University of Rochester


A Summer Reading List

Ah, summer. Relaxing sunny days await, with hours in a comfortable lounge chair, cool drink in one hand and a great book in the other. Bliss.

But wait—what’s that, you say? You don’t have a book you’ve been “meaning to get to?” You don’t have one collecting dust on your bedside table or taking up server space on your Amazon wish list? You don’t know what to read as you lounge poolside? Fear not. A number of Rochester faculty members share their favorite recent reads. By Jayne Denker
[Welcher Professor of Dentistry]
Bill Bowen
Horse People by Michael Korda

I particularly enjoyed Horse People by Michael Korda. It’s a story of the author’s lifelong fascination with horses and the people who associate with them. Descriptions of the characters, equine and human, are wonderful and insightful. This is a nice, light, relaxing, beautifully written book that is ideal for summer. If you have even a small inclination toward horses, you will be thrilled with this volume, and if horses are not in your life, who knows—after reading this, you may be tempted!

[Director, Susan B. Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership]
Nora Bredes
I’ve read two books recently that I would recommend. The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood, is a complex, surprising, wonderfully written exploration of the way big events intersect with and shape individual lives. Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right isn’t only fun, it also may inoculate us against the trickier ways some in media work to spin political news.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

[Professor of Chemistry]
Bill Jones
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

One of the more interesting books I’ve read recently is Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. It was written by a survivor of an ill-fated expedition up Mount Everest led by Rob Hall, who did not return. The account is a spellbinding thriller that is difficult to put down. The fact that it is true makes it all the more real to the reader.

[Professor of Philosophy]
Robert Holmes
I’ve just finished reading Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist, by Charles Rosen, which offers a glimpse into the world of piano music and performance by an accomplished pianist. It’s well written, with a touch of humor and some down-to-earth philosophizing about music. It should interest musicians and nonmusicians alike.

Piano Notes by Charles Rosen

[John Munro Professor of Economics and Professor of History]
Stanley Engerman
The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook

I recommend The Progress of Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse by Gregg Easterbrook. Easterbrook, senior editor of The New Republic, responds to those who comment that “things are getting worse” by showing that in many aspects of social, economic, demographic, political, and environmental life, things were much worse in the recent past than they are today. Why, he then asks, does so much public discourse emphasize the negatives? It’s a thoughtful, balanced view of a position worth pondering.

[Distinguished Professor of Voice and Musical Director, Eastman Opera Theatre]
Benton Hess
I recently finished Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, which is about three generations of a Greek-American family. It won the Pulitzer Prize last year. I found it fascinating on many different levels. I learned quite a lot about history, psychology, anatomy . . . all within a very interesting story. It’s one of the most beautiful, thought-provoking, place- and time-evoking books I’ve ever read. I also enjoyed the bestseller The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. I love books in which the style of writing is even more important than the plot, and it’s certainly not that, but I found the convolutions of the plot so engaging and the characters so vividly drawn that I was pulled in almost immediately.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

[Assistant Professor of English]
Jeff Tucker
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh

My recommendation is China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh. It’s a science fiction novel set in a future Earth, where communist China is the dominant economic, political, and ideological power. The protagonist, Zhang, is a gay part-Latino civil engineer who must pass as both Chinese and heterosexual—or risk disenfranchisement or death—as he seeks to find his way in life. In some ways, it’s a classic bildungsroman, the story of the construction and acquisition of a philosophy of—and purpose for—life. McHugh creates rich, complex, and believable characters and at the same time provides fantastic images of colonies on Mars and cyber-kite fliers. The students in my science fiction course last year enjoyed it very much.

[Associate Professor of Political Science]
Fredrick Harris
I would suggest Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955, by Carol Anderson.

Eyes Off the Prize by Carol Anderson

[Professor of English]
Russell Peck
Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life by Faulkner Fox

My suggestion is Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life by Faulkner Fox. It’s by a bright, young, professional woman who chronicles, with considerable candor and wit, the fears, tensions, confusion, and isolation experienced by a new mother as she enters uncharted terrain. The argument articulates the frustrations and joys of the redefinitions of personal constraints and understandings in her life as she attempts to balance changed domestic relationships with what she had deemed to be her life of intellectual integrity and privilege.

[Associate Professor of Humanities at the Eastman School]
Ernestine McHugh
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, is sweet, lyrical, funny, and deeply serious all at once. It tells the story of a soirée invaded by terrorists, who take the host and guests—state officials, diplomats, socialites, a visiting industrialist, and a celebrated opera singer with an enchanting voice—hostage for weeks. As the story unfolds, the boundaries between the two groups blur and a world of its own develops within the high walls of the estate where they are held, while the government masses the military just outside. The novel is humane and haunting.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

[Associate Professor of Humanities at the Eastman School]
Jean Pedersen
The Game by Laurie King

It’s so hard to pick just one! I like the novel The Game, by Laurie King, the latest in a series of detective novels that pair King’s character, Mary Russell, with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. King’s series combines lush prose, a rich historical context, and a skeptical attitude toward the self-satisfaction of imperial England. I can’t wait to see how my childhood literary companions re-emerge as a result of her creative imagination. I’m also reading the history book The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand. Menand grabbed my attention in the introduction, where he linked Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey as survivors of the American Civil War. Menand makes American history come alive by relating their individual biographies. I’m looking forward to finding out how they incorporated their war experiences both into their common conversations and into their lasting contributions to American law, philosophy, and letters.

[Professor Emerita of astronomy]
Judith Piper
Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia, by Janet Wallach, gives a perspective on past conflicts in Iraq and the surrounding region, and its relation to the present conflict. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, by Alexandra Fuller, is a completely unvarnished, true story of life in Africa during apartheid. Descriptions of the landscape and Fuller’s love of the land make the area come alive, even while one despises the politics. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, is impossible to put down. It covers the history of comic books during the glory days, but this epic also covers war, love, and adventure in a larger-than-life tale.

Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

[Mercer Brugler Distinguished teaching Professor and associate professor of physics]
Steve Manly
River God by Wilber Smith

Two books come to mind: River God, by Wilber Smith, and Aztec, by Gary Jennings. Both are fast-moving, well-written, historical fiction with colorful characters. River God is set in ancient Egypt. Aztec is set in Mexico just before that civilization’s “discovery” and virtual destruction by the Europeans.

[Professor and independence foundation chair in nursing and interprofessional Education]
Madeline Schmitt
I’m a big fan of biographies and autobiographies. To me, biographies are the entry point into a broader exploration of history, culture, and politics. I am just finishing the bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi. This is a profound and beautifully written account of what it was like to be an Iranian professional woman, educated in an American university, and a university teacher of great Western fiction in Tehran during the years of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. After being expelled from teaching at the university, the author secretly organized and conducted a Western fiction reading group for a few of her best women students in her family’s home. The book is a window into a part of the world whose history, culture, and politics are little known, but whose present and future course are going to affect me and all Americans into future generations. The book also makes me appreciate academic freedom.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

[Professor of Medicine]
Timothy Quill
Train by Pete Dexter

Train, by Pete Dexter, is an intriguing murder mystery with provocative characters who intersect in ways that only Pete Dexter could fathom. A great summer read! The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, is a novel about a black slave owner in antebellum Virginia. It’s a complex, beautifully written work of historical fiction that explores this moral and historical quagmire.

[Director, College Writing Program]
Deborah Rossen-Knill
How about A Mind at a Time, by Mel Levine? It offers a fascinating view of many discrete cognitive functions and their relationship to learning. I appreciated Levine’s optimistic view about individuals with uneven learning abilities: They may not fit well in schools that expect students to learn equally well across all areas, but they often do particularly well in the professional world, where pockets of strength are often the source of excellence.

A Mind at a Time by Mel Levine

[Professor and chair, department of earth and environmental sciences]
John Tarduno
Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen

For those of us who travel the world’s oceans for research, there are constant reminders of the age of exploration in the form of geographic names found on charts used for navigation. In the western Pacific Ocean, one finds the Magellan Seamounts and the Pigafetta Basin, which originate from Magellan’s famous voyage described in Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen. This account nicely highlights the role of Antonio Pigafetta who produced a chronicle of the expedition. The text would have benefited from continued (and substantial) editing and detailed maps. Nevertheless, I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about a time when our view of the world was transformed. Last summer while conducting field studies in Lesotho, we came upon a diamond mine that was not on our maps. Fortunately, it was not like those discussed in Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World’s Most Precious Stones, by Greg Campbell. Campbell describes the often horrific events in Sierra Leone associated with diamond mining and the complex series of wars that have ravaged the country. These events have spurred some geologists to seek ways to link diamonds to their source, but to date no efficient technique has been found. The chances are remote that anyone owns a “conflict diamond,” as gems from Sierra Leone (and a few other areas) are now known. But it certainly provides a thoughtful twist on a gemstone normally associated with much happier times.

[Professor of History]
Joan Rubin
My choice is Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. The book is about a young American Jewish man who travels to Ukraine in search of his grandfather’s village and the woman who saved him from the Nazis. It’s also about friendship, brutality, sex, and language. I liked it because it was both hilarious and haunting.

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

[Dean and Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the simon School]
Mark Zupan
Good to Great by Jim Collins

Good to Great, by Jim Collins, is a look at companies that significantly outperformed both the market and their industry sector. Civil War, a three-volume set by Shelby Foote, provides great examples from history on what leaders either do right or wrong under pressure. It puts today’s problems into perspective while covering some enduring principles of leadership. Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography—one comes away from reading this book inspired by how an individual can suffer so much adversity and remain optimistically committed to the future. Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, is a Pulitzer Prize–winning book on why civilization has advanced more quickly in certain parts of the globe than others.

[Professor of ethnomusicology at the eastman school]
Ellen Koskoff
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson: What would have happened if the Black Plague had killed 90 percent of the population of Europe? Read this book and find out. You won’t be able to put it down!

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Jayne Denker is associate editor of Rochester Review. On her reading list is Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent.