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Book Descriptions
for Woolies and RA's

A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey

Nominator# 1 Comments:

College students analyzing their own perceptions, learning about another culture so close to UMBC, discussing multiculturalism and race in a way students rarely are able to.

Nominator # 2 Comments:

This book relates quite directly to the lives of our incoming students and may give them insight into the range of backgrounds and experiences of their fellow students, as well as an introduction to university life and the hurdles that every student needs to overcome, including getting along with roommates, finding friends who understand you, etc. Given that UMBC prides itself on the diversity of our students, reading a book particularly about the life of a gifted African American young man would fit our values and showing that environment and personal characteristics both impact opportunity and achievement is also an important lesson.

In addition, the man whose life is chronicled, Cedric Jennings, has returned to his DC neighborhood, works as a Social Worker, and is available for speaking engagements, last I heard. Another great benefit of this book

Nominator #3 Comments:

It will boost self-confidence and pro-activeness in students.

Nominator #4 Comments:

It allows students who are insecure in their preparation for college to see that it is not always about what you do not have, but what you do have and at UMBC there are many resources which are the frame for success. I believe this a good way to introduce the resources offered and allow students to feel comfortable in their ability to succeed here at UMBC.


Ron Suskind won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1995 for his stories on Cedric Jennings, a talented black teenager struggling to succeed in one of the worst public high schools in Washington, D.C. Suskind has expanded those features into a full-length nonfiction narrative, following Jennings beyond his high-school graduation to Brown University, and in the tradition of Leon Dash's Rosa Lee and Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here, delivers a compelling story on the struggles of inner-city life in modern America. While it appears to have a happy ending (with Jennings earning a B average in his sophomore year), A Hope in the Unseen is not without a few caveats (at times, Jennings feels profoundly alienated from his white peers). Trite as it may sound to say, this book teaches a lesson about the virtue of perseverance, and it's definitely worth reading.

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Nominator Comments:

This is a moving novel about a man and his family told from the point of a view of the family dog. The dog is witness to the family's happiness and struggles, including their fight with cancer and a custody battle.

I believe this book will encourage students to pick up more books, since it is engaging, moving, and easy to read. Since it is told from a dog's point of view, it makes readers look at animals, humans and their relationships in a new way. Plus, you don't need to a dog or pet fan to enjoy this book.

From Publishers Weekly:

If you've ever wondered what your dog is thinking, Stein's third novel offers an answer. Enzo is a lab terrier mix plucked from a farm outside Seattle to ride shotgun with race car driver Denny Swift as he pursues success on the track and off. Denny meets and marries Eve, has a daughter, Zoë, and risks his savings and his life to make it on the professional racing circuit. Enzo, frustrated by his inability to speak and his lack of opposable thumbs, watches Denny's old racing videos, coins koanlike aphorisms that apply to both driving and life, and hopes for the day when his life as a dog will be over and he can be reborn a man. When Denny hits an extended rough patch, Enzo remains his most steadfast if silent supporter. Enzo is a reliable companion and a likable enough narrator, though the string of Denny's bad luck stories strains believability. Much like Denny, however, Stein is able to salvage some dignity from the over-the-top drama.


Nominator Comments:

It's a satire about working in the corporate business world and how management training manuals are developed. A very quick and easy read, yet insightful and thought-provoking. Students I have now who are reading it really enjoy it.

It deals with issues in business ethics, how experiments with human subjects may be conducted, and, in sum, the dehumanization of business practices. 

From Publishers Weekly:

With broad strokes, Barry once again satirizes corporate America in his third caustic novel (after Jennifer Government). This time, he takes aim at the perennial corporate crime of turning people into cogs in a machine. Recent b-school grad Stephen Jones, a fresh-faced new hire at a Seattle-based holding company called Zephyr, jumps on the fast track to success when he's immediately promoted from sales assistant to sales rep in Zephyr's training sales department. "Don't try to understand the company. Just go with it," a colleague advises when Jones is flummoxed to learn his team sells training packages to other internal Zephyr departments. But unlike his co-workers, he won't accept ignorance of his employer's business, and his unusual display of initiative catapults him into the ranks of senior management, where he discovers the "customer-free" company's true, sinister raison d'être. The ultracynical management team co-opts Jones with a six-figure salary and blackmail threats, but it's not long before he throws a wrench into the works. As bitter as break-room coffee, the novel eviscerates demeaning modern management techniques that treat workers as "headcounts." Though Barry's primary target is corporate dehumanization, he's at his funniest lampooning the suits that tread the stage, consumed by the sound and fury of office politics that signify nothing. (Jan.)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Nominator Comments:

Most books we read do not bring awareness to issues such as philosophy. Additionally, I find this book to really encourage diversity through its perspective. The issues presented are through the eyes of a French woman, a different perspective than we are familiar with. I find this book to be very uplifting and really allowed room for contemplation. The fusion of Japanese and French culture really gives a new perspective not normally found in books. 

From Booklist:

In a bourgeois apartment building in Paris, we encounter Renée, an intelligent, philosophical, and cultured concierge who masks herself as the stereotypical uneducated “super” to avoid suspicion from the building’s pretentious inhabitants. Also living in the building is Paloma, the adolescent daughter of a parliamentarian, who has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday because she cannot bear to live among the rich. Although they are passing strangers, it is through Renée’s observations and Paloma’s journal entries that The Elegance of the Hedgehog reveals the absurd lives of the wealthy. That is until a Japanese businessman moves into the building and brings the two characters together. A critical success in France, the novel may strike a different chord with some readers in the U.S. The plot thins at moments and is supplanted with philosophical discourse on culture, the ruling class, and the injustices done to the poor, leaving the reader enlightened on Kant but disappointed with the story at hand.

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

Nominator Comments:

It is about a woman who turns a vacant lot in Oakland into a farm. This book is especially timely given all of the attention on urban agriculture (the city hall garden, the white house garden) and the social inequalities concerning access to healthy food and good nutrition. This is especially significant in cities like Baltimore (and Oakland where the story is based).

From Publishers Weekly:

Starred Review. In this utterly enchanting book, food writer Carpenter chronicles with grace and generosity her experiences as an urban farmer. With her boyfriend Bill's help, her squatter's vegetable garden in one of the worst parts of the Bay Area evolved into further adventures in bee and poultry keeping in the desire for such staples as home-harvested honey, eggs and home-raised meat. The built-in difficulties also required dealing with the expected noise and mess as well as interference both human and animal. When one turkey survived to see, so to speak, its way to the Thanksgiving table, the success spurred Carpenter to rabbitry and a monthlong plan to eat from her own garden. Consistently drawing on her Idaho ranch roots and determined even in the face of bodily danger, her ambitions led to ownership and care of a brace of pigs straight out of E.B. White. She chronicles the animals' slaughter with grace and sensitivity, their cooking and consumption with a gastronome's passion, and elegantly folds in riches like urban farming history. Her way with narrative and details, like the oddly poetic names of chicken and watermelon breeds, gives her memoir an Annie Dillard lyricism, but it's the juxtaposition of the farming life with inner-city grit that elevates it to the realm of the magical.

Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Nominator Comments:

Climate change is arguably the preeminent challenge facing humankind. It will surely impact on the lives of our students. It’s incumbent on us to expand their awareness and understanding of this phenomenon. Further, UMBC is committed to making “climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience” as a result of President Hrabowski having signed onto the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment in 2007. He reminded us of this commitment in his August 2008 State of UMBC address. After consulting with several faculty members knowledgeable about climate change, I recommend Kolbert from among the numerous books written on the subject. It originated as three-part series in The New Yorker for which the author won the 2006 National Magazine Award in the public interest category. It’s eminently readable; the science is simplified. 

The book has been adopted for first year experience and core courses at institutions such as SUNY Albany, Mount Holyoke, Montana State, Rice and Tulane.

From Publishers Weekly:

Starred Review. On the burgeoning shelf of cautionary but occasionally alarmist books warning about the consequences of dramatic climate change, Kolbert's calmly persuasive reporting stands out for its sobering clarity. Expanding on a three-part series for the New Yorker, Kolbert (The Prophet of Love) lets facts rather than polemics tell the story: Earth is now nearly as warm as it has been at any time in the last 420,000 years and is on the precipice of an unprecedented "climate regime, one with which modern humans have had no prior experience." An inexorable increase in the world's average temperature means that butterflies are now flitting where they've never been found before; that nearly every major glacier in the world is melting rapidly; and that the prescient Dutch are already preparing to let rising oceans reclaim some of their land. In her most pointed chapter, Kolbert chides the U.S. for refusing to sign on to the Kyoto Accord. In her most upbeat chapter, Kolbert singles out Burlington, Vt., for its impressive energy-saving campaign, which ought to be a model for the rest of the nation—just as this unbiased overview is a model for writing about an urgent environmental crisis.

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale


At last! Here is the definitive edition of the book acclaimed as “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust” (Wall Street Journal) and “the first masterpiece in comic book history” (The New Yorker). It now appears as it was originally envisioned by the author: The Complete Maus. It is the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times). Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

Olive Kitteridge

Nominator Comments:

This book won the 2009 Pulitzer prize for fiction. It contains a series of stories about ordinary people (if any of us are) in a small community on the Maine coast. The title character Olive Kitteridge, plays a part, sometimes large and sometimes small in all of them.

The realistic portrayal of people including the good and bad is engaging and will provide lots for students to identify with, think about and discuss.

From Publishers Weekly:

Starred Review. Thirteen linked tales from Strout (Abide with Me, etc.) present a heart-wrenching, penetrating portrait of ordinary coastal Mainers living lives of quiet grief intermingled with flashes of human connection. The opening Pharmacy focuses on terse, dry junior high-school teacher Olive Kitteridge and her gregarious pharmacist husband, Henry, both of whom have survived the loss of a psychologically damaged parent, and both of whom suffer painful attractions to co-workers. Their son, Christopher, takes center stage in A Little Burst, which describes his wedding in humorous, somewhat disturbing detail, and in Security, where Olive, in her 70s, visits Christopher and his family in New York. Strout's fiction showcases her ability to reveal through familiar details—the mother-of-the-groom's wedding dress, a grandmother's disapproving observations of how her grandchildren are raised—the seeds of tragedy. Themes of suicide, depression, bad communication, aging and love, run through these stories, none more vivid or touching than Incoming Tide, where Olive chats with former student Kevin Coulson as they watch waitress Patty Howe by the seashore, all three struggling with their own misgivings about life. Like this story, the collection is easy to read and impossible to forget. Its literary craft and emotional power will surprise readers unfamiliar with Strout.

Quantum Lyrics

Nominator Comments:

Quantum Lyrics is a recent book by award-winning poet A. Van Jordan that merges the worlds of lyric poetry, science (mostly physics) and comic book heroes (specifically those who test and bend the laws of physics) into a profoundly illuminating intellectual odyssey. It's a book where Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman rub shoulders with Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson -- and also The Atom.

Quantum Lyrics has something to offer a broad range of new students in the sciences, social sciences and the humanities. The book's use of comic book heroes also gives it a lighter yet intellectually credible touch. Plus, rarely do new student experience books delve into poetry -- especially contemporary poetry.

From Publishers Weekly:

The principles of physics, the lives of physicists (especially Albert Einstein) and the dilemmas of classic comic book heroes provide Van Jordan with the structure and occasions for his often delightful, always clear and occasionally profound third volume. The second and longest of its three sections follows Einstein's biography from early adulthood and first marriage (to the mathematician Mileva Maric, the mother of his children) through infidelities, emigration, fame, travels in America and Einstein's latter-day campaigns against nuclear weapons and racial injustice. Terms from physics make easy metaphors for more human concerns: promise me/ you'll never cease being/ the elegant equation, Einstein asks Maric; decades afterwards, Paul Robeson muses, during his meeting with the great thinker, My voice/ is as dangerous as any atom splitting/ open. The best poems here leave famous thinkers and performers behind—the set of short poems about the superhero called the Atom, for example, who maintained a secret identity as a lovelorn physicist and whose powers let him shrink down to nuclear size: It was as if no one had seen me/ until I mastered the science/ of shrinking my body.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Nominator Comments:

The book opens up the world of a scientist to readers and will help them see that science is fun. Feynman's excitement and love for science is infectious and inspiring. The funny stories will be remembered by the students and easy to discuss. At the same time since it is about science it will be understood by students from all cultures. Only thing that could be negative about the book for your readers is that sometimes while being frank, Feynman says things that may be politically incorrect- the committee may think it could be potentially offensive to some people.


A series of anecdotes shouldn't by rights add up to an autobiography, but that's just one of the many pieces of received wisdom that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (1918-88) cheerfully ignores in his engagingly eccentric book, a bestseller ever since its initial publication in 1985. Fiercely independent, intolerant of stupidity even when it comes packaged as high intellectualism (check out "Is Electricity Fire?"), unafraid to offend (see "You Just Ask Them?"), Feynman informs by entertaining. It's possible to enjoy Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman simply as a bunch of hilarious yarns with the smart-alecky author as know-it-all hero. At some point, however, attentive readers realize that underneath all the merriment simmers a running commentary on what constitutes authentic knowledge: learning by understanding, not by rote; refusal to give up on seemingly insoluble problems; and total disrespect for fancy ideas that have no grounding in the real world. Feynman himself had all these qualities in spades, and they come through with vigor and verve in his no-bull prose. No wonder his students--and readers around the world--adored him.

The Translator

Nominator Comments:

This book will challenge students to see a foreign tragedy through the eyes of someone who lived through it, and to feel compassion for another people on the other side of the world. The book will undoubtedly spark great discussions about man's inhumanity to man and what the ethical and moral role of the world is in such occurrences. I recently read the book in one day and cannot stop thinking about it. It is an easy read, written in a simple style accessible to readers of all levels, but is extraordinarily engaging even for highly-skilled readers. On an additional note, the liner notes of the book state that the author resides in Baltimore, Maryland.

From Publishers Weekly:

Starred Review. "Unique," a word avoided by most journalists, is just the first to describe this heart-stopping memoir, written by a native Darfuri translator who, after escaping the massacre of his village by the genocidal Janjaweed, returned to work with reporters and UN investigators in the riskiest of situations. Taking readers far from their comfort zones, Hari charts the horrific landscape of genocide in the stories of refugee camp survivors: "It is interesting how many ways there are for people to be hurt and killed, and for villages to be terrorized and burned... I would say that these ways to die and suffer are unspeakable, and yet they were spoken: we interviewed 1,134 human beings over the next weeks." …Throughout, Hari demonstrates almost incomprehensible decency; those with the courage to join Hari's odyssey may find this a life-changing read. A helpful appendix provides a primer on the Darfur situation.

Unaccustomed Earth

Nominator Comments:

I think the book describes the intergenerational conflicts of newer immigrants to the U.S. and is an insightful commentary on the effects of acculturation and assimilation.

From Publishers Weekly:

Starred Review. The gulf that separates expatriate Bengali parents from their American-raised children—and that separates the children from India—remains Lahiri's subject for this follow-up to Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. In this set of eight stories, the results are again stunning. In the title story, Brooklyn-to-Seattle transplant Ruma frets about a presumed obligation to bring her widower father into her home, a stressful decision taken out of her hands by his unexpected independence. The alcoholism of Rahul is described by his elder sister, Sudha; her disappointment and bewilderment pack a particularly powerful punch. And in the loosely linked trio of stories closing the collection, the lives of Hema and Kaushik intersect over the years, first in 1974 when she is six and he is nine; then a few years later when, at 13, she swoons at the now-handsome 16-year-old teen's reappearance; and again in Italy, when she is a 37-year-old academic about to enter an arranged marriage, and he is a 40-year-old photojournalist. An inchoate grief for mothers lost at different stages of life enters many tales and, as the book progresses, takes on enormous resonance. Lahiri's stories of exile, identity, disappointment and maturation evince a spare and subtle mastery that has few contemporary equals.

Water for Elephants

From Publishers Weekly:

With its spotlight on elephants, Gruen's romantic page-turner hinges on the human-animal bonds that drove her debut and its sequel (Riding Lessons and Flying Changes)—but without the mass appeal that horses hold. The novel, told in flashback by nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski, recounts the wild and wonderful period he spent with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus he joined during the Great Depression. When 23-year-old Jankowski learns that his parents have been killed in a car crash, leaving him penniless, he drops out of Cornell veterinary school and parlays his expertise with animals into a job with the circus, where he cares for a menagerie of exotic creatures[...] He also falls in love with Marlena, one of the show's star performers—a romance complicated by Marlena's husband, the unbalanced, sadistic circus boss who beats both his wife and the animals Jankowski cares for. Despite her often clichéd prose and the predictability of the story's ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book.

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the Human Body

Nominator Comments:

Overall,"Your Inner Fish" presents a unique perspective on human biology. The book both informs and inspires. While scientific in subject, the book has important implications for our humanity. The countless amazing details and freak experiments are absolutely captivating, as is Shubin's personal story about how he uncovered Tiktaalik. Most importantly, the book is accessible, the text is plain yet provocative, and the subject, human biology, is immediately relatable. "Your Inner Fish" would guarantee a lively discussion where anyone, without a need for a scientific background, could raise and answer questions to help us better understand our bodies and ourselves. "Your Inner Fish" would bring together students if only by how astounding some of the scientific revelations are. The dialogue created by "Your Inner Fish" would undoubtedly continue among the students beyond the classroom, and would surely help to unite next year's freshman class.

From Publishers Weekly:

Fish paleontologist Shubin illuminates the subject of evolution with humor and clarity in this compelling look at how the human body evolved into its present state. Parsing the millennia-old genetic history of the human form is a natural project for Shubin, who chairs the department of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago and was co-discoverer of Tiktaalik, a 375-million-year-old fossil fish whose flat skull and limbs, and finger, toe, ankle and wrist bones, provide a link between fish and the earliest land-dwelling creatures. Shubin moves smoothly through the anatomical spectrum, finding ancient precursors to human teeth in a 200-million-year-old fossil of the mouse-size part animal, part reptile tritheledont; he also notes cellular similarities between humans and sponges. Other fossils reveal the origins of our senses, from the eye to that wonderful Rube Goldberg contraption the ear. Shubin excels at explaining the science, making each discovery an adventure, whether it's a Pennsylvania roadcut or a stony outcrop beset by polar bears and howling Arctic winds. I can imagine few things more beautiful or intellectually profound than finding the basis for our humanity... nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that ever lived, he writes, and curious readers are likely to agree.