What Champaign-Urbana Is Reading: Book Picks from Your Neighbors (2012)

Here are more book recommendations from CU neighbors.

Gene E. Robinson

Gene Robinson recommends:
Generosity: An Enhancement

This book, by one of our community's most famous authors, Richard Powers, explores the impact of the new science of genomics on our understanding of human behavior. I recommend this book for two reasons. First, it provides an accurate but highly readable portrayal of the science—readers will learn a lot of genomics as they enjoy the exciting twists and turns of the plot. Second, this book eloquently shows both the promises and perils of the genomic revolution, and in particular warns against unfettered commercialization of genomic information.

Gene E. Robinson
Department of Entomology
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Anne Kopera

Anne Kopera recommends:
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

Percy Fawcett, a British explorer, disappeared into the Amazon jungle in 1925 looking for a lost civilization and more than a 100 explorers and adventurers went missing searching for him. In The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, David Grann, a New York writer, tells Fawcett’s story, setting it in the context of British and Brazilian history of the late 19th and early 20th century. He writes of obsessive explorers, scientific rivalries, and unbelievable hardships experienced by the explorers. He also recounts the exploitation and genocide of native peoples indentured into slavery with the rise of the Brazilian rubber industry. The book is filled with many different stories, each one an amazing tale.

Anne Kopera
Assistant Dean, Graduate College
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Munir Nayfeh

Munir Nayfeh recommends:
George’s Secret Key to the Universe

Science storytelling, an area which I have interest in, is a form of art as well as an important, exciting educational methodology for simplification of science for children. It is possible through storytelling to present complex science material in an exciting, simplified fashion, touching the present as well as the future. World-renowned British physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking teams up with his daughter Lucy, a journalist and novelist, to present us with their 2007 book George’s Secret Key to the Universe. They use science fiction and adventure fantasy wrapped and interwoven with science concepts and facts to make the topic of science interesting and accessible to middle school children. The book tells the story of a middle school child called George and an easygoing astrophysicist called Eric who embodies the person of Professor Hawking himself, whereby the professor uses his personal speaker, a powerful tabletop supercomputer called “Cosmos,” which is able to open a window and propel them into the universe, as well as capable of manipulating space, time and matter. The voyage takes them to the far reaches of space and back. Along the way, the adventure teaches little George and the reader a lot about science and how the universe works. The adventure even teaches Stephen Hawking's latest theories about black holes and quantum mechanics. The end result of the work is an entertaining yet informative book, explaining planets, stars, comets, black holes and more including middle school drama to readers of all ages. It is through reading this book that I was inspired to write a short story “the cosmos and the nanos” which utilizes Stephen Hawking’s “Cosmos” supercomputer concept to present nanotechnology through the character Dr. Nano to children and adults alike. Drafts of some of my short stories on nanotechnology were tried at Dr. Howard Elementary here in Champaign.

I also say “Who says you can't explain theoretical physics to kids”?

Munir Nayfeh
President, Nanosi Advanced Technologies
Professor of Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Sheryl Bautch

Sheryl Bautch recommends:
Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope

My favorite books are those that teach me something I didn’t know before and inspire me, and this book did both. It is the story of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Navy captain and NASA astronaut Mark Kelly. Gabby suffered traumatic brain injury when she was shot in the head by a mentally ill would-be assassin while meeting with her constituents on January 8, 2011. We learn about Gabby and Mark’s very different backgrounds that brought both of them to a life of public service and eventually to each other. But the main focus of the book is Gabby’s injury, recovery and rehabilitation and Mark’s role as her advocate and caregiver. We see the pain and frustration experienced by Gabby, common among brain injury victims, of being unable to communicate. Her brain literally had to re-wire itself in order for her to learn to speak again. In spite of amazing medical advancements, there is still so much we don’t know about how the brain works and how it recovers from traumatic injury. After learning of the struggles and the ups and downs of Gabby’s rehabilitation, her inspirational return to Congress last August to cast her vote on raising the debt ceiling, just seven months after the shooting, seems all the more incredible.

This book also shows us what it means to be a family caregiver. While Mark certainly had both resources and challenges that many caregivers do not (he interrupted his caregiving in May, 2011, to command space shuttle Endeavor’s final mission to the International Space Station), his story illustrates what many caregivers experience: a crash-course to learn everything you can about the care-receiver’s medical condition; the need to pull together and coordinate teams of medical experts as well as family and friends to share the caregiving; the conflicting demands of work and family; and a single-minded focus on being there for the care-receiver that often leads to caregiver burnout.

This book reminded me that even those who are powerful and used to being in charge only succeed when they admit that they cannot do it all by themselves and accept help from others. It also shows that whatever obstacles and challenges we face in our own life, hard work, perseverance, a positive attitude, patience and love make the seemingly-impossible possible.

Sheryl Bautch, M.S.W., J.D.
Executive Director
Family Service of Champaign County

Gregory T. Johnson

Gregory T. Johnson recommends:
Life as We Know It

I first read this book by Michael Bérubé about six years ago in a philosophy of education course at the U of I. What struck me then and continues to strike me now about the book is how well it captures the social, political, and in some ways philosophical pressures that affect how the family approaches raising and educating their son, Jamie, who was born with Down Syndrome. It's just an incredibly sharp, engrossing and occasionally hilarious text. If you're interested at all in education, either as public policy or individual practice, I strongly recommend it.

Gregory T. Johnson
Principal, Centennial High School

Phyllis M. Wise

Phyllis M. Wise recommends:
The Cello Suites: JS Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece

Author Eric Siblin wrote that when Pablo Casals “discovered” the Bach Suites his world literally opened up. I loved this book so much because I had a similar experience. You see, my daughter is a concert cellist in Barcelona, where Pablo Casals studied cello and where, in 1890, he found an old and apparently lost copy of Grützmacher's edition of Bach’s Cello Suites on a dusty shelf in a second-hand music store. That discovery changed Casals’ life and really the course of classical music forever.

I will never forget the day, the moment, when I heard my nine-year-old daughter play the first movement of the Bach Cello Suite No.1. It was that moment when I realized that she really had talent that exceeded that of the casual music student. My world, and hers, opened up that day. It changed the course of her life and, as her mother, it changed the course of my life forever. That made Siblin’s book even more compelling.

Phyllis M. Wise, Vice President
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Kenneth Suslick

Kenneth S. Suslick recommends:
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton, is a collection of humor and adventure, an autobiography, and a guide to what it is to be a scientist. Feynman (Nobel Laureate in physics) was the best storyteller that I've ever heard, and when I was an undergrad at Caltech, I heard him tell many of these tales. More importantly, Feynman's book shows how very human science is and how scientists really think and behave. As an example, Feynman's dad would ask him at dinner, "What did you ask at school today?"

Kenneth S. Suslick
Marvin T. Schmidt Professor of Chemistry
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Cheryl Precious

Cheryl Precious recommends:
Noisy Nora

Noisy Nora, by Rosemary Wells, was the first book I memorized while learning to read because of its great rhyme and repetition. It also gave me my first lesson in humility: I was an only child for five years until my little sister came along, and Nora's unsuccessful efforts to draw attention away from her siblings taught me that sometimes, you just have to be quiet, step out of the spotlight, and let others shine. What a great lesson for the workplace — and, generally, for life! Plus, it added one of the coolest words in the English language to my lexicon: "monumental!"

Cheryl Precious, Director of Marketing & Development
Eastern Illinois Foodbank

Dan Guillory

Dan Guillory recommends:
The Road

Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) is a poignant and heart-rending story of a father who sacrifices all for his growing son, teaching him everything he knows in a post-apocalyptic world that has been blasted to splinters. The ambiance of  The Road consists of deserted houses, burned-out forests, polluted streams, and unending gray skies—a world with almost no living creatures except for the few bandits who attack the hapless travellers as they make their way south along the nameless road. The road gives form and meaning to their journey as they search for salvation and discover it in the special closeness of father and son. The tale evokes everything that is beautiful, sad, and true in the human spirit. Although the cinematic version of  The Road is quite impressive, here is an instance where the book is indubitably better than the movie. There isn't a bad page in the whole novel.

Dan Guillory
Professor Emeritus of English, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois

Barbara J. Ford

Barbara J. Ford recommends:
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created


1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

I enjoy reading that helps me understand more about the world in which we live and that challenges me to think and question my assumptions. These books by Charles C. Mann present information in a lively way and help put globalization in historical context. They show that globalization is not new and provide memorable examples of how the costs and benefits of interacting and exchanging with other parts of the world can have incredible unexpected implications for all living things including plants, animals and people. Author Charles Mann provides wonderful examples and stories that help us understand more about the world we live in today as well as what the future may be like. Happy reading!

Barbara J. Ford
Director and Distinguished Professor, Mortenson Center for International Library Programs University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library

Mark C. Palmer

Mark C. Palmer recommends:

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10

Most of my reading is nonfiction, and I must admit I was hesitant at first about this book. However, it turned out to be a riveting narrative of most of author Marcus Luttrell’s adult life, from training through a gripping and brutal scene of a fateful night in late June 2005 when three U.S. Navy SEALs lost their lives in the northern Afghanistan mountains (the largest loss of life in Navy SEAL history). I found it to be quite a personable story (aside from some political commentary jabs at times) that demonstrates the rigorous training of the SEALs, while your empathy builds for the young men. While I’m not a seeker of modern warfare novels, this account plunked me alongside the Team for a fascinating experience of survival, courage, and duty.

Mark C. Palmer
Associate Attorney
Evans, Froehlich, Beth & Chamley

Dorothy Espelage

Dorothy Espelage recommends:

Charlotte's Web

I identified with Wilbur and recognized the importance of Charlotte's effort to support him and give him the support he needed to get through life. It taught me that if we reach out and ask for help that someone will help us.

Dorothy Espelage
Professor of Educational Psychology
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Janice N. Harrington





Janice N. Harrington recommends:

The Secret History of the War On Cancer

Growing environmental toxicity affects everyone: our health, our families, and our future. This overview of what is happening and how it has been allowed to happen is must reading.

Janice N. Harrington, Author
Associate Professor of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Julie Cross





Julie Cross recommends:

Number the Stars

I read this book by Lois Lowry (the first time) in 5th grade and I remember sitting on a bean bag chair in the public library for hours, turning pages as fast as I could. It’s a compelling historical fiction that will stay with you for years to come. Number the Stars has the intensity of a thriller, heavy emotional weight that always comes with the great WWII stories, and best of all, a small glimmer of hope through the eyes of a young hero. I wanted to be Annemarie and at the same time I was so glad that I wasn’t her, it made me appreciate the simplicity of my life.

Julie Cross
Author of teen time-travel novel Tempest
Link to Facebook page for Tempest

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