Off to a Good Start: Davidson Summer Reading Picks

Everyone loves a good summer read. There's no need to search near and far for recommendations – check out these favorites below from the Davidson family:

I recently picked up Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves while rushing to make a plane. What a marvelous book! True, I have spent much of the last three decades grappling with the question, "what makes a human being human?", so the core premise-raising a chimp and a human infant as siblings-was in itself seductive. That's not, though, what held me. This book is at once funny and wrenching. Fowler's heroine sees askance, as if her head were tilted. Her askew world (like someone rearranged the furniture), exactingly depicted from the get-go in the tone, diction and temporal structure of the novel, emerges clearly out of the one we inhabit, and it makes a fair claim. In the end, or somewhere in the middle, the question changes, and understanding what it means to be human feels less imperative than other, perhaps deeper, less self-referential things.
– Carol Quillen, President

Although everyone's talking about The Goldfinch right now-and I'm reading it myself-I can't think of a novel that's ever absorbed me more than one of last summer's hot tickets, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder. It's an imaginative tour de force that takes place mostly in the Brazilian jungle; coincidentally, I was reading it while hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. Every night, huddled in my sleeping bag against the cold, I'd set up my flashlight so as to gobble up a little more of a tale I couldn't read fast enough. Patchett's style is as sleek as her story is riveting.
– Cynthia Lewis, Dana Professor of English

In honor of the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of comedy (defined as beginning when the first competition in comedy was added to the competition in tragedy at the festival of Dionysos in ancient Athens), the next ampersand-and-ellipsis series will be Humor & ... Plans are underway for multiple panels (20+ faculty involved so far), a few courses, visiting speakers and comedians, and a main stage production of an Aristophanes play in fall 2015. The series will be spread over the academic years 2014-2016. The official anniversary would be March 2015. In preparation, I'm reading The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner.
– Peter Krentz, W.R. Grey Professor of Classics and History

Inspired by reading a friend's forthcoming biography of Marcel Proust I have returned to In Search of Lost Time for the first time in nearly two decades. I am underlining different sentences this go around: every reading of Proust is a decidedly new experience because the reader has become a different person. The gorgeous prose is utterly addictive, so perhaps best not to plunge in if you have deadlines pending. I recommend the translation, in six paperback volumes, by C. K. Scott Moncrieff.
– Joel Conarroe '56, President Emeritus of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

I recommend The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian, a book about the quest to build computers that can "converse" with people, and what it teaches us about humanity, and a graphic novel on the foundations of math, Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis.
– Raghuram Ramanujan, Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science

My new book Math Bytes is a fun, hands-on approach to learning how mathematics and computing relate to the world around us and help us to better understand it. In the book, you'll learn how to do calculus using a bag of chocolate chips, and Homer Simpson's method for disproving Fermat's Last Theorem.

I also recommend Perfection Point by John Brenkus and Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz. With a title like that, why not!
– Tim Chartier, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science

I'm starting Jonathan Bush's new book Where Does It Hurt?: An Entrepreneur's Guide to Fixing Health Care. It looks interesting, and he's an innovative thinker who runs Athenahealth. Other than that, my plan is to do a throwback while at the beach in July and re-read a Walker Percy classic, either The Moviegoer or The Last Gentleman.
– Mark Williams '86, Entrepreneur in Residence

Edisto was Padgett Powell's highly acclaimed first novel in 1985. It tells the tale (several, actually) of Simons Manigault, a precocious 12-year old boy growing up in the low country south of Charleston. Read it because it's funny. Read it for its sense of place. But more than anything else, read it for the language. Powell and his characters play with it like ice cubes at the bottom of the bourbon. Pour a glass and settle in.

The subtitle of Carl Hoffman's Savage Harvest pretty much says it all: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art. The book is about all of these things. But there is more. At its core, this is a book that grapples with fundamental questions and ideas about human nature. It's part history, part detective story, part family tragedy, and part anthropology – all mixed together in very readable prose.
– Chris Alexander, Associate Dean for International Programs and McGee Director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program

Recent good reads include Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, a compelling and beautifully written novel set during World War II about a blind French girl and a young German boy – two separate stories that briefly intersect. It was hard to put down. Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped is a beautifully written memoir of sorts about her growing up in a small Mississippi town and tales of five young black men who were killed. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichoe, is a novel of two Nigerians who fall in love but then head separate ways, he to London and she to the United States. It gave great insights into the immigrant experience.
– Sally McMillen, Mary Reynolds Babcock Professor of History

This comes under what I call modern southern gothic. Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhart was written by a North Carolina author. It's placed mainly in Charlotte (he does not live here) with names and places you'll recognize easily. It's a tad trashy, sad, but the characters all are interwoven marvelously. A chapter about each character-I surprised myself in that I got so taken by it, finished it in record time.
– Leland Park '63 Library Director Emeritus

My kids and I have gotten caught up in D-Day fever, so I have started the first volume of Rick Atkinson's D-Day trilogy. (Ah, summer. Love the multivolume works!). It is called An Army at Dawn and treats the war in North Africa. Next volume is The Day of Battle about the war in Italy/Sicily, and last volume is The Guns at Last Light about the Normandy invasion. I hope I'll have them all read by the end of sabbatical! When I was a JYA'er in Montpellier, my parents came to France for a visit and we visited the Normandy beaches. Amazing landscape.

My 12-year-old will be reading Atkinson's condensed-for-young-readers book, titled D-Day, about the Normandy landings. My recent high school graduate is reading Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre.
– Anne Blue Wills '88, Associate Professor of Religion

I'm a huge fan of the late Larry Brown, and I've said many times that his collection of short stories, Big Bad Love is over-the-moon good, maybe the best I've ever read. The title story has dogs, cats, plenty of beer, "birds singing and flowers blooming," and an ending you won't see coming. Perfect for summer, but be warned, like Larry himself, it's definitely R-rated
– Martin Clark '81, author of The Legal Limit and the forthcoming The Jezebel Remedy (Knopf, June 2015)

I've just finished reading Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's novel Blindness (translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero). The story begins when a man suddenly goes blind at a traffic light, and very soon the people who help him also become blind. The government tries to contain the epidemic by forcing the blind into institutions, and from there, Saramago explores just about every cruelty known to humankind. It's heavy, but it's so good. If you read it, you might want to pair it with something brighter.

Right now I'm reading Sera Beak's Red Hot & Holy: A Heretic's Love Story, a really unorthodox memoir by a Harvard-educated scholar of comparative religions. It's a hip, witty, naughty romp through Beak's spiritual adventures-and she's tried a little of it all. Ultimately the book is about finding a relationship with the Divine Feminine. I wouldn't recommend it to my mother, but I'd definitely recommend it to my nieces and younger girlfriends.

As for poetry, I have to tell you about Natalie Diaz and her collection When My Brother Was an Aztec. Natalie's poems are compressed stories, mainly about her family and life on the reservation. Her writing is passionate and cutthroat and unforgettable. In one poem, a woman with no legs claims a white man named Diabetes has run off with them in red biohazard bags. Natalie's a poet to watch out for. She's also a former student, but she was already brilliant when I met her.
– Sheri Reynolds '89, author of The Rapture of Canaan and The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb

Krista Bremer's memoir, My Accidental Jihad, published earlier this year by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, is a wonderful story of her courtship, marriage, and life with a man she met jogging one day in Chapel Hill, a "grey-haired man with a thick accent whose conversation was peppered with references to Allah."

This man came from Libya and "was older and darker and poorer and more foreign than the husband I had planned to have. The husband of my dreams did not put his forehead to the ground to pray in an apartment that was pungent with strange spices, or carry on passionate Arabic phone conversations with his Libyan family that sounded like heated arguments, though he insisted they were friendly chats."

How Bremer and her husband have made the variety of their upbringings and beliefs into a successful family is a compelling and instructive story.
– D.G. Martin '62, host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch


  • June 18, 2014


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