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Our Holiday Book List

Looking for reading recommendations for over the winter break? The Stanford Humanities Center has you covered.


By Sonali Deraniyagala 

Wave is a gripping memoir by economist Sonali Deraniyagala that grapples with the deaths of her husband, two sons, parents, and best friend in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. A meditation on grief and love, this short book reads more like an epic poem." (Side note: Deraniyagala is now married to Irish actor Fiona Shaw, who met Deraniyagala after reading Wave.)

—Andrea Davies
Associate Director, Stanford Humanities Center

Forms of Poetic Attention

By Lucy Alford​ 

“This groundbreaking book (previously a dissertation) by former SHC Dissertation Prize Fellow Lucy Alford asks: how might we reimagine poetic form as attention? Forms of Poetic Attention is making waves in the field of poetry: it might be the book of the year. Lucy's range is wide (Sappho, pre-Islamic poetry, the Renaissance, modernism, and the present), and her critical resources are impressive.”

—Roland Greene
Director, Stanford Humanities Center

Gun Island

By Amitav Ghosh 

"Following his non-fiction book, The Great Derangement, about literature and climate change, anthropologist-novelist Amitav Ghosh, among South Asia’s best known contemporary writers, addresses in this new novel his own demands of fiction: 'I think that is really the crisis of contemporary fiction: that it finds itself—at this catastrophic time for humanity—unable to look at the reality around us.' Gun Island is a dizzying journey through different spaces, temporalities, and genres, taking us from the mangrove swamps of Bengal to forest fires in L.A. to a slowly sinking Venice through the devices of folklore, myth, history, and realist fiction. And through these many modes of fascinating storytelling, it maps various migrations—of humans as well as whales, dolphins and other creatures."

—Usha Iyer
Faculty Fellow
Department of Art & Art History (Film and Media Studies), Stanford University

H Is for Hawk

By Helen Macdonald

"Helen Macdonald’s 2015 memoir, about training a baby goshawk while grieving the unexpected death of her father, was the book I needed to read in this pandemic year. It is a story about loss and literature and failure, about the radical, stunning alterity of nature, and, ultimately, about the fierce necessity of human connectedness."

—Kelda Jamison
Fellowship Program Manager, Stanford Humanities Center

Why Karen Carpenter Matters

By Karen Tongson

"The first time I heard The Carpenters, I was thirteen. Karen's smoky voice was the backdrop to one of the most mortifying moments of my life to date: watching There's Something About Mary in an Orange County multiplex with my mother and younger sister. Despite this inauspicious beginning, I grew to love The Carpenters, whose achingly false optimism seemed to capture the flavor of growing up in suburban Southern California. Karen Tongson's brilliant book about her relationship with her namesake, Karen Carpenter, brought me back to these moments. She reminded me why they matter."

Marci Kwon
Faculty Fellow
Department of Art & Art History, Stanford University

A Burning

By Megha Majumdar

"This novel has unforgettable characters and depicts a country bending toward extremism."

—Laura Martin
Distinguished Junior External Fellow
Department of Environmental Studies, Williams College

Sabrina & Corina

By Kali Fajardo-Anstine

"From her home in Denver, Fajardo-Anstine focuses on the Latinxs who have lived in, on, and with the borderlands for far longer than they have been part of the U.S. A beautiful writer, she’s the perfect person for anyone on your holiday shopping list!"

—Carlos Alonso Nugent
Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in the Humanities
Department of English, Stanford University

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

By Isabel Wilkerson

"Wilkerson explores how America has been shaped by an unspoken caste system, a hierarchy of human rankings."

Shailaja Paik
Faculty Fellow
Department of History, University of Cincinnati

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

By Vladimir Nabokov

"It’s a sumptuous retelling of an eventful, eclectic life begun in the lost world of pre-Revolutionary Russia—lavishly imagistic, marvelously detailed, humorous and tender and profound, and above all, deeply humane. If Lolita is Nabokov’s most famous and controversial work, this is certainly his most authentic and moving."

—Veronica Shi
Stanford Humanities Center Dissertation Prize Fellow
Department of Classics, Stanford University

We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics

Edited by Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel

"This is the Big Much Awaited Poetry Anthology of 2020. And it does not disappoint. It is generously, inclusively edited and full of both emerging and established voices. Perfect for those interested in how poetry can be a form of both community and self exploration at the same time."

Juliana Spahr
Marta Sutton Weeks Fellow
Department of English, Mills College

Night Boat to Tangier

By Kevin Barry

"On numerous book critics' Best Lists for 2019, Barry's evocative, tender portrait of two aging Irish drug smugglers and their violent, damaged lives is the only novel I’ve ever finished, only to reread immediately from beginning to end. Barry invests the sordidness of his subject matter with a lyricism and beauty so vivid that the aesthetics of his novel assume a moral stance, offering the possibility of redemption for lives perhaps unredeemable."

John Tennant
Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in the Humanities
Department of Classics, Stanford University