Summer Reading, Part 2: Thrillers and Lesser-Known Histories

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June 17, 2009 — Money, suspense and international politics, as well as a classic, round out the reading lists of several University of Virginia leaders.

In addition, the U.Va. Nursing School plans a "common reading" selection during the summer for its incoming class, and the program committee shares its selection this year.

• Dr. Arthur Garson Jr., executive vice president and provost, recommends Gerald Warburg's "Mandarin Club," which he describes as "fiction, but with a great deal to teach about China." The author is the father of a U.Va. undergraduateand executive vice president of a Washington, D.C., government relations firm.

"The Mandarin Club" is a cerebral thriller, according to the publisher's description. Told sequentially from the perspective of each of seven Stanford alumni, the fast-paced tale takes readers behind the scenes of rogue intelligence operations and high-tech smuggling, from Washington and Beijing to the wild coastal towns of California.

• Paul Mahoney, dean of the University's Law School, suggests summer reading that includes economics, as well as literary classics.

"The Wages of Destruction," by Adam Tooze, is an economic history of the Third Reich. "It analyzes the economic logic and consequences of German rearmament and war making," Mahoney said.

He also recommends Harvard business professor Niall Ferguson's latest bestseller, "The Ascent of Money," which argues that finance is in fact the foundation of human civilization and progress. Ferguson is a contributing editor for the Financial Times. In 2004 Time magazine named him as one of the world's 100 most influential people.

"The importance and interest of the subject require no elaboration," Mahoney quipped.

He went on to explain anyway: "Ferguson does a very nice job of pointing out that boom-and-bust cycles are as old as finance itself. And the historical examples he provides give us some insight into the current economic situation."

Mahoney, an expert on securities regulation, corporate finance and law and economic development, said he must read a lot of material on those topics, so it's a real treat to read literature. He loves the big Russian novels, like "War and Peace," and recommends anything translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whom he called "a remarkable husband-and-wife team."

He also recommends the recent translation of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" as a "lighter" read. Simon Armitage's 2007 translation of the Arthurian tale is "a short, fun read."

"I enjoy having the Middle English and modern English text on facing pages," Mahoney said.

• Sharon Davie, director of the U.Va. Women's Center, mentions two books that concern political events from the mid-20th century to recent news.

Author Caroline Elkins won a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya," that covers the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion against the British colonial government by the Kikuyu people in Kenya.

"This is an extraordinary book, 10 years in the making, some of it living with Kikuyu families in Kenya's Central Province," Davie said. She called Elkins "detective, anthropologist and novelist in her recovery of the deliberately buried human story of the last years of British rule in Kenya."

"Both the pain and the beauty are lacerating. Read this book," Davie said. She herself is writing a book about international women's organizations, including some in Kenya, and has traveled there twice so far.

The back-story of politics in Sweden provides the setting for Davie's suggestion, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," by Stieg Larsson, whose English translation by Reg Keeland was just published. The author died of a heart attack at the age of 50 a few years ago, shortly after he sent a series of three novels to the publisher.

Davie said the book is best "for lovers of mysteries and good writing."

The first in the trilogy, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" involves a serial killer, a journalist and a brilliant "girl with a dragon tattoo" and takes place within the physical and political landscape of Sweden.

"His characters walk through the door of your life and won't go away," she said. "Editor of the anti-racist Swedish magazine Expo, Larsson was known as an expert on right-wing extremism."

The English translation of the second book, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," will be released this fall; the third one, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest," doesn't yet have a publication date.

• The U.Va. Nursing School's "common reading" program, going on for 10 years, features another interesting female character, Anna Fitzgerald, in Jodi Picoult's "My Sister's Keeper," recently released as a major motion picture.

The novel is about a girl who, at 13, sues her parents for the right to make her own decisions about how her body is used when a kidney transplant is planned in order to potentially save her older sister.

The common reading program was originally conceived as a way to get students to think and be excited about health care in broader terms, looking at ethics, policies and practices; to create a sense of community among incoming students by putting them into small book discussion groups; and to make it easier for students and advisers to get to know one another, said Theresa Carroll, assistant dean for undergraduate admissions, who will prepare a list of questions to guide the discussions during orientation in August.

The selection is made each year by a committee.

— By Anne Bromley

More for the Summer Reading List
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" translated by Simon Armitage

"Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya" by Caroline Elkins

"The Ascent of Money" by Niall Ferguson

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland

"My Sister's Keeper" by Jodi Picoult

"The Wages of Destruction" by Adam Tooze

"Mandarin Club" by Gerald Warburg