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Views from the Center


Oh what to do on that long flight/train journey/car ride to your holiday destination? Or, more pertinently, when you are lounging by the pool/lake/ocean or in a hammock/nook/tent/treehouse? (OK, perhaps not so many of you will be spending your vacation in a treehouse).

Fear not, dear CGD fans.

Because we know you relish our weekly list of What We’re Reading, we thought you would appreciate a similarly well-curated list of suggested Summer Reading, compiled from the recommendations of our esteemed Senior Fellows and our on-the-pulse Research Assistants, communications, operations, and outreach teams.

They are in no particular order but we have asked each recommender to give a few lines to explain their choice, which we hope you will also find useful.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, recommended by Kim Elliott. In the months before the raid on Harper's Ferry, John Brown "rescues" young Henry Schackleford, a slave boy in Kansas, and then mistakes him for a girl. The novel is often funny but ultimately tragic, as we all know how the raid ends. Henry, called Onion by Brown, survives to tell his strange story decades later.

Night at the Fiestas by Kristin Valdez Quade, recommended by Scott Morris. Quade was a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford and she brings Stegner quality writing to this new book of short stories about the West. She populates exotic locales with real characters. Very compelling.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass, recommended by Theodore Talbot. The phrase ‘forgotten genocide’ doesn’t scream ‘beach reading list’, but Gary Bass’ history of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 and the tragic events that precipitated it is an erudite, readable page-turner. By showing how the conflict unfolded from the perspective of the three governments involved and the millions of mostly Hindus refugees who fled from East Pakistan into India, Bass, a former journalist at The Economist, illuminates an often overlooked and terribly dark chapter in Nixon and Kissinger’s Cold War-era realpolitik– one that suggests many cautionary tales about how little progress we’ve made since then.

The Circle by Dave Eggers, recommended by Vijaya Ramachandran. A must-read for the times we live in. This book looks at what happens to our identities and our privacy in the digital age. You will not feel the same way about social media after reading this book. And Eggers is a masterful storyteller.

Also from Vijaya: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It is a beautiful tale about a blind French girl, set against a backdrop of World War II.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, recommended by Ben Leo. An amazing piece of work. The story of a man of two minds and divided loyalties that conflict repeatedly, at times with brute beating force. I've never read a story about the Vietnam War like this. Maybe because it may not have existed before now. Spy thriller. Historical fiction. All presented from the perspective of struggling Vietnamese secret police official who is committed to a small band of friends above all else.

Also from Ben: The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace - A simple, yet highly powerful, story about how communities and individuals deal with the winds of change. It's set in a small village of stoneworkers - the finest in the stone age - as the bronze era begins. The protagonist - also the village storyteller - weaves together the narrative in a seamless and compelling way.

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, a classic recommended by Michele de Nevers. Interesting novel about an independent woman trying to succeed in a man's world (farming); falling for the bad boy and learning late to appreciate a steady man who values hard work. Interesting insight into the fragility of economic security and the rigidity of social status in 18th century south England.

Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg, recommended by Lauren Post and Matthew Kelleher. Lauren writes: A smart and funny take on what it’s like – and tips for – dating today. The combination of interesting research findings and Ansari’s zingers keep you turning page after page.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, recommended by Matthew Kelleher and Jennifer Richmond. Jen writes: In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden? Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son.

“I really enjoyed My Notorious Life by Kate Manning,” says Ellen Mackenzie. It’s a novel loosely based on real-life midwife/abortionist Ann Trow Lohman, who became known as Madame Restell in the 1800s. She performed abortions, sold contraceptives, and medicines to prevent pregnancies. She was the target of groups such as American Female Moral Society and New York City Society for Suppression of Vice. She was once dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York.”

Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley, recommended by Rajesh Mirchandani. Want to know how to greet people in Mohawk? Or how to get around in Manx? How about the different names for the fruit of the peanut tree in the many languages of Northern Australia? The loss of ancient languages, passed down for possibly thousands of years, is more than just cultural convergence, argues the author. They represent entirely different ways of seeing the world, and describe relationships with the planet that have long since been lost to most of us. The documented decline is sad, but Abley finds that efforts to preserve language and culture are strong and uplifting across the world.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, comes highly recommended by a number of CGDers, including Michael Clemens, Claire McGillem, and Jocelyn West. The book is a refreshing and honest commentary on race, identity, migration, and the human experience. Adichie challenges readers to confront their own biases as she weaves this (often humorous) story about navigating American and Nigerian cultures.

Tenth of December, short stories by George Saunders, recommended by Scott Morris and John Osterman. Pleasantly disorienting stories with ambiguous time settings — present? past? future? — and moral questions that seem foreign at first, then familiar. Don't let the dystopian label turn you off. He's one of the best American writers today, and these stories will unsettle you in a good way.

If you’ve more suggestions, please add them at the bottom! And if you’re about to take off, then we wish you a great vacation (with this list, it certainly won’t be boring!)



CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.