burton, a hapless hotel proprietor, and a burnt-out novelist. Simply, a great and entertaining read.

Planning to read:
Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton [request it from Interlibrary Loan]

Greg Frost
Department of English

Still Life by Louise Penny [request it from the public library]
Inspector Armande Gamache supervises a small town located in an unspecified Canadian somewhere - -  the beauty of the characters is that they could live anywhere, even Swarthmore.

Planning to read:
Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons (Zinzi attended Strath Haven High School--looking forward to reading a local author)
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson [also available as an e-book]
Behold the Dreamers: A Novel by Imbolo Mbue
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead [also available as an e-book and audiobook]
The Mare: A Novel by Mary Gaitskill

Pam Harris
McCabe Library

Book cover for HIllbilly Elegy
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance [also available as an e-book]
Inspiring novel of J.D. and his family’s life in rural Appalachia. Shows how each member survives what life deals to them and the determination to make a better life for themselves.

Planning to read:
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson [also available as an audiobook]

Michelle Hartel
Kohlberg Coffee Bar

Book cover for Unbowed
Unbowed: A Memoir
by Wangari Maathai
One of the climate change theme selections of this year’s campus book groups, this book recounts the author’s struggles to protect the forests and restore democracy in Kenya. The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement, Wangari Maathai was an inspirational, determined leader.

Planning to read:
Do Not Say We Have Nothing: A Novel by Madeleine Thien

​Terry Heinrichs
Cornell Library

Book cover for Little Did I Know
Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory
by Stanley Cavell, Harvard philosopher [also available as an ebook]
Beautifully and densely written, a narrative of childhood, career, friendship — and a grand defense of philosophy through music (especially) and personal sensitivity to life’s major forces.

Planning to read:
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Tim Snyder
The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time by Brooke Gladstone

Sally Hess
Department of Dance

Book cover for weapons of math destruction
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neill
We place much trust in machines and algorithms, but is it warranted?  Algorithms are written by fallible humans and rely on data that often serves as a proxy for the information we really want - a GRE score in place of education, a credit score in place of reliability - but these proxies encode biases regarding race and gender as well as the qualities it serves as a proxy for.  Algorithms control how we get jobs, which schools we get in to, how long a prison sentence we serve - and too often they are opaque, scalable and damaging.  They are weapons of math destruction.

Planning to read:
Early sci-fi. Various books by EE Smith (Skylark of Space) and Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea)

Paul Jacobs
Physics and Astronomy Department

Book cover for The Nightingale
The Nightingale
by Kristin Hannah [also available as an e-book and audiobook]
This is the story of two sisters and their struggle for survival, love and freedom in German-occupied France during WWII. It’s the often-unspoken story of women’s war – their strength, endurance, and courage during the darkest part of their lives. Beautifully written!

Dorothy Kunzig
Department of Linguistics

Becoming Ms. Burton
 by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn [available at the public library]
It is about the author's struggle from prison to recovery and then on to the lead the fight for incarcerated women.  I am in the process of reading it now after it was recommended to me, and so far it is an excellent book.

Sue McCarthy
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures

Book cover for IRL
IRL by Tommy Pico
Tommy Pico’s debut poetry book IRL follows the protagonist “Teebs,” a queer “NDN” who discovers his very existence to be a threat to some people. Throughout the course of IRL, Teebs chases after an ever-shifting “Muse” through New York City nightlife, dating apps, and weekend trips to the Hamptons, while wrestling with his past growing up on the Kumeyaay nation reservation as well as his inherited ancestral trauma caused by generations of racist policies of “Occupied America.” Comprised of one long poem broken into sections, IRL reads like an e-mail or long text message from your best friend, complete with shorthand and emoticons.

Planning to read:
How To Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood by Peter Moskowitz

Gina Myers
Communications Office

Not a Sound: A Thriller
 by Heather Gudenkauf [request it from the public library]

A woman who goes deaf because of an injury winds up trying to solve the murder of a friend.  It's an easy, quick read and it gives a sharp view of how lonely it can be to lose a sense (although there is one completely unbelievable scene about long-distance reading of a conversation from facial movement -- but, hey, fiction is fiction).

Planning to read:
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara [also available as an ebook]

Donna Jo Napoli

Book cover of The Newlyweds
The Newlyweds
by Nell Freudenberger
A wonderful, totally involving novel about a young Bangladeshi woman who marries an IT guy from Rochester, New York, she meets online. We follow her as she gradually adjusts to the strange life of America—and learns a few family secrets along the way.

Planning to read:
Seven Years to Zero by Amy Benson [request it from Interlibrary Loan]

Rachel Pastan
Department of English Literature

Tiger, Tiger
by Margaux Fragoso [request it from the public library]
Beautifully, frankly, and insightfully written autobiography of a girl/young woman who was in a pedophiliac relationship for a dozen or more years. Both the author and the pedophile are presented as full blown human beings, with all of the complexities and ambiguities and even contradictions that this brings in train. The family context of the relationship, which came to include the pedophile, is superbly evoked.

Planning to read:
When God Talks Back: Understanding The American Evangelical Relationship With God by T.M. Luhrmann

Steven Piker
Department of Anthropology

Book cover for A Little Life
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara [also available as an ebook]
I read it earlier this year, and loved it. The writing is beautiful, and I often found myself re-reading sentences for the sheer enjoyment of it. The characters are memorable. The story, a coming-of-age story about four men in New York City after college, is full of tenderness, shocks, and mysteries. It can sometimes be difficult as it covers emotional/physical traumas and unfolds through flashbacks. It is a big book, but I hated when it ended....just wanted to keep on with their story.

Planning to read:
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges

Marty Roelandt
Development & Alumni Relations, College Advancement

Serafina and the Black Cloak
by Robert Beatty [request it from the public library]
I have a bit of a commute and I like to listen to books on tape, and sometimes I listen to books that I think my nieces and nephews might enjoy. One of those books is Serafina and the Black Cloak, Robert Beatty. Its a mystery involving an unusual young girl who lives in the basement of the Biltmore Estate where her father is the estate's maintenance. She generally avoids the folks upstairs but befriends the Vanderbilt's son by accident. After a mysterious visitor arrives, children on the estate start to disappear and then so does Sarafina's new friend. She is drawn to figure out why and how. The story might be a little scary for some--I admit to jumping once or twice while listening--but found it really enjoyable.

The Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny [request it from the public library]
Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache series of murder mysteries taking place in or around the village of Three Pines in Canada. The characters are rich and deep. In addition to exploring why a particular person was murdered, the book focuses on the development of community and friendships between the people of the village, as well as the friendships that develop between them and Inspector Gamache and his group of investigators. I really enjoyed listening to the reader on these - it is the same person until the last book (the reader sadly passed away quite suddenly just before the last book release). These should be read in order as the characters continue to build on what happened in previous book: 1, Still Life; 2, A Fatal Grace; 3, The Cruelest Month; 4, A Rule Against Murder; 5, The Brutal Telling; 6, Bury Your Dead; 7, A Trick of the Light; 8, The Beautiful Mystery; 9, How The Light Gets In; 10, The Long Way Home; 11, The Nature of the Beast; 12, A Great Reckoning.

Planning to read:
Creating a Culture of Accessibility in the Sciences by Mahadeo A. Sukhai and Chelsea E. Mohler. This book focuses on research and best practices for integrating students with disabilities in the STEM fields. Rather than be a how-to manual the authors hope it will act as "... a guide to understanding the right questions to ask..." and help current educators learn their critical role in understanding, and perhaps removing, systemic barriers which exist in STEM education.

Corrine Schoeb

Book cover of Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates [also available as an ebook and an audiobook]
This book was beautifully, stunningly written. It's a gut punch to read, to be shown a part of life that one knows exists intellectually. This is to be dropped off at the 7-11 and see the gun pulled out by the boy with small eyes and to understand what that means for African American boys and men.

And a "beach reading" recommendation:
Pretty Little World by Elizabeth LaBan and Melissa DePino, two Philadelphia writers [request it from the public library]
An interesting exploration of what communal living means behind the facade of three Philadelphia row homes.

Planning to read:
My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul [request it from the public library]

Nikki Senecal
Development & Alumni Relations, Donor Relations

Crooked Little Vein
by Warren Ellis [request it from the public library]
Subversive, funny, slightly futuristic quest story - very relevant to current political situation, even though it's a few years old.

Planning to read:
Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin [request it from the public library]

Susan Smythe
Facilities Management

Book cover of Five Days at Memorial
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
by Sheri Fink
This is the story of what happened at Memorial Hospital after Hurricane Katrina, when the hospital's electrical systems failed and some patients and staff were essentially abandoned. It's a tough read on medical ethics, medical care rationing, disaster planning and management, and what happens when individuals are left to make decisions under truly horrible circumstances without a framework to help them.

Planning to read:
Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson [request it from the public library]
I read this book about once a year and it is different - and better - each time. The narrative voice is the same as my internal voice, which I find striking in and of itself, but it is also a compelling story. The last person on earth sits at a typewriter in a beach house and tells her story, and the reader witnesses the decay of memory, knowledge, and language. This book is brilliant and it breaks my heart that Markson has died and will not write anything else.

Julie Swierczek
Swarthmore College Peace Collection/Friends Historical Library

Book cover for I Contain Multitudes

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
Focuses on beneficial microbes that interact with humans and other animal life. Has won many accolades, very accessible for the public. It will be part of my reading list in a future Lifelong Learning class.

Amy Vollmer
Department of Biology

Book cover of Book of Ages
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
by Jill Lepore
A fascinating introduction to Benjamin Franklin's sister: though probably as brilliant and talented as her brother, she was unable to rise as high in a world with drastically limited options for women.

Planning to read:
Stain by Nathalie Anderson

Tom Whitman
Department of Music and Dance