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The educator’s bookshelf — a list of must reads from U.Va. professors

A compiled list of book recommendations for University students to explore literature outside of the lecture hall

<p>With an influx in free time on the horizon for University students, many will have the opportunity to partake in the activities they lost touch with during the school year.</p>

With an influx in free time on the horizon for University students, many will have the opportunity to partake in the activities they lost touch with during the school year.

It is less than a month away from the end of the spring semester and the warming weather is a sign that the freedom of summer break is almost here. With an influx in free time on the horizon for University students, many will have the opportunity to partake in the activities they lost touch with during the school year. For some, this means finally being able to crack open a book not on their required reading list, and what better source to get book recommendations from than the University's renowned English professors. 

Each one stylistically unique and thematically profound, these titles are a reflection of each professor's special interest, ranging in content from engaging social commentary to unconventionally invigorating narratives. For any student unsure of what their first post-finals read should be, look no further than the favorite books of these four academics. 

“Tomb of Sand” by Geetanjali Shree

Recommended by Assoc. English Prof. Sandhya Shukla, the 2018 novel “Tomb of Sand” chronicles the experiences of an 80-year-old woman as she reimagines her life and renegotiates her relationships after the death of her husband. Set in Northern India, the book delves into the intricacies of identity and purpose, as well as how they interact with the grief felt by the main character. A well-renowned piece of literature, in 2022 the book became the first ever novel translated from an Indian language to win the International Booker Prize. 

Shukla said she picked up the book while traveling to India for a family trip, and what stuck out to her the most during her initial read through was the plethora of themes it tackles. 

“This novel is a lot about family and how you relate to it,” Shukla said. “But it was also utterly surprising in its kind of richness about some of these really big ideas like family, gender, freedom and especially language … that are really complicated.”

A scholar who is interested in literary and theoretical explorations of nations and borders, Shukla said what she enjoyed most about “Tomb of Sand” is how it takes these complex and “somewhat arbitrary” concepts and turns them into a text with which all readers can resonate. No matter where someone lives or has lived, everyone experiences the universal longing to break free from borders — a concept that the book explores effortlessly. 

“[The book] was able to kind of put those complexities in dramatic form that made you really identify with people's desire to cross borders and live outside of borders.” Shukla said. 

On top of this air of relatability, the novel includes elements of magical realism such as talking animals. Features like these take the reader through a fantastical journey with the main character and create a story that meaningfully dissects aspects of selfhood and transnationalism with humor and wit.

“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty

Published in 2015, “The Sellout” is a satire that examines modern day race relations and societal norms in the United States through the escapades of a Black man who is trying to resegregate his town. According to Postdoctoral Fellow Erik Fredner — who teaches a course at the University on satire in the United States from the nineteenth century to the present — the novel ironically criticizes the racism, police brutality and the military-industrial complex prevalent from 2008-2016 during the Obama administration.

“While racism is one of its targets, the novel has many, many others,” Fredner said. “The architecture of Washington, D.C., the military-industrial complex, the Supreme Court, police brutality, frat boys, Reno, Nevada and people who say they live by mottoes — and that’s just the first ten pages.”

Beatty’s unique narrative style and dark humor make for a compelling and unforgettable reading experience, prompting reflection on the absurdities of modern society. The everpresent humor often arises from its unflinching portrayal of racial stereotypes and societal hypocrisies. With its poignant and sharp cultural analyses, each of the book’s jokes leave readers laughing in a disturbed way. For Fredner, the novel’s impact can be summed up perfectly in a single sentence.

“‘The Sellout’ punches up and it punches hard,” Fredner said. 

“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” by Alexander Chee

Similarly to “The Sellout,” Chee’s novel explores contemporary issues relating to race. Despite the how-to title, this recommendation from Assoc. English Prof. James Seitz does not offer a step-by-step guide on how to narrate your own life. Instead, it dives into the experiences of Alexander Chee through a collection of essays which detail his journey from student to teacher to writer. One of the key elements highlighted throughout the essays is identity and how Chee’s identities as a son, a gay man and a half-white, half-Korean American impact this aforementioned journey. 

Seitz, who specializes in autobiography and rhetoric, said that the book is one that his students have enjoyed because it represents what it feels like to live with seemingly conflicting identities. 

“[The novel is] important because biracial people are the fastest growing segment of the population in the United States right now,” Seitz said. “A lot of our discussion of race in this country tends to be very polarized around Black versus white and white versus Black. And in fact, it's a much more diverse scene than that, as we all know, if we just take a couple of seconds to think about it … I think [this idea] can really be useful for students, so I've enjoyed using this book a lot in my classes and other readings.” 

It is these complexities, along with Chee’s writing style, that makes the novel such an insightful read. It immerses the reader into the story alongside Chee, going through the experiences of being young and undermined due to one’s identity as well as thunderously alive and present. It spectacularly covers the hardships of growing up as a gay, biracial person in America that not all students will be able relate to, but will definitely be able to appreciate.

“Barkskins” by Annie Proulx

Published in 2016 and adapted for television in 2020, “Barkskins” is a novel about the colonization of North America and the entwined destruction of the culture and land of the Indigenous people who reside there. Aside from the plot, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is its untraditional format. Instead of focusing on a single set of characters over a condensed timeline, the novel spans centuries and focuses on multiple different perspectives. 

This unique narrative choice is one of the reasons why Assoc. English Prof. Victoria Olwell recommends it.

“[The book] is just [a] wide view,” Olwell said. “If you've been looking down at stuff, and then suddenly look at the horizon, [it’s] that feeling [of] space and time opening up and just getting a bigger piece of the world.”

“Barkskins” takes the reader through a painful history of hardship and struggle, but in a way that still respects that history. Through its expansive vision, the novel showcases how the decisions of the past affect the conditions of the future — a sentiment that is sure to resonate with students at the University.

Literature has the profound ability to explore meaningful topics, whether by exploring the complexities of tragedy like in “Tomb of Sand” or “Barkskins,” criticizing racial relations like in “The Sellout,” or by reflecting on identity like in “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” For students looking forward to returning to reading when classes end, these books will offer an outlet to engage with contemporary issues outside of the classroom in a way that is emotional, amusing and captivatingly introspective. 


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