In the summer, when the textbooks are away, there's more time to read for pleasure. Luckily, there is no shortage of books to devour on Penn's campus. There are four bookstores on Penn’s campus, from the eclectic House of Our Own to the official Penn Bookstore. There is also the Penn Book Center, recently facing challenges as an independent bookseller, and Last Word Bookshop, a used book store with a resident cat. These stores each have their own unique personality, and very useful book recommendations.
With a cozy atmosphere, and books piled to the ceiling, House of Our Own invites exploration. The owners, Debbie Sanford (C ‘71) and her husband Greg Schirm, enjoy helping patrons find their perfect read. Their recommendations touch on themes of uncertainty, dislocation, and ambiguity, as well as topics like migration, war, and the environment. “The times that we are living in have these elements,” Debbie explained. “As we looked at books [to recommend], we found that we were drawn to those things.”
Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky consists of two novellas set in France during the early years of World War II. Before she could finish a planned set of five novellas, Nemirovsky was murdered at Auschwitz in 1942. Suite Française is great historical fiction written at the same time that history was unfolding. Discovered decades later, and published in 2004, it is not only deeply compelling, but also a remarkable look into the human spirit.
The owners also suggested Nervous Conditions, a semi-autobiographical novel by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga. The first book published by a black Zimbabwe woman in English, it explores the intersection of gender and colonialism through 1960s Rhodesia. For nonfiction readers, they suggest Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, a popular historian. It delves into how past civilizations have collapsed, especially in relation to environmental issues. If you want to know more our current climate situation, the book suggests learning more about the past.
For summer recommendations, Debbie and Greg chose more readable and accessible books. Other fiction recommendations include A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (post-9/11 America), Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (a hidden and seductive New York City), Brick Lane by Monica Ali (immigrant experience in East London), Ship Fever: Stories by Andrea Barrett (short stories of science and love), and The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (mid-20th century sisterly intrigue). Other nonfiction recommendations include Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi (great resilience under Extremism), Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire (a memoir of privilege and exile), and The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson (a novelistic account on the intrigues of the Gilded Age).
The Penn Book Center, scheduled to stay open until the end of August, is filled with interesting titles. If you are on campus, pick up a copy of Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis by Sam Anderson. Don’t let the wordy title fool you—Boom Town is a sharp, dizzying account of Oklahoma City’s history. It covers everything from the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team’s pivotal 2012-13 season, to local civil rights icon Clara Luper. “I did not care about basketball at all when I read it—but I loved it,” said Rebecca McCarthy, a part-time Book Center bookseller. “It’s so funny, and just so good.”
She also recommended Kaibyō: The Supernatural Cats of Japan by Zack Davisson, which delves into the world of supernatural cats, or kaibyō, in Japanese culture. Beautifully illustrated with ukiyo-e prints and drawings, the book recently arrived back on the Book Center’s shelves—after about a year of waiting for more copies to be printed—just in time for a summer of feline folklore.
Other recommendations include Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (a favorite of co-owner Ashley Montague, who graduated from Penn with a Ph.D. in English in 1999), Getting to Philadelphia: New and Selected Poems by Thomas Devaney (classic Philadelphia poems), Normal People by Sally Rooney (an insightful novel on two classmates growing up in Ireland), and How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (a fresh critique on modern productivity).
With NPR playing in the background and the resident cat, Lester, chilling around the corner, Last Word Bookshop has a wide selection of books. Its recommendations, in turn, are just as varied. First up is Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover, which follows the author as she grew up in the mountains of Idaho, isolated with an extreme survivalist family and no formal education. It also covers the challenges that Westover faced, when she left to pursue an education. Through an incredible journey, the memoir delves into universal questions regarding family and growing up. A #1 New York Times bestseller, the book was included on former President Obama’s 2018 summer reading list.
The booksellers also suggest A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Set in the 1920s, the novel follows a Russian aristocrat sentenced to life inside a luxury hotel, as well as the rich cast of characters that he encounters. The book is a mix between adventure and elegance.
Other highlights include The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson (a gripping history on the first 21 months of the Revolutionary War), Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner (an ambitious novel following two sisters from 1950s Detroit to the present), and The Capital by Robert Menasse (a German novel that mixes murder mystery with the European Union).
Walking into the Penn Bookstore, aside from the apparels and gifts, you’ll also see tables after tables of curated selections of books. With labels like “Penn Bookstore Must-Reads” and “Cool Books for Hot Days,” the selections here are carefully chosen by Christine Hibbard, the Bookstore’s Trade Book Manager, with some suggestions from Barnes and Noble College, the entity that runs the Penn Bookstore. Hibbard keeps up with the reading lists of many major publications—as well as literary, cultural, and campus trends—so you can find solid, timely choices on these tables.
If you don’t know what to pick, here are few recommendations. Swamplandia!—a Pulitzer Prize Finalist— by Karen Rusell takes you to a strange world in the Florida Everglades, with alligators, ghosts, and theme parks. Through the eyes of Ava, a resourceful 12-year-old, the novel is at once witty and haunting, bizarre yet irresistible—exactly the kind of adventures summer is for.
The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer—another transporting novel—is based on the true story of Varian Fry. It takes us through his efforts to help Jewish artists escape the Holocaust, amongst them the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagall. Although meticulously researched, Orringer mixes history and fiction with an enthralling imagination. The Flight Portfolio examines notions of who to save, who we are, and how to weigh human lives—questions that seem particularly resonating today.
Other fiction recommendations include The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (a missionary family in the 1960s Belgian Congo), and Going Over by Penn English faculty Beth Kephart (a young–adult novel on a couple separated by the Berlin Wall). Other non-fiction recommendations include The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell ( how ideas become infectious; a new book is coming soon from the popular author), Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (a memoir on the heart of scientific work), The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (a sprawling historical study through the lives of three individuals), and Buck: A Memoir by M.K. Asante (a boy’s coming–of–age in North Philly, poetically interwoven with rap).
If these recommendations are still not enough, check out PennToday’s The Summer Reading List: Book recommendations from Penn faculty and staff. Summer is only so long, but it’s always better with a book or two.