Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

July 21, 2016

Staff, faculty share their hot-weather choices: Summer Reading

Summer traditionally is a time for leisure reading —whether or not your work as a Pitt staff or faculty member allows you any summer vacation time at all.

The University Times queried Pitt staff and faculty about what they are reading this season and found the selections ranged from traditional beach reading to much weightier fare.


Todd W. Reeser, French faculty member and director of the gender, sexuality and women’s studies program

I have been catching up on LGBT fiction: “God in Pink” by Hasan Namir, “Nevada” by Imogen Binnie and “Infidels” by Abdellah Taia. Highly recommend all of them: All offer a voice about being gay male or transgender that is very rarely heard in popular discourse.


Alex J. Toner, University records manager, University Library System

I’m reading “No god but God” by Reza Aslan. I hope to gain a better understating of Islam and improved historic insight into the commonalities and differences between the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Barbara A. Epstein, director of the Health Sciences Library System

In the health sciences library, we don’t exactly have a “summer vacation,” but things do slow down somewhat in June and July. Three books that I have already read or plan to read over the summer are:

51RVza426cL._AC_US320_QL65_• “The Girl who Wrote in Silk,” by Kelli Estes: a beautifully written fictional account of the sad Chinese experience in 1880s Washington territory, juxtaposed with a modern-day story taking place in Seattle and Orcas Island.

41GwNNlLk6L._AC_US320_QL65_• “The Notorious RBG,” by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik: the life experiences and philosophy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

• “An Officer and a Spy,” by Robert Harris: a fictionalized account of the Dreyfus affair, a political controversy that divided France in the late 1800s, which centered on the question of the guilt or innocence of army captain Alfred Dreyfus, who had been convicted of treason for allegedly selling military secrets to the Germans in December 1894.

Adam B. Shear, faculty member in religious studies

51i0j6+MePL._AA320_QL65_I’ve been working my way through a stack of recent scholarly studies (and some learned polemics) about Zionism and related issues. I’m teaching a new course on Zionism, anti-Zionism and post-Zionism in the fall and I’m also exploring the lay of the land in Israel studies to prepare for some new initiatives in the Jewish studies program. I am just starting on Lihi Ben Shitrit’s “Righteous Transgression: Women’s Activism on the Israeli and Palestinian Religious Right,” which is going to take me far away from my usual terrain of cultural and intellectual history and into political sociology and ethnography. Liora Halperin’s excellent study of language politics among Jews in Mandatory Palestine, “Babel in Zion,” was more familiar to me discipline-wise, but a lot of the issues were wholly new to me.

I just got back from two weeks in Israel that coincided with Hebrew Book Week where publishers offer deep discounts on new books. So I was able to add some of the latest Israeli scholarship in Hebrew to the mix.

One of them is a controversial book in Israel, Gish Amit’s “Ex-Libris: Chronicles of Theft, Preservation and Appropriation at the Jewish National Library.” I am especially interested in the way he draws connections between the history of the book (one of my main research areas) and issues of colonialism in the formation of modern national libraries and museums.

Although this serious reading has been a pleasure, I’ve also turned to my usual fun summer reading — mystery novels. I am in the middle of a series by Nicola Upson set in the 1930s and featuring Josephine Tey, one of the greats of the British “Golden Age” detective novelists.

I look for cheap paperbacks at the Squirrel Hill Library sale for reading on long plane flights. Recently I picked up some of the mid-century Michael Innes mysteries featuring scholarly detectives and murderous scholars and passed the time on the plane trying to figure out who might have wanted to kill the old baronet in the study.

And while I was at Hebrew Book Week, I couldn’t resist looking around to see if there were any Israeli mysteries that I could connect to the history of Zionism — and I found “You are a Policeman in Jerusalem” that looks to be a police procedural combined with political thriller, published under a pseudonym. Should be fun vacation reading plus a real-life mystery to try to unravel.

513V32QdsoL._AC_US320_QL65_Jeremy Levy, Distinguished Professor of Condensed Matter Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, and director of the Pittsburgh Quantum Institute

I’m be-tween books right now, just reading New Yorker short stories. Last book I read was “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. My aunt gave it to me as a present. She thought I would like it, given that I am a physicist. The title has a literal meaning — it refers to radio waves, which played a pivotal role in WWII.

There are about 99 other layers of meaning that all come into focus at just the right time and place. I will never look at a can of peaches the same way.

Kathleen E. George, faculty member in theatre arts

• “The Black Calhouns” by Gail Lumet Buckley

51Kd54pNyKL._AC_US320_QL65_• “The Heart of June” by Mason Radkoff

• “The Immigrant Wife” by Madhu Wangu

• “Dancing Bear” by James Crumley

51QvQhpnFiL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_• “City of Secrets” by Stewart O’Nan

• “Whiskey, Etc.” by Sherrie Flick

• “Circling the Sun” by Paula McClaine

• “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” by Chris Cleve

• “Modern Lovers” and “The Vacationers” by Emma Straub

• “The Letter Writer” by Dan Fesperman

Still to read, piled on my shelf:

• “Sweetbitter” by Stephanie Danler

• “The Girls” by Emma Cline

• “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara

• “How to Build a Girl” by Caitlin Moran

• “Wilde Lake” by Laura Lippman

I seem to read in three categories — books by local writers I know, highly recommended or reviewed books and finally novels of crime (to keep me on my toes in case I turn back to writing crime novels myself). Radkoff, Wangu, Flick and O’Nan are part of the Pittsburgh writing community, wonderful writers whom I support. Crumley I have been hearing about as one of the great crime writers. Fesperman, much less well known, impressed me when he spoke at Festival of Mystery so I decided to catch up with his latest. The rest of the books on my list are highly touted ones, many from The New York Times reviews. “The Black Calhouns” is an exception, nonfiction I read for research.

Marcus Rediker, Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History, Department of History

51gQOMGXyCL._AC_US320_QL65_I am most-ly reading primary and secondary sources linked to a book I am completing this summer: “The Fearless Benjamin Lay, the Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist,” to be published by Beacon Press. For pleasure I am re-reading Barry Unsworth’s epic, Booker-Prize-winning novel, “Sacred Hunger,” about the Atlantic slave trade.  It is one of the most moving books I have ever encountered. No matter how many times I read it, its power never seems to diminish.

Carey Balaban, otolaryngology faculty member and vice provost for faculty development

Regular daily Talmud study with the ‘Daf Yomi’ program (one double-sided page per day with commentaries): This program has participants worldwide who study the same pages according to a published schedule. We are currently reading Tractate Bava Kama, which deals with issues that include damages, liability and duty of care. At this pace, participants finish the Talmud in about 7.5 years; we are more than half through the cycle.

Summer term allows more time to delve into commentaries and related works.

• Norman MacLean, “Young Men and Fire”: Narratives of disasters relative to fighting wildfire provide real-world lessons-learned material to add to our National Preparedness and Homeland Security certificate courses.

51TzDElirXL._AC_US320_QL65_• Seth Meyerowitz and Peter Stevens’ “Lost Airman: A True Story of Escape From Nazi Occupied France”: This book provides another personal account of undercover operations of the French Resistance. It should provide more material for describing social dynamics and operations of analogous groups in our National Preparedness and Homeland Security curriculum.

• Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.’s “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It”: It is important to understand multiple points of view to identify and mitigate potential unintended consequences of our diversity initiatives.

51TJplHxNjL._AC_US320_QL65_Robin Kear, liaison librarian, University Library System

I have just started reading “The Book of Strange New Thins” by Michel Faber. I recently finished “In a Dark, Dark Wood” by Ruth Ware and I couldn’t put it down. That one is a fast read. I belong to a book club and these are our most recent choices.

David Bartholomae, Charles Crow Chair, Department of English

51FjkT0Zj6L._AC_US320_QL65_I’ve just completed a sabbatical year as a visiting scholar at the University of Deusto in Bilbao, Spain. For our summer vacation, my wife and I are staying put. Bilbao is a great city, one of Pittsburgh’s “sister” cities. It was once home to steel mills (los altos hornos), but the mills here, like those at home, have been replaced by parks and shops, museums and riverwalks.

One of my projects this year was to study the work of a Spanish novelist, Ramiro Pinilla, who worked in Bilbao and lived just north, on the Bay of Biscay, in a town called Algorta. (Algorta is where I lived this year [and] it is the setting for all of Pinilla’s major novels.) I met Pinilla in the spring of 2010. He was reading from “Las Ciegas Hormigas” (“The Blind Ants”) and taking questions from the audience in a local bookstore. I spoke with him after, and he signed a copy that became the first Spanish novel I had read, cover to cover, in Spanish.

In August 2014, my wife and I spent an afternoon with Pinilla in his study in Walden, the name he gave to the house he built in 1961. He was open and gracious and generous with his time and attention. We were interviewing him with an article in mind, one that might include a brief translation. It seemed odd to us that his work had not been translated into English. He has won many of Spain’s major literary awards. We intended to follow up in the summer of 2015, but, sadly, Pinilla passed away soon after we left.

This year I’ve been reading my way through his work, and the final items on my list are the three massive novels that make up the trilogy titled “Verdes Valles, Colinas Rojas” (“Green Valleys, Red Hills”). These have become my summer reading.

The title of the trilogy refers to a central thematic division between the green valleys of the old rural order located on the western side of the river Nervión (Bilbao’s Monongahela), and the red cliffs on the other side, on the left bank — red for the iron ore mined in the mountains, leaving rust in the soil and the streams, and red for the fires of the blast furnaces. Each novel runs well over 700 pages, so it has been a labor — sometimes a labor of love and sometimes not.

The novels mix myth with local history to tell the story of this area in the Basque country from 1889 to 1969 — from the restoration of the monarchy, through the second Spanish Republic and the Civil War, to the era of Franco and the complex politics of Basque nationalism. And in them you can hear echoes of novels by William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, two writers whose importance Pinilla often acknowledged.

And that is what interests me most — this example of exchange between one writer and another. While I came to “Las Ciegas Hormigas” as someone who knew (and loved) Algorta, I came without the usual credentials. I’m not a scholar of Spanish language and literature, nor am I a Faulkner specialist. I have spent most of my career teaching writing to first-year college students, which means I have thought long and hard about how to most usefully engage student writers with written sources.

My concern is to prepare students to work with and from assigned readings, to do more than copy, summarize, paraphrase or quote. The problem of an undergraduate education in the U.S., I think, is imagining how a novice can do meaningful work in the presence of experts — how they can have something to say in the presence of other very powerful and persuasive speakers, how they might get a word in edgewise, how they might use the work of a published writer to enable and inspire work of their own, work that can legitimately be said to be original, innovative, memorable, theirs.

Pinilla appealed to me initially as a writer who brought me familiar scenes and local history; I came to see his work as an important point of reference in my teaching and in my research. I’m in the middle of the third volume. I have 400 pages to go. I don’t intend to carry this heavy book home on the plane.

Mike Dabrishus, assistant University librarian, University Library System

books.brown dogAt one time my summer reading material probably was lighter than during other seasons of the year, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. My reading habits are quite eclectic, serendipitous really, depending upon so many factors. For example, a month or so ago I visited John King’s used/rare bookshop in Detroit. I found many things of interest but ended up walking out with several books by Jim Harrison, one of my favorite writers. I find his novellas very appealing, so I picked up three of his books: “The Woman Lit by Fireflies,” “The Summer He Didn’t Die” and “Brown Dog.” I’m well into the latter item, which is thoroughly entertaining.

Recently I visited Caliban Book Shop, where I saw a small display of books published by Low Ghost Press, a small, independent press right here in Pittsburgh. The one I bought that day, “Love Songs from Flood City” by Adam Matcho, is but one example of the talented writers surrounding us. Matcho’s poetry can be quite moving.
Several years ago I received, as a gift, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a book that came out 10 years ago. It helps put into perspective how the U.S. so totally screwed up in Iraq. I can only read small portions of the book before I simply have to put it down. When not steeled sufficiently to continue with “Emerald City,” Harriet Rubin’s “Dante in Love” is close by.

—Marty Levine

Leave a Reply