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Summer Reading Recommendations from the English Department 2024

Felicia Steele:

A book I read this year:  I’m going to recommend the two most recent books I’ve read: Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, and Cultish: The Languages of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell. Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow–despite the Shakespearean title–is a novel about love and video games. Austin, Texas, another big game design destination in the country when I was in grad school, so this novel is populated by people painfully familiar to me. Nonetheless, the writing is good, the characters are engaging, and it deals deeply with emotion without being sentimental or maudlin.  Cultish is the latest in Montell’s explorations of language for a popular audience (after Wordslut). Montell asserts that cults — and all cultish institutions — are all built on language and that we can learn to recognize cultish language and insulate ourselves from harm. 

A book I plan to read this summer: During the summer I’ll be reading work by two fiction writers who may be visiting TCNJ in the fall: The Daughters of Standing by Eve J. Chung and Craft: Stories I wrote for the Devil by Ananda Lima. I’m also eagerly awaiting arrival of two books I have on hold from Mercer County Public Library (remember to use your library cards!): James by Percivall Everett, which retells Jim’s story (of Huck Finn fame) from his own perspective, and Shark Heart by Emily Ha beck, recommended to me by alumna and colleague (from the FYS program) Samantha Atzeni whose own W(h)ine and Cheese from Read Furiously’s ( “One and Done” series comes out soon.


Emily Meixner: 

A terrific book I read this year was Angeline Boulley’s Warrior Unearthed. If you read and loved The Firekeeper’s Daughter, you’ll likely enjoy this one, too. Fun fact: the main character in Warrior Unearthed is the niece of the main character in FD (who’s now significantly older). Warrior Unearthed’s three main narrative threads have to do with (1) the reclamation of indigenous artifacts (including human remains) that have been collected by museums and private collectors. I knew very little about any of this when I started the book, so thank you Angeline Boulley for schooling me thoughtfully and thoroughly on this topic. I’m going to be a much more discerning museum patron going forward, (2) the on-going disappearance and murders of indigenous women and the lack of public and police response, (3) the main character’s investment in her community and her personal growth as a result of changing relationships with her family, friends, and tribal community. I didn’t think the book held together as tightly as Firekeeper’s Daughter, but there were similarly heart-pounding moments, quality storytelling, and another wonderfully imperfect female protagonist.

A book I plan to read this summer is Ada Limon’s edited collection of Poetry, You Are Here: Poetry in the Natural World. This collection reflects half of Limon’s poetry project as the current Poet Laureate of the US and features 50 commissioned (previously unpublished) poems from US poets that “engage with [each] author’s local landscape.”  Her goal in this collection, in addition to raising consciousness about climate change, is to “challenge what we think we know about ‘nature poetry,’ illuminating the myriad ways our landscapes–both literal and literary–are changing” (book jacket).  Perhaps I’ll also be lucky enough to see some of the public poetry installations in one or more of the seven National Parks that comprise the other half of her project. (Keep a lookout for picnic tables that have been turned into public art!)


Andrew Erkkila:

A book I read this year: I read both Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, which take separate approaches to the imminent eco-crisis. The Overstory is wonderful, and nicely braids human stories with trees. Annihilation takes a more Gaia-focused sorry-humans-your-time-is-up approach that uses an alien space “invasion” as a metaphor for nature reclaiming the planet from humans. It’s very J.G. Ballard meets Knut Hamsun (minus Hamsun’s fascist politics).

A book I plan to read this summer: This summer I hope to read Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney, which has been on my list for a long time. It’s a sort of post-apocalyptic Ulysses (and much more fun to read) where the nuclear-annihilated midwestern city of Bellona is turned into an ever-changing organism in its own right. The book blew open many doors for non-white and queer SF. I’m also looking forward to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s memoir, A Man of Two Faces.  


Catie Rosemurgy: 

A book I read this year: Minor Detail by Adania Shibli.  A short, wrenching, and essential novel. If you are like me, you don’t want to know too, too much about a book before you read it. I will share the context in which I decided to read the book as a way of introduction. From the NYTimes: “An award ceremony that was set to honor a novel by a Palestinian author at the Frankfurt Book Fair next week was canceled on Friday ‘due to the war in Israel,’ according to Litprom, the German literary association that organizes the prize.”


A book I plan to read this summer: James by Percival Everett. From the NYTimes: “Everett flips the perspective on the events in “Huckleberry Finn.” He gives us the story as a coolly electric first-person narrative in the voice of Jim, the novel’s enslaved runaway. The pair’s adventures on the raft as it twisted down the Mississippi River were largely, from Huck’s perspective, larks. From Jim’s — excuse me, James’s — point of view, nearly every second is deadly serious.”



Michael Robertson (emeritus–sent to us from England!):

A book I read this year: Samantha Harvey’s Orbital is a stunning book. It’s a novel, but of a very unconventional sort—short, almost plotless, with the most spectacular setting imaginable: the International Space Station. The book is about one day in the life of the six astronauts aboard the I.S.S., though since “day” doesn’t have much meaning in space, what Harvey describes is the sixteen orbits they make in twenty-four hours, the sixteen sunrises and sunsets, the astronauts’ routines, the overwhelming beauty of the planet they’ve left behind. If NASA sent a poet to the I.S.S., this is the book she might write: profound and profoundly beautiful. 

A book I plan to read this summer: Another very slim book: Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder. Salman Rushdie may be our greatest living English-language writer; Midnight’s Children has my vote as the best novel of the last fifty years. Two years ago he was attacked onstage while giving a talk at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York and nearly died. I’ve already dipped into this beautifully written book, which promises important insights into trauma and recovery, the political and the personal. It also has the most powerful dust jacket design I’ve ever seen: 


Jean Graham:

A book I read this year: During this past year, I read Rivers Solomon’s Afrofuturist novella The Deep (2020) and gothic novel Sorrowland (2021), both texts that won awards (the Lambda Literary Award and the Otherwise) for expanding our notions of gender. Also in this past year, I read John Vaillant’s Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World, from the 2023 New York TImes list of ten best nonfiction books.

A book I plan to read this summer: During the summer, I plan to read Rivers Solomon’s first novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017).  I also look forward to reading TCNJ”s Summer Reading selection, Katharine Hayhoe’s Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.


David Blake:

A Book I Recommend: The origin story is almost always the same: the older kid telling the younger ones what a song such as “Kid Charlemagne” is really about. The effect could be revelatory. Do the moms know that those jazzy songs they hum along to in the grocery store are about that? and that? and that?  No one mastered the art of being cryptically subversive better than Steely Dan, and once you listened beneath the catchy surface, you found an underground filled with tales of sordid longings, bad behavior, and massive self-delusion. William Burroughs hiding from the authorities on AM Radio!  If you are a Dan Fan, you will want to treat yourself to Alex Pappademas and Joan Lemay’s Quantum Criminals: Ramblers, Wild Gamblers, and Other Sole Survivors from the Songs of Steely Dan. Published by the University of Texas Press, this beautifully illustrated book (drawings, not photos) offers a thoughtful cultural study of Walter Becker, Donald Fagen and the cast of characters their songs created. Josie, Peg, Dr. Wu, Hoops McCann, Chino, Daddy G, and, of course, Deacon Blues, they all emerge from this book more compelling and depraved than ever. Chuck Klosterman’s blurb says it best: “A perfect book about perfect music.”

Two Books I Will Read this Summer: Dan Charnas’ Dilla Time is part biography, part music history, and part cultural study. It tells the story of J Dilla, the Hip Hop producer known for producing genius beats.  Dilla died at the age of 32 from a rare blood disease, but he is increasingly recognized as one of the most influential music figures of our time.  I know nothing about this world and expect to learn a lot!  On a more somber note, Time magazine praised Nathan Thrall for his “severe allergy to conventional wisdom,” perhaps the greatest compliment one could give an author.  Thrall’s A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy tells the true story of a Palestinian father searching for his son after a bus crash outside the divided city of Jerusalem.  The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction, the book comes highly recommended for its gripping storytelling and unique political vision.


Ira Halpern:

A Book I Read This Year: Pete Staley’s Never Silent: Act Up and My Life in Activism. I put this book on the reading list for a TCNJ English course called “Medical Memoir.” It provides a personal perspective into histories of queer health activism and makes an interesting pairing with Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP (2021), both of which illuminate ACT UP’s range of protest strategies and internal conflicts within the movement.

A Book I Plan to Read This Summer: As I have been planning readings for multiple courses, I look forward this summer to going to a library or bookstore and stumbling upon something unexpected.


Samira Abdur-Rahman: 

A Book I Read This Year: In my First Year Seminar course, The Art of Environmental Justice, we read Linda Hogan’s novel Solar Storms (1995). Set in the early 1970s and based upon the James Bay Project, the novel focuses on Angela Jensen, a Native girl coming of age in the foster system, who reunites with her family who live in an island town at the border of Canada and Minnesota. The novel depicts Angela’s subsequent struggle against the construction of a hydroelectric dam that will leave sacred land flooded and abandoned. Hogan’s novel is hauntingly beautiful, centering on themes of intergenerational trauma, indigenous land rights and communal healing. Hogan’s lush descriptions of the interdependence of human and non-human animals, the water and land challenge us to understand “all our relations” as Winona LaDuke writes in her work on native struggles for land and life. 

A Book I plan to read this summer: I look forward to reading Mohamed Abdou’s Islam and Anarchism: Relationships and Resonances (2022). Abdou’s fascinating scholarship draws together several interests of mine: anarchism, feminism, queer theory, environmental justice, decolonization and Islam. At the center of Abdou’s work is an interrogation of the year 1492 and its implications for how we understand the relationship between settler colonialism, indigenous environmental struggles and black self-determination in the Americas and contemporary constructions of Islam.   


Christina Maffa-Johnson:

Books I have read this year: Good for Girl: A Woman Running in a Man’s World by Lauren Fleshman.  I read several books about running over the past year–some inspirational, some more technical, some humorous, but the one that stuck with me the most was the memoir Good for a Girl. Through the story of her running life, Fleshman advocates for female athletes and is critical of the way professional sports and sports business perceive and treat women. I was reading this as a runner myself, but I think it’s worth reading for any athlete or any parent or coach of athletes.

A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib.  I heard Abdurraquib speak at the NCTE convention in the fall and was drawn to the way he described his hometown of Columbus, Ohio and to the poetry he shared with us.  I picked up his book of essays about Black performance shortly afterward and found his voice to be just as beautiful and captivating on the page as it is in person.  His essays cover a wide range of topics across dance, music and pop culture to specific performers like Josephine Baker (where the title comes from), Michael Jackson or Aretha Franklin.  His writing is thoughtful, compelling, poetic…I can just continue to list positive adjectives.  He recently wrote a book about basketball, and even though I have no interest in basketball, I will read the book because I want to spend time with his writing.

Books I plan to read this summer: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin.  I started this fantasy series when it first came out (the first book is titled The Fifth Season) and then life got in the way and I lost touch.  I started it back up again, and am now looking forward to finishing it over the summer.

Of Time and Turtles by Sy Montgomery.  We read The Soul of an Octopus, another one of Montgomery’s books, in my science literature class.  I’m looking forward to checking out her most recent book Of Time and Turtles.  She has a very accessible writing style while still being informative.


Michele Tarter:

A Book I Read This Year: Sleeping with the Ancestors: How I Followed the Footprints of Slavery (Hachette Books, 2023), written by Joseph McGill, Jr. and Herb Frazier. Historic preservationist and founder of the Slave Dwelling Project (which strives to raise awareness about slave dwellings and the necessity of their historic preservation), McGill travels across the country, identifies still-standing slave dwellings, and sleeps in them. He has journeyed throughout the South, but also to the North and West where many locals are surprised to learn that these dwellings exist in their midst. His overnight stays on plantations and in towns across America (from Alabama to Texas, from Minnesota to New York, and beyond)  are accompanied by community events to raise awareness about these dwellings and inspire critical conversations about race and history. Reviewing this book, The Guardian writes: “Joseph McGill Jr. tells a fascinating, necessary story of his direct engagement with truths many Americans would rather ignore  . . . With carefully researched fact, he refutes countless Gone With the Wind-like fictions, tales that comfort white supremacists. He confronts racist fantasy head on, through vivid first-hand reportage and thoughtful scholarship. Briefly living as our forebears did, he challenges nostalgia for a nation that never was. Amid rightwing book bans and anti-woke laws, this is a book long overdue …. Joseph McGill Jr. points out what folly it is to ignore things.”

Books I Plan To Read This Summer: As I launch into Sabbatical, I have a huge pile of books that I cannot wait to begin reading. All of these are about prisoners in America, and specifically about the transformative, healing power of their writing behind bars. My project is about  teaching memoir-writing to women in maximum security, and so I am beginning with these 2 outstanding books:  Keri Blakinger’s Corrections in Ink: A Memoir (St. Martin’s Press, 2022) and Deborah Appleman’s Words No Bars Can Hold (W. W. Norton & Co., 2019).