The June 6, 2007, issue of PAW contains summer-reading recommendations
from seven alumni authors. Here you'll find suggestions from 14
more. Want to offer your own recommendation? Write to PAW at email@example.com
W.S. Merwin ’48, poet, winner of the 2005 National Book
award for Migration.
Recommendation: Wideawake Field, a collection of poems,
by Eliza Griswold ’95 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
“Some of the strengths of Eliza Griswold’s first book [exploring
desolation, travel, love, and the relationship between parent and child] are
immediately apparent. They include an assured authority of tone, language of
repeatedly astonishing transparency, images that emerge out of each poem’s
invisible source, vivid and revelatory even when they appear to overlap like
double exposures. Her subjects are raw, wrenching, and she makes them ours. This
is writing of true originality, which seems to have started out knowing where
it was going.”
William Greider ’58, national affairs correspondent for The Nation magazine
and author of The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy.
Recommendation: Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable
Future, by William McKibben (Times Books).
“Bill McKibben is a brilliantly original voice in the movement for ecological
sanity and his book, Deep Economy, sustains the tradition. He examines
the bizarrely destructive principles of economics and explodes many of the fallacies. Then
he explores the future and gives us a glimpse of how a prosperous economy could
function to the benefit of both nature and people.”
Alan P. Lightman ’70, novelist and scientist, whose latest novel, Ghost,
will be published in October.
Recommendation: Intuition, by Allegra Goodman (The Dial Press).
“Intuition provides an unprecedented look into the culture of
science, showing the community nature of research groups, the passion of the
scientist, and scientists’ competitiveness and jealousies. I don’t
know of any other novel that provides such insight into the world of the scientific
community since the novels of C.P. Snow.”
Joshua Hammer ’79, foreign correspondent and author of three books,
including Yokohama Burning, which was published in 2006.
Recommendation: When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa,
by Peter Godwin (Little, Brown and Company).
“Godwin’s first memoir, Mukiwa: An African Boyhood, was
a lyrical and, at times, heartbreaking account of his boyhood in Rhodesia and
of the civil war that swept that period of innocence away. This ‘sequel’ is
even better: The book jumps ahead to the past decade, when Zimbabwe's dictator,
Robert Mugabe, began seizing white-owned farms and sent Zimbabwe skittering
toward economic collapse. Godwin, who was by then a successful New
York-based journalist, returns repeatedly to his homeland to cover the brutal expulsions,
and he juxtaposes that story with the sad decline of his parents hunkered down
in the fraying capital, Harare. There’s a ‘secret’ in
this memoir that involves Godwin’s discovery of his father’s long-concealed
true identity. But that part, while intriguing, pales before his on-scene reportage
about the consequences of Mugabe’s madly destructive campaign.”
Marc Fisher ’80, Washington Post columnist and author of Something
in the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation, which
was published this year.
Recommendation: Prisoners: A Muslim and A Jew Across the Middle East Divide,
by Jeffrey Goldberg (Alfred A. Knopf).
“I freely admit to information – and emotion – overload
when it comes to seemingly intractable world crises such as terrorism and the
standoff in the Middle East. But as a former foreign correspondent, I know that
the path to reviving both interest and hope is through the lives and stories
of people who do not ordinarily populate the daily news. One of our best foreign
correspondents, the fearless, funny, and frequently wise Jeffrey Goldberg, has
produced a book that incisively demonstrates just how wrong the stereotype of
news reporters really is.
“Goldberg, like most correspondents I’ve known, is anything but
hardened: Tracing his own journey from suburban American Jew to Israeli Army
prison guard to New Yorker writer, Goldberg bares his doubts and struggles
with identity while trying to reach into the soul of one of his former captives,
a Palestinian named Rafiq Hijazi. Goldberg lets us see that even enormous effort
cannot always bridge the gap created by ancient memories and contemporary jealousies.
Too many books about wars and hatreds strain to tell us what we all have in common;
Goldberg shows us the truth about what divides us, knowing that only by recognizing
that exasperating gulf can we hope to figure out a way forward.”
Stona Fitch ’83, whose last novel, Senseless, will be released
as a feature film in late 2007 by Matador UK/Shoreline Entertainment.
Recommendation: The Mangel Trilogy (Deadfolk, Fags and Lager, and King
of the Road), by Charlie Williams (Serpent’s Tail).
“This is a trilogy of spot-on British low-life novels chronicling the
exploits and skewed commentary of Royston Blake, bouncer and anti-hero. Pitch
black and hilarious – a guilty pleasure of the highest order.”
Hilary Beard ’84, freelance health writer, editor, and author, who
recently co-authored Friends: A Love Story, with Angela Bassett and Courtney
Recommendation: Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf).
“Half of a Yellow Sun is a stunning story, and the writer, former
Princeton Hodding fellow Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was talented and intelligent
enough to let her telling of it stay out of it way. Adichie’s prose is
clean, and her account of war and its politic – in this case, Biafra’s
1967 attempt to succeed from Nigeria, during which 1 million Igbo people were
slaughtered or starved as the world watched – is impeccably researched
and sensitively told. It is also unflinching. The author spares no details in
bringing this epic to life – how a mother might carefully braid her decapitated
daughter’s hair before burying her, or how a passing bullet has a scent.
Her protagonists – a rural house hand to a black African professor; the
professor’s girlfriend, a member of black Africa’s elite class; and
a white male British expatriate romantically involved with the girlfriend’s
sister – are compassionately crafted and consistent in their triumphs,
failures, and frailties as they move from prosperity through tragedy. It’s
also refreshing to get a look at war through the eyes of African women.”
W. Barksdale Maynard ’88, lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and
Princeton and author of Architecture in the United States, 1800-1850 (Yale),
Walden Pond: A History (Oxford),and two books to be published
in 2008: Buildings of Delaware (Virginia),and Woodrow Wilson’s
First War: Princeton to the Presidency (Yale).
Recommendation: Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, by Lewis
M. Dabney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
“Edmund Wilson ’16 seems to belong to a bygone world, remote and
barely relevant – back when people actually read serious books and debated
them, back when left-leaning opinion was still varied and unpredictable (Wilson’s
book on Civil War literature, Patriotic Gore, was pro-Southern). Yet Wilson
lived into recent times, railing against the Vietnam War and going to the movies
to watch Escape from the Planet of the Apes (a “waste of time”).
Born in 1895, he straddled the Victorian age and our own, and he did much to
batter down the old conventions. Princeton came in for his scorn, as he increasingly
found it country-clubbish – though he never stopped romanticizing his precept
days with Christian Gauss.
“As Lewis Dabney’s long-awaited biography shows, it is difficult
to appreciate Wilson today, when the books he analyzed as literary critic for The
New Republic or The New Yorker are long since gathering dust. What
draws us irresistibly is his sexual frankness and serial infidelity to four wives,
revealed with astonishing candor in his posthumously published journals, which
Dabney helped edit. Chronicles of 20th-century upheaval and experimentation,
those journals – read alongside Dabney’s insightful new biography – would
fill many fascinating summer hours.”
Andrew Trees ’90, teacher at Horace Mann in New York and author of Academy
X, a satirical novel about life at an elite high school.
Recommendation: Company, by Max Barry (Doubleday).
“If you have ever found yourself in a cubicle wondering if your employer
has placed surveillance cameras in the fluorescent lights, Max Barry’s Company is
the novel for you. Barry satirizes the absurdity of office politics where a missing
doughnut can become the catalyst for a department-wide shake-up. He also has
a keen eye for the myriad and devious ways in which management techniques humiliate
and demoralize employees. If Dilbert ever wrote a novel, this would be it.”
David Treuer ’92, writer and critic. His most recent
novel is The Translation of Dr Apelles, published in August 2006.
Recommendation: The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers (Picador).
“Richard Powers has emerged as one of the best writers of the last 20
years, but it is only recently that he has achieved any kind of widespread recognition. The
Time of Our Singing ostensibly is about race, music, and physics . . . but
really it is about America. Powers is the only writer of his generation that
has managed to write a convincing story of love and race that escapes the simple
and dull binaries of white/black and good/bad and love/not-love. “The
Time of Our Singing is challenging reading. It is not a simple story written
‘beautiful’ language that serves up the same old story but with different
packaging. It is a complicated, original, necessary book. But the struggle is
worth the effort. Not since Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain has
a writer merged action and idea so seamlessly and excitingly.”
Mohsin Hamid ’93, author of the novels Moth Smoke and The
Recommendation: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber and Faber).
“I live in London, and my favorite living writer in Britain today probably
is Kazuo Ishiguro. Many readers will already know him from superb novels such
as The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World.
His most recent novel, Never Let Me Go, is a masterpiece. It has been
described as science fiction, but that is perhaps unfair. It takes place in a
reality just slightly different from our own, and is a love story and a meditation
on life and loss that shook me to the core. Simply, beautifully, a work of genius
that is at the same time impossible to put down.
“I must add that my selection was made easier by the fact that we were
told to select one title, which made it impossible for me to choose between The
Translation of Dr Apelles by David Treuer ’92 and American Shaolin by
Matt Polly ’95, both good friends of mine, and both authors of excellent
recent books well worth a read.”
Ian Caldwell ’98, co-author of The Rule of Four.
Recommendation: The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman
Times, by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton University Press).
“The book’s pedigree couldn’t be more orange and black – published
by the Princeton University Press and written by a Princeton researcher whose
husband was the chair of Princeton’s classics department – and this
is an example of Princeton in the service of the universal imagination. Mayor’s
hypothesis is eye-opening: Though modern textbooks would have us believe
that paleontology is a modern science, and that the Greeks and Romans had no
knowledge of fossils (partly because they had no mental framework to make sense
of them), she shows that classical texts are littered with references to fossil
finds, and proves that the ancients simply interpreted dinosaur remains as the
skeletons of their mythological heroes and monsters. From the skulls of
pygmy elephants on Sicily, whose large nasal cavities may have given rise to
the myth of the Cyclops, to the bones of protoceratops in Mongolia, which seem
to have inspired the fearsome griffin, Mayor develops a theory whose usefulness
extends beyond its delicious particulars, and makes us wonder how much our own
expectations dictate our conclusions.
“This, and Mayor’s follow-up book, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows,
and Scorpion Bombs (about unconventional warfare and weapons of mass destruction
in the ancient world), are so seductive that I spent two years writing an abortive
novel about them, and I can’t even say I regret it. A wonderful book
for anyone with an imaginative bone in his body.”
Jennifer Anne Kogler ’03, author of the novel Ruby Tuesday.
Recommendation: March, by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin).
“March provides a paternal parallel to Louisa May Alcott’s
classic Little Women. Literary spin-offs are hazardous. For every homage
like The Hours, there are 10 books such as Scarlett that probably
cause the source material’s author (in Scarlett’s case, Margaret
Mitchell) to cringe from the Literary Beyond. Yet March is both an impressive
work of historical fiction and a captivating story. Mr. March, based on Alcott’s
father Bronson, recounts his ordeals with the Union forces during the Civil War. His
narrative is filled with Woody Allen’s Zelig-esque moments where
Mr. March shows up in the middle of historically significant events (like a solitary
walk with Thoreau near Walden Pond) as well as personally wrought details of
the antebellum South.”
Rebecca Goldstein *77, fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study,
and winner of a 1996 MacArthur “genius grant” for her work combining
literature and philosophy. Her latest book is Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade
Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.
Recommendations: The Peabody Sisters, by Megan Marshall (Houghton Miflin),
and Overture, byYael Goldstein (Doubleday).
“These books deal with the special demands that genius makes when housed
in the body of a woman. I confess I knew nothing at all about the Peabody sisters – intimates
of such men as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne – until reading Marshall’s
book, and that in itself tells you something. I ought to have known the
names of these spectacular early 19th-century sisters, most especially that of
Elizabeth Peabody, a fierce thinker who actually coined the term ‘Transcendentalism’ for
that radical view of God and man (and woman) and nature that was America’s
first home-grown philosophy, even though she often had to apologize for her ‘unwomanliness.’ Marshall’s
book is vivid with the brilliance of these women (and her own), and makes
one feel how lucky we contemporary women are to never have to feel our ‘womanliness’ at
odds with our talents or ambition.
“That brings me to the second of my recommendations, Overture,
about two gifted musicians, a mother and daughter, playing out their passions
for music, for men, and for one another. The writing is lushly melodic, the psychological
insights astute, and, yes, Yael Goldstein is my daughter. As contemporary as Overture is,
I think the Peabody sisters would have loved it.”