Whatcha Reading?

Four writing instructors tell us what’s on their lists

For many, summer reading lists conjure up memories of a list you received at the end of the school year and needed to complete by the start of the next (Berkeley freshmen, this is for you: reading.berkeley.edu). Or maybe they serve as a reminder that summer equals vacation and that means time to dive into the new worlds created by books. So, sit back, relax and immerse yourself in one (or more!) of the books recommended by a few of our writing instructors who are teaching courses this summer. This list of summer reads isn’t required reading—but you just might want to read them all anyway.

Photo of Writing instructor Marc Schiffman

Marc Schiffman, M.F.A., four-year graduate terminal degree from the University of Massachusetts, has taught a variety of writing and literature courses over the years for us and at the University of Maryland. He also has published short stories and articles in many literary journals. His latest novels are Men and Angels (2016) and The Man Who Controls the Earth (2012).

Course: Introduction to Writing Fiction

On His Reading List:

  • Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
    I had read Da Vinci’s journals, and also had learned that Isaacson’s book on Da Vinci gives an in-depth investigation of Leonardo’s creative process and scientific passions. Recently, I was browsing the shelves in a nearby bookstore when I heard someone say, “Hey, Marco.” I turned, and there was no one behind me. I continued my browsing. “Hey. Marcus,” someone cooed. I paused, stepped around a row of books, thinking an old friend was spooking me. A woman was scanning romance novels and gave me a startled look. I moseyed on and thought, “Brent, is that you? Bly, are you miffed I missed your last day?” Voices from the past. I continued browsing and then heard, Hey knucklehead, look up. I did, and the voice said, Now, you see me. I smiled, went on my tiptoes and pulled down Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci.

  • The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
    A year ago, I read Bolano’s slender novel, Amulet, and found it mesmerizing. I next read his book of poems, The Romantic Dogs. I am eager to devour more of his words and am looking forward to reading The Savage Detectives, an acclaimed novel, which has two modern-day Quixotes as the novel's protagonists—I’m already hooked.

  • Lamentation by C.J. Sansom
    Lamentation is Sansom’s sixth book in his historical series on Henry VIII. This series has an original protagonist in Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked Tudor lawyer and investigator who has a penchant for meeting the most well-known historical characters of the time. Shardlake’s interior and exterior world is deftly revealed, creating a tale that is masterly executed. Another reason I enjoy this series is that history continues to interest me in all forms, from Shakespeare’s plays to Walt Whitman’s poetry on the Civil War.

  • The Middleman and Other Stories by Bharati Mukherjee
    I quickly learned that writing a short story well is as difficult a task a writer can undertake. I like Faulkner’s view on the writing process: “I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”
    So, I read the finest short story writers from the past and present, such as Isaac Babel, Chekhov, Poe, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor and others. Having lived and worked in foreign countries, I admire how Bharati Mukherjee fuses culture expectation, difficulties and conflict in her stories. To be able to examine the complex nature of personal encounters between East and West is something every writer and reader can learn from.

  • Vineland by Thomas Pynchon
    I remember when Pynchon’s first novel, V, was published, and I became enthralled with the protagonist Benny Profane, who chased alligators through the sewers of Manhattan. V was an original novel in concept and execution. Also, Pynchon was a student of Vladimir Nabokov’s at Cornell University. Having read three other novels by Pynchon, I desired to read another Pynchon novel. In the library, I thumbed through the first few pages of Vineland, and I was smiling. I delightfully look forward to Vineland.

Photo of Writing instructor Caroline Goodwin

Caroline Goodwin, M.F.A., moved to the Bay Area from Sitka, Alaska, in 1999 to attend Stanford University as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry. Her books include Trapline (JackLeg Press, 2013), Peregrine (Finishing Line Press, 2015) and The Paper Tree (Big Yes Press, 2017). From 2013–2015, she served as the first Poet Laureate of San Mateo County.

Course: Poetry Workshop

On Her Reading List:

  • Little Theatres by Erin Moure
    Moure is a Montreal-based poet and translator I've admired for many years. This book is a poetry collection I found at Green Apple and has poem titles like "Homage to the Mineral of Cabbage" and "The Grammar of the Dog"—I love the quirkiness.

  • I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman
    This is a memoir that includes scenes from Norman’s time in the Arctic. I’m reading it because my current project, “Common Plants of Nunavut,” is a long elegy/love poem for the Arctic landscape, and I like to read about its people and plants and cultures and climate.

  • Money Money Money / Water Water Water by Jane Mead
    Mead will be at the Summer 2018 Napa Valley Writers' Conference and I'll be giving a lecture on her writing at the St. Helena public library, in conjunction with her evening reading at the conference. Mead’s poetry is known for engaging the Western landscape, ecology and the debts of ancestry—themes I also write about.

  • Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt
    It’s a story collection translated from the Danish by Denise Newman. Something different!

Photo of Writing instructor Annemarie O'Brien

Annemarie O’Brien, M.F.A., is the author of Lara’s Gift (Knopf, 2013), which earned starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews. O'Brien also reads and reviews German and Russian children’s books for U.S. publication.

Course: Writing the Young Adult Novel

On Her Reading List:

  • War on Peace by Ronan Farrow
    War on Peace intrigued me for several reasons. First, I knew the writing would be strong—Ronan is a journalist, among many other things, and his reporting work at The New Yorker won them the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for public service. And second, War on Peace touches on broad issues around my former life as an economic and privatization advisor for USAID in Bosnia, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. I’m only about one-third into the book but am, so far, not disappointed.

  • The Confidence Code for Girls by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman
    My mother heard an author interview about this book and recommended it to me. I chose to act on the recommendation because I have two teenage daughters. Do I need to say more?

  • Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof
    My kids started a nonprofit effort called iEmpowerKids to help raise awareness of child trafficking and to support survivors by selling star and heart ornaments that were handcrafted by survivors. Friends in the field recommended this book as one that provides a detailed perspective through a collection of stories and analysis. Definitely an engaging read.

  • The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
    The Parker Inheritance was written by a good friend of mine from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’ve watched him grow as a writer, and this latest book of his might just be his all-time best work. It’s gotten 4- and 5-star reviews and is getting a lot of buzz in the middle-grade publishing world.

  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
    I chose to read Homegoing because it is set in Ghana and details what life was like during the slave trade years. My kids have roots in Ghana, so I thought it would be a good book for all of us to read as a family. So far, so good, and a title I highly recommend.

Photo of Writing instructor Alan Schroeder

Alan Schroeder, B.A., is a picture-book author who lives in Alameda, Calif. His many titles include Satchmo's Blues (Dragonfly, 1999), Smoky Mountain Rose (Puffin, 2000) and Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman (Puffin, 2000). His books have received numerous honors, including ALA Notable, the Christopher Award, the Kentucky Bluegrass Award and the Coretta Scott King Award. This year, he published Washington, D.C., From A–Z.

Course: Children's Picture Book Writing Workshop

On His Reading List:

What is on your summer reading list? Tell us in the comments!