Summer Reading, Part 3: Strong Characters, and a Critique of God

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July 15, 2009 — Some readers prefer novels and some prefer non-fiction. Some University of Virginia faculty and staff members continue reading within their disciplines during the summer, as well as managing to fit in some other interesting titles. Strong characters, both real and imagined, abound in these selections.

Ervin L. Jordan Jr., a research archivist in the U.Va. Library's Special Collections department, is a Civil War historian who regularly receives unsolicited books on the era to review, some of them gifts from authors.

One of the books he recommends, though, covers an earlier time and a familiar subject: life at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Historian Annette Gordon-Reed gave him a copy of her recent book, "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," for which she won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize. He said he wanted to mention it "because of this area's insatiable interest in all things Jefferson!"

Jordan, currently a member of the Advisory Committee on African-American Interpretation at Monticello, quoted Gordon-Reed's "profound observation" about how white people react to certain topics covered by black authors: "In keeping with past and present racial hierarchies for blacks' stories to be accepted when they affect only other black people, but to treat their stories with super, super skepticism when they say things about white people that other whites find to be problematic."

At a conference last year, Jordan met Ira Berlin, whom he said he has admired since college. Berlin sent him a new edition of his 1974 book, "Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in The Antebellum South."

The book "remains the pioneering study on free blacks, yet they remain, in my opinion, the forgotten people of the antebellum South and Virginia," Jordan said.

For books about two very different contemporary black standouts, he recommends lawyer Oliver W. Hill's autobiography, "The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond," and Peter Guralnick's "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke" – "a biography of this legendary and pioneering soul music performer."

Another book Jordan found interesting was one he heard about on Coy Barefoot's "Charlottesville Right Now" radio show on WINA. Barefoot interviewed Thomas Maier, author of a new biography, "The Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love."

"The next day, while in Alderman Library, I saw the book in the new books area and decided to read it," Jordan said. "I was struck by the fact about how dysfunctional Masters and Johnson were in their private family lives."

Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education, recommends a couple of authors who have caught his interest and added to his own lifelong learning.

He recently finished Christopher Hitchens' non-fiction book, "God Is Not Great."
"As someone raised as a Catholic and quite engaged for many years in the church, and in the last five to 10 years or so engaged in a lot of re-examination of personal beliefs and assumptions, this has been a terrific read," Pianta said.

"A lot of the non-fiction I read is neo-Darwinian work, and Hitchens' book dovetails perfectly. His rationality is very appealing to me at several levels, and I have appreciated his humanism and values in the context of such a withering critique of religion."

One summer project he set for himself several years ago is reading the work of novelist Salman Rushdie, and he just finished "Shalimar the Clown." He already read "The Satanic Verses" and "The Enchantress of Florence."

"In each case, and 'Shalimar' was no exception, I find the mix of history, literature, culture and language in Rushdie's writing to be both mesmerizing and expanding. When I read Rushdie, I learn a lot about cultural and historical forces at play but also am emotionally drawn into the stories he tells. 'Shalimar' was a rich experience for its connection of 20th- and 21st-century politics and culture in the Asian sub-continent with a story of people's lives.

"I found the book a terrific complement to the non-fiction I had been reading on economic development in that part of the world," Pianta said.

Wayne Terwilliger, general books manager at the U.Va. bookstore, said he reads mostly fiction and gives three suggestions.

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"They are very different from each other, but have this in common: They are not disguised autobiography; their concerns are not 'domestic,'" Terwilliger said.

In A.N. Wilson's "Winnie and Wolf," the wolf is Adolf Hitler and Winnie is composer Richard Wagner's daughter-in-law. The two did know each other in real life, but this is a fictionalized story, Terwilliger said, "told by a narrator who stands roughly in the same relationship to them as Nick Carraway does to Gatsby and Daisy in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby.'"

The novel, "The Gift of Rain," by Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng, also takes place before and during World War II.

"It focuses on the ever-more-complex relationship between a young half-English, half-Chinese man and the Japanese gentleman spy who becomes his martial arts mentor.

"It is so NOT a martial arts Zen adventure," Terwilliger added emphatically.

But he said, "one of the most important, innovative and engaging novels published in recent decades – a book really not like any other I've read," is "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell.

"It's actually six different narratives that follow the history of the world from the first narrative, which is a sort-of 18th-century seafaring adventure story, to a post-apocalyptic, almost Huxley-like novel, and he weaves them all together.

"The man isn't 40 yet. He's written four novels. Two of them have been nominated for the Booker Prize in England, and he's just phenomenal."

— By Anne Bromley

Summer reading list (alphabetical by author)

"Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in The Antebellum South" by Ira Berlin

"The Gift of Rain" by Tan Twan Eng

"The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family" by Annette Gordon-Reed

"Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke" by Peter Guralnick

"The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond" by Oliver W. Hill

"God Is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens

"The Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love" by Thomas Maier
"Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell

"Shalimar the Clown" by Salman Rushdie

"Winnie and Wolf" by A.N. Wilson