Humanities Texas typically publishes an expansive list of summer reading recommendations in the June or July issue of our monthly e-newsletter. Over the past several years, Summer Reading has become our most popular online feature.

This year, however, is far from typical. Several weeks ago, we decided to fast-track and adapt the 2020 version of Summer Reading to the current moment. We contacted writers, scholars, and other friends of Humanities Texas from across the state, asking for recommendations that seemed especially appropriate, meaningful, or helpful in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Humanities Texas staff were also asked to contribute.

Our aim was to gather suggestions that demonstrate the full range of what the humanities can offer in this challenging time—not just diversion and delight, but also insight and perspective, solace, and opportunities for reflection upon larger questions of our shared experience. We emphasized that recommendations need not be limited to entire books. Contributors could also highlight poems, stories, essays, or articles with contemporary resonance.

This wide-ranging collection of recommendations is what we received. You will find novels, works of history, children’s books, and collections of poetry. There are classics, both ancient and modern: The Iliad, Middlemarch, War and Peace, and Beloved. The list also includes recent works of fiction and historical research that expand our understanding of the American experience. Several contributors recommend texts that directly address trauma, either in historical context or as a present condition. There are also works of speculative fiction, several books centered on climate change, and a brief philosophical essay reflecting on the nature of waiting.

I send my sincere thanks to the contributors. I hope you find their suggestions as engaging, instructive, and inspiring as I do.

Eric Lupfer

Ricardo Ainslie, M. K. Hage Centennial Professor in Education at The University of Texas at Austin, author, psychoanalyst, and filmmaker

The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers

In this time of biological disaster, The Overstory delivers an exceptionally conceived and beautifully written story about the wondrousness of the nature that surrounds us and thus offers a counterpoint to our COVID-19 moment. Powers's prose is elegant, subtle, and moves a complex story about a group of individuals whose lives could not be more disparate: a random exit off of an Iowa interstate brings a couple of college dropouts together—she is heading west to find herself, and he's an artist obsessed with painting trees; a paralyzed coding prodigy creates dizzyingly successful video games but becomes absorbed with bringing "real" trees to his virtual world; the daughter of Chinese immigrants who fled Mao's Cultural Revolution ends up in Silicon Valley with a partner who is a Vietnam War veteran carrying hidden wounds. There are others, too, all interesting and compelling in their own way. Whether coincidence, happenstance, or fate, something beyond our capacity for comprehension ultimately brings them all together—a passion for rescuing what remains of our ancestral forests.

The characters are rich and the storylines interesting, but what makes Powers's novel especially compelling is his mastery of the universe of trees—their cultural history, the uses to which they've been put, their eccentricities, and their endearing qualities. Thanks to this novel, I'll forever see trees differently.

Milkman: A Novel by Anna Burns

We all know the basic outline of Northern Ireland's Troubles: civil war that divided Irish from Irish for generations and that resulted in countless deaths, countless more enduring imprisonment, and even more shamed and shunned by the reigning powers in their communities for real or imagined transgressions against the cause. What to an outsider seems like an illustration of what Freud termed the "narcissism of minor differences" (after all, weren't they all Irish?), to the residents of places like Belfast and Derry these irreconcilable polarities created a pervasive culture of fear and embattlement.

Anna Burns's Milkman does more than take us inside the day-to-day lives of those who were not kingpins, or guerrillas, or informants (although we get a glimpse of them as well). Told through the eyes of an eighteen-year-old girl whose life is wrapped in a treading-time relationship and a family that has suffered the consequences of the bitter partisanship, Milkman shows us life in the vortex of deep and senseless hatreds not through the headlines but through the quotidian. This novel is about ordinary people trying to survive and endure the prevailing violence that surrounds them. Burns's eye for psychological nuance and detail is breathtaking, and her prose is steady, firm, and incisive. Milkman is a deeply insightful novel that shows us things we've never seen about life under such circumstances.

Carlos Kevin Blanton, professor and department head of history at Texas A&M University and Humanities Texas board member

The People's Revolt: Texas Populists and the Roots of American Liberalism  by Gregg Cantrell 

This history takes a well-studied topic, American Populism of the 1890s, and looks at it from a very different perspective. It looks at the Populist Movement's  third-party  efforts—the People's Party—in Texas and finds that this failed political revolt has shaped the entirety of  twentieth-century politics in the state and nation. There is no Progressive Movement of the 1900s and 1910s, New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s, or Great Society of the 1960s without Populism in the 1890s and its beating heart in Texas. Gregg Cantrell begins with Sam Johnson in 1890 and carries this Texas tradition through to his grandson Lyndon Baines Johnson in the 1960s. Most presciently, Cantrell ends his history with the politics of today and examines what the "populism" of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders has in common with these historical roots and what it doesn't. Before you cast your vote in 2020, read  The People's Revolt  and appreciate how central to the nation and how wild Texas politics really is.   

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet  by Becky Chambers 

I picked this book up on a staff recommendation at a Pasadena bookstore last summer on an off-day from research at the Huntington Library. I enjoy science fiction and really enjoyed this novel. It is about a group of misfits, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, as they travel to the outer rim of the known galaxy some day in the far future. This inter-species crew encounters peril at every step of the way, of course, but the story is really about their fellowship, their lives, and their journey. There is no pulse-pounding saving the universe stuff here. It's a more quiet, subtle, and introspective journey. It was a light, quick read that stimulated thought and ideas in that way that good sci-fi can but also made it about the people (human or not) and their journey together. Chambers's novel has soul. It has warmth, even the lizard people.

Emily Brady, director of the Glasscock Center for Humanities Research and chair and professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University

"On Waiting" by Raymond Tallis

(available online in the journal Philosophy Now, Issue 96, 2013) 

In these unprecedented times,  waiting  is a state that many of us are experiencing now. Waiting for the pandemic to pass and for daily life to return to something recognizable—perhaps the best one can hope for—is something that binds us together. In this short essay, the English philosopher, poet, novelist, and cultural critic Raymond Tallis reflects on the nature of waiting. His philosophical thoughts resonate with me in their reference to the feelings and pervasiveness involved in waiting: "Waiting reflects our helplessness, our inability to control the pace as well as the course of events. We may wait singly or collectively, privately or publicly." The essay is not uplifting or gloomy; rather, Tallis offers a way into thinking about our present existence. At one point, he writes, "The world is a waiting room." Could he have imagined where we are now? 

Norma Elia Cantú, Norine R. and T. Frank Murchison Professor of the Humanities at Trinity University, president of the American Folklore Society, and former Humanities Texas board member

In these uncertain times, I tend to go back to traditional knowledge and ways of looking at the world—and, of course, I turn to poetry. So, my selections are grounded in traditional lore that has sustained us in troubled times as well as guiding us when all is well.

Voices from the Ancestors: Xicanx and Latinx Spiritual Expressions and Healing Practices, coedited by Lara Medina and Martha R. Gonzales

One of my students read Voices from the Ancestors: Xicanx and Latinx Spiritual Expressions and Healing Practices for a class book report and was recommending it to her peers for these uncertain times. It is a collection of wisdom from a number of Latina/o/x voices mostly focused in the Southwest. The University of Arizona Press recently published online discussion resources on the book with suggestions for dealing with the pandemic.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and The Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Another important book that includes traditional knowledge is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and The Teachings of Plants. My friend Deborah Miranda taught it this semester and found the students are recommending it as a text that has helped them with the current situation.

Brandi Carnes, Humanities Texas exhibitions coordinator

Dominicana: A Novel by Angie Cruz

When Angie Cruz set out to write a book inspired by her mother's story of immigrating to the United States from the Dominican Republic, her mother said, "Who would be interested in a story about a woman like me? It's so typical." And while there is nothing typical about the beauty and prose of Dominicana, Cruz's novel is representative of the immigrant experience in a way that rarely registers on mainstream reading lists. Ana Cancion is just fifteen years old when she is married off to a man twice her age with the promise of sweeping her away to the luxe and glamour of New York City. Leaving behind her beloved home and family, Ana boards a plane on New Year's Day, 1965, and arrives at an apartment in shambles in Washington Heights where she is expected to play housewife. With the political turmoil of the Dominican Republic calling Juan, Ana's oppressive husband, back home, Ana finally has the freedom to take English classes, bask in the sun at Coney Island, and fall in love with Cesar, Juan's carefree brother. In Juan's absence, Ana gets a taste of the New York she always dreamed of, but with the looming threat of his return and the burden to help bring her family to America, Ana must decide between love and obligation.

Lydia Chao, Humanities Texas finance and operations assistant

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates

This author needs no introduction. If you are one of the many people inconvenienced by the self-quarantine, this book is a good reminder of our many freedoms that still exist. While not all subjects of the book are sunny, they are moving. If you are looking for something to help put your temporary situation into perspective, this book will do it.

Cary Clack, San Antonio Express-News editorial writer and columnist

Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye and Carmen Tafolla

I always have a volume of Naomi's or Carmen's in the car. Not only are they friends but their poetry nurtures, calms, and reassures me that things will be all right.

The Plague by Albert Camus

Obvious, right? Camus is one of my favorite writers, and I reread this for the umpteenth time late last year before reading it again, in February, in the shadow of COVID-19.

Works by Rebecca Solnit

I just finished Solnit's amazing memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence. She is one of our greatest, most essential writers. I'm also re-reading a couple collections of her essays, including Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. There's always an undercurrent of hope in her writing.

Hank the Cowdog series by John R. Erickson

They make me laugh. I need to laugh, especially now.

Caroline Crimm, professor emeritus of history at Sam Houston State University and Humanities Texas board member

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth by Rachel Maddow

I would recommend Rachel Maddow's Blowout. This is a book that looks at the impact of the oil industry on Russia and the United States. Maddow does an excellent job of reviewing the background and providing some interesting insights into how the industry has played into what is going on today around the world as well as in the United States. She not only writes well; she is a thoughtful scholar.

Elizabeth Crook, author and Humanities Texas board member

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

I suggest a weirdly calming, weirdly wise, and gloriously funny book: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. It's not my usual kind of reading, but the title was hard to resist. The basic premise pulls from ancient Roman stoic philosophers, Buddhists, and other philosophies that claim the route to sanity and happiness lies in embracing pessimism and uncertainty. Obviously not a new concept, but artfully and smartly laid out, provocative, and entertaining.

Thomas DiPiero, dean of the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University and Humanities Texas board member

The Iliad by Homer

The last four books of Homer's Iliad wrenchingly illustrate how crucial it is in times of unprecedented mayhem and destruction to understand and embrace our common humanity. Books XX through XXIV of the epic relate the explosion of the Trojan War's unexpected chaos as the gods begin anew to provide succor and advice to their favored sides. Equally important, the mourning and ego-injured Achilles rejoins the battle and single-handedly wreaks epoch-making carnage. His grisly wrath culminates in the slaying of Hector and the inhuman desecration of that hero's corpse. With disorder at its peak, two unforeseen events appease Achilles' fury: a visit from the ghost of his slain beloved friend and the arrival of Hector's father, Priam, who comes to ransom his son's body. The tremendous ransom Priam offers to reclaim his son moves Achilles little. But when the aged king invokes Achilles's own father, the ferocious hero recognizes his plight in that of his enemies. Knowing from prophesy that he, too, will not survive the war, Achilles exchanges his monstrosity for a humanity that recognizes itself in others and strives to understand the shared human condition.

Chitra Divakaruni, Betty and Gene McDavid Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Houston and author

I've been interested in myth and re-tellings of myth for a long time and have written two novels, The Palace of Illusions and The Forest of Enchantments, on this subject. They are re-tellings of Indian epics, the Mahabharat and the Ramayan, respectively, from the point of view of the main female characters, Panchaali and Sita, who have been largely ignored or patriarchally misinterpreted. I strongly believe in the importance of taking marginalized characters and placing them in the centers of works of art, and the two books I recommend also do this creatively and masterfully. Both these recommendations are beautifully written, poetic novels with unforgettable protagonists. You might call them literary page-turners!

Circe by Madeline Miller

In Circe, author Madeline Miller takes a minor character from The Odyssey—the witch who turned men into pigs is how most of us know Circe—and gives her a complete and complex life. Reading, we understand the hows and whys of Circe's history: how she ends up on the island where Odysseus finds her; why she wants to transform men into pigs; how and why she changes when she meets Odysseus; and what the tragic/surprising/magical fallout is from that event.

The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich

The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich is a beautifully written story that pulls us into the lives of a mother and daughter who find a magical drum, opening up a tragic yet gripping family history hitherto lost to them. Moving from generation to generation, the story gives us, additionally, a compelling glimpse into the fraught history of the Ojibwe people. Balanced between the present and the past and the mundane and the magical, this book is a fascinating and compelling read.

Trish Dressen, executive director of the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature

Dreamers by Yuyi Morales

Dreamers, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is a creative, autobiographical account of Yuyi and her son's journey to America. Born and raised in Mexico, Yuyi immigrated to the US with her husband and two-year-old son knowing very little English. She found an atmosphere of welcome in public libraries and learned much of the English language through picture books. Dreamers recounts this journey with vibrant, emotive illustrations that include collage elements Yuyi made as a child! The picture book beautifully captures the common human experience of finding our place, learning and being transported by books and art, and embracing a spirit of love and hospitality towards those different from us.

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick

Finding Winnie, written by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, follows the true story of the soldier who found Winnipeg the bear—the same bear who inspired A. A. Milne's beloved character Winnie the Pooh. This book reminds us that we have the power to make ordinary days become extraordinary. One split-second decision to choose kindness over cruelty, strength in suffering, or simply take a wild, impossible chance, could land our humdrum lives in a storybook. Finding Winnie encourages readers to see the silver linings all around them and to notice stories blossoming in the bravery it takes to take a chance on a little brown bear cub. This book also focuses on learning and passing on personal and family histories. The plot is framed by a mother telling her son about his great grandfather's real-life adventure! During quarantine, the extra time spent with our loved ones is the perfect opportunity to share our family histories with one another.

Kristin Edford, assistant professor of humanities at Amarillo College 

Don't Make Me Pull Over! An Informal History of the Family Road Trip by Richard Ratay 

Don't Make Me Pull Over! is a nostalgic memoir and history of the family road trips so popular in the 1950s. I read this book when it first came out in July 2018. The book brought back so many memories of my own personal journeys completely organized by my mother, who carefully designed our family vacations around historical events such as visiting all the battlefields of the Civil War or the American Revolution—a trip any nine-year-old would be excited about. 

Our trips included a detailed daily calendar indicating how much time would be spent at each location and a time allotment for restroom breaks, with the day ending at a motel where my parents relaxed while my sister and I had to write in a journal what we learned during the day. Sadly, I was the problem child who wistfully dreamed of spending time in the motel swimming pools. For those who are saddened by the loss of a family vacation, this book is a wonderful alternative allowing you to travel across the United States with the author in his own agony and pleasure.

Texas Gardener's Handbook by Dale Groom and Dan Gill

Another book I have been immersed in is the Texas Gardener's Handbook by Dale Groom and Dan Gill, with Steve Dobbs, James Fizzell, Joe Lamp'l and Joe White. I never knew how boring my garden was until I was "encouraged" to stay home. Looking out my windows on a daily basis showed my garden was begging for more beauty and Zen. 

Betty Sue Flowers, writer, editor, international business consultant, and former Humanities Texas board member

Middlemarch by George Eliot

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz

Now is the time to read long novels. I would suggest three. Many consider George Eliot's Middlemarch to be the greatest novel written in the English language. The characters in a small village are seen with a rare kind of moral wisdom and clarity, and this profound authorial empathy has the capacity to educate the reader's heart as well. Read (or re-read) Tolstoy's War and Peace, which people in quarantine all over the world are now reading together in a virtual book club with Princeton's writer-professor Yiyun Li. Or read The Cairo Trilogy by Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, where you will recognize the emotions of the main character of the first novel, who is not allowed to leave her house. This masterpiece follows three generations of a close-knit Muslim community in Cairo from 1919 to 1944. While the dress, customs, food, and political concerns are utterly foreign to most English-speaking readers, the family triumphs and catastrophes that live so vividly in these novels are deeply moving. Like Pierre, Natasha, and Prince Andrei of War and Peace or Dorothea of Middlemarch, Kamal, Aisha, Amina, and Khadija will live in my imagination for the rest of my life.

Everett Fly, architect and former Humanities Texas board member

A Black Women's History of the United States  by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross 

A Black Women's History of the United States provides recognition of black women that has been long overdue. Relatively few works have been dedicated to exposing such a broad range of roles, stories, visions, and leadership that represent African American women in United States history and culture. This book is heavily researched and offers compelling accounts of black women who inspire and support us in all aspects of life.  

Negroland: A Memoir  by Margo Jefferson 

Negroland: A Memoir  uses an interdisciplinary perspective on race and class in America. History, sociology,  and psychology  intertwine in this personal yet insightful memoir of black life. Jefferson's book reminds us that black and interracial experiences come in many forms in America. The range of experiences are valid and contribute to the strength of America's character. 

Elizabeth Bradford Frye, Humanities Texas senior program officer

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss

While it's nice, and often necessary, to be distracted during these long days, I'm also reading to process what's going on around us, to help me think about what we're living through. Eula Biss's 2014 bestseller On Immunity: An Inoculation is an extended, nonlinear treatise on epidemics, childhood diseases, and the solutions we've developed throughout time to treat and manage them; it is equally a book about the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. Biss deftly shows how, dating back to antiquity, we've used illness as metaphor, often to our own detriment. Fear and misinformation are catching—as we are ever keenly aware—with contagion anxieties emerging in our art, literature, and cultural myths. Biss is also concerned with the power these tensions hold in our modern lives. Throughout, she joins the public and the personal, tenderly representing what it's like to be a new mother concerned with the health of her child even as she must contend with her own physical vulnerability. Painfully appropriate for our present moment, On Immunity's most convincing, ultimate argument is about our interconnectedness, our shared humanity; to care for ourselves, we must look after each other.

John Morán González, J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of American and English Literature at The University of Texas at Austin and Humanities Texas board member

Where We Come From by Oscar Cásares

Published last year, Oscar Cásares's novel Where We Come From is less a "ripped from the headlines" depiction of contemporary migration issues along the U.S.-Mexico border than a nuanced exposition of the motives, hopes, and aspirations of ordinary people caught in a very real historical moment. Set in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, the narrative revolves around Nina, a middle-aged woman who cares for her aged, cantankerous mother. A small kindness to her housekeeper has far-reaching consequences for Nina. The favor of letting her housekeeper's undocumented daughter and child stay overnight in the pink casita adjacent to her own blue cottage on their way across the border results in Nina's inadvertent involvement with coyotes, who insist upon using her property as a stash house for other immigrants. But the story is not so much about human smuggling as it is about the emotional connections made across the migrant/citizen distinction. Nina allows Daniel, a young undocumented Mexican, to remain in the pink casita, but keeping his presence a secret from her visiting teenage godson Orly is a nerve-wracking proposition. Cásares's sparse, graceful prose depicts the inevitable consequences when the two boys meet and discover, together with Nina, how their diverse migrant experiences draw them together. As a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and winner of a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship, Cásares is a star in the state's literary firmament.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado's first short story collection Her Body and Other Parties was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for good reason. In it, Machado proves to be a master at tapping into the uneasiness of everyday life as it pertains to the social standing of women, both straight and queer. As the title indicates, the focus is on women's bodily experiences as they navigate patriarchal discourses of agency, sexuality, and love. But the stories are not sociological tracts. Rather, they are deftly woven gothic narratives in which the quotidian becomes horrific when seen in a new light. Several focus on relationships between men and women; in particular, "The Husband Stitch" is Machado's brilliant rewrite of the classic children's horror story "The Green Ribbon," as told from the woman's point of view. Others, such as "The Resident" and "Real Women Have Bodies," focus on the tangled intersection of aesthetic creation, trauma, and sexual difference, while "Eight Bites" is a chilling take on the pressures on women regarding body image and weight loss. While apocalyptic pandemic tales are a staple of science fiction, "Inventory" is Machado's unique take on sex and death. Her Body and Other Parties makes a strong argument for the aesthetic coming of age of speculative fiction.

Stephen Harrigan, novelist, journalist, historian, and screenwriter

Say Nothing: A True Story of Memory and Murder in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

The End of October by Lawrence Wright

These days I’m particularly drawn to books that demonstrate what can happen when world-class reporting is fused with masterful storytelling. One vivid example is Say Nothing: A True Story of Memory and Murder in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe. It is an intimate and empathetic glimpse into a chronic conflict that I had been reading about in newspapers for decades but had never truly understood before. The other book is my friend Lawrence Wright's novel The End of October, which is both a thriller and a cautionary tale—more cautionary than I could have ever imagined when I read it in manuscript a year ago—about a world gripped by a fierce pandemic.

Betty Hewell, Humanities Texas director of advancement

Beloved by Toni Morrison

I recently read  Beloved  by Toni Morrison—I guess one would accurately say "finally read" Beloved. A gut-wrenching, haunting, and stunningly beautiful novel that pierces the soul with vivid imagery and heartbreaking circumstances in pre- and post-Civil War America. Morrison pulls readers into the story and then devastates them with the atrocities of slavery.  I'm changed and scarred from reading it. I marvel at how such a brutal book that is a very challenging read actually made it to mainstream conscience but glad it did for it reminds us that slavery still exists today (while in different forms), and we must work to end it.

Andrea C. Holman, associate professor of psychology at Huston-Tillotson University and Humanities Texas board member

Given the national climate and individual distress, I decided to go with a theme of grief and trauma.

The article "Coping with Grief: The Ball and The Box" describes the journey through grief in one of the most accurate and helpful ways I've come across. I think it helps give powerful imagery to the ways grief can hurt in random and unexpected ways but also never fully leave over time.

The article "That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief" specifically addresses the emotional difficulty experienced by individuals across the world in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of grief. It was helpful to label the various types of grief we all may be experiencing. This is an article that could be shared with family, friends, and loved ones to help process how and what individuals are feeling in the current climate.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

I am currently reading The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which is more geared toward those who love learning and find healing through understanding, particularly through understanding of themselves and their bodies. This book outlines the ways that our brains and bodies (namely our nervous systems) may react to people, places, and spaces based on traumatic experiences, often without our knowledge and awareness. It also offers tangible ways to heal and reset our bodies in the context of trauma.

Liz James, Humanities Texas director of education

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

From following my favorite bands across the country to enjoying my ever-expanding vinyl collection, music has always been a central source of joy in my life. It comes as no surprise that my recommendation for a good read would be music-related. When our son was born in December 2018, my husband and I took the opportunity (in between naps) to dive into Bruce Springsteen's introspective memoir Born to Run. Through laughs, tears, and, above all, brutal honesty, the Boss chronicles the ups and downs of his relentless journey to becoming one of the most legendary rock stars of all time. Born to Run is beautifully written, deeply revealing, and will no doubt keep you—music lover or not—entertained in the long days and nights ahead! Bonus: listen along with Chapter and Verse, the companion album to the memoir, which features songs from Springsteen's earliest recordings and demos, including some never-before-released tracks.

Maryse Jayasuriya, associate dean of liberal arts and associate professor of English at The University of Texas at El Paso

I would recommend the following two novels. Though very different in tone and context, both emphasize the indomitable human spirit amidst times of crisis and personal struggle.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

This exuberant 2019 Booker Prize-winning novel spans a century and depicts intersections of identity and a breathtaking diversity of experiences through intermingling stories about several generations of black British women.

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

A heart-wrenching novel about a boat full of Sri Lankan Tamil asylum-seekers that arrives in Canada. It examines the trauma of war that motivates people to flee their homeland and the bureaucratic hurdles that they experience once they reach a potential homeland.

Marissa Kessenich, Humanities Texas education and outreach coordinator

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

"This is the way the world ends. Again." 

The Fifth Season  is the perfect blend of apocalyptic thriller, speculative fiction, and environmental commentary. This 2015 novel is the first book in the  three-time Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth trilogy  by fantasy writer N. K. Jemisin. The grand antagonist of  The Fifth Season, and the entire trilogy, is Earth. Through phenomena known as "fifth seasons," apocalyptic events that wipe out entire civilizations, Father Earth enacts his revenge against the people who have stolen so much from him (the full extent of which is only revealed later in the series). That being said, this may not be the book for you if you’re looking for complete escapism. As any good piece of fiction does, Jemisin's novel deals masterfully with themes that resonate in our own world today: oppression, ecological destruction, and the ways that fear can drive us or—if we don’t know how to wield it—destroy us.

Eric Lupfer, Humanities Texas executive director

Cook Like a Local by Chris Shepherd and Kaitlyn Goalen

"Houston tastes like fish sauce." So begins the first chapter of Cook Like a Local, the inspiring 2019 cookbook by James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd and writer Kaitlyn Goalen. Cook Like a Local includes a dizzying range of recipes—fried egg banh mi, green beans with Japanese curry, BBQ baked field peas, garam masala smoked fish dip, chicken posole, shawarma meatballs. But the book is about more than just cooking. It is also a manifesto, a love song to Houston, and a primer on the city's remarkable cultural diversity. "In the last decade, we've been talking a lot about 'local' food. Usually we're talking about the source of the ingredients and their geographical proximity to your plate," writes Shepherd. "But for me, the meaning is broader than that. . . . Thinking about what it means to cook locally in Houston means going out into the different neighborhoods of my city and taking a census of my own: one of flavors, and of culinary traditions." Hence, Cook Like a Local draws upon many of the cultures now local to Houston—Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian, Korean, Cajun, and African and Anglo American. There are loving profiles of the city's chefs, restaurant owners, bakers, and grocers. And many of the recipes reveal how culinary traditions are now cross pollinating and creating something new, like the Vietnamese fajitas served at Mai's restaurant in Midtown, or a BLT that includes doubanjiang, a Sichuan paste made from fermented broad beans and chiles.

No book has brought me more pleasure during this time of sheltering in place. I'm excited to cook my way through Cook Like a Local, learning about ingredients and approaches I've never tried. And I can't wait to visit the restaurants and businesses featured in the book and broaden my understanding of what is local to Houston and Texas.

Naomi Shihab Nye, author and Poetry Foundation's Young People's Poetry Laureate for 2019–2021

I have three brand new books I would love to recommend—crazy about all three of them.

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

Another masterpiece by the National Book Award Finalist for News of the World. It feels helpful to be carried away right now, and this carries us back more than one hundred years, in Texas. It is exquisitely written as well as riveting.

Attention: A Love Story by Casey Schwartz

A brilliant, captivating examination of what "attention" is and all the many things that enhance, jeopardize, or challenge it in our time. Fascinating to consider in our current moment when our attentions have been reined into smaller realms and home places. 

Ledger by Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield is one of the most crucial, elegant poets writing in the world today. All her poems reconsider our precious universe, its immense mysteries and layerings, and our places in it. Also perfect for the moment. She is isolating in her home in California.

Rosalind Oliphant, founding director of the Austin African American Book Festival

Colored People: A Memoir  by Henry Louis Gates Jr. 

In early March, before we could even fathom how COVID-19 would shut down the world as we know it, I attended a thought-provoking lecture by Henry Louis Gates Jr. at The University of Texas. As a longtime fan of his research and work, I was ecstatic to meet Gates and have him sign my copy of his 1994 memoir, Colored People, which he wrote so his daughters would have some knowledge of his childhood, his family, and his village. 

This coming-of-age story has been in my collection for years, patiently waiting to be just the right book to relish during these unprecedented times. Of late, after the daily avalanche of troubling news reports on the pandemic, I have retreated each evening to my favorite chair and made my escape to Piedmont, West Virginia, through Gates's honest, humorous, and vivid storytelling. I take solace in the ways Gates and his family responded to the many challenges they faced with courage, resilience, intelligence, and hard work. I find Colored People to be an inspirational read in that it rekindles my own passion for genealogy and my desire to write my family's story so, like Gates, my son, nephew, and cousins will know it. 

Kirsten Ostherr, Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English at Rice University

Right now, everyone may have had enough of thinking about pandemics and plagues. If not, there are many wonderful humanities suggestions ranging from scholarship to lists of thematically relevant literature, film, and even music in the open-sourced #coronavirussyllabus.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

For those who might want a bit of escape, I recommend Jeff VanderMeer's The Southern Reach trilogy of books (including Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance), released in 2014. These books are often described as "cli-fi," a variant of science fiction that focuses on imagining the futures that might emerge from the as yet uncertain effects of climate change. The books are beautifully written but also pretty unsettling, mainly because there are certain events that occur and environments that the characters traverse that exist just a bit outside human understanding. The attraction of that uncertainty is a hallmark of the author's brilliance. These are books that I kept thinking about in between sessions of reading, as if they were living worlds that might change while I was gone. This trilogy is not soothing by any means, but, as an adjacent imaginary to our current crisis, it feels appropriate. 

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

And, for something completely different, I recommend James Baldwin's short novel, Giovanni's Room (1956). This book is a classic for the ages, though it has not always made that list, perhaps due to the subject matter: love and desire between men, written by a gay African American man. The writing is gorgeous, and the material is sad, profound, and hopeful all at once. I first read this book over twenty years ago, and then I had to read everything else James Baldwin had ever written. For those of you who have not yet had the joy of this discovery, now is the perfect time to immerse yourself. I guarantee that Baldwin will make you stop thinking about Coronavirus, for a blissful while.

Abby Paschall, Humanities Texas visual communications coordinator

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

White Teeth, the award-winning first novel by English author Zadie Smith, is the story of two friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, who meet during World War II as young men. The story follows them throughout their lives and their children's lives in London. We watch as the two men each marry (or remarry in Archie's case) women half their age and become fathers, introducing a new set of struggles and experiences. Smith hilariously captures generational differences as we watch Archie and Samad's children grow up in a modern-day city and choose between their parents' hopes for them and their own dreams. I love how Smith creates the perfect combination of humor and scathing reality in her telling of the human experience by way of this colorful cast of characters.

Merline Pitre, professor of history and former dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Behavioral Science at Texas Southern University and former Humanities Texas board member

George T. Ruby: Champion of Civil Rights in Reconstruction Texas by Carl H. Moneyhon

George T. Ruby: Champion of Civil Rights in Reconstruction Texas by Carl H. Moneyhon is a must-read biography. George T. Ruby was the most widely known of the first generation of black politicians in Texas during Reconstruction. Born in New York and reared in the state of Maine, he moved to Louisiana during the Civil War then to Texas in 1868. Ruby became involved in Texas politics during the drafting of the 1869 Constitution. At that time, he organized black voters and got himself elected as a constitutional delegate and later as a state senator from Galveston. In a period during which black politicians were unmercifully scrutinized for shortcomings, Ruby won admiration from many of his party colleagues and even some Democrats. Yet he made Conservatives uncomfortable as he refused to be passive in politics. Among other things, he fervently advocated for the right to vote for African Americans. This biography is worth reading not only for Ruby's role in Texas politics but also for his role in the education of African Americans both in Texas and Louisiana. A complex man, Ruby's main mission throughout his forty-one years of life was to secure civil rights for blacks as well as whites.

Agent of Change: Adela Sloss-Vento by Cynthia E. Orozco

Agent of Change: Adela Sloss-Vento is a tour de force. With the publication of this book, Texas history will be written wherein acknowledgement must be and will be made for the role that Adela Sloss-Vento played in helping to bring about change in South Texas' Lower Rio Grande Valley during the Mexican American civil rights movement in the 1920s and the Chicano movement the 1960s and 1970s. Like black female activists of the modern civil rights movement, Sloss-Vento was not hindered by her gender in the fight for political and economic equality. In presenting the full story of Sloss-Vento's trials, triumphs, and achievements, Orozco has revived a forgotten history of a major female Latina leader.

John Phillip Santos, author, filmmaker, University Distinguished Scholar at The University of Texas at San Antonio, and Humanities Texas board member

Three stand-out Texas books:

The Essential J. Frank Dobie edited by Steven L. Davis

Steve Davis's superbly edited The Essential J. Frank Dobie goes a long way toward re-framing Dobie's oeuvre in terms of its literary quality and critical acumen. The excerpts are the best of Dobie's writing over decades, reflecting the deepening complexity and political daring of someone often dismissed as a folkloric cliché.

SunriseSunset: Solargraphs from Plum Creek by Bill Wittliff

The late great Bill Wittliff's SunriseSunset: Solargraphs from Plum Creek is a stunning book of Bill's last photographic works, in which he turned beer cans into camera obscuras, leaving them out for long stretches on fence-posts around his Plum Creek ranch. The results are sublime renderings of the Texas landscape like no others, with allusive titles followed by the number of days the can was left out for exposure, like "Psychedelic, 82 days." Each one is transcendent, the sun tracks of successive days capturing glimpses of hill country vistas, like reportage from some eternal eye. His widow Sally recently told me, some cans are still out there, after Bill's passing, continuing to gather images.

Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers by Doug J. Swanson

Finally, coming out in June, is Doug J. Swanson's Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers. Expanding on recent academic books by historians uncovering aspects of the Rangers' scandalous past, Swanson's book is a briskly told "unauthorized" comprehensive biography, with hair-raising accounts of their murderous adventurism and the ways they helped shaped early Texas. It'll likely not make him any friends in the law enforcement agency, but it's an essential new work for all of us seeking to come to terms with the "Question of Texas."

And two more amazing reads:

Jeffrey J. Kripal's The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, an exploration of insight and consciousness within a critique of materialism, written by a visionary chair of religion at Rice University, who's shaking up the field of religious studies. And Natalie Diaz's amazing new book of poems, Postcolonial Love Poem, a moving and lyrical evocation of the mysteries, struggles, and epiphanic reckonings of the mestizo American body.

Read on!

Clay Smith, literary director of the San Antonio Book Festival

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

So much of the fiction set in West Texas is about men: men subduing the rugged, unforgiving land; men usually causing misery for themselves and women. Wetmore, a West Texas native, gives the women of Odessa their due in this memorable novel. In 1976, an oil field worker rapes fourteen-year-old Gloria Ramirez outside of town. After she survives the grueling journey to a ranch home and word gets out about the rape, things get fractious in Odessa. Told from the perspectives of Gloria, the wife and mother in the ranch house who rescues her, and other local women, Valentine moves across class and race to tell a story that is deep, affecting, and thrilling.

Jeremi Suri, Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin

In a confusing and difficult moment, historical perspective helps us to see the full range of humanity—how people in other times and places have endured and even made some progress. For relevant, readable, and even hopeful histories, I recommend The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry; America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 by Alfred W. Crosby; and Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City by John Henderson.

Social distancing offers an opportunity to reflect on our humanity—what we value as citizens and members of families and community. I have returned to classic works of literature, written in similar conditions, with lessons and inspiration for today: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer; The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio; The Diary of Samuel Pepys by Samuel Pepys; and King Lear, Measure for Measure, and Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

For poetry that captures tragedy and (a little) renewal, I recommend The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot.

Howard Taylor, director of the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts

The Moor's Account: A Novel by Laila Lalami

I just finished reading a book that I had distractedly set aside five years ago, one of the few advantages in this time of social distancing. The book is The Moor's Account, a novel written by Laila Lalami and published in 2015. It is based upon an actual account of a Spanish shipwreck written by Cabeza de Vaca, published in 1542, that recounts his eight-year trek across the Southwestern region of modern America in an unimaginably exotic time and place. In de Vaca's account, he describes two of the other survivors in detail, but the third person he only casually mentions as "Estebannico, an Arab Negro from Azemmour." Lalami brings Estebannico vividly to life as he tells us his story of growing up as a Black Muslim in North Africa and the fact that he is an educated man with aspirations and a deep love of his family and traditions. Circumstances force him to sell himself into slavery, leading to his part in one of the greatest tales of adventure and human survival in history. In this time of existential angst and xenophobia this is an entertaining book that is also good for the soul.

"Do You Really Want to Be a Leader?" by Preston C. Bottger and Jean-Louis Barsoux

The notions of leadership and what it means to be a leader have always fascinated me. A number of years ago I read an article published in the Wall Street Journal on June 14, 2012, by Preston C. Bottger titled "Do You Really Want to Be a Leader?" I have found it compelling and have shared it with others frequently. At the beginning, Bottger makes the point that the question of whether leaders are born or made is irrelevant and goes on to discuss pointedly and realistically the inherent challenges of leadership. At the end of this short article, he states, "Leadership might be learnable. But instead of taking comfort in the idea that you can develop, wake up to the sobering realization of how difficult it will be to manage novel situations continuously and under often-extreme circumstances." This goes to the heart of the challenges we are facing today.

Kelsi Tyler, Humanities Texas assistant director of public programs

A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel by Amor Towles

When Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is deemed an enemy of the Bolsheviks, he narrowly escapes the death penalty, sentenced instead to live out the rest of his days at his current residence: Moscow's luxurious Hotel Metropol. Barred from setting foot outside the hotel upon pain of death, the indomitable Rostov relies on his unfailing charm and ingenuity to make the best of his situation. A Gentleman in Moscow details over thirty years of Rostov's house arrest as he matches wits with Soviet bureaucrats, befriends bellhops and bartenders, romances a famous film actress, and becomes guardian to a young orphan—all within the walls of the Metropol. Towles welcomes readers to a delightfully intricate world peopled by a cast of winning characters, and, although our confinement may be shorter and less glamorous, perhaps we can draw inspiration from Rostov's determined optimism in the face of unexpected circumstances.

Murphy Wilt, Humanities Texas program officer

The Name of the Wind  by Patrick Rothfuss

I discovered this book in middle school, and it quickly became my favorite. It is the first installment in the Kingkiller Chronicles series (great name, I know), and it is a fantasy novel that comes across as a darker and more adult version of Harry Potter. The story is set in a fictional world that has not developed technologically past the horse and carriage, yet has magic interwoven throughout it to help compensate. The focus of the novel is a young boy, around thirteen years old, who is part of a travelling troupe of performers—until the entire troupe, including his beloved parents, is murdered by a group of mysterious figures. The boy, named Kvothe, eventually recovers from the shock and trauma of witnessing the massacre and joins the prestigious University to learn magic. There, he excels despite his lowly upbringing, and his journey to avenge his family and become a legend begins.

Paul Woodruff, Darrell Royal Professor of Ethics at The University of Texas at Austin

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

I suggest first a modern classic, Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey. This is the book that made him famous at the age of thirty, though he is better known now for Our Town. The Bridge is a brilliant short novel, only 38,000 words, so it won't take long to read. It works back from the deaths of five people who plunge into a ravine when the bridge, woven by Incas, collapses. Wilder develops each of the characters in such depth that they seem to breathe on the pages of the book. Each seems like no one else in fiction, though born out of Wilder's love of literature. And Wilder loves his characters here, as in all his writings, flawed as they are. The question bubbling through the book is whether these deaths have any meaning. Could God have chosen them for this fate? Wilder gives no answer to that. Instead, he shows how much the living loved them, and that love is such meaning as their lives and deaths can have. A lovely meditation for us to read in a time of danger.

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Second, I suggest Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. A good man fails in courage at a crucial point in his life and tries to atone for it. In a time that calls for courage, this is a valuable theme for us. Jim was a junior officer on a ship full of pilgrims headed for Mecca. When the ship starts to go down, the captain escapes in the only lifeboat with the other white sailors, including Jim. But the ship does not go down, and the story comes out. Why did Jim fail so badly? Was he afraid not to follow the others? Did he let fear of drowning get ahead of his moral duty? This is a kind of possible failure many of us will be confronted with as we make hard choices in the next few months.

Brian Yothers, Frances Spatz Leighton Endowed Distinguished Professor of English and chair of the Department of English at The University of Texas at El Paso

The Temple by George Herbert

We are in the midst of a period of enforced inwardness and reflection, and so the books that come to mind for me are all obsessively focused on the inner life for various and, in some ways, contrasting reasons. The seventeenth-century British devotional poet George Herbert wrote a series of poems that made up The Temple (1633), five of which bore the title "Affliction." Herbert ends the fifth poem of that name with a beautiful image of human solidarity and resilience, framed by his own faith as an Anglican priest:

"Affliction then is ours;
We are the trees, whom shaking fastens more,
While blustring winds destroy the wanton bowres,
And ruffle all their curious knots and store.
       My God, so temper joy and wo,
       That thy bright beams may tame thy bow."

Herbert, who died of a respiratory infection at thirty-nine years old, offers many such reflections on the struggle to find meaning in suffering and loss.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is always at the top of my list of things to re-read, but it seems especially relevant now. Melville reflects throughout on the problem of suffering, the nature of human solidarity, and the physical anguish associated with injury and sickness. The novel also reflects on the interconnectedness of risk, the power of rumors, and the kinds of leadership that offer succor and the kinds of leadership that do not. Most centrally, it reflects on what Melville calls, referring to the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the "fine-hammered steel of woe," without forgetting that in spite of pain and loss "there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that alike can dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces."

Love Unknown: The Life and World of Elizabeth Bishop by Thomas Travisano

That Catskill eagle has been much on my mind as I've been reading Thomas Travisano's Love Unknown: The Life and World of Elizabeth Bishop, published in 2019. Bishop's ability to catalog loss with wry wit and evident delight in the possibilities of language always draws me back to her poetry, and her biography captures the ways in which anxiety and inwardness can produce extraordinary beauty and humor.