May 26, 2022
This month I am reading a book about higher education, The Real World of College, by Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner. The authors interviewed thousands of students and others on ten campuses to understand how students think about their education. I was drawn to this book partially because UNH was one of the research sites. The authors believe strongly in traditional liberal arts education, but let the students speak for themselves.
April 28, 2022
This month I returned to the classics with Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This is only my second Russian novel—I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina a few years ago—and I must admit it takes a few chapters to get used to the writing style and even the conventions for people’s names. But I am enjoying this one, which is set in St. Petersburg prior to the Russian Revolution. It reminds me of the Albert Camus classic The Stranger. In both books the protagonist commits a serious crime for reasons that are unclear and has plenty of time to reflect on it with us.
March 23, 2022
This month I read The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig. It has been on the bestsellers list for a few months, and I decided to give it a shot. It is an intriguing exploration of the question of what it would be like to change decisions you have made in your life, and then live out the consequences of the change. A very thought-provoking read. I also try to read something with a spiritual bent during the season of Lent. I am now reading Breaking Ground, Charting Our Future in a Pandemic Year. This is a compendium of essays written during the past two years, trying to imagine our post-COVID future through the lens of the Christian humanist tradition. Like any edited volume, some of the essays are stronger than others, but overall I am impressed by the idea of thinking more broadly and spiritually about our collective future.
March 1, 2022
For the last couple of weeks I have been reading Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. I had read his previous book, All the Light We Cannot See, and loved it. This one is quite a bit more challenging, as it involves five narrative threads over several centuries, united by an ancient story attributed (fictionally) to Antonio Diogenes. Libraries figure prominently in all the stories. People who have finished the book tell me it all comes together in the end; I can’t wait to see how!
Feb. 1, 2022
I began reading Citizens of London, by Lynne Olson, over the holiday break. It focuses on several prominent Americans who spent much of World War II in London, and influenced policy both in London and Washington. Interestingly, a former governor of New Hampshire, John Gilbert Winant, was among them as US Ambassador to the United Kingdom. As we begin Black History Month, I am reading All That She Carried, by Tiya Miles. It is the true story of a cotton sack packed in an emergency by an enslaved woman and passed down through generations of an African American family. The subtitle of the book is The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.
December 21, 2021
This month I have been reading a lot of wonderful fiction. I am currently reading The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles. I had read his two previous books, The Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow, both of which were terrific. The Lincoln Highway is a tour de force of travel writing and character development. Earlier this month I read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, historical fiction about Shakespeare’s son who died during the plague, sometime before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. O’Farrell’s description of the grief of Hamnet’s mother is among the most compelling passages I have ever read. Finally, I read Small Things Like These, by Clair Keegan. Set in the days before Christmas in a small town in Ireland, Small Things mixes happiness and darkness in a manner that reminded me of other great Irish fiction.
November 23, 2021
Since I didn’t mention any books last month I have several to discuss. The first is Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, by Justin Martin. This is a wonderful biography of the famous landscape architect who designed Central Park, the National Mall and many other famous spaces. Olmsted was the Forrest Gump of the 19th Century; he was everywhere! Moving to popular fiction, I read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. An interview with a famous actress reveals many small secrets and at least two big ones. Finally, after visiting with a UNH alum who leads a biotechnology firm, I am reading The Code Breaker, by Walter Isaacson. This book tells tells the story of the discoveries and inventions that made gene editing possible, focusing particularly on Jennifer Doudna, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. Isaacson does a nice job of making the science accessible, and explaining the social organization—a mix of collaboration and competition—that drives big science.
September 29, 2021
It took me a while to finish last month’s book about Pittsburgh, so I only have one new one to add. I am currently reading North River, by Pete Hamill. The story takes place in Depression-era New York City, and tells the story of a doctor and his family dealing with wounds (some visible, others less so) experienced in World War I. I had previously read Forever by Hamill, and am once again struck by the lyrical quality of his writing.
August 31, 2021
I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I have seen many references to the poetry of Robert Burns. Last month I read Burns: Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series) and enjoyed it very much. Many of the poems are in a Scottish dialect, which requires flipping back and forth to the glossary at the end of the book. In various poems the reader encounters the poem that the song Auld Lang Syne is based on, as well as the phrase “the best-laid plans of mice and men…”, and the term “cutty sark” (which is a long story). I am also reading (on my wife Jan’s recommendation) Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance, by Mark Whittaker. It’s the story of the African American community in Pittsburgh over the last two centuries, focusing particularly on journalism, sports, and music. Jan is from Pittsburgh and I went to graduate school there, so we both have a particular interest in learning more about the Steel City.
June 30, 2021
I read a pretty wide range of books in June. The most substantive was Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America, by Steven J. Ross. It is the amazing story of how a set of amateur spies infiltrated and ultimately brought down groups devoted to bringing Nazism to the US in the years leading up to WWII. When I was at the beach with my family I read Devices and Desires, by P.D. James. This book was a gift from a friend, and as a whodunit a bit of a departure for me. But I enjoyed the story, the characterizations, and especially the English seaside scenery. Finally, I read (many times!) The Couch Potato to my grandchildren. John Jory and Pete Oswald wrote this story of a potato who is very comfortable on the couch due to really impressive technology. A power outage leads to a reconsideration of what is really important in life.
June 2, 2021
I have decided to go back to the classics this summer, and looked for an internet list of great books to see which ones I had missed. This led me to my current book, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. One of his other books, East of Eden, is my all-time favorite, so it was easy to decide to read this one. It is beautifully written but contains enough human suffering for several books. It is the story of the Joad family’s journey to California to find work after they were pushed off their land in Oklahoma during what became known as the Dust Bowl. Steinbeck’s evocation of the people and places in the book is profound.
April 28, 2021
I have been reading a wide range of books this month. The most fun was Shoe Dog, Phil Knight’s memoir of how he created Nike. While we think of Nike as a multibillion-dollar behemoth, this book recounts the earliest Nike employees literally scraping together coins to pay off their loans. You would never have bet reading this that Nike would become the global powerhouse it is today, but fortunately for Nike their investors did just that. I have also been reading The Sum of Us, by Heather McGee. McGee travels across the country to examine the costs of racism, including the impact racism has had for white people. Her paradigmatic example is communities that drained their swimming pools rather than integrate them. I remember my family’s favorite beach in Maryland being closed for this reason, so the book had a special resonance for me. Finally, I read Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry. I had read The Secret Scripture last year and wanted to revisit his beautiful prose and imaginative metaphors (“We felt like bugs in a girl’s bonnet. Alien”). This book is about two eighteenth-century men who would be considered gay today (they never actually name it in the book) and their lives as entertainers, soldiers and, improbably, parents. Some of the war scenes in the book are very hard to read, but I remain a big Barry fan, nonetheless.
March 29, 2021
It has taken me most of the month to finish the books I mentioned last month by former President Obama and UNH professor Jason Sokol. Since, like many Christians, I am observing the season of Lent, I have also been reading Learning to Pray, by Jesuit priest James Martin. While Fr. Martin comes from a Catholic spiritual tradition, his approaches are relevant for people of all faiths. I have just ordered a new set of books and will have more to share with you next month!
February 25, 2021
I enjoyed immensely reading Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, which recounts the leadership of Winston Churchill during the bombing of London by the Germans during WWII. Churchill was a great wartime leader and quite a character. It is my favorite Larson book to date; I also read his Devil in the White City and Dead Wake. I also enjoyed The Return by Nicholas Sparks. It is set in North Carolina not too far from the setting of Where the Crawdads Sing, which I recommended last year. A wounded military veteran comes to North Carolina and encounters a mystery involving his grandfather. Lots of fun!
January 25, 2021
In antipation of Black History Month in February, I have been reading a great range of books related to diversity, equity and inclusion: A Question of Freedom, by William G. Thomas III., describes the lawsuits brought by enslaved people from the late 1700s up to the Civil War in an attempt to win their freedom. A surprising number of these suits were successful. I was particularly interested in this book because it focuses on Prince Georges County, MD, which is adjacent to Washington, DC, and where I grew up. I am reading A Promised Land, by former President Barack Obama. It is particularly interesting to read this in light of the current presidential transition. Finally, I am reading a wonderful book by UNH’s own Jason Sokol: The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Professor Sokol explores not only the life of Dr. King, but how his legacy was contested after this death.
January 1, 2021
New feature! Almost all of the highlighted books in bold below are now available to read online for free from the UNH Library.
A few years ago, I read the surprise Ken Follett bestseller, The Pillars of the Earth. This month I read the prequel to that book, The Evening and the Morning. While his books are something of a guilty pleasure, his ability to convincingly recreate a set of towns and characters in England circa AD 1000 is both educational and totally engrossing.
My other read this month (not yet finished) is The Weirdest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich, who is a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard. Weird is an acronym for Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. Henrich’s point is that people who fit the Weird description are much less common in the world than people who don’t. The book strikes me as about halfway between an academic tome and a book for general audiences (you have been warned!) I would be curious to hear from UNH colleagues in related disciplines as to their thoughts on Henrich’s work.
I read two really interesting books about women this month.
One is a work of historical fiction by Paula McLain set in the early 20th Century. It is entitled The Paris Wife, and it describes the courtship and marriage of Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway, focusing particularly on their time in Paris. There was a lot of drinking.
The second book is Empress Dowager Cixi, The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, by June Chang. I had read her bestseller The Wild Swans a while ago, and both books focus on women who shaped, and were shaped by, Chinese history. The Empress Dowager had an amazing impact on the emergence of China into the modern world.
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett. This best-seller tells the story of African-American twin girls/women who take very different paths through life.
Life of a Klansman, by Edward Ball. Ball uses historical records and family history to explore his ancestors’ engagement in racial repression and violence.
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. The fascinating story of the Great Migration, in which millions of African Americans fled the South for Northern cities in the first half of the twentieth century.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This novel explores themes of racial identity among African Americans and Blacks in America (those who have emigrated from African and the Caribbean).
Tar Baby, by Toni Morrison. Another captivating novel from the late great Toni Morrison, it addresses issues of race, gender, class and age.
How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi. This bestseller exhorts readers to not only not be racist, but to be antiracist. His arguments are grounded in his own life in a compelling manner.
The Kitchen Boy, by Robert Alexander. A fact/fiction amalgam of the last days of the Romanov Family (Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra and their children), who were murdered in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
This month, I read two very different non-fiction books:
The first, The Map of Knowledge, by Violet Miller, shows how knowledge from ancient Greece found its way from one library to another between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. There are chapters on the libraries in Alexandria, Baghdad, Cordoba and Palermo, among others. Scholars traveled from one country to another to find the books they needed, and sometimes had to learn new languages along the way. The role of Arabs in preserving and disseminating knowledge is particularly striking.
The second book, Alpha Girls, by Julian Guthrie, has in common with the first book only that Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. The author tells the stories of four women who worked as venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. They all overcame the sadly predicable sexism to become wildly successful, often through investing in fledgling companies that have become household names. The author secured remarkable access to their professional and personal lives to tell their stories.)
I read two great books last month. First, Counterpoint, A Memoir of Bach and Mourning by Philip Kennicott. The author describes his attempts to learn Bach’s Goldberg Variations on piano as a response to his mother’s death. While you probably must like classical music at least a little to enjoy the book, its themes go well beyond, encompassing joy and freedom vs. caution and precision in life, as well as in music. I could relate to Kennicott’s challenges in learning Bach, as I have encountered similar challenges learning to play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto (which in fairness is a lot simpler than the Bach piece!).
The second book is Daring to Drive, by Manal Al-Sharif, in which she recounts her struggles to change the practice (not exactly a law) forbidding women from driving in Saudi Arabia. This is a remarkable story by a courageous woman. There is even a New Hampshire angle resulting from the author’s sojourn in the U.S.: Chapter 10 is entitled Live Free or Die.
I recently finished a tremendous book with a UNH alum as its hero. Bottle of Lies, by Katherine Eban, recounts the story of massive quality problems in generic medications that persisted for years. The main reason the FDA was able eventually to address these problems was the work of Dinesh Thakur (UNH ‘92G), who served as a whistleblower at great personal risk. I recently met Dinesh and he is as impressive in person as he comes off in the book. We hope to have him visit UNH again soon.
Another great story is The Lost City of the Monkey God, by Douglas Preston. The book recounts a series of explorations to a remote (and this is an understatement) section of Honduras where there had been rumors of a lost city for many years. The two books overlap in their themes of ethics and health, and so are quite timely.
As February is Black History Month, I thought I would mention a few of my favorite books by or about African Americans. First, Just Mercy by attorney Bryan Stevenson, tells the story of his defense of African American men in the South who had been unjustly convicted of many crimes, including murder. I have not seen the movie, but the book makes one question deeply the justice of the criminal justice system.
Another book worth reading is The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist. He tells the story of the westward expansion of slavery in the decades preceding the Civil War, and argues that much of the strength of the American economy derives from the enslavement of millions of people over centuries, and their hard labor on plantations and elsewhere. Finally, since I can’t decide among several books I have read by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, I will name them all: Beloved (of course), Song of Solomon, Jazz, and Home. Each of these books increases one’s appreciation of the African American experience, the American experience and simply the human experience.
I read two very different books over the last month. The first, The Emperors of Chocolate by Joel Glenn Brenner, provides a history of the chocolate business, focused on Mars and The Hershey Company. The most interesting part of the book is the stories of the two families behind these companies, and how the businesses they started reflect their family dynamics.
The second, Perfect Pitch by Jon Steel, is not about music, but rather about making presentations. Steel, a successful advertising executive, is an entertaining writer who has thought very hard about how to put together winning presentations. It is worth mentioning that he is no fan of PowerPoint! I also wanted to mention that my comments on children’s books last month led to a number of suggestions from people across UNH. If you are interested in the books that some of your colleagues love, click here . Thanks for your suggestions!