blue deck chair with books stacked on the armrest
It's summer, which means it's time to crack open a book. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Good reads: Faculty, staff and students share their recommendations for your summer reading list

It's summer. Grab a book.

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The lure of vacation this summer is stronger than ever as pandemic conditions improve in the United States and travel restrictions are lifted. Whether relaxing on a beach or traveling across the country to see much-missed family and friends, a good book is an essential item for many vacationers — and even staycationers. We asked Virginia Commonwealth University faculty, staff and students to recommend books they feel would make good additions to anyone’s summer reading list.

Dominic Asmall Willsdon.
Dominic Asmall Willsdon. (Courtesy photo)

Dominic Asmall Willsdon, executive director, Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU

“Season of Migration to the North” by Tayeb Salih

First published in Arabic in 1966 (in English translation in 1969), this is a classic of postcolonial literature. The novel is set in Sudan and England in the early 20th century. In many ways, it is about the dislocated, contorted lives that were the result of British rule in Africa. It is a beautiful and poignant book. My mother recommended it to me decades ago (she grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and immigrated to London in the ‘50s). I finally read it this year because it came up in my conversations with artist Ibrahim Ahmed, whose exhibition opens at the ICA on July 23. Ibrahim is based in Egypt now, but lived in New Jersey in his teens and 20s, in the wake of 9/11. Salih’s novel resonates with Ahmed’s migrant experience too. 

Gregory Kimbrell.
Gregory Kimbrell. (Courtesy photo)

Gregory Kimbrell, assistant director of communications and public relations, VCU Libraries

“Monsters I Have Been” by Kenji C. Liu

At first glance, the book is disorientingly weird — which I completely love. On Page 1, Liu introduces what he calls a “frankenpo” (Frankenstein poem), which is a poem made of found language collaged together from various sources — everything from sci-fi movie scripts to U.S. presidential executive orders. Some poems also incorporate musical notation, Japanese characters or footnotes. This is very much a book about mashing up things from different disciplines and cultures and producing “monsters,” writing that defies expectations of poetry. And as monsters often do in literature and movies, these monster poems take us to task for ugly things in ourselves. Liu interrogates toxic masculinity, anti-Asian prejudice and how both are deeply embedded in the Western world and often give rise to senseless, tragic violence. At once extremely humane in its concerns and delightfully eclectic and fresh in how it’s composed, the book very much rewards rereading.

Katharine DeRosa.
Katharine DeRosa. (Courtesy photo)

Katharine DeRosa, economics and mass communications student; news editor at The Commonwealth Times

“The Anthropocene Reviewed” by John Green 

“The Anthropocene Reviewed” is a collection of essays on the human-centered planet by novelist John Green. The book is based on Green’s award-winning podcast of the same name. 

Green reviews different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. His reviews range from [the 1950 film] “Harvey” to scratch-and-sniff stickers to viral meningitis. Each review offers an insight into Green’s life and causes readers to reflect on their own.

In a few words, “The Anthropocene Reviewed” is a comfort. Green’s book is well researched, elegant and pretentious in all the right places. He hates Canada Geese, loves “The Penguins of Madagascar” and turns Mario Kart into a metaphor for life in the most unexpected way. I recommend “The Anthropocene Reviewed” to anyone looking for a casual but enlightening summer read. 

Carla-Mae Crookendale.
Carla-Mae Crookendale. (Courtesy photo)

Carla-Mae Crookendale, arts research librarian and assistant professor, VCU Libraries

“The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1” by N.K. Jemisin

I’m a long-time fantasy and science-fiction fan. I appreciate the way these genres use allegory and extrapolation to help readers engage with real-world issues through a new lens. However, growing up it was often difficult to find myself reflected in most of the traditional standards like J.R.R. Tolkien or Philip K. Dick. Thankfully, newer authors like Jemisin connect to tradition with immersive world-building and epic adventure while adding to it by centering people of color, women and queer characters. “The Fifth Season” takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting with both fantasy and sci-fi elements. The protagonists wrestle with survival, discrimination and a hostile climate, facing these challenges with compassion, courage and supernatural power. This is the first book in the “Broken Earth Trilogy,” and I’m looking forward to diving into the rest of the series!

Gonzalo Bearman
Gonzalo Bearman

Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., Richard P. Wenzel Professor of Medicine; hospital epidemiologist and chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases, VCU Health

“Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World” by Fareed Zakaria

Despite the COVID-19 fatigue, I greatly enjoyed “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World” by Fareed Zakaria. As a professor of infectious diseases, I picked up this book because I was intrigued by the themes of how COVID-19 will shape our future directions in medicine, technology, politics, economics and society. For me, the take-home messages were that nations are more interconnected than ever, we are social animals, life is increasingly digital, inequality is deepening, globalization is not dead and markets are not enough, the quality of government matters and people should listen to experts (and experts should listen to people). At the end of the book, the author writes that although predictions are made in the book, we still largely control our own future — so with purpose and persistence many of the future dangers can be mitigated. 

This book would be of interest for anyone seeking an intersection between medicine, politics, economics and society.


Need another book to add to your summer reading list? “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore” by Elizabeth Rush explores the impact of climate change and rising sea levels in coastal communities and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. An interdisciplinary committee with representation from nearly 20 VCU departments and units, along with undergraduate and graduate student input, selected it as VCU’s Common Book for the 2021-22 academic year. All first-year students read the Common Book as part of their Focused Inquiry courses but the entire community is encouraged to read the book. VCU and the Richmond community will hold a number of public programs this fall featuring experts who will discuss climate change and rising sea levels, and Rush will deliver a keynote address about the book on Oct. 13 at 6 p.m.