Summer Reading


Photo: Deseree Meyer Brittingham

Photography by Justin Fox Burks

Deseree Meyer Brittingham
Assistant Professor of Physics

Confession #1: I didn’t always know I wanted to be a nuclear physicist, and I began my undergraduate years as an English major.

Confession #2: I love to read. Not in that “of course all academics love to read” way, but in the passionately seeking, desperately needing, head-over-heels way.

Confession #3: Science is neat (I really enjoy being a physicist), but in my free time only about one quarter of the books I read are nonfiction and the rest are novels. As for summer reading recommendations, I’ve selected three novels and two popular physics books.

Though I don’t normally read science fiction, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger intrigued me. It describes the exhilaration of time travel and exploration while also pointing out how those achievements can affect important family relationships. At times, the main character just starts to evaporate. He reappears in the midst of his ordinary life, fresh from a new adventure with stories and trinkets that can’t possibly compensate for the time away from home. It put the idea of time travel into a new light for me, and it’s not your typical futuristic sci-fi book.

I highly recommend The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. In this book, Gogol is often pulled in many different directions as he tries to decide what path his life should take. The conflicts between what he wants to do, what he thinks he should do, what he was brought up to do, what his family thinks he should do and what he ultimately winds up doing make for a very heartfelt account of being a part of—and between—two very different cultures.

When I moved to Memphis, I began reading books featuring the South. I came across Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. I enjoy the colorful characters and lush settings in this murder mystery set in Savannah, GA. The intertwined mysteries come together in captivating ways, and I couldn’t put it down.

The thing I love most about physics is its elegance. Physics is such a beautiful field that explores the intricacies and complexities of our world. At the end of the day, physicists work to explain these complexities in simple, concise ways. I firmly believe that scientific literacy is just as important as any other in defining what it means to be an educated person. Science and technology impact so much of our everyday life that it’s really a shame not to be at least a little curious about how things work. My last two recommendations are physics recommendations, specifically books that are easy to understand and aren’t scary. (Keep an open mind—physics doesn’t have to be difficult.)

Since nuclear physics is near and dear to my heart, I recommend Nucleus: A Trip into the Heart of Matter by Ray Mackintosh, et al. This book is beautifully illustrated and is a great introduction to the atomic nucleus. It talks about the structure of the nucleus and applications of nuclear physics, including power, medicine and fusion in the sun. It’s my favorite popular physics book.

For those of you looking for something a little more whimsical, I recommend The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics by Gary Zukav. The lofty goal of the author is to explain modern physics and quantum mechanics without using any math. In the process, the author draws parallels between modern physics and eastern religions. I read it in high school and plan to reread it this summer. It’s a fun book, and it will give you a flavor of the kinds of problems that modern day physicists try to tackle.

Shadrack Nasong’o
Assistant Professor of International Studies

For me, the joy of summer reading is the freedom to shift from perusing academic tomes to fiction, especially the thriller variety. One such thriller I have thoroughly enjoyed is Jeffrey Archer’s Honor Among Thieves, set in spring 1994. As Bill Clinton settles into the White House and focuses on his domestic policy agenda, Saddam Hussein hatches an improbable plot to steal America’s most treasured historical document, the Declaration of Independence, and destroy it before the world’s news media on July 4 to avenge his ouster from Kuwait. Using tens of millions of dollars, Saddam weaves an intricate web of treachery, deceit, corruption and terror and manages to steal the historical document. As the clock ticks decisively toward July 4, two unlikely agents are detailed to stop Saddam’s diabolical plot and retrieve the historical document—Scott Bradley, a Yale law professor working undercover for the CIA, and Hannah Kopec, a Mossad operative who has lost so much in her life, she no longer trusts anyone nor fears anything. This action-packed, suspense-filled saga spans four continents and climaxes in a dramatic multiple twist that is bound to leave the reader breathless.

For readers looking for a “serious” read in this era of the global war on terror, I recommend Mahmood Mamdani’s provocative and lucidly written Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. The book focuses on political Islam, tracing the rise and emergence of its terrorist strategy to Cold War dynamics—from Indochina through Afghanistan to Iraq. Although penned by an academic, the book is written for readers who are ready to have their conventional wisdom challenged and, in the process, gain a deeper understanding of one of the most contentious issues of our time.

Speaking of serious reading, why have the most diabolical dictators strutted the world stage with abandon for so long and hobnobbed with the mighty and powerful in the most liberal and democratic societies? The answer is provided by Michela Wrong in her book, In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. Set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), the book focuses on Zaire’s President Mobutu. The author weaves a narrative that details a network of bilateral and multilateral actors that abetted and benefited from Mobutu’s 32-year reign and plunder of the country. Her name may be Wrong, but the author is right on the money.

For lovers of biographies, two recommendations are in order. First is George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin, a Caribbean classic novel that is partly autobiographical. Oscillating between allegory and realism, and employing both first- and third-person narratives, the author credibly shows how Boy G, the main character, comes of age and discovers how his political, economic and sociocultural environment has shaped his personality. Implicit in the author’s deliberate choice not to give the main character a name is the message that the character is culturally universal, or at least emblematic of the entire Caribbean. Indeed, people interested in knowing who they are and how they came to be what they are will find something of value in this novel.

My second recommendation in this genre is Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, one of the foremost political leaders and moral icons of the last century. For those interested in understanding the stuff that legends are made of, let Nelson Mandela take your hand and walk you through the momentous journey of his life, which, as the Washington Post avers, is “one of the most remarkable lives of the 20th century.”

Bill Short ’71
Coordinator of Public Services
The Paul Barret Jr. Library

To me, summer reading is something that is playful, entertaining and lighthearted. I work with academia, so I look forward to having something fun to read. Among the books I’m suggesting, some are some current titles, others look back to a time when reading for pleasure and wit were highly regarded matters.

The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger, professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, deals with the phenomenon of the motion picture industry’s studio system from the 1920s through the 1950s. I’m a fairly frequent viewer of the Turner Classic Movies TV channel and I think I know the film canon of these years pretty well. Yet, authors continually find some lost or minor film that intrigues me and makes me want to know a little bit more about a performer. Basinger writes about people like Tyrone Power, Ann Sheridan, Deanna Durbin, Irene Dunne, Lana Turner—“normal” people who were plucked from obscurity, in some cases. Basinger goes through the process of how studios knew only too well how to transform someone into a product, a commodity. The book also discusses people who defected, who threw over the traces and left the business, saying, “I’m glad you like me, but I don’t want any more of it.”

A similar book, and certainly not an academic one, is Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller, senior contributing editor at Glamour, contributor to Vanity Fair and a former contributing editor at New York. It’s about three singers/songwriters from the 1960s and 1970s—Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. Half the book is a collective biography, the other half is gossip (after all, summer reading should be fun). It covers breakups to breakdowns, all of which may or may not have informed their work. Maybe it’s one of those books you should read at the hair salon, but it helped me sort out Joni Mitchell. All three encapsulate a lot of memories for people my age. The book may inspire you to get out your CDs and start listening again, especially if you’re not familiar with some of the music mentioned in the book.

A little farther back in history, fun came in heavy doses in the 1920s with the Algonquin Round Table, the group of New York writers, critics and actors who met every day for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. The Algonquin Wits, edited by Robert E. Drennan, is a light read based on the group’s individual memoirs. There’s a wonderful 55-minute documentary about the Round Table called “The Ten-Year Lunch.”

Working as I do around people who should read books, but don’t read the ones they should be reading, I recommend How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, a psychoanalyst and professor of French literature at the University of Paris. The author is playful about this: When you meet an author and it’s presumed that you’ve read his/her work, but you haven’t, you can talk in generalities—and always remember to praise the work. Saving face, keeping your job—these are little tactics he recommends. The real purpose of the book is to get you interested in reading and more important, thinking about what you’re reading and how you can respond to it, and how you may have different responses to a work every time you read it.

In that vein, British novelist and essayist Nick Hornby usually writes about men in situations that challenge them and how they respond to those challenges. His novels made into film include “Fever Pitch,” “High Fidelity,” “About a Boy.” But his book Housekeeping vs. the Dirt is actually an accumulation of book reviews he’s written for Believer magazine in San Francisco. It’s interesting to see how he looks at making reading choices. He really talks to you.

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