Add these professors’ recommendations, spanning a number of genres, to your winter reading list
As the days continue to shorten and we creep toward winter — even in sunny, temperate San Diego — many of us find ourselves making time for indoor activities. And the winter break is a perfect opportunity to utilize our downtime to cozy up to a good book.
See our professors’ 14 recommendations below — what are you picking up first?
“Trust” by Hernan Diaz. I enjoyed this because it’s well written and is high-concept. It’s a series of four books by different authors, each explaining how wonderful the current author is, while the previous book was filled with lies and its author was a pathetic human being. The central character is an uber-wealthy stock market manipulator from the 1920s — fill in your own contemporary counterpart.
“The Overstory” by Richard Powers is an ecological novel about the social lives of trees. I can’t do it justice — see The New York Times review. It gave me a very different perspective about how we have already denuded the Earth. My biggest complaint is that it’s 40% too long, and the author deliberately forces you to guess which character tells each of a series of stories/chapters — unlike Hernan Diaz, who writes economically and lists the author of each book in the series.
“Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water” by Marc Reisner. I’d heard about this 30-plus-year-old classic for a long time and finally downloaded it from the library. Astonishing. States like the Dakotas, Arizona, etc., were water scams, politically and economically, from their founding 150 years ago! They are almost empty now, not because agriculture got more efficient but because they never had enough water to support growing crops, except via huge, subsidized, long-distance irrigation.
This one was recommended to me by professor Jakana Thomas: “The Lost Book of Adana Moreau” by Michael Zapata, a speculative fiction, multiverse-spanning yarn. If you have never wondered whether our timeline is “steered” by secret libraries, then this may not be the book for you — but if you have wondered that, this book invites you to consider the possibility that a New Orleans Caribbean diaspora family penned some critical canon contributions. “History, like fiction, was illusory, if not an outright lie, but we still existed because of it and it existed because of us.”
Rafael Fernández de Castro
I am truly enjoying “El Imperio eres tú” by Javier Moro. This is a history novel about Pedro I, the first emperor of Brazil, who consummated the independence of the largest Latin American country. It is a fascinating tale that contrasts the independence processes in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia. It also describes Brazil’s natural richness in great detail. It’s a beautiful reading for the coming holidays.
Joshua Graff Zivin
I recommend “Dr. No” by Percival Everett — a hilarious, clever, and entertaining read. It reminds me of “Pynchon,” which is one of my faves. I loved the healthy dose of math jokes and sublime commentary on race.
I also recommend “Lessons: A Novel” by Ian McEwan, which is an epic tragedy told in beautiful prose. It’s one of those novels that makes you root for the characters even when they are absolutely horrible.
I recommend “Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War” by Bob Davis and Lingling Wei. This page-turner, blow-by-blow of the 2018-2020 trade war rests on deep journalism on both the Chinese and U.S. sides. One big takeaway: while the U.S. team was pushing in a variety of different directions, Chinese negotiators were also trying to figure out what the administration wanted and what China should offer. If you think the trade war is over, think again: virtually all of the tariffs imposed by the two sides remain in place, and virtually all of the issues of real importance to the U.S. — on industrial policy and subsidies in particular — remain unresolved.
I was pleasantly surprised by Czelaw Milosz’s “Native Realm.” It was unexpected to find a poet writing about the histories of nations in his memoir, intertwining anthropology, history and sociology with his own personal experiences. It’s like learning about the history of Lithuania, Poland and Russia through a poet’s lens. While one may marvel at his boundless knowledge and poetic prose, it is worth reflecting on his own words, “To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.”
Vivek Shanbhag’s “Ghachar Ghochar” is a succinct, 128-page novella that explores the complex family relationships in a rapidly modernizing India. The novella’s concise format not only amplifies its impact but also offers an interesting contrast to the more extensive papers typical of social sciences, a length that might even be extended with the aid of tools like ChatGPT.
I’ve been enjoying reading more fiction lately. I’d recommend Richard Russo’s North Bath trilogy, set in a blue-collar town in upstate New York. Start with the first book, “Nobody’s Fool,” but read all three of the books. The latest one, “Somebody’s Fool,” was published in summer 2023. I find Russo’s combination of humor and empathy for the relationships of his characters very comforting.
I recently read two fiction books the GPS community might enjoy. The first is “Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin. It is perfect for our short break: it is a story that the reader cannot put down. It explores the difficulties of letting go — as suggested by its title in Spanish, “Distancia de Rescate” — the story of a pair of ghostly neighbors during a warm summer in the countryside.
The second is “Our Share of Night” by Mariana Enriquez. This is a novel that requires more commitment but is very entertaining. Enriquez created a fresh and novel mythology and situated it against a backdrop of Latin American politics and British music.
Both authors are part of a new group of Latin American writers who have recently been translated into English.
I recommend “A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through?” by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. Should we settle outer space? For a growing array of futurists and billionaires, the answer is unequivocally yes. Dissenting views are rare; utopian opportunities in moving off Earth to other locales abound. In the smartest book I have read about space in a long time, the Weinersmiths apply a cold, analytical lens to the claims — along with good, humorous writing. Their answer: be wary. Space sucks, as they say — it’s a lot better to focus on lightening our footprint here on Earth than to imagine we can stomp around Mars.