Mysteries. Classic authors. The history of Method acting. Governments behaving badly. These are just some of the ingredients that make up our staff’s summer reading lists. We reached out across the organization to find out what piques our colleagues’ interest when they hit the beach (or couch) during some well-deserved time off. Here’s what they said.
A Midwife’s Story, Penny Armstrong and Sheryl Feldman
This book is a midwife’s memoir about her time delivering Amish babies in Lancaster County, PA. I think this review says it best: “Funny and wise, with intervals of nerve-wracking tension, A Midwife’s Story is unique, a revelation of a very special place and an extraordinary life.” This book will stick with me forever!
Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption and Vengeance in Today’s China, Desmond Shum
It’s a very interesting and timely book, but also an easy read.
Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Kaveh Akbar
It’s one of my favorite poetry collections, and I’m giving it a re-read this summer. It’s about recovery from addiction, and Kaveh does so many amazing things with language and form. One of my favorite lines from the collection: “Everyone I love is too modern to be caught grieving.”
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe
I knew of Patrick Radden Keefe as a journalist for the New Yorker and his fantastic podcast “Wind of Change” about the overlap of pop culture and spy craft during the Cold War, so I had been on the lookout for more of his work. Say Nothing is one of the most gripping nonfiction narratives I’ve ever read, detailing the disappearance of Jean McConville in 1972 by the IRA and using that mystery as a spark for a greater reflection on the history of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The decades-long account that Keefe lays out following McConville’s abduction winds through the streets of Belfast to the halls of power in London and Dublin and across the Atlantic to the archives of Boston College without missing a beat.
H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
The Mighty Storms of New England, Eric P. Fisher
Earthseed Series, Octavia Butler
H is for Hawk was a recommendation from our group after we were discussing birds on the Charles River. I got my father, who’s a meteorologist, The Mighty Storms of New England for Christmas and also bought a copy for myself and have been meaning to read it. The Earthseed series takes place in a dystopian near-future America and I’ve heard Octavia Butler referenced a number of times during the last few years so wanted to give them a read.
The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, Isaac Butler
This book is a complete page-turner for anyone with an interest in stage or film acting. The story begins in Moscow with Stanislavski, Chekhov, and two revolutions unfolding in parallel. The book is worth the price of admission just for the description of the second staging of The Seagull by the Moscow Art Theatre. It charts the process of modernizing acting all the way to Frances McDormand. Totally engrossing and perfect for summer.
Undermajordomo Minor, Patrick DeWitt
It’s very weird (I love weird fiction), and it made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions. It’s understated, dry, and unafraid of zagging. I feel like saying anything else would spoil the absurdity a bit. I also recommend DeWitt’s other novels, The Sisters Brothers and French Exit, but this is the one that got me hooked on him.
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
I was listening to two of my favorite public intellectuals, economists Tyler Cowen and Russ Roberts, on the latter’s podcast, Econtalk. They were discussing reading, and one of them mentioned that Bleak House was their favorite Dickens novel. I was struck by the offbeat opinion (that’s why I listen to these guys!) and thought I’d follow their lead and find out what it’s all about. I read other Dickens novels in high school and college, but other than occasionally revisiting A Christmas Carol, I hadn’t read him in years until now. I had just completed Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and thought another English society novel, from another period and with quite a different tone, could be fun. It’s not as well-known as some of his other works, but it has all the hallmarks of a great Dickens novel: vivid, colorful characters; insightful portraits of London society, from the tippity-top down to the dirtiest gutter; a convoluted plot, in this case involving a generations-long lawsuit called Jarndyce v. Jarndyce; and, of course, orphans. It’s been a surprisingly fun and rewarding read so far.
All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks
My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl
At the top of my list is All About Love: New Visions by the late, great author and social activist bell hooks. The book has been described as both revealing “what causes a polarized society and how to heal the divisions that cause suffering” and instilling “caring, compassion, and strength in our homes, schools, and workplaces.” I’ve also been wanting to read My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, which takes themes from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (a book that I loved when I read it many years ago) and brings them into our present world through a mix of biography, reporting, and memoir. Over this past year, I’ve also found myself turning back to Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It serves as a good reminder to consider what life is expecting from each of us and that, regardless of the complexities of our time, “life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems.”
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, Gary Webb
Never Let Me Go is a gorgeously written slow burn that starts as a nostalgic tale with mysterious undertones, and grows into an utterly devastating tale of loss and helplessness. It beautifully blends a coming-of-age narrative set in the idyllic English countryside with a subtle dystopian science-fiction undercurrent. Ishiguro’s prose is easy to read and connect with, which makes the ending that much more painful; however, don’t let the prospect of a melancholy ending deter you. This book is absolutely worth the read, and will stir memories and feelings inside you that can last for quite a while.
I actually ended up reading Dark Alliance via a circuitous route from work research. I have been doing research on health policies for at risk populations, and some of the data that intrigued me most was the rise of epidemic drug use centered in certain locales (as opposed to trends that spanned larger geographic areas). Eastern Massachusetts has had the largest growth of per capita opioid overdoses over the past five years, and there are debating theories as to why. As I was looking into the different data points, many of them referenced back to the crack epidemic in parts of California during the late 1980s and early 1990s. As I began to read more, I was astounded by the number of government documents that openly spoke about financing the FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic Force) using drug money. This was all made public back in the 1990s by Gary Webb, who eventually turned his articles into this book.
Citing undercover DEA audio and videotapes, federal court testimony, and declassified government documents, Dark Alliance is an eye-opening exposé on how the CIA supported drug trafficking into the US and funneled millions of dollars in drug profits into their fight against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government.
The Idiot, Elif Batuman
It’s fun because of all the references to Harvard and Boston in an era when email still felt cutting-edge.
A Field Guide to Awkward Silences, Alexandra Petri
I was already a fan of Alexandra Petri from her Washington Post column, where she switches and mixes styles and constructs elaborate metaphors to satirize politics. This is a memoir written the same way—chapters include “How to Join a Cult, by Mistake, on a Tuesday, in Fifty-Seven Easy Steps” and “Self-Defense Tips for Fairy-Tale Girls”—that is funny enough to leave you in a good mood even after the occasional emotional gut punch.
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