Professor Kong is reading...

American Born Chinese
By: Gene Luen Yang

Over winter break, I was asked by a family friend to recommend some literary readings for her four Chinese American children, ages 5, 7, 9, and 14.  For the teenage daughter, I immediately thought of one of my favorite books, Maxine Hong Kingston’s classic memoir The Woman Warrior.  But what of the younger kids?  It was in this context that I recently revisited Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 award-winning graphic novel, American Born Chinese.  The cover blurb helpfully summarizes the basic plotline for us: “Jin Wang starts at a new school where he’s the only Chinese-American student.  When a boy from Taiwan joins his class, Jin doesn’t want to be associated with an FOB [fresh off the boat] like him.  Jin just wants to be an all-American boy, because he’s in love with an all-American girl.”  Other key figures appear along the way, including a cousin visiting from China and the legendary Monkey King or Sun Wukong.  What strikes me about this text is its potential appeal to a range of audiences.  Never a big reader of comics myself, I can nonetheless see layers of genre here: this is at once diasporic folklore and ethnic bildungsroman, fictionalized memoir and psychic allegory, gothic camp and racial critique, Kung Fu Panda and Better Luck Tomorrow.  In addressing the theme of Asian versus white masculinities, the damaging effects of model minority and perpetual foreigner stereotypes, the persistence of Yellow Peril discourse and the construction of the immigrant as alien, the novel tackles some of the central issues in Asian American studies as well as our current U.S. race and immigration policies.  Without giving the final plot twist away, I’d add that readers interested more generally in theories of psychoanalysis and trauma, tricksterism and colonial mimicry, power and the assemblage will also find much material of note here.  Hence, not only have I recommended American Born Chinese to my family friend for her children, but my upper-level seminar on “Imagined Asias” will be reading it this week, a fortuitously timely work for our time.

Library Note:  A copy is on order!

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Olivia Ware '20 is reading...

Defending Jacob
By: William Landay

During winter break I reread a book that continues to keep me engaged and anxious to turn the page with every read.

Defending Jacob by William Landay, is the deceptively remarkable story of a 14 year old boy named Jacob who is accused of murdering a fellow classmate. When the bludgeoned body of the murdered middle schooler is first discovered, it is Jacob’s father Andy, the city’s Assistant District Attorney, who takes charge of the investigation. When evidence appears to point to Jacob, Andy is removed from the case and finds himself defending his own son from the charges pressed. Like any parent, he believes strongly in the innocence of Jacob despite the build up of evidence, tensions between neighbors, friends, and eventually even his wife. Doubt begins to creep in and Andy’s devotion as a parent to his son is tested. How well does a parent really know their child and how far will they go to protect them?

This well-written thriller is powerful, complex, and shocking and puts a family to the ultimate test while also addressing questions concerning whether the human capacity for violence is an inherited trait, or something we learn. I’m sure the twist at the end will leave you speechless; I know I was.

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Beth Hoppe, Social Sciences Research & Instruction Librarian, is reading...

A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age
By: Daniel J. Levitin

I picked this up when it first came out and have found it to be a fresh perspective on something I talk about all of the time.  Levitin takes a look at the different types of information that constantly surrounds us and provides a critical lens through which to view them.  Wondering how someone can lie when the statistics are right there?  He’s got you covered. Rhetoric and coding as a way of loading your text? Here’s how to see through it.  Especially given the recent focus on fake news this is a good reminder to be ever aware and critical of all sources of information. Want to know more?  Come talk to a librarian!

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Prof. Wheelwright is reading...

Death of a Naturalist
By: Seamus Heaney

It has been just over three years since Seamus Heaney died. Considered one of the greatest Irish poets since Yeats, Heaney was awarded a Nobel laureate in literature in 1995 for his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” For some reason, I cut out his obituary from the New York Times, folded it, and placed it on the corner of my desk where it has sat, yellowing and brittle, ever since. Last week I finally climbed up to the fourth-floor stacks in Hubbard Library to check out a volume of his verse. It was his poem “Death of a Naturalist” that I particularly wanted to read.

Do you remember what it felt like as a child to wade barefoot in a pond, warm mud oozing up between your toes, gassy organic odors released from the depths, the buzzing of summer flies? Heaney’s poems—”Digging,” “The Barn,” “Blackberry-Picking”—will bring you back there. They speak of the sogginess and chill of Ireland, of hard country labor and the sea, of soil and peat. In their imagery of the land and their remembrance of a simpler time, they feel grounded.

“Death of a Naturalist” starts with a celebration of the fecundity of life bursting from a rural “flax dam,” a small pond used for soaking flax stems to soften them for spinning into yarn. “Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell… But best of all was the warm thick slobber of frogspawn that grew like clotted water in the shade of the banks.”

Then Heaney’s boyhood fascination with the innocence of nature takes a dark turn: “gross-bellied frogs were cocked on sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped: The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting. I sickened, turned and ran. The great slime kings were gathered there for vengeance and I knew that if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.”

That night I could not get the sound and richness of Heaney’s words out of my mind. Some of his words even reappeared as characters in a dream: physical, coupled in motion, and slightly menacing, like frogs.

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Michael Lee '19 is reading...

All the Light We Cannot See
By: Anthony Doerr

Over the summer, I started reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I found the book on my mom’s bookshelf and after hearing it circulate the Bowdoin headlines last year decided to read it for fun. I’ve never been much of a pleasure reader, but this book is great example of how so many people are. Doerr creates an incredibly vivid picture of Europe during the World War II. The novel follows Marie-Laurie Le Blanc, a young blind girl living in Paris, and Werner Pfennig, a brilliant German boy entering the Nazi Army. Doerr addresses the tragedy of war but also the sense of shared humanity that exists even in the darkest of times.

As I read the book, it was hard to put down after being lost in the use of gorgeous metaphors and stunning imagery. It is easy to understand how Doerr has received nationally acclaimed reviews and awards (like the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) after reading a few pages. The novel tackles some serious historical and contemporary messages, but never loses the compassion drawn between the characters. This combination of utter tragedy and renewed hope absolutely makes this book worth the read and even a second read if you have the time. Plus it is always great to read and appreciate a fantastic Bowdoin author.

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Stephen Houser, Director, Academic Technology & Consulting, is reading...

Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built
By: Duncan Clark

Recently I’ve been reading about an Internet shopping company in China that is larger than Amazon, yet in the U.S.A. we are only just beginning to hear about it. The company, or three pillars, as it’s founder calls it, consists of Alibaba, Alipay, and Aliexpress. Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built, by Duncan Clark, is the story of a former English teacher, Jack Ma, and the company he built from nothing to the largest initial public offering (IPO) ever in 2014.

Though the writing is rough and repetitive at times, Duncan Clark clearly has the inside track on Jack Ma’s life and company building over the last 10-15 years. This insider information, including Jack’s early Internet failures helps to explain how different and yet similar the business atmosphere is in China and the U.S.A.. From early startup days and venture capital fundraising to its current global market position worth billions of dollars, the process was very similar to stories of U.S. companies. With added complications of China’s central government of course. Which is where Jack Ma differentiated himself and his company from other global giants like Yahoo trying to enter into the Chinese market. I don’t want to reveal too much, but in the end, Jack’s companies have succeeded where a number of others have failed.

As a technology professional I tend to read a lot of technical non-fiction. However this book, while still about technology, contains little to no jargon or technical information. It’s really a story about business. In fact, Jack is not a software developer and seems to pride himself on not being one. I enjoyed the story and would recommend it if you are interested in the Internet business scene in China or just a modern Chinese business story.


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Professor Morrison is reading...

The Moonstone
By: Wilkie Collins

After assigning Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: Gospel of an Icon, which discussed, among other things, how Oprah’s book club created a quasi-religious community, I was thrilled to be asked to be on this web page!  I am currently reading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.  Completed in 1868, The Moonstone is the first detective novel in English. As you may be able tell from the dated copy I am holding, I was given this book in the early 1980s, but couldn’t get through it.  Now that I spend most of my time worrying about the 14th and 15th centuries, I have found that 19th century novels are akin to futuristic science fiction page-turners.

The moonstone is a legendary diamond looted from a temple in India by British soldiers.  The temple’s hereditary guards, Brahmins I believe, seem to stop at nothing, including infiltrating upper-class British parties as jugglers, to get it back from the families of the British soldiers.  As a scholar of religion, I am, of course, cheering for the guards, but am also struck by how, on one hand, the novel depicts a dichotomy between a religious Orient and rational, secular Occident.  Yet, on the other hand, the British certainly believe the legend that the diamond will bring bad luck to whomever possesses it and how the Indian guards, while ostensibly motivated by religion, are certainly aware of the diamond’s economic value.

The book’s portrayal of the servants, particularly Rosanna Spearman, is complex and sympathetic.  Rosanna was once in a reformatory for theft, becomes a suspect in the theft of the diamond, and ends up committing suicide even though she was not the culprit.  As a whole, the novel is more character-driven than modern examples. Yeah, the 500 page length and slowish pace turned me off as a 12 year-old, but as I read I am struck by how well-crafted the book is and by how the experience of reading is much closer to what solving a mystery might actually be like.

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John Sledge '18 is reading...

The Third Reconstruction
By: William J. Barker

Growing up in South Louisiana, the Black church was a large part of my childhood. My mother was incredibly religious; we were a member of three churches and Sunday was our busiest day of the week. As exhausting as that was, I am still reminded of the powerful sermons and the moving music. The Black church, however, is so much more than that; it is the bedrock of the Black community, a hospital for healing, a center for community engagement, and a great organizer for political activism.

Reverend William J. Barker, II creates a beautiful history of his political engagement through his book, The Third Reconstruction. To him, religion is not an excuse to stay away from politics, but is the very call to politics, an obligation that truly defines what it means to be a religious leader: to make the lives of the people surrounding you better. He talks about his early work of establishing a union in a small town in North Carolina, heading the state’s NAACP, working in defense of public education, and fighting for marriage equality. All the while, the echoing chorus seems to be that the work for justice will never be completed; it is a laborious process, and it requires a willingness not only to stand up for the issues that are important to you, but also the issues of importance for others. Each chapter is a stage used to highlight the importance of fusion coalitions.

Dr. King said that the arc is long but it bends toward justice. Reverend Barker would extend that metaphor and say while it bends toward justice, each and every one of us is responsible in ensuring its bend. The war isn’t over; celebrating victories are fine, but the Reverend uses his book to remind folks that we are called to stay engaged in the struggle.

I highly recommend this book. It’s an encouraging piece of work that has helped me understand why some of my passions and interests are linked to the church. Most importantly, this book reminds me and others to keep on keepin’ on. We must stay woke.

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Kate O'Grady, Assistant Director, Alumni Relations, is reading...

When Breath Becomes Air
By: Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air is the impossibly beautiful story about the end of a gifted young life. This haunting and beautifully written metaphysical memoir seeks to understand the human condition, and its exploration of that question is equal parts Walt Whitman and Religio Medici. The story traces the life—and ultimate death—of Paul Kalanithi, MD, from a student at Stanford and Cambridge studying the philosophical intersection of human biology and literature, to Yale Medical School. Dr. Kalanithi was months from completing his neurosurgical residency when he was diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer. In a matter of weeks, he was transformed from skilled surgeon with a promising career to patient grappling with a life-altering diagnosis.

As a neurosurgeon, Dr. Kalanithi worked on the brain (“the most critical place for human identity”) but in the shadow of his diagnosis, Dr. Kalanithi was forced to return to the philosophical question he once pursued as a student: what, in the face of death, makes life worth living? Dr. Kalanithi found the answer in his family, his work (which he described as “a calling”), and his writing. As he and his wife, also a doctor, prepared to become parents for the first time, his wife asked, “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” He replied, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”

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Professor Majercik is reading...

Between the World and Me
By: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Writing to his teenage son, Samori, Ta-Nehisi Coates tries to provide an answer to what he describes as the question of his life: “how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream.” The Dream is the mistaken, exclusionary belief of white people that they are white, which, Coates asserts, is not a skin color or race, but, rather, a “syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies…. The power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white.”

Coates’ answer to his central question is extremely pessimistic. We may have elected a black president twice, but the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, among many others, remind us that it is far too soon to start celebrating. Coates argues that the Dreamers have deliberately forgotten the horror of the slavery upon which their lives are built, and he counsels his son not to depend on them waking up. Indeed, Coates feels that it will never be time to celebrate. “Our triumphs can never redeem this [history of subjugation].” Racial injustice is too deeply embedded in the social fabric of America. I think Coates would say that racial injustice is the social fabric of America. All that a black person can do is struggle and try to take satisfaction in the struggle. “The struggle is really all I have for you,” he tells his son, “because it is the only portion of the world under your control.”

One of the most compelling aspects of Coates’ writing is the physicality of it. “[R]acism is a visceral experience,…it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” In an often quoted passage, Coates tells his son: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is tradition to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” This physicality makes “racism,” often discussed at a very abstract level, concrete in a wrenching way. Coates tells his son that the police have been given the authority to destroy black bodies, and he describes being stopped in his car by the police, for no apparent reason, and realizing that he could die, that the police could kill him for no reason and almost certainly not be held accountable for his death.

Books that change the way you think are uncommon. This has been such a book for me. In a way, though, it is inaccurate to say that it has changed the way I think. It has, rather, taken apart my thoughts on issues of race in our society. I’m currently in the process of putting them back together.


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