Is Reading: Book Picks from
We’ve been asking CU neighbors to recommend a favorite book. Click on each title to find it in the library catalog.
Never have I felt more white-middle-class than when reading NoViolet Bulawayo's speculative novel—what if her Zimbabwean village filled a posh American mall? Hundreds of kids would be screaming up the escalators, women would be setting up a market within the mall, and it would be alive with color and energy in a way that American isn't. This device of putting her former culture in her new culture builds a vision of contrast. You long to experience the million ways she looks at America through the eyes of an often-starving child from a Zimbabwean refugee camp, and yet she never seems to judge, just observes. And you sense that although she embraces her new American culture whole-heartedly, she still longs for her original life, her old friends.
The author has an acute ability to hear and record, but she uses her past to create a unique voice. Her images are picturesque, perfect and endless—sometimes profound, sometimes charming, never forced. The first half of the novel doesn't pull you along with story as much as give fascinating snapshots of life in her African refugee camp. It’s in the second half, when the narrator gets to America, that I was more readily drawn in, turning pages to find out what happens.
Patricia Hruby Powell
Author, Storyteller, Dancer
I just finished reading Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying. It was a book that I picked up browsing a bookstore during one of my many business trips. The book brought back a time and place that we as Americans might like to forget, but which we need to remember to have a sense of where we have come from and how far we still have to go. The story, really several converging stories, was set in the rural south in the early to mid 1900s. It focuses on two men and their families: one a successful African American teacher and the other an African American death row inmate. They have both been shaped by their environment, indeed quite oppressive ones. By the end of the book they both are transformed in important ways. I would not say that this was an easy book to read—but it is an important story that continues to have relevance.
Director, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science & Technology
Swanlund Chair & Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Wendell Berry never fails to move me, in a manner that is slow and subtle and difficult to articulate. Sometimes it feels as if nothing much at all is going on in his narrative yet I am deeply touched in knowing places within my soul, while my mind lags behind. This story is about an ordinary man, a barber, living in Port William, Kentucky, finding spirituality and purpose through place and community. Berry has helped me see the connection between place and purpose, and inspires me to view my world as a teacher and guide.
This 1979 book by Douglas Hofstadter introduced my teenage brain to logic, artificial intelligence, neurons and consciousness. The book's whimsical and playful narrative make it a captivating and engaging read for someone interested in "the big questions" such as "how can my brain create consciousness?" This book does not expect any prior technical knowledge and I still enthusiastically suggest this book to CS freshmen who are looking for something interesting to read.
Senior Instructor, Computer Science, University of Illinois
Coursera Instructor, "Creative, Serious, and Playful Science of Android Apps"
Link to Angrave's version of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" song, using all 50 terms of Java code (3 min)
As the child of immigrants, I treasure The Warmth of Other Suns. It demonstrates the power and impact of the search for a better life. Isabel Wilkerson tells the epic story of America’s Great Migration—the flight of nearly six million black Americans from the South to the North and West. The book tells a story that every immigrant already knows: the simultaneous difficulty and necessity of sometimes releasing “the bird in the hand” to reach for “the bird in the bush.” As a scholar, I value this book as the epitome of excellent research—some of the best social science has to offer. The book will help you better understand some things you thought you knew and will uncover other things you cannot now imagine having functioned without fully seizing. The Warmth of Other Suns provides a new perspective on race relations, family structure, urbanization, social mobility and the “American Dream.” But I worry that calling this book social science or scholarship under-sells it. While it is undoubtedly worthy of its Pulitzer Prize, the book is far more than meticulous research. As an American, I prize Wilkerson’s masterpiece. It offers a lesson about the strength of the human spirit in which African-Americans are agents of change and not only victims or survivors. Her reliance on interviews and official records is historically detailed and poignant as she depicts a migration that is as emblematic of the American Dream as the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock. The brilliance of the book is that Wilkerson manages to depict the migration in its aggregate form as a historical and social phenomenon while also allowing readers to engage with the individualized voices and stories of the participants. Many of the stories—some are sad, inspiring, shameful, violent, funny or even mundane—have stayed with me. I love this book and return to it often. I am convinced that it should grace the shelves of every American and every American library.
Professor of Law, University of Illinois
A short story has to grab the reader right off. And then it has to hold the reader so tightly that they feel lashed to the book. No options for leisurely introduction of character or plot; the author has only a short time make a connection. That is why I love reading short stories. The author hooks you from the start, and there’s no long wait for the ending punch.
Each fall I eagerly look forward to the publication of The Best American Short Stories. With a different guest editor each year, and 20 stories by as many different authors, each year reveals short story gems that stay with me. The settings are delightfully varied: from the spare backgrounds of Alice Munro’s Canada to the island rhythms of the Caribbean to the cacophony of a large African capital. One volume included a compelling story about Ethiopian immigrants to the U.S. that took place largely in Central Illinois.
The preface for each year’s volume is a must-read. The guest editor, a well-known writer, describes how they face the daunting task of choosing fewer than two dozen stories out of the thousands published each year. Some editors keep their chapter light, while others are more didactic, but the preface always gives a fascinating look at how writers judge the writing of other authors.
Executive Director, Children’s Advocacy Center of Champaign County
This text prompted me to critically examine the production of knowledge and the ways in which "facts" are recorded/created. Author E. H. Carr helped me better understand that facts do not inherently speak for themselves, but are shaped and interpreted through a series of subjective social enterprises, primarily the selection or rejection of information, knowledge, and truth. Ultimately, this has impacted how I evaluate and synthesize information in a variety of contexts, challenging me to re-examine my previously held truths and strive for a more accurate and equitable understanding.
Samuel J. Byndom
Director, Urbana Adult Education Center
When the library got in touch about this, I have to admit to being a bit uncomfortable. It's not that I haven't read books "that helped [me] grow personally or professionally." Of course I have, but those books are typically about a Moment for me. Reading Great Expectations as a kid made me aware that I could read with an appreciation of the bigness of the writing and the ideas. Reading Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions in college opened my eyes to the notion of paradigmatic thinking, and that in turn influenced how I grapple with change. Reading John Lyons's Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics helped me appreciate the lens or filter of language in our thinking. But all of my experiences with those books were decades ago, and my everyday reading is, well, self-indulgent. Even indulgence is transformative for me in at least small ways, and so I offer to you my current reading, Sylvie Simmons's I'm Your Man, a biography of Leonard Cohen. I love Cohen. Hearing "Songs of Leonard Cohen" is a religious experience. Reading her book, you see that Cohen, the person who created this great and beautiful art, could be a pretty ghastly human being. But Cohen is just as often deeply inspirational in the way he struggles to find the poetic, almost religious truth of his writing. Experiencing that humanity, that struggle, always helps me grow.
John P. Wilkin
Juanita J. and Robert E. Simpson Dean of Libraries and University Librarian
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Alan Cook recommends:
The Seven Questions You're Asked in Heaven: Reviewing and Renewing Your Life on Earth
Regardless of our religious affiliation, we all want to feel that we've lived our life well, with meaning and purpose. Drawing from classic Jewish texts, Dr. Ron Wolfson explores the questions that should guide our life now, so that we don't end our lives regretting the deeds left undone and the words left unsaid. This book may inspire you to be more purposeful in your activities and in your daily interactions with others.
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign
Working in a middle school, I feel this book, by Sharon M. Draper, is a great example of why it is so important to "not judge a book by its cover." Just because someone looks or behaves differently doesn't mean they are a lesser person. It is a great reminder that we all have feelings and deserve respect.
Executive Director, Campus Middle School for Girls
Seldom do I get to read for fun, and this book, by Muriel Barbery, was worth every second of my guilty reading pleasure. The story is set in Paris and narrated by a young girl and an elderly woman. Despite their huge age and class differences, they have quite a lot in common. As well, the book draws on philosophy—as the author has taught this discipline at the university level—in an accessible manner that makes you understand its applicability to everyday life. The characters challenge the reader to understand the connections between lonely and brilliant females. Yet the book never abandons its witty tone, despite the fact that the contemplation of death is one of its major themes.
Angharad N. Valdivia
Professor, Gender and Women's Studies Program
Department Head, Media and Cinema Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
On the last day of January I finished reading my first book of 2014. I did not have a book goal in mind for this year, just a commitment to growing and improving in all aspects of my life. In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day is a profound book and was a great way to begin the new year. I am not usually one to pick a book from the religious section, however this was recommended to me and I am glad I did. Yes, there are many connections to scripture, as author Mark Batterson is a preacher, however the overall message is a powerful one no matter your faith. When faced with a challenge, adversity, or an opportunity, what would you do? Would you run as fast as possible in the opposite direction? Would you ignore it? Would you recognize it at all? Would you run after it with 100% effort?
After honestly admitting your response, Batterson provides motivating scenarios, examples, and questions to help us learn why we react in certain ways. Once we know our “why,” we can begin the journey towards action and becoming aware of opportunities available to us in all forms. I would recommend this book to anyone, as it is one that makes us reflect on ourselves and continues our progression to becoming the people we want to be. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and that it brings you closer to the person you continue to strive to be.
Assistant Coach, Illini Women's Golf
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
This book by Donald Miller was recommended by my son, Matt, who is living his own great story working with his friends at Spring Initiative, an innovative after-school program in Clarksdale, Mississippi. My wife Jane and I were so captivated by this book that we read it out loud to each other, and loved every minute of it.
Miller wrote a memoir (Blue Like Jazz) that some filmmakers decided would make a good movie, so they talked Miller into helping them write the script. In the process, Miller discovered the importance of actually having a good story to tell—an insight that changed his life, as he went from a sedentary life where he spent a lot of time doing very little in his apartment to an adventurer who ended up, among other things, riding a bicycle across the country and discovering all sorts of truths about life, faith, love, and purpose. Miller’s message, which he sets forth in a humorous and engaging style, is to encourage his readers to live a good story themselves. The book is both entertaining and inspiring, and capable of stimulating us all to live richer, thoughtful, and more meaningful lives.
Uni history teacher and Habitat for Humanity Club sponsor
University of Illinois Laboratory High School
This book by Patricia McConnell truly is a “must read” for anyone who loves or lives with dogs. McConnell enlightens, educates, and entertains her readers like no other expert in the field of dog behavior and training. But don’t let her credentials scare you off; this is not a “how to” dog training book. It’s a great read that will enhance your relationship with your four-legged best friend, and make you laugh too.
Mary "Tief" Tiefenbrunn
Executive Director, Champaign County Humane Society
At its heart, this book by Patti Smith is a memoir, chronicling the life and times of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and punk rock legend Patti Smith. But it's so much more than that. It resurrects an extraordinary moment in our country's culture, the late 1960s and 1970s, when political, personal, and aesthetic possibilities seemed so much greater than today. Really, though, it is about love—that most fundamental of human experiences—and the many ways in which it comes and goes.
Professor of Anthropology & Director, Program in Jewish Culture and Society, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Artistic Director, Chicago Humanities Festival
Photo by Brian L. Stauffer/U of I
Books often transport us to new, unimagined places and take us on fantastic adventures. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Hadden, takes the reader on an adventure, but it does so with a lens that most of us never have the opportunity to gaze through. The Curious Incident is narrated from the perspective of a young man with Autism confronted with a grave crime. As he tries to solve the mystery of who murdered his neighbor’s dog, Christopher also grows to better understand himself and his family. The book is well written and enjoyable to read, while giving great insight into what it means to see the world from a truly different perspective. I would recommend this book to almost anyone as they try to better understand people whose minds work in different ways.
President, Bump Nonprofit Design Studio
Each day I get the opportunity to meet extraordinary people, listen to their stories, and then make something creative together. And I’m blessed to get to do what I do in an incredible community of thinkers, dreamers, and doers. But while I love my career, the last thing I typically want to think about once I’m done each day is anything to do with my career. I’d rather lose myself in a dream. In my opinion, no one provides a dream world like author Neil Gaiman. His latest, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, so effortlessly folds fantasy with reality that you’ll find yourself wondering where the truth ends and the fantasy begins. He transports you to that age of 11 or 12 which each one of us carries around inside, even if we don’t quite remember that we do. Gaiman writes:
“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quick read. And unless you’re so “grown-up” that your world doesn’t have time to dream every now and then, I encourage you to lose yourself in it. Even if it’s just for a night or two.
Owner & Creative Director, SURFACE 51
No book I have read has left a more lasting impression on me than Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. The book is set in the United States in a time not so far in the future when environmental collapse has created widespread scarcity. Human competition for food now occurs face-to-face, hand-to-hand. The protagonist, a teenaged empath named Lauren Oya Olamina, is driven by the destruction of her village and the murder of her family to develop an original understanding of what the nature of God – if God exists – must be. With this understanding as her guide, she endeavors to survive without altogether sacrificing the principles of interdependence and trust that make human survival worth the struggle. Leading with the example of her new system of beliefs and ethics, she forms a community around herself whose members hope to survive together by their practices, to convert ever-increasing numbers to their successful example, and thereby to effect an eventual reversal of humanity’s suicidal trajectory.
The conceit of any effective futurist novel is, as a projection of current circumstances, plausible. But this one seems inevitable. Since reading the book, I have assumed that I may well find myself living in its scenario. Butler has compelled me to think – not hypothetically – about what I will and will not be willing to do under such pressures. On the one hand, the book has permanently terrified me, and I sometimes resent it for this. On the other, my imagination and optimism are stimulated by Butler’s suggestions about the nature of God; they are the only ones I’ve encountered that satisfactorily resolve the Problem of Evil or the contradiction between free will and a powerful, magical Divinity in continuous operation. This is much for one novelist to achieve.
Gary Paulsen writes of training for and then running the Iditarod dog-sled race, an 1180-mile ordeal through the heart of Alaska. It is a beautifully written book, expressed with humor and feeling, and is almost poetic in places. He starts running dogs as a novice and gradually develops a spiritual relationship with his team, with the race, and with Alaska. I mean spiritual, not in a religious sense, but in the sense of becoming one with the dogs and understanding them at a deep emotional level, becoming related in thought, action, and spirit. While most writers might tell such a story as a simple series of events, Paulsen weaves in explanations and observations so it is almost as if you were there with him, understanding and experiencing situations as he experienced them.
My first copy of Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, was a gift over 20 years ago from my nephews who, at the time, were about 10 and 12. I was captivated by the story and read through it quickly. When I finished I was so disappointed that it was over that I turned it over and started reading it again from the beginning (the only time I have ever done this). The second time through I limited myself to one chapter per day to extend the pleasure of reading it. Now I reread the book every couple of years — it is that good.
Paulsen is often categorized as a writer of children’s books but I think children and adults alike will enjoy this book. Over the years I have given away many copies of Winterdance to adults. It has been almost universally enjoyed in spite of initial doubts by the recipients. I found the book so inspiring that I took a five-day dog-sled trip in Alaska, “driving” a sled with a team of five dogs; it was the best trip I have ever taken. And Winterdance is the best, most enjoyable book I have ever read.
Retired Professor of Marketing
College of Business, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Co-Author, 101 Things I Learned in Business School
This account of the 1914 expedition to Antarctica – and the astonishing story of the crew shipwrecked without hope of rescue – is inspiring, gripping, and very well written. The language is vivid, and author Alfred Lansing successfully weaves in the stories of individual crew members (artfully pulled from diaries, photographs, and recorded accounts). I have read this book several times, each time gaining new appreciation for and inspiration from the lives of these men who simply endured in a situation where all hope was lost. If you are unfamiliar with this slice of history from the age of the great explorers, you are in for a treat. But be warned – once you start this book you may not be able to put it down!
Barbara McFadden Allen
Executive Director, Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC)
"Antarctic Explorer's Failure Becomes His Greatest Success" WBUR 90.9 Here & Now with Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson, January 2, 2014; includes links to recently discovered pictures of the expedition