The persisting pandemic just might be the perfect time for relishing the power of books.
To transport us through time and space. To offer us insight and entertainment. To help us remember and make us forget. To lessen our stress and sense of loss and isolation. To give us courage and hope. To connect us and inspire us.
Books are both refuge and door, providing shelter from the storm as well as ways to escape to different worlds and discover new things. Many of us have turned to them for respite while we’re all largely sequestered in our homes.
Here, Washington State University faculty and staff share what they’re reading during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
President, Washington State University
Legends of Dune Trilogy by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Tor). I have been a Dune fan since I was in high school, and I really have enjoyed the collaboration between Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson who have “fleshed” out a lot of the history of the Dune university—both before and after the original Dune books. I enjoy classic science fiction as a “comfort read.” The books in this series are The Butlerian Jihad (2002), The Machine Crusade (2003), and The Battle of Corrin (2004).
The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett (Pan MacMillan, 2020). I fell in love with Ken Follett after reading The Pillars of the Earth 20 years ago. I enjoy the way he makes the time periods “come alive” in his historical fiction.
Network Effect by Martha Wells (Tor, 2020). I have always enjoyed the concept of robots who were very much like humans—and exploring their humanity. Martha Wells has done this with her award winning Murderbot novels. These books are an interesting blend of science fiction, military action, and a robot trying to understand human behavior.
Outlaw of Gor by John Norman (Ballantine Books, 1967). I always enjoyed books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, including the John Carter and Mars books. The Gor novels are similar in nature, although set often in more modern times. These remind me a bit of the fun Sword and Sand movies when I was growing up.
Crooked River by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Grand Central Publishing, 2020). I am a huge fan of the Agent Pendergast novels and re-read them all every few years. I have always enjoyed a mixture of detective work coupled with horror and the supernatural. Whenever one of these comes out, I download it and typically read the entire novel within 24 hours.
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle. I love the original Sherlock Holmes stories—so much so that when we went to London as a family years ago we went to Baker Street. I have read these multiple times and enjoy the short stories interspersed with the novels.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (Penguin Random House, 2019). As a leader I need to constantly learn new things, and when something is unfamiliar or I just want to be better informed I find a book and read it. My journey to be a more inclusive leader is a long one, and this book by Dr. Kendi is an excellent start.
Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen (Random House, 2020). I enjoy humorous mysteries as well and have enjoyed all of Carl Hiaasen’s books set in Florida. If you like quirky characters and a fun story, these are great books with a lot of humor.
First Lady, Washington State University
Edmund O. Schweitzer III Chair in Power Apparatus and Systems, WSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture.
Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (Spiegel & Grau, 2016). Trevor Noah, son of a Black South African mother and white Swiss father, shares his experiences growing up in South Africa during the challenges during Apartheid and post-Apartheid with his challenges of finding his identify and place. His stories bring laughter and tears and also provide some insights into struggles that we continue to have today worldwide.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (Penguin Random House, 2019). Ibram X. Kendi spoke at WSU and published this timely book in 2019. Kendi integrates history, science and ethics with his personal experiences to share how we can become an “antiracist” who works to stop racism and move towards an equitable society. I’m in the middle of this but it’s a great resource.
Winter of the World by Ken Follett (Dutton Penguin, 2012). This long book is number two of the Century Trilogy. It picks up on the lives of the five interrelated families. Follett paints a picture of life in the US, Russia, Germany, England, and Wales in the 1930s and ’40s through the rise of Hitler, World War II, and beginning of the Cold War.
The Wild One by Nick Petrie (Putnam, 2020). Peter Ash, a US war veteran from Iran and Afghanistan with PTSD and claustrophobia, helps people in need. In this book, he goes to Iceland to find a missing 8-year-old boy caught in an international battle related to corporate espionage and his American mother’s murder. It’s similar to Jack Reacher series.
Paradise Valley by C.J. Box (Minotaur, 2017). This book is part of a series called the Highway Quartet. Police investigator Cassie Dewell is on the hunt for a serial killer when her trap for him goes wrong and she loses her job. Now, as a private investigator, she works to find the killer and save a troubled boy she knows who has disappeared.
The Gangster by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016). This book is part of the 12-book Isaac Bell series. Bell is a detective in the Van Dorn agency in the US in the early 1900s. In this book, he and his colleagues are helping a group of families targeted by an Italian crime group in New York City.
And, when Kirk and I are traveling together in the car, we’re listening to this audio book:
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2004). Kirk and I watched Hamilton on Disney+ and wanted to learn more about him and his story.
Provost, Washington State University
Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (Spiegel & Grau, 2016). This is the book I’m currently reading, and it is the Common Read for WSU this year. Not only does this book give the reader of glimpse of what life was like in South Africa just immediately post-apartheid, but Noah does so with humor and sensitive insight. It is also an important analogy for the renew focus on racism in the U.S. and the importance of the past for understanding the present.
A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace by Lynn Meskell (Oxford University Press, 2018). This is the next book I plan to read. As an archaeologist, I have always been far more interested in “why the past matters in the present” than I have been interested in “what happened” in the past. I have read much of Meskell’s work, and she is a brilliant writer and heritage scholar. The book promises to examine what is often described as a Euro-centric beauty-pageant approach to World Heritage.
At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch (Norton, 2005). My husband gave me this book because I sometimes struggle with insomnia. In general, I tend to prefer reading non-fiction and biographies, and I am hoping this book gives me new insights to the cultural context of night-time sleep., maybe in ways that will help me do just that—sleep!
These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore (Norton, 2018). This book is really a tome and, to be honest, I’ve been intimidated by the thought of trying to read it for “pleasure.” The reviews of this book have been amazing, and the little I’ve read is lucid and compelling. As someone who looks to the past to understand the present, this book would seem to be essential reading!
The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945 by Wladyslaw Szpilman (Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1999). Like many people, I saw this movie starring Adrien Brodie back in 2002, and I have been curious about the real story behind the movie ever since. My son is a pianist, and I am an amateur musician myself. I am fascinated by how the arts and beauty can foster resiliency in the face of tragedy, violence, and horror. It is an inspirational story filled with hope, and the lessons there are needed now more than ever.
The Lecturer’s Tale by James Hynes (Picador, 2001). Finally, after those titles, I will need just a little bit of comic relief. Apparently, this is a satirical treatment on academia with equal measure of Gothic horror. Years ago, I read Straight Many by Richard Russo (Random House, 1997), a laugh-out-loud satire of academia. I am hoping this one gives me the same kind of laughing and crying catharsis of the academic context that I work in every day.
Vice President for Marketing and Communications, Washington State University
With the murder of George Floyd late last spring, I have been thinking a lot about how systemic racism permeates and fundamentally shapes our society. The first enslaved people came to our shores 400 years ago, and the pain and indignity of that system echoes through to present day. Our failure to come to terms with this “original sin” of our country prevents us from realizing our full potential as a free and democratic nation.
In an effort to help examine our individual roles in this system, I asked my leadership team to read and discuss several books on the topic. The first two are:
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (Beacon Press, 2018)
Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (Spiegel & Grau, 2016)
These two authors offer different, yet complementary, takes on the how and why systemic racism exercises so much control over how people think and act—many times in ways that they are not even aware of.
If these first two books helped set the stage, the hope is that the third book we examine will provide us with models for addressing our own implicit bias and bringing about change in our community. That book is:
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (Penguin Random House, 2019)
Editor-in-chief, WSU Press
Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854). I have read a variety of Dickens’ novels over the years, and after watching the mini-series Dickensian on public television, I was inspired to read some of his works that I hadn’t yet gotten to. I checked this book out from Pullman’s Neill Public Library right before the pandemic shut it down; the title is wonderfully ironic. The setting is 19th-century England, and the story explores issues of honesty, integrity, class disparities, and family relationships in a manufacturing town. I found it refreshing to step back in time and consider how a writer like Dickens is able to create timeless characters and themes.
Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982). I never saw the movie that was based on this story, but after coming across the book in WSU Surplus Stores, I took it with me for a vacation read, as I wanted to know the story without adulteration or dilution by the movie. It was a compelling read, and made me think about how easily a community can be divided and destroyed, and how the efforts of one person can alter the fates of many. While it is a novel, the content is informed by the stories of people who knew Schindler and who survived WWII as a result of his efforts.
The Totally Unscientific Study of The Search for Human Happiness by Paula Poundstone (Algonquin Books, 2017). I have enjoyed listening to Paula Poundstone on NPR’s quiz program Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me for years, and have seen one of her live shows as well. I find her to be a truly funny person, and her unique perspectives on technology, people, and the human condition are a welcome respite from the daily news. Her book is an entertaining exploration into what activities make people (or in this case, her) happy, with each chapter structured as a research project. Her research is augmented by a wide variety of insights into her use of media and technology, her family, her pets, and her community. She has a distinctive way of looking at the world and many of her comments are laugh-out-loud funny.
The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbo (HarperCollins, 2017). I have been a fan of mysteries since the early days of my reading life, and I consume them in all types of media. This book is the fifth in the series featuring Harry Hole, a Swedish police detective. Nesbo is adept in creating compelling characters and complicated stories; he excels in extricating his detective from seemingly impossible situations. I am amazed at the skill of the author in building the layers of the story and enabling his detective to resolve the case through a convoluted but ultimately logical set of steps. Note that these stories often include gruesome details, but are not gratuitous. The books in this series are always engaging reads.
The Risk Pool by Richard Russo (Random House, 1988). I have enjoyed other books by this author, a highly literate writer with character-driven stories, and picked up this book at a thrift store when I came across it. It is an intricately crafted story told by a first-person narrator, recalling his childhood in a small town in upstate New York. The story chronicles his life and relationships with his parents, his friends, and others in the community, relating life events that affected the narrator and influenced his growth and views of people and relationships throughout his life.
Regents Professor of Literature and Creative Writing, WSU Department of English
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay (Algonquin, 2019). Every day, starting on his 42nd birthday, Gay wrote one small gem about something that gave him joy. My students and I read some of these delights together this fall. They remind us to hold onto the small things that enchant us. Gay was the October 2020 WSU visiting writer.
A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter (Greystone Books, 2010). I owned Ritter’s book long before the pandemic hit and only started reading it during my 14-day quarantine in March. No surprise. Her 1934 notebook of her year on the Arctic island of Svalbard is a tribute to isolation and silence. Most books about polar exploration are by men set on dominating the landscape. Ritter’s gorgeous prose is that of a lover not a conqueror.
The Beadworkers by Beth Piatote (Counterpoint Press, 2019). My former graduate student Julian Ankney recommended this book. Piatote is a Nimiipuu writer, scholar, and professor at UC Berkeley who has family in north Idaho on Nimiipuu homeland near where my own ancestors lived. I’m drawn to the intimacy of Piatote’s stories and amazed by her brilliant experiments in structure.
The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham (Milkweed Editions, 2016). Lanham teaches ornithology at Clemson not far from the Edgefield County, South Carolina, he writes about and where he grew up. Lanham’s love of nature and family resonated with me even as he confronts the racism Black hikers and birders continually face.
What the Chickadee Knows/Gijigijigaaneshiinh Gikendaan by Margaret Noodin (Wayne State University Press, 2020). Noodin’s bilingual collection of Anishinaabemowin/English poems prompted me to pay attention to the natural sounds that shape my world. I read the book in fall 2020 at a time of high anxiety and found it extremely calming and centering.
Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Milkweed Editions, 2014). A book I’ve read several times is on my nightstand again. Deming writes with lovely compression about bobcats, horses, vultures, spiders, cheetahs, finback whales, and more. During the pandemic, a lot of people feel a new appreciation for the animals with whom we share our planet, and Deming helps explain why.
Gut Botany by Petra Kuppers (Wayne State University Press, 2020). I connected with Kuppers’ poems because of their faith in beingness, despite the suffering we humans endure. Kuppers is sexual assault survivor and disabled writer and performance artist who lives with pain. Her poems teach readers how to delight in their bodies and survive long into the future like the mysterious, ancient sturgeon that grace her cover.
Ohio Railroads by C.S. Giscombe (Omnidawn, 2014). This book arrived in my mailbox in early October. Book mail is the best! Giscombe is another WSU visiting writer, coming April 2021. Ohio Railroads is about his memory of a dream, which suits me to a tee, since I’m fascinated by the relationship between memories, dreams, and the tangible world. Also, I visited Ohio this summer were I fell in love with the gentle landscape and the crucial role the state played in the underground railroad.
The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald (New Directions, 1995). Sebald is one author I never tire of. I’m always—I mean, always—reading one of his books. His books wander. They ask: What is home? The Rings of Saturn, his most complex work, follows the author’s walk through southern England as he mentally journeys through nineteenth- and twentieth-century history. Sebald also plays with dreams, memory, coincidences, and the uncanny.
Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (New York Review of Books, 2008). One of the most moving and enigmatic Christmas stories of all time. The narrative follows two children traveling to visit their grandmother in the Alps on Christmas Eve. It starts out as a simple, unassuming tale but takes suspenseful, surprising turns. Translated from German by the poet Marianne Moore, the book transported me to a different world.
Clinical associate professor of creative writing, WSU Honors College
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (HarperCollins, 2018). Set on a Barbados sugar plantation in 1830 and then moving to the frozen Far North, with stops in London and Morocco as well, this novel’s settings are as dynamic as its characters, surprising both in their breadths and depth, and the sheer exuberance of their brutality and beauty.
Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling (Blue Hen Books, 2002). Set on the Flathead Reservation in the 1940s, this lyrical novel explores the heart of the stark Montana landscape with characters and events that have stayed with me vividly over the decade-and-a-half after I first read it.
Housekeeping by Marilynn Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980). Set in the fictional north-Idaho town of Fingerbone, this novel is close to home and heart for me. … This is perhaps one of the most fulfilled place-as-emotion novels I’ve ever read, with deep character complexity and self-actualization.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Penguin, 2014). The very static domestic characteristics that define the setting are precisely what leave the reader full of tension and dread and propel the story into its fulfillment.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018). A delightful examination of the North Carolinian coastal march’s flora and fauna fill the pages along with the human-driven dramas, each informing and enriching the other, moving together all the way to the end.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury, 2011). Set in the fictional Mississippi Gulf town of Bois Sauvage in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, this intense and potent novel explores facets of Southern life and culture in a way that stays with the reader, making a deep and lasting impact.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews (Bloomsury, 2019). The setting of a fictional Mennonite colony is as cloistered and claustrophobic as the events that take place, making the reader want to escape even more than the women who have been preyed upon.
The Plague of Doves by Louis Erdich (Harper Perennial, 2008). So many of the novel’s descriptions of the land and characters who live there are so vividly drawn that long after I finished the book, its scenes played out in my head like photographs pasted on photo album pages.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, 2016). Set along Ghana’s coastal Fanteland in the mid-1700s, and then moving through generations from the Gold Coast to Mississippi plantations, the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem, this novel explores place and culture and belonging in deeply important ways, particularly in terms of the memory of captivity and the legacy of slavery from past to present.
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich (Random House, 2017). When I read this novel, I immediately recognized the deep, elemental truth of its setting and situation: from the mountainous, timbered landscape to the firewood gathering; from the cloistered isolation to the dark, driving forces of despair and loss—this is a place I know, captured and reflected on each page.”
Lampman’s list is an abridged version of this one, used here and edited with her permission.
What to listen to: Pandemic playlists from WSU music faculty and alumni
What to watch: Movies and TV shows featuring WSU, alumni, and staff
Staff picks: What Washington State Magazine staff are reading, watching, and listening to