Northeastern holiday gift guide 2022: The best reads for the bookworm in your life

Books on yellow background
Whether you’re shopping for a budding activist or a world traveler, Northeastern faculty have recommendations for the reader in your life. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

During the holiday season, finding the perfect book for the reader in your life can be a challenge. There are endless options, and you want it to be personal enough to let the person know you put some thought into it but general enough that the person will enjoy it at any time of the year.

Luckily, Northeastern University’s well-read faculty are here to help. Shopping for a lover of fine literature, a budding activist or maybe just someone who’s looking for a feel good read during the holiday season? These faculty-recommended books will hit home with your favorite bookworm no matter what they’re looking to read.

For fiction fans

When it comes to fiction, the sheer number of genres and options can be daunting, but there’s something for everyone, even teenagers, says Nicole Aljoe, professor of English and Africana studies at Northeastern.

She recommends “The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries” series by J.T. Williams for middle schoolers, particularly the first book, “Drama and Danger.” Set in 18th century London, the series follows two historical Black British figures, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Elizabeth Sancho, daughter of the famous Black British letter writer Charles Ignatius Sancho. 

“The two young Black British girls start a really lovely friendship and also solve a thrilling mystery,” Aljoe says of the first book, which offers “a PG version of the ‘Bridgerton’ aesthetic.”

If you know someone who likes to fully engage with whatever they’re reading, Laura Dudley, associate clinical professor of applied psychology, recommends Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” A 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner, Egan’s novel intricately intertwines the stories of 13 characters who are all connected to a record company executive. Dudley ended up creating a character map (twice) to map the relationships between all the characters. 

It’s also the perfect time to jump into Egan’s world because she released a sequel, “Candy House,” just this year.

Daniel Medwed, university distinguished professor of law and criminal justice, recommended something with a much smaller scale. Jonathan Escoffery’s debut novel “If I Survive You” is an intimate portrait of a Jamaican American family’s experience in the Miami area.

“It is beautifully written, lyrical and moving, with a unique voice that needs to be heard and amplified,” Medwed says.

For world travelers

Sometimes the inspiration for your next big trip is waiting inside the pages of a good book. For the globe-trotter in your life, Régine Jean-Charles, director of Africana studies at Northeastern, says “The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois” makes for a great travel read. Honoré Fannone Jeffers’ epic novel “spans histories of Black and Indigenous people in the United States” and beyond.

“The stories are fascinating and since it is such a long read this novel, it is a wonderful companion for a trip overseas,” Jean-Charles says.

For those looking to have an international adventure without leaving home, Aljoe recommends “Motherland: A Jamaican Cookbook.” Written by Melissa Thompson, winner of the 2021 Guild of Food Writers’ Food Writing Award, Aljoe says this cookbook is a “love-letter to the eclectic foods of Jamaica.”

“As winter descends in Boston, the book offers a welcome vicarious trip to the tropics,” Aljoe says.

For history buffs

These historical fiction recommendations put the “story” in “history,” bringing real world history to life through rich narratives.

A “brilliantly researched” story set across early 19th century Jamaica and London, Sara Collins’ Costa Award-winning “The Confessions of Frannie Langton” is based in history but “primarily a page-turning mystery [that] also explores intriguing questions of voice, power, memory, sexuality, and identity,” Aljoe says. Collins’ novel was also recently adapted into a four-part British television series.

For a historical yet timeless deep dive, Dudley says it’s hard to do better than Lisa See’s “The Island of Sea Women.” Set on a Korean island in the late 1930s, the novel depicts a matriarchal community where female divers, known as haenyeo, are breadwinners while their husbands take on domestic roles.

“The story follows a beautiful friendship between two young haenyeo women through times of violent occupation and insurgency, arranged marriages and motherhood, and a rapidly shifting culture,” Dudley says.

For budding activists

Give the gift of inspiration this holiday season. Whether you have a daughter who is starting to get politically active or a grandfather who is looking to educate himself about the state of criminal justice, these books are primed to start a conversation and spark an activist spirit.

Medwed says you don’t have to look far to find that spirit at Northeastern. He recommends “By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners,” the latest book from Margaret Burnham, university distinguished professor of law at Northeastern. 

“It’s a riveting account of the work that Margaret and her students in the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Center at Northeastern University School of Law have done to expose and rectify racial injustices in the Jim Crow-era South,” Medwed says.

For a deeply personal glimpse into the criminal justice system, Kate Karniouchina, dean of Mills College at Northeastern’s Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy, points to “Almost Innocent.” Written by Shanti Brien, an appeals lawyer and former professor in the Lokey school, “Almost Innocent” covers nine messy and sometimes tragic journeys through the criminal justice system.

“Looking at injustice from a very personal perspective and providing a very nuanced exposé of the current system without being ‘preachy’ or self-righteous is very rare these days,” Karniouchina says. “The book got me to look at some aspects of the system in a very different light.”

If you know someone who is serious not only about activism but organizing, Jean-Charles says Mariame Kaba’s “We Do This ‘Til we Free Us” is both a hopeful and instructive lesson in how to make change happen. This set of essays and interviews reflects on the transformative work done to achieve abolition and fight through other political struggles.

“This book is a wonderful introduction to the idea of ‘hope as a discipline’ that encourages us to imagine and then work to build new worlds where there can be more justice,” Jean-Charles says.

For non-fiction lovers

Reading a good book doesn’t have to be about escaping to another world. The best non-fiction can teach us about something we never even thought about, like in Ed Young’s “An Immense World: How Animal Sense Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us.”

Dudley says Yong’s work is “fascinating” not only because of how it describes how animals perceive the world but because of how it forces us to question how we perceive it.

“The book is full of so many examples with scientific explanations that stretch the imagination and leave the reader considering, what even is light, color and sound?” Dudley says. “Yong does a masterful job illustrating how the human experience provides just one perspective of the world.”

Dudley also recommends Tricia Hersey’s “thought-provoking manifesto against ‘hustle culture,’” “Rest is Resistance,” particularly for the resters, or resistors, in your life. Hersey’s book focuses on the dark side of society’s focus on productivity––burnout, mental health struggles and societal inequity––while calling for a simple, yet undervalued, solution.

“She asks us to consider our own role within this system and suggests another option: rest in order to resist,” Dudley says.

If that sounds too heavy, Jean-Charles says Michelle Obama’s “The Light We Carry” is an antidote. In her characteristically inspiring, down to earth way, the former first lady shares practical yet powerful strategies in how to cope with the uncertainty that defines the modern moment.

“[This is] for someone looking for a light, ‘feel good’ read, especially in the context of the complex times we live in,” Jean Charles says.

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