Season’s readings: Faculty members recommend books for the winter break

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The holiday break offers an ideal time to catch up on some reading while recharging your batteries for the new year. Thirteen Virginia Commonwealth University faculty members recently shared their holiday reading lists with VCU News, and also highlighted some of the books they savored most in 2014.


Matthew Bogenschutz, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work

Best book I read this year: My favorite book of the year is "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami. Murakami has long been one of my favorite authors, and this is one of his most beautiful works to appear in English translation. It's about a man trying to understand his past and present relationships and the complexity of identity and belonging in today's world. It is vivid, emotionally affecting and reflective as a novel that goes deep into connection and disconnection from the people around us. It is a deep and engaging read.

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: I think I'm going to read "Without You, There Is No Us" by Suki Kim. The book is Kim's memoir of teaching English to the children of North Korea's leaders in Pyongyang. In my free time, I've been very fortunate to be able to travel fairly extensively around the world. I've been able to appreciate many other cultures, and this makes me even more curious about the parts of the world that I have not been able to see, especially places that are as isolated as North Korea. I read "Nothing to Envy" by Barbara Demick a couple years ago, and it was a fascinating journalistic account of the author's time in North Korea. I'm hoping that Kim's work will be equally interesting and humane.


R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., professor of religious studies and the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences

Best book I read this year: "El Narco" by Ioan Grillo. The British journalist gives a riveting and illuminating account of the rise of the narcotics industry in Mexico and the hyperviolence that it has spawned since 2006. The deteriorating situation in Mexico is of particular concern to me both academically and personally. My latest book, "Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint," focuses on the Mexican folk saint whose cult is the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas. I conducted much of the research in my wife's home state of Michoacan, one of the hardest hit in the ongoing drug war.

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: Over the holiday break I plan to read Professor Karen Armstrong's new book "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence." I am very interested to see how one of the leading scholars of religion tackles this most timely of subjects.


Autumn Tooms Cyprès, Ed.D., professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership in the School of Education

Best book I read this year: The best book I read this year for pleasure is titled "Hell Bent" by Benjamin Lorr. It is a true account about competitive Bikram Yoga. I started doing Bikram-style yoga in July and it has had a profound effect on my health, life and stress management. I found the book comforting and inspiring.

The best book I read this year relative to my work is titled "Writing and Difference" by the philosopher Jacques Derrida.

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: Over the break I am reading these books below because I am presenting a paper at an international conference in Bangkok on economic forces in the United States and the politics of education. My husband and I are traveling to Thailand and then on to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. So these books will help the plane ride go faster. And yes, I will be practicing my yoga in Cambodia.

"What's What in a Wat: Thai Buddhist Temples." A look at Thai Buddhist temples by Carol Stratton — literally an explanation of the items in the temples.  

"Bangkok Babylon" by Jerry Hopkins. A true life account of expatriates who are living in Bangkok.

"Ancient Ankgor" by Michael Freeman. This is an archeological assessment of the history of the temples of Angkor Wat.

"A Woman of Angkor" by John Burgess. This is a novel about a Khmer woman in Cambodia.


Allison Gabriel-Rossetti, Ph.D., assistant professor of management in the School of Business        

Best book I read this year: "The Circle" by Dave Eggers. It was part of the VCU summer reading program, and it was certainly an eye opener in terms of the role of technology today. Reading this book leads to lots of interesting discussions!

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: Over break, I am hoping to finally read "Give and Take" by Adam Grant. Grant's work fits right into the Positive Psychology movement that I am beginning to integrate into my research, and I look forward to reading his perspectives on how the world would be better if it was filled with more givers (i.e., people who give more than they get) as opposed to takers (i.e., people who take more than they give). With all of the negative commentary surrounding organizations today, I think there is a lot to learn from surrounding yourself with givers.


Bernard K. Means, Ph.D., director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory in the School of World Studies, College of Humanities and Sciences

Best book I read this year: A day does not go by when I do not read something that interests me or gives me pleasure. Some of these are in the more popular vein, such as various magazines I subscribe to, including Smithsonian Magazine, Archaeology and American Archaeology. I receive a fair number of professional journals, and I read books — a large number of books. It is hard for me to pick a favorite. Probably from the fiction side of the spectrum, my favorite book that I read (or I should say re-read) for the countless time was "War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells, followed closely by "The Thin Man" by Dashiell Hammett. The former book really emphasizes the fragility of human existence, and the latter, in a darkly comic way, looks at family dynamics.

On the nonfiction side of the spectrum, my favorite book of the year was probably Joel Greenberg's "A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction." This year saw the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, and we 3-D scanned and printed passenger pigeon bones in our Virtual Curation Laboratory, which is what prompted me to pick up the book. It's well-written, and provides multiple dimensions on the natural history of the passenger pigeon and historic accounts of its (eventually fatal) interaction with human beings.

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: For the break, I will finish reading an edited volume "Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World," edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene and Laura Koloski. I am using this book in my spring 2015 Visualizing and Exhibiting Anthropology course. For fiction, I plan to read the "New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft," and many other things, I hope.


Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., chair of the Department of African American Studies, College of Humanities and Sciences

Best book I read this year: The best book I read this year was "The Age of Garvey" written by Adam Ewing, Ph.D., one of the faculty members in the Department of African American Studies. Adam's book is extremely well-written and demonstrates rather brilliantly Marcus Garvey's impact on the black political landscape during the early-20th century, as well as the global manifestations of Garveyism "the movement" evidenced still today. It's a compelling account of a transformative figure in world history.

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: I plan to read "Long Division" by Kiese Laymon. Admittedly, my wife purchased the book as a gift for me last holiday, and it still sits on my desk at home, unread. I figure there will be no gifts for me this year, unless I take leave from my VCU email and read something that likely is less entertaining. But seriously, I am looking forward to finally reading Kiese's book!


Reuban Rodriguez, Ph.D., associate vice provost and dean of student affairs

Best book I read this year: My favorite so far, because I am a big sports fan and enjoy sports history and insight, was "Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games" by Michael Weinreb.

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: I'm looking forward to reading, because I am from New Orleans and enjoy a good nonfiction book, "Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans" by Gary Krist.


Ryan K. Smith, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of History, College of Humanities and Sciences

Best book I read this year: The best book I read this year is probably Jeff VanderMeer's novel, "Annihilation," which took a rather ordinary Southern landscape and turned it into something absolutely haunting.

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: Over the holidays, I am planning to read Tyler Potterfield's "Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape." I've read bits and pieces of it before, but I want to read it all the way through, to help with an upcoming project and also because the Richmond community lost Potterfield this year, and it will be a comfort to return to his voice.


Leonard Smock, Ph.D., professor and director of VCU Rice Rivers Center

Best book I read this year: "Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America," by Chris Matthews. I was first drawn to this book because these two presidents in many ways shaped the early lives of my generation and the ramifications of their presidencies and personalities still permeate our politics. How they admired and despised each other provided much insight into their personalities, and I certainly never would have guessed that JFK actually made a donation to one of Nixon's campaigns. The book provided a very interesting historical perspective on these two individuals and their (shortened) time in office.  

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: "Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource," by David Sedlak. My professional focus is on water resources. This book examines the history of the connection of the development of civilization with water and provides a basis for making informed decisions on the use of water into the future. A must read for water resource professionals.


Erin Stanforth, director of sustainability for VCU

Best book I read this year: The best book I re-read this year was "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things" by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. This fantastic book is about material selection and product design that will, instead of being thrown into a landfill, safely re-enter the environment or be downcycled into nutrients to benefit the environment as a whole. The book challenges current manufacturing practices, and challenges its readers to be active in redesigning everything to follow this cradle-to-cradle model.

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: I am planning to read "Drift" by Rachel Maddow. It is an unbiased, and unflinching, look at the progress of America's military and the first chapter is spectacular.


Jerome F. Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the School of Medicine

Best book I read this year: "A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal" by Ben Macintyre. It’s an incredibly engaging account of espionage and the espionage culture of the Cold War. A must if you like to read John Le Carré.

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: "Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink" edited by David Remnick. Planning to finish it — always clear your plate. Delicious pieces about food and drink from The New Yorker. A true feast for the foodie!


M. Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work

Best book I read this year: "In the Time of the Butterflies" by Julia Alvarez. It was one of the first books I read completely for pleasure after completing my Ph.D., and it was brilliantly written — completely captivating! It is the story of three sisters and their lives during a time of political oppression in the Dominican Republic. It beautifully captures their struggles with decisions about family, love and activism.

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: Over break, I plan to read "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander. I have been wanting to read this book, which looks at mass incarceration in the U.S. as a system of racial control.


Everett Worthington, Jr., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Counseling Psychology Program, College of Humanities and Sciences

Best book I read this year: Nonfiction, Laura Hillenbrand, "Unbroken." I was hooked from the action-packed preface! It had the drama of a novel, three great stories — of Zamperini's Olympic races, of his survival in air battles, in his survival of his 50-plus days floating in the Pacific, of his adventures being systematically abused in a prison camp, and of his subsequent forgiveness of the main abuser.

Fiction. I know this is sad, and I have read about 45 novels this year across a variety of genres, but I think the best is the surprisingly sophisticated YA novel by Veronica Roth, "Allegiant." It is a poignant tragedy of laying oneself down for others, which many of the characters do, but of course the protagonist, Tris, is the one we follow and root for the most. I think this is an inspiring book of self-sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds. It inspires not just young adults, it inspired me.

What I'm planning to read over the holidays: Tim Keller's "Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering," because I have been studying the themes he deals with in that book in my research — humility, forgiveness, patience, integrity, faith, dealing with challenges to our faith — and, well, I ain't getting any younger, so walking with God through suffering is part of my journey to date and likely in the future.

I typically have a Christian book and a secular book (and a novel) going simultaneously, and so I also plan to read Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's "Think Like a Freak." I have really enjoyed both their two previous books — "Freakonomics" and "Superfreakonomics." I can't wait to see this one develop.


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