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Off the Shelf

Recent books with Harvard connections

November-December 2021

Specimen cicadas, a photograph of Harvard museum collections

Striking cicada specimens, from the museum holdings

Photograph by Diana Zlatanovski


Striking cicada specimens, from the museum holdings

Photograph by Diana Zlatanovski

The End of Bias: A Beginning, by Jessica Nordell ’99 (Metropolitan Books, $28.99). A deep journalistic dive into unconscious bias and how to address it. Drawing on vivid examples—the differing reception given to a scientist’s work after a gender transition, or to the author’s own fledgling freelance writing when submitted as if from a male writer—Nordell proves a sure guide to a social-science idea, and its real-world implications,

Typology, by Diana Zlatanovski (Scala Arts Publishers, $14.95 paper). The Peabody Museum’s collections steward presents items from the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture as pure, captivating forms. No matter your views on, say, bats or scarab beetles, these photographs make you appreciate their form, beauty, and scientific interest.

Power, for All, by Julie Battilana, Wilson professor of business administration and Gleitsman professor of social innovation, and Tiziana Casciaro (Simon & Schuster, $27). A demystification of power (it’s not inherent to some people, it doesn’t accrue only to positions like kings, and it is not “dirty”). Explaining “how it really works and why its everyone’s business,” the authors proceed in surprising directions. Thus, for people returning to their places of employment nowadays, “Workplaces other than cooperatives remain both hierarchical and unaccountable to most of their workers; but not all of them”—an alternative they are eager to explain and promote.

They Called us “Lucky”: The Life and Afterlife of the Iraq War’s Hardest Hit Unit, by Ruben Gallego ’04, with Jim DeFelice (Custom House, $29.99). Having “flamed out” of Harvard in the fall of 2000, the author enlisted in the Marine Reserves. Five years later, his Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, suffered the deaths of a total of 46 Marines and two Navy corpsmen during nine months of duty: more than any other unit in the war. Now an Arizona congressman, Gallego briskly tells a story of combat and service that his colleagues, and fellow Harvardians, ought to hear, but too rarely do.

Strange to Say: Etymology as Serious Entertainment, by Deborah Warren ’68 (Paul Dry Books, $16.95 paper). The author, a poet, is a sure and, indeed, entertaining guide to the evolution of words and meanings, ideal for brief bursts of reading/diversion. The chapter “Putting Words in My Mouth,” for example, deals with food, beginning with “Bread, cousin to the German brot, is the ‘staff of life’….The Germanic source of “bread” is brewth: like beer, it involves fermentation”—and you are off, to the Lord’s Prayer, bagels, Danish, pizza (“pie”), etc., without the calories.

American Comics: A History, by Jeremy Dauber ’95 (W.W. Norton, $35). The Atran professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Columbia applies his scholarly tools to the funnies, in a sweeping account beginning with Thomas Nast, extending through the mid twentieth-century, X-rated rebels against the Comics Code Authority, to the Marvel franchise, graphic novels, and edgier undercurrents today. The medium’s endless evolution, he suggests, means that “Comics’ story is right in the middle of its run.”

The Contagion Next Time, by Sandro Galea, M.P.H. ’00 (Oxford, $24.95). The dean of Boston University School of Public Health puts the coronavirus pandemic in the context of the United States as “an unhealthy country” that was “five decades deep into…neglecting the foundational forces that shape health,” amplifying the nation’s vulnerability. This virus aside, Galea argues, the country has plenty it can and must do—socially, institutionally, and in its political leadership—to cope better with successor lethal outbreaks.

Such Color: New and Selected Poems, by Tracy K. Smith ’94 (Graywolf, $26). The former U.S. poet laureate, Harvard Arts Medalist, and Overseer (a status she relinquished upon moving from Princeton to become professor of English and of African and American studies at Harvard) gathers poems from four previous volumes, plus often intense, racially charged new works gathered under the title “Riot,” including “Found Poem,” on the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton’s public-policy school (“If you love a country/that does not/does not/was conceived not to/want you…”) and “Photo of Sugar Cane Plantation Workers, Jamaica, 1891.”

Two fictions. The Heiress of Pittsburgh, by Ken Gormley, J.D. ’80 (Milford House/Sunbury, $24.95). After factual works on legal topics (including a biography of Archibald Cox), the president of Duquesne University has written a novel about a courtroom battle over an estate, with flashbacks to the working-class milltowns of the mid twentieth century. The Harvard Law protagonist frequently travels in memory to the Somerville, Cambridge, and HLS of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In an utterly different vein, Out of Place, by Diane Lefer ’72 (Fomite Press, $15 paper), is a wildly global novel about the security state by a writer and social-justice activist (focused on torture victims), and former Undergraduate Fellow in these pages. The almost hallucinatory prose, in the form of supposed suspects’ case files, syncs with the disquieting sense in the title.

I Left My Homework in the Hamptons, by Blythe Grossberg ’93 (Hanover Square Press, $27.99). In an age of educational inequity and excess—the author meets her first tutee at a Park Avenue duplex complete with miniature poodles and two Filipino housekeepers—it is hard not to succumb to revulsion at the means and excesses of the parental one percent (“Gatsby’s children”). The surprise is how miserable these cosseted, pressured youngsters sound: “The kids I tutor and teach don’t really know how to have fun, unless it’s lubricated with alcohol,” and they seem utterly at sea outside the world curated around them.

T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us, by Carole Hooven, Ph.D. ’04 (Henry Holt, $27.99). The co-director of undergraduate studies in the human evolutionary biology department delivers a comprehensive, unsensationalistic account (as these things go) of what testosterone does and does not do, biologically and otherwise, and how. Even in the chapter on sex (titled “Getting It On,” perhaps with commercial appeal in mind), Hooven writes unambigiously: “I can’t say it enough: culture matters,” as the ensuing examples make amply clear.

Around the World in 80 Books: A Literary Journey, by David Damrosch, Bernbaum professor of literature (Penguin, $30). Housebound during the pandemic, the chair of comp lit channeled not Phileas Fogg but his creator, Jules Verne, in a delightful global guide to literature, as he has expansively interpreted it (see “A World of Literature,” September-October 2019, page 48). Be prepared, visiting London, to encounter both Virginia Woolf and P.G. Wodehouse; in Congo-Nigeria, Joseph Conrad and Wole Soyinka; and in Bar Harbor (where the author was born) and New York, everyone from Robert McCloskey and Doctor Doolittle to Saul Steinberg and James Baldwin. A year of isolation very well spent.

A Round of Golf with My Father, by William Damon ’67 (Templeton Press, $24.95). The author, a professor of education at Stanford known for his work on the development of human purpose, discovers that the father whom he thought was killed during World War II in fact had created a second life: marrying a French ballerina, starting a new family. That shock prompts a search and this resulting book: both a memoir and, appropriate for a scholar, an exploration of “life review”: what the subtitle calls “the new psychology of exploring your past to make peace with your present”—and future.

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Off the Shelf