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What Alumni Writers Read

Read time: 5 minutes

Wondering what book to curl up with this summer? We asked notable writers, all U-M alumni who were recognized as students with Hopwood Awards, what they have enjoyed reading lately—and why. Now you’ll know what to take as you pack for that long summer vacation or choose a book for that lazy afternoon in the hammock.

MARGE PIERCY, ’57, is a poet and novelist whose long list of books includes Gone to Soldiers, Braided Lives, The Longings of Women, and Woman on the Edge of Time.

Summer Picks

Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson: “It was surprising to me how little money there is in archeology and how much those in that field sacrifice for knowledge.”

Collected Poems by Adrienne Rich: “Her long middle years rich in great poems.”

American Happiness by Jacqueline Trimble: “Once I had finished the first poem about her father, I could not stop reading. These poems are strong, passionate, and well crafted.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane and American Gods by Neil Gaiman: “I find his writing excellent and his concepts original.”

EDMUND WHITE, ’62, is the author of more than 20 books, including novels, memoirs, and essay collections. He also has written biographies of Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, and Arthur Rimbaud, and an autobiographical trilogy of novels that explore the gay experience.

Summer Picks

The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas: “The author’s own adventures in writing biographies and a good history of the genre.”

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: “An orphan’s-eye view of Dublin in the 1950s.”

MARY GAITSKILL, ’81, has published three novels—Bad Behavior; Veronica; and Two Girls, Fat and Thin—as well as a number of essays and short stories that have appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, major anthologies, and her own collections. She teaches creative writing at Temple University.

Summer Picks

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: “Li is a writer of fiction. And before this book I read her extraordinary novella, Kindness, a slow-burn psychological drama about the loneliness and secret beauty of an emotionally deprived young girl with almost super-human integrity, as well as a profound capacity for love suspected by no one around her. Dear Friend is a combination of memoir and literary communion. Some of the best parts of the book are about Li’s close psychic relationships with the books that have nurtured her (by Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, and Katherine Mansfield, to name a few), as well as her real-life relationships with actual writers who inspired her (most notably, William Trevor). I don’t agree with everything she says, but her point of view is so piercingly intelligent and emotionally deep that it doesn’t matter. She’s especially fascinating on her choice not to write in Chinese even though she is from mainland China.”

Ranger Games: A Story of Soldiers, Family and an Inexplicable Crime by Ben Blum: “Ben was my student in a workshop I taught in 2011. I read his book in galleys, and it is not out until autumn. But it is truly remarkable—one of those rare books that illuminates its subject beyond what you thought possible. The subject is engaging and disturbing all on its own; the ‘inexplicable crime’ of the title is fascinating. The fall-out is heartbreaking and suspenseful. The book is about something that happened in the author’s family: Blum’s cousin, a popular, athletic ‘golden boy’ who joined the elite paramilitary Rangers, took part in a bank robbery led by one of his superiors right before his deployment to Iraq. But the book is not only about the crime or the family it tears apart; it is about the strange pathologies of North American culture, a particularly masculine form of craziness, and the mysterious, timeless relationship of charm and evil. It should be taught in ‘cultural studies’ classes across the country.”

JAMES FINN GARNER, ’82, wrote the best-selling book Politically Correct Bedtime Stories and a series titled A Rex Koko, Private Clown Mystery. He also published Apocalypse Wow!: a Memoir for the End of Time.

Summer Pick

Guys and Dolls: The Stories of Damon Runyon by Damon Runyon: The comic stories of Broadway schemers like Sky Masterson, Harry the Horse, Blooch Bodinsky, and Miss Cutie Singleton sit just right after a summer evening’s cocktail on the porch. While the sidewalks of New York are much too hot to enjoy in August, their cruel allure is captured forever—always in the present tense!—by Runyan, a stylist whose work shaped everyone from Martin Scorsese to David Mamet. ‘Guys and Dolls’ only gives a hint of his comic mastery of language and narrative. If summer days can be well spent relaxing in the shade with Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Aunt Agatha, then the nights surely belong to the idle denizens of Mindy’s Restaurant, the Golden Slipper nightclub, and ‘the racetrack at Sarasota, which is a spot in New York State very pleasant to behold.’”

SHARON DILWORTH, MFA’88, is the director of the creative writing program at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of the novel Year of the Ginkgo and two short-story collections, Women Drinking Benedictine and The Long White.

Summer Picks

Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley: “I loved the way Hadley structured her stories, moving back and forth in time to present profound portraits of such complex women. Each story was a mini-novel. So much happens. Not so much plot-wise, but emotionally.”

An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao: “Rao’s linked stories revolve around the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan and the effects of that divide. The first story is a standout. A woman, after the death of her husband, is sent to a widow’s refugee camp, a place she embraces … until her husband (mistakenly identified as dead) returns. Rao plays with the notion of escape in ways I haven’t read before.”

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit: “This book, which includes a story about her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, was captivating. I loved the way she worked with place and travel, memory, desire, and storytelling.”

Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing by Deborah Levy: “Her memoir is a response to George Orwell’s essay Why I Write, and she is honest and open about why she reads, why she feels compelled to record her experiences, and why she shapes some of her feelings about loss and love into fiction.”

An Academic Question, Crampton Hodnet, and Excellent Women by Barbara Pym: “ in England in the years after World War II, and I felt like I was binge watching a great Netflix show. Her books are a must read.

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