Good Reads: recommendations from across campus

Reflecting our liberal arts campus, these books highlight politics, religion, mathematics, biology, the destinies of our children … and dragons.

February  28, 2013

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America by John Demos

For parents, it is the ultimate nightmare. In 1704, Rev. John Williams’ family was kidnapped by a raiding party of Mohawks. The attackers murdered Williams’ wife, slaves and two children and took the rest to Canada. Williams and four surviving children were ransomed, but a 10-year-old daughter was not. Eunice, the unredeemed captive, never returned.

Despite efforts to bring her home, Eunice chose to live as a Mohawk — and a Catholic — for the rest of her life. Why? The brilliance of John Demos’ story lies in its page-turning examination of the life of a “white Indian.” But a deeper appeal takes hold when we realize that what happened in an instant to Rev. Williams happens to most families in slow motion. The destinies of our children, shaped by popular culture, peer groups and teachers (ahem!), are different from our own.
— Dr. Lendol Calder, history

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

In this affecting book, journalist Katherine Boo profiles the lives of a variety of community members living in one of Mumbai, India’s “undercities.” While getting a glimpse into the minds and hearts of the people profiled, the reader is forced to consider topics such as inequality and poverty.
— Dr. Kathy Jakielski, communication sciences and disorders

The Political Brain by Drew Westen; The Political Mind by George Lakoff

Both books are intriguing looks at the intersections of psychology, rhetoric and politics that should appeal to readers with a liberal arts perspective. Drew Westen is a psychologist who examines how political attitudes and positions are particularly guided by emotional responses. George Lakoff is a linguist, covering similar ground.

In doing so, both challenge the primary assumption of political scientists that voters are rational actors that weigh issue positions in terms of self-interest. They discuss the role of evocative imagery, metaphor and narrative in political rhetoric in framing issues and manipulating audience responses. Fair warning: Westen and Lakoff particularly aim their arguments at the political left, whom they argue have been outmatched by conservative dominance in emotional rhetoric. If you can hold the partisanship aside, both are provocative reads.
— Dr. Steve Klien, communication studies

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

This is a young adult novel about dragons, but I dare you to read it and not fall in love with it. For the genre, it is surprisingly mature, complex and intellectual. It is about music, and truth, and beauty; it is about difference, and getting along, and accepting who we are. There are hints of neuroscience, and philosophy, and politics: something for everyone. But above all, it has engaging characters who live in a fascinating world. It was three weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List and has been nominated for numerous other awards and recognitions. It is the best book I’ve read in a while — and not only because it was written by my sister.
— Dr. Laura Hartman, religion

The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution by Keith Devlin

The math and computer science reading group read The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution. Not much is known about Fibonacci, so the book is short! Keith Devlin places Fibonacci into his social and historical context, and shows us the importance of Fibonacci and his work. The dust jacket has a bit of an overstatement: “The untold story of Leonardo of Pisa, the medieval mathematician who introduced Arabic numbers to the West and helped launch the modern era.” There’s actually not very much math in the book. The book is a perfect choice to take on your next flight.
— Dr. Tom Bengtson ’75, mathematics and computer science

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

I loved Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret so I was excited and worried about picking up this one. Could Brian Selznick pull off something so original and unique again? In Wonderstruck, Selznick combines words and images (but not on the same pages, so it isn’t really a graphic novel) to tell two intertwined stories. One of these starts out as text; the other begins in pictures. It is only when the two stories intersect that we see pictures from the first and hear the characters in the second speak. Well, they don’t actually speak, they write, because the two protagonists are deaf. On top of everything else, Wonderstruck explores both deaf culture and history and the history and importance of museums. This is an amazingly constructed, well-written, moving novel.
— Sarah Horowitz, Thomas Tredway Library

Light and Leaven: Women Who Shaped Augustana’s First Century by Ann Boaden

Published in celebration of Augustana’s sesquicentennial, the book is simply essential in trying to understand the Augustana College of today and tomorrow. The bonus: in learning biographies that — like portraits of women prior to Dorothy Parkander are conspicuous in their absence — we have the delight of hearing a masterful storyteller, as she gently teases out and weaves together strands of an immensely engaging story that just happens to be our story.
— Kai Swanson ’86, President’s Office

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer

What are the responsibilities of people living in “developed” countries to the rest of the world? Peter Singer, a bioethics professor at Princeton University, argues that we should all be giving money — at least 1 percent of our net income, to be exact — to help the world’s poorest citizens meet their most basic needs. It’s hard to find any flaws in what he says, especially since he anticipates (and then refutes) the most common objections to giving. And lest you wonder just how best to give, Singer offers a guide to identifying the “best” charities — those that use donations most effectively to do enormous good in the lives of the people they serve.
— Amanda Makula, Thomas Tredway Library

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

I spent much of the summer in the Canadian Arctic, which is one of the most awe-inspiring, unusual and incredible places on Earth. Arctic Dreams richly captures the wonder and magic of the Arctic, making it accessible to those who do not have the luxury of traveling to the Far North. Barry Lopez expertly weaves the history, wildlife, geography and culture of the Arctic together into a compelling narrative, with the skill of a master storyteller.
— President Steve Bahls

Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe

This true account of four friends growing up in Denver was written about five years ago. It discusses their concerns and challenges, some typical of any four friends, others a result of two of the girls being “legal” and two not having papers. The undocumented girls have far greater challenges; all have complicated lives and families.
— Rowen Schussheim-Anderson, art

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In the early 1950s, Henrietta Lacks was a cancer patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital. During her treatment, and without her knowledge, a small sample of her cancer cells was removed and ultimately became the first immortal cell line in history. This book traces not only the history of science and ethical issues surrounding biological experimentation, but also the personal history of her family as they try to come to grips with the knowledge that a part of their deceased mother, sister and wife played an essential part in discoveries such as the polio vaccine and chemotherapy and still lives on in laboratories throughout the world.
— Dr. Sean Georgi, biology

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

I assign this novel for my Environmental Ethics course and for my Prayer, Community, and Transformation course because it so clearly shows a sensitive, inquiring mind struggling with religion, the decline of communities, and environmental degradation. It’s a story that proceeds slowly but deliberately, and the gentle pace and introspective tone is something of value that Wendell Berry offers his readers. All of Berry‘s books are remarkably good, but this one stands out in my mind as a classic.
— Dr. Laura Hartman, religion

Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire

This is a fascinating true account of a family who got caught in the changes resulting from Castro’s coming to power. Carlos and his brother were sent to the United States and their family was to follow soon after, but things did not go as planned. This book is well-written and insightful.
— Rowen Schussheim-Anderson, art