Category Archives: Books and Arts

Holiday Reading: PAW Asked Six Alumni Authors for Their Holiday-Reading Suggestions

Boris Fishman ’01

Boris Fishman ’01 (Rob Liguori)

Boris Fishman ’01 (Rob Liguori)

One book held me so hard I barely went outside for three days: Peter Godwin’s When A Crocodile Eats the Sun, a heartbreaking account of his father’s decline alongside the decline of their beloved and native Zimbabwe. Godwin is that rarest of writers: A master craftsman whose work is also profoundly moving. He’s also a former Princeton professor. I recently read Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, about a bad egg in an otherwise decent family, and am still rattling.

Fishman is the author of the novel A Replacement Life . His new novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo , comes out in March.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06

Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06 (Courtesy Dan-el Padilla Peralta)

Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06 (Courtesy Dan-el Padilla Peralta)

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is an engrossing depiction of a marriage from two perspectives. It is masterful in the craft of its sentences, the architecture of its plot, the dexterity of its classical allusions.

Shea Serrano’s The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed is a gorgeously illustrated, witty, and often pointed dissection of the genre.

Padilla is the author of Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League.

Alice Eve Cohen ’76

Alice Eve Cohen ’76 (Janet Charles Photography)

Alice Eve Cohen ’76 (Janet Charles Photography)

As a memoirist, I’m fascinated by fiction that reads like memoir and memoir that reads like fiction. Two years after first reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, I still dip into it on a regular basis, savoring the language and trying to unravel its mysteries. A woman named Ruth (like the author) finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox on a beach in the Pacific Northwest, probably washed up by the 2011 tsunami. Inside the lunchbox is the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl with a fabulous imagination, sardonic wit, and suicidal fantasies.

I was already a fan of the new musical Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s book, when I read her graphic novel-memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. With lush language and beautifully detailed cartoon panels, Bechdel draws the reader into her story of a lesbian cartoonist looking back at her childhood to try to understand her complicated, closeted gay father. Heartbreaking, funny, and profound.

Cohen’s most recent book is the memoir The Year My Mother Came Back. Continue reading

Orr ’96 Transforms the Reading of America’s Most Beloved Poem

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

David Orr ’96

David Orr ’96

These are among the most famous lines of American poetry ever penned. People all over the English-speaking world can conjure them up, quoting the conclusion of Robert Frost’s most famous poem, The Road Not Taken. The poem’s clean language, simple cadence, and easy rhymes have become a part of America’s cultural fabric, appearing in television commercials, song lyrics, and video games. Yet, as poetry critic David Orr ’96 explains in The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, Frost’s beloved poem is anything but easy to understand.

It is a familiar story: The lonely traveler stands paralyzed at the fork in the road, forced to make a decision. Eventually he takes one road, and years later he imagines himself reflecting on how this decision made all the difference in his life. Is this a poem about rugged individualism and self-assertion? Or is it about indecision and our indulgent justification of decisions that at the time were mostly arbitrary? Has the poem tricked its audience for all these years? After all, Frost is careful to tell us that the road “less traveled” is “worn … really about the same” as the unpicked route. The difference lies only in the narrator’s imagination. Continue reading

Unlike ‘The Girl Who Could Not Dream,’ Durst ’96 Can Conjure Up Fantasy

Sarah Beth Durst ’96

Sarah Beth Durst ’96

When author Sarah Beth Durst ’96 had the idea for The Girl Who Could Not Dream, she knew right away what kind of book it would be: a children’s novel geared to readers ages 8 to 12.

“The story dictates the genre,” says Durst, who always wanted to be a writer. In her latest book, she tells the story of a girl experiencing her first adventure with her best friend, who is a wisecracking, cupcake-loving, multi-tentacled monster.

Durst has written nine fantasy novels for young-adult and middle-grade readers. She finds freedom in writing for children because she can be silly and sincere, chasing her imagination “down any rabbit hole.” The secret to writing for kids is not to write for them, but to “write for yourself through the eyes of a child. Your 10-year-old self must think it’s awesome,” says Durst, who won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature in 2013. Continue reading

Busker’s Holiday: A Nostalgia-filled Tale of Buddies and the Blues

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Adam Gussow ’79 *00

The book: After a failed romance, McKay Chernoff, a 26-year-old Columbia grad student and blues harmonica player, decides to spend the summer in Europe as a busker (a street performer who plays for money) and heal his broken heart. Flying to Paris with friend Paul Goldberg, Chernoff meets Billy Lee Grant, who goads him into a wild romp of wine, women, and running from the police. Their odyssey continues through France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland as they meet colorful characters and play music on the way. Part road-trip novel, part buddy story, Busker’s Holiday recounts a trip of a lifetime.

The author: Adam Gussow ’79 *00 is an associate professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi and a professional blues harmonica player and teacher. He has written three books on the blues, including Mister Satan’s Apprentice. Like his Busker’s Holiday protagonist, he busked in the streets of Paris in his youth. Continue reading

Professor Michael Wood Fends off Conspiracy Theories to Award a Highly Regarded Literary Prize

Professor Michael Wood

Professor Michael Wood

Every year a panel of five judges spends the better part of a year reading, analyzing, and debating the best literature that the English-writing world has produced in the last 12 months. At the end of that year, the judges award the Man Booker Prize for the best novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom. For years, this process has been the center of intense scrutiny.

This year, the chair of judges was literary critic and Princeton professor of comparative literature emeritus Michael Wood. On Oct. 21, a week after the winner was announced, Wood hosted a public conversation at Princeton about the judging process, telling his audience that it involved a lot more reading — and a lot less excitement — than people like to believe. “The more interesting aspect of the prize is not what actually happens, but what people think happens — the conspiracy theories, who bribed who, theories about passing on drugs. Actually, we had this fairly boring meeting by those criteria. No promises of future employment, no twisting of people’s arms,” Wood said. “It’s less like a conspiracy theory than game theory.” Continue reading

Killer Care: Can the Medical Profession Learn From Its Mistakes?

James B. Lieber ’71

James B. Lieber ’71

In Killer Care: How Medical Error Became America’s Third Largest Cause of Death, and What Can be Done About It, James B. Lieber ’71 recounts enough medical tragedies — a college freshman’s death from a drug interaction, a young girl’s death due to a mismatched blood type — to make the most willing patient worry.

Lieber, a Pittsburgh-based lawyer, spent more than a decade researching medical errors after his mentor, a prominent attorney, died from a prescription overdose following a lung transplant. A victim of misdiagnosis himself — he almost had his toes amputated in a “never event,” a surgery the medical profession admits never should have happened — Lieber wants to give consumers a wake-up call.

“My goal is to bring this atrocious social problem that kills upwards of a quarter of a million people per year to the attention of the public,” Lieber says in an email. “Like Ralph Nader [’55], I think people have a right to be free from physical mayhem caused by businesses, including health care.” Continue reading