George Garrett ’52, poet, novelist, and professor emeritus of creative writing at the University of Virginia, and the poet laureate of Virginia from 2002 to 2004.
Recommendation: Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, by Madison Smartt Bell ’79 (Pantheon). “In the opening sentence of this fascinating book, Bell writes: ‘As leader of the only successful slave revolution in recorded history, and as the founder of the only independent black state in the Western Hemisphere ever to be created by former slaves, François Toussaint Louverture can be fairly called the highest-achieving African-American hero of all time.’ Bell, a first-rate novelist, tells in this biography the incredible story of Toussaint’s Haitian Revolution (1789–1804), which engaged anxious attention in Britain, France, Spain, and the brand-new United States of America as well as from leading figures of the times — Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, and Napoleon. This is exciting reading and strongly relevant to our troubled times.”
John McPhee ’53, Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton and winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World.
Recommendation: Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, by Peter Hessler ’92(HarperCollins). “Oracle Bones is about Chinese people and Chinese places from Jiangsu Province to Xinjiang, and from the new city of Shenzhen to the border city of Dandong, not to mention Beijing. Through this writer’s many forms of adroitness, including spirit and humor, it carries a reader into an extremely distant context and makes the reader a part of the context. Beautifully organized, its extended landscapes and profiles are punctuated by short sections that Hessler calls artifacts, which outline the history of writing in China from ancient inscriptions carved into tortoise plastrons (known as oracle bones) on through the development of characters and what the elemental brush strokes represent.
“Hessler learned Chinese while teaching English at a teachers’ college in a small city in Sichuan Province, an experience that resulted in his first (and equally good) book, River Town. He has been The New Yorker’s correspondent in China for the past six years. Oracle Bones was nominated in 2006 for a National Book Award. It is a wondrous piece of reading.”
T.R. Reid ’66, Washington Post reporter, author of The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy, and a Ferris Professor of Journalism last fall.
Recommendation: On Beauty, by Zadie Smith (Penguin). “We lived in London at the turn of the century. Almost every month, in those heady millennial days, the literary establishment would pronounce some bright young author to be the authentic new Voice of Britain for the 21st century. Few could live up to the hype. One who does — the one who has emerged as the best British novelist of the new century — is Zadie Smith, a precise and witty observer of contemporary life on both sides of the Atlantic. Her latest novel, On Beauty, about sexual and academic angst in Cambridge, Mass., is a charming introduction to her lucid style, her descriptive power, and her spectacular ability to capture the way people talk today. Whether it’s an ostentatiously erudite Harvard scholar, a Haitian hip-hop band in Boston, or a suburban American teenager trying to sound like an inner-city rapper, this British writer has a perfect ear for the endless varieties of American English.”
Annalyn Swan ’73, editor, writer, and co-author with her husband, Mark Stevens ’73, of the biography De Kooning: An American Master, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.
Recommendation: The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai (Grove Press). “The classic tale of the immigrant — forever caught between cultures — and the family left behind is recast beautifully in The Inheritance of Loss by the young Indian writer Kiran Desai, winner of the 2006 Booker Prize. Desai chronicles the tragicomic efforts of young Biju to survive a string of jobs in the sweaty takeout joints of New York City, a world populated almost exclusively by illegal aliens. Meanwhile, back home ‘high in the northeastern Himalayas ... where India blurred into Bhutan and Sikkim,’ Biju’s father — a downtrodden cook — is besieged by parents who want help sending their children on the same fateful trip to America. In the background, insurgents gather and the last vestiges of colonial life fade away. Desai vividly evokes the many worlds of her characters, not least the magic mountains that tower above them all, impervious to poverty and politics: ‘Briefly visible above the vapor, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the winds at its summit.’ ”
Lawrence Otis Graham ’83, attorney, contributing editor at Reader’s Digest, and author of The Senator and the Socialite and Member of the Club: Reflections on Life in a Racially Polarized World.
Recommendation: Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, by Nicholas Lemann (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “For readers who enjoy books about American history or race relations, I highly recommend Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, which examines how the American South remade itself following its dramatic loss in the Civil War. After describing the tremendous gains that blacks made socially and politically in states like Mississippi, where newly freed blacks were elected to the U.S. Senate and House of Representa-tives during the 1865–1877 Reconstruc-tion period, Lemann focuses mostly on President Grant and on those white political leaders in Southern states who used violence and corruption to take power, money, and control from liberal whites and blacks. This era of Southern ‘redemption’ was an ugly and violent period, but Lemann, who is dean of Columbia University School of Journalism and a frequent writer for The New Yorker, expertly explains how the ‘new’ South’s political structure was cynically rebuilt through the encouragement of further racial and social divisions.”
Whitney Terrell ’91, New Letters writer-in-residence at the University of Missouri–Kansas City and author of the novel The King of Kings County.
Recommendations: Uncommon Carriers, by John McPhee ’53 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and The Edge of Maine, by Geoffrey Wolff ’60 (National Geographic). “In his new book, Uncommon Carriers, McPhee celebrates American commercial transportation via 18-wheeler, container ship, coal train, and even parcel post. But at its center, the author takes an idyllic digression up the waterways that Henry David Thoreau followed in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The route survives, hidden but unharmed, and McPhee’s trip reads like a joyous (which for McPhee means Yankee wry) thanksgiving for Thoreau’s rivers and his inspiration.
I had a similar feeling reading Wolff’s The Edge of Maine. The book, a personal travelogue of Maine, begins with a terrifying cliffhanger — Wolff lost in the fog aboard his 30-foot cutter, Blackwing, as he crosses the Gulf of Maine. But it concludes with a beautiful and fair-minded explanation of how the Kennebec River, once destroyed by sawmills and industry, was rescued by, God save us, the wisdom of the federal government. Both Wolff and McPhee are deep-draft authors, always sounding the undercurrents of American place and history. Their books read like fellow travelers to me.”
Verlyn Klinkenborg *82, member of the editorial board of The New York Times and author of The Rural Life (a collection of essays), and the novel Timothy; Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile.
Recommendation: Pages from the Goncourt Journals, by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, foreword by Geoff Dyer, edited and translated by Robert Baldick (New York Review Books). “I think we cannot be reminded too often — or too sharply — what a different country the past was. And in these journals, the past is Paris from 1851 to 1895, Paris in the company of French brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. Until 1870, when Jules died, the journal was a collaborative effort. After that, Edmond carried on alone. He described the two of them as the ‘St. John-the-Baptists of modern neurosis,’ and though he was saying this about their novels and plays, he might also have said it about the city that emerges through their eyes.
This selection — first published in 1962 and now reissued — is endlessly interesting, whether we’re listening to Flaubert, witnessing the effects of the siege of Paris, or attending a house-warming dinner at Zola’s. This is the tide of life, with every now and then an observation that seems to reach down into the present, like this one: The Goncourts have dined next to an American woman in Rome. Later they write about Americans, ‘These men and women were destined to be the future conquerors of the world. They will be the Barbarians of civilization, who will devour the Latin world as the Barbarians of barbarism devoured it in the past.’”
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 B. Vance.
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 re cent 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 in ‘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 Reluctant Fundamentalist.
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, by Yael 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.”